Richard Dawkins’ 2004 popular science book, The Ancestor’s Tale, was loosely modelled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Instead of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury, Dawkins’ protagonists are living species, journeying back through evolutionary time. In real time, individual species diverged and speciated, but in the backwards time of The Ancestor’s Tale, separate species start the journey apart, in the present, and “converge” together as they descend into the past. Humans “meet” the chimpanzee and the bonobo around 6 million years ago. We all continue back in time together, rendezvousing with gorillas another million years earlier. Dawkins takes his readers back and back and back. We eventually meet rodents and rabbits at 75 million years, amphibians at 340 million years, lungfish at 417 million years, eventually reuniting with our original shared ancestors some 3.8 billion years ago.
Now ten years later, hovering on the horizon is an updated re-issue of the book thanks in no small part to a renewed co-operation with the original co-author Dr Yan Wong who, along with 5 other speakers and a wide range of artists, will be joining us on the 5th Ancestor’s Trail event in and around London’s Epping Forest on the weekend of August 29-31. It is supported by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is run with support by the British Humanist Association. Previous Trails have been featured in Claire Baldings Radio 4 Ramblings show and in the Smithsonian magazine.
Inspired by the book, the Ancestor’s Trail is a shared experience organised by humanists which aspires to celebrate the simple truth that all Life on Earth is related through evolution. The book’s sub-title is a ‘pilgrimage to the dawn of life’ and this simple phrase spawned the whole event. The Trail began back in 2010 in response to the International Year of Biodiversity and Darwin’s 150th anniversary the year before. Rightly and properly, both Darwin’s and Wallace’s contributions have been recently recognised. Indeed some have gone as far as to describe evolution as ‘the most powerful idea ever’. To us then it seemed a little disappointing that whilst there already exists a super abundance of annual festivals around the world (marking all manner of things from steam rallies to the birth of religious deities) nowhere do we find an annual celebration of our shared origins. Why not? This simply isn’t good enough!
The Ancestor’s Trail is an attempt to fill this gap through an annual event celebrating ‘our place’ within the biodiversity machine we call evolution. Like all pilgrimages, the Trail is a participatory event. As an overwhelmingly social species, our sense of belonging strikes right to the heart of our very nature, and so, although alone we may start, together we shall gather. Essentially you walk the tree of life – in reverse – starting at the present day and symbolically travelling back in time to our shared origins. Most people walk the human line of evolution, but whichever trail you choose, you merge with trails from increasingly distant ancestors. Some of these trails are populated by folks representing other branches of the tree, for instance chimps , gazelles, birds or bacteria. Strictly speaking all these trails should be the same length seeing as all extant species come from the same origins with lineages that have been on the planet just as long as ours. However, not everyone is keen or able to walk the full 13 miles of the Human Trail and so we made the other trails many different lengths so that you can choose your walking distance through the Trail you adopt. For less hearty walkers or younger families, there are a whole range of shorter options from 2 miles upwards.
Epping Forest and the Lea Valley
Previously the Trail has been set in Somerset along the Quantock hills, but this year, encouraged by the massed ranks of the Central London Humanist Group (for whose support we are very grateful) we have re-located the whole concept to the beautiful Epping Forest and Lee valley Regional Park. Epping Forest stretches 21 kilometres from Manor Park in East London to north of Epping in Essex. Its shape and size have remained almost the same for over 1,000 years. The Main route passes through dense woodland before traversing some very pleasant undulating countryside and finally dropping down to the River Lee Country Park which is studded with small lakes.
WALKING SCALES: If we are all to reach our goal in a sensible time frame, each step must represent thousands or even millions of years. In terms of the life forms with which we are most familiar, very little happens in the first few billion years of evolution, and yet, especially from a primate point of view, everything happens in just the last few million years. Given this, we decided to create three different scales over the trail. The first expands our mammal dominated period, dating from the terrible climatic catastrophe that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. From this point on you will walk back 10,000 years every step. Beyond this point, our time travel increases by an order of magnitude to 100,000 years per stride and then, for the last 3 billion years or so, we increase by another order of magnitude to around a million years every stride. In this way we ensure a relatively constant procession of rendezvous throughout the trail. On specified trails, marshals will lead you up to the human trail rendezvous to make sure you don’t get lost! Should you wish to come please visit our website. You’ll need to decide how far you want to walk and thus which life form you wish to represent.
BIODIVERSITY: The Trail is also a platform for conservation organisations and each year we celebrate a different branch of the Tree of Life. In 2014 we are linking up with the ‘London Amphibian and Reptile Group’ and ‘Froglife’ to launch this year’s ‘Year of the Amphibian’. Like most of our Trails, the Amphibian trail will begin via public transport links, in this case, Epping tube station on the central line. All the trails (and their walking distances) are shown on our Google map.
BOOKING: 2014 will be our fifth Trail. Although the aim of this walk is to provide a shared experience for non-religious people, our common origins belong to us all and so we warmly extend an open invitation to everyone. The Trail walk itself remains free and open to all, but we are delighted to open booking via our website for our:
- Friday evening speaker event – located in central London.
- Saturday afternoon end-of-trail refreshments.
- Friday/Saturday night accommodation at Lee Valley YHA. The Saturday night includes evening entertainment, a meal and Sunday morning speakers.
SCHEDULE: Our three days of activity includes:
- 7pm – Andrew Copson – Chief Executive BHA
- 8pm – Professor Armand Leroi – Professor of Evolutionary Development Biology at Imperial college, author and broadcaster.
- 9pm – Dr Yan Wong – Evolutionary Biologist, co-author of ‘the Ancestor’s Tale’ and broadcaster for TV’s ‘Bang goes the theory’.
Saturday 30th ‘The Ancestor’s Trail’ – free and open to all. Public transport to trail heads.
- 10am : Human trail starts from Chingford rail station and includes various performers along the way. All trails finish at Cheshunt (Lee Valley) YHA at 5pm. Details of other non-human trails via the website.
- 5-6.30pm – Refreshments @ the YHA
- 8.30 onwards – food and entertainment also based @ the YHA.
Sunday 31st Speaker event @ the YHA
- 9.30 – 10am – AT ‘Year of the Amphibian’ speaker.
- 10.15 – 11am – Dr Caitlin Kight – ‘Courtship display’ – Science writer and Behavioural Ecologist at University of Exeter.
- 11.30 – 12.30 – Professor Judith Mank – ‘Sex Determination – Why so many ways of doing it?’ – Evolutionary Biologist at UCL.
The ARTS: The profundity of Darwin’s/Wallace’s original revelations, combined with Dawkins’ Ancestor’s Tale reverse time-line, are inspiring indeed, but to help us connect on the day and properly celebrate our shared ancestry, the Ancestor’s Trail also embraces the arts – although always in support of the science. The Trail is run by volunteers and is a not-for-profit organisation and, whilst the trail walk itself remains FREE; with 6 speakers, two sizeable venues and a wide selection of artistic performers, it costs us over £10,000 to run. We have managed to reduce our accommodation costs this year but the high quality Trail speakers/acts already booked need to be funded somehow. To this end, this year’s full program will only happen assuming sufficient ‘voluntary contributions’ are donated by our Trail pilgrims. To encourage participants in this respect, as a thank you for each contribution, we will reserve contributors a 25 page full-colour Trail guide – for perusal en route and as a memento.