Review: The Ancestor’s Tale

Richard Dawkins is one of the most celebrated intellectuals in Britian and, indeed, the world. One of the ‘New Atheists’ forming an unholy Cerberus of scathing reason alongside the incendiary Christopher Hitchins and the more mellow Sam Harris. He has a massive public profile, a healthy contempt for nonsense and the ability to convey scientific thought in as accessible a way as possible. He’s been a great influence on me since the Christmas lectures of ’91 and the series’ of programs he did on Channel 4 and BBC 2 way back in the mists of time when he was more known for The Selfish Gene than heaping scorn upon nonsense.
The Ancestor’s Tale is the history of humanity, the history of life on Earth as a whole. It is, in effect, a gigantic ‘Fuck you’ to anyone who has ever uttered, in all seriousness ‘I didn’t come from no monkey’ – which is a distressing common occurrence on the internet, especially in discourse with American Christians. The difference with The Ancestor’s Tale – which is written as a sort of scientific Canterbury Tales – is that it works backwards, starting with humans and heading back down the track of life towards the end goal, the origin of life, and demonstrating along the way how humanity is interrelated to all life on earth.

The whole story is related through ‘tales’, tales of ourselves, our direct ancestors and our ‘cousins’ (where they are illustrative), each new pilgrim joining the procession as all life on Earth meanders back to its original starting point, common descent. From humans, via the apes, to monkeys and then tarsiers, on to lemurs, tree shrews, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, fish, squirts and worms, sponges and fung, plants and bacteria and finally back to those first self replicating molecules, each step of the journey is illustrated and each animal, no matter how simple or how complex is made as interesting as possible.

Dawkins does have a gift for explaining scientific terminology in an accessible manner but the complicated nature of biology and its terminology, combined with his assumption that you ARE an intelligent human being are only almost as good as the late-lamented Carl Sagan and not quite on par with him, biology is – after all – about nitty gritty details, while cosmology has the advantage of being grand, sweeping and majestic, but Dawkins does as good a job as possible and only loses you here and there in some of the technicalities. This isn’t an easy book, but it is an accessible book to those willing to put the little bit of work in that it demands.

The Ancestor’s Tale succeeds in humanising common descent, making it easier to relate to and enabling one to understand how humanity intertwines with every other living thing on this planet, that we all share a common origin and just how fantastically well supported evolution actually is. As with so many great books it can only be lamented that those who really should read it, likely never will.

From a gamer’s perspective The Ancestor’s Tale is a great thing for world building, understanding animals and their adaptations and how underlying past routes of divergence and evolved solutions, right back at the beginning of life, can still have an effect on modern organisms and their environment.

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