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Darwin's Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond…
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Darwin's Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection

by Frank Ryan

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(posted on my blog: http://davenichols.net/darwins-blind-spot-evolution-beyond-natural-selection-fra...)

I picked up this book hoping that its subtitle, 'Evolution Beyond Natural Selection' would offer an interesting abstration of neo-Darwinian theory. In some ways, it certainly did so, but the results are a strange mix of solid science, sour grapes, and wishful cheerleading.

Make no mistake, the book is a relatively easy read, is well-written, and contains a ton of reference to good science, scientists, and some of the latest arguments on all sides of evolutionary thought. The backbone of the book, its discussion of symbiosis, is fascinating and would offer enlightenment to any reader unfamiliar with it. Ryan does an outstanding job conveying the importance of symbiotic relationships throughout most of the book, and I have no doubt of its importance as a primary driver of evolutionary diversity.

He hits at neo-Darwinists repeatedly, although generally backed up by some science. He uses Darwin's last 2 points (the gradual shift of the genome through small changes) to hammer away at neo-Darwinian theories, and offers some solid proof that Darwin was wrong to deny that evolution could be nearly spontaneous and dramatic. However, somewhere around halfway, I began to have some doubts about where this was heading. He had mentioned Lovelock and Gaia Theory, mostly in passing to that point, but had not quite dove head first into the fray. But his insistence throughout on emphasizing the positive aspects of symbiosis as key to evolution led to the utter decline of his narrative into an argument in favor of altruistic behavoir as something other than the widely accepted selfish gene theory. That's ok by itself, alternative theories offer guides toward better understanding, but the last 3 chapters are quite bizarre compared to the rest of the book. Ryan steps into near-metaphysical conjectures about altruism, social acceptance, and several times cherry-picks bits of good science to argue his points. Several alternative theories to selfish genes are thrown out, almost in a scattershot approach, kind of a last ditch effort to convince the reader that the neo-Darwinians are wrong, or at best, misleading.

I'm open to some of the alternative theories Ryan offers, clearly what we know about evolution is not the full picture and the role of symbiosis has been largely undervalued in popular science books, but by the time I'd read the first 80% of the book, I'd drawn a conclusion based on his presented evidence that the selfish gene theory could explain almost everything he claimed Darwinians could not explain. A few times he even props up stale straw men just to knock them down with a less-than-stellar argument in favor of his view.

At the end of the read, it was worth the time despite its weaknesses, and it should be an excellent introduction to the role of symbiosis in evolution and in daily life. Just consider how little direct evidence he offers for his secondary thesis that selfish gene theory fails to explain some of the things he offers, and I personally ignored his insistence in using Gaia as his platform for discussion. Altruism is a big one and Ryan's treatment of it really soured this book a bit at the end given that he had fallen down into subjective speculation rather than solid science. Take note of his leap-of-faith trick in refering to the 3-million year old footprints of (I believe it was Australopithecus africanus) in his discussions of social altruism. Overall, three and one-half stars. ( )
2 vote IslandDave | Apr 24, 2009 |
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Epigraph
Why should al the parts and organs of the many independent beings, each supposed to have been separately created for its proper place in nature, be so invariably linked together by graduated steps? Why should not Nature have taken a leap from structure to structure? On the theory of natural selection, we can clearly understand why she should not; for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest and slowest steps. -- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
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For my sister, Mary, and my brother, Tony
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The first-century Roman philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca had the misfortune of serving as the emporer Nero's adviser.
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"In Darwin's Blind Spot, Frank Ryan shows how the blending of life forms through symbiosis has resulted in gigantic leaps in evolution. The dependence of many flowering plants on insects and birds for pollination is an important instance of symbiosis. More surprising may be the fact that our cells have incorporated bacteria that allow us to breathe oxygen. And the equivalent of symbiosis within a species - cooperation - has been a vital, although largely ignored, force in human evolution. In Ryan's view, cooperation, not competition, lies at the heart of human society." "Ryan mixes stories of the many strange and beautiful results of symbiosis with accounts of the dramatic historic rivalries over the expansion of Darwin's theory. He also examines controversial research being done today, including studies suggesting that symbiosis among viruses led to the evolution of mammals and thus of humans. Too often Darwin's interpreters have put excessive emphasis on competition and struggle as the only forces in evolution. But the idea of "survival of the fittest" does not always reign. Symbiosis is critically important to the richness of Earth's life forms."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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