The Ancestor's Tale


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The Ancestor's Tale

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Editado: Abr 26, 2012, 8:20 am

One of the more challenging books I have read in a good while is The Ancestor's Tale. I am just finishing it, but would like to go back to the beginning and read it again.

There is so much in all the various tales told, I would like to have a group (guided) reading of the book.

I am posting this here, but given the size of this group, there may be another group that will have more members to participate.

Any one interested?

Abr 26, 2012, 9:41 am

I've read it but wasn't so enthralled that I'd be likely to re-read. However I'm always up for discussing aspects of any book I've read.

Abr 26, 2012, 10:03 am

Yes. Enthralling is not the first word that comes to my mind to describe the book. But it is packed with stuff that I need to go over again. You would be one of those I would like to have access to for my questions.

Abr 26, 2012, 12:20 pm

I have it on my shelf and would be happy to join a group read.

Abr 27, 2012, 5:08 am

#3 just ask. I make no promises about my ability to answer, but I'll try when I get time.

Abr 28, 2012, 7:54 am

I might be up for this. I travel during the week, and don't fancy lugging the book along, so I'd only be doing a slow read at weekends.

Editado: Abr 28, 2012, 8:34 am

It is a big book. And like readingfox said less than enthrallling, so slow read is about the right pace - in pieces. Although some parts can be extremely engaging.

I wonder if there is a good background resource to help with the earth ages and with the taxonomic classifications. Just those names themselves can be intimidating and cause a reading to be slow.

Another book that I thought was helpful and closer to enthralling is Blueprints Solving the Mystery of Evolution.

Abr 28, 2012, 8:49 am

I also having it sitting on my shelf. I'll keep an eye on this thread and join you if at all possible.

Abr 28, 2012, 9:00 am

Well, I think that makes a quorum.

I will be out of town this weekend, but will start a thread next week, maybe Sunday afternoon. So dust off your copies.

I was thinking that there will probably need to be different topics - some covering a group of tales or a single or a group of rendezvous or maybe even a specific topic.

Editado: Abr 28, 2012, 9:03 am

Well, I think that makes a quorum.

I will be out of town this weekend, but will start a thread next week, maybe Sunday afternoon. So dust off your copies.

I was thinking that there will probably need to be different topics - some covering a group of tales or a single or a group of rendezvous or maybe even a specific topic.

I think it must be a random mutation that occasionally causes a post to double.

Abr 28, 2012, 9:18 am

And we should advertise the group read in some other groups. I'll take care of

12 in 12 Category Challenge (lots of folks there who like group reads)
History at 30,000 Feet (probably some membership crossover)
BOMBS (Books Off My Book Shelf) - maybe some others who have it languishing and would like a push to read it

Abr 28, 2012, 9:23 am

There once was a topic about books owned but unread - I wonder if Ancestor's Tale would qualify?

Abr 28, 2012, 10:45 am

Jul 6, 2012, 1:37 am

I read it. Enjoyed it but I think it hurt my brain. I don't think I can reread it.

As for books on evolution I know I will never read this is at the top of the list:

1,464 pages? My ass.

Jul 6, 2012, 6:55 am

A perfect book for the Kindle but not available.....

Jul 6, 2012, 8:08 am

I am still planning to start this up. I had a couple other things that came up, and I wanted to get a better handle on some concepts in the book, before I picked it back up.

Dez 29, 2012, 7:51 pm

Just saw these posts. I've been planning to read this as well. Have read several of Dawkin's other works. Have you set a date?

Dez 30, 2012, 11:37 pm

I have wanted to get back on this topic since I started it. I keep getting caught up in other stuff. Right now I am in the middle of a tough astronomy course on Coursera, which is kicking my butt.

Maybe Feb/March?

We can start the book up, but I really was interested in a deeper study around the book, more so than just a group read.

Maybe get some of the LT pros on biology and evolution to contribute.

Dez 30, 2012, 11:48 pm

BTW, there is a coursera course on genetics and evolution that starts this Friday. I have signed up for it, even though I will still be in the astronomy course.

