The ancestor's tale: a pilgrimage to the dawn of life

The ancestor’s tale: a pilgrimage to the dawn of life 
Richard Dawkins 
London, UK: Phoenix | 2005 | 685pp | ?9.99 | ISBN 0753819961
Reviewed by Bea Perks 

Richard Dawkins isn’t exactly a chemist, but then Chaucer wasn’t exactly an evolutionary biologist. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and professor of the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, UK, has taken Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a framework on which to retrace the evolutionary path of today’s plants, animals and microbes back to a common evolutionary origin. A strong contender for that shared origin is a group of rather special chemicals. 

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century, represents a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their path from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral.  

Dawkins’ pilgrims - every species of living creature on earth - have replaced Canterbury with their shared evolutionary starting point. The question of exactly what this is remains, famously, something of a mystery. But the author puts in a good case for RNA, based on a sturdy body of work by such luminaries as Manfred Eigen, winner of the 1967 Nobel prize for chemistry. RNA has some of the replicator virtues of DNA, writes Dawkins, and some of the enzyme virtues 
of proteins.  

It’s fascinating stuff, and in between those molecules at the ’Canterbury’ end of the tale and all current living things at the other, Dawkins offers readers an astonishing display of life - red (blue, yellow, green...) in tooth (leaf, fin, feather...) and claw. The pictures are fabulous, the writing is clear and compelling, the only drawback from a Christmas-list point of view is you might have a job squeezing it into a stocking.