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The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution

4.12  ·  Rating Details  ·  16,234 Ratings  ·  551 Reviews
The renowned biologist and thinker Richard Dawkins presents his most expansive work yet: a comprehensive look at evolution, ranging from the latest developments in the field to his own provocative views. Loosely based on the form of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Dawkins's Tale takes us modern humans back through four billion years of life on our planet. As the pilgrimage pro ...more
Paperback, 688 pages
Published September 2nd 2005 by Mariner Books (first published 2004)
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Yan Wong As a coauthor of this book with Richard Dawkins, I should point out that there is a new edition (2016) which deals with advances in genetics…moreAs a coauthor of this book with Richard Dawkins, I should point out that there is a new edition (2016) which deals with advances in genetics (especially genomics), and does a brief analysis of Richard's genome, which I have here on disk. As for epigenetics, you might like to read our take on it at
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On Monday, an old friend came round to lunch, and, while we were having a cup of tea in the living room, remarked on the number of Richard Dawkins books on my shelf. Somehow, I'd never heard that she'd actually had Dawkins as a supervisor for one term when she was an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 70s; it was in connection with the course she was reading on animal behaviour. I asked what he was like as a person, and she was unenthusiastic. Clearly very intelligent, but there was something a ...more
There are some facts the simple knowing of which seems to me to be a supreme achievement of our species. The fact that we are all made of stardust. The fact that 99.9999999999999 percent of all matter is empty. The fact that mass and energy can be expressed in terms of each other. Stuff like that.

Pre-eminent among these to me, for sheer mind-expanding awe, is the fact that life on this planet has developed precisely once, as far as we know, and everything on earth has evolved from it. That means
Mar 14, 2008 Jen rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone interested in science, evolution, biology... life.
Poor Dawkins - he gets a bad reputation. People think he's mean and nasty and heartless and elitist.

Okay, I might have to grant people the "elitist" bit, because, well, I'm a bit of an elitist myself. But I dare you all to read this book and then tell me that Dawkins isn't a total squishy.

Let's just say this - he stops in the middle of the book to talk about how much he misses Douglas Adams, who was a dear friend of his. He waxes poetic about evolution and how much he wishes he could meet our
Brian Hodges
This book blew my mind so many times in so many ways. It is quite simply the most fascinating thing I have ever read about life on this planet. Dawkins traces our evolution from the present day back through the very first organisms on earth. He uses various "rendezvouses" to show the points where we connected with other species and phyla and what those connections say about us, about our biology and about life in general.

By tracing our lineage back through these various “concestors” Dawkins mak
Jun 27, 2008 Jerzy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sixstars, science
Fantastic! If I'd read this in high school I would definitely be a biologist by now.
Often I agree with Dawkins' views on creationists, but usually he's an obnoxious ass about it. Thankfully, in this book he only disses them occasionally. For most of the book he sticks to his strengths, i.e., clear and exciting explanations of the beautiful yet structured diversity of the natural world.

Lots of nifty thoughts about how evolution works and how mind-shatteringly cool life is. There's an interesting
Oct 16, 2014 Pink rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I like Richard Dawkins. I like what he has to say in The God Delusion and I like his tweets for the same reason.

Lots of people don't like his confrontational stand on religion, but don't let that put you off here.

First and foremost, he is an amazing scientist.

This book is so comprehensive, it is daunting just thinking about it. When I collected it from the library and saw the size, I outwardly groaned, wondering how I would tackle it. I needn't have worried.

Dawkins takes us on a 'backwa
Lee Harmon
Mar 05, 2011 Lee Harmon rated it it was amazing
While I read different genres, I only review books with a religious content. So, if I may be excused for one of my “liberal Christian rants,” let me say this: It’s a sad day when a book about evolution earns a spot on the shelves of a religion blog. It simply astounds me that half of all Americans still do not believe in evolution. The evidence is so overwhelmingly against a young earth that if Christianity is going to survive, it must pull its head out of the sand and reinterpret the Bible’s cr ...more
Aug 15, 2011 GWC rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating zoology but plenty of flotsam. "The Beaver's Tale" "The Duckbill's Tale" and "The Axolotl's Tale" are outstanding examples of modern naturalism. The classical genetics is adequate but the molecular data is explained minimally and not compelling. More details on the challenges and uncertainties inherent in genomic sequencing and cross-species comparisons would have been helpful. When Dawkins is not discussing zoology the writing is overly verbose, and suffers the professor's conceit o ...more
Sep 05, 2007 Casey rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: science and animal lovers
After finishing The Selfish Gene, I rushed out to the store to buy another of Dawkins' books. While the size of this tome was quite intimidating, I found the premise utterly fascinating. The narrative traces humans' evolutionary ancestry, from primates to "concestor zero," or the beginning of life on Earth.

