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The Rough Guide to Evolution (Rough Guide Science/Phenomena) (original 2009; edition 2009)

by Mark Pallen

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Member:briansb
Title:The Rough Guide to Evolution (Rough Guide Science/Phenomena)
Authors:Mark Pallen
Info:Rough Guides (2009), Paperback, 352 pages
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The Rough Guide to Evolution by Mark Pallen (2009)

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    Evolution's Captain: The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World by Peter Nichols (fyrefly98)
    fyrefly98: A very readable biography of FitzRoy that explains in more detail the circumstances of why the Beagle was on its fateful voyage in the first place.
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A very good introduction to the subject of evolution, though the author spends perhaps a bit too much time on the history of the people, and a little too short a time on the most important aspects that need to be dealt with today. It is quite a bit less important for people to know whether the Huxley/Wilberforce debate was reported in exact detail than it is for them to know all the ins and outs of why science accepts evolution as true, and also the impacts on society of failure to accept and teach evolutionary theory. That being said, no book can possibly be a comprehensive treatment of the subject, and this author ranges widely through the various personalities, theories, hypotheses, and just plain guesses that surround evolution. The unit on impact is decent, but again covers territory that is hardly as relevant as it could be. And his section on whether or not science and religion are compatible covers only one side of the controversy, leaving it to readers to assume that there is no disagreement with this position. No one who is in the know will find that believable; and as I've said many times before, simply listing scientists who are religious is not the same as demonstrating that science and religion are compatible, since humans are known to hold many mutually exclusive ideas simultaneously. Other than that, a very decent introduction to an important subject. ( )
1 vote quantum_flapdoodle | Aug 2, 2011 |
Mark Pallen

The Rough Guide to Evolution

Rough Guides, Paperback, 2009.

8vo. vi+346 pp.

First published, 2009.

Contents

Introduction

Part 1: Ideas and evidence
1. The evolution of evolution
2. Darwin's life and works
3. Darwin's evolution revolution
4. The evidence for evolution
5. Evolutionary biology

Part 2: The greatest story ever told
6. A brief history of life
7. Human evolution

Part 3: Impact
8. Other sciences
9. Philosophy and the arts
10. Politics
11. Religion

Part 4: Resources
12. Darwin's places
13. Events, activities and retail
14. Books, films and websites
15. Glossary

Index
Picture credits

===========================================

I have always had a little problem with evolution. Quite simply, I don't quite believe it. I can't. This may seem ludicrous and may even win me a good deal of contempt from some people - indeed, probably it already has - but I don't particularly care. I still cannot convince myself how it happened so that today's staggering variety of living organisms should have evolved from some primitive bacteria-like forms through purely accidental mistakes and improvements, no matter how efficiently the natural selection preserves the latter. Because this is what evolution - or ''the greatest story ever told'' as is often called - is all about. It's not about the origins of man and apes from a common ancestor, nor is it about dinosaurs and giant sloths, least of all it has anything to do with God and creationism. Evolution is about nothing less but all the way from bacteria to man. Personally, I have never been more convinced that evolution is true as when I watch a groups of chimpanzees, most of them occupied more intelligently that most people are. But this is not the point here. Evolution has a great deal more to explain than mere Homo Sapiens, even though the latter, intoxicated by his incredible vanity, often thinks himself as a kind of the most priceless jewel in the crown of the evolution. And the explanation must be entirely scientific, that is devoid of any subjectivity or feeling, thoroughly documented and explained, without any cracks or muddled points. Yet, ironically, it seems to me that to believe in evolution needs, of all things, a certain amount of faith.

