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Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea (2001)

by Carl Zimmer

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This dazzling companion volume to one the most important series in PBS history tells the compelling story of the theory of evolution -- from Darwin to twenty-first-century science. Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was breathtaking, beautifully written, staunchly defended, defiantly radical. Yet it emerged long before paleontologists and geologists worked out the chronology of life on Earth, long before biologists uncovered the molecules that underlie heredity and natural selection. Not until the late twentieth century was the true scope of its power revealed. This remarkable new book, featuring more than 150 color illustrations, presents a rich and up-to-date view of evolution that explores the far-reaching implications of Darwin's theory and emphasizes the power, significance, and relevance of evolution to our lives today. After all, we ourselves are the product of evolution, and we can tackle many of our gravest challenges -- from the lethal resurgence of antibiotic-resistant diseases to the wave of extinctions that looms before us -- with a sound understanding of the science. It can help us see our lives in connection to everything that has come before and to every form of life on Earth today. Filled with rich narrative, award-winning science writing, and the most up-to-date information on topics ranging from Darwinian medicine and sexual selection to the origins of language, evolutionary psychology, and the controversies surrounding creationism, Evolution tells in riveting detail the story of a remarkable scientific journey, from the emergence to the triumph of an idea.… (more)

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A must read for anyone wanting a good introduction to evolution and the evidence that supports the theory. ( )
  Devil_llama | Apr 26, 2011 |
Carl Zimmer

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea

HarperCollins, Hardback, 2001.

4to. xx+364 pp. First edition. Introduction by Stephen Jay Gould [ix-xiv]. Foreword by Richard Hutton [xv-xvii].


Introduction by Stephen Jay Gould
Foreword by Richard Hutton

Part 1
Slow Victory: Darwin and the Rise of Darwinism

1. Darwin and the Beagle
2. ''Like Confessing a Murder'': The Origin of Origin of Species
3. Deep Time Discovered: Putting Dates to the History of Life
4. Witnessing Change: Genes, Natural Selection, and Evolution in Action

Part 2
Creation and Destruction

5. Rooting the Tree of Life: From Life's Dawn to the Age of Microbes
6. The Accidental Tool Kit: Chance and Constraints in Animal Evolution
7. Extinction: How Life Ends and Begin Again

Part 3
Evolution's Dance

8. Coevolution: Weaving the Tree of Life
9. Doctor Darwin: Disease in the Age of Evolutionary Medicine
10. Passion's Logic: The Evolution of Sex

Part 4
Humanity's Place in Evolution and Evolution's Place in Humanity

11. The Gossiping Ape: The Social Roots of Human Darwinism
12. Modern Life, 50 000 B.C.: The Dawn of Us
13. What about God?

Further Reading


I understand this book is a companion volume to the PBS series of the same name; this is made abundantly clear: on the dustjacket, in the Acknowledgments section and in the Foreword by Richard Hutton who, incidentally, is the executive producer of the series. I have seen nothing of the movies but if they are half as spectacular as the book is, they certainly are worth watching.

It's only fair to start with the Introduction by Stephen Jay Gould, from all accounts one of the leading evolutionary scientists and most talented writers about evolution in modern times, unfortunately no longer with us. This was my first encounter with anything written by Mr Gould and I have to begin by saying that I have found his writing style somewhat disappointing; it has a fair share of muddled passages, clumsy sentences and awkward use of brackets. Having said that, the Introduction, if a trifle difficult to read, has a great deal to offer to the inquisitive reader and is indeed quite fascinating; when Carl Zimmer remarked that Stephen Jay Gould ''graced'' the book with it he was perfectly right. Much more often than not, the late Mr Gould is uncommonly perceptive and thought-provoking. To begin with, his brief summary of truth and science is highly recommended to be kept in mind, especially by scientists:

The task of science is two-fold: to determine, as best we can, the empirical character of the natural world; and to ascertain why our world operates as it does, rather than in some other conceivable, but unrealized, way – in other words, to specify facts and validate theories. Science, as we professionals always point out, cannot establish absolute truth; thus, our conclusions must always remain tentative. But this healthy scepticism need not be extended to the point of nihilism, and we may surely state that some facts have been ascertained with sufficient confidence that we may designate them as ''true'' in any legitimate vernacular meaning of the word.

But then Mr Gould makes a very curious remark which I am not at all sure I understand correctly – which is of course a polite way to say that I disagree with it:

In discussing the truth of evolution, we should make a distinction, as Darwin explicitly did, between the simple fact of evolution – defined as genealogical connection among all earthly organisms, based on their descent from a common ancestor, and the history of any lineage as a process of descent with modification – and theories (like Darwinian natural selection) that have been proposed to explain the causes of evolutionary change.

