THE ANCESTOR'S TALE

A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life

Richard Dawkins

Orion Books, 2004

ISBN 0-297-82503-8


There being, by now, not much room left to drive further nails into the coffin of creationism, Dawkins seems to have decided instead to drop a full-colour coffee-table book onto it from a great height. This book is of course yet more dreadful news for disdainers of Darwin: not just crammed with powerful arguments and amazing discoveries about the varieties of life, but presented in an imaginative and just plain beautiful way.

Dawkins has hit upon a novel scheme for conveying the stories of evolution: a backwards pilgrimage whereby we retrace our lineages and are joined en route by other species. One of the many virtues of this approach is that, whereas the evolution of species is essentially unpredictable - though a case is made for the predictability of certain types of convergence - the tracing of ancestries inevitably leads us to common ancestors, and highlights our own profound relatedness to other living creatures. This kind of reverse contextualizing is done in the engaging style we have come to expect from Dawkins, and, unusually, is boosted by marvellous illustrations throughout the text.

The book is organized as a series of 39 rendezvous, each providing one or more exemplary tales, so that, as the Amphibians join us in the pilgrimage, we have the Axolotl's Tale, and the Protostomes bring the Ragworm's Tale. Each tale brings detailed discussions of fascinating and counter-intuitive evolutionary phenomena, such as the fact that, "for particular genes, you are more closely related to some chimpanzees than to some humans," or that, "although few, if any, of our genes come from Neanderthals, it is possible that some people have many Neanderthal ancestors." Along the way we encounter the bdelloid rotifers, who manage to cause a scandal by not having sex, and a protozoan that turns out to be a town.

This rich and stimulating book is a joy to read and re-read and is almost enough to make one feel sorry for creationists. Almost.



This review is reproduced by kind permission of The Skeptic.


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Paul Taylor 2005