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The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life [Paperback]

Prof Richard Dawkins
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Sep 2005
THE ANCESTOR'S TALE is a pilgrimage back through time; a journey on which we meet up with fellow pilgrims as we and they converge on our common ancestors. Chimpanzees join us at about 6 million years in the past, orang utans at 14 million years, as we stride on together, a growing band. The journey provides the setting for a collection of some 40 tales. Each explores an aspect of evolutionary biology through the stories of characters met along the way. The tales are interspersed with prologues detailing the journey, route maps showing joining lineages, and life-like reconstructions of our common ancestors. THE ANCESTOR'S TALE represents a pilgrimage on an unimaginable scale: our goal is four billion years away, and the number of pilgrims joining us grows vast - ultimately encompassing all living creatures. At the end of the journey lies something remarkable in its simplicity and transformative power: the first, humble, replicating molecules.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 626 pages
  • Publisher: Phoenix; New Ed edition (1 Sep 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753819961
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753819968
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 13,484 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.

Product Description

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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
81 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life explained. 10 May 2006
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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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dawkin's opus of life for all readers 17 Sep 2004
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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54 of 59 people found the following review helpful
By Hugh
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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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Darwinian Bible 22 Dec 2004
Anyone with an introduction to Dawkins' work will know what to expect; concise and erudite insight int the profoundly fascinating concepts of Darwinian evolution. What sets his work apart from most other works of popular science, however, is that quite literally every chapter has a story, an allegory, or an example to spark the interest and keep the reader turning the pages.
True, there are many ideas expanded in more detail in earlier works, but rather than regurgitating previous material, Dawkins uses them to help him tell a larger tale as he takes us by the hand and guides back through evolutionary time. On our way back we meet up with our common ancestors, and like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (to which this book makes numerous references), each of these forbears has a compelling message to deliver about science, morality, understanding, and (of course) Darwinian evolution.
Essential Dawkins.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Authoritative and absorbing 5 Nov 2006
Combines broad brush strokes of evolutionary history with surprising and entertaining detail. For example, I had not thought through the fact that I do not necessarily inherit genes from all my ancestors - here it is lucidly explained. Although the book seems primarily concerned with animal evolution the focus is definitely human. Dawkins often comes across as somewhat acerbic in his television appearances. This is unfortunate since his writing shows him to be both charming and entertaining.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Witty Monument to Scientific Integrity 1 Nov 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was familiar with Mr. Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene', so I approached this book with a favorable disposition. Needless to say I was not disappointed. The author writes about what he knows and loves best, the wonder and beauty of Life on Earth, and does so in a charming way, achieving the impossible goal of being, simultaneously, very solidly scientific and devilishly witty.
The book's idea is based on the 'Canterbury Tales' by Chaucer. But this time the pilgrims are not valid specimens of English Medieval Society, but species from all the great Kingdoms of Life. Humans and whales, peacocks and toads, oaks, flatworms and bacteria, and their colleagues, all begin a pilgrimage to the dawn of Life on Earth, moving backwards in Time, and meeting one another as they converge in 'rendezvous', where they meet their common ancestors. Since the pilgrimage is reported from 'Homo Sapiens' perspective, we meet first with our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and then we travel with them to meet the Gorillas and so on and so forth, until we reach our 'Canterbury', which is when the first sparks of life were created on the planet.
The meetings of the ever swelling host of pilgrims, with their fellow species, give to the author a first-class opportunity to expand on the characteristics, real or hypothetical, binding the various branches of the Tree of Life, an experience which both enlightens and humiliates the 'superior human' reader. Furthermore, using selected species and relevant studies, Mr. Dawkins creates his 'Pilgrims' Tales', essays on various thorny problems of Biology, Zoology, Evolution, Taxonomy etc.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Tracing our origins right back to the beginning
A very interesting book. I'm about half way now, and reading a bit each night before sleeping.
Dawkins employs the analogy of a time machine, tracing our evolutionary path... Read more
Published 1 month ago by R. Rowland
2.0 out of 5 stars don't buy on kindle for science
I like the book's concept of using the Canterbury Tales as the model for telling the story of evolution. Read more
Published 2 months ago by David Kennard
4.0 out of 5 stars Not for the faint hearted
Still in the process of reading this.

I have a science degree and find this hard going and complicated. Read more
Published 2 months ago by frazer
3.0 out of 5 stars Just don't get the kindle version
Another interesting book from Dawkins. This is quite a long one with a lot of more technical biological terminology than in some of his other books. Read more
Published 3 months ago by jim
5.0 out of 5 stars A really interesting book!
If you've ever wondered about the Why? How? and Where about Human and Mammalian evolution then this is the book for you. Read more
Published 3 months ago by S. Tomlinson
5.0 out of 5 stars vey interesting book
it gives a lot of information on connections between different groups of animals, how evolution works, different views on evolution. really enjoy reading it.
Published 3 months ago by Aya_M
5.0 out of 5 stars Just brilliant - a definitive guide.
This is my first Dawkins book but it won't be my last. He has such a clear way of explaining things that you feel he is chatting to you. And with good humour too. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Reviewer
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting topic, well researched but so dully written.
I purchased this because the premise looked so intriguing. After all how could the journey back from us to the origin of life fail to be anything but fascinating? Read more
Published 11 months ago by bella
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant read
Superbly written with a structure that makes a understanding the evolutionary process so much easier. Read more
Published 12 months ago by srameen
5.0 out of 5 stars wonderful book
literally wonderful - the brief 'tales' are full of amazing insights and can be taken in bite-sized chunks. Dawkins's best popular evolution book, in my view.
Published 13 months ago by Harley
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