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Evolution: The Remarkable History of a…
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Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (Modern Library…

by Edward J. Larson

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The author traces the history of evolutionary theory from the earliest era through Darwin to the present (about 2005). He covers the various "evolution wars" that have occurred throughout the 20th century in America, and details a few of the key players. In a rare moment in science writing, he gets the outcome of the Scopes trial totally right, not marking it as a victory for science, but noting that evolution pretty much disappeared from textbooks until the 1960s. The book doesn't talk much about the evidence for evolution; it merely touches on that, more interested in the historical trajectory of the theory. A very good introduction to the history of science (well, at least one small area of science). ( )
1 vote quantum_flapdoodle | Jul 7, 2014 |
Edward J. Larson's Evolution is an excellent summary of the history of ideas about evolution, as they have developed over the past 300 years. Written for the general reader, this book offers a social and intellectual history that does not expect the reader to have any scientific background. Its focus is on ideas of the major scientists and other thinkers from the late 18th century through the late 20th century, and on the social and political context in which these ideas emerged.

Any readers under the impression that the concept of evolution began with Charles Darwin will quickly find out otherwise through the book's exploration of ideas of such thinkers as Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Jean Lamarck. Following an exposition of advances in geology, the scientific contributions of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace are given prominence, along with consideration of scientific and social responses to their ideas in 19th century Europe and America. Next, Larson traces how evolutionary ideas were affected by advances in paleontology and the rise of transmission genetics (thought for decades to be incompatible with Darwinian evolution). He then considers the development of quantitative approaches of population genetics, and the eventual integration of all of these fields via the "Modern Synthesis" of the 1940s and beyond. Later chapters of the book touch on such contemporary ideas as punctuated equilibrium, evolution of altruism, kin selection, and "selfish genes," through consideration of such figures as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, William D. Hamilton, and E.O. Wilson.

As a historian, Larsen has published extensively on the social and political responses to evolutionary ideas in the US throughout the 20th century. His expertise is on display in Evolution through chapters on (so-called) "social Darwinism," on the anti- evolution crusades of the first few decades of the 1900s, and on the "creationist" courtroom battles of the 1970s through the present.

Larsen's account is accurate, well written, and interesting to read. Though the author is not a scientist (Larsen is a professor of history), his exposition of the scientific issues is clear and largely accurate. However, because this is a work of history (not biology), it does not attempt to present the massive evidence for the process of evolution.

Any work tackling a subject so broad is bound to leave aspects out. Among Larsen's omissions, his account of contemporary evolutionary theory does not consider neutral mutation theory, genetic drift, the impact of DNA sequencing, advances in developmental genetics, and experimental demonstrations of natural selection in evolving populations. Knowledgeable readers may take exception to a few features in Larsen's historical accounts. For example, attempts to tie Ernst Haeckel's evolutionary ideas to the rise of National Socialism have been rebutted by some scholars; and the claim that Haeckel unequivocally viewed Germanic peoples as the pinnacle of human evolution has been contested as simplistic and incomplete.

A few other recent books for the general reader have explored the history of evolutionary ideas, including Peter Bowler's Evolution: History of An Idea and Michael Ruse's The Evolution Wars. Both of these works are excellent, and appropriate for university - level classes in history and biology. Larsen's book stands up well by comparison; what it lacks in the detail and complexity is made up for by being readable and accessible for the general reader. I highly recommend it as a general exposition of the history of scientific ideas about evolution and the responses they have engendered in western society. ( )
3 vote danielx | Dec 23, 2012 |
This book has a Modern Library logo on it and is part of a series named The Modern Library Chronicles. I used the very handy LT series feature and checked some of the other books in the series. There are thirty-two titles that cover the history of everything from communism to the company. While reading the book ( I also listened to an audio edition) I realized that I have another book by this author, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion which is a very good book. He covers the same topic in this book.
I enjoyed this book immensely. It is well written and for me very informative. This book taught me a lot about what I don't know about evolution. When the author started writing about statistical models he got over my head very fast. For the large part the author builds his story using the personalities and contributions of a group of men who over time have created present evolutionary theory. The author does an excellent job of narrating an ongoing conversation between men all over the world about this idea beginning in the late 18th Century. Each person has a different wrinkle on how to understand and explain the development of the different organisms that have inhabited the planet. Always present are those who would deny that evolution exists based upon their religious beliefs.
I was fascinated by the role of Darwin's finches in the whole development of the theory of evolution. They are a group of species of finches that live on the Galapagos islands. A primary distinguishing feature of the different species are their beaks. Some have big squat beaks and some have smaller pointed beaks. The different beaks are adapted for eating different types of seeds. These species all developed from one species of finches that moved to the Galapagos and mutated into the different species that Darwin found. In modern times there has been intensive field work done on these birds to try to understand the process of species differentiation.
In the present day field naturalists find that geographic isolation is very important for the development of new species. The geneticists talk about isolated gene pools.
Many of the scientific ideas that make up the story of this theory originate in one individual. The author's full life portrayals of these men and the effects of their personalities on their ideas was fascinating. The genius Watson who with Crick discovered DNA is a molecular biologist. He is also a rather mean minded person who has no use for the ideas of field naturalists. This narrows the scope of his ideas.
The author has an excellent section on the culture wars. The development of scientific creationism has made the battle for the schools a present day problem. The end of the 20th century saw a resurgence of the groups opposed to evolution. I know in my state the Chief Judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals was the head of a group that opposed the teaching of evolution. The author also mentions eugenics, the dark side of evolution.
This is just a smattering of what is covered in the book. It is chock full of interesting people and interesting ideas. The well crafted writing makes it a pleasure to read. I think I will seriously look at some of the other titles in the series. If you have an interest in this topic and are not an expert I recommend this book. ( )
3 vote wildbill | Jun 30, 2011 |
This Amazon review is a good description and evaluation of this book. I have only dipped into it, but it appears to be a very readable description of this scientific theory that has had such an impact on our lives.
By John Sollami (Stamford, CT) - See all my reviews


