“Luther Allison’s guitar cries, and it’s tears are blue”

It has been a week since I discovered Luther Allison, it was last Sunday evening when I heard Bad News Is Coming (flac), his debut album on a big label from 1972. I have been progressively going CRAAAZY over that sound, but let me back up. It is difficult to describe that first listen. I guess everyone has to experience it their own way. For some it would take a little getting used to. But there is no way you wouldn’t have a reaction.

Some reviews from over at the Amazon page:

  • I don’t want to review this cd as much as I want to implore you, the person reading this, to treat yourself and buy it. Out of the 100’s of cd’s I’ve owned and listened to, this is the most soulfully smooth music I’ve heard. This album is an unknown classic. Allison’s voice rock’s, his guitar work stings, the piano is perfect. Track after track this cd is either perfectly sexy, painful, funky, or rocking. Why this guy wasn’t hugely popular is beyond me. Buy this cd and then buy it for your friends. They’ll love it too. Peace- Adam Milan.
  • Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about, kids. This is gutbucket, soulfunk, dirty electric blues at its best. Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison made his debut with this 1972 release on Motown’s Gordy label. Allison’s fiery guitar playing and his rough and tumble vocals bring life to a set of blues standards mixed with two songs he co-wrote. The first seven tracks make up the album as it was originally released, but this excellent remaster/reissue adds four more, including the potent “It’s Been a Long Time”.  – Jack Baker
  • “Bad News Is Coming” was Luther Allison’s debut album and from the first track, (his version of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”), he EXPLODES with an intensity that is refreshing every time I hear it. He belted out his vocals in a raspy, impassioned wail, and his guitar playing was just as searing. This should have been a smash, although the blues market was drying up by the time this was released in 1972 and it ultimately didn’t sell in big numbers. Luther Allison himself is quoted in the liner notes as saying that he got lost in the shuffle when Motown moved from Detroit to L.A. Luther Allison was an amazing guitarist and unfortunately remains underrated. Songs like his own “Raggedy and Dirty” are perfect examples of how he could play the blues over a funky groove and just sound plain DIRTY. I don’t know how else to describe it. He didn’t hold anything back on this album. Also notable is the piano playing of Paul White, who has some great solos on this one. If you are a fan of the blues and haven’t heard Luther Allison, this CD serves as a good introduction to this unsung performer. – B. Bowman.

You get the idea.

Amazon’s own succinct ‘Product description’ is:

One of the greatest modern electric blues albums of the 1970’s.
blues_011
I have not been able to listen to anything else, and I it seems to sear my brain every time I hit play. Early morning, afternoons, late night, on the highway, in bed, on the balcony. I feel my sperm count increasing steadily with every play through. Rise in happiness and an irresistible desire to stop people in their tracks and tell them, ‘You will thank me, your children will thank me, your grandchildren will thank me. Listen to this. Don’t make an immediate judgement. Just listen.’
When I feel like this, I remember this banter between Hound Dog Taylor and the audience, at the beginning of a song,
Hound Dog Taylor : I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it
Audience: WHAT?
Hound Dog Taylor: The Bluuues, man!
A Longer and more apt Description of the album we are talking about here:

Roots music wasn’t exactly a hot prospect in 1972, which might be why the blistering guitar-centered blues on Luther Allison’s debut record didn’t garner the respect it deserved at the time. Though it’s unfortunate that he’s no longer around to appreciate it, it’s good to see that Allison is finally being recognized for the Chicago West Side master that he was, as a single spin of Bad News Is Coming surely enough proves. Things get started with a hard-stompin’, guitar-squealin’ rendition of the classic Willie Dixon tune “Little Red Rooster,” followed up with the riff-rooted “Evil Is Going On,” also by Dixon. Another standout is the title track, a slow, moody piece with a perfectly bittersweet inflection. Then there’s the considerably upbeat version of “Dust My Broom,” which manages to dust off a hoary standard and make it sound brand-spanking-new, all while showing off guitar pyrotechnics worthy of Jimi Hendrix. This issue of Allison’s debut also includes some worthy tracks that weren’t on the original release. All four merit a listen, but particular attention should be paid to Allison’s take on Freddy King’s classic instrumental “The Stumble,” which also features some admirable piano courtesy of Paul White. –Genevieve Williams

See there are three main stages of Blues, the real early Blues with gospel, scratchy string, delta blues. Add the glam pre war 1920s diva Blues. Then there is the Chicago Blues. Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson. This is 1950s-60s. Lot happened in that late 60s era. Elvis came in around 1960 and sparked off Rock n Roll. The electric guitar sparked a whole new sound. English rockers started playing their versions of Chicago and Delta Blues. Blues Rock, a whole psychedelic world. But for discussion’s sake, let’s be back into the main stream of Blues. After the Chicago Blues were the modern interpreters – Freddie King, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Even if you have heard through  (cursorily, of course) the whole set of Blues evolution, Luther Allison’s guitar would still surprise you. As Jean Cabot of Rock and Folk magazine says, admittedly about a different Luther album,

The primary value of this recording, his first live album, is to make one feel Luther Allison’s musical abilities, as well as the intensity and generosity of his live performances. You can also find the memories of the privileged moments – maybe a few seconds when you feel, when you know, that Luther shuts his eyes and opens his soul… At that moment, his guitar no longer speaks to you, it cries . and it’s tears are blue.” — Jean Cabot, Rock and Folk

From over on the Wikipedia page:
Luther Allison (August 17, 1939 – August 12, 1997) was an American blues guitarist. He was born in Widener, Arkansas and moved with his family, at age twelve, to Chicago in 1951.He taught himself guitar and began listening to blues extensively. Three years later he began hanging outside blues nightclubs with the hopes of being invited to perform. He played with Howlin’ Wolf’s band and backed James Cotton.
His big break came in 1957 when Howlin’ Wolf invited Allison to the stage. Freddie King took him under his wing and after King got his big record deal, Allison took over King’s house-band gig on Chicago’s west side. A well-received set at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival resulted in his being asked to perform there each of the next three years.He also toured nationwide and, in 1972, was signed to Motown Records, one of the few blues artists to do so.
Bad News is Coming

VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

On an aside, the more I thought in terms of the evolution of Blues, and where Luther Allison would be in the scheme of things, the more I was reminded of the below paragraph from the excellent Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor’s Tale,

I believe that there are senses in which evolution may be said to be directional, progressive and even predictable. But progress is emphatically not the same thing as progress towards humanity, and we must live with a weak and unflattering sense of the predictable. The historian must beware of stringing together a narrative that seems, even to the smallest degree, to be homing in on a human climax.

