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The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution Paperback – Import, 2 Sep 2005
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Other reviewers will point out perceived flaws, and I do not contradict them, though to some extent they contradict each other. This is a highly individualistic approach to the history of life on earth, and no doubt others would have written it differently--if they had bothered to write it in the first place. Dawkins did, aided seamlessly in this new edition by Yan Wong. It was a masterpiece then and it is a masterpiece now.
"In a backward chronology, the ancestors of any set of species must eventually meet at a particular geological moment. Their point of rendezvous is the last common ancestor that they all share, what I shall call their `Concestor': the focal rodent or the focal mammal or the focal vertebrate, say. The oldest concestor is the grand ancestor of all surviving life."
And the oldest concestor, according to Dawkins, before animals and plants, before multicellularity, is the single cell progenitor bacteria.
"The analogy of insect colony to human body is often made, and it is not a bad one. The majority of our cells subjugate their individuality, devoting themselves to assisting the reproduction of the minority that are capable of it: `germ-line' cells in the testes or ovaries, whose genes are destined to travel, via sperm or eggs, into the distant future. But genetic relatedness is not the only basis for subjugation of individuality in fruitful division of labor. Any sort of mutual assistance, where each side corrects a deficiency in the other, can be favored by natural selection on both."
If I were stranded on an island with access to only one book, ANCESTOR'S TALE would easily be my first choice... - lc
On top of that, Richard Dawkins uses this wonderful story of life on earth as a pretext to introduce, illustrate and illuminate a gigantic amount of biological, geological and even political ideas. These actually constitute a main bulk of the book. You will learn about tectonics, genetics, cladistics, and even mathematics. They appear random at first sight but can be woven into an all encompassing tapestry. The chapter on race (page 397-414) is particularly inspiring.
The penultimate chapter ("Canterbury") is slightly weak. It is, I think, very important to consider the second law of thermodynamics in explaining the concept of enzyme/catalyst. It is also crucial in contemplating on the origin of life. For this, I recommend the first chapter of Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution.
I find it interesting that biblical allusions abound: Noah (pages 248-252 and 405); Manna (p. 397); Ezekiel (p. 559 - this particular one I find slightly gratuitous); Leviticus/Deutoronomy & Proverbs (p. 221); Leviticus again (p. 250)
Depending on your personal taste, the last chapter may be the most rewarding one. While it probably is not Dawkins' primary intention, this chapter to me portrays how beautiful and MEANINGFUL life is. As a "religious person" that he refers to (page 614), I can attest that I agree with him (read page 614; you'll know what I mean).
Truly illuminating. Five stars.