River Out of Eden
Phoenix Paperback, 1999
Since the moment that we started to travel to Oxford (1999), I started to hear about the books written by Richard Dawkins. A few years later both, Juan David and Constanza read some of his books (The Selfish Gene) and I got interested but didn’t read any of his books. In December 2017 Dawkins visited Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena and had an exciting dialogue with Gerardo Remolina, from the Jesuits. Though I wanted to attend, I didn’t because it was too expensive.
Anyway, I was interested because of his Darwinian position about our origin, and his clear negation about the existence of God, Heaven and Hell, the Angels, and the stories that people after people since ancient history have told us, in order to defend our transcendence and our projection, heaven and hell, into the future after we will be dead. In a very simple language, he connects the reader with the micro and macro dimensions of our world to explain a few fundamental ideas.
His statement was clear: the key purpose of life is transmitting DNA. It flows through time and not geography. It’s a river of information. In the River Out of Eden, he explains some of the key arguments.
In chapter 1 Dawkins explains why DNA is a digital river. After a precious comparison between analog (older) and digital (newer? engineering) systems, he concludes that humans share both. “The world becomes full of organisms that have what it takes to become ancestors”.2 Genes are not improved. They are just passed on. “There are now perhaps thirty million branches to the river of DNA, for that it is an estimate of the number of species on earth”. 9 “All earthly living things are certainly descended from a single ancestor”. 14 “apart from the differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular-biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer-engineering journal”. 20 “Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information”. 22
In chapter 2, the author goes into the many beliefs, tribes, religions, etc…. and all of them are true for their believers. This is relative. Science, math, etc., are supported by evidence, while myths and faiths ”are not and do not”. 37 “It is molecular biology that has given us the charismatic African Eve. 44 “African Eve is sometimes called Mitochondrial Eve”. 51 “We get our mitochondria from our mother only”. Our conclusions are: (1) There is one Mitochondrial Eve (most recent common ancestor of all modern human s down the female path). (2) There existed one person (unknown sex) who is the most recent common ancestor – Focal Ancestor – down any pathway; (3) It is vanishingly unlikely that both are the same; (4) It is more likely that the Focal Ancestor was a male; (5) Mitochondrial Eve lived less than a quarter of millions of years ago; (6) Informed opinion still favours Africa. “The river of DNA has been flowing through our ancestors in an unbroken line that spans not less than three thousand million years”. 66
Chapter 3 is dedicated to the evolution of specific animals. Though the many cases are pretty impressive, I loved how he describes bees, and the patterns that they follow in order to indicate the existence of food in one specific direction and how they represent in a dance, the distance where the food is.
Chapter 4 is dedicated to a utility function. “The true process that has endowed wings and eyes, beaks, nesting instincts and everything else about life with the full illusion of purposeful design is now well understood.”114 “Utilitarians strive to maximize <>”.121 “What was God’s utility function?”. 122 “…everything makes sense once you assume that DNA survival is what is being maximized”. 124 “Genes don’t care about suffering because they don’t care about anything”. 153
The last chapter is dedicated to the Replication Bomb when the author goes into heredity. He describes 10 Thresholds:
1. Replicator Threshold – self-copying system. Variants compete for resources.
2. After many generations of evolution, we move into Threshold 2, the Phenotype Threshold (causal effects on something else.
3. The replicator team threshold, because the genes work in teams.
4. Many-cells threshold
5. High-speed information processing
6. Consciousness threshold (related to language?).
7. Language threshold is a MAJOR THRESHOLD.
8. Cooperative technology threshold
9. Radio threshold
10. Space travel threshold
It seems important his recommendation to read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. American astronomer.
The book ends “on some beneficial effects upon our normally parochial little consciousness; some echo of the poetic impact of Newton’s statue in Trinity College, Cambridge, upon the admittedly giant consciousness of William Wordsworth:
And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon on favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone. 188