Check it out if you are interested.

Editado: Dez 31, 2012, 5:49 am

Dear #19,

I have never 'done' an on-line course and it did look interesting until I saw the first topic

•Evidence for evolution

What sort of people is this course 'catering to?'.

And, is there an interactive component (I guess thru email etc.) to it.


ETA. Just re-read the sylabus, guess NOT for me.
Thanks any way.

Dez 31, 2012, 6:54 am

Sounds great. I'm also interested in a deeper analysis, and have some background in this area (masters in molecular biology, PhD in bioinformatics).

guido47, here's a link to a breezy overview of evolution by natural selection written for computer scientists. The first few chapters provide all the fundamentals:

The chapters on evolutionary computation aren't really relevant to Dawkins, but suggest what a universal force evolution is now realized to be. Maybe fodder for a later discussion?

Dez 31, 2012, 7:50 am

I did not think that course would be for me either, but the astronomy course is very good. It is my first one, and others participatants have generally given other courses high marks. I am looking forward to it, however, MartyBrandon, given your background, it does look to be a level or 20 beneath you. :)

There are some interactive component - homework, exams, forum discussions, and web classes/discussions. The degree of the interactive components varies with the class, I think.

Jan 1, 2013, 11:52 am

Unfortunately, I'm working as a software engineer these days to earn my bread. But I've built phylogenetic trees and know the chemistry, so I can assist those who need help with the background information.

There's also an abridged audio version (still 8 hours long) if you can find it:

Happy New Year,

Jan 1, 2013, 2:35 pm

21: Oh, neat, thanks!

I have, but haven't yet read, The Ancestor's Tale, so I'll participate in a group read if it ever gets going.

Jan 5, 2013, 12:51 am

Started the Evolution course. Found this video. Of course it would be more appropriate for the end of the Ancestor's Tale.

Jan 5, 2013, 7:00 pm

>25 richardbsmith: Interesting video. Has the course mentioned the "RNA World", a popular theory when about 10 yrs. ago when I was studying biology. I attend talks of an astrobiology group who often discuss issues related to panspermia. My teachers gave this idea only a few minutes of consideration, but it's surprising how much chemistry occurs in outer space.

Jan 5, 2013, 8:10 pm

It is just the first couple days. The first week is fairly general, and has the focus of whether evolution is true. The forum discussion have been a little cluttered with discussion about whether you believe in evolution.

The syllabus suggests that the course will pick up the pace next week, even so I do not think paspermia occupies a significant amount of attention. Astrobiology does not seem either to be an emphasis.

The origins of life are getting some play in the forums, but it will not be discussed much if any in the course.

Jan 5, 2013, 9:35 pm

Sounds like a good course. Please share any interesting material.

Editado: Jan 5, 2013, 10:13 pm

Thanks Marty (#21)

Looks like a good overview. Ties in with what I have - in a more scattered way - read. Though following ALL the references might take some time :-)


Jan 6, 2013, 4:59 am

This was mentioned in the forums.

Click on the BOOK link at the top.

Jan 6, 2013, 10:20 am

>30 richardbsmith: Interesting tool. There's also some great links under the Resources tab.

Jan 8, 2013, 6:00 pm

So far, the first week in the evolution course, the lessons were establishing the evidence for evolution with an eye toward countering creationism.

this compared to an astronomy course I am also taking. In astronomy we have been hard focused on physics as it relates to astronomy. It has been a demanding course.

Evolution has been so far a solid week of discussion about whether or not you believe in evolution.

I am hoping very much that we start the science part soon. I am getting very tired of debating belief in evolution.

Editado: Jan 8, 2013, 6:36 pm

Thanks #30, That book did really look interesting as a reference. Until I saw the price.
$200, Ouch.

Jan 8, 2013, 6:36 pm

It is a steep price, but it looks like it can be downloaded by chapter for free?

I must confess though I scanned some of the material and it seemed a bit more advanced than I can follow.

