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

Richard Dawkins , Yan Wong
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

2 Sep 2005
In The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution renowned biologist Richard Dawkins presents his most expansive work yet. This is a comprehensive look at evolution from the latest developments to Dawkins' own provocative views. Loosely based on the form of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, this tale takes us modern humans back through four billion years of life on earth. As our pilgrimage progresses, we join other organisms at the "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 very first primordial organism.

Dawkins' 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 all living things.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Product details

  • Paperback: 673 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (2 Sep 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 061861916X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618619160
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 16 x 4.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 831,803 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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5.0 out of 5 stars gripping story 11 Sep 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Dawkins makes complex science fun and accessible. Carefully research, well illustrated, makes sense of a very complex situation. Well worth the time it took to read
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  244 reviews
515 of 543 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Greeting your grancestors 21 Oct 2004
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A magnum opus from a scientist isn't common these days. Usually, their writings are in stacks of journal papers, with the occasional monograph highlighting a career. Journal articles remain buried in academic libraries, down the aisle from dusty tomes. Dawkins, however, is charged with the task of improving the "public understanding of science". With such a mandate, he is free to indulge in some innovative techniques. In this epic journey through time, he accomplishes that with his usual finesse. Add the lavish illustrations enhancing the text, and you have an outstanding depiction of evolution's saga.

Unlike most general surveys of evolution, this one offers some novel approaches. First, of course, is its structure. Instead of vague beginnings, Dawkins opens with a period familiar to all his readers - the scenes around us today. Moreover, that focus is on the part of Nature of most concern to us - "All Humankind". We like to consider ourselves the "point" of evolution? So be it, Dawkins declares, but warns that a change in outlook will likely result as you read this book. From that point, he begins to work backward in time. He stands Chaucer on his head by adding "pilgrims" to our journey at certain waypoints. The "pilgrims" are the Most Recent Common Ancestor of the present population of creatures. Since he begins with Homo sapiens, the most recent common ancestor, which Dawkins [rather, one of his graduate assistants] deems a "concestor", is of course the ancestor of today's chimpanzee.

It is a shock to most readers to learn we can make the traverse of nearly 4 billion years in but 39 steps [Hitchcock would have loved it!]. In tracing our mammalian ancestry, Dawkins is able to aid us in peering at the innermost secrets of our bizarre relatives. We meet colugos and tree shrews, mammoths with tusks like shovels, tarsiers and tigers. Nearly halfway along the track we are confronted with a superb essay on our nervous system. Using recent studies of the Platypus, we learn how our brain interacts with the rest of our bodies. A model human, proportioned to show how much our limbs are represented in the brain confronts us. Huge hands and lips extend from a minuscule torso perched on spindly legs. Our grasping abilities clearly helped drive the enlargement of that organ taking so much of our body's resources. In Platypus' case, the lips play the major role, since this creature uses its unusual properties to investigate its environment.

As we progress along the path, the information about our ancestors grows less certain. Is this creature in the proper genus? Is this miniature swimmer indeed unique in its classification? What is the divergent point between mammals and reptiles? With the introduction of reptiles, the birds finally join the trek. Dinosaurs, not being in the direct line leading to humans, are given short shrift. No matter, the books on these long-successful creatures are beyond counting - and the number grows constantly. Further back, he is able to introduce the unicellular world. It gives him an opportunity to explain the lifestyle of some of our planet's most fascinating life forms. Hair-trigger cells that capture food prey or ward off predators. Glorious, worm-like creatures "too good for a goddess", despite their human-derived appellation.

In his educational role, Dawkins must confront the insidious spread of Christian-inspired simplistic hype over evolution. He must take up space refuting its propaganda and invalid assumptions. With so much to cover, this is an unfortunate aside. Yet in dealing with their rants about "irreducible complexity", Dawkins demonstrates yet again that Darwinian principles provide the mechanisms for all life. The energy nodes in our cells, the mitochondria, he reminds us, are the vestiges of bacterial invaders, co-opted to a new role. Flagella, the great bugaboo of "intelligent design" adherents, are simply another chemical process. In his concluding way stations, Dawkins shows how these elements originally lived.

