Scientificbackground

This event was inspired through reading Richard Dawkins' book the Ancestor's Tale. For the past 6 years the Ancestor's Trail has been run for adults in Somerset and London, but in 2015 we decided to start a similar event for children we've named the 4 Billion year Walk (to make it more approachable for children)

Here is the introduction for the Ancestor's Trail :

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) and yet 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 different lengths.

Here is a little more about the book:

Richard Dawkins' 2004 popular science book, The Ancestor's Tale, is loosely modelled on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Instead of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury, Dawkin's 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.

The time doubles before the next convergence, with orangutans, at 14 million years ago. 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.

Insects, spiders, worms, snails and other protostomes are all more closely related to one another than to us, so on their own journey they have already converged. We meet them as one huge scuttling, crawling, sliding band at around 590 million years ago. The common ancestor – the “concestor" in backwards time – which we share with the protostomes, was probably worm-like, segmented, with a mouth at the front, and probably had eyes.

Dawkins reversal of time is designed to exorcise the “conceit of hindsight", in which all of evolution is seen as something inevitably progressing towards the human and in which we lazily describe one species as “more evolved" than another, for example. The Ancestor's Tale is a fascinating overview of all life on earth. Our small hope is that the Ancestor's Trail will help to illustrate the tree of life by symbolically walking the journey back to the origin of life.


In 2015 the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS) agreed to provide a modest start up grant.

Here's how this came about:

  1. I read Richard Dawkins' book the Ancestor's Tale in 2009. The book takes its reader on a backwards journey through evolution, providing tales from each major branch of the tree of life as it goes.
    I was inspired to create a physical manifestation of this same journey and the Ancestor's Trail was born (for adults) in 2010 - in Somerset along the Quantock Hills.
  2. I contacted Richard Dawkins to tell him of our project in 2011 and persuaded his foundation to provide support funding of around £2000 each trail to help the event break even.
  3. I'm a school teacher and wanted to create a schools version. I proposed several versions and requested funding from the RDFRS. These were turned down for various reasons. Eventually the current model was proposed and in 2015 the RDFRS agreed to provide a £2200 start up grant. In the medium term, assuming this event proves successful, the foundation may consider further financial support to enable the creation of a financially self sustainable version that can be transferred to other locations.

The aims of the adult trail are centred around a celebration of our species' survival to this point, an appreciation of our belonging in nature and the science behind our relatedness and origins. Also we wanted to raise awareness of the current biodiversity crisis, and create a little 'collective joy' through a pilgrimage to our origins. To this end we encouraged the adoption of the arts to help us explore the temporal landscape revealed by our journey.


The '4 Billion Year walk' has similar educational aspirations.