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Thursday, October 13, 2005

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

This is a book by Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, I read earlier this year but wanted to post a quick review.

The interesting thing about this book is that as the subtitle "A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution" suggests, Dawkins takes the reader on an evolutionary trip through a series of 40 rendezvous points that progress further back in time ala the Canterbury Tales. For example, he starts at Rendezvous 0 - All Humankind, and ends at Rendezvous 39 - Eubacteria with each rendezvous marking a branch or connecting point where more of life's diversity shares a common ancestor.

At each point he not only describes the varieties of life that join the pilgrimage (usually using extant species) but also crafts one or more "tales", such as "The Neanderthal's Tale" or "The Duckbill's Tale" that includes a short essay on some key evolutionary concept or recent research on a particular topic. Some of my favorites include "The Handyman's Tale" where he explores the relationship between brain size and body mass and shows where Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and other primates fit on the scale as compared to all mammals, "The Duckbill's Tale" where he discusses the sensory nature of the bill, "The Elephant Bird's Tale" where he links the evolution of large flightless predatory birds and plate tectonics, "The Salamander's Tale" that shows the continuous nature of modern populations, and "The Cauliflower's Tale" where he introduces the relationship between body mass and metabolic rate (a 3/4 slope in a log-log graph) known as Kiebler's Law that was explicated in a recent theory regarding supply networks called WEB.

Fascinating stuff and each tale is short enough for a quick read when you carry a book along, as I do, in the course of your day. The discussion is wide-ranging and allows you to wrap your mind around a variety of different concepts. Some of the tales are actually written by Yan Wong.

One of the reasons I like the approach of the Pilgrimage with his connecting extant species with the most recent common ancestor is that it helps illustrate the idea of the bush as opposed to that of the ladder as the more proper icon for illustrating how evolution has proceeded. The species that join at each rendezvous can be thought of as the tips of the twigs in an ever expanding bush of evolution rather than a rung on a ladder ascending or descending in complexity.

My only criticism of the book is that since Dawkins is something of a celebrity in the scientific world he apparently gets a lot of leeway in his books from his editors. In this book you'll find random potshots at political conservatives and fundamentalist Christians that are oddly out of place and distract from the generally intellectually stimulating content.

With that caveat I would definitely recommend the book.

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