I do like the pictures though. :)

Jan 8, 2013, 6:51 pm

>32 richardbsmith: That's really too bad, there's so much interesting material that could be covered, as well as some genuine controversies over the details. Hope it picks up soon.

>33 guido47: The Brights created a nice classroom poster compactly showing the history of life on earth. It's probably not as nice as the TimeTree book, but it gives a good overview and you can download a free copy:

Jan 8, 2013, 7:06 pm

The meat of the course begins next week.

Fingers crossed.

Fev 2, 2013, 7:09 pm

>36 richardbsmith: How's the evolution course?

I've started reading bits of The Ancestor's Tale. Maybe we can begin discussion of background material or the context in which the book is written? Maybe the discussion would include other aspects of evolution? There's been a long-time argument about the level at which evolution occurs. One of Dawkins' other books (The Selfish Gene) argued very persuasively for gene-level selection, but last year E.O. Wilson came out of the closet as a, gasp . . . group selectionist with his book The Social Conquest of Earth. I'm also fascinated by the maturation of evolutionary ideas from science to applied areas, such as combinatorial chemistry and genetic algorithms. When someone obstinately insists on labeling evolution as just a theory, I don't think they realize that it has become a fundamental base of knowledge in branches of engineering.

Just some ideas. Is there still interest?

Fev 2, 2013, 7:34 pm

When someone obstinately insists on labeling evolution as just a theory,...

I think the only people who say that have an agenda (eg. Creationists/Design)
often, purposefully, confusing "hypothesis" or even "conjecture". Not really worth answering, unless it is through sheer ignorance. In which case WE can educate them.

Sorry, I did find a good exposition on the difference, but the margin of my book was too small :-)

Fev 3, 2013, 8:16 am

I am hoping to avoid discussion whether evolution is true or not. There was plenty of that on the first week of the course. My primary hope for the group read was to discuss some of the more difficult concepts in it.

MartyBrandon, it may be though that more difficult concepts for you are impossible concepts for me. :) It might be a jump for me to discuss combinatorial chemistry and genetic algoriths. But what the heck, maybe we can give it a go.

The course so far has been mostly genetics, which is as advertised. I just did not read the advertisement close enough. Learning about genetics has been fun though. It is one of those things that I did not think would be interesting, yet it has been very much so.

The biggest thing holding me up from starting on this has been the astronomy course, which is now finishing up. It has been a difficult course and took much time and effort.

I can probably start this next week, if folks are ready.

Fev 3, 2013, 9:53 am

Umm, MartyBrandon and richardbsmith (OP),

I sort of know what "genetic algorithim's" are. But buggered if I can define them (without looking up WIKI) but what is "combinatorial chemistry"? I could make a vague guess: The probability that a configuration (in a complex molecule - a la "folding problem"? occurs?)

Just wondering, should I look up every mention before I come into a read/discussion, or is it OK to NOT, say, know what "combinatorial chemistry" is, before joining in?

I guess I am trying to find the 'tenor' of the disussion. How much do you expect of me to have looked up before hand? When do I start sounding like an idiot (at the appropriate level)

How much prep. do you expect? Of course I will be expected to have read the book. But what else?


Fev 3, 2013, 10:28 am

>40 guido47: I wasn't intending to exclude anyone by by throwing out buzz words, only to harness the collective eyes and idea-generation made possible in a discussion group. These technologies can be explained fairly succinctly, but the discussion of their potential uses and impact could go on forever. Having worked in an interdisciplinary discipline that required collaboration with specialists from other areas, I'll confess to having gotten accustomed to feeling like the "idiot". Someone else in the room always knew more about chemistry, biology, or math. Yet, I often found that once I'd digested the basic facts of the problem, I was able to make a contribution.

Perhaps we might even do some mini-discussions using resources with a lower threshold of commitment. I watched a TED talk this morning on optigenetics, another buzz word that I did not know, but it's usefulness was immediately apparent.

My apologies richardbsmith if this is in any way disrupting what you had intended for the discussion.

