In 2004, Richard Dawkins wrote a book titled The Ancestor’s Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, the book is arranged as a literary pilgrimage, allowing modern humans to read their way backwards through evolution and meet with their sister groups and ancestors along the way. Each such encounter occurs at what Dawkins refers to as “rendezvous points,” places where species share their last common ancestor. Humans, for example, soon rendezvous with bonobos and chimpanzees, and this trio then works its way backwards to a rendezvous point with gorillas, then orangutans, and then gibbons. The point of this journey–besides allowing the reader to revel in the wealth of diversity present on our planet–is to show how the process of Darwinian evolution could (and, indeed, did) lead to all extant species, as well as those that were once alive but have since gone extinct.
Sometimes doing is more powerful than reading about, which is why two groups (one in Canada and one in the UK) have organized Ancestor’s Trail events during which participants physically re-enact the journey described in Dawkins’ book. Hiking distances are carefully measured out so that each step represents a particular number of years back into the past, and different groups of hikers represent various forms of wildlife, joining the trail at pre-specified, biologically accurate rendezvous points. Such events are affirmations not only of evolution but also one’s belief in the process, and, of course, offer an opportunity to marvel at the existence of all things great and small.
The reason I happen to know all of this is that I recently participated in an Ancestor’s Trail (AT) event being held in the Quantock Hills region of Somerset, UK. This year’s event was the 3rd AT there, and the largest yet; participants included not only the pilgrims themselves but also musicians, conservationists, scientific researchers, authors, artists, and even Richard Dawkins himself:
The event kicked off on a Saturday afternoon with an introduction by its organizer, Chris Jenord, who soon introduced the first two speakers: Peter Exley, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Kevin Cox, chairman of World Land Trust Trading Ltd. Both guests discussed conservation efforts; Exley focused mainly on the RSPB’s mission to save albatrosses, while Cox spoke more broadly about work being done to preserve vital habitat.
Sadly, Sasha and I did not arrive until the coffee break that followed, because, yet again, we were stuck in horrible traffic. We’d left home an hour early, “just in case,” and somehow managed to be two hours late. The only comfort in all this is that our lectures were not until Monday, so at least we weren’t going to be late to our own shows. Luckily, we did at least get there in time to hear from Alex Taylor, a scientist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Cambridge who discussed his work on XNA, and Alom Shana, author of the Young Atheists Handbook.
Perhaps more importantly (no offense to any of the other speakers), we arrived well in advance of Dawkins’ keynote speech. I’ve previously bumped into Dawkins at behavior conferences (sometimes literally), and, of course, I’ve read some of his work, but I’d never previously had the chance to hear him talk. He delivered an interesting and sometimes humorous lecture, after which he mingled with the audience and autographed books. Also, he danced:
I have video footage of this, as well, but I’ll hold that back until I need to use it for blackmailing purposes. Dawkins and all the other dancers in the photo are shown moving to the rhythms of Soul Cake, a band that has also participated in previous AT events.
After the concert, Sasha and I retired to our dorm room at Kilve Court for what was undoubtedly one of the worst nights of sleep I’ve ever had. I woke up every time someone else entered/exited the hall, a bedroom, or the bathroom. I also woke up each time Sasha rolled over above me and caused the bed slats to creak ominously; I was convinced that he would come crashing down on top of me at some point. I then nearly had a heart attack at 7 AM (and then again at 7:30 and 8:00) when an alarm went off to wake us up for breakfast. The bell was positioned on the wall directly above Sasha’s head, so I’m sure he had an even ruder awakening than I did.
The particularly frustrating thing was that we were not getting up for breakfast, but instead sleeping in (or trying to, anyway) and going to have brunch at a nearby pub. We chose this plan of action because we did not want to walk the entire Ancestor’s Trail, but instead join up at the “Jellyfish” rendezvous point; while I would have enjoyed participating in the entire pilgrimage, my back would not have shared this attitude.
Once we were both awake, we made our way to the Hood Arms, where we had a nice pot of tea in front of the fireplace. We had arrived at 11:15, but the pub didn’t begin lunch until 12, so we had a bit of time to kill. We browsed the pub’s extensive collection of West Country-themed magazines and explored the cheerful back garden before placing our order and sitting down to our meal.
Sasha and I chose the Hood Arms because it was the only pub in town and we didn’t feel like driving elsewhere. As it turns out, it was a great place to eat. I had a delicious leek-and-potato soup and a rocket salad with scallops, while Sasha had a lamb steak, mashed potatoes, and veggies; he followed this with a luscious ginger cake. The waitress was even happy to comply with my strange request of a cup of tea with the tea bag on the side (ordered so that I could drink the herbal tea I’d brought to Kilve Court in the hopes that there would be a communal kettle somewhere).
Once we left the pub, Sasha and I explored the Kilve Court facilities and briefly ran through our lectures to make sure that everything worked smoothly. Then it was time to lace up our hiking boots and get a cab ride over to Bicknoller to begin our jellyfish journey. Much to my weak-stomached dismay, Bicknoller was the sort of town that is accessed via roads so narrow you swear they must actually be someone’s driveway. Americans like myself can’t even begin to conceive of roads this small. Luckily, our taxi driver was not only personable, but also very adept at navigating the twists and turns. She dropped us off in front of Bicknoller’s picturesque church, which was one of the landmarks mentioned in the instructions for following the jellyfish trail and linking up with the rest of the AT pilgrims.