Thursday, July 21, 2011

Another five star review

5.0 out of 5 stars A Grand and Glorious Guide to Evolution,
By John Kwok (New York, NY USA)

Why is evolution one of the most important ideas of science? Who was Charles Darwin, and why should he be seen as one of the greatest scientists of all time? How has evolutionary thought influenced sciences other than biology? What impact has evolutionary thought made on the humanities and arts? Why is evolution controversial? These are the principal questions addressed by British microbiologist Mark Pallen in "The Rough Guide to Evolution". It is a relatively terse masterpiece of scientific writing and content, which tells the story of evolution and its fundamental importance to human society and culture in barely more than three hundred twenty pages. "The Rough Guide to Evolution" deserves a place on the bookshelves of everyone, both the scientifically literate, and especially, those who are not, simply for the compelling story it tells about the origins, history and current thinking with regards to evolution.

The largest, most important, section is entitled "Part 1: Ideas and Evidence", tracing the history of evolutionary thought, from antiquity to the very present. The first three chapters summarize early thinking on evolution and, of course, Darwin's life and career. Pallen's biographical chapters on Darwin (2 and 3) are especially noteworthy for dispelling myths about Darwin's life and work, and for succinctly presenting the main concepts of his theory of evolution via natural selection (which was discovered independently by Wallace). Chapter 4 is a most admirable summary of the major lines of evidence for evolution, covering everything from biogeography to missing links in the fossil record, vestigial organs in humans, and the significance of homology. In Chapter 5 ("Evolutionary Biology"), Pallen offers among the best written accounts I have read on the nature of speciation (accompanied by simple, well-executed diagrams illustrating the major types) and of phylogenetic systematics (more popularly known as "cladistics"), emphasizing how much modern evolutionary biology has advanced considerably since the joint publication of Darwin and Wallace's ideas on natural selection in 1858 (The only glaring omissions appear to be extensive discussions of coevolution and of ecology, especially of the important species area effect, noted first by one of Darwin's heroes, Baron Alexander von Humboldt.).

A relatively brief section on the history of life (Part 2) is subtitled, "The Greatest Story Ever Told". Much to my surprise, in one long chapter (6), Pallen discusses not only the origin of life on Earth, but also a surprisingly thorough summary of the entire Phanerozoic Eon (the history of life since the dawn of the Cambrian Period, approximately 550 million years ago), which notes not just the major innovations in that history (evolution of the earliest metazoans and the successive invasions of the land by plants and animals), but such, quite literally, Earth-shattering, events as the terminal Permian and Cretaceous mass extinctions, which, respectively, wiped out approximately 96 and 50 percent of Earth's biota (There's an extensive discussion too on the probable causes of mass extinctions, which, amazingly, refers to the important 1982 paper by American invertebrate paleontologists J. John Sepkoski and David M. Raup.). Human evolution is covered extensively in the following chapter (7), and this may be as noteworthy for both the socio-political aspects of paleoanthropology and, of course, its fossil evidence.

Part 3 ("Impact") emphasizes evolution's influence on other sciences, humanities and the arts, and its still controversial relationship to certain religions. For these reasons alone, readers may find this the most interesting, most compelling, section of this Rough Guide. In Chapter 8, Pallen truly covers a vast terrain, emphasizing how natural selection is influencing modern cosmology, computer science, and even, economics (which, I suppose, isn't surprising, given how early modern economics - in the form of Adam Smith's thinking - influenced Darwin's own conception of the "economy of nature"). He also devotes much attention to the still controversial evolutionary psychology and its intellectual ancestor, sociobiology (Incidentally Pallen neglects to mention American entomologist E. O. Wilson's seminal contribution to ecology; the MacArthur - Wilson model of equilibrium island biogeography. One might argue persuasively that this very concept has had as much importance in modern biology - especially in the realm of conservation biology - as has sociobiology.). Chapter 9, devoted to evolution's impact on philosophy and the arts, covers everything from late 19th Century Victorian fiction to science fiction, and even, rock and roll and reggae. Chapter 10, on evolution's uneasy relationship with politics, not only discusses at length, Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism (It was he, not Darwin, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest".), but also lays to rest the ridiculous canard that, somehow, Darwinian thought inspired Hitler and his fellow Nazis towards committing the Holocaust. Chapter 11 traces evolution's peculiar history with Western religions, including Islam, and provides a most concise overview of the American creationist movement, from the 1925 Scopes Trial to the 2005 Dover Trial, refuting every major argument made by creationists against evolution, especially those by Intelligent Design creationists.

Last, but not least, Part 4 ("Resources") is an all too brief coda to this splendid book, outlining the extensive print, other media, and online resources available to those interested in exploring further, both evolution and its intellectual and cultural impact on contemporary societies. Chapter 12 is written especially for the diehard Darwin fan, describing most of the buildings in London and elsewhere associated with Darwin. Chapter 13 discusses primarily the commemorative events associated each year with his birthday (February 12), especially this bicentennial year. Chapter 14 summarizes the extensive literature on Darwin - and should be invaluable as a bibliographic guide alone, even if it's not nearly as complete as I would have wished - and other media references. Finally, at the very end, Chapter 15 is a superb glossary of key evolutionary biology scientific terms and concepts.

If one is seeking a one-stop, all inclusive, guide to evolution and its intellectual and cultural impact on contemporary society, then buy this book. Trust me. Without a doubt, Mark Pallen has demonstrated most persuasively, and most brilliantly, how and why evolution is so important.