Book Log – The Ancestor’s Tale

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins

This is a Whole. Lot. Of. Book. It is an enormously detailed and well written depiction of what we know of evolution, written in analogy (?) to The Canterbury Tales.

The book starts with the now, and humans, though Dawkins bends over backwards to apologize for being human-centric, and notes we could have just as well started with a starfish, but few starfish are going to buy his book.

He then works backwards, stopping at “Rendezvous”, or major/interesting branch points in evolution. At each point, the ancestor that “joins” (in the working-backwards-through-time convention) the trunk of evolution we’re following tells a tale that highlights some aspect of natural selection and evolution. Each of the tales I found fascinating.

My favorite is of a particular bunch of lizards in California. I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t remember the names or exact location, but the basic premise is this: This bunch of lizards live around the rim of a valley; If you colored in the area where they live, it would look like a horseshoe. What is interesting about them is at the tips of the horseshoe, you have on one side the yellow lizards, and on the other tip the brown lizards (these colors are a simplification for storytelling purposes, the real difference in coloration is spotty and complicated). As you move around the horseshoe, the groups of lizards have different gradients of the colors between yellow and brown. Geographically, the yellow lizards “turn into” the brown ones as you travel around. Each group of lizards breed with their immediate neighbors, but the two tips of the horseshoe do not breed with each other, given the chance.

So, effectively, we have a geographic depiction of evolution and speciation. There were other examples of this, one involving seagulls I think, but I think the horseshoe example the most vivid.

This book took me about three years to read, I think. It’s not that it’s not good, or not readable, but there is so much information packed in this tome that it is hard to process. I had to be awake and alert to read it, lest I get lost in some of the details. Even when alert, I could get so lost in thought about a topic that I would have problems concentrating on the following one, and have to set it down for a while.

Highly recommended.