Dawkins' knowledge of zoology shines as he gives examples of the fascinating animals that share some of our genes. Readers will undoubtedly learn about plants and animals they had never heard
Richard Dawkins has done an astounding job producing this book. If it were not for his other great works, The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene, The Ancestor's Tale would be his best work in evolutionary science. It matters not one bit that it's a summary and synthesis of others' primary work: great scientists have always been able to look out across their field of expertise and write a defining work of value for both scientists and the educated public.

My only,
Aug 11, 2007 Robin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: All human beings, and other animals if they could read
This is my favorite book in the whole world. Someday it may be eclipsed by something else but for now it's this. What I love most about this book is the number of times I found myself thinking, "Wow, I had no idea". It makes perfect sense when you think it out, but the entire premise of the book, that every living thing on earth, from human being to plant to bacteria, shares a common ancestor, that actually existed at a point sufficiently far enough in the past. The book consists of a "pilgrimag ...more
Courtney Stirrat
Sep 25, 2007 Courtney Stirrat rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
The Ancestor's Tale is an incredible find! With a form based loosely on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Dawkins marches back in time to each of humankind's ancestors. Witty, brilliant and engaging, you will learn a great deal about evolutionary biology, and a million fun and intriguing facts. Whether you agree to disagree with the facts establishing evolution as a law of science, this book is worth your time. Plus, it is so dense and rich, you will feel proud to put it on your shelf after you have f ...more
Aug 23, 2009 Nikki rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love this book. It's not the kind of thing I usually read, because I prefer fiction to non-fiction by far, at least when I have a choice about it. And I really, really loathe Dawkins' The God Delusion, largely because of the tone he takes toward people who are religious believers. But The Ancestor's Tale is mostly just science, and it's written in an accessible, almost conversational way. It actually has literary ancestors (ha), in the form of The Canterbury Tales, which Dawkins chose as his f ...more
Mar 30, 2007 Brian rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Creationists
I've been a fan of Dawkins for a while solely based on interviews, but this is the first of his books I've actually read. It works its way backwards through the evolutionary tree, detailing how all living things are related - how a stranger on the street, your dog, your house plant, bacteria and you are all distant cousins. It's a fascinating read, technical enough if you're interested, but not so much so that it's threatening to the non-science minded. It's broken into various "tales" - "The Ho ...more
Nov 16, 2007 Miles rated it really liked it
A great book. Also full of fun, amazing trivia about the mind-blowing diversity of life as well as the easily over looked fundamental links and commonalities between huge classifications of organisms. I learned from books like this that the full implications of the scale of universal time and space, as well as the far more finite scale of earthly life and development, and the implications of evolution are still only scarcely and slowly seeping into our consciousness and our view of ourselves and ...more
Feb 25, 2013 T. rated it it was amazing
Dawkins' magnum opus.
Mark Hartzer
Feb 03, 2016 Mark Hartzer rated it it was amazing
It's a shame that some people get caught up in Mr. Dawkins as a supposed spokesman for Atheism because first and foremost, he's a scientist, and this book is about the science behind life on Earth.

In order to better explain evolutionary science, Dawkins metaphorically borrows Chaucer's journey to Canterbury to travel back in time. We start in the present day, and then examine our common ancestors from mammals, to birds, reptiles, etc... all the way back to bacteria and how life itself may have
Aug 26, 2015 Chris rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Chris by: Ross
Richard Dawkins is the best writer on the topic of evolution that I have encountered. He is able to explain concepts in such a way as to make them easily understandable. All of the books that I have read by Dawkins have been very informative and entertaining as well. The Ancestor's Tale is a cleverly structured book in which Dawkins takes the reader on a journey chronologically back in time through our evolutionary history. Each successive chapter is the next branch of our evolutionary tree wher ...more
Charles Bond
Feb 12, 2010 Charles Bond rated it it was amazing
Great History of evolution! My favorite of Dawkins' books, because it processes every little peice of information, leaving no rock unturned. Being 700 or so pages it took me a while to finish it, but my hours were not wasted. It goes through every known evolutionary split from us now, to billions of years ago with some of the first life on earth. It covers the full spread of biological diversity and the different inventions of nature, like how a Platypus uses electromagnetic waves to detect smal ...more
Dec 21, 2008 Punk rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
Non-Fiction. 4 billion years of evolution, practically in real time. To avoid any "human-centrism," Dawkins -- famous for his outspoken stance against creationism -- does this backwards and models the journey on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Scared yet? Well, it's not in rhyme or Old English, but Dawkins does tend toward lofty language and wild, rambling digressions. It bugged me at first, but over the course of this SIX HUNDRED PAGE BOOK, I got used to it and even grew to appreciate Dawkins and h ...more
Nov 24, 2013 Haritha rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone!
Shelves: non-fiction
After Cosmos and The Selfish Gene, this is the only book that has simply blown my mind. What a brilliant work! Dawkins guides us along on the greatest pilgrimage ever to the dawn of evolution in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales. Through different tales told by organisms we rendezvous along the way, he manages to introduce a plethora of biological wonders, ethical considerations, scientific thinking and philosophy. A must, must read for everyone- especially those with a passion for nat ...more

[NOTE: I like to provide a 6-star rating to a book when it has been able to keep me in a state of amazement almost continuously for at least 80% of its content.]