A book in my possession (in the main a good book, so I shall not name and shame it) provides an example. It is comparing Homo habilis (a human species, probably ancestral to us) with its predecessors the australopithecines. What the book says is that Homo habilis was ‘considerably more evolved than the Australopithecines’. More evolved? What can this mean but that evolution is moving in some pre-specified direction? The book leaves us in no doubt of what the presumed direction is. ‘The first signs of a chin are apparent.’ ‘First’ encourages us to expect second and third signs, towards a ‘complete’ human chin. ‘The teeth start to resemble ours …’ As if those teeth were the way they were, not because it suited the habiline diet but because they were embarking upon the road towards becoming our teeth. The passage ends with a telltale remark about a later species of extinct human, Homo erectus:

Although their faces are still different from ours, they have a much more human look in their eyes. They are like sculptures in the making, ‘unfinished’ works.

In the making? Unfinished? Only with the unwisdom of hindsight. In excuse of that book it is probably true that, were we to meet a Homo erectus face to face, it might well look to our eyes like an unfinished sculpture in the making. But that is only because we are looking with human hindsight. A living creature is always in the business of surviving in its own environment. It is never unfinished – or, in another sense, it is always unfinished. So, presumably, are we.

The conceit of hindsight tempts us at other stages in our history. From our human point of view, the emergence of our remote fish ancestors from water to land was a momentous step, an evolutionary rite of passage. It was undertaken in the Devonian Period by lobe-finned fish a bit like modern lungfish. We look at fossils of the period with a pardonable yearning to gaze upon our forebears, and are seduced by a knowledge of what came later: drawn into seeing these Devonian fish as ‘half way’ towards becoming land animals; everything about them earnestly transitional, bound into an epic quest to invade the land and initiate the next big phase of evolution. That is not the way it was at the time. Those Devonian fish had a living to earn. They were not on a mission to evolve, not on a quest towards the distant future. An otherwise excellent book about vertebrate evolution contains the following sentence about fish which

ventured out of the water on to the land at the end of the Devonian Period and jumped the gap, so to speak, from one vertebrate class to another to become the first amphibians …

The ‘gap’ comes from hindsight. There was nothing resembling a gap at the time, and the ‘classes’ that we now recognise were no moreseparate, in those days, than two species. As we shall see again, jumping gaps is not what evolution does.

If you are interested, the rest of that fascinating introduction to the book is here – The Conceit of Hindsight.

How NOT to talk to kids about evolution

So I have been googling how to talk to kids about evolution, and skimming in active accumulate learning mode, 29 tabs open, quick reading, arranging, when I get on to this site, and start visual skimming

How Can You Talk With Your Children About Evolution? Article by Becky Sweat.

I am reading through and nodding at the words

If you have school-aged children, they’re probably being exposed to evolutionary theory on a regular basis, whether you like it or not. In most public schools, evolution is a major part of the science curriculum.

Of course, even if your children are preschoolers, they still may be hearing a lot about evolution. Just take them to a zoo, visit a natural history museum, watch a nature show on television or read a book about animals. Darwin’s theories are promulgated practically everywhere.

That’s exactly why you, as a parent, need to do some talking of your own on this subject. You need to counteract these ideas.

Wha .. Wha?

Remember, when your children are at school evolutionary theory is most likely being presented to them as fact. They’re unlikely to be told anything about the flaws with Darwinian thinking or about the existence of a divine Creator.

True, your children may go to church with you. They may know you don’t believe in evolution. But they’re not likely to really understand why evolution is wrong unless you talk about it with them.

This may sound like a tall order. After all, evolution can be a daunting topic. However, you don’t have to be skilled in biology or paleontology to see the fallacies in evolution and explain these to your children. Here are some practical suggestions for doing this and, even more importantly, teaching your children what the Bible says about creation.

This may sound like a tall order. Indeed. Though to help with that task, the article further provides five steps like

Educate yourself about the issues.

While you don’t need to be an expert in biology, you should at least have a general understanding of evolutionary theory before you discuss it with your kids.

Know the basic terms like survival of the fittest, speciation, spontaneous generation, common descent, random mutation, natural selection, etc. You should understand what these terms mean and how they fit into evolutionary theory. This will allow you to discuss the issues on an intelligent level.

It sums up with

What we believe really matters

To sum up, it certainly matters a great deal what we believe concerning the origins of the universe and of life itself. Darwin believed that life began when chemicals in a pond somehow became mixed together to spontaneously create living matter, even though he admitted it could not be proven. Today evolutionists cannot prove how life was first formed either.

But we know the answer. We know that God created us in His image. We also know that He has a wonderful plan for us, intending us to be a part of His eternal Kingdom. This should be something we think about often and regularly talk about with our children. That is the only way they will learn to separate truth from fiction, and hold fast to God’s precious truths!

It really is a beautiful article. Go ahead, read it. I will wait.

But we are not done here. Not quite yet. The next article I shall be reproducing in toto (mainly because it is Creation.com and you have to see an opening video)

Your children and evolution

Hints for Christian Parents

by Geoff Chapman

Let’s be frank. In the story of the king’s new clothes, it was a little child who saw that the king had no clothes on at all. Even if parents are not bold enough to say it, children soon recognise that evolution does contradict the Bible and does undermine Christian faith.

What can Christian parents do to counteract these effects? How do parents encourage their children to share the faith and retain confidence in the Bible? If you are a parent, here are some of the things which you can do:

