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The Ancestor's Tale

4.12  ·  Rating Details ·  17,074 Ratings  ·  577 Reviews
THE ANCESTOR'S TALE is a pilgrimage back through time; a journey on which we meet up with fellow pilgrims as we and they converge on our common ancestors. Chimpanzees join us at about 6 million years in the past, orang utans at 14 million years, as we stride on together, a growing band. The journey provides the setting for a collection of some 40 tales. Each explores an as ...more
Paperback, 685 pages
Published September 1st 2005 by Phoenix (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

Community Reviews

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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
Sep 03, 2013 Warwick rated it really liked it
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 25, 2008 Jerzy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Lee Harmon
Mar 05, 2011 Lee Harmon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 02, 2014 Pink rated it really liked it

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
Oct 02, 2007 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  ·  review of another edition
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,
Dec 21, 2016 Max rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Dawkins presents evolutionary biology in a Chaucerian format. As with the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, each of Dawkins tales is about pilgrims on their way to a common destination, in this case the beginning of life. Each group of species marches back in time rendezvousing where they share their most recent common ancestor, what Dawkins calls a “Concester”. The first rendezvous is six million years ago (6 Ma) where we, our Homo and Australopithecine ancestors share a Concestor with the chim ...more
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
Aug 16, 2009 Nikki rated it it was amazing
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Courtney Stirrat
Sep 25, 2007 Courtney Stirrat rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 16, 2007 Miles rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 20, 2012 T. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Dawkins' magnum opus.
Jun 07, 2007 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
Mark Hartzer
Jan 12, 2012 Mark Hartzer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Charles Bond
Feb 12, 2010 Charles Bond rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 06, 2015 Chris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Zach T
Jul 25, 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
Aug 14, 2014 Matt rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jeff Harris
Mar 11, 2016 Jeff Harris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A thorough and fascinating pilgrimage through life on earth. Dawkins again is able to take the complex and sometimes confusing aspects of scientific literature and present it for any reader, whether a hardened biologist or high school student. If evolutionary biology is your interest, this is a must read.
Mar 22, 2016 Darren rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Snehal Bhagat
Nov 30, 2009 Snehal Bhagat rated it it was amazing
Political economy basics are often explained with the help of an analogy: we imagine a beach in summer with people sun-bathing; for the sake of simplicity, we assume that the beach is one-dimensional- a straight line running from left to right- and that the people are distributed approximately equidistant from each other. An enterprising ice-cream vendor comes along with his cart and sets up shop - where should he position himself if he desires to maximize his sales?

Clearly, anywhere; for as lon
Stefan Matei
Oct 03, 2012 Stefan Matei rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 66 Aug 22, 2014 07:27AM  
  • Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters
  • Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom
  • Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution
  • Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life
  • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History
  • Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins
  • Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
  • Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul
  • Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design
  • The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human Animal
  • What Evolution Is
  • Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth
  • Why Evolution Is True
  • Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence
  • The Counter-Creationism Handbook
  • Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human

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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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