The Greatest Story Ever Told


lucy 12914b719e039927a4dbc2e7e859e9a4.jpg
re-creation of Lucy, who lived about 3.2 million years ago


Richard Dawkins thinks the greatest story ever told is the story of evolution. He’s got a point. It must surely be the most amazing. Evolution means that if you follow your family tree back you will find ancestors that were not human beings. Do most people accept that? Do you?

Dawkins tells the story of evolution beautifully in The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. Let’s tell a short version. The number of ancestors you have doubles with every generation as we go back, and quickly becomes a large group of people. So let’s just think about one line of your ancestors, the female line. Mothers really power the whole system anyway.

This way we can focus on just one person in each generation. You had a mother. A lovely lady. She had a mother, one of your two grandmothers. She had a mother, one of your four great-grandmothers. You may know some specifics of these ladies. Each had a tale to tell. Only one of the four had a daughter who became the mother of your mother.

Go back 10 generations, maybe 200 years. (we’re counting an average of about 20 years per generation, but there nothing critical about that estimate. As we go back, life-spans shorten and so do the years between generations.) You probably don’t know much about that woman. What kind of religious beliefs did she have? What we can be sure of is that she had a daughter, who had a daughter… and so on until there was a daughter who became your mother. Nothing at all controversial. Even creationists are still with us, as long as we’re within the last 10,000 years. Let’s keep going.

Go back 1000 of your generations, say 20,000 years ago. This woman lived before the start of agriculture or settled towns, maybe in Europe for many of us. This woman would have been a hunter-gatherer.

Sometime around 100-150,000 years ago we would find the woman who was not only your great, great…grandmother, but also the great, great… grandmother (let’s call them all g-g-grandmothers) of everyone currently living. The most recent of these ladies is known as Mitochondrial Eve. The DNA in mitochondria is passed exclusively from mothers; dads have mitochondria (as do all organisms above bacteria) but do not transmit mitochondrial DNA.

Mitochondrial Eve is the matrilineal most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all currently living humans, i.e., the most recent woman from whom all living humans descend in an unbroken line purely through their mothers, and through the mothers of those mothers, back until all lines converge on one woman… The title of “Mitochondrial Eve” is not permanently fixed to a single individual, but rather shifts forward in time over the course of human history as parts of the maternal mitochondrial DNA lineage become extinct. Her female contemporaries, though they may have descendants alive today, no longer have an unbroken female line of ancestors (daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s… daughter) connecting them to living people.

Of course, Eve had a mother like everyone else. So we keep going. Go back 10,000 generations of your ancestry, roughly 200,000 years ago. This woman probably lived in Africa. Imagine her as a little girl. What dangers did she face? Whatever they were, we can be sure she coped successfully enough that she grew up to have a daughter, who was your g-g-grandmother.

If we go back 100,000 generations we may start to get into trouble with some religious conservatives, because now we are back most of 2 million years and this g-g-grandmother would have been a primate, but would not have been quite fully human. Homo Habilis, perhaps, rather than Homo Sapiens. Teaching this point was once illegal in some southern states. The ancestry story only gets worse, of course.


female bonobo c338fc8d7f2e0c3029fc521fbca9fac8.jpg
female Bonobo


Back a million generations, maybe 10 million years ago, and your grandmother was still a primate, more like an old-world monkey. This lady was definitely an animal, not a person. Ten million generations back, and we lose primates. Your g-g-grandmother was some kind of rodent-like mammal. 100 million generations back and your g-g-grandmother was an egg-laying reptile or perhaps a fish. Granny is still probably in the phylum chordata.  Back through the generations to more than 500 million years ago, and your g-g-grandmother was probably a kind of worm. At some point sexual reproduction itself gets iffy.

By the time we get close to a billion years ago, your g-g-grandmother might have resembled a sponge. Here we are at the early days of multi-cellular organisms. During the billion years before that, your ancestor evolved sex, which apparently occurred in single cell organisms. Before sexual reproduction we should not try to call any organism your grandmother. The fact remains, however, that there is a direct line of heredity from this amoeba to you.  A big leap forward was made by your family nearly two billion years ago, when they made the move to eukaryotes—that’s the kind of complex cell you are made of—from the more primitive prokaryotes (basically bacteria). 

