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Review - The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins

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This isn't the usual Richard Dawkins book, which I would typify as being a brilliantly constructed intellectual argument - a gem of academic reasoning, whether or not you agree with his theses, or with his often aggressive attack on anyone who disagrees with him.

Instead, this is Dawkins' foray into the sort of field that Desmond Morris (or possibly even David Attenborough) has plumbed so effectively in the past - a big glossy book with lots of pictures and expensive looking diagrams that takes a vast, sweeping look at a topic - in this case tracing our ancestry back through early man, other mammals, fish, and so on, getting more and more basic until we reach back to bacteria.

Along the way are 39 "rendezvous" points where rather than following the "tale" of a particular branch in the tree back to the origins of life, Dawkins puts the current stage into perspective with the overview of the tree itself. As you may have gathered main text a mostly a series of "tales" a la Canterbury tales (after a while, "the X's tale" gets a bit monotonous).

The good news is it's a tour de force, and individual bits of the book are very readable, with Dawkins usual mix of ascerbic wit and insightful exploration of the biological battlefield - many of the tales would make excellent articles. But the whole thing, apart from being intolerably heavy in the hardback (I think there's a serious case for suing for wrist strain), is just too bitty and too much to read through from end to end. It's a skim and dip book for most of us, and as such not great popular science. But that shouldn't undermine the achievement that the book represents.

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Reviewed by Jo Reed

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Last update 05 June 2007