Although Dawkins notes throughout the book that science has a formidable task still ahead, with many mysteries to be resolved, this book will long endure. With its comprehensive scope coupled with the author's always compelling style, it belongs on every bookshelf. We need more such writers and their books. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
351 of 375 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb but very, very detailed 20 Nov 2004
By Atheen M. Wilson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Richard Dawkins has a wonderful writing style, and his name on a book is a guarantee of a witty, erudite, and lucid exposition on evolution and how it works. In this book he needs all of this literary artillery, not because he is arguing any contentious issues-in fact he's probably preaching to the choir for most readers-but because the work is lengthy, covers a wide range of topics, and does so in considerable detail.

The clever format of the work is a Chauceresque "pilgrimage" to the ancestor of all life, hence the title. Just as individuals join Chaucer's tale of Canterbury and entertain us with their personal tales, so too do the various life forms who join our trip back into time. The author picks certain species to clarify what new is introduced to the complexity of life ways at each bifurcation on the genetic tree. Throughout, he makes it very evident that this is not a tale of organisms but of the genes they contain, and he does a superb job of it. The reader is never allowed to forget what the point of the migration is.

I found some of Professor Dawkins' points particularly illuminating because he made things I thought I understood even clearer still. I also found the author's capacity to arrange such a massive amount of information in such a logical order, weaving in important details at key points, amazing to me. Although I know quite a lot of the information, I doubt I could have arranged it in anywhere near such a comprehensible order as the author has.

The problem with the work is that it is almost too detailed for the average reader-and this despite the fact that the author does not get drawn into discussing material he has covered in earlier works. With frequent references to his own titles and to those of others on specific topics, he manages to keep to his specified goal. Still, the work is a lengthy 614 pages, and it covers a lot of territory. It is almost encyclopedic. I have to admit, though, that should a beginner make an attempt to get through it, he/she would have a very clear and comprehensive understanding of the workings of evolution. For those with only a casual interest, this is probably more than you want to tackle. I am a fairly fast and persistent reader, and I had difficulty staying on track. I read the book in small increments, sometimes stopping in the middle of chapters. It required time to digest the new material or the new way of looking at old material.

One aspect of the book from which both the enthusiast and the casual reader will benefit, is the extensive bibliography. The books listed under "further reading" are current and diverse. Those from the general bibliography include both periodicals and books on specific topics. Some are a little dated, but all give a comprehensive coverage of discussions in evolutionary biology from which the reader may select follow-up information that more suits their level of and specific interests. All appear to be in English. Some of the journals may be difficult to find in public libraries, but all should be available in a large university library. Of those that I've read, Mark Ridley's Red Queen (1993) on the development of complex life forms and the enigma of sex and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (1991) on the serendipitous environmental factors affecting human diversity are my favorites. Although on cosmology rather than evolution, Sir Martin Rees' book, Just Six Numbers (1999), is also of interest.

For those not afraid of detail, I hardily recommend the book. For those who just want a basic understanding, I'd look for something a little simpler.
133 of 143 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Our ancestors from primates to amoebas and beyond 26 Oct 2004
By Alan Naftalin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have read every book by Richard Dawkins since I stumbled over "The Blind Watchmaker" -- an absolutely brilliant exposition of how evolution works -- a number of years ago, and have found him to be the clearest, most cogent and, for the lay reader, most enjoyable explainer of evolution and its works I have found. It is no accident that Dawkins holds an Oxford Chair as Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.

In "The Ancestor's Tale," taking the title from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," Dawkins takes us on a pilgrimage backward in time, describing the ancestors of mankind, starting with the first human farmers and Cro-Magnon man, and working back step by step to bacteria. In the course of this long tale, we are introduced to all classes of life and and their evolutionary connnections with us, as well as to many evolutionary concepts and issues. All in all, this is a fascinating and enjoyable book and well worth reading. I would have given it 5 stars except for the occasional gratuitous remark about the conduct of the United States in the world which is not within Dawkins' field of expertise.

