This is a very good book, even for those of us who are skeptical of the validity of evolution by natural selection. Not only is it a very good book it is an essential preliminary read for anyone with an interest in the subject from a non-scientific viewpoint. While it's true that Pallen fails to deal with the argument that modern evolutionary theory is, in effect, "Evolution of the Gaps" his exposition of the theory is clear, concise and intelligible. In addition, while he is clear where he stands in the evolution and religion controversy, he does present a broad spectrum of both sides of the argument.
Pallen traces evolutionary thought back to the Greek philosophers and acknowledges that the Biblical account hints at "the idea that simpler life forms arrived on the scene before more complex ones". He sets Darwin in his historical context although, as is the problem with broad brush evolutionary theory, he quotes, without criticism, Contosta's notion that freedom evolves as an example of the application of evolutionary theory. Rather like Darwin's theory these things are allegedly so slow and imperceptible that we see them only in retrospect. Pallen also deals with four alleged "myths" about Darwin although no one with even the most cursory knowledge of Darwin's life would regard anyone of them as having substance.
Darwin's big idea had three strands (the mutability of species, common descent and natural selection). As for the latter Pallen extends this concept to a variety of natural selections, none of which are any more convincing than the other. In particular Pallen attaches a variety of meanings to the term evolution when simply referring to adaptation to the environment. Ironically Darwin's finches are amongst the examples cited in which Pallen interchanges evolution and adaptation but assumes natural selection. Natural selection requires a common origin (an idea favoured by Erasmus Darwin) from which the various of species evolved. Of course "species" is an artificial term which has been foisted on to the natural world by humans.
Although I disagree with Pallen's conclusions (some of which are speculative rather than fact based) what I particularly like about the book is the comprehensive way in which he sets the whole theory in its intellectual and historical contexts. In referring to LUCA (last universal common ancestor) Pallen acknowledges that it cannot be identified but asserts that "molecular studies have confirmed that all living organisms trace their ancestry back to a single common ancestor". However, as there is controversy over whether LUCA is a discrete cellular entity or a community, one wonders how he can be so certain. The more so since he acknowledges his limitations in the case of the mitochondrial merger. The primacy of chance or necessity is never fully explored satisfactorily.
I particularly like Pallen's exploration of the the relationship between biology and other sciences, philosophy, politics and religion. However, he is weak on Darwin's view of non Caucasian races. Darwin's opposition to slavery and the savage treatment of native Americans neither made him a racist, nor provided philosophical justification for the Holocaust, but to deny the relationship between Eugenics and natural selection is to fly in the face of historical reality. It is the equivalent of arguing that Stalinism was a deviation from Marxist-Leninism when it was in fact its logical conclusion. In his eulogy at Marx's graveside Engels spoke of Marxism and Darwinism as twin forces for progress. The faulty intellectual reasoning that led Haldane and others to assume that Marxism was politically correct was easily transferred to the notion that Social Darwinism, though equally as false, was biologically justifiable. Darwin was the product of nineteenth century imperialist culture and to deny any link is willful blindness.
Pallen's chapter on religion is historically sound and, as with other parts of the book, comprehensive in covering the main issues. He understands that the conflict between some religious groups and evolutionary theory is political in nature. He acknowledges that the weakness of Intelligent Design is that it lacks explanatory power in scientific terms. His argument is that human beings are looking for explanations and his conclusion is that science can provide all such explanations. On that point I disagree with his conclusion but not his argument.
So why five stars? Identifying assumptions and weaknesses is not the same as identifying error. The book is an excellent read and can be read as a whole or in sections. It would be a disservice to Pallen to judge his book on whether it satisfactorily answers all the questions that exercise the human mind. In any future studies on this subject I will naturally select this volume for its clarity, its references and its glossary. Well worth buying whatever your views on evolution by natural selection.