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The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the…

The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life (2004)

by Richard Dawkins

Other authors: Yan Wong (Contributor)

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3,631662,141 (4.24)2 / 107
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Showing 1-5 of 64 (next | show all)
This was a massive tome of a book for someone like me, who does not have a significant background in science. Nonetheless, it was well-written for most of the book and I felt that it had a lot to offer the reader. It educated, elucidated, and explained many different facets and facts about genetics that would have otherwise escaped me entirely. A good effort and a good book. I would recommend it for those interested in science and genetics. ( )
  DanielSTJ | Dec 17, 2018 |
One of Dawkins' best. While I agree with him wholeheartedly, Dawkins is a better writer when he's talking primarily about science, and not religion. Here, working within a framework, he manages to be utterly convincing and constantly astounds you with facts about nature and evolution. Love it. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 30, 2018 |

I think I spent more time with this book than any other in recent years...a solid six weeks. That's not to say it was boring or hard to get through, quite the opposite. I enjoyed slowly savoring the massive amount of information up for offer in this tome. Richard Dawkins' is a prolific author, and it took me a while to decide which of his books to read first. This one has been sitting on my shelf for about a year, and I finally picked it up to read concurrently with a Genetics and Evolution class that I am taking via Coursera. It was a splendid idea.

Dawkins tends to go on and on about the craziness of religion, but thankfully that was mostly absent in this book. I like to focus on the topic at hand, without the jests and jeers at those with a different view. And the topic at hand in The Ancestor's Tale is an over-arching tale of evolution on this planet, going backwards in time (from a human perspective), all the way back to the origin of life. More than anything, Dawkin's vast knowledge of zoology shines, and I learned more than I ever thought I could in one month about the variety of life on this planet, and how they have evolved to be so darn interesting. His modeling of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales lends itself very well to the subject, and was a great method of (non-fiction) storytelling.

As it was written ten years previously, one thought must accompany the reader. Evolutionary biology, genetics, molecular studies....these fields are constantly changing, with on-going innovations and new developments. Therefore, you must read a book like this with an eye to the present, and new research. For example, since Ancestor's Tale was published, a complete Neandertal genome was sequenced, and a few of Dawkins' statements are somewhat out-dated and not supported by recent findings. The same holds true for the molecular clock, and calculating the rendezvous points with various ancestors. I would love to see an updated edition of The Ancestor's Tale published at some point. ( )
  abergsman | Mar 20, 2018 |
Imagine traveling back in time to observe the last shared ancestor of humans, bonobos and chimpanzees. What might that individual have looked like? What was its lifestyle? And what if we ventured further back, to when those three species shared an ancestor with gorillas? How long would it take before we met up with the ancestors of all mammals, birds, lizards, sharks or insects? This book is a reverse journey of human ancestry, each stop a convergence with an extant group in the tree of life.

There's nothing I love more than a thick, detailed book of natural history, and I quite enjoyed it. I have to admit that sometime during the final quarter my eyes started to glaze over when the subject matter turned heavily to cell biology and genetics -- no fault of the author, it's not my wheelhouse. Recommended heartily to natural history buffs. ( )
  ryner | Feb 27, 2018 |
I think this is Dawkin’s best book so far (I haven’t read The Greatest Show on Earth yet). I probably don’t need to explain too much about Dawkin’s writing style; his atheist polemics are somewhat tempered here – because what he’s talking about is so interesting that he doesn’t have time to jump all over the religious.

The basic theme of the book is a tracing evolution backward, in a series of “rendezvous”. At each rendezvous, another group of living things “joins” (and the phyletic level of the joining group gets broader and broader); chimpanzees, rodents, monotremes, sauropsids, lungfish, ctenophores, all the way back to eubacteria. This is the reverse of the normal evolutionary explanatory method, in which groups “split” as you go forward in time rather than “joining” as you go backward. It works quite well, because it emphasizes similarities rather than differences. There are little natural-history anecdotes at each “join”, which illustrate some aspect of the joining group’s biology; as a collection of essays, the book would be worth it for these alone.

Of personal importance to me is I’ve finally been dragged kicking and screaming out of my final death grip on phyletic systematics. I grew up with – Mom read it to me before I could read myself – The Golden Treasury of Natural History, which was a profusely illustrated children’s book covering everything from the origin of the solar system to modern biology – modern for 1953. There was a double page multi-colored spread of the Great Tree of Life, with things neatly divided into Mammals and Birds and Reptiles and Amphibians and Fish and so forth for the invertebrates. And in Mammals things like Odd-Toes Ungulates and Armadillos and so forth. All that’s gone now – “Fish”, in particular, has been known to be polyphyletic for years (in cladistics terms, a cow is more closely related to a coelacanth than a shark is; back then they were all “Fish”. Well, not the cow).

That means Dawkins springs a bunch of new groupings – Laurasiatheria and Sauropsidia, for example, and Ambulacraria - that I have to puzzle over. Everything I learned as a budding taxonomist is wrong. It’s wonderful. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 20, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 64 (next | show all)
Beginning with modern humans and moving backwards in time, he describes our lineage as we successively join — a geneticist would say coalesce — with the common ancestors of other species. Human evolution has involved 40 such joints, each occupied by what Dawkins calls a "concestor", and each is the subject of a single chapter. He begins, of course, with our common ancestor with chimps, followed by the concestor with gorillas, then other primates, and so on through the fusion with early mammals, sponges, plants, Eubacteria and ultimately the Ur-species, probably a naked molecule of RNA. This narrative is engagingly written and attractively illustrated with reconstructions of the concestors, colourful phylogenies, and photographs of bizarre living species. The book is also remarkably up to date and, despite its size, nearly error-free. Especially notable are Dawkins' treatments of human evolution and the origin of life, the best accounts of these topics I've seen in a crowded literature.
added by jlelliott | editNature, Jerry A. Coyne (Oct 21, 2004)
Evolutionary trees have become the lingua franca of biology. Virus hunters draw them to find the origin of SARS and H.I.V. Conservation biologists draw them to decide which endangered species are in most urgent need of saving. Geneticists draw them to pinpoint the genes that have made us uniquely humans. Genome sequencers draw them to discover new genes that may lead to new technologies and medical treatments. If you want to understand these trees -- and through them, the nature of life -- ''The Ancestor's Tale'' is an excellent place to start.
Dawkins has already expounded the arguments that form his vision of life, both in the natural and human realm. Now, having risen from the Bar to Bench, he is in a position to offer himself as judge and senior guide. In The Ancestor's Tale, he has become the kind of teacher without whom childhood nostalgia is incomplete: unflagging in his devotion to enlightenment, given to idiosyncratic asides. His mission is to tell the story of the origin of species backwards

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 061861916X, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:16 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The renowned biologist and thinker Richard Dawkins presents his most expansive work yet: a comprehensive look at evolution, ranging from the latest developments in the field to his own provocative views. Loosely based on the form of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Dawkins's Tale takes us modern humans back through four billion years of life on our planet. As the pilgrimage progresses, we join with other organisms at the forty "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 first primordial organism. Dawkins's 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 life on Earth. Here Dawkins shows us how remarkable we are, how astonishing our history, and how intimate our relationship with the rest of the living world.… (more)

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