Last year I read Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth (well okay, I read about 70% of it) and I enjoyed it immensely. Dawkins’ philosophical powers may be limited but as a wordsmith he is outstanding. Consider this passage where he describes the interrelation of all life in a Darwinian universe:
Take a rabbit, any female rabbit (arbitrarily stick to females, for convenience: it makes no difference to the argument). Place her mother next to her. Now place the grandmother next to the mother and so on back in time, back, back, back through the megayears, a seemingly endless line of female rabbits, each one sandwiched between her daughter and her mother. We walk along the line of rabbits, backwards in time, examining them carefully like an inspecting general. As we pace the line, we’ll eventually notice that the ancient rabbits we are passing are just a little bit different from the modern rabbits we are used to. But the rate of change will be so slow that we shan’t notice the trend from generation to generation, just as we can’t see the motion of the hour hand on our watches–and just as we can’t see a child growing, we can only see later that she has become a teenager, and later still an adult. An additional reason why we don’t notice the change in rabbits from one generation to another is that, in any one century, the variation within the current population will normally be greater than the variation between mothers and daughters. So if we try to discern the movement of the ‘hour hand’ by comparing mothers with daughters, or indeed grandmothers with granddaughters, such slight differences we we may see will be swamped by the differences among the rabbits’ friends and relations gambolling in the meadows round about.
Nevertheless, steadily and imperceptibly, as we retreat through time, we shall reach ancestors that look less and less like a rabbit and more and more like a shrew (and not very like either). One of these creatures I’ll call the hairpin bend, for reasons that will become apparent. This animal is the most recent common ancestor (in the female line, but that is not important) that rabbits share with leopards. We don’t know exactly what it looked like, but it follows from the evolutionary view that it definitely had to exist. Like all animals, it was a member of the same species as its daughters and its mother. We now continue our walk, except that we have turned the bend in the hairpin and are walking forwards in time, aiming towards the leopards (among the hairpin’s many and diverse descendants, for we shall continually meet forks in the line, where we consistently choose the fork that will eventually lead to leopards). Each shrew-like animal along our forward walk is now followed by her daughter. Slowly, by imperceptible degrees, the shrew-like animals will change, through intermediates that might not resemble any modern animal much but strongly resemble each other, perhaps passing through vaguely stoat-like intermediates, until eventually, without ever noticing an abrupt change of any kind, we arrive at a leopard. (24-25)
This passage isn’t, as Dawkins says, an “argument”, but it is a powerful thought experiment which illustrates the interrelatedness of species. It is truly a dazzling thought that one can start with any particular life form and repeat this experiment to arrive at any other life form. What a staggering picture of life!