on 21 December 2010
After reading "The Greatest Show On Earth" by Richard Dawkins, I felt the need to find a shorter and simpler explanation of the wonder of evolution. The Charlesworths - both senior academics at the Institute of Cell, Animal and Population Biology at the University of Edinburgh - have certainly produced something shorter (130 pages instead of over 400) but it is arguable whether it is any simpler.
The authors explain that evolutionary change can occur through natural selection or through genetic drift but concentrate on the former. They set out how natural selection underlies the great similarities between species and how, when species are isolated, they become different. On this basis, they set out the evidence for evolution in the patterns of species in time and space.
They do not pretend that we currently have all the answers to the theory of evolution and the last chapter is titled "Some difficult problem". They briefly examine such issues as the origin of living cells and human consciousness and why we age. Fascinating stuff.
"Evolution: A Very Short Introduction" (2003) by Brian and Deborah Charlesworth offers a concise, detailed introduction to evolutionary biology. The Charlesworths are both Professors at the University of Edinburgh. Brian Charlesworth is former President of the Society for the Study of Evolution while Deborah Charlesworth has served as President of the European Society of Evolutionary Biology.
The Charlesworths offer the following introduction to this overview of evolution.
"The relentless application of the scientific method of inference from experiment and observation, without reference to religious or government authority, has completely transformed our view of our origins and relation to the universe in less than 500 years. In addition to the intrinsic fascination of the view of the world opened up by science, this has had an enormous impact on philosophy and religion. The findings of science imply that humans are the product of impersonal forces, and that the habitable world forms a minute part of a universe of immense size and duration. Whatever the religious or philosophical beliefs of individual scientists, the whole programme of scientific research is founded on an assumption that the universe can be understood on such a basis."
Evolutionary theory still provokes controversy. The Charlesworths do not hide their view that evolutionary theory is inconsistent with the position of supernatural, intentional creation of separate species. At several points in this introduction, they criticize supernatural creationism directly. Throughout the book, they gather the support for evolution from various strands of science and argue that it is overwhelming.
The Charlesworths begins with a chapter explaining the nature of evolutionary biology drawn from Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Then, in two chapters, they offer corroboration for the theory from two separate strands. In the first, the Charlesworths consider similarities and differences between organisms as showing evolution. The most interesting discussion in this chapter considers findings in cell biology and biochemistry. The study of heredity and of the nature of DNA across all forms of life corroborates and expands evolutionary biology in ways not available to Darwin and Wallace.
In their second chapter setting out evidence for evolution, the Charlesworths examine "patterns in time and space", a form of evidence on which both Darwin and Wallace relied. This source of evolutionary theory is based upon the enormous scope of geological time together with the fossil record. Further studies since Darwin and Wallace, including advances in cell biology and dating techniques have served to corroborate and strengthen the early findings.
In the following portions of their study, the Charlesworths discuss how evolution and natural selection explain the adaptation of species to their environment. They describe how evolution accounts for the astonishing diversity and change in living species, and they conclude with a short chapter on difficult problems in evolution, such as accounting for complex organs including, for example, the human eye.
The Charlesworth's study is short but dense. It requires close, careful reading, particularly in the sections involving cell biology. The book offers as a reward for the required effort a renewed understanding for the lay reader of evolution, its basis and importance. In my own case, I studied evolution in school many years ago but found it useful to focus upon it through this book. The Charlesworths' study will also be useful to students coming to evolutionary biology early in their lives. The book includes a brief bibliography for further reading.
I have found the Very Short Introduction Series of Oxford University Press highly useful in exploring a broad range of subjects. I have especially benefitted from books in the series about the sciences in that I have tended to take the sciences for granted though adult life. This study of evolution fits well with other works in the series I have read, including various books about geology, chemistry, and the relationship between science and religion. Readers wanting an informed brief account of evolutionary biology will benefit from the Charlesworth's Very Short Introduction.
Evolution: A very short introduction by Brian & Deborah Charlesworth, Oxford, 2003, 160 ff.
The biology of evolution
By Howard A. Jones
Two eminent professors of biology, both F.R.S., from the University of Edinburgh have collaborated to write this short monograph in the Oxford series of Short Introductions. It certainly maintains the standard of academic excellence characteristic of this series. The book is full of fascinating facts, illustrated with twenty-one figures. The degree of detail is such that the book might be more suitable as an introduction to evolution for biology students rather than for a lay readership, who might find the book on the same subject by John Maynard Smith slightly less intimidating.