My problem with evolution - purely personal problem with which nobody but myself is concerned - is additionally aggravated because my knowledge of the subject is very sketchy indeed, high-school fairy tales and all that kind of stuff. I certainly think that evolution deserves a better chance than that. This is where The Rough Guide to Evolution by Mark Pallen comes in, for it is supposed to be just that: comprehensive introduction for the layman. That it is but, on the whole, I have been rather disappointed with it. The problem is not that the book is superficial as I fully expected that; considering the dimensions of the subject, a single-volume introduction of less than 400 pages cannot even hope to give anything better than a very superficial glance. Nor is the problem that the layout of the book is monstrously garish and tasteless, with tons of words in bold type, red titles and red boxes, things like that; irritating for the eye but no big deal anyway. The problem is that this Rough Guide is indeed too rough. In other words, as far as I am concerned and for all great informative value it does have, the book is fatally flawed on two fronts: 1) it does not convince me that the evolutionary theory as it is today is able to explain the origin and the diversity of life on earth; and 2) it contains inordinately large amount of trivia and, occasionally, even pure junk.

Let's first have a look at what Mr Pallen has to say about the evidence of evolution. He has indeed very little to say beside the usual grand words used to describe it: massive, overwhelming, etc. It must be a grave fault in my mentality that I find the evidence of evolution singularly circumstantial.

The fossil record is supposed to provide ''several lines of compelling evidence for evolution.'' It provides nothing of the kind. It may well show a nice succession of origins of different groups of organisms conveniently separated in time: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals. This is all very well, but it is no evidence that they originated from one another. At best, it suggests that. Everything else is speculation and this has nothing to do with science, at least not above the level of mere hypothesis. Of course this is to be expected. The fossil record is admittedly vastly incomplete since the chances are that dead animals and plants would not be fossilised at all but would completely rot instead. Even when the so called ''missing links'' come into play - the famous Archaeopteryx or the obscure Tiktaalik (a fishapod, whatever that means) - the situation is not significantly improved. Apart from suspiciously inaccurate conclusions that many of these bones and skeletons may lead one to, the missing links ''prove'' that such origins as birds from reptiles are possible. It tells us absolutely nothing that it really did happen that way, neither qualitatively nor quantitatively. Even with all missing links the paleontologists can muster, the differences between them and the groups they are supposed to ''link'' are way too big and so we have to assume that they originated from one another during those millions and millions of years just because it looks plausible. So much for the fossil record.

''Evolution in action.'' This is the most often encountered phrase in a section called Natural selection observed. At first glance, it seems that this is indeed a very convincing piece of evidence. Not so at second glance though. The two parts of Natural selection observed are called ''Sparrows, moths and guppies'' and ''Bacteria, flies and mice.'' One should expect that evolutionists, of all people, should think big and not leave themselves being swayed by trifles. Yet Mr Pallen wants me to believe that the house sparrow, the peppered moth and the I-know-not-what kind of guppies offer terrific examples of ''evolution in action'' and indeed in ''real time'', say, the last several hundred years. Needless to say, all these cases are concerned with the origins of very closely related species who have but minor differences (size, colour) from their predecessors; and of course they can't bread with each other which is the main condition to separate species. Fine. But nowhere, absolutely nowhere does Mr Pallen make even an attempt to extrapolate this obviously impressive variability to evolutionary history and geological time scales. He obviously assumes that, since it could have been so, therefore it was so. I can't accept so flimsy an evidence as that. Evolution is not about the beaks of Darwin's finches, still less about variations produced by domestic breeding. Nor can I take seriously ''bacteria, flies and mice'' generated artificially in biological labs; no matter how impressive these are, they still provide nothing even remotely like evidence that it happened that way in nature during those 3,5 billion years since, apparently, life on earth began. I don't even want to mention that Mr Pallen mentions nothing about the molecular and genetic mechanisms of these transformations and how they, perhaps, could try to explain that the story of life at least could have happened as suggested by evolution. Last but not least, using bacteria and their stunning ability to develop antibiotic resistance is, to put it mildly, disingenuous: we all know that bacteria often play the game of life according to very different rules than eukaryote organisms, let alone the more complex ones. And here, if I may remind you, we are not talking about bacteria only, or about microorganisms only. We're talking about all the way from them to us.

