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A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution

A-AncestorsTaleLoosely modeled after Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval Canterbury Tales, where 30 pilgrims recount their stories, The Ancestor’s Tale traces different species (starting with humans, of course) and their diverse paths back in time to our common, three-billion-year-old ancestor: a bacterium. Dawkins examines the 39 "rendezvous" points where our path (or an ancestor’s path) converges with other pilgrim species, from chimpanzees to amphibians, fungi, and, finally, bacteria. Each "pilgrim" recounts a fascinating story. "The Dodo’s Tale" explains how pigeons lost their ability to fly. And "The Duckbill’s Tale" explores the not-so-primitive platypus. Each pilgrim’s yarn sheds light on evolutionary themes: how life originated, how we got here, and why we humans are not the endpoint of the evolutionary process.
Houghton Mifflin. 688 pages. $28. ISBN: 0618005838

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, after which it is loosely modeled, this book requires careful attention, patience and endurance, but the result is a rewarding set of insights into life itself." Fred Bortz

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"[He provides] generous dollops of humor, biting sarcasm and gratuitous political commentary along the way." James N. Gardner

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Dawkins suffers neither fools nor creationists gladly, but he does not summarily dismiss their opposition." Scott LaFee

Spectator 4 of 5 Stars
"The Ancestor’s Tale is more factual—understanding the history of life is more a matter of getting your facts straight than of understanding difficult ideas. … The book is mainly a neo-Chaucerian, post-Darwinian history, with a scope of thousands of millions of years, but it should also inspire, or provoke, its readers into some new thoughts on current affairs." Mark Ridley

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Dawkins’ way is to take a theory that has achieved a fuzzy sort of general acceptance and to rigorously argue it out until the theory and all of its logical ramifications stand naked in the light, and readers are left blinking." Ian Garrick Mason

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Together, the tales add up to an encyclopedia that sheds light on some of the stranger features of the tree of life. … But his efforts are often awkward and halfhearted, as when he writes about earthworms." Carl Zimmer

Critical Summary

Dawkins, a professor of zoology at Oxford, is one of our best scientific guides. His Selfish Gene and Blind Watchmaker explained abstract scientific theories. Here, he’s crafted a series of factual essays about our increasingly distant relatives. Using the clever analogy of different pilgrims banding together, he starts with human evolution and ends with the origin of life. Dawkins explains evolution and natural selection, genetics and radioactive dating, in a clear, engaging style. (Lay readers may wish to skip the part about unrooted cladograms and phylogenetic trees.) Though Dawkins clearly subscribes to Darwinism, a far different religion than Chaucer’s pilgrims embrace, he’s more intellectually generous here than in previous books. A few complaints: there’s some randomness to his pickings (like jellyfish), and a few minor errors. Overall, it’s a grand celebration of life on earth.

Supplemental Reading

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Evolution and the Meanings of Life | Daniel C. Dennett (1995): Dennett offers a rigorous look at evolution with a philosophical twist. A finalist for the National Book Award, we recommend it highly.