This is a very confusing statement. How can we be sure that something is a fact when we don't really know what its mechanism is, especially something that has been going on for nearly four billion years and has already produced no one knows how many species but at least the six or seven million that are currently in existence? Of course we can take this fact on faith – but that's not science. Mr Gould then goes on to say something about three broad categories of evidence of evolution which, apparently, are enough to express its ''factuality'': the great variability of organisms, the fossil record and the rudimentary organs. All of these are fine but it is a pity that Mr Gould didn't try to put them on geological time scale and against the background of today's unbelievable biodiversity; but a short Introduction is no place for doing that anyway. Last but not least, to call the natural selection among ''the causes of evolutionary change'' is somewhat misleading. In a long term, a very long term indeed, this may be so, but the small changes that accumulate to build up these great changes are not caused by the natural selection; they are only preserved by it. Indeed, the natural selection seems to me not a theory at all but a fact more indisputable than the evolution itself; theory it was in Darwin's time, and a very prophetic one as it turned out. It's quite another story that there are many additional, and still unclear, mechanisms that must have acted during those four billion years – if evolution's true, that is.

Further in this compelling piece Stephen Jay Gould has some intriguing things to say about the immense impact of evolution, its breath-taking simplicity and, rather surprisingly given that, mankind's inability to accept it wholeheartedly so far:

No scientific revolution can match Darwin's discovery in degree of upset to our previous comforts and certainties. In the only conceivable challenge, Copernicus and Galileo moved our cosmic location from the center of the universe to a small and peripheral body circling a central sun. But this cosmic reorganization only fractured our concept of real estate: Darwinian evolution, on the other (and deeper) hand, revolutionized our view of our own meaning and essence (insofar as science can address such questions at all): Who are we? How did we get here? How are we related to other creatures, and in what manner?
Public difficulty in grasping the Darwinian theory of natural selection cannot be attributed to any conceptual complexity - for no great theory ever boasted such a simple structure of three undeniable facts and an almost syllogistic inference therefrom. (In a famous, and true, anecdote, Thomas Henry Huxley, after reading Origin of Species, could only say of natural selection: ''How extremely stupid not to have thought of that myself.'') First, that all organisms produce more offspring that can possibly survive; second, that all organisms within a species vary, one from the other; third, that at least some of this variation is inherited by offspring. From these three facts, we infer the principle of natural selection: since only some offspring can survive, on average the survivors will be those variants that, by good fortune, are better adapted to changing local environments. Since these offspring will inherit the favorable variations of their parents, organisms of the next generation will, on average, become better adapted to local conditions.

The difficulties lie not in this simple mechanism but in the far-reaching and radical philosophical consequences – as Darwin himself well understood – of postulating a causal theory stripped of such conventional comforts as a guarantee of progress, a principle of natural harmony, or any notion of an inherent goal or purpose.

Darwin's mechanism may sound bleak at first, but a deeper view should lead us to embrace natural selection [...] for two basic reasons. First, truthful science is liberating in the practical sense that knowledge of nature's actual mechanisms gives us the potential power to cure and to heal when factual matters cause us harm.
Second, and more generally, by taking the Darwinian ''cold bath,'' and staring a factual reality in the face, we can finally abandon the cardinal false hope of the ages – that factual nature can specify the meaning of our life by validating our inherent superiority, or by proving that evolution exists to generate us as the summit of life's purpose.

The lucidity of the above quotes could certainly have been improved but, despite that, one thing emerges crystal clear: for all its entangled history and modern complexity, evolution is well worth studying.

This is where Carl Zimmer's Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea comes and perfectly fits. This formidable quarto volume is a thoroughly captivating overview of the historical development and the scientific background of evolution and its major heroes: genetic variance and natural selection. As obvious from the table of contents, it covers the whole of evolution: from Darwin's life-changing journey around the world on aboard the Beagle (1831–1836) and his epoch-making magnum opus On the Origin of Species (1859) until the modern synthesis of Theodosius Dobzhansky; from the first evolutionary and hardly scientific hints of Cuvier and Lamarck until the flourishing of genetics and the modern views of evolution on molecular level; from Mendel's experiments until the sequencing of the human genome; from the dawn of life until the current state of mankind; from microevolution to macro-evolution; from social Darwinism to evolutionary sociobiology. Obviously, the scope is tremendous. The amazing thing is that Carl Zimmer has succeeded not only to bring all that – and much more besides – together, but he has made it accessible for every intelligent layman with lively interest in life sciences.

