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Randomness in Evolution Hardcover – 24 Mar 2013


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Review

"[I]ncredibly useful . . . refreshingly honest . . . witty and engaging."--Tiffany Taylor, Times Higher Education

"[F]orthright, informal, and humorous. His reminder that not every trait has a biologically adaptive function is a welcome lesson, as is his self-deprecating description of his ideas as just another 'just-so' story. . . . [A] call to the biologists who take over from him to do more research to confirm or to refute the often surprising ideas here."--Rob Hardy, Commercial Dispatch

"[Bonner] provides a well-written, well-documented collection of evidence suggesting randomness as a primary engine behind natural selection. . . . This is an excellent essay, valuable to a wide audience. Evolution is an important, timely topic, making Bonner's work a worthy contribution."--Choice

"[T]he book provides a careful analysis of the relationship between randomness and size in evolution and makes a good case for neutral morphologies."--James Bradley, Quarterly Review of Biology

"The main strength of this provocative book is that it undoubtedly provides a successful argument against the widespread tendency to give an adaptive explanation for any biological trait, and, above all, it opens the door to a fruitful way to reconsider the traditional view of evolution as mainly driven by natural selection."--Francesca Merlin, Biol Theory

From the Back Cover

"John Tyler Bonner, a distinguished developmental biologist, has long argued that a major driving force in the evolution of complexity is natural selection for large size. Here he takes a radically different view to explain the diversity of form among eukaryotic microorganisms: randomness, not selection, rules their lives. This stimulating and provocative theme is explored with ideas from a variety of fields. It simultaneously introduces students to the nature of a debate on the causes of diversity."--Peter R. Grant, coauthor of How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin's Finches

"Bonner makes a compelling case that the morphology of microorganisms is governed not by natural selection but by chance. He could be right. But right or wrong, this claim will be hugely controversial. It doesn't just 'approach heresy,' as he puts it. It is heresy."--Dan McShea, Duke University

"The main point of Bonner's book is that the importance of randomness in evolution depends on size. What is new is the claim that small organisms are more likely to have selectively neutral morphological variation. This, if true, is very interesting and important. Randomness in Evolution is provocative and will lead to lively discussion."--Michael Foote, University of Chicago


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Amazon.com: 4 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Size Matters 21 Aug. 2013
By Rob Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
To the delight of creationists, astronomer Fred Hoyle proclaimed about the formation and the evolution of life in 1983, "The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein." Hoyle's derisive statement of probabilities has been decisively debunked by biologists, but he tapped into just the right vein to promote distrust: we do not like randomness (even if it is not so extreme as Hoyle declared), and many feel uncomfortable with the formation of life or its modification being powered by random processes. Randomness is at the heart of evolution, in ways that biologist John Tyler Bonner reviews in _Randomness in Evolution_ (Princeton University Press). He does not just give a little primer on the way that random events cause evolutionary change; he also puts forth his own view of how randomness affects some branches of species more than others, specifically that randomness affects tiny creatures more than it does larger ones.

"All of evolutionary change is built on a foundation of randomness," writes Bonner. "It provides the necessary material for natural selection which then does indeed bring forth the order our inner mind so actively craves." The most well known aspect of randomness in evolution is mutation, the chance change of some DNA base, which Bonner reviews here. Evolution started somehow even before tiny, one-celled creatures existed, and its most obvious spectacular processes have been to go from small to large, from simple to complex. Smaller organisms have few developmental steps. In this way, there might be generated huge numbers of different small organism forms, especially given how quickly one generation succeeds another. The forms could be enormously varied. The cover of Bonner's book shows some of the famous drawings by Ernst Haeckel of radiolarians brought back from the voyage of the _HMS Challenger_. They are protozoa that possess fantastically diverse mineral skeletons that look like bizarre variations on the Platonic solids. It used to be that biologists argued that these differences were adaptive; perhaps different skeletal forms meant greater strength. "It has even been suggested to me," writes Bonner, "that each shape is a selective response to a specific predator, or a specific niche, but if so, where are those thousands of predators and niches?" Instead, Bonner says that most of these varieties are neutral; they are all pretty good at getting along in their own way, and the baroque changes of skeletons are so contrived because they do not really make a difference to the organism's survival. That sort of variety of morphology through randomness could never be expressed in larger organisms. Naturally, Bonner pulls examples from slime molds, his focus of research for sixty years. He also reflects upon the ability of some organisms to alternate a sexual with an asexual cycle. Smaller creatures can do it, and larger ones almost never do.

In many ways, _Randomness in Evolution_ extends the ideas Bonner put forth in another book, Why Size Matters. He does call upon some understanding of biological principles, but his style is forthright, informal, and humorous. His reminder that not every trait has a biologically adaptive function is a welcome lesson, as is his self-deprecating description of his ideas as just another "just-so" story. His current volume contains more speculation (reasoned speculation, to be sure) than his others, and it may be a call to the biologists who take over from him to do more research to confirm or to refute the often surprising ideas here.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A great read for science fans 11 Jun. 2013
By Cynthia A. Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Who knew slime molds could be so interesting? The whole argument about randomness in evolution is also fun to read. There is a video of Prof. Bonner talking about his book on Vimeo, which is also quite charming.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
excellent book 20 Feb. 2014
By Natan Avram - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
John Tyler Bonner has the amazing ability to synthesize the facts and come with a new important idea, namely that random events sometimes determine evolutionary outcomes, not selection. While the role of stochasticity has been understood for a while in various fields such as population genetics (and has Michael Lynch as an erudite and eloquent advocate), Bonner comes from a different perspective, that of experimental evolutionary biology. Bonner once again writes briefly yet eloquently. Read this book!
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Bonner is a master and this book is a gem 24 Jun. 2013
By TFKhang - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a gem. Bonner is a master of conciseness. Through masterful writing, he succeeds in bringing randomness, hitherto relegated to a minor cast in the grand play known as evolution, to the spotlight. This book can't be ignored by the community of biologists.
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