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 organismDawkins 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 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


10 thoughts on “The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution

  1. Manny Manny says:

    On Monday, an old friend came round to lunch, and, while we were having a cup of tea in the living room, remarked on the number of Richard Dawkins books on my shelf Somehow, I d never heard that she d actually had Dawkins as a supervisor for one term when she was an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 70s it was in connection with the course she was reading on animal behaviour I asked what he was like as a person, and she was unenthusiastic Clearly very intelligent, but there was something a On Monday, an old friend came round to lunch, and, while we were having a cup of tea in the living room, remarked on the number of Richard Dawkins books on my shelf Somehow, I d never heard that she d actually had Dawkins as a supervisor for one term when she was an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 70s it was in connection with the course she was reading on animal behaviour I asked what he was like as a person, and she was unenthusiastic Clearly very intelligent, but there was something about him that she found disquieting She wouldn t go so far as to say that he d behaved inappropriately, there was never a specific incident she could point to, but she constantly felt that he was just an inch from the line Well charismatic, thirty something male supervisor, attractive young female undergraduate, animal behaviour, you can see plenty of scope for that And she said that, even then, he d go on about religion After a while, she became increasingly sure that his hostile feelings were rooted in some kind of personal disappointment he d suffered, though she had no idea what it might have been.I asked her which Dawkins she d read, and, like most people, it was The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion She hadn t particularly liked either one I can sympathize with her point of view But, as other reviewers here have said, Dawkins is acomplex person than he s generally given credit for, and if you read The Ancestor s Tale you ll see another side I suppose one could say that he s attacking religion here too, but the strategy is completely the opposite of the blunt, in your face assault he uses in the The God Delusion to my mind, it s also fareffective Rather than tell you what s ugly and wrong about Intelligent Design, he concentrates his energies on showing you what s beautiful and right about evolution, and how, far from contradicting traditional religious beliefs, it reveals them with a clarity that previous generations have been unable to see I kept thinking of Saint Francis of Assisi, and his love of all living creatures Brother bird, sister ant they re beautiful poetic phrases But what do they mean Evidently, this finch can t literally be my brother There is no way that my mother could have given birth to him The conventional explanation is that we re both children of God , which is fine as far as it goes the problem is that it doesn t really shed much light on the nature of our relationship The astonishing thing about evolution, which forms the core of this book, is that it shows how the bird and ant truly are my brother and sister Well, not quite brother and sister in fact, they re very distant cousins Dawkins traces the family tree, and shows precisely how we re all related He starts with the obvious cases apes, monkeys , then goes back to other mammals, and then further through reptiles, birds, amphibians, insects, sponges, plants and all the way to protozoa On the way, he tells you some extraordinary stories Well, that shouldn t be a surprise think what interesting stories you hear when you meet up with a friend you used to know well, but haven t seen for a decade Here, you are in some cases meeting up with people you haven t seen for several hundred million years.At the end, I felt, as I had never felt before, how we re all one family in the plain, everyday sense of the word, and how we re linked though the genes we share, which we ve inherited from our common ancestors It s a truly incredible thought As Dawkins says on the last page it s not so much that he disagrees with religious people, it sthat they re saying it the wrong way If you are yourself a religious person who wants to learn to be closer to God and His Creation, you could do worse than read this book


  2. Jen Jen says:

    Poor Dawkins he gets a bad reputation People think he s mean and nasty and heartless and elitist Okay, I might have to grant people the elitist bit, because, well, I m a bit of an elitist myself But I dare you all to read this book and then tell me that Dawkins isn t a total squishy Let s just say this he stops in the middle of the book to talk about how much he misses Douglas Adams, who was a dear friend of his He waxes poetic about evolution and how much he wishes he could meet our Poor Dawkins he gets a bad reputation People think he s mean and nasty and heartless and elitist Okay, I might have to grant people the elitist bit, because, well, I m a bit of an elitist myself But I dare you all to read this book and then tell me that Dawkins isn t a total squishy Let s just say this he stops in the middle of the book to talk about how much he misses Douglas Adams, who was a dear friend of his He waxes poetic about evolution and how much he wishes he could meet our ancestors He refers to Olivia Judson s Doctor Tatiana s Sex Guide for All Creation, makes a brief homage to it, and then sweetly states that he could never do the style justice making clear along the way that he s read the darned thing, which delights me for reasons that can only be understood by someone else who s read the book, because it s Just That Fabulous And he puts his wife in the index, even though the references to her are miniscule and, in fact, much less frequent than in any other book He credits his research assistant as his co author In general, he s a sweetheart.I will stop fangirling the man, now, and simply tell you that the science in this book Is brilliant, wondrous, and awe inspiring in its breadth Fantastic book


