Thought of the day

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins is a delight. Go buy it, read it, love it.

Incidentally, it’s subtitled A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (or “Life” rather than “Evolution”, depending on the copy). I had someone draw an issue with this. I was told that a pilgrimage is a religious or spiritual journey and that Dawkins can’t just go around changing words. I need not address the definition of the word but more than briefly since it is obvious that “pilgrimage” need not be religious, but I do want to note the narrowness I find with which many people (not simply this one person) view language.

I’ve said it before: language is expression, express it. We need rules, we need consistency, yes. This does not, however and of course, translate to shackles, to restraint. Even if Dawkins was using a religious word in a way that was itself not religious, that does not make him wrong. For example, say “pilgrimage” really was only religious. We still recognize it as meaning a significant journey that leads to something important. Even if the word is technically wrong (and it isn’t), context has informed us what is meant; clear meaning has been conveyed. That ought to be appreciated.

On another quick note, I’ve encountered several people who have said or implied Dawkins is not a quality writer in one way or another. Such statements and notions are risible.

3 Responses

  1. I agree : The Ancestor’s Tale is a remarkable book.
    Beautifully written and, as always when it comes to Dawkins, incredibly informative.

    Also, “Pilgrimage” is a perfectly fine word to use in this context. I for one don’t even define it as a wholly religious word and have used it in non-religious contexts before. In fact, when I had to travel for 4 hours to see Richard Dawkins do a talk last year, I certainly considered that to be a pilgrimage!

    It’s simply a journey with a particularly worth-while destination.

  2. I read The Ancestor’s Tale the first time two years ago. Recently, I have been reading chapters slowly, between other books. It is a wonderful book, full of information and quite literary in style.

    As far as language usage – new words are coined all the time and old words take on new additional meanings or change their meaning. Language is a dynamic means of expression. Those who want to be curmudgeons about it will just be isolating themselves. Societies which refuse to update their language will become extinct as the world moves on.

    Dawkins is a marvelous author who clearly elucidates his concepts and uses references to other literature and explains his references instead of being erudite about it. Contrast that to Christopher Hitchens who has a tremendous command of language and can write some inspiring pieces, but can also write some trudgingly boring or obscure articles and books.

    PS: “trudginly” is not a word with a meaning as I used it here, but did you understand what I meant? :)

  3. The complaint I hear most often is that Dawkins’ philosophical treatises are naive or unsophisticated; this coming from theologians.

    It is to laugh.

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