Richard Dawkins should need to introduction; in fact, he cemented his position as a preeminent author of sociobiology and evolutionary biology years ago, when he published such seminal works as The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. I was, then, somewhat curious when a new book came out two years ago called The Ancestor’s Tale.
When I initially looked into this book as a candidate for 52 Books in 52 Weeks, I was a little turned off by Dawkin’s approach. The book is a nod to Chaucer, and takes the form of a chronological pilgrimage backwards in time, stopping at rendezvous points where the evolutionary histories of other species come together with the posited ancestors of Homo sapiens. In between are Tales—as in Canterbury—like “The Bonobo’s Tale” or “The Duckbill’s Tale.”
As it turns out, the Chaucerian gloss is really just a peculiar affectation that Dawkins—perhaps merely because he is British—has taken on, maybe to make the book more palatable to the casual reader1. Really, there’s no tales as such; the tales are just containers for illustrative points made by a particular species—in the aforementioned cases, the Bonobo’s use of sex as a currency of sorts, and the Duckbill’s marvellously complicated bill as an electrosensitive instrument.
In the end, I found that the frame narrative that Dawkins imposes is somewhat contrived—I don’t think that trifling with “tales” as opposed to “chapters,” or adding in rhetorical flourishes is particularly useful when it is a window dressing for a serious academic work. But apart from this silliness, The Ancestor’s Tale is an insightful—and massive—work that elucidates some great points about speciation. Dawkins has a sterling reputation for turning complex material into something readable by someone with only a few classes’ worth of scientific background.
I suppose that in many ways, this style served a useful purpose for Dawkins, as it serves as something of a catch-all: by using a collection of “tales,” he is able to include a variety of miscellanea that, in a narrowly-focused book, might otherwise be cut by an editor or by Dawkins himself. Here, a two-page digression on asymmetric limbs is fair game as a tale.
For an introduction to Dawkins, one might do better one of his earlier pieces, which are shorter and more focused. The Ancestor’s Tale is a work of considerable breadth, perhaps more suited to veterans or the man’s work or the field in general. At some point, however, it is a recommended read. For similar material, check out PZ Myers’ book list.
- I doubt this: the casual reader probably isn’t any more comfortable with Chaucer than he is with sociobiology[↩]