  3. Warwick Warwick says:

    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 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 ofthan one species is concestor , and there are only about 40 of them between us and the origin of lifethan 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 anycomplicated 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 aresimilar 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 sawe inspiring andmoving than any supernatural system could ever be


  4. David David says:

    This is the 2016, revised edition of this fabulous book In this edition, Richard Dawkins is a co author with Yan Wong This is a very hefty tome, just under 800 pages It is a marvelously inventive, masterful look at evolution, as seen from the point of view of homo sapiens travelling backwards in time, back to the dawn of life Each time the route of evolution reaches a branch point with another species, it is called a Rendezvous there are 40 rendezvous altogether The book is extremely inter This is the 2016, revised edition of this fabulous book In this edition, Richard Dawkins is a co author with Yan Wong This is a very hefty tome, just under 800 pages It is a marvelously inventive, masterful look at evolution, as seen from the point of view of homo sapiens travelling backwards in time, back to the dawn of life Each time the route of evolution reaches a branch point with another species, it is called a Rendezvous there are 40 rendezvous altogether The book is extremely interesting and informative Below I summarize some of the interesting facts I learned.Some creationists point to the so called gaps in the fossil record as proof that the scientific theory of evolution is not sufficient to explain the development of species But Dawkins argues that even without any fossils, the evidence for evolution would still be immense The distributions of species on continents and islands, the patterns of resemblance, an genetic sequences are sufficient to prove evolution Fossils are a welcome bonus The gaps in the fossil records are not all that important.The agricultural revolution helped to support a larger population, but did nothing to increase people s health or happiness in fact it did just the opposite.There is a very interesting discussion about our most recent common ancestor That is to say, the human who is the common ancestor to all people alive on Earth today It is very surprising, that the most recent common ancestor lived around 10,000 years ago.Silver foxes bred in captivity by D.K Belyaev for twenty years were bred for tameness After twenty years, the foxes behaved like border collies They became friendly, sought human company, and wagged their tails when approached They even looked like border collies We were told when we were young that eating carrots help us see better in the dark But this was a rumor started by WWII strategists to avoid revealing the secret of radar.The best analogy for genes is not that they serve as a blueprint, but rather that they serve as a toolbox of routines So, while a large percentage of our genes is in common with those of other animals, our main difference from other animals is not the toolbox of DNA routines, but is instead the pattern of choosing genetic routines from the available toolbox This is called the science of epigenetics, which has been around since Conrad Weddington coined the term in 1942.In 1866, Ernst Haeckel announced that the hippo is a close relative to the whale This has since been proven through DNA the hippo s closest living relative actually is the whale The duck billed platypus closes its eyes shut when hunting for food Its duck bill is a very sensitive organ with 60,000 mechanical and 40,000 electrical sensors The platypus swivels its bill back and forth, feeling for impulses from potential prey It probably gets a detailed 3D image of electrical disturbances in its vicinity It probably is doing some sophisticated beamforming to increase its sensitivity.Dawkins remarks about a lot of interesting speculations why humans are bipedal He gives a number of arguments both why bipedal walking is helpful, but others why it is not.In 1954, the British Colonial Administration destroyed the ecosystem of Lake Victoria Against the advice of biologists, the Nile perch was introduced to the lake, which destroyed fifty species of cichlids, and critically endangered another 130 species This newly introduced predator had caused devastation to the local economies around the lake This is the reason why bureaucrats should not try to play God, and play around with ecosystems.This raises the question, how did so many species evolve in the lake, in the first place Dawkins makes some interesting speculations about how various species could be physically isolated in the lake, in order to allow the species to branch out due to evolution.Dawkins makes a strong effort to avoid repeating stories that he told in other books Instead of repeating them, he makes references to his many other books, for the reader to see additional examples This is so different from that of many other authors, who often repeat themselves from one book to the next.A variety of human inventions were anticipated in the animal kingdom Some examples echo ranging bats , electro location duckbill platypus , dam beaver , parabolic reflector limpet , infrared sensor snakes , hypodermic syringe wasp, snake, scorpion , harpoon cnidarian , jet propulsion squid The wheel and axle was also anticipated the rhizobium has a true axle and a freely rotating hub, driven by a tiny molecular motor Such a wheel could not evolve in a large organism, which would involve twisting blood vessels.I personally loved the renaming of the concept of Intelligent Designers from Argument from Irreducible Complexity to Argument from Personal Incredulity The argument says less about nature than about the poverty of your imagination Dawkins speculates about what would happen if the tape of evolution were to be re run in the forward direction, starting from pre Cambrian times What would happen if it were re run a statistical number of times Or starting from an earlier or later time This experiment has, in a sense, been done to a limited extent in isolated locations like Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar and South America Also, evolution in has turned out very similarly when allowed to run twice Eyes have evolved independently 40 60 times, using nine independent optical principles Echolocation has evolved at least four times in four animals toothed whales, oilbirds, cave swiftlets and bats The venomous sting has evolved at least ten times independently True flapping flight has evolved four times Parachuting and gliding has evolved maybe hundreds of times.These notes above represent only a tiny fraction of the thought provoking concepts in this book This is a challenging book to read, not only because it is so long, but because of the many complex concepts that are described The authors even warn the reader at one point that certain pages can be skipped if desired But the entire book is fascinating With each species rendezvous, a fractal diagram portrays the branching, along with dates and contour lines what a fabulous visual portrayal of the concept of evolution


