‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ by Richard Dawkins

I’ve just read The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. The book traces back human descent to the earliest forms of life as a ‘pilgimage’, marking the points where other branches of our family tree ‘join’ us; the first rendezvous is with the chimps, then the other apes, then the rest of the primates and so on back to the simplest forms of life. At each rendezvous, Dawkins picks out one or two species from those who have joined, and tells their Tale, which is used to illustrate some point about natural selection – the Peacock’s Tale is used as an occasion to talk about sexual selection, for example. Some of these points are theoretical, others deal with practical issues like the difficulties of dating some of the points on the tree, or interpreting fossil evidence.

The approach allows him to touch on all sorts of different aspects of biology and build up an overview of evolutionary science, while also maintaining a kind of narrative structure. If you’ve read some of his other books, many of the preoccupations and some of the examples are familiar, but there are always enough surprising bits of information to keep you interested (in many plants, the thread-like roots are actually created by a symbiotic fungus). The family tree is interesting in itself; I was surprised to learn that we are more closely related to sea urchins than to snails and bees, for example. Or if that relationship is a bit distant: We are more closely to trout than trout are to sharks. That is, we share a common ancestor with trout which is more recent than the common ancestor of the trout and the shark. We and the trout both have bony skeletons; the shark is cartilaginous.

It’s a big fat book, and occasionally it drags a bit, but on the whole I found it absorbing and Dawkins’s prose is (nearly) clear as ever. So I’d recommend it.

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