The Ancestor’s Tale, chapter called Canterbury

Jan 11, 2016

Fire rivals breath as imagery for life. When we die, the fire of life goes out. Our ancestors who first tamed it probably thought fire a living thing, a god even. Staring into flames or embers, especially at night when the campfire warmed and protected them, did they commune in imagination with a glowing, dancing soul? Fire stays alive as long as you feed it. Fire breathes air; you can suffocate it by cutting off its oxygen supply, you can drown it with water. Wild fire devours the forest, driving animal prey before it with the speed and ruthlessness of a pack of wolves in (literally) hot pursuit. As with wolves, our ancestors could capture a fire cub as a useful pet, tame it, feed it regularly and clear away its ashy excreta. Before the art of firemaking was discovered, society would have prized the lesser art of husbanding a captured fire. Perhaps a live scion of the home fire was carried in a pot for barter to a neighbouring group whose own fire had unfortunately died.

Wild fires would have been observed giving birth to daughter fires, spitting sparks and live cinders up on the wind, like dandelion puffs, to land and seed the dry grass at a distance. Did ergastrine philosophers theorise that fire cannot spontaneously generate, but must always be born of a parent fire, either wild fire out on the plains, or domestic fire fenced in by hearthstones? And did the first firemaking sticks therefore rub out a world view?

Our ancestors might even have imagined a population of reproducing wild fires, or a pedigree of descent among domestic fires traced from a glowing ancestor bought from a distant clan and traded on to others. But still there was no true heredity. Why not? How can you have reproduction and a pedigree, yet no heredity? This is the lesson fire has for us here.

True heredity would mean the inheritance not of fire itself but of variations among fires. Some fires are yellower than others, some redder. Some roar, some crackle, some hiss, some smoke, some spit. Some have tinges of blue or green amongst the flames. Our ancestors, if they had studied their domesticated wolves, would have noticed a telling difference between dog pedigrees and fire pedigrees. With dogs, like begets like. At least some of what distinguishes one dog from another is handed down by its parents. Of course some comes in sideways too: from food, disease and accident. With fires, all the variation comes from the environment, none descends from the progenitive spark. It comes from the quality and dampness of the fuel, from the lie and strength of the wind, from the drawing qualities of the hearth, from the soil, from traces of copper and potassium that add touches of blue-green and lilac to sodium’s yellow flame. Unlike a dog, nothing about the quality of an adult fire arrives via the spark that gave it birth. Blue fires don’t beget blue fires. Crackling fires don’t inherit their crackle from the parent fire that threw up their initiating spark. Fires exhibit reproduction without heredity.

-Richard Dawkins, From The Ancestor’s Tale, chapter called Canterbury


5 comments on “The Ancestor’s Tale, chapter called Canterbury

  • well, if i was going to pick an excerpt from that awesomely excellent book that would not be anywhere near my first choice 🙂

    Lamarckian inheritance is a great area for discussion and there’s been so much fun reading it all in the past but compared to some of the other things that i learned from The Ancestor’s Tale (eg Ring Species and the real meaning of relatedness – so cooool!! so enlightening – so awesome in its implications)

    so ok, fire, gee, um, ok, it spreads, it grows, it triggers more fire and facilitates or speeds up at least chemical reactions

    does it reproduce?


    come on, let’s pull out something more awesome from the book


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  • Re: ‘Did ergastrine philosophers theorise that fire cannot spontaneously generate . . ‘

    ergastrine‘ is not a word in the English language – what does it mean – if it means anything?

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  • OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but I can imagine that the thought cropped up in homo erectus, although I doubt whether heredity was in their (smaller and less developed) minds. Control of fire, and lighting of fire goes back to 200,000 to 400,000 years ago. Certainly homo sapiens at 200,000 years ago were proficient at it, and the idea of fire heredity (If at all around) was simply forgotten. Not species heredity though; they were breeding tamed wofs/dogs at the time so they could see heredity at work. Not so with human heredity; they simply did not have the time span to witness that. In those days you were lucky to make it to 40. E.g. Tarkana boy died of root canal inflammation at age around 13. and was the most common cause of death, apart from tribal slaughter and hunting fiasco’s. 2 generations were probably all they could see, with luck 3.

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  • It more likely refers to homo ergaster. From the following wikipedia link, they are described as, “those hominids that comprise the original members and species of the human clade after splitting from the line of the chimpanzees.”

    We could nitpick about the capability of ergaster to philosophize, but I think the overall intent of the narrative is to propose that the error prone methods of problem solving that lead to beliefs in supernatural causes could reach as far back to the very beginning of the human evolutionary branch.

    I find it to be entertaining conjecture, and it illustrates the extremely simple and primitive reasoning which is the foundation of religious beliefs.

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