Monday, October 09, 2006

The Ancestor's Tale

by Richard Dawkins
This is the first of Dawkins's books I've read, though I've admired him at a distance for years. I do get the sense that this book, encyclopedic as it is, was more of a pure joy for him then some of his other works. The Ancestor's Tale is a delightful journey "down" the evolutionary tree (by which I mean backwards in time) all the way to the beginning of life on Earth. Modern humans, of course, populate only a tiny twig on the great and humbling tree of life, even if you consider only those species that are still in existence today. It's not long before we're joined on our journey by chimpanzees, and ponder what our common ancestor might have been like. We continue back in time, joined by more species in the (reverse) order that our branches split from theirs, and stopping here and there to learn what we can about evolution itself. Dawkins's style is entertaining and exuberant; he's as wide-eyed as the reader at some of evolution's acheivements. My friends got an earful of my excited recountings of Dawkins's revelations, i.e.: "Did you know that less than 4% of animal species are more closely related to us than starfish are?" Though written for the layperson, Dawkins assumes the reader is intelligent, and there are a few challenging tangents. All in all, an exciting and illuminating voyage through evolutionary history.

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