The Ancestor's Tale

I just finished Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale a few weeks ago and have to recommend it. Subtitled ‘A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life’, it examines the history of life, travelling backwards in time, from humankind’s position on the tip of one branch of the tree of life towards the trunk.

As we travel along our branch, other branches join up with us at places Dawkins calls rendezvouses. Since each branch represents another species, or collection of species on the tree of life, each rendezvous indicates the point at which our ancestors diverged from the ancestors of those species joining us, i.e. our last common ancestor, or ‘concestor’, with those species.

In a similar style to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as we meet each concestor, Dawkins tells a tale about our fellow travellers and it is these tales which make up the story. He also gives us an approximate date for each rendezvous based on today’s best knowledge, and makes an attempt to imagine what that concestor might look like, though as we get further back in time he freely admits that discussion of dates and appearance is mere guesswork.

Each tale illustrates a particular aspect of science relevant to the study of evolution, such as how species are classified and grouped within the tree of life, the various methods of dating fossils, how hox genes control the layout of body of body parts and much more. By the time we’ve met Concestor 40 Dawkins has given us a good appreciation of the current state of evolutionary biology, as well as an insight into the science behind things like DNA, mitochindria and all the little processes which go on inside our body to keep us alive.

It’s a long read, and while very interesting, it’s certainly not a page turner. If you’re at all interested in biology, evolution or just plain science, it’s well worth a read.