Professor Richard Dawkins and fellow evolutionary biologist Dr Yan Wong presented the updated version of their work, The Ancestor’s Tale at Oxford’s Natural History Museum. The book is a pilgrimage through four billion years in which they take the reader back to the microbial beginnings of life. 

polls consistently rank Dawkins as among the world’s most influential intellectualsEvolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins presented the updated version of his work on evolution, The Ancestor’s Tale, with Dr Yan Wong (right) 
By Dr Richard Lofthouse

In what has become a widely anticipated occasion, evolutionary biologist, controversial atheist and Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins has published his next book, a substantially revised edition of The Ancestor’s Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life.

Oxford’s Gothic-style Natural History Museum was packed with several hundred biologists, students, and members of the public who came to hear an hour-long lecture on the book by Professor Dawkins (Balliol, 1959) and his former student Dr Yan Wong (New College, 1992). This was followed by formidable questions from the floor concerning lateral gene transfer and mitochondrial DNA.polls consistently rank Dawkins, Old Member and Honorary Fellow of Balliol, as among the world’s most influential intellectualsPolls consistently rank Professor Dawkins as among the world’s most influential intellectuals

Readers queued outside long before the event began. In the line-up, an Australian bio-ethicist said that he had waited thirty years for this opportunity to see Dawkins face to face. There appeared to be a wider concern among attendees about Dawkins’ health after his well-publicised minor stroke in February. If so, their concerns were unfounded. Dawkins began with a humorous ditty, which began, “If I should croak…”. He seemed to be entirely himself and undiminished in intellectual vigour and general zest.  

He wore odd socks, aquamarine on his right foot, and scarlet on his left - a decision that he has recently written about. He claims that selling socks in pairs is completely unnecessary, indeed “ridiculous”, because they do not have chirality (‘left’ and ‘rightness’) – unlike gloves, shoes, genes and many molecules. 

In the talk, which was mostly given by Wong, it was noted that the first edition of The Ancestor’s Tale had been published in 2004, but that since then so much progress had been made in the field of gene sequencing, that this second edition was in all sorts of ways to be considered a new book. 

Wong presented, an interactive, fractal ‘Tree of Life’, upon which humans were positioned just above the common Chimpanzee and the Bonobo, whose genes we share. The tree has 2.1 million entries on it, traversing the whole of the life, and is hurtling towards a complete, ‘Universal tree of life’ as more and more discoveries are made. To establish the origins of life, it was argued, you have to go backwards towards genetic roots. In doing this, the world’s several billion human beings quickly ‘coalesce’, in genetic terms, down to a much, much smaller population and eventually –when you see the matter in terms of millions of years rather than tens of thousands- to “a worm that swam upside down…” And thence to bacteria.
polls consistently rank Dawkins, Old Member and Honorary Fellow of Balliol, as among the world’s most influential intellectuals 
About one per cent of any individual’s DNA is drawn from Neanderthal ancestors, but not the same one per cent, meaning that it is theoretically possible to reconstruct as much as 40% of the Neanderthal genome.
Gene sequencing was described by Dawkins as unlocking natural history like never before, revealing “a genealogical version of The Selfish Gene,” a reference to his 1976 best-seller and the book that brought Dawkins to global prominence.
Wong joked that most of the things that they had been wrong about in the first edition of the book, they had been wrong about “in an interesting way.” On the subject of life on other planets, which was raised by a member of the audience, Dawkins noted that it had taken 3.9 billion years to get from bacteria to humans. In the entire universe, he added, it may be that only 1 in a billion planets have the conditions to support life. If so, that might give us many planets like earth, but it is highly unlikely that we would know about them or coincide with their flourishing, a “mathematical judgment” which Wong noted, laughing as he did so, was “very disappointing.”
The Ancestor’s Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Images: Oxford University Images, Richard Lofthouse, Weidenfeld & Nicolson


By Daniel David, PhD

I admire Professor Dawkins! He is an inspiration to many in America who have felt empowered by his stance against religious views that are unscientific. I hope the next time he visits Atlanta, GA that I get to meet him! He visited Kennesaw University and I was so disappointed that I wasn't aware of his speaking engagement there because I literally live nearby. Professor Dawkins speaking to university students in the midst of the Bible Belt in America was a great encouragement for science-minded individuals like me and my son.

By Hugh Dolan

My wife argues that I have more than 1 per cent Neanderthal in me. Perhaps the Professor would like to take a DNA swab?