It is singular - and significant - how often Mr Pallen uses this so called evidence, not to explain evolution with it, but exactly the opposite: he uses evolution to explain the evidence for it. Excuse me, Mark, but this is simply the wrong way. By the same logic you can ''explain'' everything by devising an intelligent Creator. Mimicry, arms races, mutual benefits: make your choice and Mr Pallen will immediately show how the phenomenon in question is easily and elegantly explained by evolution. What he will not tell you is what on earth all this has to do with evolving of more complex organisms from simpler ones, which is to my mind at once the essence and the main bone of contention of evolution. I am reminded of the often-found joke on the Web: the teacher asked why so-and-so compound was polar and the student simply wrote ''Because God made it so.'' The above evidence for evolution, far from being conclusive, confirms - if anything at all - that evolution is one possible way of how it all happened. It proves neither that evolution is true nor that it is a fact; it doesn't even prove that it is probable. That said, I imagine that in the absence of any reasonable alternative, as is the case, and granted that one has the tiny amount of strong faith, evolution is to be accepted as true and as a fact. I wish I could wholeheartedly do this. But I still can't. I offer no alternative. I just have a certain amount of (un)reasonable doubt hovering inside my head which I very much want to dispense with.

When we get down to brass tacks, if evolution is to make any claims of being a scientific theory, and therefore as close to truth as science can reach, it must either be observed in action and studied or have a quantitative model developed. Even the most passionate evolutionists would agree that evolution cannot really be observed, for the simple reason that it takes millions and millions and millions of years; the above examples of ''evolution in action'', as it should be obvious, are very misleading. Nobody has ever observed an evolution of a simpler organism into a more complex one. How could one? The whole of human civilisation spans mere 10 000 years, at most: a mere blink of an eye on evolutionary time scale. So we are left with the model solution, a detailed, thoroughly scientific, perfectly placed in both space and time, and, above all, quantitative model; and qualitative too, for that matter. But I should like to stress the word quantitative yet again, because it is the baffling diversity of life as we know it which is to my mind the most difficult thing for evolution to explain. May it be that perhaps - just perhaps - life on earth (like the vastness and the beginning of the universe) is just a little too impressive a phenomenon even for evolution to tackle adequately? At any rate, this Rough Guide never gives any answer whatsoever if such model has ever been developed. Once and only once does it come tantalisingly close, quoting J. B. S. Haldane:

A satisfactory theory of natural selection must be quantitative... we must show not only that it can cause a species to change, but that it can cause it to change at a rate which will account for present and past transmutations.

These are powerful words, if not especially lucid: substitute ''evolution'' for ''natural selection'' and ''variety'' for ''transmutations'' and you'll have a clearer picture of the problem. There are some hints about writings of J. B. S. Haldane and Theodosius Dobzhansky which might, apparently, have developed such quantitative model of evolution but unfortunately Mr Pallen doesn't think the matter worthy of much elaboration. Pity.

Such a model would also have to reveal evolution's mechanisms. No, I don't mean the natural selection. As a matter of fact natural selection has nothing to do with that. No matter how efficiently it acts, it does act on the phenotype. In other words, only traits which are expressed can, if beneficial, be preserved. But absolutely every trait must first be determined on genetic level; take your pick, from the superb mimicry of a mantis to the extremely high degree of specialisation between certain plants and the insects that pollinate them, from the shattering diversity of sea slugs in terms of shapes and colours to the stupefying one of flower plants: none of these could happen if not multiple features are encoded in the genomes of the participants and then expressed on a macroscopic level. How does that happen on genetic level? How has that happened in the course of evolution as to lead to the present variety beyond words? What are the mechanisms of this genetic diversity? How does evolution really work? The answers Mr Pallen gives are supremely unconvincing: sexual reproduction, crossover, horizontal gene transfer, genetic drift. I have already heard that story. I don't think any of these, or all of them together indeed, could possibly explain all branches of the tree of life, let alone the abundance of twigs and leafs some of these branches really contain; no matter how many millions of years may have passed since the dawn of life. It seems to me that evolutionists often don't think big enough and thus miss the point of evolution. Darwin himself was not immune to this, as revealed by his words casually quoted on p. 78:

We can plainly see why nature is prodigal in variety, though niggard in innovation. But why this should be a law of nature if each species has been independently created, no man explain.