  • Firstly, you can teach your children about God’s creation. Begin when they are very young. Read to them over and over again the story of God’s creation until they have it firmly fixed in their memory. Read to them about God’s wonderful creatures from colourful story books, but make sure you have read the stories carefully to ensure they contain no hint of theistic evolution, progressive creation, day-age or gap theory. Avoid so-called Christian books which begin with the world as a molten blob or start with ‘millions of years ago’. Use children’s colouring-in books about Genesis and in as many ways as possible teach your children to respect the Bible as the infallible Word of God, a book which contains no myths or errors of fact.
  • Instil into your children a sense of wonder at the greatness and magnificence of what God has done [while keeping in mind that the world we see today is affected by the Curse]. Whenever you go out into the country or even into the garden, point out the wonderful things that can be seen. Show them the things that Genesis talks about: the birds, the bats, the flying insects and remind them constantly that God made the birds on the fifth day. Take them outside at night and show them the moon that God made on the fourth day to rule over the night. Show them the intricate patterns in leaves and remind them over and over again how absurd it is to suggest that such pretty and intricate patterns happened by accident.
  • Teach your children about the fallacies of evolution before they learn about its supposed truth at school. Make sure that you as a parent know the many flaws in evolutionary theory. To do this, you will need to work and study good books on the subject. And then you will have to work at pointing out these facts to your children as they grow old enough to understand.
  • Since dinosaurs are often used, even from kindergarten level onwards to introduce children to evolution, remind them that dinosaurs are big animals which were made on sixth day of creation (and other dinosaur-like creatures, e.g. Plesiosaurs, etc., were made on the fifth day). Inform them about the evidence that dinosaurs lived with people, the rock carvings of dinosaurs and the dragon legends. Buy them Dr Duane Gish’s book, Dinosaurs By Design, or Dr Gary Parker’s book, Dry Bones and other Fossils. Always be ready to point out when a commentator is talking about evolution. Encourage them to be saddened by the fact that so many people can believe that which simply is not true and substitute chance and accident for the wonderful gifts of God.
  • Encourage your children to study the actual evidence for themselves. Take them to a place to dig up fossils and explain how fossils are generally formed (by rapid burial in sediment). Explain to them how the great world-wide flood in Genesis would have provided perfect conditions for the formation of millions of fossils found on the earth. Point out that the fossils in the sedimentary rocks do not show that the rocks formed slowly and the earth is very old. To the contrary, they indicate rapid processes and therefore a recent and great watery catastrophe as taught in the Bible. Mention to them that animals which die today are very unlikely to become fossils, therefore formation of fossils is not a normal every day occurrence.
  • Finally, explain in detail why there is suffering and cruelty in the world. Tell them where death came from and its significance. Tell them that God created a perfect world but Adam’s sin spoilt that perfection and brought death and decay to the earth. Tell your children that Adam was punished with the curse of death, because the God of creation knew that He himself would come in the form of Jesus Christ, the last Adam, to suffer the same curse of death himself. Then those who would accept His sacrifice for sin would have forgiveness and look forward to eternal life. Explain that by His death and resurrection, Jesus restored our broken relationship with God, and that at the end of time, God will create a new heaven and a new earth — a completely restored creation in which all who truly love Him will share.

How heartwarming.

Oh, but what to do with the blasted schools?

WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT EVOLUTION BEING TAUGHT IN CLASS?

Here are some practical suggestions students and their parents can use to fight evolution in the classroom. It certainly is unfair to use tax dollars to promote the religion of evolution and, at the same time, destroy the faith of Christian children in school.

Parents:

  • Transfer your child from public school to private or home school. Public schools lose funding when enrollment drops (www.exodusmandate.org).
  • As a taxpayer, you have a right to help control your local schools, even if your children do not attend. Go to school board meetings. Be polite and friendly. Get involved with the election process.
  • Get educated. Research the educational structure, educational standards, and annual textbook selection process of your state. Use the internet and your phone book. State and local officials will be impressed and more ready to cooperate when they see you have done your homework.
  • Write to textbook publishers to express your opinion.
  • Run for school board or get on your textbook selection committee and demand that books be accurate. Most states already have laws requiring this. Getting false information out of the books will remove many items currently used to support evolution. Textbooks are selected by either state textbook-selection committees, county or district committees, or individual teachers. States with state textbook-selection committees normally select several books from the textbooks submitted by publishers. These books are considered state approved and districts must choose from those books if they want the state to pay for them. Publishers want to sell books so they produce accordingly. Check with the Educational Research Analysts for great help in helping formulate a good state standard as well as the process of textbook selection.
  • Encourage students to do papers showing the religious nature of evolutionary theory in science class. Your school board may be persuaded to buy some material for the sake of equal time. If not, get and distribute books and videos as a mission project through your church.
  • Donate creation science material to your child’s science teacher or school library.
  • Inform teachers of their right to teach creation in public school. Many are fooled by the propaganda from groups like the ACLU into thinking they are not allowed to talk about creation when they really are.
  • Keep informed of trends in education and bills being introduced by getting in “the loop.”

Students:

  • Earn good grades; behave well; be on time; be respectful.
  • Pray for your teacher.
  • Talk to your teacher about evolution and creation issues privately, after class. Try to not confront them in class, if possible.
  • Offer your teacher creation science material to read or watch. A video is a great non-offensive way to convert teachers to the truths of creation. (Creation Seminar Part #1 or #4 would be good.)
  • Have your parents request that you be exempted from the evolutionary portions of class as they are contrary to your religion.

This is a depressing turn of events. Searching for Ways to talk to Kids about Evolution turns up the opposite! There are reams and reams of debate where people talk about what children should be studying, and whose right is it to suggest what children should be reading about.

More resources:

Here’s an FAQ to protect yourself from Evolutionists

And here’s a WikiHow : How to defend each other

It is a fascinating read up as a musing upon the sensibility of the populace dictum, but that is a sterile, academic exercise, not to be muddled about for more than bitter amusement.

Edit: More example of the extent of this rot, from Snopes.com shows a 4th grade Science test from a South Carolina school.

Evolution Test - Page 1

Evolution Test - Page 2

How to talk to Kids about evolution?

Let them explore.

Here’s something positive instead, here’s a 146 page book for kids, where ‘Young scientists go on botanical treasure hunts, keep field notes as backyard naturalists, and trace genetic trait to learn about Darwin’s life and work and assess current evidence of evolution.’

This here below is a beautiful pdf version of the book by Kristan Lawson,

DARWIN and EVOLUTION for Kids. His Life and Ideals with 21 activities.

Darwin and Evolution for Kids

And if you are still looking for some bitter amusement, here’s Creationist Cousins

Peace Out

Peace Out

Why are people?

The following is an extract from Richard Dawkins’ seminal book, The Selfish Gene. The title of this post is incidentally the name of the first chapter, while the text below is of the second chapter. Brushing such inconsistencies aside, the purpose here is to enjoy this beautiful piece of writing, without preamble or introduction (which hopefully shall come later, I shall be linking to this post often, I hope). The aim is to encourage readers to assimilate the most legible, sound, plausible and obvious theory of creation I have ever read.

The Selfish Gene, 1976

In the beginning was simplicity. It is difficult enough explaining how even a simple universe began. I take it as agreed that it would be even harder to explain the sudden springing up, fully armed, of complex order — life, or a being capable of creating life. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people. Darwin provides a solution, the only feasible one so far suggested, to the deep problem of our existence. I will try to explain the great theory in a more general way than is customary, beginning with the time before evolution itself began.

Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation — rocks, galaxies, ocean waves — are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is also stable in spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride ions together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, ever since soon after the ‘big bang’ which, according to the prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.