  5. Ahmad Sharabiani Ahmad Sharabiani says:

    The Ancestor s Tale A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, Richard DawkinsThe Ancestor s Tale A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life is a science book by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong on the subject of evolution, which follows the path of humans backwards through evolutionary history, describing some of humanity s cousins as they converge on their common ancestors It was first published in 2004, and substantially updated in 2016 2018 The Ancestor s Tale A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, Richard DawkinsThe Ancestor s Tale A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life is a science book by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong on the subject of evolution, which follows the path of humans backwards through evolutionary history, describing some of humanity s cousins as they converge on their common ancestors It was first published in 2004, and substantially updated in 2016 2018 20042005


  6. Brian Hodges Brian Hodges says:

    This book blew my mind so many times in so many ways It is quite simply the most fascinating thing I have ever read about life on this planet Dawkins traces our evolution from the present day back through the very first organisms on earth He uses various rendezvouses to show the points where we connected with other species and phyla and what those connections say about us, about our biology and about life in general By tracing our lineage back through these various concestors Dawkins mak This book blew my mind so many times in so many ways It is quite simply the most fascinating thing I have ever read about life on this planet Dawkins traces our evolution from the present day back through the very first organisms on earth He uses various rendezvouses to show the points where we connected with other species and phyla and what those connections say about us, about our biology and about life in general By tracing our lineage back through these various concestors Dawkins makes you realize just how unique and amazing your own body is amazing in ways you probably always took for granted From the way we gestate to the fact that we have a spinal column to the way that our own cells even work It was never a guarantee that we would have ANY of these things It seriously makes you wonder how everything might have turned out had different evolutionary pressures been exerted millions, or even billions of years ago For instance, had a meteorite not wiped out the dinosaurs, we would probably still be littlethan tiny rodents scavenging for scraps at night while the REAL rulers of the planet slept.Dawkins touches on this latter aspect in the final chapter, with a series of thought experiments about how things might go down if evolution were to rerun from the beginning Which aspects of life would be likely to sprout up again Which aspects were far fetched happy accidents Perhaps one of the most mind blowing statements Dawkins makes is in reference to eukaryotic cells, which comprise every form of life on this planet except for bacteria The formation of these special and absolutely necessary cells was such a long shot evolutionarily speaking that Dawkins doubts it likely to have happened twice In fact he goes so far as to say he thinks that the formation of eukaryotic cells was probably MORE unfathomable than the initial spark of life itself Whoever said scientists strip all the magic and wonder out of the universe has obviously never read this book.Dawkins prose, as always, is fresh, illuminating, and often humorous, explaining heavy concepts so they make perfect sense to a layman Seriously, if you re interested in this stuff at all, add this one to the very top of your list


