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The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the…

The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (original 2004; edition 2004)

by Richard Dawkins, Yan Wong (Research)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,378591,610 (4.25)2 / 105
Title:The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
Authors:Richard Dawkins
Other authors:Yan Wong (Research)
Info:Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
Collections:Your library
Tags:non-fiction, science, evolution, evolutionary biology, biology

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


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Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
Follow the evolutionary trail back through time from modern Homo sapiens sapiens to the dawn of life on Earth, noting where our line branches to those of all other living species. It's a lengthy work with more details on various species and biochemistry than most casual readers would probably want to see, but it provides an excellent sense of the great diversity of life and how it is all connected. ( )
  DLMorrese | Oct 14, 2016 |
A massive sweep back through evolution to our ancestors. So detailed, and so many ideas.
Read Apr 2005 ( )
  mbmackay | Nov 30, 2015 |
What an odd goose. At times it's written for beginners and other times for folks with a bachelors in biology. I listened to the audiobook version and it has two narrators, Dawkins and Lalla Ward, and they switch back and forth mid-paragraph, without reason, making it difficult to follow. In some cases the switch is mid-sentence, word for word. I've never heard an audio production like this. The frame-tale around Chaucer is a gimmick. The analogy has little depth other than a surface comparison of a journey, Dawkins could have equally chosen The Wizard of Oz and the Yellow Brick Road. Or The Hobbit ('There and back again.'). Yes Chaucer is a "classic" which makes it feel "important" but it's gimmicky when the analogy is 2D and yet so central to the books structure. No doubt there is good stuff but it comes and goes, and sometimes I zoned out among the invention of the wheel by bacteria. Probably the one thing that I will remember is the idea of a "ring species", very cool. Obviously I recommend avoid the audiobook edition (mercifully out of print). ( )
1 vote Stbalbach | Jul 30, 2014 |
Good interesting strong read. I would really like to read an updated version too, if Dawkins ever manages to revisit this mighty tome. ( )
  comixminx | Feb 16, 2014 |
There are some facts the simple knowing of which seems to me to be a supreme achievement of our species. The fact that we are all made of stardust. The fact that 99.9999999999999 percent of all matter is empty. The fact that mass and energy can be expressed in terms of each other. Stuff like that.

Pre-eminent among these to me, for sheer mind-expanding awe, is the fact that life on this planet has developed precisely once, as far as we know, and everything on earth has evolved from it. That means that when you go outside and lie down in the garden, everything you can see and hear – people walking nearby, their pet dogs, the squirrel darting past, the birds you can hear tweeting, the insects and tiny bugs crawling around underneath you, the trees the birds are standing on, the grass you're lying on, the bacteria in your guts – all of them are your cousins: you're quite literally related to them in the real, genealogical sense.

If you go far enough back in time, in other words, you will eventually find a creature whose descendants evolved into both squirrels (say) and people. Indeed, the rules of heredity being what they are, you could even find a single individual who was a common ancestor to every squirrel and human alive. And indeed such an animal really did exist, around 75 million years ago in the Upper Cretaceous. It probably looked sort of mousey, and Dawkins estimates that he or she was our ‘15-million-greats-grandparent’. Squirrels are not ‘closer’ to this creature than humans are: we and they are equally related, having been evolving independently for the same amount of time.

The Ancestor's Tale takes exactly this approach to exploring evolution. It starts with humans and works backwards – looking first at the common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, and continuing until we reach the common ancestor of all life on earth. Dawkins's word for a common ancestor of more than one species is ‘concestor’, and there are only about 40 of them (!) between us and the origin of life more than three billion years ago. The Cretaceous mammal I mentioned above, which evolved into us and squirrels (along with all the other rodents, lagomorphs and primates), is Concestor 10 according to this schema.

I think there's a lot of traps you can fall into when you start thinking about evolution. It's easy to feel, instinctively, that evolution is somehow teleological: that it's been working towards – if not us, then at least creatures that are increasingly complex and increasingly intelligent. But that of course is not the case. Things survive that reproduce themselves well, and there are plenty of single-celled organisms still with us that have seen no need to get any more complicated for millions of years. Bacterial life is in fact astonishingly varied and rich, whole phyla of creatures that branched off before multicellular life even came about; indeed, chemically speaking,

we are more similar to some bacteria than some bacteria are to other bacteria.

Just think about that for a second.

Before Dawkins got distracted by religious idiocy, he was well known as being one of the scientists most able to explain complicated ideas in a fresh and accessible way. All his skills are on display in this work. It's not just the zoology and the evolutionary biology, where you'd expect him to be strong; there's also a fantastically lucid explanation of the biochemistry within a cell, and even one of the best explanations of the physics of radioactivity that I've come across. He is calm and careful; he repeats himself where necessary; he shares several teacherly witticisms; and he does all this without ever condescending to the reader. He allows paragraphs of complex material to sit, so that you can read and re-read them a few times before he carries on. Occasionally he cannot stop himself breaking out in exclamations of wonder or poetic meditation – as when he discusses the fossilised footprints of three early hominids from some three-and-a-half million years ago:

Who does not wonder what these individuals were to each other, whether they held hands or even talked, and what forgotten errand they shared in a Pliocene dawn?

His enthusiasm is infectious. The whole book is a fantastic exploration of this most beautiful piece of modern human understanding. It's full of astonishing anecdotes and scientific details about the natural world, but it also all ties together into a conception of life that's more awe-inspiring and more moving than any supernatural system could ever be. ( )
4 vote Widsith | Sep 15, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 58 (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)

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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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