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LSAT Reading Comp Book Club III: The Ancestor’s Tale


The word alone is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many LSAT takers. One of the reasons many people go to law school is that they’re not very good at science – maybe even afraid of it. For the most part, that’s fine. The LSAT is one of the only big standardized tests where you can get a perfect score without having a working knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem. If you can handle a couple of logical reasoning questions discussing basic concepts of numbers and percentages, you’re in the clear.

With one exception.

Just about every LSAT has one reading comp passage that deals with a scientific subject. Even students who are otherwise great at reading comp on the LSAT can struggle with those passages. Today’s book club installment is all about gaining the tools to survive the science passage, even if you haven’t thought seriously about science since the day of your AP Chemistry exam.

As usual with the LSAT Reading Comp Book Club, my goal is to give you reading material with a structure similar to what you’ll see on the LSAT. With science passages, that requires a slightly different approach. Last week, I recommended the book 1491 by Charles Mann because, like many LSAT reading comp passages, it is structured largely around disputes between various experts. That kind of structure appears sometimes in science LSAT passages – different scientists argue with one another over some scientific controversy – but more often, LSAT reading comp science passages are about cause and effect or solving mysteries. A scientist proposes a hypothesis, conducts an experiment and draws a conclusion. If you can understand what’s at stake, why the scientist concluded what she did, and what the implications are, you’re golden.

The good news is that this kind of structure is often simpler than what’s seen in other LSAT reading comp passages. Unfortunately, that straightforward structure can get buried in difficult vocabulary and scientific concepts. It’s easy to get so bored and confused that you miss the point entirely. My recommendation today, which I think will help train you to avoid those pitfalls, is The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. You may be familiar with Dawkins as a famous atheist, but in his spare time, he’s also a professor of evolutionary biology at Oxford. (He also invented the term “meme.”) This book is one of several he’s written to teach concepts of evolution to a wider audience.

I chose this book for our book club because it’s broken down into small pieces, many of which work almost like longer versions of science-related LSAT reading comp passages. The book’s conceit is that we travel with the author on a reverse pilgrimage, modeled very loosely on The Canterbury Tales. We start at the present and work backwards through evolution, to the beginning of life on earth. Whenever we reach a point where humanity diverged from some other species or group of species, Dawkins tells us a story about one of those species that illustrates a broader point about evolution. The emphasis is on how evolution works, not so much on how a particular animal behaves: the gibbon’s tale, for example, explains how biologists use DNA to determine how species are related, with gibbons serving as just one example. The grasshopper’s tale becomes a meditation on the difference between a species and a race, with big implications for race in human evolution. Dawkins is very good at explaining these concepts, and if you read carefully, you will end up with a much deeper understanding of evolution than when you started.

I should warn you: the science here can get pretty dense. But that’s okay. Dealing with difficult concepts and terminology is a large part of the challenge in LSAT reading comp. Don’t try to plow through the book in a couple of days. Read one or two of the stories at a time, and the book will be manageable and interesting. Focus in particular on the parts that look like what you’d see on the LSAT: where Dawkins puts forward a hypothesis, explains how scientists investigated it, and how they came to a conclusion. Make sure you understand how that story fits in with the broader points Dawkins is trying to make. If you can do that well, you’ll be able to handle just about anything in an LSAT reading comp passage about science.