Your ancestors spent a lot of time as bacteria. And before that, your family tree started when some hydrocarbons got together and started replicating themselves. The molecules that replicated themselves more became more prevalent on the planet. DNA may not have been the first replicating molecule, but it came to dominate the scene. You are their current product.

This story is literally true. The most amazing story there is. Over-estimating its impact is impossible.

Does evolution conflict with religion? It certainly conflicts with the story told in Genesis, Mitochondrial Eve notwithstanding. It’s hard to understand what God had to do with it.

According to Pew Research,

Only a minority of Americans fully accept evolution through natural selection. Roughly six-in-ten U.S. adults (62%) say humans have evolved over time, according to data from Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study. But only a little more than half of them (33% of all Americans) express the belief that humans and other living things evolved solely due to natural processes. A quarter of U.S. adults (25%) say evolution was guided by a supreme being. The same survey found that 34% of Americans reject evolution entirely, saying humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

According to Gallup, creationism is down in popularity, though their figure is slightly higher than Pew’s.  38% agree that “God created humans in present form within last 10,000 years”; 38% opt for “Humans evolved, God guided process”; a mere 19% hold that “Humans evolved, God had no part in process”.

A large group in both surveys tries for a middle ground: Evolution, but guided by God. Not sure this position makes much sense. The point of the theory of evolution is to show how we were created without a creator.

One would think Darwin simply refutes the Judeo-Christian religions. Your body, like the that of any other organism, is a vehicle for the projection of DNA into the future. In general, value can only be relative to an organism. How can a religious person respond to Darwin? He might respond by saying “Jesus! You’re right!”

There’s another line he could take:

“OK smarty-pants liberal. Darwin destroys my religious values. That’s big, but that’s only the beginning. What are your values? How does whatever you hold dear survive Darwin’s bleak view? You liberals claim to be highly moral—to value all humans equally. That’s what leads to multi-culturalism and unfettered immigration. Having eliminated God, what is the foundation of your liberal morality? If values exist only relative to organisms or species, there can be no universal moral principles, such as “value all humans equally”. We conservatives take a Darwinian view: it’s a dog eat dog world. All anyone should do is promote their own DNA is preference to anyone else’s. Not justice; instead, Just-Us. Why should we care about immigrant DNA? America is for American DNA! Our president, whom you despise, is more Darwinian than you are!”

And so begins the problem of trying to figure out what value in general and morality in particular can possibly be post-Darwin.   


Man and Woman from Cernavoda Romania c4000 B.C.


Update: on October 3, 2017 Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame published his new novel Origins, with an initial printing of 2 million copies. Tagline: “Whoever You Are. Whatever You Believe. Everything Is About To Change.” According to NYT,

As do all of Mr. Brown’s works, the new novel does not shy away from the big questions, but rather rushes headlong into them. Here the question is: Can science make religion obsolete?

As the story begins, Edmond Kirsch — “billionaire computer scientist, futurist, inventor and entrepreneur” — is preparing to present a new discovery to an eager crowd (and to the world, via the internet) at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain. He has promised that this announcement, the details of which are enticingly withheld until the very end of the book, will upend people’s view of religion by proving irrefutably that life can be created using the laws of science, thus excising God from the equation. (The theory is real, borrowed from the M.I.T. physicist Jeremy England.)

Jeremy England? He is a 35-year-old associate professor at MIT who has done work on the mathematics of entropy. This is the “real” theory Dan Brown borrowed? 

That life is an expression of entropy is an interesting idea, but not new. Nick Lane discusses entropy in The Vital Question: “In the end, respiration and burning are equivalent; the slight delay in the middle is what we know as life… The formation of cells releases energy and increases overall entropy!” p65, 114.

Darwin himself demonstrated that life is created using only the laws of science, making the appeal to God unnecessary to explain the apparent design and complexity of life. And yet maybe Dan Brown can still stir things up for some people. Amazon customer review posted 10/5/17:

WARNING TO PEOPLE OF FAITH IN GOD: This book is an enormous waste of time. Dan Brown’s disdain for Christianity continues in this 461 page assault on religion. This is REAL FICTION to be sure, since the gigantic inexplicable holes in the theory of evolution are ignored or explained away in his zeal to promulgate his own misguided beliefs.


I wonder if Dan Brown’s Origins is worth a look after all?

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