The ancestor's tale : a pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution

by Richard Dawkins

Paper Book, 2004




Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2004.


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.… (more)

Media reviews

Beginning with modern humans and moving backwards in time, he describes our lineage as we successively join — a geneticist would say coalesce — with the common ancestors of other species. Human evolution has involved 40 such joints, each occupied by what Dawkins calls a "concestor", and each is the subject of a single chapter. He begins, of course, with our common ancestor with chimps, followed by the concestor with gorillas, then other primates, and so on through the fusion with early mammals, sponges, plants, Eubacteria and ultimately the Ur-species, probably a naked molecule of RNA. This narrative is engagingly written and attractively illustrated with reconstructions of the concestors, colourful phylogenies, and photographs of bizarre living species. The book is also remarkably up to date and, despite its size, nearly error-free. Especially notable are Dawkins' treatments of human evolution and the origin of life, the best accounts of these topics I've seen in a crowded literature.
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Evolutionary trees have become the lingua franca of biology. Virus hunters draw them to find the origin of SARS and H.I.V. Conservation biologists draw them to decide which endangered species are in most urgent need of saving. Geneticists draw them to pinpoint the genes that have made us uniquely humans. Genome sequencers draw them to discover new genes that may lead to new technologies and medical treatments. If you want to understand these trees -- and through them, the nature of life -- ''The Ancestor's Tale'' is an excellent place to start.
Dawkins has already expounded the arguments that form his vision of life, both in the natural and human realm. Now, having risen from the Bar to Bench, he is in a position to offer himself as judge and senior guide. In The Ancestor's Tale, he has become the kind of teacher without whom childhood nostalgia is incomplete: unflagging in his devotion to enlightenment, given to idiosyncratic asides. His mission is to tell the story of the origin of species backwards

User reviews

LibraryThing member DubiousDisciple
While I read different genres, I only review books with a religious content. So, if I may be excused for one of my “liberal Christian rants,” let me say this: It’s a sad day when a book about evolution earns a spot on the shelves of a religion blog. It simply astounds me that half of all Americans still do not believe in evolution. The evidence is so overwhelmingly against a young earth that if Christianity is going to survive, it must pull its head out of the sand and reinterpret the Bible’s creation story (anything but a literal interpretation!) before it alienates the coming generation, who will simply know better.

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.
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LibraryThing member elmyra
This is what high school biology *should* be like! Biology is really not taught as a science at that level, with theories, and hypotheses, and the underlying theme of evolution. Instead, we spent years memorising and regurgitating useless facts about various animals, some more interesting than others; but there was always something missing - it was always just facts, without a guiding theme or overall connection.

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!
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LibraryThing member Widsith
There are some facts the simple knowing of which seems to me to be a supreme achievement of our species. The fact that we are all made of stardust. The fact that 99.9999999999999 percent of all matter is empty. The fact that mass and energy can be expressed in terms of each other. Stuff like that.

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.
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LibraryThing member Mandsb
Although I understood the concept of evolution prior to reading this book, I now feel like my brain has been wrenched open and I have whole new, much deeper and broader understanding of how it all worked. This book changed the way I think. It is so well constructed and written that it taught me more about science than six years at high school. This book should be on everyone's must read list.… (more)
LibraryThing member reading_fox
A detailed look at evolution and the history of animal life of Earth. The style is modelled on Chaucer's Canterbury tales. For reasons's that become clear Dawkins, retraces the ancestors of the human specis through a series of "Concestors" - a species that was alive and whose descendants evolved into different branches of "the tree of life" the style is very clear, without use of overly complicated termiology - resulting in at times a simplistic overview, though this is usually acknowledged.

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.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
What an odd book. At times it's written for beginners and other times for folks with a bachelors in biology or some other science. I listened to the audiobook version and it has two narrators, Dawkins and Lalla Ward, and they switch back and forth mid-paragraph, without reason, making it extremely difficult to follow. In some cases they switched mid-sentence almost word for word back and forth, strange and completely distracting. I've never heard an audio production like this before and probably never will again, it was not successful. I also found the frame-tale around Chaucer to be gimmicky, what does Chaucer have to do with biology and evolution, there's no depth to the analogy other than a surface comparison of going on a journey, might as well have chosen The Wizard of Oz and the Yellow Brick Road. No doubt there is good stuff here but it comes and goes, and sometimes I zoned out among the invention of the wheel by bacteria. Probably the one thing that I will remember long term is the idea of a "ring species", very cool.… (more)
LibraryThing member jezzaboogie
The story of evolution told backwards from a human-centric, common ancestor point of view interspersed with the brilliance of Dawkins taking on an evolutionary problem, amazement, structure or process at each of the stop off points. Check it out, Hippos and Whales share a common ancestor before the two of them pair up with (most of) the rest of land mammals(!)… (more)
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
It is a journey through the tree of evolution- starting from the leaves (us) way down to the roots of man’s origin. Each section which discusses a branch of our ancestors also discusses interesting genetic developments that took place at that time. We learn about the evolution of colour vision, bipedalism, taxonomy and the latest molecular/DNA advancements that help us arrive at these conclusions.
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
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LibraryThing member bragan
Dawkins takes his readers on an imagined journey back through time, tracing our evolutionary history by visiting the milestones that mark our common ancestry with other modern species as they make their own backwards voyages. At each such meeting, he focuses on one or more of these fellow evolutionary pilgrims as a jumping off point to discuss some aspect of evolution.

