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

4.6 out of 5 stars 111 customer reviews

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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: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 6,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.


In this extraordinary book, Dawkins turns chronicler. He does so with a clever twist that avoids the perennial problem of evolutionary history-telling ... As a contribution to the history of ideas this book is well worthy of Britain's top public intellectual. The arguments are as sharply honed as we have come to expect from Dawkins (Matt Ridley Guardian)

THE ANCESTOR'S TALE achieves the almost impossible: it makes biology interesting again (Steve Jones)

One of the richest accounts of evolution ever written (Financial Times)

Should be given to all young persons starting out on their exploration of the world. It will excite their curiosity and awe and prove to them that the world is inexhaustible in its fascination (Sunday Telegraph)

No other book I have read has given me such a dizzyingly immediate sense of the vastness and strangeness of the changes brought about by evolution over the eons, or how intimately all life is bound together ... THE ANCESTOR'S TALE makes you feel you have seen the world in a fresh, exhilarating way (Robert Hanks Daily Telegraph)

...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

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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