Well, nor can any man explain what this ''independent creation'' has to do with evolution being true or not; still less can anybody claim something as superficial as the first sentence to be a law of nature. Now, Darwin does have a point here, but he's also very wide of the mark indeed. Within certain species or genus, and even within a family or an order, it is obvious that nature doesn't have any spectacular powers of invention. But as I have repeated again and again - and shall continue to do so - evolution is not about such miserable units of classification. It's about phyla and especially about kingdoms. Most of all, it's about the temporal and mechanistic aspects of their development. I don't know about you, but personally I do find the fact that whales, bats and shrews all belong to a single class of animals truly staggering. Even without going into comparison with other classes than mammals, it seems quite obvious to me that nature should be given lots of credit for a truly spectacular power of innovation.

One of the major mistakes, in my opinion, that most evolutionists make is to attach much too much importance on the natural selection. For natural selection is not the mechanism of evolution, as many people quite mistakenly think. Far from it. The natural selection is the driving force of evolution, and that is quite another matter. Now, natural selection in itself is a very fine thing and I am ready to believe it does work splendidly on every level: from cells to populations, and Mr Pallen has done a fine job showing this in his book. But the real mechanisms of evolution are those mysterious forces which generate genetic variance and thus, should these different genes be expressed and give rise to different traits, provide natural selection with abundant material to work upon. And these mechanisms are still largely unknown, as Mr Pallen himself confesses in the case of speciation through reproductive isolation for example. Until this conundrum on genetic level is completely revealed, I don't see how we can escape the odd fact that belief in evolution requires a certain amount of faith. Of course faith is a beautiful and important thing. Didn't St Augustine once say that to understand one must first believe? He was quite right. Faith has a role in science too - but only until level of hypothesis (or theory if you wish). But if evolution is to be regarded as true and as a fact, this will certainly not do.

Last but not least, the extremely important question of speciation should be addressed briefly. It is exactly the origin of species (pun intended) that started the whole thing and it is this origin that has the hardest task: to account for the development of the present mind-boggling variety of life (and for that of past eras as well) from - well, from something little more than nothing. Considering the limited volume, Mr Pallen is commendably comprehensive and discusses succinctly every aspect of the modern views of speciation: allopatric, peripatric, parapatric, sympatric, reproductive isolation, etc. Yet again, though, Mr Pallen makes no attempt to put these concepts in the light of evolution, namely to try to explain how they could possibly have accounted for the biodiversity of today. Apparently, it is obvious. So far as I am concerned, it is not.

Apart from its essentially unconvincing character, The Rough Guide to Evolution also has some disturbing tendencies in terms of authorial voice and contains many passages so stupendously inane and moronic that really should have been omitted.

Indeed, throughout the book I often have the very unpleasant feeling that Mr Pallen tries to inflict evolution on his readers; in simpler words, he tries to convince you that evolution is by far the greatest and most significant thing there is. This is simply not true, not even in science itself. Mr Pallen starts his campaign as early as his preface where he quotes the legendary words of Theodosius Dobzhansky that nothing make sense in biology except in the light of evolution. This may have been so in his time, but today it is nothing short of perfect nonsense. In the last half a century or so, science has changed out of all recognition; and this is especially true of biological science and its molecular branches. Hardly anybody bothers about evolution anymore, except to use it like epigenetics: to explain things that one can't understand. If you have no idea whatsoever what this or that gene is doing here, you can always say that it has common evolutionary origin with some more prominent fellows from whom it later diverged for some obscure reason. Amusing indeed. Now, speaking more broadly and as regards mankind as a whole, evolution may very well be the greatest story ever told, but there are many great stories from the history of the human civilisation that are close runners-up; there are even those who still believe that the life and teaching of Jesus Christ is the greatest story ever told and I daresay there are even those who think that the Old Testament far eclipses all great stories there are. The worst of such pernicious tendencies in Mr Pallen's writing is that they often give rise to odious affectation, as clearly shown in his preface:

But evolution's most inspiring message comes from the realization that our species evolved in Africa no more than ten thousand generations ago. Just one small band of humans left the mother continent a mere two thousand generations ago to people the rest of the world: a breath-taking fact that reveals how all men are brothers and unites the sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners as the scatterings of Africa.