What the table of contents doesn't tell you is that Carl Zimmer is a very fine writer indeed. His concise, straightforward and lucid style, perfectly organised in short sentences and short paragraphs, is a real delight to read; it extends also to his chapters, each one of which is additionally separated to smaller parts but, miraculously, the continuity of the narrative is never disrupted. To say that the book is stupendously readable would be an understatement. Indeed, I often find it difficult, not just to put the volume down, but to remember that I am actually reading non-fiction.

What should be stressed, though, is that this is a book for the lay public and no layman need be afraid if he is totally ignorant of science. He won't have the slightest problem with understanding every single sentence by Carl Zimmer; what scientific terms he uses, he eloquently explains. So readers with somewhat solid scientific background should not be surprised that a good many things seem familiar to them, nor should anybody look for some great details or complains if some very minor mistakes are noticed.

The primary goal of this book is to make you aware of the big picture; it is such by design – and a very intelligent one at that. These are severe but necessary limitations: even with them rigidly imposed, the subject remains overwhelmingly enormous. Also within them, Carl Zimmer's book is perfect: its scope is impressive and so is his erudition; he virtually never has any problems with clarity or lucidity; most remarkably, he never really loses that big picture: he may be occupied with guppies, cichlids and other wonders of the microevolution for quite some time, but finally he steps back and says ''Now, let's see how this applies to the evolution so-and-so million years ago'', or words to that effect. Moreover, Carl Zimmer has an extraordinary ability for colourful metaphors and illuminating observations that make different aspects of evolution far easier to understand than ever before, as in the following random example that perfectly illustrates its purposeless but determined nature:

When a roulette ball lands on its wheel, its fate is not absolutely random. It does not bounce off the wheel and stick to the ceiling. It does not end up perched on the border between two numbers. The force of gravity, the energy of the throw, and the instability of the wheel's borders push the ball onto one of the numbers. Its fate is constrained, although it remains unpredictable.

The same holds for evolution. It is channelled within certain constraints, but that doesn't mean that its transformations unfold with steady, predictable progress. The internal forces of evolution – the way genes interact to build an organism – meet up with the external forces of climate, geography, and ecology, like advancing weather fronts. When they collide, they produce evolutionary tornadoes and hurricanes. As a result, scientists have to be on their guard when they try to reconstruct how evolutionary transformations took place, because it is easy to impose a simple story on a counterintuitive reality.

In other words, although by and large evolution does progress from simpler to more complex forms of life, it is by no means a simple ladder of progress, with us on the top of it. Not for nothing is life on evolutionary scale often compared to tree with numerous branches. Carl Zimmer spends a lot of time discussing this subject and he even comes with a more appropriate comparison: a mangrove. The purposeless and far-from-linear character of evolution is just one of its often overlooked aspects. We would do well to bear it in mind.

Far from seldom, indeed, Carl Zimmer is hugely informative and at the same time extremely insightful: take dinosaurs' rise and extinction, for example. Every schoolboy today knows that some 65 million years ago, for one reason or another, it so happened that dinosaurs disappeared. But did you know that the rise of dinosaurs was most probably caused by another extinction, and way bigger one at that, which is estimated to have wiped out some 90 percent of all species on earth? I didn't. What's more astonishing, this so called Permian-Triassic extinction apparently lasted for mere 165 000 years or so, just a flash on geological time scale. And did you know that if that extinction had been just a little more lethal, or if the extinction of the dinosaurs themselves had been a little less lethal for that matter, the mammals – and therefore us, too – may never have evolved as they did? It seems that it is true, alas. Mammals existed side by side with the dinosaurs for many millions of years, but while the latter had among their lines the largest animals that ever trod on earth, the former never managed to tip the scales at more than 5 pounds. And this was the end of my favourite hypothesis – which Carl Zimmer doesn't mention at all – that the extinction of dinosaurs was primarily caused by a few species of mammals who were very fond of eating their eggs. I guess this is not just too fanciful, but an expression of appalling mammalian vanity as well.

Speaking of dinosaurs reminds me of another fascinating aspect of Carl Zimmer's writing: his handling of digressions, a traditional pitfall difficult to be avoided in books that encompass such vast subjects. Dinosaurs are a case in point indeed, as the author resists the temptation of writing more about them. These fascinating reptiles may well have ruled the Earth for 150 million years or so, but finally they did disappear; therefore, from an evolutionary point of view, their significance is limited and that's why their era occupies little more than one paragraph.

