Reading: The Ancestor’s Tale (Dawkins)

December 29, 2005

I had read some of Dawkins’s earliest work (The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype), but then kind of lost track of him, until I was blown away recently by The Ancestor’s Tale.

Here’s the basic conceit: start with modern humans, and work backward, genealogically. At some point you will “join up” with the ancestors of another living group (in this case, the chimps and bonobos). Keep going, and your joined forces will have another reunion, with the ancestors of another group of animals that are alive today (the gorillas). Keep doing this, and you’ll have successive “reunions” with (ancestors of) modern representatives, each one of course seeming stranger and more distant from us.

Now, all this is wrapped up in a Chaucerian metaphor about a pilgrimage back to the origin of life, and is written in part in the form of “Tales” told by the pilgrims. But this hardly matters, and you can ignore it if literary metaphors for science are not to your taste. The main thing is that it’s a perfect device for an account of the history of life – and focusing on our genealogical line (while briefly telling tales from other lines as they join ours) is a nice way to balance breadth of coverage while still catering to our own interest in ourselves. (Even though it might be just as scientifically eventful, working backward from modern mushrooms wouldn’t have the same kind of shelf appeal.)

How many reunions are there? 39, give or take some disputed branchings. This doesn’t seem like a lot, until you think about how big a tree of depth 39 could be… I guess that the tree isn’t very balanced, and our line has gone through a lot of speciation.

The most fun aspect of the book is just the depth of detail, the strange creatures, and the weird and unexpected facts. Lots of really strange and funky stuff has happened along the way (like reversion to asexual reproduction! Yes, an entire branch of rotifers decided that sex just wasn’t worth the trouble.) Most surprising to me was the fact that the closest living relatives of the hippopotamus are … the whales. Similarly, elephants and manatees are very close cousins. Who knew?


Heinlein’s prescience

March 21, 2005

Earlier in life I read a lot of science fiction, but I’ve stayed in touch only intermittently since (mostly through cyberpunk and its descendants). Just recently, though, I had a conversation with a friend about old-school SF, which made me go back and reread some of it.

For me, the most fun of the really old guard (Asimov, Clarke, etc.) is Heinlein — he is the most consistently inventive. Sure, his books are suffused with an aggressive pro-American libertarian political philosophy, which can be off-putting at times, especially in the current political climate. (I recommended The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to a friend who grew up in India, and remembered too late that it is essentially a retelling of the American Revolution set on the moon, with lots of transplanted American patriotism. The straightforward and well-meant literary goal of making the universe safe for American-style democracy is a little bit more fraught these days…)

But what blows me away the most about Heinlein is his foresight. I know that pure prediction is not the goal of SF, but it’s always entertaining to notice when someone _does_ get it right.

For example, check out this quote from The Door Into Summer, written in 1956. (Remember that: 1956.) The protagonist is an honest-to-God entrepreneurial engineer trying to start a robotics company, and here’s his account of the first product, called Hired Girl:

“What Hired Girl would do (the first model, not the semi-intelligent robot I developed it into), was to clean floors … any floor, all day long and without supervision. And there was never a floor that didn’t need cleaning.

It swept, or mopped, or vacuum-cleaned, or polished, consulting tapes in its idiot memory to decide which. Anything larger than a BB shot it picked up and placed in a tray on its upper surface, for someone brighter to decide whether to keep or throw away. It went quietly looking for dirt all day long, in search curves that could miss nothing, passing over clean floors in its endless search for dirty floors. It would get out of a room with people in it, like a well-trained maid, unless its mistress caught up with it and flipped a switch to tell the poor thing it was welcome. Around dinnertime it would go to its stall and soak up a quick charge — this was before we installed the everlasting power pack.

There was not too much difference between Hired Girl, Mark One, and a vacuum cleaner. But the difference — that it would clean without supervision — was enough; it sold.”

Can anyone say Roomba? This is in 1956, when the earliest proto-computers are room-filling monsters.

Here’s another one:
… [I had] worked out in my head, in the last fifteen miles, two brand-new gadgets, either one of which could make me rich. One was a drafting machine, to be operated like an electric typewriter. I guessed that there must be easily fifty thousand engineers in the U.S. alone bending over drafting boards every day and hating it, because it gets you in your kidneys and ruins your eyes. Not that they didn’t want to design — they did want to — but physically it was much too hard work.

This gizmo would let them sit down in a big easy chair and tap keys and have their picture unfold on an easel above the keyboard. Depress three keys simultaneously and have a horizontal line appear just where you want it; depress another key and you fillet it with a vertical line; depress two keys and then two keys more and draw a line at an exact slant.

Cripes, for a small additional cost as an accessory, I could add a second easel, let an architect design in isometric (the only easy way to design) and have the second picture come out in perfect perspective rendering without his even looking at it. Why I could even set the thing to pull floor plans and elevations right out of the isometric.

Can anyone say AutoCAD? This is in 1956, when electric typewriters were a really big deal — did any computer even have any kind of monitor (aka “easel”) yet? OK, so Heinlein failed to predict the mouse, but on the other hand it sound like he did predict the three-key chord instead. Can anyone say Ctrl-Alt-Delete?