Such affected rhetoric is worthy of any religious fanatic indeed! It smacks of the inspired nonsense of Schiller's Ode to Joy, but there is no Beethoven here to safe the situation with great music. I should have thought that the most awe-inspiring message of evolution is that we are but guests for a very short time on this planet. If evolution - like art - has any real and great value for mankind, it must teach the human beings humility, tolerance, respect and common sense, it must make them aware of the awesome responsibility they have come to hold as the most powerful species on earth, it must make us realise that an extinct species is lost forever and that life, for all its marvellous resilience and tenacity, is an extremely fragile and vulnerable miracle. But if that is asking too much of human nature, so, surely, is the world brotherhood Herr Schiller and Mr Pallen dream about.

The choice of material in The Rough Guide to Evolution, especially considering the modest dimensions of the volume, is very questionable too. I understand the book tries to be comprehensive and thorough. That's commendable, but the influence of evolution on Hardy's poetry or Conrad's and Trollope's writings is tenuous, at best, not to say perfectly insignificant, and the one on other arts is invariably far-fetched and often preposterous. I could very well do without idiocies like ''The ultimate evolutionary playlist'' and ''Darwin plots''; these are ''examples'' of evolutionary influence in music and literature in case you wonder. But even these pale in comparison with the section on religion where some truly incomparable gems can be found, like a red box called ''From the Wizard of Oz to the flying spaghetti monster.'' Stupendous stupidity indeed! I would have loved if these had been skipped in favour of something more in the chapters The evidence of evolution and Evolutionary biology.

Then there is creationism of course, here discussed under the subtitle ''Religion'' in Part 3. The best that can be said about Mr Pallen's treatment of the subject is that it is devoid of the usual flying into passion characteristic for evolutionists dealing with creationism; this passion is indeed so impressive that I cannot but think of Bertrand Russell's famous dictum that opinions defended with passion are usually those for which no good grounds exist. That said, Mr Pallen is intolerably prolix on the subject, shamelessly wasting the time of his readers with the Dover trial, the catholic reaction, the Muslim reaction to evolution and other such matters of, to call it politely, trivial interest. He also seems preoccupied with the harshly dystopian picture of creationism rising from the classrooms and conquering whole America; if Mr Pallen were not Engish, I would say that his writing smacks of chauvinism. This is fascinating, no doubt, but not at the expense of the two chapters mentioned in end of the last paragraph. Towards the end of the book, Mr Pallen starts a section titled ''What is wrong with creationism?'' with what I imagine is a deep sigh:

If the reader has got this far in the book and, having worked through all the positive evidence for evolution already presented, still wants to ask this question, then nothing I can say is likely to have any effect.

I agree, Mark. But why on earth, then, do you spend several pages more doing exactly what you are yourself convinced it makes no sense? As a matter of fact, there is nothing wrong with creationism. It's just another hypothesis. But one that requires a great deal more faith to be believed.

As for the notorious incompatibility of evolution with God, I really don't see where the problem is. We are supposed to have gone a long way since the Victorian era, are we not? If God has given man a free will - something I am not at all convinced but constantly hear He did - what's the problem with giving us life and evolution to work it out? Indeed, if God really had given us free will, this can mean only one thing: He doesn't really care about us. Why, then, should he care about life on earth? He may just leave evolution do the job. In passing, I might mention that Mr Pallen at least has the guts to state bluntly that the origin of life is still an enigma that even the mighty evolution cannot solve. This is to my mind a serious flaw but I am ready to close my eyes about it. After all, the theory is much more concerned with the evolution of life, not with its origins. And there's enough to explain anyway.