  7. Pink Pink says:

    Wow I like Richard Dawkins I like what he has to say in The God Delusion and I like his tweets for the same reason Lots of people don t like his confrontational stand on religion, but don t let that put you off here First and foremost, he is an amazing scientist This book is so comprehensive, it is daunting just thinking about it When I collected it from the library and saw the size, I outwardly groaned, wondering how I would tackle it I needn t have worried Dawkins takes us on a backwa Wow I like Richard Dawkins I like what he has to say in The God Delusion and I like his tweets for the same reason Lots of people don t like his confrontational stand on religion, but don t let that put you off here First and foremost, he is an amazing scientist This book is so comprehensive, it is daunting just thinking about it When I collected it from the library and saw the size, I outwardly groaned, wondering how I would tackle it I needn t have worried Dawkins takes us on a backwards pilgrimage through time, showing how we humans joined up with all other living creatures along the way After getting through half the book and discovering that we d already passed mammals, birds and fish, I wondered how interested I d actually be in cnidarians, ctenophores or choanoflagellates, but they proved to be equally as fascinating Dawkins breaks the information into short chapters, or rendezvous points, relating things back to animals we ve already encountered along the way Yet he doesn t stop there He shows how we link with fungi, plants and bacteria, before finally considering how the first life forms began and whether or not this could be recreated What I particularly liked was how Dawkins doesn t make guesswork for periods that we just don t know about Where dates are so far away that we don t have the full picture 500 million years and counting Dawkins relates what is known, then tells us the current theories The gaps still to be filled are not a disappointment, but an exciting prospect of things yet to learn I don t have a scientific background at all, though I was able to understand most of what I read I did get confused with some terms and with trying to keep track of the different classifications kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species or timescales eon, era, period, epoch, age plus all the subdivisions within these Luckily the book was comprehensive enough that I was able to flip back to an earlier section, or refer to a chart to refamiliarise myself before moving on to the next tale I was left feeling a little overwhelmed by the end and so I ll finish with a quote from Dawkins that encapsulates things It is not pride in my book but reverence for life itself that encourages me to say, if you want a justification for the latter, open the former, anywhere at random And reflect on the fact that although this book has been written from a human point of view, another book could have been written in parallel for any 10 million starting pilgrims Not only is life on this plant amazing, and deeply satisfying, to all those whose senses have not become dulled by familiarity the very fact that we have evolved the brain power to understand our evolutionary genesis redoubles the amazement and compounds the satisfaction


  8. David (דוד) David (דוד) says:

    6 starsNOTE I like to provide a 6 star rating to a book when it has been able to keep me in a state of amazement almost continuously for at least 80% of its content A terrific book on evolution from the vast spectrum of creatures on this planet Truly, a lot of information has been provided Can be a bit heavy to people who may not be from a scientific academic background Almost every topic that I read in the book kept me in a state of awe while I learnt new things The book is a must read f 6 starsNOTE I like to provide a 6 star rating to a book when it has been able to keep me in a state of amazement almost continuously for at least 80% of its content A terrific book on evolution from the vast spectrum of creatures on this planet Truly, a lot of information has been provided Can be a bit heavy to people who may not be from a scientific academic background Almost every topic that I read in the book kept me in a state of awe while I learnt new things The book is a must read for anyone who wishes to get mesmerized by stuff that exists on Planet Earth itself HEAVILY RECOMMENDED


  9. GWC GWC says:

    Fascinating zoology but plenty of flotsam The Beaver s Tale The Duckbill s Tale and The Axolotl s Tale are outstanding examples of modern naturalism The classical genetics is adequate but the molecular data is explained minimally and not compelling More details on the challenges and uncertainties inherent in genomic sequencing and cross species comparisons would have been helpful When Dawkins is not discussing zoology the writing is overly verbose, and suffers the professor s conceit o Fascinating zoology but plenty of flotsam The Beaver s Tale The Duckbill s Tale and The Axolotl s Tale are outstanding examples of modern naturalism The classical genetics is adequate but the molecular data is explained minimally and not compelling More details on the challenges and uncertainties inherent in genomic sequencing and cross species comparisons would have been helpful When Dawkins is not discussing zoology the writing is overly verbose, and suffers the professor s conceit of assuming his readers are interested in his opinions on matters beyond his expertise which are infused with the type of absolutism he criticizes elsewhere in the book The poor, strangely moralistic mathematics and tired political rants are best left for the faculty lounge or starry eyed students This is a good 600 page book that could be a great 300 page book with some vigorous editing


  10. Jerzy Jerzy says:

    Fantastic If I d read this in high school I would definitely be a biologist by now.Often I agree with Dawkins views on creationists, but usually he s an obnoxious ass about it Thankfully, in this book he only disses them occasionally For most of the book he sticks to his strengths, i.e., clear and exciting explanations of the beautiful yet structured diversity of the natural world.Lots of nifty thoughts about how evolution works and how mind shatteringly cool life is There s an interesting Fantastic If I d read this in high school I would definitely be a biologist by now.Often I agree with Dawkins views on creationists, but usually he s an obnoxious ass about it Thankfully, in this book he only disses them occasionally For most of the book he sticks to his strengths, i.e., clear and exciting explanations of the beautiful yet structured diversity of the natural world.Lots of nifty thoughts about how evolution works and how mind shatteringly cool life is There s an interesting structure to the book, traveling backwards in time from today to the origin of life, and telling tales or lessons from each of our major ancestors along the way It made me appreciate how muchthere is to life than the small handful of mammals, fish, birds, and trees we usually think about