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The Major Transitions in Evolution [Paperback]

The late Professor John Maynard Smith , Eors Szathmary

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Book Description

30 Oct 1997
During evolution, there have been several major changes in the way that genetic information is organized and transmitted from one generation to the next. These transitions include the origin of life itself, the first eukaryotic cells, reproduction by sexual means, the appearance of multicellular plants and animals, the emergence of cooperation and of animal societies, and the unique language ability of humans. This is the first book to discuss all of these major transitions. In discussing such a wide range of topics in one volume, the authors are able to highlight the similarities between different transitions - for example, between the union of replicating molecules to form chromosomes and of cells to form multicellular organisms. The authors also show how an understanding of one transition sheds light on others. A common theme in the book is that entities that could replicate independently before the transition can replicate afterwards only as part of a larger whole. Why, then, does selection between entities at the lower level not disrupt selection at the higher level? In answering this question, the authors offer an explanation for the evolution of cooperation at all levels of complexity. Written in a clear style, and illustrated with many original diagrams, this book can be read with enjoyment by anyone with an undergraduate training in the biological sciences. It will be ideal for advanced discussion groups on evolution. Although the content ranges widely from molecular biology to linguistics and from intragenomic conflict to insect societies, no detailed knowledge of any of these topics is required. Mathematical models are clearly explained, and equations and formulae are kept to a minimum.

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"It spans the major transitions in evolution, starting with a prebiotic mix of free molecules and ending with the evolution of human language . . . . A splendid and rewarding tour de force."--Nature

About the Author

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was Emeritus Professor of Biology in the University of Sussex. Eors Szathmáry is at the Institute for Advanced Study, Budapest.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Living organisms are highly complex, and are composed of parts that function to ensure the survival and reproduction of the whole. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Marvellous and Challenging Read 7 Dec 1999
By Suvrat Kher - Published on
This is arguably John-Maynard Smith's most challenging project in popular science writing. Written along with Eros Szathmary, a chemist, " The Major Transitions in Evolution" is written primarily for biology students, but can be understood by anybody with a solid background in evolutionary theory. How have the ways in which information is transmitted between generations changed through time and what were the crucial transitions that made these changes possible? One early example that illustrates the effect of these transitions is the origin of chromosomes. Nucleic acid strands (genes) capable of independent replication, at some point became linked and thereafter could replicate only as a set of lined genes (chromosomes). A new way of storing information,a new information system had evolved. How was this transition maintained through time? Would'nt unlinked genes which replicate faster be favoured by natural selection over linked genes? In effect, would'nt selection at a lower level disrupt higher level organizatins? This is a common feature of many of the major transitions and forms the fundamental theme of this marvellous book. In a series of chapters the authors discuss the evolutions of various level of complexity. The chapters are arrange in a logical sequence begining with the origin of life and moving on to successive transitions including the origin of the genetic code, the origin of the eucaryotes, the origin of sex, multicellularity, societies and language. The list here is not complete. I read the book from start to finish in a sequence, but readers with a good background in the subject could probably start anywhere depending on their interest. For non-biologist this is not easy reading at all, and I would imagine that even biology students will find portions challenging. An impressive quality of this book is the constant attempt to incorporate the pecularities of a particular system in developing an explanation to explain its origin. A discussion on the origin of the genetic code includes the possibilty that there could be a stero-chemical basis for specific amino acid-codon assigments, rather than it being a 'frozen accident'. Another example is whether there is a causal connection between haplodiploidy and evolution of sociality in eusocial insects. The author warn against making this apparently intuitive connection, and instead seek an explanation in split sex ratios and in some cases the particular features of insect ecology. The highlight of the book for me was the last chapter on the origin of language. From Noam Chomsky's work on the structure of grammer , syntax and language and representation, to an evolutionary explanation for its origin, this was really an informative essay. The ever recurring argument against the evolution of complex adapatations, in this case language, by a series of adaptive intermediate stages, has been dealt with using examples from animal speech, the genetics of language disorders and a section on the transitions from pigdin to creole. The book strikes a good balance between explaining theory and then discussing the experimental evidence available. Wherever possible, new experimental approaches are suggested. Finally, like any really good book on science the authors not only bring you up to date with what has been done, but also stress just how much more needs to be done. It is this feature about the book that leaves a lasting impression.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent. Industrial strength for biological initiates. 29 Jun 1999
By Jon Richfield( - Published on
John Maynard Smith gets an automatic thumbs-up from me for anything he writes. He is clear, pleasant, creative, unpretentious, authoritative and thoughtful. For this book he has teamed up with what seems to be an up-and-coming molecular biologist cum evolutionist and the team is impressively powerful. The writing is all in Maynard-Smith's style as far as I can tell, so I don't know whether Szathmary is an exceptionally competent anglophone who shares the same style, or whether they split the writing duties to exploit their respective skills. All I can say is that if you want a really rewarding read and you have a sound, not necessarily advanced, understanding of the basics of biochemistry, evolution and cellular physiology, then you cannot do better than this book. It makes no pretence to being comprehensive and gives only the minimum of introductory material to support their views on evolutionary transitions. Even if you are familiar with the field, the book does not lend itself to skimming; it is the distillation of a lot of non-trivial thinking.
An excellent book. Recommended to any professional in the field, to any student of the subject and to laymen with a good background in the subject and who are not intimidated by a challenge and are willing to skip some of the biochemistry. The later chapters are more accessible in that they deal with more difficult subjects, such as speech and culture.
Instead of watering down the content for educated laymen, the authors have published a less technical sequel: "The Origins of Life". This is also available from Amazon and, although it is intended for a wider audience, it is thoroughly rewarding for the professional.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First class 3 Jun 1998
By A Customer - Published on
Maynard Smith is one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists (for instance, he was largely responsible for the application of ideas from game theory to biological contests), and here he gives an excellent account of what he considers the most important transitions in evolutionary biology, including the origin of the genetic code, cellularisation, sociality and language. It's an astonishingly wide-ranging book, and highly recommended for anyone with any interest in any of these subjects in particular or in evolution as a whole. The writing is lucid and entertaining, and although some chapters probably require a familiarity with at least basic biology, Maynard Smith, like Richard Dawkins, can be understood by anyone who's prepared to make an effort.
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic 30 July 2013
By Gerson A Calgaro - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
exquisite approach on the subject of evolution and its particulars, especially on ways to transition between the structures of the species. Recommended
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