Sometimes when atoms meet they link up together in chemical reaction to form molecules, which may be more or less stable. Such molecules can be very large. A crystal such as a diamond can be regarded as a single molecule, a proverbially stable one in this case, but also a very simple one since its internal atomic structure is endlessly repeated. In modern living organisms there are other large molecules which are highly complex, and their complexity shows itself on several levels. The haemoglobin of our blood is a typical protein molecule. It is built up from chains of smaller molecules, amino acids, each containing a few dozen atoms arranged in a precise pattern. In the haemoglobin molecule there are 574 amino acid molecules. These are arranged in four chains, which twist around each other to form a globular three-dimensional structure of bewildering complexity. A model of a haemoglobin molecule looks rather like a dense thorn bush. But unlike a real thorn bush it is not a haphazard approximate pattern but a definite invariant structure, identically repeated, with not a twig nor a twist out of place, over six thousand million million million times in an average human body. The precise thorn bush shape of a protein molecule such as haemoglobin is stable in the sense that two chains consisting of the same sequences of amino acids will tend, like two springs, to come to rest in exactly the same three-dimensional coiled pattern. Haemoglobin thorn bushes are springing into their ‘preferred’ shape in your body at a rate of about four hundred million million per second, and others are being destroyed at the same rate.

Haemoglobin is a modern molecule, used to illustrate the principle that atoms tend to fall into stable patterns. The point that is relevant here is that, before the coming of life on earth, some rudimentary evolution of molecules could have occurred by ordinary processes of physics and chemistry. There is no need to think of design or purpose or directedness. If a group of atoms in the presence of energy falls into a stable pattern it will tend to stay that way. The earliest form of natural selection was simply a selection of stable forms and a rejection of unstable ones. There is no mystery about this. It had to happen by definition.

From this, of course, it does not follow that you can explain the existence of entities as complex as man by exactly the same principles on their own. It is no good taking the right number of atoms and shaking them together with some external energy till they happen to fall into the right pattern, and out drops Adam! You may make a molecule consisting of a few dozen atoms like that, but a man consists of over a thousand million million million million atoms. To try to make a man, you would have to work at your biochemical cocktail-shaker for a period so long that the entire age of the universe would seem like an eye-blink, and even then you would not succeed. This is where Darwin’s theory, in its most general form, comes to the rescue. Darwin’s theory takes over from where the story of the slow building up of molecules leaves off.

The account of the origin of life that I shall give is necessarily speculative; by definition, nobody was around to see what happened. There are a number of rival theories, but they all have certain features in common. The simplified account I shall give is probably not too far from the truth.

We do not know what chemical raw materials were abundant on earth before the coming of life, but among the plausible possibilities are water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia: all simple compounds known to be present on at least some of the other planets in our solar system. Chemists have tried to imitate the chemical conditions of the young earth. They have put these simple substances in a flask and supplied a source of energy such as ultraviolet light or electric sparks — artificial simulation of primordial lightning. After a few weeks of this, something interesting is usually found inside the flask: a weak brown soup containing a large number of molecules more complex than the ones originally put in. In particular, amino acids have been found — the building blocks of proteins, one of the two great classes of biological molecules. Before these experiments were done, naturally-occurring amino acids would have been thought of as diagnostic of the presence of life. If they had been detected on, say Mars, life on that planet would have seemed a near certainty. Now, however, their existence need imply only the presence of a few simple gases in the atmosphere and some volcanoes, sunlight, or thundery weather. More recently, laboratory simulations of the chemical conditions of earth before the coming of life have yielded organic substances called purines and pyrimidines. These are building blocks of the genetic molecule, DNA itself.

Processes analogous to these must have given rise to the ‘primeval soup’ which biologists and chemists believe constituted the seas some three to four thousand million years ago. The organic substances became locally concentrated, perhaps in drying scum round the shores, or in tiny suspended droplets. Under the further influence of energy such as ultraviolet light from the sun, they combined into larger molecules. Nowadays large organic molecules would not last long enough to be noticed: they would be quickly absorbed and broken down by bacteria or other living creatures. But bacteria and the rest of us are latecomers, and in those days large organic molecules could drift unmolested through the thickening broth.

At some point a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident. We will call it the Replicator. It may not necessarily have been the biggest or the most complex molecule around, but it had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself. This may seem a very unlikely sort of accident to happen. So it was. It was exceedingly improbable. In the lifetime of a man, things that are that improbable can be treated for practical purposes as impossible. That is why you will never win a big prize on the football pools. But in our human estimates of what is probable and what is not, we are not used to dealing in hundreds of millions of years. If you filled in pools coupons every week for a hundred million years you would very likely win several jackpots.

Actually a molecule that makes copies of itself is not as difficult to imagine as it seems at first, and it only had to arise once. Think of the replicator as a mould or template. Imagine it as a large molecule consisting of a complex chain of various sorts of building block molecules. The small building blocks were abundantly available in the soup surrounding the replicator. Now suppose that each building block has an affinity for its own kind. Then whenever a building block from out in the soup lands up next to a part of the replicator for which it has an affinity, it will tend to stick there. The building blocks that attach themselves in this way will automatically be arranged in a sequence that mimics that of the replicator itself. It is easy then to think of them joining up to form a stable chain just as in the formation of the original replicator. This process could continue as a progressive stacking up, layer upon layer. This is how crystals are formed. On the other hand, the two chains might split apart, in which case we have two replicators, each of which can go on to make further copies.

A more complex possibility is that each building block has affinity not for its own kind, but reciprocally for one particular other kind. Then the replicator would act as a template not for an identical copy, but for a kind of ‘negative’, which would in its turn remake an exact copy of the original positive. For our purposes it does not matter whether the original replication process was positive-negative or positive-positive, though it is worth remarking that the modern equivalents of the first replicator, the DNA molecules, use positive-negative replication. What does matter is that suddenly a new kind of ‘stability’ came into the world. Previously it is probable that no particular kind of complex molecule was very abundant in the soup, because each was dependent on building blocks happening to fall by luck into a particular stable configuration. As soon as the replicator was born it must have spread its copies rapidly throughout the seas, until the smaller building block molecules became a scarce resource, and other larger molecules were formed more and more rarely.

