The renowned biologist and thinker Richard Dawkins presents his most expansive work yet: a comprehensive look at evolution, ranging from the latest developments in the field to his own provocative views. Loosely based on the form of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Dawkins's Tale takes us modern humans back through four billion years of life on our planet. As the pilgrimage progresses, we join with other organisms at the forty "rendezvous points" where we find a common ancestor. The band of pilgrims swells into a vast crowd as we join first with other primates, then with other mammals, and so on back to the first primordial organism. Dawkins's brilliant, inventive approach allows us to view the connections between ourselves and all other life in a bracingly novel way. It also lets him shed bright new light on the most compelling aspects of evolutionary history and theory: sexual selection, speciation, convergent evolution, extinction, genetics, plate tectonics, geographical dispersal, and more. The Ancestor's Tale is at once a far-reaching survey of the latest, best thinking on biology and a fascinating history of life on Earth. Here Dawkins shows us how remarkable we are, how astonishing our history, and how intimate our relationship with the rest of the living world.
This book will help. I’m not a fan of Dawkins’ anti-religion tirades, but when he sticks to his evolutionary biology, his writing is a pure delight. It’s insightful, highly intelligent, and witty. The subtitle of the book is A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, and it’s a long journey backward in time from present-day humans to the beginnings of life four million years ago.
You’ll meet Cro-Magnon man, the Neanderthals, chimpanzees and gorillas, monkeys, rodents and rabbits, reptiles, sharks, flatworms, sponges, fungi, plants, and far more, each with their own unique role and story to tell.
Scientific understanding is, and ever will be, in a state of transition. As we learn, we shape our theories to fit the facts. It’s an exploration that never ends, an exciting quest for truth that Dawkins excels in sharing. He stops often along this journey back in time to introduce interesting life forms and their evolutionary sidebars, evoking wonder and appreciation for the real creation story that far exceeds any ancient tales. It’s such a treat that I’m almost envious of long-time creationists who can, by opening their minds and turning the cover of this book, open themselves up to a new world of wonder.
You will see the world in a different way after reading this.
Dawkins gives us the facts, alright - but he does so with a purpose, around the central theme of evolution, showing how life on earth is all interconnected, and that's what really makes the subject fascinating. Suddenly, biology *makes sense*! There's a story to go with the facts, and that story makes the previously meaningless collection of data seem absolutely amazing, revolutionary and eye-opening! It certainly helped me for the first time really appreciate both the complexity and interconnectedness as well as the pure awesomeness of life on earth.
Obviuosly, what with Professor Dawkins being a zoologist, the book is heavily focused on animals, and as the "journey" starts with humans, a lot of the book is devoted to vertebrates. I would happily read another book that size about exciting things like insects, invertebrates and plants!
Pre-eminent among these to me, for sheer mind-expanding awe, is the fact that life on this planet has developed precisely once, as far as we know, and everything on earth has evolved from it. That means that when you go outside and lie down in the garden, everything you can see and hear – people walking nearby, their pet dogs, the squirrel darting past, the birds you can hear tweeting, the insects and tiny bugs crawling around underneath you, the trees the birds are standing on, the grass you're lying on, the bacteria in your guts – all of them are your cousins: you're quite literally related to them in the real, genealogical sense.
If you go far enough back in time, in other words, you will eventually find a creature whose descendants evolved into both squirrels (say) and people. Indeed, the rules of heredity being what they are, you could even find a single individual who was a common ancestor to every squirrel and human alive. And indeed such an animal really did exist, around 75 million years ago in the Upper Cretaceous. It probably looked sort of mousey, and Dawkins estimates that he or she was our ‘15-million-greats-grandparent’. Squirrels are not ‘closer’ to this creature than humans are: we and they are equally related, having been evolving independently for the same amount of time.
The Ancestor's Tale takes exactly this approach to exploring evolution. It starts with humans and works backwards – looking first at the common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, and continuing until we reach the common ancestor of all life on earth. Dawkins's word for a common ancestor of more than one species is ‘concestor’, and there are only about 40 of them (!) between us and the origin of life more than three billion years ago. The Cretaceous mammal I mentioned above, which evolved into us and squirrels (along with all the other rodents, lagomorphs and primates), is Concestor 10 according to this schema.
I think there's a lot of traps you can fall into when you start thinking about evolution. It's easy to feel, instinctively, that evolution is somehow teleological: that it's been working towards – if not us, then at least creatures that are increasingly complex and increasingly intelligent. But that of course is not the case. Things survive that reproduce themselves well, and there are plenty of single-celled organisms still with us that have seen no need to get any more complicated for millions of years. Bacterial life is in fact astonishingly varied and rich, whole phyla of creatures that branched off before multicellular life even came about; indeed, chemically speaking,
we are more similar to some bacteria than some bacteria are to other bacteria.