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.
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LibraryThing member gcorrell
Better known for his "The God Delusion" and his aggressive atheism, this book is actually what Dawkins does for a living: good science, well-described. But it is like no other science book. He works his way back down (up?) the tree of life, identifying each significant branching, and uses as his literary structure Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It gives each unique change and animal character a short, sweet description, making this long book a very zippy read.… (more)
LibraryThing member petterw
I can´t remember having read (listened to) a book that has taught me so much, while at the same time having been so entertaining, illmuniating, brilliant - and irreverent. Richard Dawkins is a brilliant narrator, and he manages to make the history of evolution come alive. At the same time HE comes alive, because his personality, his visions and outlook on life breathe from every page. He is so compassionate about his subject area that no-one can come away from this book without feeling awed. There is a sense of wonder in The Ancestor´s tale that sadly is missing from his God Delusion, even though he can be as scathingly hard to his scientific enemies as to his religious.
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.
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LibraryThing member sumitkumarbardhan
This is a book on evolution with a twist. Rather than start at the earliest history of life and trace evolution bacl to the modern man, Richard Dawkins travels the other way. He takes us back on an imaginary journey in time trying to trace who might our ancestor have been, arguing his case with evidence. He calls this a pilgrimage to the dawn of life, and just like Chaucer's pilgrim, in Canterbury Tales, met a number of interesting characters on the way, we too meet interesting creatures like the starfish with its piped hydraulic power, the migrating jelly fish with tiny harpoons, the platypus with its radar of a beak and many more. A fascinating journey, though sometimes a bit meandering than it needed to be, that will definitely open our eyes to the broad and sweeping vista of life on earth.… (more)
LibraryThing member piefuchs
I chose this book as a way to learn about evolution - I was not dissappointed. The structure of the book - a backwards walk through evolution, provided ample opportunity to visit the wonders of the animal kingdom. Small complaint - I find Dawkins highly padantic - on topics that you don't understand, you will grasp the basic concepts by reading this book. On ideas you already understand, you are left almost frustrated by the length of the descriptions. I appreciated the areas where he delve into the history of the theories behind the concepts, particularly the growing use of molecular methods. Definately worth the girth.… (more)
LibraryThing member overthemoon
Have not yet read, but I am re-reading Mani (Patrick Leigh Fermor) and he mentions Dawkins, then I came across this by chance in local second-hand bookshop and could not resist (one thing leads to another...)
LibraryThing member BruceAir
Dawkins takes a novel path through evolution in this volume—backward down the branches of the tree of life. It's a refreshing approach.
LibraryThing member u4520tnz
Enourmous book that traces the history of life on Earth in the form of a pilgrimage from the present day to the dawn of life. As usual, Dawkins uses his gifts for analogy to make difficult concepts understandable to the general reader. Brilliantly written and ambitious in scope.
LibraryThing member develynlibrary
A perspective on evolution that addresses evolutionary changes on a small to large scale with populations, ecosystems, and the scope of life itself. The book intertwines different species to each other by some sort of "common ancestor."
LibraryThing member jukke
You can say what you want of Dawkins and his opinions. As a writer he is fine. This huge book is a fantastic story of the evolution of species. A treasure to own.
LibraryThing member iayork
Fascinating Read: A terrific documentation of the current state of scientific discovery and understanding of evolution, particularly relating to genes. I was imparted with a greater comprehension of the workings of the "tree of life" - where it comes from and where it might go. Dawkins has a comfortable conversational writing style that is enjoyable to follow and digest.… (more)
LibraryThing member DLPatterson
In which the gentle readers discover that they are related to everything that is alive, since they can trace their ancestry back to that one single living thing from which all life on this planet has descended. Don't miss "what the star-nosed mole said to the duckbilled platypus," and other tales.
LibraryThing member seabear
Because it covers so many topics, many are treated very quickly (there are a handful of two-page chapters--and this is a 600+ page book). That makes it hard going. But the writing is excellent, and the plethora of fascinating and exotic organisms and difficult but intriguing ideas makes every second worth it.

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".… (more)
LibraryThing member yapete
Dawkins is a great science writer and this is a great book. You get a bit scared when you see the size of it and the detail about all the creatures that join this pilgrimage, but it is a highly enjoyable and enlightening read.
LibraryThing member Martin444
This was an enthralling tour through issues in modern paleo-molecular evolutionary biology. The sometimes complex issues were generally well explained considering that I am a novice in the field. I could hardly put it down.
LibraryThing member Robin_Goodfellow
very very good book.
LibraryThing member oldman
The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins is a tour of life from homo sapiens to the lowliest (?) bacteria by following the trail from man through all “concestors.” Richard Dawkins is a zoologist by training and has the ability to clarify many steps of evolution with apparent ease. He has written several books prior to this, this one being described as a “magnum opus” on the cover. If anything he is dogmatic in two ways, first he is the most evolutionists of evolutionists’ and second he espouses his agnosticism if not atheism to the point he wants us to believe his view without question. The Ancestor’s Tale goes through thirty-nine concestors which have all gone before man, not that man is the ultimate organism, but actually a convenient starting point for the start of this quest. The rendezvous are clear and much information is provided in addition to the organism itself, explaining the changes and basic evolution which had to occur.
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.
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