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

The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins
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Jan 11, 12

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"The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution" is a beguiling literary trek through the taxonomy and history of life on Planet Earth; one that's led with ample eloquence by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In this vast tome Dawkins has crafted what is indeed the popular scientific equivalent of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales", taking us along a long journey back to the dawn of life itself, approximately 4 billion years ago, via a molecular phylogeny designed by his former undergraduate student Yan Wong. But it's a long, long trek that's quite unlikely to be viewed as tedious by the reader. Here, Dawkins is truly at his most expansive, using this taxonomy to discuss the compelling issues of contemporary evolutionary theory and history, in which he covers everything from genetics, speciation, convergent evolution and mass extinctions to microevolution, sexual selection, biogeography, and the relevance of plate tectonics to past and current biogeographic distributions of organisms. Relying on Wong's intricate molecular phylogeny, Dawkins takes us along to forty branching points - previous geological moments - in that phylogeny, where we meet the "concestor" - the last common ancestor - of all organisms at that very point. It is a quite compelling, often insightful, narrative that Dawkins admits does owe much to Chaucer's legendary "The Canterbury Tales".

Dawkins doesn't hesitate to interrupt the relentless ebb and flow of his narrative in a series of individual "tales", that are designed illustrate some unique trait of a given species, and then, by mere extension, serve as the jumping off point(s) for riveting discussions on some aspect(s) of modern evolutionary biology. A classic example is the section that he devotes to the sauropsids, which consists of lizard-like and dinosaur-like (archosaurs, including birds) reptiles in the chapter entitled "Rendezvous 16". In the first of these tales, "The Galapagos Finch's Tale", Dawkins recounts the decades-long fieldwork of ecologists Peter and Rosemary Grant who have been studying microevolution in the Galapagos Finches. He focuses upon the aftermath of a severe drought in 1977 that led inevitably to sharp declines in the populations of several species, observing that those individuals in the dominant species, Geospiza fortis, who were only 5 percent larger than their peers, were the ones who survived; a classic example of "a small episode of natural selection in action, during a single year." Within the same species, the Grants and their coworkers observed selection pressures resulting not only in larger body size, but also in larger beak size too. In the chapter's next tale, "The Peacock's Tale", Dawkins emphasizes the importance of sexual selection, arguing persuasively that it may have had a role in shaping the course of human evolution, perhaps via preferential selection of females for "smarter" males. That is followed, in turn, by "The Dodo's Tale", in which Dawkins discusses not only the Dodo's extinction, but also the tendency towards flightlessness in bird species inhabiting remote oceanic islands.

While Dawkins has crafted a most compelling narrative in this vast book, "The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution", is far from perfect, especially in its depiction of the fossil record. Much to my amazement, he doesn't discuss the existence of long-term stasis in the fossil record, predicted by the theory of punctuated equilibria, which has been substantiated by decades of extensive fieldwork by paleobiologists, ever since the publication of the classic 1972 paper coauthored by noted American paleobiologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (This is a rather peculiar omission since Dawkins has been a staunch critic of punctuated equilibria.). Nor does he discuss, except only in passing, the diverse, radical differences in the compositions of marine faunas during, respectively, the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, which have been noted for decades due to excellent fieldwork, and more recently, by excellent statistical modeling done by paleontologist Jack Sepkoski and his colleagues at the University of Chicago. And he also misses the important history of predator-prey interactions that form much of coevolution, which has been discussed admirably elsewehere by noted marine ecologist Geerat Vermeij. But, in retrospect, my criticisms of Dawkins' omissions are relatively minor, simply because he has accomplished successfully, the arduous task of making both the taxonomy and history of life a most beguiling tale. Without question, "The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution", should be regarded for a long time as one of the classics of popular evolutionary biology literature.

(Reposted from my Amazon review)
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