For some of you, one of the presents waiting under the tree this Christmas, may well be book shaped.
If it Is book-shaped, then there’s also a chance it is one of my favourite books of recent time, Richard Dawkins’ wonderful The Magic Of Reality.
The Magic Of Reality deals with popular childhood myths of different cultural peoples.
The fact that some of these myths persist into adulthood, makes the book as interesting, relevant and important for adults as it does children.
But since it’s written with youngsters primarily in mind, Dawkins offers his readers a chance to travel back with him in time using ‘thought experiments’ to pave the way to the origin of the myth, the person involved, or even time itself.
I don’t want to spoil anyone’s festive musings, but there was one particular thought experiment that struck a chord with me, and I’d like to share it briefly with you.
Take a photograph of yourself and place it on a bookshelf.
Then take a photo of your father (or mother) and grandfather (or grandmother) and do the same. Root around in the family archives and add a photo of your great grandfather to the horizontal stack of pictures on the bookshelf.
How long would the bookshelf be if we filed each photo in order all the way back to our early origins?
About 3 miles long is the answer, if every photograph measured about a millimetre in thickness.
And how many photos would be packed next to each other? 185 million.
If we walked down the line pulling out photos systematically, we wouldn’t see a noticeable difference between each one of course, or even between stacks of 1000 or so.
Every great grandfather looks like the one immediately next to it and belongs to the same species.
Yet if you walk down the bookshelf you will see some photos that look like apes, some that look like monkeys, some that look like shrews and so on.
Each one is like its neighbours, but if you pick one out far enough away from another, you will see a very big difference indeed.
And believe it or not, your 185 million year old great grandfather, was a fish.
As Dawkins writes: “..and so was your 185 million great grandmother, which is just as well, or they couldn’t have mated with each other and you wouldn’t be here.”
Of course this is all laid out for us in the fossil record whether some of us chose to look at it or not and the truth of the matter is that all life is related.
When we hear the famous Band Aid tune of ‘do they know it’s Christmas’, one line reminds us that ‘the greatest gift they’ll get this year, is life’.
Certainly true in impoverished countries, and the reason the song did so well for Geldof and co was the fact that we humans feel guilty when our fellow homo sapiens are revealed to be in trouble.
But we are all related; fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers, African tribes, apes, rodents, newts, fish. So let’s spare a thought for our fellow creatures this Christmas. We can start in the garden.
The greatest gift our sparrows, finches, robins and thrushes will get this year, is life.
But some seed and nuts will be greatly appreciated too! Happy Christmas.