What Can We Steal From Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale?

Title of Work and its Form: The Ancestor’s Tale, nonfiction
Author: Richard Dawkins (on Twitter @RichardDawkins)
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The tome can be found in all fine bookstores.  You can also order it online.

Bonuses: Dr. Dawkins has presented many television programs about science and skepticism.  They’re definitely worth a long look.  Dr. Dawkins formalized the concept of the “meme,” although the use of the term has changed somewhat.  Take a look at the powerful concept he described. Dr. Dawkins joined Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in a discussion that came to be called “The Four Horsemen.”  These four powerful thinkers offer insight into religion (and the lack thereof) and into the development of human culture.  If you are into skepticism, you may also enjoy my essay about Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, which also links to my essay about Hitchens.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
The Ancestor’s Tale is a book with a modest conceit.  All Dr. Dawkins did (with some help from research assistant Yan Wong) is to work backwards step by step to tell the complete story of the evolution of all of the organisms in the history of the Earth.  He begins by describing humans (and protohumans) and slips in graceful descriptions of the minor genetic variances between us and how they came to be.  Then he tells the “tales” of bonobos and eventually hippos and salamanders  and flounders, all the way back to plants and bacteria.  Dr. Dawkins crams the history of life on Earth into 600 pages and does so in a manner that just about anyone can understand.

Beginning a massive project can be daunting.  Turning a two-inch stack of blank pages into a novel?  What a frightening prospect!  Condensing your whole life story into a coherent 300 pages?  Seemingly impossible!  How did Dr. Dawkins confront such a massive undertaking and end up with such a satisfying product?

First of all, he divided his grand conceit into digestible pieces.  No book could literally detail the evolution and contain anecdotes about every single species that has ever evolved.  Instead, Dr. Dawkins chose to write about a few dozen of the most important and representative branches of the tree of life.  The book seems easier to write if you think of it in this manner:

Okay, I’ll write a ten-page essay about the fruit fly because of its fascinating genetics.  I have about eight pages worth of interesting information about the cichlid.  I should also write about 2500 words about the hippopotamus.  Oh, and I can’t forget that beautiful chimera, the duckbill platypus.

Dr. Dawkins also clearly acknowledges that he stands on the shoulders of giants.  Not only is he working in concert with the countless scientists who have contributed to the field of biology over the past few thousand years, but he is also very clear about the sources he consulted during composition of The Ancestor’s Tale.  Yes, citing things is important in order to avoid plagiarism.  More importantly, Dr. Dawkins affirms himself as one of the storytellers documenting the development of life on Earth.  And the book does indeed tell a story.  Instead of being a dry, purely scientific tome, Dr. Dawkins uses details of the life of Queen Victoria to reinforce his point about the manner in which geneticists can use family trees to trace faulty genes, such as the one that causes hemophilia.  Dr. Dawkins drops a quote from Rudyard Kipling to help demonstrate how we know that Vikings conquered local populations in more ways than one.  Dr. Dawkins even makes use of the Judeo-Christian Bible, not as a scientific reference, but as a culturally ingrained metaphor that aids the reader in understanding.  No matter what you’re writing, bear in mind that you are in someway telling your reader a story and are bound by a storyteller’s obligations.

If you read any of Dr. Dawkins’s books, you can’t help but notice his enthusiasm.  In other hands, the tale of how the star-nosed mole perceives the world could be a boring one.  Not when Dr. Dawkins is at the helm.  Whether or not you agree with his (lack of) religious belief, you must at least acknowledge that Dr. Dawkins is passionate about his cause.  Take a look at the TED talk in which he tries his mightiest to rouse nonbelievers from their slumber and urges them to make themselves heard:

Dr. Dawkins certainly has little patience for creationism being taught in schools as science, but his innate curiosity inspires him to engage with those who feel otherwise.

At times, some folks may accuse Dr. Dawkins of being “offensive” or “confrontational.”  In some way, they are correct.  Dr. Dawkins, like the rest of us, enters the free marketplace of ideas and does his best to demonstrate why his are more powerful than those of others.  He has spent decades contributing to his fields of interest, not merely acting as an interested onlooker who attempts to shape what he didn’t help to build.  Where do Dr. Dawkins’s critics go wrong?  The man without trying to tear others down undeservedly.  When a creationist insists the Earth is 6,000 years old, Dr. Dawkins does his best to refute the argument with professional calm.  The ideas in his books and those he expresses in his other outreach efforts are sometimes complicated.  Critics may be paralyzed by confirmation bias.  Others may construct a straw man, knowingly or unknowingly distorting Dr. Dawkins’s work through simplification.

What happens when someone disagrees with Dr. Dawkins?  They get an impassioned reply that may result in some discomfort or a moment of awkwardness.  Why, here’s an example:

If you disagree with Dr. Dawkins, he is not going to let the air out of your tires.  He is not going to tell the world that you’re cheating on your husband or wife.  (Especially if it’s not true.)  He certainly won’t do his best to convince your employer that you need to be fired for some transgression, real or imagined.

No, Dr. Dawkins conducts himself in the manner to which we should aspire: he surrounds himself with ideas and uses reason as his primary intellectual weapon.

What Should We Steal?

  • Imagine your massive or complicated work broken down into manageable pieces.  Writing a fifteen-hour opera seems like a terribly difficult task…consider writing one aria at a time until you see the larger work take shape.
  • Remember that you are telling a story, no matter what you’re writing.  The narrative may be somewhat buried in that instruction manual you’re writing for Black & Decker’s new blender, but you’re still TELLING THE STORY as to how the user can make margaritas or wine slushies to keep his or her guests happy.
  • Conduct yourself with passion in all of your endeavors.  There is more to you than the stack of work that you produce.  If, for example, you are lucky enough to a writer who receives interview requests, consider them an opportunity, not an unpleasant obligation.

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2 Comments

  • What happens when people disagree with Dawkins? Well, dispassionate logic, sometimes, but Rebecca Watson can tell you of otherwise: straw men, ad hominem, diversion tactics, histrionics. He can be just bad as his detractors, he often makes discussion about religious topics downright impossible since he refuses to allow any subtlety on the part of his opponents, and all in all he is no more a master of reason and self-possession than the rest of us. I normally love your analysis, but after his Elevatorgate shenanigans I can’t let this rest ;p

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