A terrific book on evolution from the vast spectrum of creatures on this planet. Truly, a lot of information has been provided. Can be a bit heavy to people who may not be from a scientific academic background. Almost every topic that I read in the book kept me in a state of awe while I learnt new things. The book is a must-read f
Jul 25, 2007 Doctordave rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
This is the best science book I read in 2006. The structure (moving backwards thru the history of life) is unique, and works for the most part. (Ok, it got a little boring when it lingered on things like nematode worms and the like near the end) The only thing I wish the book had...? Illustrations! I had to keep my laptop by my side and constantly Google the names of organisms i'd never heard of to see what they look like.

Dawkins is a seductive writer... I would recommend always reading somethin
Aug 18, 2014 Matt rated it it was amazing
A masterful work, and one that stands out even among Dawkins' other popular works. It takes the form of a long pilgrimage backwards through time towards the ancient Canterbury of life's origin on Earth. The several interweaving tales of our ancestor (or cousin) species -- for instance, the fascinating evolution of the whale -- provides a fresh, breathing narrative to what could have been a very dry book.

I finish reading this book with a new appreciation for all creatures on this Earth and a fee
Zach T
Jul 26, 2007 Zach T rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone with at least a partially functioning brain.
Very well-written, extremely eloquent, not particularly abstruse. Incredibly informative, dense but not impenetrably so. Slightly cheapened by a few brief but unnecessary political comments. Jabs at religion are to be expected with a Dawkins book, but unless directly addressing creationist claims, also unnecessary. Particularly poignant passages regarding uncertainties of molecular dating issues. Historical perspective on how our understandings of various organisms & their phylogenies are th ...more
Jun 22, 2016 Darren rated it really liked it
An interesting method for taking a journey through time and evolution. Some amazing tales highlight the many rendezvous points in our evolutionary history, all backed with rich details and clear analysis.

I'll mark this as one to be re-read in the future.
Aug 25, 2014 Alisia rated it it was amazing

I think I spent more time with this book than any other in recent years...a solid six weeks. That's not to say it was boring or hard to get through, quite the opposite. I enjoyed slowly savoring the massive amount of information up for offer in this tome. Richard Dawkins' is a prolific author, and it took me a while to decide which of his books to read first. This one has been sitting on my shelf for about a year, and I finally picked it up to read concurrently with a Genetics and Evolu
Jun 09, 2013 Johan rated it really liked it
While parts of this book boil down to the long list of older and older latin ancestor names and some of their traits that is the premise of the book, some of its little forays into random tangents still make it a pretty inspiring read.

An interesting factoid that never occurred to me, for instance: if we'd ever manage to burn all the fossil fuels and other biomass that did not get fully decomposed and recycled, we would no longer have an oxygen atmosphere, but revert to the reducing carbon-dioxid
Apr 20, 2013 Aurelien rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, biology
Here's an ambitious bet: to tell the story of life on Earth as an odyssey, a pilgrimage backward in time. The approach is indeed original as, reading this book is like boarding a time machine where at each chapter we meet one of our ancestors -that Dawkins describes, showing in which ways its anatomy or way of life can serve a better understanding of why we are what we are. 40 ancestors are thus passing us by, from primates to mammals in general, vertebrates, invertebrates and, all the way until ...more
Stefan Matei
Oct 08, 2012 Stefan Matei rated it it was amazing
Geneticists tell us that every single person on Earth is at the least 50th cousins with every other person on Earth. On a broader scale two closely related species can be considered cousins; and it is this broad sense of the word "cousin" I'd like to make use of below.

Throughout his tales Dawkins exposes the attempts to coexist between cousins in an ever changing habitat. As it turns out, these involuntary attempts sometimes succeed, resulting in complex symbiotic relationships, and sometimes th
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Human Dominance 7 64 Aug 22, 2014 07:27AM  
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“My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. They represent a narrowing-down from reality, an impoverishment of what the real world has to offer.” 35 likes
“More poignant for us, at Laetoli in Tanzania are the companionable footprints of three real hominids, probably Australopithecus afarensis, walking together 3.6 million years ago in what was then fresh volcanic ash. Who does not wonder what these individuals were to each other, whether they held hands or even talked, and what forgotten errand they shared in a Pliocene dawn?” 14 likes
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