Dr. Fred Bortz

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

by Richard Dawkins

(Houghton-Mifflin, 688 pages, $28.00, Ocotber, 2004)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Oxford professor and acclaimed author Richard Dawkins opens his eagerly anticipated new book, The Ancestor's Tale, with this quotation from Mark Twain: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." That is an apt beginning for an exploration of the history of life that takes readers beyond rhyme to the power of epic poetry.

Like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, after which it is loosely modeled, this book requires careful attention, patience, and endurance; but the result is a rewarding set of insights into life itself. Chaucer's 14th-century classic celebrates the imperfect and quirky diversity of humanity through tales told by travelers on a pilgrimage from London to a shrine in Canterbury. Prof. Dawkins' book celebrates the rich variety of all life on Earth.

Prof. Dawkins' Canterbury is not the point where life originated. Rather, because there is no clear delineation between living and nonliving chemistry, he draws a distinction between processes that do and do not result in heritability -- hence the book's subtitle, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution.

Readers do indeed experience the sense of a pilgrimage as they head backwards in time from the present. They begin the journey as part of a small band including their own species, Homo sapiens, its immediate ancestors, and a ghost contingent of other members of genus Homo who, like most life-forms in the history of this planet, have gone extinct. The trip is marked by a series of rendezvous -- branch points in the very bushy tree of life -- where they meet new bands of pilgrims, who began their own journey elsewhere, and the "concestors" (common ancestors) of the growing horde.

For example, At Rendezvous 1, somewhere in Africa five to seven million years ago (barely a tenth of a percent along the road toward the book's destination), humans meet their closest cousins, genus Pan, the chimpanzees and bonobos. These two bands, who share a common quarter-millions great grandparent, Concestor 1, now set out together to meet the gorillas at Rendezvous 2. But before they reach that point, the bonobo tells his tale.

The Bonobo's Tale conveys an important lesson: these cousins are no more primitive than modern humans. They have had as much time to evolve, albeit along a different path. The book could just as easily have begun with their pilgrimage, or that of any other living organism. But the author would not expect to sell many copies to -- say -- members of the species Mixotricha paradoxa, even though The Mixotrich's Tale following Rendezvous 37 is particularly fascinating and revelatory about the entire evolutionary enterprise.

The book's length will tempt most readers to skim-read on occasion; but a quick glance at what is being skipped over will often bring them back to careful perusal, not wanting to pass over scientific content that is laid out in clear but elaborate detail in both words and illustrations. And the book's sense of building story, supplemented with fascinating insights from the many tales along the journey, will persuade them that every page is worth their time.

Only a physicist would nitpick at a section where the author ventures away from his specialty. In the Redwood's Tale, where the intent is to explain radioactive dating, Prof. Dawkins errs by saying that electrons are not fundamental but rather composite particles made of quarks like protons and neutrons. He also errs in his computed ratios of parent to daughter elements after two half-lives and half a half-life.

But those are minor flaws and easily corrected in future editions of this book, of which there ought to be many. For like all good pilgrimages, it ends at a place of awe -- in this case a celebration of nature that Prof. Dawkins describes as less limiting and more inspirational than any supernatural view of human origins can be.

The book even inspires reviewers to become poets:

Nature writes the story of life in ephemeral bodies,
Creates poetry for those who decode its alphabet,
And inspires reverence in those who celebrate its grandeur.

Physicist and sometime poet Fred Bortz is the author of numerous children's science books, including Collision Course! Cosmic Impacts and Life on Earth.