Fev 3, 2013, 12:37 pm

No apologies needed. I am excited that some, like you, with expertise will join in. No limits to what can be discussed, though I am mostly interesting in discussing the topics and ideas that are in the book. There was plenty in there for me that could be expanded on.

The evolution class I am taking is not in preparation for this group read - it is just a course that I saw available.

Marty, I am certain that the course material is basic for you. Though there are some experts in the field who are taking the class and who add some depth to the forum discussions.

I can start the week after this coming week (Feb 11 or so).

Fev 4, 2013, 2:43 pm

37: There's been a long-time argument about the level at which evolution occurs.
I read The Selfish Gene too long ago to remember, and The Social Conquest of Earth just last month. Here’s an article by David Sloan Wilson that claims both Dawkins and Wilson are outliers, and an area of agreement and consensus exists. Bunch of other stuff around on the internet that I haven’t yet read.

I've begun reading The Ancestor's Tale. I have no expertise whatsoever.

Fev 4, 2013, 9:27 pm

>43 qebo: Excellent article. A saw a similar perspective piece a few months back, but not as detailed. I'll admit to having been very taken aback by Wilson's book. I studied molecular biology in the late 1990's and did research in a biomedical lab. The lunchtime conversation would often be about some aspect of natural selection. We'd all been exposed to the basics of natural selection, but none of use were experts in evolution. Talk of group selection seemed outdated and mostly the domain of people like Kropotkin, who allowed their activist philosophy to influence their science. We, being hard-minded scientists, weren't having any of that. Now, it seems worth another look, though I still hold a few reservations. While I've always thought Wilson was a good writer, there wasn't much hard evidence cited in his book. In contrast, Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" was a tour-de-force of seemingly airtight models supported by lots of computationally-minded allies. Dawkins' work is also a few decades old so one might expect parts to have need updating based on new findings, but Wilson, having only recently dropped his bomb, can't claim that defense.

Fev 5, 2013, 4:47 am

#40 - "but what is "combinatorial chemistry"? I could make a vague guess: The probability that a configuration (in a complex molecule - a la "folding problem"? occurs?)

Not really. Ususally used to mean a screening approach where an array of similar (but slightly different) compounds are created and then tested for whatever the desired outcome might be. Done by hand this was very very laborious, but modern robotic synthesis means that it can now be automated and rapidly performed. It produces trully vast amounts of data, which has it's own problems. And as is also the case, different fields of chemistry may use same/similar terms for different ideas.

Editado: Fev 5, 2013, 6:13 am

Thanks reading_fox (#45),

I hope the forth coming discussions will be as useful :-)

But, but, even Hundreds of thousands of variations are a tiny sub-set? And what are the Physical limits even with Robots?)

I guess that those sort of question, by WE who are not 'into' a subject YOU will have to get used to.

ETA. To add *grins* (or is that a rictus?) all around.

Fev 5, 2013, 6:41 am

"But, but, even Hundreds of thousands of variations are a tiny sub-set? And what are the Physical limits even with Robots?)

Yes; time, budget, and synthetic space - not all possible endproducts can be easily made from available starting materials.

Fev 5, 2013, 9:41 am

I hate to confess this but I had thought that all traits had to be advantageous to the individual survival or reproduction or they could not be selected.

Fev 5, 2013, 9:46 am

48> Then how do explain worker bees?

Fev 5, 2013, 7:08 pm

>46 guido47: I've been out of the loop for a couple of years, but one use of combinatorial chemistry was to synthetically evolve an improved binding protein. Many things in the body are mediated by proteins binding to some other molecule and getting a better binder is often the key to making a more effective drug. Proteins, as you may know, are like a string of beads that fold into a 3-D structure. As reading_fox mentions, one technique is to produce vast numbers of proteins synthetically and screen for the best binders. However, because each bead is one of 20 different amino acids you get a "combinatorial explosion" in the number of possibilities for all but the shortest proteins. HOWEVER, they have strategies to work around this. The amino acids fall into 4 or 5 groups in which the members are somewhat similar in size and charge, allowing a reduction in the alphabet of beads used. The process can also be made iterative so that the best binders are selected in a round with the following round of binders produced from incremental modification to those in the first round. This is the sort of thing I referred to when I said that natural selection has moved into the domain of engineering. They are quite literally evolving a protein for a desired function.