One further point may be worth mentioning. Some of the early reviews criticized the"Ancestor's Tale" for failure to prove the theory of evolution, particularly the absence of a conscious "Designer." But the "Ancestor's Tale" is not written to defend the theory. Read other Dawkins works for that, particularly "The Blind Watchmaker."
56 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and entertaining survey of the history of life 7 Nov 2005
By DR P. Dash - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Written in a lively fashion, Dawkins cleverly takes a reverse tack on presenting the story of evolution by going backwards in time, starting with humans and stopping at each "concestor" branch point, the first being the common ancestor of chimps and humans. The "tales" are not really stories about the individual concestors, but rather short essays on various aspects of evolutionary theory sometimes only rather tangentially related to the animal in question. For example, the "Lamprey's Tale" uses the type of hemoglobin found in lampreys to illustrate the idea of "taking the gene's perspective" (versus the organism's perspective)in evolution. But they are all well done, often with clever "morals," and very informative. Dawkins gives very short shrift to Gould's punctuated equilibrium theory, I think rather unfairly so, calling it "overrated." Certainly, for example, an alternative "Coelocanth's tale" would have been a perfect opportunity to discuss why some animals seem to change very little over time whereas others exhibit comparatively rapid evolution. But the book is very readable, much more so than Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory, though both are very much recommended for a full understanding of evolution.
53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A secular pilgrimage 9 May 2005
By John Duncan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Richard Dawkins's books are very well known, and they tend to arouse strong feelings: people who like them like them a lot, and people who dislike them dislike them a lot. In neither case is a review likely to have much influence on whether to buy them or read them. However, The Ancestor's Tale is not a typical Dawkins product, and is more in need of being reviewed than most of his recent books. For one thing it is much larger, the Weidenfeld and Nicolson version weighing in at more than 500 large pages, and the Houghton Mifflin version at more than 650 smaller pages. For another, although Dawkins's usual themes are present, it is much more of a descriptive book than the others, and less of a discussion. Perhaps most of all, it is published in two very different versions, and prospective purchasers need to be quite clear about which one they are buying before putting their money down (more of this below).

The Ancestor's Tale is a description of the evolutionary ancestors of humanity, and takes the form of a series of bifurcations, each one leading either to a human ancestor or to every other descendant. Dawkins takes Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as a background for his secular pilgrimage. At times the analogy appears a little strained, but in general it works well, especially in The Gibbon's Tale, where the textual variations between different manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales are used to explain how variations in DNA sequences between different organisms can be used to establish relationships between them.

Perhaps surprisingly, only 39 steps (another literary allusion, but one that Dawkins does not make explicit -- perhaps he was not an admirer of John Buchan in his youth) are needed to take us all the way back to the universal common ancestor -- ancestor alike of bacteria, archaea, fungi, plants and animals. Because we proceed backwards the organization of the book is heavily biassed towards the cousins we find more interesting: although there are, of course, exceptions, we tend to be more interested in our relationships with apes than with monkeys, more with monkeys than with other mammals, more with mammals than with other vertebrates, more with vertebrates than with invertebrates, and so on. So, although the organization is distinctly biassed from the point of view of more traditional ways of classifying organisms, it concentrates on what we most want to read about. A quarter of the way through the book we are still reading about primates, and, many pages later, the entire plant kingdom occupies one short chapter.

As noted above, the two versions of this book are very different. The Weidenfeld and Nicolson version (which may need a trip to Amazon.co.uk) is more expensive than the Houghton Mifflin version, but it is well worth the difference. Printed on high-quality paper, it is profusely and beautifully illustrated, with clear phylogenetic trees illustrating the relationships discussed in the text, and many colour photographs of the organisms discussed. The Houghton Mifflin edition is printed on paper of lower quality, and it lacks the colour illustrations; it can only be regarded as the cheap edition. Of course, if you only want Dawkins's text you can read it in either edition, but if you want the work as a whole you need to have the Weidenfeld and Nicolson edition.
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