When he does digress, Carl Zimmer manages his digressions brilliantly. My favourite is the one about Napoleon's invasion of Russia, and if you think that the disaster he experienced was due to the harsh winter, the low morale of the French or the high morale of the Russians, I have to tell you that you're quite wrong. As a matter of fact, the real reason was Rickettsia prowazekii, ''a vicious bacteria that causes typhus.'' When Napoleon returned from that disastrous campaign, 19 out of every 20 of his men had died, most of them from typhus. Soon Napoleon's empire crashed as well. What on earth has this to do with evolution, you may ask? Quite a bit, as it turned out. For Rickettsia prowazekii is the closest modern relative of the bacteria that entered into a remarkable symbiosis with eukaryotes many million years ago and thus led to the formation of mitochondria, the chief organelles responsible for the energy production in almost all eukaryotic cells. Needless to say, that symbiosis is one of evolution's most important cornerstones.

In passing, it must be remarked that Carl Zimmer's writing style is not just packed with scientific data, theories and hypotheses, but it does often have flashes of wit that are greatly amusing and add precious liveliness to the narrative. From time to time, his delicious sense of humour indulges in short anecdotes and in well placed, and even better calculated, flippancy. Here are some examples I couldn't help laughing outright at:

A doctor by trade, he [Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather] was also a naturalist, an inventor, a botanist, and a best-selling poet. In one of his poems [...] he argued that all animals and plants now living were originally derived from microscopic forms.
Erasmus Darwin's personal life was as scandalous as his scientific views. After the death of his first wife, he began reveling in natural love, fathering two children out of wedlock. ''Hail the Deities of Sexual Love!'', he declared, ''and sex to sex the willing world unite.''

Darwin found being FitzRoy's companion a tricky job. The captain's temperament was sharp and unpredictable...
[...] Each morning after Darwin emerged from breakfast with FitzRoy, the junior officer would ask, ''Has much coffee been spilled this morning?'' as a coded way to check on the captain's mood.

When animals choose mates they don't make conscious decisions. Peahens do not count the eyes on a peacock tail and think to themselves, ''Only 130? Not good enough. Next!''

[Needless to say, sometimes these hilarious bits are interspersed with very serious matters.]
Alliances, betrayals, deception, trust, jealousy, adultery, motherly affection, suicidal love – it all sounds rather human. When biologists talk about divorce among birds or adultery among mice, these words always bear invisible quotation marks around them. Nevertheless, we humans are animals – males with abundant sperm, females with scarce eggs – and our ancestors were subject to evolution just as much as any pipefish or jacana. Could it be that inclusive fitness, reciprocal altruism, and conflicts between males and females have something to do with the way we act, or even the way we think?

Drop this question in a bar full of biologists and prepare to dodge the flying pint glasses. Why are humans such a tender subject? To understand the murkiness of the matter, we first have to understand where humanity came from.

Humans began domesticating crops around 10 000 years ago. As the first planters planted fields with crops like lentil and bulgur, insects fed on them just as they had on their wild ancestors. At first humans could do nothing but plead to the gods. Sometimes they would even take insects to court. In 1478 beetles were ravaging the crops around the Swiss city of Berne, and in response the mayor appointed a lawyer to go to an ecclesiastical court and demand a punishment. ''With grievous wrong, they do detriment to the ever-living God,'' they complained. A lawyer was appointed for the beetles, and defendant and plaintiff made their cases to the court. After hearing both sides, the bishop ruled in favour of the farmers, declaring that the beetles were incarnations of devils. ''We charge and burden them with our curse,'' he declared, ''and command them to be obedient and anathemize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, that they turn away from all fields, grounds, enclosures, seeds, fruits and produce, and depart.''

The beetles did not depart. They went on eating their crops as before. It was then decided that the beetles were not devils but a punishment that God was visiting on farmers for their sins. Once the farmers gave a tithe to the Church from what little harvest they could manage, the beetles disappeared. Or perhaps when the beetles used up their food supply their population crashed naturally.

But the best about Carl Zimmer is that he can always make you think again about something you thought there is no reason to think more about, to look at the same old story under a different angle. His subtle and perceptive treatment of well-known evolutionary stumbling blocks is stimulating, refreshing and invigorating. The examples, again, are thousands, but those that impressed me most are probably the origins of life, the Cambrian explosion and the extinction of dinosaurs: namely, the still hypothetical RNA world, the genetic preparation in pre-Cambrian times and a thorough scientific discussion of the meteorite hypothesis about the mass extinction in the end of the Mesozoic era, respectively. Unlike some other and more superficial writers, Carl Zimmer discusses these matters in great detail and provides his readers with huge amount of scientific data. He certainly makes an excellent case that RNA may have been the first complex molecule to emerge, the primordial stuff of life that gave rise to proteins and DNA – and finally to life itself.

There are still many question marks here and the origin-of-life conundrum will not be solved any time soon, but Carl Zimmer does give a good deal of food for your imagination. So does he in terms of the fabulous extinction of the dinosaurs due to asteroid crash which, as it seems, really did happen. It probably hit somewhere around today's Yukatan peninsula, generating 300 m high tsunami and an earthquake 1000 times more powerful than anything in recorded history, not to mention the spraying of rock and asteroid 100 km up into the sky or the vaporising of some 100 cubic kilometres of rock from the bottom of the sea – or so computer models show. Of course there are tons of geological data to confirm the cataclysm; without these data those computer models would never have been made after all.