So we seem to arrive at a large population of identical replicas. But now we must mention an important property of any copying process: it is not perfect. Mistakes will happen. I hope there are no misprints in this book, but if you look carefully you may find one or two. They will probably not seriously distort the meaning of the sentences, because they will be ‘first generation’ errors. But imagine the days before printing, when books such as the Gospels were copied by hand. All scribes, however careful, are bound to make a few errors, and some are not above a little wilful ‘improvement’. If they all copied from a single master original, meaning would not be greatly perverted. But let copies be made from other copies, which in their turn were made from other copies, and errors will start to become cumulative and serious. We tend to regard erratic copying as a bad thing, and in the case of human documents it is hard to think of examples where errors can be described as improvements. I suppose the scholars of the Septuagint could at least be said to have started something big when they mistranslated the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ into the Greek word for ‘virgin’, coming up with the prophecy: ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son . . .’ Anyway, as we shall see, erratic copying in biological replicators can in a real sense give rise to improvement, and it was essential for the progressive evolution of life that some errors were made. We do not know how accurately the original replicator molecules made their copies. Their modern descendants, the DNA molecules, are astonishingly faithful compared with the most high-fidelity human copying process, but even they occasionally make mistakes, and it is ultimately these mistakes that make evolution possible. Probably the original replicators were far more erratic, but in any case we may be sure that mistakes were made, and these mistakes were cumulative.

As mis-copyings were made and propagated, the primeval soup became filled by a population not of identical replicas, but of several varieties of replicating molecules, all ‘descended’ from the same ancestor. Would some varieties have been more numerous than others? Almost certainly yes. Some varieties would have been inherently more stable than others. Certain molecules, once formed, would be less likely than others to break up again. These types would become relatively numerous in the soup, not only as a direct logical consequence of their ‘longevity’, but also because they would have a long time available for making copies of themselves. Replicators of high longevity would therefore tend to become more numerous and, other things being equal, there would have been an ‘evolutionary trend’ towards greater longevity in the population of molecules.

But other things were probably not equal, and another property of a replicator variety that must have had even more importance in spreading it through the population was speed of replication or ‘fecundity’. If replicator molecules of type A make copies of themselves on average once a week while those of type B make copies of themselves once an hour, it is not difficult to see that pretty soon type A molecules are going to be far outnumbered, even if they ‘live’ much longer than B molecules. There would therefore probably have been an ‘evolutionary trend’ towards higher ‘fecundity’ of molecules in the soup. A third characteristic of replicator molecules which would have been positively selected is accuracy of replication. If molecules of type X and type Y last the same length of time and replicate at the same rate, but X makes a mistake on average every tenth replication while Y makes a mistake only every hundredth replication, Y will obviously become more numerous. The X contingent in the population loses not only the errant ‘children’ themselves, but also all their descendants, actual or potential.

If you already know something about evolution, you may find something slightly paradoxical about the last point. Can we reconcile the idea that copying errors are an essential prerequisite for evolution to occur, with the statement that natural selection favours high copying-fidelity? The answer is that although evolution may seem, in some vague sense, a ‘good thing’, especially since we are the product of it, nothing actually ‘wants’ to evolve. Evolution is something that happens, willy-nilly, in spite of all the efforts of the replicators (and nowadays of the genes) to prevent it happening. Jacques Monod made this point very well in his Herbert Spencer lecture, after wryly remarking: ‘Another curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it!

To return to the primeval soup, it must have become populated by stable varieties of molecule; stable in that either the individual molecules lasted a long time, or they replicated rapidly, or they replicated accurately. Evolutionary trends toward these three kinds of stability took place in the following sense: if you had sampled the soup at two different times, the later sample would have contained a higher proportion of varieties with high longevity/fecundity/copying-fidelity. This is essentially what a biologist means by evolution when he is speaking of living creatures, and the mechanism is the same — natural selection.

Should we then call the original replicator molecules ‘living’? Who cares? I might say to you ‘Darwin was the greatest man who has ever lived’, and you might say ‘No, Newton was’, but I hope we would not prolong the argument. The point is that no conclusion of substance would be affected whichever way our argument was resolved. The facts of the lives and achievements of Newton and Darwin remain totally unchanged whether we label them ‘great’ or not. Similarly, the story of the replicator molecules probably happened something like the way I am telling it, regardless of whether we choose to call them ‘living’. Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like ‘living’ does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world. Whether we call the early replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life; they were our founding fathers.

The next important link in the argument, one that Darwin himself laid stress on (although he was talking about animals and plants, not molecules) is competition. The primeval soup was not capable of supporting an infinite number of replicator molecules. For one thing, the earth’s size is finite, but other limiting factors must also have been important. In our picture of the replicator acting as a template or mould, we supposed it to be bathed in a soup rich in the small building block molecules necessary to make copies. But when the replicators became numerous, building blocks must have been used up at such a rate that they became a scarce and precious resource. Different varieties or strains of replicator must have competed for them. We have considered the factors that would have increased the numbers of favoured kinds of replicator. We can now see that less-favoured varieties must actually have become less numerous because of competition, and ultimately many of their lines must have gone extinct. There was a struggle for existence among replicator varieties. They did not know they were struggling, or worry about it; the struggle was conducted without any hard feelings, indeed without feelings of any kind. But they were struggling, in the sense that any mis-copying that resulted in a new higher level of stability, or a new way of reducing the stability of rivals, was automatically preserved and multiplied. The process of improvement was cumulative. Ways of increasing stability and of decreasing rivals’ stability became more elaborate and more efficient. Some of them may even have ‘discovered’ how to break up molecules of rival varieties chemically, and to use the building blocks so released for making their own copies. These proto-carnivores simultaneously obtained food and removed competing rivals. Other replicators perhaps discovered how to protect themselves, either chemically, or by building a physical wall of protein around themselves. This may have been how the first living cells appeared. Replicators began not merely to exist, but to construct for themselves containers, vehicles for their continued existence. The replicators that survived were the ones that built survival machines for themselves to live in. The first survival machines probably consisted of nothing more than a protective coat. But making a living got steadily harder as new rivals arose with better and more effective survival machines. Survival machines got bigger and more elaborate, and the process was cumulative and progressive.

Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous {20} indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

The Conceit of Hindsight (Extract from The Ancestor’s Tale, by Richard Dawkins)

The boombastic introduction to The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. Evolution is a fascinating subject, and perhaps as universally misunderstood as relativity (even more perhaps, seeing just how many people mistakenly believe they correctly know about evolution). Never mind the water-tight arguments and the effortless logic, I just read and re-read this for the pleasure of how Dawkins puts his words together (and chooses which words to put in there in the first place; “Conceit” for eg. Just the PERFECT word for what is being explained).

The book is highly recommended as well.

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THE CONCEIT OF HINDSIGHT

‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.’

MARK TWAIN

‘History repeats itself; that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.’

