Monday, September 27, 2010

An Ancestor's Tale Review

I finished reading Dawkin's book, an Ancestor's Tale, about a week ago.

The book was a journey back in time to meet the ancestors of all living things. First we moved from out ancestors, to the ancestors that united us to Chimpanzee's and Bonobos, and other apes, and monkeys, and so on and so forth, until we were back to a time where we were all one. Along our DeLorean time travelling journey, we meet other extant species, and they follow us back in time. Of course there are weird splits, like mitochondria, and chloroplasts, which have their own DNA, but in general, everything works out. As we meet other extant species, we learn a bit about their biology, and we even learn somethings about ourselves, such as colorblindness, the importance of HOX genes, and why the Dodo died.

Dawkins is especially cautious with his dates, and even is humble enough to point out where uncertainty lies within the phylogenetic trees. This is shocking, since many people claim he is self absorbed with his identity as an atheist. Many people know him by his stance on evolution and militant atheism, and while there was a small hint of this in our pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution, this book mainly dealt with the biology of life, rather than the philosophy of our place in the universe. If you are looking for Dawkins book on atheism, I suggest you read The God Delusion.

And surprisingly enough, this book was rather candid at what it was trying to do. It by no means was attempting to prove evolution over intelligent design, or put forth an argument as to why you needed to head evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life on earth. It just led us on a pilgrimage back in time to meet the ancestor's of all living things with the assumption that evolution is true. This was a relief to me (I have a degree in biology), because I really was getting tired of hearing the topic argued and debated. If you are looking for reasons why evolution is true, and is a better explanation for the diversity of everything than ID or creationism, then look no further than Dawkins book The Greatest Show On Earth.

I especially enjoyed learning about the diversity of life through this book. It went over some of the more obscure extremophiles, and gave an in depth history as to the migrations (according to fossil evidence) of various lineages. Along the way many extant species that joined the pilgrimage told their "tales".

But giving you a summary of their tales will be useless. What you want to know is: Did you enjoy reading this book? And to that I must answer, not particularly. As a biologist, I found some of the tales interesting, and the manner in which it was written (as a humble journey to the past), as a creative and inventive way of teaching biology. However, it was obvious that this book was not written for a general audience, but with an educated audience in mind. So I am left in awe at Dawkins need to constantly try to re-educate and remind his readers of things that should already know. He spent a large amount of time discussing radioactive dating techniques, and going over different isotopes and their time scales. He also went over things like tree ring data, and magnetic dating (from the reversal of the poles in underwater volcanic rock). I feel like he is treating us like little kids. I have heard of these methods of dating before, and I found it mind-numbingly painful to re-read all about them.

I also found it painful for him to go over different techniques of genetic, phylogenetic, Bayesian, and Taxonomic analysis. I have taken Phylogenetics and Taxonomy in college, and do not need to be reminded of their techniques, or of the various reasons why different techniques give different trees. Maybe a reader who has not met the pre-requisites necessary to understand your book might need a course in modern biology, but most of your readers do not.

Overall, I found the trip enjoyable. If all of my above complaints were omitted from the book, he probably could have omitted 50 or so pages of material. So what use is this book, other than a headache inducing bore-fest? It is the perfect template for the teaching of biology at all levels!

One of the biggest mistake the public education system makes, is waiting until high school to teach young people about evolution. Yes, science is taught in middle school, but energy transfer, trophic level interactions, and identification of animals (fish vs. mammal), are not the important cornerstone of biology. Evolution is. Predator prey relationships evolved to be that way. Identification lies on the foundation of differentiation caused by sexual isolation. In other words, we do our young people a disservice by teaching them biology outside the context of evolution. Dawkins ties many biological principles together nicely. Mimicry, poison as defense, and even methods of evolution itself (genetic drift, physical isolation, natural selection, sexual selection…), are all discussed in the context of a journey to the past.

