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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 13 January 2006
Whoever thought such a description could be applied to such a subject? But here, Dawkins' work deserves it thoroughly. We're spirited along on an absolutely fascinating journey, accompanied by a writer who combines encylopaedic knowledge, humour, and the ability to explain even the most complex scientific issues. What I enjoyed the most about this book however - surprisingly for a story which whisks us rapidly into the most unhumanlike world of our ancestors - was that it conveyed such "humanity", in the broadest sense of the term. It's almost a philosophical work, both in the way it shows how closely related we are to the other lifeforms with whom we share our planet, however bizarre their look or their survival mechanisms, and in the way it links and demystifies the journeys of long-ago "brothers" who are now hagfish, dolphins, axolotls, or emus.
I don't do lists, but this book would go into my top 10 must reads if I did!
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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.
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on 7 September 2004
A fantastic book. It distills the concepts that Dawkins expounds upon in his previous works, and therefore probably doesn't add much that's new if you've already read those. What makes this still worth buying, however, is the illustration, which really brings the subject matter to life (so to speak). It's more like a reference book than his other books too, and is therefore easier to dip into at a random point, rather than needing to be read from cover to cover.
Heartily recommended.
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on 10 January 2005
I received this book for christmas, a friend who knows what an avid reader I am thought it would be the perfect gift. I was a bit overwhelmed when I unwrapped this heavy, large book, thinking that it would take all year to read. Comparing this book with other scientific histories such as the Science of Discworld and A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Ancestors Tale is easier to understand and far more gripping. A must for everyone who wonders WHY WHERE & HOW about humankind and all other species on this glorious planet
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on 22 December 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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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.
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