Just finished THE MAGIC OF REALITY: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins. I loved it. It’s got the easiest and best explanation of evolution that I’ve come across, which is great because I find that when it comes to profound concepts I need multiple explanations, the simpler the better.
My favorite part of the book, though, was in the first chapter where Dawkins offers three definitions of magic. There’s supernatural magic, the kind we find in myths and fairy tales that usually requires a broomstick or a wand or maybe some ground up unicorn horn. Then there’s stage magic, which is the variety practiced by Houdini, Penn and Teller, and their cohorts. And finally there’s what Dawkins calls “poetic magic.” This is the good stuff. It’s the magic we feel when we witness an eclipse or a double rainbow, hold our newborns for the first time, fall in love, gaze with disbelief at a cherry blossom tree in May, each bloom crystalized in ice.
As the title says, the magic of reality.
I needed to do a lot of research on human evolution for CAST OFF, my novel in progress. Some of the characters in the book are homo floresiensis, the human ancestors whose remains were discovered in Indonesia in 2004. Homo floresiensis are nicknamed Hobbits because fully grown they were only about three feet tall. They lived on the island Flores along with komodo dragons, pygmy elephants and giant rats. Also, they were alive 13,000 years ago. Historically and evolutionarily speaking, that’s yesterday.
Let that sink in for a minute. You know those cave paintings in France? Homo sapiens made them about 17,000 years ago. Neanderthals? They died out about 25,000 years ago. 13,000 years ago people who looked just like you and me were wearing clothes, hunting and making art, burying their dead and using fire, molding ceramics and building structures out of wood. And people who looked kind of like you and me but also kind of like chimpanzees were doing some of those things, too.
Until either a volcanic eruption or marauding homo sapiens wiped them out. Or both. We don’t know for sure.
I spent time with William Jungers in the cafeteria at the Museum of Natural History talking about the Hobbits. Bill is a paleoanthropologist and chairs the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University. He hosted a symposium about homo floresiensis at Stony Brook. He’s been to Indonesia and examined their remains.
I asked him, “So if you’ve got homo sapiens on one end of the spectrum and chimps and bonobos on the other end, where do homo floresiensis fall?” He said that homo floresiensis barely made it into the “homo” bucket but that they were far more like us than like apes.
Whoa. I’ve read a lot about apes, and I’ve been to Indonesia and hung out with wild orangutans, and I have to tell you, apes are a lot like us. They’ve got a wide emotional range, they communicate, they make war, commit murder, nurture orphaned babies, problem solve, make tools, use tools, play for no reason other than sheer enjoyment, empathize, act selflessly, act selfishly, get bored…see what I mean?
So what does it mean to be barely in the same category as us and yet far more like us than like apes?
Here’s where Dawkins helps. He describes evolution like a stack of postcards three miles high. The first postcard has a picture of you, the second postcard has a picture of your father, the third your grandfather, the fourth your great-grandfather all the way back through millions of ancestors until you get to the very first postcard, which was taken 185 million generations ago (you’ll need to pretend photography was invented back then), and depicts something that looks like…a fish.
It’s incomprehensible to think that we descend from fish, but it’s easy to believe that we share a heritage with our father, our grandfather or even our great-great-great-etc. grandfather, who, even though he was a caveman was still a homo sapien and if you gave him a shave and decent suit he’d fit right in on line at the movies or as a member of the House of Representatives.
If I remember that each generation changes just a teeny bit from the one that preceded it, I can wrap my head around the idea that those tiny differences add up so that at some point long ago, our ancestors looked very different from us.
What interests me, though, isn’t how different our ancestors were from us but how similar they were. What did we humans inherit from that fish-like creature? Or from the one that looked a lot like a lizard but wasn’t a lizard, or from the ape that wasn’t quite an ape, or from the human ancestor that we shared with homo floresiensis, some of whose descendants became Hobbits while others became…us?