There are also many sections in the book which, if not omitted, could certainly have been shortened a great deal. Darwin's life and works is a case in point. Now, nobody wants to denigrate Darwin's original contribution - and some of his ideas were astonishingly prescient considering that during his life genetics did not even exist as a science - but evolution reportedly went a long way since then. That said, the part is among the most fascinating in the book and actually inspires me with respect, and even admiration, for the good, old Charles, and even stimulates me to read his great masterpiece. Neither is mean achievement. But the evolution of man surely must have been shortened a great deal. What is man, for all his unprecedented power, from evolutionary point of view? A brief episode with tragic end; most probably at least. The whole of human human evolution, such as it is, hardly took more than two percent of the time that dinosaurs ruled the earth (quite a bit earlier of course). Seldom do I see a better illustration for the eternal and gigantic human vanity than this intolerably long and tedious chapter. Speaking of this, A brief history of life is of the right length but it is excruciatingly dull: a kind of phone book of Latin names and obscure terms.

Another highly irritating feature of the book is the vast amount of wasted space in those red boxes. Apart from inanities like the spaghetti monster stuff, many of these consist of biographical sketches of famous evolutionists like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, J. B. S. Haldane and others. It is compelling to learn something more about these great men, but disconcertingly large amount of the space dedicated to them is occupied by mere biographical trivia; it's almost always diverting and often fascinating, but I should have appreciated more about their works and ideas than about their lives; still, something about the former, including a number of important books, is mentioned. And sometimes even in Part 1, by far the most important one in the book, these red boxes may not only be superfluous but almost vulgar: ''Men's tits, women's clits and the female orgasm'' is perhaps the best example here.

In the very end of the book Mr Pallen addresses the well-known teaching controversy in a most amusing way:

Why not ''teach the controversy'' anyway, to show students how to distinguish accepted science from pseudoscience or discarded science? But, in that case, why not also discuss astrology in the astronomy class, homeopathy and phlogiston theory in the chemistry lab or discarded theories about the flat or hollow earth in geography?

Fair enough, Mark. I quite agree. There is no need to teach both versions of how life on earth developed. The most important question is not ''Is evolution better than creationism?'' - of course it is - but ''Is evolution really true and is it really able to explain qualitatively, quantitatively and convincingly how that elusive thing - life - came to be what it is?'' I remain a sceptic who is essentially unconvinced. If I must choose between evolution and creationism, there is no need anybody to put a gun against my head to choose the former: I'll go with evolution anytime. After all, evolution must be true. There is a lot of evidence which fits, if not exactly supports, much less explains, the hypothesis. It does look plausible and even probable. It has a most appealing grandeur that satisfies the imagination. And nothing better has ever been offered yet, of course. Nor is it likely that it will ever be. Yet something is missing. Perhaps evolution is beyond me, as I lack the tiny grain of faith it requires. Perhaps life on earth is a trifle too grand for evolution to cope with. Who knows.

Last and least come the few positive sides of the book which certainly make it worth reading and even dipping into from time to time. As I have already said, Darwin's life and works is a most fascinating chapter and the next one - Darwin's evolution revolution - is as close to perfection as anything; it explains Darwin's main ideas (common descent and mutability of organisms; principles of natural selection in general and sexual selection in particular) with admirable clarity and makes a truly compelling read. The chapters about the evidence of the evolution and the evolutionary biology give at least a good base to start a more serious exploration and so does the last section about sources. From everything else in the book, I have found engaging enough not to be bored by it only the impact on politics which contains most interesting discussions on social darwinism, eugenics and even the Nazi ideology; like any powerful idea, evolution in the wrong hands may lead to tragic consequences - which must not be held against the theory of course. In addition the book may serve as a provider of brief but lucid explanations of many tricky terms and theories: punctuated equilibrium, cladistics, the differences and the interactions between genotype, phenotype and the environment, as well as many others.

At any rate, Mark Pallen's The Rough Guide to Evolution is of certain enduring value as a nice introduction in terms of historical development and many key figures together with some of their works and concepts. As can perhaps be expected, it is superficial and unconvincing, but it might give an idea or two how to delve deeper, much deeper indeed, in those two debatable areas: evidence for evolution and evolutionary biology. Last but certainly not least, a great deal of the book may well be skipped without any loss. Now that I certainly didn't expect.

