February 2, 2013

Book: The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:47 pm

imagesRichard Dawkins definitely has a gift for writing that draws you in and keeps you intensely immersed, interested and indeed fascinated throughout the book. The Selfish Gene by him was an immensely pleasurable read for the most part until he starts talking about memes in a context that is similar to the biological gene propagation (at which point you go ‘Is it the same author writing this chapter?’) but overall that was a very rewarding book.

This book is a great idea. It is true that the subject is very, very close to what The Selfish Gene describes and in fact, most of his books are on the same subject of Evolution and so tend to read very much alike. I am almost tempted to say that you can read just one of his books (anything other than the God Delusion, which is on a totally different subject) and you do not need to read any other book of his.

It is largely true of this, if you compare the subject matter with that of The Selfish Gene. However, if you want to pick one book out of the two, pick this one. This is a much better told tale and is cleverly designed as a pilgrimage back from the current times, especially us, tracing our ancestry back through the evolutionary (animal and other) ancestors until we reach the very origin of life.

He has attempted to keep a similarity with Pilgrim’s Progress  in theme, where on a long journey, several pilgrims join, each telling a tale. However the difference in this case is that the pilgrims do not ‘tell the tale’ and the travel is through evolutionary time. And I do not know about the Pilgrim’s Progress, not having read it, but in this book, you travel backwards with humans in the beginning, joined by the first ancestors and then the second etc. Interesting analogy, interesting theme, excellent storytelling style.

You easily get absorbed in the journey when you read on, caught up in the evolutionary tales and his virtuosity in telling a story with passion and skill, taking you along the ‘journey’, if you must think of it that way. Along the way, you meet various animals and their amazing ways of life, all told from the point of view of evolution and the competitive pressures to improve. The book reads like a fascinating story and, as I have already said, is much better than the Selfish Gene.

The pet themes surface, sometimes rather unnecessarily, and he cannot resist taking potshots at Creationists when there is no call to do so. We all have read how he thinks that evolution can explain all the variety of life, and personally, I happen to think he is right. However, bringing in Creationist’s views during a purely scientific book like this and refuting it all sounds unnecessary and artificial, and really takes away from the subject matter and the flow of the book.

The second critique is that he goes into some deep details in some cases, either explaining things in tedious detail (for instance the section on catalysts) or repetitively (you get tired of reading that he ‘really does not mean conscious decision on the part of evolution when he says that some organism was forced to evolve in a particular manner’ when you encounter it for the fourth time in the same book).

But these are few and far between and in places where he is bang on, his passion and the clarity of narration takes you along and make you admire not just the subject matter but his prose. I still think that Bill Bryson did a better job of making a science topic totally fascinating (Please see the review of A Short History of Nearly Everything in this forum), but Richard Dawkins is no slouch and does not lag far behind, and is at his best in this book (at least among the ones I have read)

A very good read, and is more than worth the effort. Deserves an 8/10

— Krishna


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