I’ve just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Ancestor’s Tale” and I found it to be a wonderful and educating reading experience. In short, it is a book about Evolution, but with a twist. Instead of starting at the origin of life Dawkins starts with us, humans, and goes back through time, stopping whenever an evolutionary branching point, or rather, since we travel backwards, a merging point, occurs in our ancestral line. His reasoning for this reverse chronology is that the usual account, starting at the origin of life and ending with homo sapiens, makes it appear as if Evolution was somehow directed towards us, which it wasn’t – today’s bacteria are just as evolved as we are, in the biological sense.
Dawkins stops at each of those “rendezvous”, of which there are 40, and introduces us to the band of species that we meet there, usually telling a “tale” about one of them. The Fruit Fly’s Tale, which is recounted at rendezvous 26, for example, tells us how segmented bodies – which almost all animals, including us, have – form and evolved. The Salamander’s Tale, told at rendezvous 17, explains why the term “species” is not as clear-cut as one would wish it to be, even in sexually reproducing creatures.
Evidence for Evolution is presented en masse in this book, but still Dawkins is careful to point out that there are lots of things we don’t know yet about the whole story. In some cases, for example, the exact order of the rendezvous is still uncertain and awaits further molecular evidence. Molecular evidence, by the way, is a key tool in evolutionary biology these days, and Dawkins explains to us where it comes from, what it tells us, and what we can do with it, all in layman’s terms, drawing analogies to literary research.
As I said above I’ve enjoyed this book very much. It is well written, entertaining at times, and very educational, as Dawkins’ books usually are. For an in-depth introduction to Evolution you cannot go wrong with it and even if you know the basics, you’ll be astonished at all the detailed discussions you’ll find in there. I highly recommend it!