But the bottom line is that the book is certainly going to add some volumes to my to-be-read shelf, starting with The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1868) and continuing, most probably, with the books of Richard Dawkins. So, in a way, Mark Pallen's The Rough Guide to Evolution is a very inspiring book. That's indeed saying a great deal. For it is not something I would say about many books. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jan 8, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is truly a stunning reference, a comprehensive guide to evolutionary concepts, their history, and their broad implications. Being familiar with evolutionary biology, I expected to find a standard survey of the subject with some of the more common misconceptions. To my surprise and pleasure, I found this work to be a wonderful font of information -- broad in scope, accurate in details, and thoroughly up-to-date.

The book contains 15 chapters organized into four major parts. Part I, Ideas and Evidence explores the history of evolutionary thought, the massive evidence for evolution, and contemporary evolutionary ideas. Part 2, The Greatest Story Ever Told summarizes the history of life, including human evolution. Part 3, Impact, considers implications and effects of evolutionary ideas on biology and other sciences, as well as on philosophy, religion, and politics. Part 4 is entitled Resources and offers information on historical sites, events, activities, boook, films, and websites, along with a glossary to major terms and concepts.

The text of the book is interspersed with information boxes that explore particular topics, and is well illustrated with diagrams and photographs. Concepts that are often misrepresented in popular summaries (e.g. punctuated equilibrium, Lamarck's ideas, sociobiology) are presented here with accuracy and subtlety. Having read it from cover to cover, I can detect not a single flaw. I certainly learned things from reading this work, and suspect the great majority of other readers will as well.

This is my first encounter with Rough Guides other than with the travel books, but not my last. From my experience with this excellent work, I plan to obtain other Rough Guides that survey the sciences. I recommend this guide with enthusiasm to anyone who wishes to learn about the subject, ranging from the neophyte to the professional scientist. ( )
7 vote danielx | Apr 17, 2010 |
An excellent overview of the many scientific, political and religious aspects of this topic.

To get the one negative comment out of the way, I must say that the "style" of having lots of information boxes and separate little bits of texts annoyed me as I kept having to flick back and forth to keep things in any kind of order. To be fair I guess that such things are a "feature" of this whole series of books, so I can't and won't hold this against the author.

We get an excellent potted history of the theories before Darwin and a great introduction to what his theory actually entails. The facts are put across succinctly but then Pallen manages to include a strong narrative sense and, together with his very light touch with the scientific explanations this shows off his abilities as a writer. So I would recommend this to someone who wants to know what all the fuss is about and as a good way to get a great first taste of a huge topic.

We then take a large step back to enable us to get a sightly wider angle view on a little thing like the whole history of life on this planet and the story of human evolution. Again this is packed full of facts but rises well above a simple recounting of them. I would like to see this guy tackle something more limited in scope but in greater depth, I think he would do a good job of it.

Next we get an assessment of the impact of the theory outside of scientific circles. This will perhaps be the most interesting to the non science orientated readers as they will learn quite a lot about the current creationist movement that may surprise them (and for that matter, might surprise many creationists) such as the fact that young earth creationism is less than 100 years old for example.

Finally we get a list of "resources" ranging from tourists guides to lists of music on the subject.

All in all this was very enjoyable for me even though I have read a lot on these subjects. I would think that it would be an excellent read for someone who wants a good overview of all the angles on the story so far, perhaps because someone is trying to tell their kids that most scientists in the world are lying to them (or is that just me?).

I look forward to the author's next work. ( )
  psiloiordinary | Oct 31, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This little book is very nice for introductory students in biology. I found it easy to read and I will readily recommend it to students and other biology teachers. ( )
  aletasullivan | Oct 2, 2009 |
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Have you ever wondered what Charles Darwin would have had on his iPod? Or exactly how Cartman from South Park fits into the Theory of Evolution? 'The Rough Guide to Evolution' delves into all of this and more, from the life and works of the eminent scientist to the impact of evolutionary thinking on modern times.… (more)

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