Tree of life

Any amateur genealogist knows what pleasure it is to fill in the gaps in the family tree, discovering new generations of ancestors, and perhaps, if you're very lucky putting some faces to previously forgotten names. In The ancestor's tale Richard Dawkins uses this simple formula (along with a touch of The Canterbury Tales) to put together the mother of all family trees going backwards from modern man via "concestors" - our links to every other species (both plant and animal). This is not a book about finding "the missing link", what it does is to show how evolution works producing the enormous variety of life from microbes to mammoths that have populated this wonderful planet of ours.

Dawkins writes beautifully, making science accessible to even the most unscientific mind, and this coupled with a strong narrative makes this an enthralling read. One can only wonder at the beauty of evolution, simple and yet incredibly complex; the creativity of nature as step by step led by the evolutionary drive for improvement, it develops a myriad of eyes to suit every creature, the ability (for land animals) to make oxygen their friend, and a plethora of weaponry and aids to survive in the most hostile of environments.

Along the way through this journey of 4 billion years there are frequent, and entertaining asides, in Dawkins' inimitable style - from the link between cystic fibrosis and cholera (my personal "I never knew that" moment in my journey through this book) to how the family tree of a louse can tell you when humans invented clothing. Fascinating stuff.

As readable as any novel this is a wonderful introduction to evolution. It is, as the author himself says, quite a trip.


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