CLARENCE DARROW

History has been described as one damn thing after another. The remark can be seen as a warning against a pair of temptations but, duly warned, I shall cautiously flirt with both. First, the historian is tempted to scour the past for patterns that repeat themselves; or at least, following Mark Twain, to seek reason and rhyme for everything. This appetite for pattern affronts those who insist that, as Mark Twain will also be found to have said, ‘History is usually a random, messy affair’, going nowhere and following no rules. The second connected temptation is the vanity of the present: of seeing the past as aimed at our own time, as though the characters in history’s play had nothing better to do with their lives than foreshadow us. Under names that need not trouble us, these are live issues in human history and they arise with greater force, and no greater agreement, on the longer timescale of evolution. Evolutionary history can be represented as one damn species after another. But many biologists will join me in finding this an impoverished view. Look at evolution that way and you miss most of what matters. Evolution rhymes, patterns recur. And this doesn’t just happen to be so. It is so for well understood reasons: Darwinian reasons mostly, for biology, unlike human history or even physics, already has its grand unifying theory, accepted by all informed practitioners, though in varying  versions and interpretations. In writing evolutionary history I do not shrink from seeking patterns and principles, but I try to be careful about it.

What of the second temptation, the conceit of hindsight, the idea that the past works to deliver our particular present? The late Stephen Jay Gould rightly pointed out that a dominant icon of evolution in popular mythology, a caricature almost as ubiquitous as lemmings jumping over cliffs (and that myth is false too), is a shambling file of simian ancestors, rising progressively in the wake of the erect, striding, majestic figure of Homo sapiens sapiens: man as evolution’s last word (and in this context it always is man rather than woman); man as what the whole enterprise is pointing towards; man as a magnet, drawing evolution from the past towards his eminence.

There is a physicist’s version which is less obviously vainglorious and which I should mention in passing. This is the ‘anthropic’ notion that the very laws of physics themselves, or the fundamental constants of the universe, are a carefully tuned put-up job, calculated to bring humanity eventually into existence. It is not necessarily founded on vanity. It doesn’t have to mean that the universe was deliberately made in order that we should exist. It need mean only that we are here, and we could not be in a universe that lacked the capability of producing us. As physicists have pointed out, it is no accident that we see stars in our sky, for stars are a necessary part of any universe capable of generating us. Again, this does not imply that stars exist in order to make us. It is just that without stars there would be no atoms heavier than lithium in the periodic table, and a chemistry of only three elements is too impoverished to support life. Seeing is the kind of activity that can go on only in the kind of universe where what you see are stars.

But there is a little more that needs to be said. Granted the trivial fact that our presence requires physical laws and constants capable of producing us, the existence of such potent ground rules may still seem tantalisingly improbable. Depending upon their assumptions, physicists may reckon that the set of possible universes vastly outnumbers that subset whose laws and constants allowed physics to mature, via stars into chemistry and via planets into biology. To some, this means that the laws and constants must have been deliberately premeditated from the start (although it baffles me why anybody regards this as an explanation for anything, given that the problem so swiftly regresses to the larger one of explaining the existence of the equally fine-tuned and improbable Premeditator).

Other physicists are less confident that the laws and constants were free to vary in the first place. When I was little it was not obvious to me why five times eight had to give the same result as eight times five. I accepted it as one of those facts that grownups assert. Only later did I understand, perhaps through visualising rectangles, why such pairs of multiplications are not free to vary independently of one another. We understand that the circumference and the diameter of a circle are not independent, otherwise we might feel tempted to postulate a plethora of possible universes, each with a different value of n. Perhaps, argue some physicists such as the Nobel Prize-winning theorist Steven Weinberg, the fundamental constants of the universe, which at present we treat as independent of one another, will in some Grand Unified fullness of time be understood to have fewer degrees of freedom than we now imagine. Maybe there is only one way for a universe to be. That would undermine the appearance of anthropic coincidence.

Other physicists, including Sir Martin Rees, the present Astronomer Royal, accept that there is a real coincidence in need of explanation, and explain it by postulating many actual universes existing in parallel, mutually incommunicado, each with its own set of laws and constants. Obviously we, who find ourselves reflecting upon such things, must be in one of those universes, however rare, whose laws and constants are capable of evolving us.

The theoretical physicist Lee Smolin added an ingenious Darwinian spin which reduces the apparent statistical improbability of our existence. In Smolin’s model, universes give birth to daughter universes, which vary in their laws and constants. Daughter universes are born in black holes produced by a parent universe, and they inherit its laws and constants but with some possibility of small random change — ‘mutation’. Those daughter universes that have what it takes to reproduce (last long enough to make black holes, for instance) are, of course, the universes that pass on their laws and constants to their daughters. Stars are precursors to black holes which, in the Smolin model, are the birth events. So universes that have what it takes to make stars are favoured in this cosmic Darwinism. The properties of a universe that furnish this gift to the future are the self-same properties that incidentally lead to the manufacture of large atoms, including vital carbon atoms. Not only do we live in a universe that is capable of producing life. Successive generations of universes progressively evolve to become increasingly the sort of universe that, as a by-product, is capable of producing life.

The logic of the Smolin theory is bound to appeal to a Darwinian, indeed to anyone of imagination, but as for the physics I am not qualified to judge. I cannot find a physicist to condemn the theory as definitely wrong — the most negative thing they will say is that it is superfluous. Some, as we saw, dream of a final theory in whose light the alleged fine-tuning of the universe will turn out to be a delusion anyway. Nothing we know rules out Smolin’s theory, and he claims for it the merit — which scientists rate more highly than many laymen appreciate — of testability. His book is The Life of the Cosmos and I recommend it.

But that was a digression about the physicist’s version of the conceit of hindsight. The biologist’s version is easier to dismiss since Darwin, though harder before him, and it is our concern here. Biological evolution has no privileged line of descent and no designated end. Evolution has reached many millions of interim ends (the number of surviving species at the time of observation), and there is no reason other than vanity — human vanity as it happens, since we are doing the talking — to designate any one as more privileged or climactic than any other.

This doesn’t mean, as I shall continue to argue, that there is a total dearth of reasons or rhymes in evolutionary history. I believe there are recurring patterns. I also believe, though this is more controversial today than it once was, that there are senses in which evolution may be said to be directional, progressive and even predictable. But progress is emphatically not the same thing as progress towards humanity, and we must live with a weak and unflattering sense of the predictable. The historian must beware of stringing together a narrative that seems, even to the smallest degree, to be homing in on a human climax.

A book in my possession (in the main a good book, so I shall not name and shame it) provides an example. It is comparing Homo habilis (a human species, probably ancestral to us) with its predecessors the australopithecines.” What the book says is that Homo habilis was ‘considerably more evolved than the Australopithecines‘. More evolved? What can this mean but that evolution is moving in some pre-specified direction? The book leaves us in no doubt of what the presumed direction is. “The first signs of a chin are apparent.” ‘First’ encourages us to expect second and third signs, towards a ‘complete’ human chin. ‘The teeth start to resemble ours …’ As if those teeth were the way they were, not because it suited the habiline diet but because they were embarking upon the road towards becoming our teeth. The passage ends with a telltale remark about a later species of extinct human, Homo erectus:

Although their faces are still different from ours, they have a much more human look in their eyes. They are like sculptures in the making, ‘unfinished’ works.

