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This book is a well-written and very readable account of an intriguing subject. Dawkins writes with enormous depths of authoritative understanding but always encourages the intelligent lay reader to follow him. The book is, by turns, fascinating, thought-provoking and witty, and it always displays a magisterial overview of a diverse range of related disciplines.The text is sometimes quite dense, but this is a necessary if the book is to achieve the sheer quality which it successfully reaches. A truly rewarding book, which set me off in a number of directions to follow the signposts suggested.I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Richard Dawkins seems to be something of a love/hate figure these days. Many people deplore his outspoken atheism and attacks on the evils of religion, calling him "shrill" or worse, accusing him of the kind of fundamentalism he himself opposes. On the other end of the scale are those who find his emphasis on empirical reason and the promotion of science a breath of fresh air in a world that seems to be increasingly in the thrall of the superstitious and irrational.
My views on the Prof fall firmly into the latter camp. As far as I'm concerned, the more people there are taking a stand against the excesses of religion, the better. But to concentrate on his anti-faith antics does a disservice to his many excellent writings on biology and evolution, of which "The Ancestor's Tale" is one fascinating and inventive example.
As the title suggests, it takes its inspiration from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", but instead of invoking a raucous group of pilgrims journeying from London to Canterbury, Dawkins takes us backwards through evolutionary time itself. His intention by doing this is to avoid the tendency to treat humanity as if it were the pinnacle of evolution, with all points leading up to Homo Sapiens mere works in progress. Instead, he arbitrarily chooses humanity as a starting point - as it is fair enough to focus on one's own species after all - and moves backwards through time to the very starting point of life, the ancestor of all living things on the planet today. Crucially, he points out that we could have arbitrarily chosen any other species as a starting point, and the end result - which is of course the beginning - would be the same.
Confused? The concept does seem a bit convoluted to begin with, but the clarity of Dawkins' prose ensures that it all does make sense as you go along. Picture yourself leaping into a TARDIS and whizzing backwards through time, stopping every so often as the countless millennia whiz past. At each stop, you meet a "concestor": the last common ancestor of both humans and chimpanzees, for example. Or humans and rodents. Or humans and jellyfish. At each of these "rendezvous", as Dawkins terms them, you stop and listen to the tales of the various species who are meeting their ancestors along with you.
I am addicted to audiobooks, which is why I have listened to this book before actually having read it in paper form. It is read by Richard Dawkins himself and his wife Lalla Ward (a woman who has won the Cool Husband lottery twice, having previously been married to Tom Baker). As I have said before, many people accuse Dawkins of shrillness, but I find his voice quite pleasant and clear, and his narration here is authoritative and intelligent. Lalla Ward is of course the second Romana from 1970s Doctor Who, so when she speaks you have the added fun of imagining you are being taught about evolution by a Time Lord. Her take is not surprisingly more actorly, with different emphases and emotional weights, full of the intrigue and excitement of, for example, the exact purpose of a platypus's bill.
I must admit, the intricate science did have me wishing every so often that I could scan over the last few pages just to clarify what I'd heard. More frustratingly, because the audiobook is abridged, many interesting-sounding tales are introduced but not actually read. It's a shame they did not record an unabridged version - it would have been long, but surely no longer than the 13 hour unabridged recording that Dawkins and Ward made of "The God Delusion", which is another superb audiobook. As "The Ancestor's Tale" comes in at nearly 9 hours, it's hard to see why they felt the need to make the cuts.
These are minor quibbles, however. This is a book that consistently throws awe-inspiring facts at you: For example, that if you could jump into a time machine and leap any number of millions of years into the past, somewhere on the planet you could find a direct ancestor of yourself. Or the fact that the closest living relatives to hippos are whales. Or the fact that our 125 millionth great grandparents were lungfish, and that jaws evolved from modified parts of the gill skeleton. And for many, many millions of years, it seems that all our ancestors looked very much like shrews.
Whether you are an expert or beginner, this audiobook is certainly an entertaining way to increase your knowledge on the endlessly fascinating subject of evolution. I've only knocked off a star because I think it would have been better unabridged; despite this, I highly recommend this romp through time with the Prof and Romana - it's almost like an episode of Doctor Who!