Richard Dawkins: The Ancestor’s Tale

I’m going to list a lot of quibbles soon, so let me start by saying that this book was awesome.  It looks at evolution by starting with humans and working backward in time to the beginning of life, paying special attention to the points at which other branches join the tree (moving backwards in time, that is).  And evolution is pretty awesome.  I learned a ton of really interesting things, some of which were expansions of subjects I already had some idea of, some of which were entirely new.  I’ve seen some Amazon reviewers say they couldn’t get through a hundred pages of it, but for me it was a page-turner all the way through.

But I have a few quibbles.  One is that although the principle behind the book’s structure is very clear, the principle behind the content is not.  Each chapter illustrates something interesting, but the thing being illustrated may be

  • a taxonomic survey of some branch of the tree of life
  • the behavior of some particular neat organism
  • how natural selection works in various contexts and to produce certain results
  • how scientists deduce information about the history of life (fossils, DNA comparison, etc.)

Any one of these subjects would make for a really interesting book, but since Dawkins jumps around between all of them, it feels a bit scattershot, and you never know quite what you’re going to get in any given chapter.  That said, the subjects are all interesting, and the book’s over 500 pages long, so it’s not like I really wish that he had gone into twice as much detail.

Also in the “more information I wish was in there (I think)” department is illustrations.  He talks about a ton of neat stuff, and a lot of it would be more interesting and easier to understand if it were accompanied by illustrations or photographs.  There are some illustrations, but about 10% as many as I would like, and it seems pretty random which subjects get them.

In general, though, this is a great overview of a lot of interesting facets of evolution, which is one of the most interesting subjects I can think of, and is pretty much guaranteed to make you go “Whoa” a few times.  Works for me.

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