This model for teaching evolution only has one flaw. The book itself is anthropocentric. What I mean is, we go back in time from humans. We could just have easily chosen Venus Flytraps as our starting point, or Cichlid fish, or Crested Geckos. Yes, humans are familiar, and we can all relate to them, but it sort of shows evolution as coming to a point, a climax, or as having a goal. Dawkins makes clear in his book that natural selection has no ultimate goal other than to take existing variation and narrow it down to variation best suited to survive and reproduce in certain environments, but starting with people is a wrong move for its connotations. It gives humans an importance over all other extant species.

Now, for the second question which any review needs to answer: Should you read this book?
Are you familiar with biology and science? Then yes, sure read it. You will most certainly learn a lot about diversity, and how most of life is connected, or related to everything else. But this book is not meant for everyone. It tends to get technical and with our current generations brains in a constant ADD, most likely caused by instant gratification, and television, most people will not have the patience or the ability to concentrate enough to appreciate this book. Anyone with Asperger's syndrome who a biophilia should most definitely read it. Other than that there is not much else to say.

Now half of you probably saw this was about Dawkins and were expecting a rant on atheism, or a list of reasons as to why religion is stupid. Well, to appease this interest, and since you read this far, here is a recent video of Dawkins protesting the pope! Enjoy:




47 comments:

  1. I have heard of this book before and wasn't sure if I'd be interested in reading it, but after your blog on it it looks like I should.

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  2. Cool Kingmush. I think, in general, people should read more. It is becoming a lost art.

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  3. Nice post bro the book sounds very interesting, perhaps I'll give it a read.
    Supporting your blog bro ;D

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  4. I know this author and his other works so this would not surprise me at all if it turns out to be amazing :D Awesome review by the way, makes me want to check it out!

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  5. Interesting points my friend.....

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  6. VEry good review. I'll have to pick this one up sometime!

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  7. Whoa, that's a pretty thorough read. haha. I've barely started reading the book so I couldn't read your whole review in fear that it would ruin the book for me. I'll definitely come back once I'm done reading it though because I would like to share some of my opinions.

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  8. If you liked Ancestor's Tale, you should check out The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It's by Carl Sagan, and as good as Dawkins can write (holy shit can he write), Sagan was MUCH better.

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  9. I'm an agnostic, and I read this book too. It was a very good read.

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  10. It sounds like a difficult but interesting read. I'm not one to really follow these types of books, so I'm glad you reviewed it. Thanks, bro!

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  11. good read, I enjoyed it. I'm quite a fan of his

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  12. I love the fact that Dawkins has a sign-language interpreter translating his speech beside him.

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  13. digging the blog! SUPPORTING AND FOLLOWING

    return the favor

    http://anonym.to/?http://cityslika.blogspot.com

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  14. TO be fair...for most humans, we ARE the most important species, wither this is delusional nonsense or not.

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  15. Rofl, anyone who talks shit to the pope is cool with me.

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  16. haha need balls to shit talk the pope

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  17. Nice post. I found it very informative. I might even check out this book

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  18. I always admire what Dawkins does, I think one of the most important books I've read is The Selfish Gene. While there are certainly more influential books out there, at the time I read it the book changed my way of thinking in regards to many aspects of humanity. I need to read more of his stuff.

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  19. Just added this book to my list. Thank you!

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  20. Dawkins selfish gene ftw, this book looks really interesting, good post!

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  21. Yay! I'm so happy to be the 100th follower of this great blog!

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  22. MY COPY OF THE GOD DELUSION IS SIGNED, BABY!

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  23. someone better for real put the pope in his place.
    political power is one thing.

    religious power is downright malicious.

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  24. It sounds like a good book :D I still have to get through Selfish Gene, but I'll add this to the list too.

    The current pope freaks me out. He looks like he came out of the middle ages.

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  25. great review i'll be sure to get this

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  26. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  27. What a serious amount of information o.o

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  28. Nice review, I've never read this book, but I will consider reading it now. :)

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  29. I read this book too. I agree with your review.

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  30. Religion... bleh. Too each his own I guess.

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  31. Richard Dawkins for President can't come soon enough I'm afraid.

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  32. Good review, I might pick up this book this weekend!

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  33. showing my daily support ;)

    http://anonym.to/?http://cityslika.blogspot.com

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  34. There's something irresistible about Dawkins. Maybe it's his close resemblance to Emma Watson.

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