But Carl Zimmer's discussion of the famous Cambrian explosion is more compelling than either of these. It's long been a mystery what lies behind the staggering emergence of huge number of species, and of almost all groups of modern organisms and body plans, some 535 million years ago and virtually at once on evolutionary time scale. Well, it is still a kind of mystery but there now is a viable hypothesis too: a staggering genetic diversity that had been accumulated for more than 3 billion years prior to the so called Cambrian explosion (since there is some evidence that 3.85 million years ago planet Earth was already full of life). Here Carl Zimmer takes a surprisingly close look at the very genetic mechanisms that might provide the natural selection with great variation among species and thus drive evolution forward, sometimes at staggering for its complexity speed. It is absolutely amazing that genes almost identical in sequence should govern the development in arthropods and in tetrapods; the terms may sound similar, but in fact a vast evolutionary past lies between them: for the former include insects and crustaceans, spiders and scorpions, while the latter is comprised of all terrestrial vertebrates.

Of all arguments that have been brought to convince me that evolution is true, the unity of life I find most compelling. The similarity between incredibly different organisms is often so stupendously staggering on molecular and genetic level, that any reasonable man cannot but conclude that they must have descended from a common ancestor, whatever the mechanisms, the time scale and the details might have been. This argument, of course, neither proves nor explains evolution, but it most certainly is an extremely strong stimulus to investigate the matter further. Though Carl Zimmer is apt on occasion to neglect the genetic side of the question, on the whole his treatment is much more thoroughly genetic than others; and one cannot but admire his unfailing ability to describe the complex and dull in a simple and exciting way. This is all for the better since it gives the hungry layman a whole new and rather compelling dimension of evolution's working methods.

If Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea has any drawbacks, they are very minor ones. Occasionally, there are some slightly muddled passages or sentences that make some sense only after the second reading, or a shade of dullness can creep between the pages, but these really are exceptions that pale into insignificance compared to the enormous amount of information and insight offered here. Towards the end of the book, as is typical for evolutionists, Carl Zimmer gets a little carried away with bashing creationism and ''creation science'' which I cannot help thinking makes no sense at all. He is pleasantly sarcastic and coolly devastating, but the space would really have been better used for further evolutionary discussions.

After all, whatever euphemisms creationists may devise, the first prerequisite to their hypotheses remains, as obvious from their name, the existence of creator; whether he is all-powerful, let alone all-good, is anybody's guess but he certainly must be powerful enough to create life on earth. There has never been any evidence whatsoever that such creator exists – which renders creationism totally incapable to pretend that it has anything to do with science. Now popular science is certainly something very different than pseudoscience; books like Evolution are superb examples of the former, while creationism firmly falls into the latter category – and here the matter ends.

Finally, sometimes, though truly seldom, Carl Zimmer can write downright nonsense such as ''the fact remains that if you accept microevolution, you get macroevolution for free.'' The extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution, namely from minor changes in the course of a few hundred years to the evolution of more complex organisms from significantly simpler ones in the course of several hundred million years, is much more complicated than that, Carl. Having said that, the book actually has but one grave fault: it's too short.

A note about the fine illustrations should be made. They range from colour diagrams and cartoons, which may be somewhat crude but do make the text easier to comprehend, to gorgeous photographs of animals or fossils or human artefacts. Some of the photos are pure poetry indeed, like the Yellowstone landscape on page 105 for instance. Among the portraits of famous scientists there is one unforgettable of Alexander Flemming who must have the wildest stare I have ever seen on a human face. The dustjacket is also remarkable: it has no fewer than 24 small pictures of different types of eye, from human's to insect's. Obviously, this is a clear allusion to Darwin's famous quote in which he himself doubts the power of natural selection to produce so fine an instrument as an eye:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

A good many people – myself included – have been accused of quoting this quote out of the context and thus misrepresenting Darwin. These accusations for the most part come from people at least equally dogmatic who actually take us, those who quote out of the context, for stupider than we really are. Of course I have read the context before quoting the passage, and if I'd left the latter, this is because I'd found the former unsatisfactory. The context, indeed, reveals that Darwin has very impressive knowledge of zoology and anatomy, but in no way does it make his initial claim less wildly hypothetical.