In the making? Unfinished? Only with the unwisdom of hindsight. In excuse of that book it is probably true that, were we to meet a Homo erectus face to face, it might well look to our eyes like an unfinished sculpture in the making. But that is only because we are looking with human hindsight. A living creature is always in the business of surviving in its own environment. It is never unfinished — or, in another sense, it is always unfinished. So, presumably, are we.

The conceit of hindsight tempts us at other stages in our history. From our human point of view, the emergence of our remote fish ancestors from water to land was a momentous step, an evolutionary rite of passage. It was undertaken in the Devonian Period by lobe-finned fish a bit like modern lungfish. We look at fossils of the period with a pardonable yearning to gaze upon our forebears, and are seduced by a knowledge of what came later: drawn into seeing these Devonian fish as ‘halfway’ towards becoming land animals; everything about them earnestly transitional, bound into an epic quest to invade the land and initiate the next big phase of evolution. That is not the way it was at the time.
Those Devonian fish had a living to earn. They were not on a mission to evolve, not on a quest towards the distant future. An otherwise excellent book about vertebrate evolution contains the following sentence about fish which

ventured out of the water on to the land at the end of the Devonian Period and jumped the gap, so to speak, from one vertebrate class to another to become the first amphibians…

The ‘gap’ comes from hindsight. There was nothing resembling a gap at the time, and the ‘classes’ that we now recognise were no more separate, in those days, than two species. As we shall see again, jumping gaps is not what evolution does.

It makes no more sense (and no less) to aim our historical narrative towards Homo sapiens than towards any other modern species — Octopus vulgaris, say, or Panthera leo or Sequoia sempervirens. A historically minded swift, understandably proud of flight as self-evidently the premier accomplishment of life, will regard swiftkind — those spectacular flying machines with their swept-back wings, who stay aloft for a year at a time and even copulate in free flight — as the acme of evolutionary progress. To build on a fancy of Steven Pinker, if elephants could write history they might portray tapirs, elephant shrews, elephant seals and proboscis monkeys as tentative beginners along the main trunk road of evolution, taking the first fumbling steps but each — for some reason — never quite making it: so near yet so far. Elephant astronomers might wonder whether, on some other world, there exist alien life forms that have crossed the nasal rubicon and taken the final leap to full proboscitude.

We are not swifts nor elephants, we are people. As we wander in imagination through some long-dead epoch, it is humanly natural to reserve a special warmth and curiosity for whichever otherwise ordinary species in that ancient landscape is our ancestor (it is an intriguingly unfamiliar thought that there is always one such species). It is hard to deny our human temptation to see this one species as ‘on the main line’ of evolution, the others as supporting cast, walk-on parts, sidelined cameos. Without succumbing to that error, there is one way to indulge a legitimate human-centrism while respecting historical propriety. That way is to do our history backwards, and it is the way of this book.

Backward chronology in search of ancestors really can sensibly aim towards a single distant target. The distant target is the grand ancestor of all life, and we can’t help converging upon it no matter where we start — elephant or eagle, swift or salmonella, wellingtonia or woman. Backward chronology and forward chronology are each good for different purposes. Go backwards and, no matter where you start, you end up celebrating the unity of life. Go forwards and you extol diversity. It works on small timescales as well as large. The forward chronology of the mammals, within their large but still limited timescale, is a story of branching diversification, uncovering the richness of that group of hairy warmbloods. Backward chronology, taking any modern mammal as our starting point, will always converge upon the same unique ur-mammal: shadowy, insectivorous, nocturnal contemporary of the dinosaurs. This is a local convergence. A yet more local one converges on the most recent ancestor of all rodents, who lived somewhere around the time the dinosaurs went extinct. More local still is the backward convergence of all apes (including humans) on their shared ancestor, who lived about 18 million years ago. On a larger scale, there is a comparable convergence to be found if we work backwards from any vertebrate, an even larger convergence working backwards from any animal to the ancestor of all animals. The largest convergence of all takes us from any modern creature — animal, plant, fungus or bacterium — back to the universal progenitor of all surviving organisms, probably resembling some kind of bacterium.

I used ‘convergence* in the last paragraph, but I really want to reserve that word for a completely different meaning in forward chronology. So for the present purpose I shall substitute ‘confluence’ or, for reasons that will make sense in a moment, ‘rendezvous’. I could have used ‘coalescence’, except that, as we shall see, geneticists have already adopted it in a more precise sense, similar to my ‘confluence’ but concentrating on genes rather than species. In a backward chronology, the ancestors of any set of species must eventually meet at a particular geological moment. Their point of rendezvous is the last common ancestor that they all share, what I shall call their ‘Concestor’:* the focal rodent or the focal mammal or the focal vertebrate, say. The oldest concestor is the grand ancestor of all surviving life.

We can be very sure there really is a single concestor of all surviving life forms on this planet. The evidence is that all that have ever been examined share (exactly in most cases, almost exactly in the rest) the same genetic code; and the genetic code is too detailed, in arbitrary aspects of its complexity, to have been invented twice. Although not every species has been examined, we already have enough coverage to be pretty certain that no surprises — alas —await us. If we now were to discover a life form sufficiently alien to have a completely different genetic code, it would be the most exciting biological discovery in my adult lifetime, whether it lives on this planet or another. As things stand, it appears that all known life forms can be traced to a single ancestor which lived more than 3 billion years ago. If there were other, independent origins of life, they have left no descendants that we have discovered. And if new ones arose now they would swiftly be eaten, probably by bacteria.

The grand confluence of all surviving life is not the same thing as the origin of life itself. This is because all surviving species presumably share a concestor who lived after the origin of life: anything else would be an unlikely coincidence, for it would suggest that the original life form immediately branched and more than one of its branches survive to this day. Current textbook orthodoxy dates the oldest bacterial fossils at about 3.5 billion years ago, so the origin of life must at least be earlier than that. If we accept a recent disputation* of these apparently ancient fossils, our dating of the origin of life might be a bit more recent. The grand confluence — the last common ancestor of all surviving creatures — could pre-date the oldest fossils (it didn’t fossilise) or it could have lived a billion years later (all but one of the other lineages went extinct).