This review is from: Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (Modern Library Chronicles) (Hardcover)
For those committed to knowing how the theory of evolution itself evolved through the past 200 or so years, this neat text will provide you with all the highlights and some intriguing details. From Cuvier, the French naturalist who in 1796 was writing about speciation, through Richard Owens' 1861 delineation of geologic eras, periods, and epochs, Darwin's release in 1859 of "On the Origin of Species," and all the cultural and intellectual wars ensuing, Larson's straightforward presentation keeps you in the drama. The drama heats up considerably as a backlash against Darwin and T.H. Huxley throws the theory against Genesis and Christianity, a battle still raging in parts of the US today. Lest we forget, Larson points out how Francis Galton and Ernest Haeckel set the stage in the nineteenth century for "eugenics" and selective breeding in human populations, which fed the raging racism, sterilization programs (even in the U.S.), and extermination camps of the twentieth century. Others who signed on to a reductionist view of "survival of the fittest" felt all social programs to help the poor and weak were against the natural order of things and in fact were adulterating the survival of the strong. These views too are still with us, in conservative circles in particular. The Scopes trial of 1925 is given good coverage here, and one wonders what today's fundamentalists would say to Clarence Darrow's examination of their views.
It is clear by the end of this account that the theory of evolution is still in transition, and its development has still to be played out. Highly recommended history that will fill in the gaps on how we got to where we are in our "modern" view of this sweeping theory. Help other customers find the most helpful reviews
The author was in the University of Georgia History Department for many years.
  carterchristian1 | Dec 10, 2008 |
A very good history of ideas. I had no idea that early work in statistics and natural selection was so tied up with eugenics. Highly recommended. ( )
  leeinaustin | Oct 6, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812968492, Paperback)

“I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking.” So wrote Charles Darwin aboard The Beagle, bound for the Galapagos Islands and what would arguably become the greatest and most controversial discovery in scientific history. But the theory of evolution did not spring full-blown from the head of Darwin. Since the dawn of humanity, priests, philosophers, and scientists have debated the origin and development of life on earth, and with modern science, that debate shifted into high gear.

In this lively, deeply erudite work, Pulitzer Prize–winning science historian Edward J. Larson takes us on a guided tour of Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” from its theoretical antecedents in the early nineteenth century to the brilliant breakthroughs of Darwin and Wallace, to Watson and Crick’s stunning discovery of the DNA double helix, and to the triumphant neo-Darwinian synthesis and rising sociobiology today.

Along the way, Larson expertly places the scientific upheaval of evolution in cultural perspective: the social and philosophical earthquake that was the French Revolution; the development, in England, of a laissez-faire capitalism in tune with a Darwinian ethos of “survival of the fittest”; the emergence of Social Darwinism and the dark science of eugenics against a backdrop of industrial revolution; the American Christian backlash against evolutionism that culminated in the famous Scopes trial; and on to today’s world, where religious fundamentalists litigate for the right to teach “creation science” alongside evolution in U.S. public schools, even as the theory itself continues to evolve in new and surprising directions.

Throughout, Larson trains his spotlight on the lives and careers of the scientists, explorers, and eccentrics whose collaborations and competitions have driven the theory of evolution forward. Here are portraits of Cuvier, Lamarck, Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel, Galton, Huxley, Mendel, Morgan, Fisher, Dobzhansky, Watson and Crick, W. D. Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, and many others. Celebrated as one of mankind’s crowning scientific achievements and reviled as a threat to our deepest values, the theory of evolution has utterly transformed our view of life, religion, origins, and the theory itself, and remains controversial, especially in the United States (where 90% of adults do not subscribe to the full Darwinian vision). Replete with fresh material and new insights, Evolution will educate and inform while taking readers on a fascinating journey of discovery.


From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:54:23 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In this work, science historian Edward J. Larson takes us on a guided tour of Darwin's "dangerous idea, " from its theoretical antecedents in the early nineteenth century to the brilliant breakthroughs of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, to Watson and Crick's stunning discovery of the DNA double helix, and to today's triumphant neo-Darwinian synthesis and rising sociobiology." "Along the way, Larson places the scientific upheaval of evolution in cultural perspective: the social and philosophical earthquake that was the French Revolution; the development, in England, of a laissez-faire capitalism in tune with a Darwinian ethos of "survival of the fittest"; the emergence of Social Darwinism and the dark science of eugenics against a backdrop of industrial revolution; the American Christian backlash against evolutionism that culminated in the famous Scopes trial; and on to today's world, were religious fundamentalists litigate for the right to teach "creation science" alongside evolution in U.S. public schools, even as the theory itself continues to evolve in new and surprising directions."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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