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 usour 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 the Hardcover edition.
Unlike most general surveys of evolution, this one offers some novel approaches. First, of course, is its structure. Instead of vague beginnings, Dawkins opens with a period familiar to all his readers - the scenes around us today. Moreover, that focus is on the part of Nature of most concern to us - "All Humankind". We like to consider ourselves the "point" of evolution? So be it, Dawkins declares, but warns that a change in outlook will likely result as you read this book. From that point, he begins to work backward in time. He stands Chaucer on his head by adding "pilgrims" to our journey at certain waypoints. The "pilgrims" are the Most Recent Common Ancestor of the present population of creatures. Since he begins with Homo sapiens, the most recent common ancestor, which Dawkins [rather, one of his graduate assistants] deems a "concestor", is of course the ancestor of today's chimpanzee.
It is a shock to most readers to learn we can make the traverse of nearly 4 billion years in but 39 steps [Hitchcock would have loved it!]. In tracing our mammalian ancestry, Dawkins is able to aid us in peering at the innermost secrets of our bizarre relatives. We meet colugos and tree shrews, mammoths with tusks like shovels, tarsiers and tigers. Nearly halfway along the track we are confronted with a superb essay on our nervous system. Using recent studies of the Platypus, we learn how our brain interacts with the rest of our bodies. A model human, proportioned to show how much our limbs are represented in the brain confronts us. Huge hands and lips extend from a minuscule torso perched on spindly legs. Our grasping abilities clearly helped drive the enlargement of that organ taking so much of our body's resources. In Platypus' case, the lips play the major role, since this creature uses its unusual properties to investigate its environment.
As we progress along the path, the information about our ancestors grows less certain. Is this creature in the proper genus? Is this miniature swimmer indeed unique in its classification? What is the divergent point between mammals and reptiles? With the introduction of reptiles, the birds finally join the trek. Dinosaurs, not being in the direct line leading to humans, are given short shrift. No matter, the books on these long-successful creatures are beyond counting - and the number grows constantly. Further back, he is able to introduce the unicellular world. It gives him an opportunity to explain the lifestyle of some of our planet's most fascinating life forms. Hair-trigger cells that capture food prey or ward off predators. Glorious, worm-like creatures "too good for a goddess", despite their human-derived appellation.
In his educational role, Dawkins must confront the insidious spread of Christian-inspired simplistic hype over evolution. He must take up space refuting its propaganda and invalid assumptions. With so much to cover, this is an unfortunate aside. Yet in dealing with their rants about "irreducible complexity", Dawkins demonstrates yet again that Darwinian principles provide the mechanisms for all life. The energy nodes in our cells, the mitochondria, he reminds us, are the vestiges of bacterial invaders, co-opted to a new role. Flagella, the great bugaboo of "intelligent design" adherents, are simply another chemical process. In his concluding way stations, Dawkins shows how these elements originally lived.
Although Dawkins notes throughout the book that science has a formidable task still ahead, with many mysteries to be resolved, this book will long endure. With its comprehensive scope coupled with the author's always compelling style, it belongs on every bookshelf. We need more such writers and their books.
stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada
Like most people I enjoy reading books that support my world view, even more so now that I am getting old and the brain cells are getting locked in. The Ancestor's Tale is one of these books.
Richard Dawkins already has a reputation as one of the most influential thinkers about evolution since Darwin and in this book he has written a history of the evolution of life told backwards. To do this he adopts the literary device used by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. In this case all the living creatures of the present, independently of each other, begin a pilgrimage back through time to find their ancestors. Dawkins is the representative of humans and their science, and as he travels on his own journey he starts to meet other life forms. The journey moves backward through hundreds of millions of years and making stops at "Rendezvous" points in time at which the various life forms join him in discovering a common ancestor. At each rendezvous Dawkins stops and rationalizes through use of modern scientific discoveries, analysis, and analogy, to tell stories of why the different life forms he meets are joining the pilgrimage at that particular point and relates fascinating "tales" about their lives.
One is continually amazed at the diligence and perseverance of the scientists who study living things to figure out the tales they have to tell. The story of how the Sacculina barnacle parasitizes crabs or how the African horsefly survives in dried up mud are astounding "tales", and the scientists who figured out the extraordinary and complicated story of Mixotricha paradoxa, a protozoan that lives in the gut of termites, certainly have different genes than the rest of us.
Some of his explanations are a struggle to get through, and his scientific political correctness in the frequent use of scientific taxonomic names when common ones would do, certainly slow things down for the average reader. Often he goes off on digressions to make some personal political point. He certainly is not impressed with President G. W. Bush and has a low opinion of fundamentalist Christian ideas of creation. He also occasionally gets "emotionally high jacked" from his scientific objectivism as when he calls the ideas of a scientific opponent "bonkers", or the ideas of Prince Charles "dotty'. He thinks the idea that there is "a mystical balance of nature" is the type of thing that appeals "to the same kind of airheads who go to quack doctors to balance their energy fields." These emotional lapses do however make him human like the rest of us, and are easily forgiven.
As he travels back in time the less definite the rendezvous points become, until at the final rendezvous the actual time is totally uncertain and relationships among living things are really just speculation. He makes it obvious that man is not an end or goal of evolution and that the idea of higher or lower life forms are really only value judgments of the human animal because of the "conceit of hindsight". However, it appears, like most scientists, Dawkins assumes that all this knowledge that we are accumulating will lead to some sort of epiphany for the human animal. I personally don't think it will, but it is great fun taking the journey with him anyway.