I am quite sure, though, that Darwin himself would have been happy to read Carl Zimmer's discourse on the eye. Incidentally, he never quotes the passage, but the makes a strong case that our eyes might well have developed through the evolutionary ways, for they are way more imperfect than it might look at first glance. Sometimes, indeed, evolution has to make the best of a bad job, as in the case of the vertebrate eyes: the comparative analysis between lancelet's eyespot and the vertebrate eye employed here is uncommonly persuasive. Though it still remains obscure how invertebrates could have evolved the vast range of eyes they now have, we have made a great progress towards understanding why most vertebrates will never be able to have as sharp a vision as a squid has.

Last but actually most important of all, Carl Zimmer's treatment of coevolution and man's evolution, two traditionally tricky questions, should be singled out. Not only are they fantastic, that's already to be expected, but in these chapters most of the philosophical significance of evolution is concentrated. It is certainly true that Carl Zimmer is much more concerned with history and science in this book, but he is by no means devoid of philosophical reflections. Especially his short introductions and conclusions of almost any chapter and sub-chapter are rich in perceptive and penetrating observations, summing up the essence of evolution is so admirable a way that I am stunned by apparently obvious things I have never been able to notice before, things that make the whole picture much sharper and more coherent. The chapters about coevolution and man's place in evolution as a whole are also the most chilling and disturbing of all. It's not recommended to read them before going to bed.

One of the many terrifically thought-provoking observations of Carl Zimmer is that life is indeed a huge net of coevolutionary relationships between different species. Though this is seldom obvious, as in the fairly rare cases of extremely specialised relationships, looking a little deeper one may see that coevolution is astonishingly varied and versatile. Of course it's difficult for the miserable human imagination to grasp the complexity of the phenomenon but it's worth trying to try. For this raises the frightfully profound question of man's ultimate place in nature. Much as Homo sapiens likes to pride himself as the highest evolutionary creation (no pun intended), a little less prejudiced glance immediately reveals his impotence from evolutionary point of view. To take but one instance, he is currently losing a number of battles with pests and parasites: the more lethal pesticides and the more efficient medications he develops, the stronger resistance insects, bacteria and viruses develop; examples range from harmful living agents on agricultural crops to humans and AIDS.

The funny thing is that man is apparently not intelligent enough to turn the power of coevolution in his favour: ants have already done so, some 50 million years ago at that. One of the most fascinating passages in Carl Zimmer's book is about the ants who actually invented agriculture long before man did. It is well-known that leaf-cutter ants grow colonies of fungi in their nests, but the truly extraordinary thing is that they actually use coevolution to achieve the highest possible efficiency. To solve the ever-present problems with parasitic fungi, ants don't use primitive pesticides, like humans do, but they employ an antibiotic-producing bacteria (Streptomyces). Since it is a whole organism, rather than a simple molecule no matter how powerful, Streptomyces can match the mutation rate of the parasites and thus constantly eliminate new strains by coevolution. It is still a hypothesis that ants use this technique, but it seems very probable that they do.

Whether man is more evolutionary successful than microbes or parasites, shattering for his vanity as it may be, is a question open to a hot debate, but one thing is certain: no other single species has, or ever had, the kind of impact on the whole planet as man now does. Now, man's evolution represents an extremely curious paradox. On the one hand, it is extremely short – it is estimated that a mere 50 000 to 100 000 years have passed since the emergence of modern man, so the whole of our culture, society, art, science and technology is a mere flash on evolutionary time scale, at most. Yet, on the other hand, the impact of mankind on the planet now is by far the most profound that any other species ever had in its entire history.

To my mind the most important message in Carl Zimmer's book is his indefatigable desire to make people aware of the awesome responsibility they really do have today. He never shies away from bluntly stating that the future of our planet depends on us, and that we're doing a pitifully poor job of preserving the wonders of evolution – ourselves included. In this respect, the final parts of the chapter Extinction are by far the most haunting and harrowing in the whole book. If that can't send shivers down your spines, I don't know what can. It certainly does so with me.

It is a horrifying and dystopian picture, a real apocalyptic vision, of the world today that Carl Zimmer eloquently describes. There are data that we are now living among the greatest diversity of life in the history of our planet, yet we are living in the midst of a new mass extinction as well. This is not going to be just another cataclysm for life, though it would be greater than all previous ones, but this mass extinction is the first one caused by a single species, a species that is supposed to be able to recognise that.

