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

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  20,793 ratings  ·  714 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 ...more
Paperback, 688 pages
Published September 2nd 2005 by Mariner Books (first published September 2nd 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 ...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 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
Apr 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by: Chris
This is the 2016, revised edition of this fabulous book. In this edition, Richard Dawkins is a co-author with Yan Wong. This is a very hefty tome, just under 800 pages. It is a marvelously inventive, masterful look at evolution, as seen from the point of view of homo sapiens travelling backwards in time, back to the dawn of life. Each time the route of evolution reaches a branch point with another species, it is called a Rendezvous; there are 40 rendezvous altogether. The book is extremely ...more
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
David (דוד)

[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
Aug 02, 2014 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
Oct 02, 2007 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 ...more
Apr 25, 2008 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
Lee Harmon
Mar 05, 2011 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 ...more
Sep 05, 2007 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
Michael Kress
Jun 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, 2000s
Dawkins was the author who made me realize how fascinating evolutionary biology is. I had read a few of his books before I started this one, but they were all around 300 to 400 pages. This one is 614 pages. It goes back in time, starting in the present moment until we finally reach the dawn of evolution. What an interesting way to write a book! It tells the stories of many species and the common ancestors that we share with them. As the book progresses, our cousins get more and more distant. ...more
Dec 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biology
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 ...more
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 16, 2009 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 ...more
Not recommended for those with a passing interest in evolution...this is heavy into the math and science realms. This is an extremely in depth, hefty tome as seen from the point of view of homo sapiens travelling backwards in time to the dawn of life. Dawkins tale is modeled after Canterbury Tales, and 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 ...more
Aug 11, 2007 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 ...more
Mar 30, 2007 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 ...more
Courtney Stirrat
Sep 25, 2007 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 ...more
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Your 30-million-greats-grandparent was a shrew. Your 270-million-greats-grandparent from over half a billion years ago looked like this worm. Did I mention that its mouth doubled as its anus? This book is filled with ways ways of making you feel very small. This is the type of book that doesn't let you ever see the world the same again, and proves that religion doesn't have a lock on the feelings of awe and the sublime.

In an article from 2009 "Growing Up in Ethology" Dawkins describes this book
Mark Hartzer
Jan 12, 2012 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
Nov 16, 2007 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
Jun 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
This may be Dawkins' best book.The Ancestor's Tale follows our evolutionary line backwards in time displaying Dawkins's fabuolus talent for elegant and clear exposition and ability to make natural selection poetic and wonderfull despite nature beign "red in toth and claw".Unputdownable.
Jun 27, 2019 rated it liked it
Dawkins’ backwards history emphasizes the chaotic (anti-teleological) and continuous (anti-essentialist) nature of evolution.
Mar 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017, 2018
4 stars = I really liked it

Dividing the book into two digestible parts (that themselves count as books really) was what I've done and I can recommended it, yet the drawback is one does not remember very well the points he made in the first half of the book, however it was not at all disturbing - even though Dawkins makes connections, each chapter is standalone and he makes the effort to look at the key points one has learned throughout the book from various angles, which summarises the whole
Jun 07, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, non-fiction
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 ...more
Sep 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I approached a book of this size and scope with some trepidation (seriously, you could kill someone if you hit them over the head with the hardback edition), how could this possibly cover the whole history of life on Earth. I also note that I have had issues in the past with the authors writing style, which can run to the overly verbose to my taste, as well as the huge hype over his anti religion stand that tends to get a lot more publicity than his actual books do.

So, on the whole this
Aurélien Thomas
Apr 13, 2013 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
Jan 06, 2015 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 ...more
Nov 24, 2013 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 ...more
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