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The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution Paperback – September 2, 2005
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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 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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
The diversity of the earth's plant and animal life is amazing—especially when one considers the near certainty that all living things can trace their lineage back to a single ancestor—a bacterium—that lived more than three billion years ago. Taking his cue from Chaucer, noted Oxford biologist Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, etc.) works his way narratively backward through time. As the path reaches points where humanity's ancestors converge with those of other species—primates, mammals, amphibians and so on—various creatures have tales that carry an evolutionary lesson. The peacock, for example, offers a familiar opportunity to discuss sexual selection, which is soon freshly applied to the question of why humans started walking upright. These passages maintain an erudite yet conversational voice whether discussing the genetic similarities between hippos and whales (a fact "so shocking that I am still reluctant to believe it") or the existence of prehistoric rhino-sized rodents. The book's accessibility is crucial to its success, helping to convince readers that, given a time span of millions of years, unlikely events, like animals passing from one continent to another, become practically inevitable. This clever approach to our extended family tree should prove a natural hit with science readers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Other reviewers will point out perceived flaws, and I do not contradict them, though to some extent they contradict each other. This is a highly individualistic approach to the history of life on earth, and no doubt others would have written it differently--if they had bothered to write it in the first place. Dawkins did, aided seamlessly in this new edition by Yan Wong. It was a masterpiece then and it is a masterpiece now.
"In a backward chronology, the ancestors of any set of species must eventually meet at a particular geological moment. Their point of rendezvous is the last common ancestor that they all share, what I shall call their `Concestor': the focal rodent or the focal mammal or the focal vertebrate, say. The oldest concestor is the grand ancestor of all surviving life."
And the oldest concestor, according to Dawkins, before animals and plants, before multicellularity, is the single cell progenitor bacteria.
"The analogy of insect colony to human body is often made, and it is not a bad one. The majority of our cells subjugate their individuality, devoting themselves to assisting the reproduction of the minority that are capable of it: `germ-line' cells in the testes or ovaries, whose genes are destined to travel, via sperm or eggs, into the distant future. But genetic relatedness is not the only basis for subjugation of individuality in fruitful division of labor. Any sort of mutual assistance, where each side corrects a deficiency in the other, can be favored by natural selection on both."
If I were stranded on an island with access to only one book, ANCESTOR'S TALE would easily be my first choice... - lc
On top of that, Richard Dawkins uses this wonderful story of life on earth as a pretext to introduce, illustrate and illuminate a gigantic amount of biological, geological and even political ideas. These actually constitute a main bulk of the book. You will learn about tectonics, genetics, cladistics, and even mathematics. They appear random at first sight but can be woven into an all encompassing tapestry. The chapter on race (page 397-414) is particularly inspiring.
The penultimate chapter ("Canterbury") is slightly weak. It is, I think, very important to consider the second law of thermodynamics in explaining the concept of enzyme/catalyst. It is also crucial in contemplating on the origin of life. For this, I recommend the first chapter of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution.
I find it interesting that biblical allusions abound: Noah (pages 248-252 and 405); Manna (p. 397); Ezekiel (p. 559 - this particular one I find slightly gratuitous); Leviticus/Deutoronomy & Proverbs (p. 221); Leviticus again (p. 250)
Depending on your personal taste, the last chapter may be the most rewarding one. While it probably is not Dawkins' primary intention, this chapter to me portrays how beautiful and MEANINGFUL life is. As a "religious person" that he refers to (page 614), I can attest that I agree with him (read page 614; you'll know what I mean).
Truly illuminating. Five stars.
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