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365 of 389 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb but very, very detailed, November 19, 2004
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This review is from: The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (Hardcover)
Richard Dawkins has a wonderful writing style, and his name on a book is a guarantee of a witty, erudite, and lucid exposition on evolution and how it works. In this book he needs all of this literary artillery, not because he is arguing any contentious issues-in fact he's probably preaching to the choir for most readers-but because the work is lengthy, covers a wide range of topics, and does so in considerable detail.

The clever format of the work is a Chauceresque "pilgrimage" to the ancestor of all life, hence the title. Just as individuals join Chaucer's tale of Canterbury and entertain us with their personal tales, so too do the various life forms who join our trip back into time. The author picks certain species to clarify what new is introduced to the complexity of life ways at each bifurcation on the genetic tree. Throughout, he makes it very evident that this is not a tale of organisms but of the genes they contain, and he does a superb job of it. The reader is never allowed to forget what the point of the migration is.

I found some of Professor Dawkins' points particularly illuminating because he made things I thought I understood even clearer still. I also found the author's capacity to arrange such a massive amount of information in such a logical order, weaving in important details at key points, amazing to me. Although I know quite a lot of the information, I doubt I could have arranged it in anywhere near such a comprehensible order as the author has.

The problem with the work is that it is almost too detailed for the average reader-and this despite the fact that the author does not get drawn into discussing material he has covered in earlier works. With frequent references to his own titles and to those of others on specific topics, he manages to keep to his specified goal. Still, the work is a lengthy 614 pages, and it covers a lot of territory. It is almost encyclopedic. I have to admit, though, that should a beginner make an attempt to get through it, he/she would have a very clear and comprehensive understanding of the workings of evolution. For those with only a casual interest, this is probably more than you want to tackle. I am a fairly fast and persistent reader, and I had difficulty staying on track. I read the book in small increments, sometimes stopping in the middle of chapters. It required time to digest the new material or the new way of looking at old material.

One aspect of the book from which both the enthusiast and the casual reader will benefit, is the extensive bibliography. The books listed under "further reading" are current and diverse. Those from the general bibliography include both periodicals and books on specific topics. Some are a little dated, but all give a comprehensive coverage of discussions in evolutionary biology from which the reader may select follow-up information that more suits their level of and specific interests. All appear to be in English. Some of the journals may be difficult to find in public libraries, but all should be available in a large university library. Of those that I've read, Mark Ridley's Red Queen (1993) on the development of complex life forms and the enigma of sex and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (1991) on the serendipitous environmental factors affecting human diversity are my favorites. Although on cosmology rather than evolution, Sir Martin Rees' book, Just Six Numbers (1999), is also of interest.

For those not afraid of detail, I hardily recommend the book. For those who just want a basic understanding, I'd look for something a little simpler.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 23, 2015 8:58:55 AM PDT
It's not Mark Ridley, but Matt Ridley. Although Mark Ridley is also a science writer.
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