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The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life Paperback – 1 Sep 2005

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Product details

  • Paperback: 626 pages
  • Publisher: W&N; New Ed edition (1 Sept. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753819961
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753819968
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 4.5 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 22,944 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Dawkins first catapulted to fame with his iconic work The Selfish Gene, which he followed with a string of bestselling books: The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor's Tale, The God Delusion, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality, and a collection of his shorter writings, A Devil's Chaplain.

Dawkins is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the Royal Society of Literature Award (1987), the Michael Faraday Award of the Royal Society (1990), the International Cosmos Prize for Achievement in Human Science (1997), the Kistler Prize (2001), the Shakespeare Prize (2005), the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science (2006), the Galaxy British Book Awards Author of the Year Award (2007), the Deschner Prize (2007) and the Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest (2009). He retired from his position as the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University in 2008 and remains a fellow of New College.

In 2012, scientists studying fish in Sri Lanka created Dawkinsia as a new genus name, in recognition of his contribution to the public understanding of evolutionary science. In the same year, Richard Dawkins appeared in the BBC Four television series Beautiful Minds, revealing how he came to write The Selfish Gene and speaking about some of the events covered in his latest book, An Appetite for Wonder. In 2013, Dawkins was voted the world's top thinker in Prospect magazine's poll of 10,000 readers from over 100 countries.

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Amazon Review

Just as we trace our personal family trees from parents to grandparents and so on back in time, so in The Ancestor's Tale Richard Dawkins traces the ancestry of life. As he is at pains to point out, this is very much our human tale, our ancestry. Surprisingly, it is one that many otherwise literate people are largely unaware of. Hopefully Dawkins's name and well deserved reputation as a best selling writer will introduce them to this wonderful saga.

The Ancestor's Tale takes us from our immediate human ancestors back through what he calls ‘concestors,’ those shared with the apes, monkeys and other mammals and other vertebrates and beyond to the dim and distant microbial beginnings of life some 4 billion years ago. It is a remarkable story which is still very much in the process of being uncovered. And, of course from a scientist of Dawkins stature and reputation we get an insider's knowledge of the most up-to-date science and many of those involved in the research. And, as we have come to expect of Dawkins, it is told with a passionate commitment to scientific veracity and a nose for a good story. Dawkins's knowledge of the vast and wonderful sweep of life's diversity is admirable. Not only does it encompass the most interesting living representatives of so many groups of organisms but also the important and informative fossil ones, many of which have only been found in recent years.

Dawkins sees his journey with its reverse chronology as ‘cast in the form of an epic pilgrimage from the present to the past [and] all roads lead to the origin of life.’ It is, to my mind, a sensible and perfectly acceptable approach although some might complain about going against the grain of evolution. The great benefit for the general reader is that it begins with the more familiar present and the animals nearest and dearest to us—our immediate human ancestors. And then it delves back into the more remote and less familiar past with its droves of lesser known and extinct fossil forms. The whole pilgrimage is divided into 40 tales, each based around a group of organisms and discusses their role in the overall story. Genetic, morphological and fossil evidence is all taken into account and illustrated with a wealth of photos and drawings of living and fossils forms, evolutionary and distributional charts and maps through time, providing a visual compliment and complement to the text. The design also allows Dawkins to make numerous running comments and characteristic asides. There are also numerous references and a good index.-- Douglas Palmer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


...Dawkins is unequalled in his ability to express complex ideas in layman's terms without sounding patronising. (Simon Shaw MAIL ON SUNDAY)

more readable than almost anyone else, a master of liquid-clear prose and revleatory pearls of insight. (David Smith THE OBSERVER)

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 90 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Roche on 10 May 2006
Format: Paperback
This pilgrimage through 3 billion years of life on earth is one of the most amazing books I have ever read on the subject of evolution. Starting with us, Dawkins takes us on a journey back through time meeting up with our increasingly distant common ancestors (concestors) along the way until we get back to the beginnings of life itself, a point in time that is marked by the first steps along the molecular road of heredity. Each chapter has a tale to tell about the process of scientific discovery, of the wonder of evolution, told through the example of a particular member of the latest pilgrims to join.

There is so much information in this book that every day I was reading it I'd find some nugget to relate to my wife and children: how did we learn to walk bipedally; why are we hairless and drink milk; what do platypuses use their bills for; how are animal bodies segmented; what did the first vertebrate look like; what have whales and hippos got in common. Why we know what we know through phylogenetic, taxonomic, molecular and fossil data is explained fully in the chapters that deal with our meeting with each successive concestor, but Dawkins is also careful to note where there are gaps in our knowledge and offers possibilites for their solution.