Human-driven extinctions are by no means new thing. This is just another problem that Carl Zimmer may well give you pause about: the pattern ''humans arrive and animals go extinct'' has been repeated for at least 50 000 years. But it is different today. Globalisation and overpopulation have brought an acceleration of the extinction rate; one way or another man is always the cause: overhunting, destroying of natural habitats, alien invasion. The last cause is the most subtle and most dangerous of all, for it is irreversible. In short, it means that when one species – intentionally or not – is artificially introduced to certain habitat, it might prove better adapted than some of the local species and in time cause their disappearance by the simple but ruthless logic of the natural selection. Few invaders may not seem a great deal on the surface, but in fact the invading species are numerous and all over the world; man's modern means of transportation ''help'' enormously to speed the ruin of many ecosystems worldwide:

Through hunting, habitat destruction, and biological invasions, humans have driven many species to extinction and many more to its brink. But just how bad is today's extinction crisis and how bad will it get? These are supremely difficult questions.

Yet there are some hypothetical answers. They are frightfully probable and even the underestimates are shocking. Here the book really reads like a dystopian novel – but it remains non-fiction. According to some data, in the next one century half of the world species will disappear, many of them even before being discovered. What we are now observing is probably an extinction rate 100 to 1000 times higher than the background one before the arrival of man. This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, and the worst of it is not that man realises, or least is supposed to realise, what he's doing and does nothing to prevent it, nor that he might well disappear from the face of earth as well, but that his devastating activities – especially the dissemination of invading species – severely handicap the evolution itself: it is much too slow to compensate by favourable adaptation and natural selection the onslaught of the invaders: thus thousands of species lose the battle every year and disappear – forever. Thanks to evolution, life has always recovered from the great extinctions in the past. It is by no means sure how long it will take to recover from this one, if ever:

If extinctions continue to accelerate, the world will become, in a matter of centuries, a homogenized place. While the majority of species with limited ranges continue to go extinct, a few rugged species will thrive. Over 90 percent of the world's agriculture is based on only 20 species of plants and 6 species of animals. As the human population continues to rise, the fortune of these species will go on rising with it. Invaders will continue to spread [...] The destruction of forests and other habitats will harm most native species, but few will prosper.
''As long as humans are here and don't go extinct,'' says Ward [Peter Ward, paleontologist, University of Washington] , ''that evolutionary faucet that you turn after a mass extinction that creates new species – that'll never be turned on. As humans exist far into the future, I foresee a world in which biodiversity stays very low. And that to me is the tragedy.''
After past mass extinctions, life has recuperated and even rebounded. How it recovers from the current one depends partly on the destiny of the human race. Man-made global warming may end up being one of the most profound causes of extinction, but it cannot last forever. [...] It would take only a few centuries to use up these reserves [oil and coal]. It will take hundreds of thousands of years for Earth to draw down the carbon dioxide to the levels it was at before the Industrial Revolution.

But long after the atmosphere recovers from its binge of carbon dioxide, and even after
Homo sapiens is gone, the biological invaders we have sown around the world will keep regenerating, keep controlling the ecosystems that surround them. They will continue to frustrate the evolution of other plants and animals.

''Evolution has now entered a new mode,'' says Burney
[David Burney, paleoecologist, Fordham university, New York]. ''Something altogether new is happening, and it has to do with what humans do to the evolutionary process. And it's a very scary thing, because it's like we are taking evolution around a blind corner, something that nature hasn't dealt with before: species that can just hop a plane and wind up on the other side of the world; combinations of species that have never been combined before. It's a whole new ball game, and we don't know, really, how it will end.''

The irony is completely chilling and horrifying. After nearly four billion years, evolution produced man – not on purpose, by no means, but it did produce him. And what does man do? He shuts down the evolution and causes the greatest mass extinction in the history of this planet. In the worst possible scenario – nuclear annihilation – life would be reduced to scorpions and cockroaches, at best; at worst, to a few highly resistant bacterial strains. Then evolution will start the whole story of life again. It is bound to be a different story. May it next time produce a more sensible species as ruler of the world than Homo sapiens. ( )
  Waldstein | Jan 16, 2011 |
This is an excellent introduction or review of the theory basics. This covers sufficient detail to supply a solid foundation of evidence of change in species without being boring.
Only towards the ends does Mr Zimmer seem to begin to present ideas with some bias. I did not read the 'Natural History of Rape" by Thornhill & Palmer but I did read the original paper on the scorpion fly rape behavior. This paper was given very short shrift by Zimmer despite being good research and well written. Since the paper was not listed in his bibliography I assume he didn't even read it. The scathing review he quotes points to a small portion of the book using a small data sample that may have been of marginal applicability but I remember reading statistic papers with very large data samples relating human behavior and rape victim ages so I know there is far more work being done that is relevant but not mentioned in Mr Zimmer's critique. This type of work by evolutionary biologists is slapped down by Zimmer as being based on minute samples and because their "samples usually a few dozen American undergraduates- mostly white, mostly affluent, - can hardly be expected to represent the universal human condition." This statement is implying this was all that was being done but I have read papers with a far broader data base so I know this isn't true.
Zimmer is being very loaded in his method of presenting the work he is ctirisizing. So while I may not be utterly familiar with all the work this type of obvious bias makes me hesitate to take other items as being fairly presented. This is me nit picking on one segment of a book I enjoyed but it bothered me. ( )
  gardengallavant | Jun 14, 2009 |
Science writing, and especially history of science writing, always has two opposite goals. On the one hand, one wants to show how brilliant and far reaching the described work is, wrapping the story into a neat narrative and disarming the opponents of the described ideas and theories. On the other hand, one wants to portray the research process as honestly as possible, and there are always diversions, bumps in the road, lengthy periods of verification, dissent among scientists and the public at large, personalities of key players. Balancing between these two poles is what makes great science writing, and Zimmer does an admirable job. This book is sort of a catch-all story of evolution, from Darwin's biography to current scientific research in diverse fields (virology and human health, ecology, genetics) to the debate about what should be taught in American public schools.

