on 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.
on 9 August 2008
"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. A classic example is the section that he devotes to the sauropsids, which consists of lizard-like and dinosaur-like (archosaurs, including birds) reptiles in the chapter entitled "Rendezvous 16". In the first of these tales, "The Galapagos Finch's Tale", Dawkins recounts the decades-long fieldwork of ecologists Peter and Rosemary Grant who have been studying microevolution in the Galapagos Finches. He focuses upon the aftermath of a severe drought in 1977 that led inevitably to sharp declines in the populations of several species, observing that those individuals in the dominant species, Geospiza fortis, who were only 5 percent larger than their peers, were the ones who survived; a classic example of "a small episode of natural selection in action, during a single year." Within the same species, the Grants and their coworkers observed selection pressures resulting not only in larger body size, but also in larger beak size too. In the chapter's next tale, "The Peacock's Tale", Dawkins emphasizes the importance of sexual selection, arguing persuasively that it may have had a role in shaping the course of human evolution, perhaps via preferential selection of females for "smarter" males. That is followed, in turn, by "The Dodo's Tale", in which Dawkins discusses not only the Dodo's extinction, but also the tendency towards flightlessness in bird species inhabiting remote oceanic islands.
While Dawkins has crafted a most compelling narrative in this vast book, "The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution", is far from perfect, especially in its depiction of the fossil record. Much to my amazement, he doesn't discuss the existence of long-term stasis in the fossil record, predicted by the theory of punctuated equilibria, which has been substantiated by decades of extensive fieldwork by paleobiologists, ever since the publication of the classic 1972 paper coauthored by noted American paleobiologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (This is a rather peculiar omission since Dawkins has been a staunch critic of punctuated equilibria.). Nor does he discuss, except only in passing, the diverse, radical differences in the compositions of marine faunas during, respectively, the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, which have been noted for decades due to excellent fieldwork, and more recently, by excellent statistical modeling done by paleontologist Jack Sepkoski and his colleagues at the University of Chicago. And he also misses the important history of predator-prey interactions that form much of coevolution, which has been discussed admirably elsewehere by noted marine ecologist Geerat Vermeij. But, in retrospect, my criticisms of Dawkins' omissions are relatively minor, simply because he has accomplished successfully, the arduous task of making both the taxonomy and history of life a most beguiling tale. Without question, "The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution", should be regarded for a long time as one of the classics of popular evolutionary biology literature.
on 27 December 2004
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!
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.
on 17 September 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.
on 10 August 2008
It may seem misleading to call a 688 page book "brief." Yet, given that "The Ancestor's Tale" covers a couple billion years of history of life on earth, 688 pages is not so long. More importantly, "The Ancestor's Tale" does not seem long when you read it. There is so much to tell, and Dawkins tells it so well. In addition to providing an overview of how all living things are related, Dawkins details numerous wondrous creatures that I certainly never knew existed. This book takes some time to read, but you won't be bored.
The title "The Ancestor's Tale" is a play on Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." The characters in Chaucer's books meet on the road to Canterbury. Similarly, Dawkins takes each living creature back on a pilgrimage back in time to find their ancestors. Of course, the "pilgrims" meet each other when they find their common ancestors. For example, we modern humans meet the chimpanzees when we both find our common ancestor. Despite the title, Dawkins does rely on the Chaucer metaphor much, which is just as well.
The Ancestor's Tale is, in a very real sense, the story of evolution, but it does not attempt to describe in detail how evolution works. Of course, in telling the story, Dawkins cannot help but provide and discuss much of the evidence of evolution. Dawkins discusses the mechanism of evolution more directly his earlier books, such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, both of which I highly recommend.
on 1 November 2005
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.
These essays are marvels of wit and models of scientific integrity: all relevant point of views are fairly presented and discussed in a clear prose, accessible to anybody with an interest in Biology and Evolution. The author of course takes sides, but either he has a very good explanation for his choices, or clearly states the doubtful of his position. It is to Mr. Dawkins' credit, that in so many instances, particularly towards the end of the book, examining deep time hundreds of millions of years ago, where scientific data are really scarce, he repeatedly and clearly states his inability to offer solid scientific answers to truly basic questions. But, as he says, the advantage of scientific beliefs, in sharp contrast with absolutist ones, is that scientists know their limitations and consciously try to expand them. And this is the major point and lesson from this marvelous book.
on 5 November 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.
on 10 January 2007
Imagine a starting line, a long one, along which are lined up representatives of every single living species on Earth - whales, trees, snakes, vegetables, birds, bacteria, plus everything else alive at the moment. These are the pilgrims in Richard Dawkins' epic journey into the past. The pilgrimage starts and the pilgrims meander back through time to rendezvous with their own most recent common ancestors ("concestor" in Dawkins' terminology).
Because this is our, Homo sapiens', story Rendezvous 1 occurs between 5 and 7 million years ago with Concestor 1, the most recent common ancestor of us and the chimpanzee, our nearest living relative. By the end of the book, a very long time ago, at Rendezvous 39, all the pilgrims have met up again and we are exchanging limited small talk and shaking flagella with the latest arrivals, the eubacteria, our most distant living cousins.
The concestor concept tells us, often counter intuitively, how closely we are related to other species. For example, because mammals (including us of course) share a more recent concester with the ray finned fish (cod, trout, herrings etc), we are more closely related to them than they (ray finned fish) are to cartilaginous fish (sharks, rays etc) even though both types of fish swim, have fins and look, well, fishy.
Newly arrived pilgrims at each rendezvous have their own tales to tell, just as in Chaucer's original. Whether it be the meaning of "primitive" via the anything but primitive bill of the duck billed platypus, the workings (and shortcomings) of the molecular clock or the evolution of the wheel (yes, it has happened, once apparently) each tale illustrates some aspect of the story of life.
And Richard Dawkins is a master storyteller, with the gift of making complex arguments accessible to the non-specialist. This is a hefty, at times demanding, but eminently readable book, fizzing with evidence, anecdote, theories and speculation. For this reader, definitely not the sharpest hominid in the box, I must come clean and say bits and pieces did unfortunately go over my head. Yes, there is a lot to take in. Nevertheless, I finished the book satisfied and delighted that I'd been introduced to the main concepts of the story of life. For those who would like to take their investigations further, there is a comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book.
For someone who had carved out a reputation as an evangelical atheist, Dawkins is refreshingly open minded about the limits of our present knowledge. Despite what many people think, science does not deal in certainties (for that, consult a sacred text). As an honest guide, Dawkins marshals evidence, discusses conflicting theories, attempts a conclusion but isn't afraid of saying that, at this stage of the game, we simply don't know the answer to a particular question of when, where or how.
This book is a wonderful story of 4 billion years of life and a testament to the power of rational human thought to make sense of the world out there. With so many thought-provoking highlights, it's hard to pick out one in particular, but how about this little gem. Dawkins remarks that creationists gleefully point to gaps in the fossil record. Lucky for us, he reposts. "Without gaps in the fossil record, our whole system of naming species would break down. Fossils could not be given names, they'd have to be given numbers, or positions on a graph." Stop for a moment and try to imagine the implications of that observation. Nothing is constant, species merge into species; everything that doesn't become extinct is in a state of shifting flux. That mental image of all life in a process of continuous evolving change will, I'm sure, stay with me for a long time.
Excepting dyed in the wool, young Earth, creationists, this book will appeal to anyone with an interest in the history of life. No, on second thoughts, even if you are creationist, but harbour the slightest doubt regarding the veracity of the strange stories told by your co-religionists, then please take a chance and read this book. Go on, it could change your life.
on 17 October 2006
Wow! If you are looking for a masterclass on the evolution of life on earth, look no further. This magnificent, weighty tome is science as high art. Packed with comprehensive scientific detail and discovery, and hugely impressive in its scale, it is nevertheless written in a highly accessible style. Don't be put off by the size of the book! Step-by-step, Dawkins takes us back through history: from the development of modern man, through the families of primates and mammals, stopping off to explore the worlds of reptiles and insects, right back to the earliest bacteria and to the origins of life itself. A series of "Tales", illustrated by particular species, brings the science vividly to life and illuminates the path as we seek out our common ancestors.
This book is a "must read" for a modern understanding of evolutionary theory.