This book is truly impressive.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Steven Digby on 17 Sept. 2004
Format: Hardcover
What an amazing book! If you're new to Dawkins/zoology/evolution then there can not be many books to start on better than this one. Its clearly laid out arguments match the clear layout of the text and graphics in this quite large book. Who's idea was it to put a [nearly] blank margin on every page? Dawkin's comments in these margins are often the best parts in each Tale. The coloured plan of geological ages (again, in the margin) does get a bit cramped, especially as most of life-kind joins up in pre-Cambrian times, but this is a minor irritation.
If you're a serious reader then don't be put off by it's 'coffee-table book' appearance. This is a detailed and well thought out series of arguments in a single package of the one main argument of the validity of the Theory of Evolution. Many of the ideas have appeared before in Dawkin's work, but that's to be expected in a document of this size and scope. This is the book Dawkin's was destined to write.
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58 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Hugh on 27 Dec. 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read most of Dawkins's previous books, "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype" and "Climbing Mount Improbable" plus others. He is a scientific author of rare lucidity, explaining complex subjects using simple metaphors and crystal clear explanations. I can say without doubt that he, along with Matt Ridley, have changed my world view.
Some popular science books require mulitple readings of each paragraph to fully understand the book, (a certain wheelchair bound genius springs to mind!), or spread the facts/info out over agonisingly long chapters.(Horizon!)this is not the case with Mr Dawkins whos pace is almost perfect.
This is not to say that he avoids complex subjects, far from it, this book contains the most use of technical biological terms so far, giving examples of each species encountered in our journey from each ancestoral meeting point and explaining how they worked out the ancestoral tree.
He always explains the terms/concepts prior to using them, and continues to use metaphors whilist using the term to remind us of its meaning.
The final chapter gives theories of the origins of life.
The book showcases each of our mutual co-ancestors, ie the ancestor of Humans and chimpanzees, then they join our pilgimage back to the next co-ancestor. Until all life joins the final origin.
If your at all interested in HOW we are here, read this book!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Oracle VINE VOICE on 28 Feb. 2010
Format: Paperback
The Ancestor's Tale is that rare gem of a book, a science volume that understands that its readers may be beginners in the subject it discusses but doesn't treat them like idiots. The Ancestor's Tale pulls off the trick of illuminating some complex ideas while remaining a good introduction to its subject. I learnt a great deal from this.

The structure of the book is very engaging and gives Dawkins the opportunity to explore the evolutionary issues connected to a wide range of life forms. Dawkins moves back through time with each chapter marking the most recent common ancestor (concestor) of humans and another part of the animal kingdom, until we reach the very earliest lifeforms. As he encounters each concestor he explores a different part of evolution connected to the descendants of that creature. You may think that the lives of salamanders, gulls and rotifers aren't particularly interesting, but this book will change your mind. Excellent.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By John Kwok on 9 Aug. 2008
Format: Paperback
"The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution" is a beguiling literary trek through the taxonomy and history of life on Planet Earth; one that's led with ample eloquence by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In this vast tome Dawkins has crafted what is indeed the popular scientific equivalent of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales", taking us along a long journey back to the dawn of life itself, approximately 4 billion years ago, via a molecular phylogeny designed by his former undergraduate student Yan Wong. But it's a long, long trek that's quite unlikely to be viewed as tedious by the reader. Here, Dawkins is truly at his most expansive, using this taxonomy to discuss the compelling issues of contemporary evolutionary theory and history, in which he covers everything from genetics, speciation, convergent evolution and mass extinctions to microevolution, sexual selection, biogeography, and the relevance of plate tectonics to past and current biogeographic distributions of organisms. Relying on Wong's intricate molecular phylogeny, Dawkins takes us along to forty branching points - previous geological moments - in that phylogeny, where we meet the "concestor" - the last common ancestor - of all organisms at that very point. It is a quite compelling, often insightful, narrative that Dawkins admits does owe much to Chaucer's legendary "The Canterbury Tales".

Dawkins doesn't hesitate to interrupt the relentless ebb and flow of his narrative in a series of individual "tales", that are designed illustrate some unique trait of a given species, and then, by mere extension, serve as the jumping off point(s) for riveting discussions on some aspect(s) of modern evolutionary biology.
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