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The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution Paperback – Bargain Price, September 2, 2005

4.4 out of 5 stars 281 customer reviews

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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 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 --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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 7th Paperback Edition edition (September 2, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 061861916X
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (281 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,574,366 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on October 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
A magnum opus from a scientist isn't common these days. Usually, their writings are in stacks of journal papers, with the occasional monograph highlighting a career. Journal articles remain buried in academic libraries, down the aisle from dusty tomes. Dawkins, however, is charged with the task of improving the "public understanding of science". With such a mandate, he is free to indulge in some innovative techniques. In this epic journey through time, he accomplishes that with his usual finesse. Add the lavish illustrations enhancing the text, and you have an outstanding depiction of evolution's saga.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
I have read every book by Richard Dawkins since I stumbled over "The Blind Watchmaker" -- an absolutely brilliant exposition of how evolution works -- a number of years ago, and have found him to be the clearest, most cogent and, for the lay reader, most enjoyable explainer of evolution and its works I have found. It is no accident that Dawkins holds an Oxford Chair as Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.

In "The Ancestor's Tale," taking the title from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," Dawkins takes us on a pilgrimage backward in time, describing the ancestors of mankind, starting with the first human farmers and Cro-Magnon man, and working back step by step to bacteria. In the course of this long tale, we are introduced to all classes of life and and their evolutionary connnections with us, as well as to many evolutionary concepts and issues. All in all, this is a fascinating and enjoyable book and well worth reading. I would have given it 5 stars except for the occasional gratuitous remark about the conduct of the United States in the world which is not within Dawkins' field of expertise.

One further point may be worth mentioning. Some of the early reviews criticized the"Ancestor's Tale" for failure to prove the theory of evolution, particularly the absence of a conscious "Designer." But the "Ancestor's Tale" is not written to defend the theory. Read other Dawkins works for that, particularly "The Blind Watchmaker."
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Format: Paperback
Written in a lively fashion, Dawkins cleverly takes a reverse tack on presenting the story of evolution by going backwards in time, starting with humans and stopping at each "concestor" branch point, the first being the common ancestor of chimps and humans. The "tales" are not really stories about the individual concestors, but rather short essays on various aspects of evolutionary theory sometimes only rather tangentially related to the animal in question. For example, the "Lamprey's Tale" uses the type of hemoglobin found in lampreys to illustrate the idea of "taking the gene's perspective" (versus the organism's perspective)in evolution. But they are all well done, often with clever "morals," and very informative. Dawkins gives very short shrift to Gould's punctuated equilibrium theory, I think rather unfairly so, calling it "overrated." Certainly, for example, an alternative "Coelocanth's tale" would have been a perfect opportunity to discuss why some animals seem to change very little over time whereas others exhibit comparatively rapid evolution. But the book is very readable, much more so than Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory, though both are very much recommended for a full understanding of evolution.
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