The Ancestor’s Tale

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!

And while you’re at it, be sure to check out Zachary Moore’s Evolution 101 podcast and blog!

6 thoughts on “The Ancestor’s Tale

  1. Not only that, but if you have the hardcover edition it makes a fantastic coffee table book. The illustrations of the “concestors” (shared ancestors) are great.

  2. i was watching “march of the penguins” for the first time today…catching myself in thinking how they reached that point…and wanting to go back in time, imagining all their ancestors…one step at a time… it is the only logical way of doing it, rather than judging us from who we are…

    we realised quite sometime ago that we weren’t the centre of the solar system… how long until we realise we are not the centre of evolution? insects outnumber us 300 to 1 in bodyweight… if that is the way you think about it, we are here to sustain their growth? thank you – i will have to find this book!

  3. Haven’t seen the penguin film yet – will have to check it out.

    Actually we know very well by now that we aren’t the center of Evolution, if there is one at all.

    Regarding the insects: If one of us is there to sustain the other’s growth, then it’s them to sustain ours (in reality it’s neither because we don’t consume them in any way). Dawkins makes a very smart point (which is so smart that it becomes obvious once you think about it – though it was probably not his point originally) that since nearly all our energy comes from the sun (there is some from deep see vents and vulcanos, but that’s negligible) and the only organisms who directly turn that energy into growth are the plants, there will always be more plants than any other organisms combined. Other creatures have to get their energy – either directly or indirectly – from plants, and since the efficiency of the energy transfer must be less than 100% that conclusion follows.

  4. Did you read “The blind watchmaker” by Dawkins? I still think it is his best book on evolutionary theory… All others are rip offs.

  5. No, I haven’t read that book (yet). I’ve read his book “The Selfish Gene” which was published 10 years before “The Blind Watchmaker”, though :-).

    Anyway: There’s so much information in “The Ancestor’s Tale” that is not directly related to Evolution in general but belongs more in to zoology and general biology that I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by it even if you read lots of other books on the subject.

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