Fev 5, 2013, 7:12 pm

> 48 There's a difference between the vehicle of selection and the units of inheritance on which natural selection operates. The article qebo posted gives a nice summary.

Editado: Fev 6, 2013, 8:03 am

That is an interesting question. I don't know how to explain bee genetics.

Do worker bees reproduce themselves, male and female worker bees taking time off for some social interaction, producing baby worker bees?

Is a worker bee a worker bee because of genetics or because of environment (diet)?

Fev 6, 2013, 8:43 am

>49 jjwilson61: I think that's one of the things E.O. Wilson would like us to re-examine. In the inclusive fitness view, where genes are central, it's argued that non-reproducing castes like worker bees actually have a high level of fitness when you look at it from the level of the gene, since their genes are present in the queen, who is reproducing. Group selectionist, like Wilson, are arguing that we should instead view the hive as a kind of super-organism in which the workers can be viewed as extensions of the queen. And the Sloan paper posted by qebo suggests that revised models of group selection are able to unify the two ideas.

Editado: Fev 6, 2013, 9:52 am

I found this on bee's.

It looks like there is some interesting stuff here to help me learn about bees.

Did social bees evolve from solitary bees - maybe a solitary bee found it helpful to create a bunch of slave bees?

It apparently is a one and done for male bees in some species.

I wonder also, why a bee dies when it stings someone. (Assuming that is true.) That does not seem to be a particularly beneficial evolutionary solution for survival of the individual bee's genes?

Fev 6, 2013, 12:45 pm

54> It's not just bees. I don't know if it's common but it's a not uncommon strategy among insects. Look up termites and ants.

Fev 6, 2013, 1:11 pm

54: Did social bees evolve from solitary bees
Darwin had things to say about bees:, and E. O. Wilson has things to say about ants: (links are to my summaries of On the Origin of Species and The Social Conquest of Earth. The gist is that yes, colonies evolved from solitary, and it’s not as radical as one might expect; the behaviors already exist, so the crucial step is for the offspring to stay in the nest rather than disperse. I know next to nothing beyond this, so you’re on your own doing internet research...

Fev 6, 2013, 9:21 pm

Wilson talks about nesting behavior as being an import first step towards what he calls eusociality. As qebo says, the species is then primed, though it has only occurred in a very small number. Wilson's description is very intriguing, but while I'd been exposed to terms like kin selection in biology classes, I'd never heard "eusociality" until reading his book. I've not had time to do much fact checking. Has anyone encountered well-articulated (preferably with supporting research) praise or criticism?

Fev 7, 2013, 8:29 am

Has anyone here seen a capybara? Photos on the internet show people cuddling them like a dog. Just wondered what their temperament and behavior are like.

Fev 7, 2013, 11:56 pm

I spent a while on the internet gathering information on Capybara's. I found wild, hunted animals that, like all animals in that situation, avoided humans. I found outfitters who advertised their services with photos of proud armed hunters who had bagged one of these. Odd, I didn't find any cuddly ones.

Fev 8, 2013, 7:07 am

>59 johnabell: What a pitty. They look like gentle creatures. YouTube has some footage:

Fev 8, 2013, 8:24 am

I am not ever going to be ready to start the group read. I just signed up for a biology course and an electromagnetism course on Coursera. It looks like there will never be a good time for me to do this.

So I think this weekend is as bad as any. :)

Fev 8, 2013, 8:54 am

Err... Does this mean we go?

Fev 8, 2013, 9:55 am

Argh. I've just started reading The Rational Optimist as my non-fiction on the go. Still, one chapter of 'TAT' a week each weekend is something I should be able to manage. That's tomorrow morning in bed sorted!

Fev 9, 2013, 10:18 pm

Just so that no one gets left behind, Richard started a new thread for The Ancestor Tale Discussion: