Richard Dawkins Explains Why There Was Never a First Human Being

Last year, right before publishing his illustrated children’s book The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins appeared at The New Yorker Festival and walked the crowd through a short thought experiment. Imagine pulling out your family genealogy. Now snap a photo of each ancestor going back 185 million generations. What would it show? First off, your very distant grandfather was a fish. Secondly, you can never put your finger on the very first human being, a proverbial Adam and Eve. 185,000,000 snapshots can never capture that one moment.

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  1. M.E. says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 5:34 am

    oh, boring. we come from our mothers. they bear us. yes, our fathers fertilized the eggs that our mothers and foremothers bore, but let’s take a better look at what dawkins is saying. if everyone comes from the same species, how do we wind up coming from a fish?

  2. Amando Savi says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 7:39 am

    Hi, M.E.

    The answer to your question is biological evolution working through two main mechanisms: mutation and natural selection. The process operates so gradually across multiple generations, as Dawkins tells you, that there is no single generation in which one can point to a demonstrably new species sprouting from another. it’s just that over multiple generations, the morph does take place.

    It’s a matter of perception. Nature works on scales of time that we as individuals cannot register. There is no single day in which the Indian continental plate joined the Eurasian plate, but it happened–and, in geological time, it happened quickly. The Himalayas represent quite a pileup.

    This should be no great mystery. As Dawkins again points out, our own individual physical maturation also represents a process of evolution and growth. There is no single day in which a youth becomes an adult, but everyone knows youths do become adults. It’s just a gradual process. Looking at an individual day by day, we see the continuity. When we stand at a more distant vantage point–as when we view photos of ourselves taken years apart–we see the differences. We have no trouble identifying which stage is which, even though there never was a single calendar date at which one stage totally ended as the next totally began.

    It works the same way with species. It’s good to remember that terms like ‘species’ ‘youth’ and ‘adult’ ‘dusk’ and ‘night’ ‘caterpillar’ and ‘butterfly’ are words we invent to describe stages we observe. The processes that generate the stages happen regardless of what we call each stage, or whether we call them anything. Nature does what it does. We invent terms as we need them to talk about what we see.

    If evolution is truly a new concept to you, you haven’t been served well by your science teachers. Fortunately, it’s never too late to learn. Let me suggest a place to begin catching up on what you missed: the FAQ page for the Department of Geology at Baylor University.

    Baylor, as you know, is a Baptist college in Texas. It trains geology graduates for success in many fields, including careers in the oil industry. The department offers an excellent summary of what is known about natural time scales and organic evolution. You will want to give special attention to the description of the scientific method.

    http://www.baylor.edu/geology/index.php?id=61728

    Enjoy.

  3. a student says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 8:43 am

    oh…the same discussion …if a homo erectus could’t gave birth to a homo sapiens how we end up humans? the answer: God created us.

  4. Amando Savi says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 8:47 am

    Hello again, M.E.

    Here is an excellent online resource for those trying to catch up on the state of natural science. It’s a free PDF publication titled ‘Evolution and the Fossil Record’. The authors are John Pojeta, Jr and Dale A Springer.

    http://www.agiweb.org/news/evolution.pdf

    This online book is very well done. The writing is elegant, factual, fascinating and concise. Fine graphic images and sidebars illustrate the concepts.

    You will be especially interested in page 11 where the topic of ‘species’ is presented. This page nicely addresses your question.

    The biological definition:

    Species = a group of naturally occurring populations that can interbreed and produce offspring that can interbreed.

    The words ‘group’ and ‘populations’ shows why one can’t point to an individual to locate the moment a page turns from this species to that one. When we use the word ‘species’ we are discussing shared characteristics among breeding populations. One only knows the page has turned from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens when enough Homo sapiens have been made.

    Enjoy.

  5. RC says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 9:15 am

    A student: What a horrible argument. You might as well have said, “If a homo erectus couldn’t give birth to a homo sapiens, how did we end up as humans? Because space aliens genetically engineered us and abandoned us here after a space ship malfunction.”

  6. not buying it says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 9:30 am

    Doesn’t his thought experiment beg the question?

    If you start from the assumption of evolution then, sure, there was no first human. But it only works if you are operating under the opening assumption that we’ve evolved from other “species” (however you’re using the term), which has not and can not be proven.

    All he succeeded in proving is that a part of holding to the theory of evolution is holding to the assertion that there was no first human. I would think that that is an obvious conclusion an evolutionist must come to and this thought experiment is therefore pointless.

  7. Amando Savi says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 9:42 am

    RC,

    You’re point is valid, of course. As soon as we invoke an unprovable conjecture as explanation, any unprovable conjecture will do–and we’ve left the realm of science. But I think the student was describing an implied argument the student perceived in M.E.’s question, not making that flawed argument personally.

    For my part, I saw no need to treat M.E.’s question as rhetorical. Why, when the question really does have an answer? Going there lets us get back to science.

    I’m willing to grant M.E. credit for having healthy curiosity. If that’s extending too much credit in this case, no harm done. Other readers will still find the links useful.

    ‘You live and learn. At any rate, you live.’
    – Douglas Adams

  8. Amando Savi says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 9:53 am

    NotBuying,

    It only works if you are operating under the opening assumption that centuries of scientific discovery have something meaningful to tell us about earth history, yes.

    As you probably do that very thing when you visit an MD for a prescription, and as the good Baptists of Baylor do the same thing when they want to find oil in the ground so you can gas your car, you might want to be at least a little consistent and admit that maybe, just maybe, science has some light to shed on the history of life as well.

    You will be happy to know that the PDF I linked is free. You don’t have to buy anything. Here it is again:
    http://www.agiweb.org/news/evolution.pdf

    You will also be interested in this specific page at the Baylor Geography FAQs:
    http://www.baylor.edu/geology/index.php?id=62340

    Enjoy.

  9. Amando Savi says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 10:25 am

    Here’s the statement regarding evolution made by a different department at Baylor, the Department of Biology:

    ‘Evolution, a foundational principle of modern biology, is supported by overwhelming scientific evidence and is accepted by the vast majority of scientists. Because it is fundamental to the understanding of modern biology, the faculty in the Biology Department at Baylor University, Waco, TX, teach evolution throughout the biology curriculum. We are in accordance with the American Association for Advancement of Science’s statement on evolution. We are a science department, so we do not teach alternative hypotheses or philosophically deduced theories that cannot be tested rigorously.’

    http://www.baylor.edu/biology/index.php?id=77368

    I’m providing this because the link to the Biology statement from the Geology page is old. Baylor, you’ll remember, is a Baptist university. It’s also clearly a university that knows science from non-science.

  10. Amando Savi says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 10:30 am

    You will have noticed that Baylor’s Biology Department says it is in accordance with the statement on evolution from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Here is that statement:

    http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2006/pdf/0219boardstatement.pdf

    Also free. Enjoy.

  11. not buying it says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 11:57 am

    Amando,

    Granted that the theory of evolution is the foundation of most of what science (not just biology) is doing these days, and granted that it is a theory based on observations and evidence, and granted that I rely on and am thankful for science for anything from medicine to how my car works, and granted that a Baptist university teaches it (not that that changes anything) my point remains that Dawkins’ thought experiment only proves how an evolutionist thinks. We already knew that’s how evolutionists think. Hooray! He’s a genius for pointing out the obvious.

    That any theory can be wrong, regardless of the amount of evidence supporting it or the religious affiliation of the people teaching it, that science should continue questioning every theory until it is proven, and that the merit of a scientist rests not in his preconceptions but in his own contributions to knowledge is another discussion probably for a different venue.

    I’m not buying Dawkins’ children’s book. Thank you for the links. I hope to find time to give them a fair reading.

  12. Amando Savi says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 3:14 pm

    NotBuying,

    ‘Evolutionist’ is not the word you are looking for. The word is ‘scientist.’ Your quarrel is with how scientists think.

    Speaking of ‘evolutionists’ makes as much sense as speaking of ‘tectonicists’ or ‘germists’–which no one does, and for good reason. Talking that way would sound as scientifically illiterate as it is.

    Evolutionary theory, tectonic theory, the germ theory of disease–these are not creeds to which an adherent subscribes. They are validated models of how the world works based on huge amounts of evidence gathered in conscientious research. They are subject to modification as more evidence comes in.

    How are these models validated? Primarily by their ability to *predict further discoveries.* They do this for us every day.

    A knowledge that older fossils are found at greater depths, together with a knowledge that species change over time, tells one where to dig if one wants to find fossils of a whale ancestor that had toes. And that’s exactly where we find it.

    Miracle stories don’t do this. You can believe or not believe miracle stories but, either way, they aren’t science. They don’t do the work of science. No one can predict new discoveries based on a miracle story. A miracle story doesn’t tell you where to find the fossil of the walking whale. Or the next antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria. Or the oldest galaxies. Science does.

    Glad though you may be to avail yourself of the benefits of science, your quarrel is with the way scientists think. Scientists go by the results of research. Dawkins does. For some reason this annoys you.

    I’m glad you’re taking a look at the links. A fair reading will show what I mean.

  13. Historian says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 4:21 pm

    I’m beginning to think Amando Savi is Richard Dawkins.

  14. Michael Crossan says . . . | June 19, 2012 / 6:54 pm

    So todays fish in the sea are the forefathers of future humans. Dawkins distant grandfather may have been a slug. Mine wasn’t.

  15. Twofeet says . . . | June 20, 2012 / 3:44 am

    How is this different from the Paradox of the Heap? I am a member of the human species. Dawkins says only a human can father a human. So any being that stands in the ancestral of the “father of” relation to me is also a human. That would include my “185 millionth great grandfather.” But Dawkins says he could have been a fish, a non-human. Contradiction.

  16. Dark K says . . . | June 20, 2012 / 4:21 am

    Amando,

    Thank you for the link! It’s brilliant. You made my day.

    Also, I think, you are very articulate in your thoughts. If you already are not doing so, have you considered teaching? :)

    Thanks again,

  17. avid reader says . . . | June 20, 2012 / 9:04 am

    Historian,

    I adore you for that comment.

  18. Lane White says . . . | June 21, 2012 / 12:23 am

    The real paradox is that two people can be exposed to this discussion, with one understanding the beautiful simplicity within and the other rejecting it completely, but always with ignorance or fear as the driver.

  19. Ralph Dunn says . . . | June 24, 2012 / 1:36 am

    Science and religion do have one thing in common: they teach men to fly.

    Science teaches men to build rocket ships and fly them to the moon.

    Religion teaches men to commandeer airplanes and fly them into tall buildings.

  20. - says . . . | June 24, 2012 / 6:17 am

    “Dawkins says he could have been a fish, a non-human”
    no, not according to the text of this article, “each ancestor going back 185 million generations… your very distant grandfather was a fish.”
    however, the wording is loose. ‘grandfather’ is -2 gen, not -185m gen

  21. Twofeet says . . . | August 4, 2012 / 1:29 am

    Again: if only humans can produce humans, as Dawkins says, then no ancestor of mine can be non-human. Dawkins must not mean what he says. It seems better to allow that “human” is vague, like “bald” or “tall”.

  22. John Rowley says . . . | August 4, 2012 / 9:59 am

    Oh Dear. Im not 100% certain but are you all Americans? The rest of the civilized world got over this one 30 years ago. Its like listening to schoolchildren. Stop this creationist nonsense now and come and join the rest of us. You can still believe in a god if you want and today there are thousands to choose from.

  23. John Carvajal says . . . | August 4, 2012 / 11:37 am

    The only way that a species has to survive is by adaptation to the changes in the environment; thus, between a generation and the next there will be changes. This is almost impossible to see along 100 or 1000 or even 100000 years; that doesn’t mean human beings has always been the same.

  24. Repo Man says . . . | September 18, 2012 / 5:04 am

    The entire point of science is lost somewhere in the entrails of “logical” conjecture the moment one tries to defend Dawkins’ thought experiment as being anything more than an exercise in how to think like a naturalist. Implied is the assumption that nature is an objective, arbitrary, non- mental, non- spiritual process we are somehow luckily situated to perceive and interpret from our extremely limited, equally arbitrary glimmer of “empiricism”.

    That being said, the thought experiment is not irrelevant because it can’t be proven, it’s irrelevant because human thought produced it. Have we forgotten that human thought transcends and therefore easily detached itself from the intelligence of nature? Oh I forgot. Nature can be awe inspiring and mysterious but not cognitive. I rest my case.

  25. Repo Man says . . . | September 18, 2012 / 5:08 am

    “Oh you stupid Americans. Stop thinking critically and just accept the authoritarian consensus you whiny boobs.”

    Really? Is that supposed to be an argument? Shame on those who perpetuate such nonsense, even in light of some of the more naive and simplistic lay arguments from the religious folks.

  26. R.Dawkins says . . . | March 17, 2013 / 4:03 am

    Michael Crossan how do you know yours wasn’t, were you there ?

  27. Jason Marriott says . . . | May 1, 2013 / 2:05 pm

    I have noticed how most people just don’t grasp the concept “or rather don’t want to grasp the concept”. They take a few words out of what they hear and see and ignore the rest to make a conclusion. I actually heard the phrase the other day “Blind belief in science” funny that because scientists actually have to prove a theory rather than just making stuff up.

  28. Fishboy says . . . | May 1, 2013 / 2:09 pm

    If you don´t understand, it doesn´t mean someone else won`t. Stupid americans.

  29. timm says . . . | May 1, 2013 / 3:05 pm

    If there is not an evolutionary process underway, then when new species are discovered does that mean it was always there? Or does ‘God’ make new ones periodically/constantly?

  30. Ian Atkinson says . . . | May 2, 2013 / 8:28 am

    People who ask questions like, ‘when did Homo erectus give birth to the first human,’ know they’re asking a ridiculous question. They don’t care! They just want to pour their derision and hatred onto science and don’t really want an answer. They already know their question is the same as: when did a wolf give birth to the first spaniel, or when did and auroch give birth to the first Jersey cow?

  31. Marcel says . . . | August 30, 2013 / 5:55 am

    Simply because you fail to discern differences doesn’t mean there are none. Dawkins is intentionally being obtuse here. There is obviously some point where we got a different number of chromosomes than a fish. To intentionally not discern this point is just stupidity. 185m generations? Arbitrary? No, I don’t think so. 185m * 20 years (commonly held generational gap of humans, and if humans are fish, then fish too, right?) = 3.7b years. Which stops just before the first life (primary parents of all species) began on the planet. Pretty convenient dishonesty there Dawkins. As usual.

  32. newenglandsun says . . . | September 15, 2013 / 6:04 pm

    This is why Catholics are dumb. They require you to believe in this thing called monogenism. Yet science strongly disproves this. Nevertheless, Catholicism has asserted on its followers the lie that we are all born of a single pair of parents and their best way to defend this is racism. It’s funny and sad all at once but ALL Catholics are stupid and anti-science.

  33. newenglandsun says . . . | September 15, 2013 / 6:07 pm

    It’s also highly racist. Nevertheless, Catholics embrace this idea unto the death. Catholics say “Oh, we’re ‘smarter’ than all the rest of you” but the reality is they’re dumber than the rest of us.

  34. babybaby0 says . . . | October 3, 2013 / 9:46 am

    The problem of drawing sharp divisions across a continuum (or in this case a quasi-continuum) is an old problem that affects much more than biology. The classic paradigm is the question “What do you mean when you say point C is ‘between’ point A and point B? How far away from the connecting line is C allowed to be before we no longer say it’s ‘between’?”nDawkins is simply stating the obvious fact that evolution is too gradual to allow a clear answer to dividing-line questions.

  35. Guest says . . . | October 17, 2013 / 10:28 pm

    Isnt there a contradiction?nif Dawkins says that there are only Homo sapiens that gave birth to Homo sapiens, then at 185 million generations have to be Homo sapiens.nnnbut he also points out a Homo erectus is one of the 185 million generations. and then a fish.nnnthose two statements are contradictory.nwhat am i missing?

  36. Guest says . . . | October 17, 2013 / 10:33 pm

    then all* 185 million generations have to be Homo sapiens.nnnnAlso, even if one cannot tell via a picture, if scientists were to examine the DNA of each, there would have to be a point where the number of chromosomes change right? that is, at some point in the chain it goes from 46 chromosomes to a different number.

  37. Lady Jane says . . . | November 30, 2013 / 12:17 pm

    I don’t think he means this to be taken literally. He wants us to realize that life is on a continuum, and that clinging to stories that deny this as fact misses the point. If you follow his thinking, he’s telling us that we may no long be “homo sapiens” and we don’t even realize it. Someone 10k years from now could look back and classify us as something quite different. Everything is changing; we treat it like it’s static. (Homo Interneticus, perhaps.)

  38. Bart says . . . | November 30, 2013 / 5:20 pm
  39. Angela Kennedy says . . . | November 30, 2013 / 11:23 pm

    ‘Homo Sapiens’ is merely a linguistic classificatory construct anyway. What is actually signifies is subject to instability. And therein lies a problem for scientists studying evolution. If we’re not even sure what actually constitutes ‘homo sapiens’, then it’s impossible to know when ‘homo sapiens’ came into being, let alone when ‘we’ might NOT be ‘homo sapiens’. It’s an odd thought experiment on Dawkins part – one that fails to acknowledge how scientists often make assumptions from limited knowledge themselves (many scientists, for example, have no understanding of how their scientific process is CULTURALLY constructed and therefore subject to problems/flaws in scientific reasoning – the old notion that ‘homo sapiens’ is a ‘pinnacle of evolution’ being one of those problems, thankfully critiqued by Stephen Jay Gould I think).

  40. Stan says . . . | December 10, 2013 / 11:56 am

    I am no sure Dr. Darwin understands molecular biology. nnnLet me extend Dr. Darwin’s mental experiment a little more. In addition to take a picture of you and your father, attach also your DNA, i.e., how many pairs of chromosome you have, and that of your father, and that of your father’ father. It is very digital. Either you have 23 pairs (that you are human) or 24 pairs (that you are sort of ape). There is no decimal points in-between. nnnThe transition from ape–like to human is a distinctive transition. Being evasive is to hind the problem.

  41. Vanyo says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 2:56 pm

    While it’s true that there is no in between the change in chromosome number from 24 to 23, I don’t know that there’s any reason to believe that the change in chromosome number corresponded to “the transition from ape–like to human”. A change in chromosome number is not required for a change in species.

    Bart, above, posted a link about the Sorites Paradox, and it hits the nail on the head.

    If you’re human, your parents were human. Every organism is the same species as its parents. Some would think that would mean that species never change, but they do, gradually. The Sorites Paradox makes the misunderstanding clear.

  42. Steve says . . . | October 23, 2014 / 10:19 pm

    Comical reading the comments of some of these cereationist fable beleiving fools. Trying to claim they know more about biology, or molecular biology than Dawkins. You are the very definitions of ignorance. Here’s the reality kiddies, you are determined to believe in your book of fables and fairytale God with no proof at all. Yet you claim you don’t believe science. I suggest the next time you get sick you do some chants to your invisible God, and forget about what Dawkins and hospitals and Doctors draw upon namely science and reason. Stay home, do your little silly chants, and let us know how it turned out for you. No cure for creationist stupid, none.

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