Gould's introduction is a little odd, since the book is mostly history and his topic is decidedly philosophical (the nature of scientific knowledge). Zimmer does get into a little bit of philosophy at the end, but that's clearly not his strength. The best parts of the book are the insights into Darwin's life and the lives of the people who are still testing the hypotheses spawned from the theory of natural selection. There are some very personal details (the color of Anne Darwin's vomit) and some very good quotations from researchers that perfectly encapsulate the fascination with the subject, the large body of observation and the hesitation to speculate before more evidence is gathered that seems to be widespread among people knee-deep in a research project ("One possible scenario is that pathogens wipe out entire gardens. Then the ants are forced to go to neighboring ants and steal a replacement, or temporarily join with them in one happy community. But occasionally we also see them invade a neighboring nest and wipe out the ants and take over their gardens." p. 206). ( )
  bexaplex | Mar 17, 2009 |
A great introduction to the topic and covers a lot of ground, from Darwin’s life aboard the Beagle to host-bacteria arms races (stop having antibiotics, people!) to man-caused mass extinctions to whales with legs to the invention of language.

If you’re thinking of buying the book, be aware that the 2006 paperback edition does not come with those lavish illustrations the Amazon reviews mention. It’s still worth it, but I can only imagine how much better the original -and sold out- 2001 edition is, since this is a subject that really benefits from images. ( )
1 vote jorgearanda | Jun 11, 2008 |
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This dazzling companion volume to one the most important series in PBS history tells the compelling story of the theory of evolution -- from Darwin to twenty-first-century science. Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was breathtaking, beautifully written, staunchly defended, defiantly radical. Yet it emerged long before paleontologists and geologists worked out the chronology of life on Earth, long before biologists uncovered the molecules that underlie heredity and natural selection. Not until the late twentieth century was the true scope of its power revealed. This remarkable new book, featuring more than 150 color illustrations, presents a rich and up-to-date view of evolution that explores the far-reaching implications of Darwin's theory and emphasizes the power, significance, and relevance of evolution to our lives today. After all, we ourselves are the product of evolution, and we can tackle many of our gravest challenges -- from the lethal resurgence of antibiotic-resistant diseases to the wave of extinctions that looms before us -- with a sound understanding of the science. It can help us see our lives in connection to everything that has come before and to every form of life on Earth today. Filled with rich narrative, award-winning science writing, and the most up-to-date information on topics ranging from Darwinian medicine and sexual selection to the origins of language, evolutionary psychology, and the controversies surrounding creationism, Evolution tells in riveting detail the story of a remarkable scientific journey, from the emergence to the triumph of an idea.

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Evolutie - De triomf van een idee en de bijbehorende Teleac-serie vertellen het meeslepende en alomvattende verhaal van het leven op aarde en van de geschiedenis van de evolutietheorie, vanaf Darwin tot en met de hedendaagse wetenschap.
Toen Charles Darwin met Over het ontstaan van soorten (1859) zijn bevindingen eenmaal op papier had gezet, betekende dat niet dat daarmee het verhaal van de evolutie was afgesloten. Integendeel, op basis van zijn inzichten werden in hoog tempo nieuwe ontdekkingen gedaan. Maar het was pas in de tweede helft van de twintigste eeuw dat de werkelijke betekenis van Darwins inspanningen volledig zichtbaar werd.
Carl Zimmer geeft met Evolutie - Triomf van een idee niet alleen een helder en actueel beeld van alle aspecten van de evolutie, maar ook van de verstrekkende gevolgen die Darwins theorie heeft gehad; vanaf het allereerste leven tot en met de nog immer bestaande wetenschappelijke en religieuze controverses.
Van begin tot eind blijft Zimmer de lezer boeien met zijn fantastische verhaal over de opkomst en de triomf van een idee: evolutie.
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