Just think about that for a second.
Before Dawkins got distracted by religious idiocy, he was well known as being one of the scientists most able to explain complicated ideas in a fresh and accessible way. All his skills are on display in this work. It's not just the zoology and the evolutionary biology, where you'd expect him to be strong; there's also a fantastically lucid explanation of the biochemistry within a cell, and even one of the best explanations of the physics of radioactivity that I've come across. He is calm and careful; he repeats himself where necessary; he shares several teacherly witticisms; and he does all this without ever condescending to the reader. He allows paragraphs of complex material to sit, so that you can read and re-read them a few times before he carries on. Occasionally he cannot stop himself breaking out in exclamations of wonder or poetic meditation – as when he discusses the fossilised footprints of three early hominids from some three-and-a-half million years ago:
Who does not wonder what these individuals were to each other, whether they held hands or even talked, and what forgotten errand they shared in a Pliocene dawn?
His enthusiasm is infectious. The whole book is a fantastic exploration of this most beautiful piece of modern human understanding. It's full of astonishing anecdotes and scientific details about the natural world, but it also all ties together into a conception of life that's more awe-inspiring and more moving than any supernatural system could ever be.
Because the initial lineage chosen is human, the drawback to this journey is that several major groups diverged from us so long ago, that entire interesting groups are given only a page or two's treatment. The entire plant kingdom gets only a chapter.
Various nominated species are chosen at each concester point to give Tale - and like Chaucer's original work - each tale has a point, not necessarily on evolution, some worthy commentary on the accompanying science, assumptions etc are made. Unfortunetly the science of dating the various records is left until the Redwood's tale, more than 3/4 of the way through the book.
Some of the personal commentary from dawkins is more belivable, and given more evidence, than others. Sometimes he states his opinion is contentious, but in my view, there is room for more doubt than he sometimes credits.
Overall it is a worthy tour through the history of the animal kingdom, back to the origin of single celled entities at the dawn of time - but missing much detail that could be covered. A useful reference rather than a detailed guide.
There is also the most prosaic description of us- human beings I have ever read in my life :)
“We are modified worms swimming on our backs, descended from an early equivalent of a brine shrimp which, for some long-forgotten reason, turned over.” p.329
It's a terrific premise for a book, though in practice I think it ends up being a little bit of a mixed bag, as this structure inevitably makes the whole thing a little bit disjointed. We jump around from topic to topic, with the subject of any particular "tale" often only very tangentially related to the animal that has supposedly inspired it. Sections describing very basic tenets of evolutionary theory are interspersed with others that are possibly more fiddly and technical that the average reader really needs, and concepts alluded to in early chapters may sometimes not be properly introduced until late in the book.
However, all that being said, it's also true that any time I started to find things a little bit tedious, Dawkins would suddenly wow me with an absolutely fascinating set of discussions, ideas or facts, written with great enthusiasm and clarity, and get me all excited again.
I also have to praise Dawkins' thoughtful precision here. He's always very, very careful to make sure that readers are not confused or misled by scientific jargon or by figures of speech, and he is also conscientious about acknowledging what the various alternative hypotheses are when some fact or concept is subject to scientific dispute. Less praise-worthy is his occasional jarring indulgence in political snark in contexts where it really doesn't belong, but fortunately there are only a few small examples of that.
Is Richard Dawkins the People´s Scientist? Yes, I believe so. More than Stephen Hawkins he makes the reader understand (although I probably have to read the book at least once more to understand most of it, but I am not a scientist). At times the book is a bit too long and detailed, but keep reading (listening), it always gets better.
It's like a trip down a river: you start on a narrow stream in a village high in the catchment and go through your community first (human evolution). By the end you are in a river several kilometres wide and the influx of major tributaries (fungi, plants) is barely noticed. It is perhaps not surprising that the best parts are the start, on the great apes, and the end, on the origin of life and Dawkins' ideas about watersheds in evolutionary "progress".
The book is quite the tome, at 619 pages, it was not a day or two read, but the different segments, “the rendezvous” are coherent are very readable, pulling the reader along with clear and succinct descriptions. The later segments were more difficult to get through, maybe because I was less interested or the pattern was becoming too repetitious. Aside from the author’s own proselytizing and the length of the book I found this book a fascinating read, and one I found worth the effort. I give this book a 4.5.