Given that all backward chronologies, no matter where they start, culminate in the one grand confluence, we can legitimately indulge our human preoccupation and concentrate upon the single line of our own ancestors. Instead of treating evolution as aimed towards us, we choose modern Homo sapiens as our arbitrary, but forgivably preferred, starting point for a reverse chronology. We choose this route, out of all possible routes to the past, because we are curious about our own great grancestors. At the same time, although we need not follow them in detail, we shall not forget that there are other historians, animals and plants belonging to other species, who are independently walking backwards from  their separate starting points, on separate pilgrimages to visit their own ancestors, including eventually the ones they share with us. If we retrace our own ancestral steps, we shall inevitably meet these other pilgrims and join forces with them in a definite order, the order in which their lineages rendezvous with ours, the order of ever more inclusive cousinship.

Pilgrimages? Join forces with pilgrims? Yes, why not? Pilgrimage is an apt way to think about our journey to the past. This book will be cast in the form of an epic pilgrimage from the present to the past. All roads lead to the origin of life. But because we are human, the path we shall follow will be that of our own ancestors. It will be a human pilgrimage to discover human ancestors. As we go, we shall greet other pilgrims who will join us in strict order, as we reach the common ancestors we share with them. The first fellow pilgrims we shall greet, some 5 million years ago, deep in Africa where Stanley memorably shook hands with Livingstone, are the chimpanzees. The chimpanzee and bonobo pilgrims will already have joined forces with each other ‘before’ we greet them. And here we have a little linguistic trickiness which I must face at the outset, before it dogs us any further. I placed ‘before’ in inverted commas because it could confuse. I used it to mean before in the backwards sense — ‘before, in the course of the pilgrimage to the past’. But that of course means after in the chronological sense, the exact opposite meaning! My guess is that no reader was confused in this particular case, but there will be other instances where the reader’s patience may be tested. While writing this book I tried the experiment of coining a new preposition, tailored to the peculiar needs of a backward historian. But it didn’t fly. Instead, I shall adopt the convention of ‘before’ in inverted commas. When you see ‘before’, remember that it really means after! When you see before, it really means before. And the same for ‘after’ and after, mutatis mutandis.

The next pilgrims with whom we shall rendezvous as we push back along our journey are gorillas, then orang utans (quite a lot deeper into the past, and probably no longer in Africa). Next we shall greet gibbons, then Old World monkeys, then New World monkeys, then various other groups of mammals… and so on until eventually all the pilgrims of life are marching together in one single backward quest for the origin of life itself. As we push on back, there will come a time when it is no longer meaningful to name the continent in which a rendezvous takes place: the map of the world was so different, because of the remarkable phenomenon of plate tectonics. And further back still, all rendezvous take place in the sea.

It is a rather surprising fact that we human pilgrims pass only about 40 rendezvous points in all, before we hit the origin of life itself. At each of the 40 steps we shall find one particular shared ancestor, the Concestor, which will bear the same labelling number as the Rendezvous. For example, Concestor 2, whom we meet at Rendezvous 2, is the most recent common ancestor of gorillas on the one hand and {humans + {chimpanzees + bonobos}} on the other. Concestor 3 is the most recent common ancestor of orang utans and {{humans + {chimpanzees + bonobos}} + gorillas}. Concestor 39 is the grand ancestor of all surviving life forms. Concestor o is a special case, the most recent ancestor of all  surviving humans.

We shall be pilgrims, then, sharing fellowship ever more inclusively with other pilgrim bands, which also have been swelling on their own way to their rendezvous with us. After each meeting, we continue together on the high road back to our shared Archaean goal, our ‘Canterbury’. There are other literary allusions, of course, and I almost made Bunyan my model and Pilgrim’s Regress my title. But it was to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that I and my research assistant Yan Wong kept returning in our discussions, and it seemed increasingly natural to think of Chaucer throughout this book.

Unlike (most of) Chaucer’s pilgrims, mine do not all set out together, although they do set off at the same time, the present. These other pilgrims aim towards their ancient  Canterbury from different starting points, joining our human pilgrimage at various rendezvous along the road. In this respect, my pilgrims are unlike those who gathered in London’s Tabard Inn. Mine are more like the sinister canon and his understandably disloyal yeoman, who joined Chaucer’s pilgrims at Boughton-under-Blee, five miles short of Canterbury. Following Chaucer’s lead, my pilgrims, which are all the different species of living creature, will have the opportunity to tell tales along the way to their Canterbury which is the origin of life. It is these tales that form the main substance of this book.

Dead men tell no tales, and extinct creatures such as trilobites are deemed not to be pilgrims capable of telling them, but I shall make exceptions of two special classes. Animals such as the dodo, which survived into historical times and whose DNA is still available to us, are treated as honorary members of the modern fauna setting off on pilgrimage at the same time as us, and joining us at some particular rendezvous. Since we are responsible for their so recent extinction, it seems the least we can do. The other honorary pilgrims,
exceptions to the rule that dead men tell no tales, really are men (or women). Since we human pilgrims are directly seeking our own ancestors, fossils that might plausibly be considered candidates for being our ancestors are deemed members of our human pilgrimage and we shall hear tales from some of these ‘shadow pilgrims’, for example the Handyman, Homo habilis.

I decided it would be twee to let my animal and plant tale-tellers speak in the first person singular, and I shall not do so. Save for occasional asides and prefatory remarks, Chaucer’s pilgrims don’t either. Many of Chaucer’s Tales have their own Prologue, and some have an Epilogue too, all written in Chaucer’s own voice as narrator of the pilgrimage. I shall occasionally follow his example. As with Chaucer, an epilogue may serve as a bridge from one tale to the next.  Before his Tales begin, Chaucer has a long General Prologue in which he sets out his cast list: the professions and in some cases the names of the pilgrims who are about to set off from the tavern. Instead, I shall introduce new pilgrims as they join us. Chaucer’s jovial host offers to guide the pilgrims, and encourages them to tell their tales to while away the journey. In my role as host I shall use the General Prologue for some preparatory remarks about methods and problems of reconstructing evolutionary history, which must be faced and solved whether we do our history backwards or forwards.

Then we shall embark on our backwards history itself. Although we shall concentrate on our own ancestors, noting other creatures usually only when they join us, we shall from time to time look up from our road and remind ourselves that there are other pilgrims on their own more or less independent routes to our ultimate destination. The numbered rendezvous milestones, plus a few intermediate markers necessary to consolidate the chronology, will provide the scaffolding for our journey. Each will mark a new chapter, where we halt to take stock of our pilgrimage, and maybe listen to a tale or two. On rare occasions, something important happens in the world around us, and then our pilgrims may pause briefly to reflect on it. But, for the most part, we shall mark our progress to the dawn of life by the measure of those 40 natural milestones, the trysts that enrich our pilgrimage.