Maynard Smith, the dedicatee of the book, was Brian Charlesworth's mentor at the University of Sussex. Though his book was published in 1958, it has been brought up to date in a new edition for Cambridge (1993) by Richard Dawkins. The book by the Charlesworths has the advantage of being a decade more recent again and in a fast-moving field, currency is important. The short section on mutations of bacteria is particularly good and the illustration (Fig.8) of how DNA codons relate to specific amino acids in proteins is very clear; but I think taking nearly a page to illustrate evolutionary changes in the fossil foraminiferan Globorotalia and another for the phylogenic tree of Darwin's finches is too much information for all but specialist students. Figure 19, criticised by one reviewer, is quite correct in my book.
This book is pure biology: there is nothing here about Intelligent Design (`human beings are the products of impersonal forces') or any other religious issues. The book is clearly written, well illustrated and there is a very good index and therefore unhesitatingly recommended for the serious student of biology.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.
The Theory of Evolution (Canto)
It is a sign of the times that the authors on occasion take a defensive attitude to their subject. Creationism, for whatever reason, has proved remarkably adaptive and, strange as it may seem, evolutionary biologists still feel obliged to painstakingly lay out the evidence for evolution per se, rather than just discuss its mechanisms or trace its history.
The Charlesworths do a good job of this, albeit in a rather dry, academic style that may not suit readers that just want a light, readable introduction to the basic principles of evolution.
The book contains a fairly heavy dose of microbiology, as the authors go to some lengths to detail the biological functions underlying heredity and evolution. This is useful revision for readers with high school science, but tough going for the complete beginner. Similarly, the style is plain and succinct but never light or breezy. This is not a dummy's guide.
Evolution theory took a spectacular wrong turn in the latter part of the 20th century with the emergence of the idea that selection acts only at the gene level, a view popularized by Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. This bizarre notion gained a considerable following and was the subject of a heated dispute between Dawkins and Gould that ended only with the latter's death. Thankfully, sanity has been restored and it is now once again recognized that selection can take place at any level, and it is refreshing to see the Charlesworths, in this book, stating unequivocally (p 74) that there can be selection at species level and at other levels (p 73). Interestingly, there is an extract from a very favorable review by Dawkins of this book, on the back cover. Did he skip pages 73 and 74 or has he at last seen the light?
This series is prone to typos and the mutant printing gene has not been bred out of this particular book. Figure 19 is a monumental example. It is printed in landscape rather than portrait mode, effectively sideways (you'd have to see it to understand) thus leaving half the page blank and half the figure missing. The birds and mammals are therefore cruelly pruned from the tree of life. OUP really should get a grip.
Look elsewhere if you want a true introductory text, but select this if you want an excellent summary of the current state of knowledge of evolution and its underlying biological processes.
on 16 May 2009
Before I start the review, please do not go to this book for a complete argument against Creationism, the steady opponent of the theory of Evolution. Although this book contains some ideas that would refute Creationism, the authors do not argue against it.
The book is quite "heavy" in the sense of it being quite academic; fortunately my attentiveness in Biology classes paid off with some of the concepts! The book moves quite swiftly between topics, giving an excellent summary of what evolution is and how it works. It also ends by conceding that there are problems with evolution, which I found quite admirable of evolutionary biologists who might otherwise hold that evolution is flawless to the unsuspecting reader.
So, if you want to find out more about evolution, I would recommend the book (although do not expect an easy read), and even if you know a fair amount about evolution, a position that I was in before reading the book, it will still undoubtedly present you with new and fascinating concepts.
on 18 July 2007
I decided to read up on evolution after reading Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, in which he suggest that all behavior can be explain with evolutionary theory. I found the God Delusion a well written book that explained some complex ideas in an accessible and engaging way. Given that this book has Dawkins approval plastered over the back cover I figured it would serve as a good introduction to evolution.
Unfortuantly I found this book to be a disappointment. I study Biology at A level so was familiar with many of the concepts in the book but often found myself having to re-read passages to figure out what the point being made was. The tone was dry making it hard to engage with, I end up reading the book in very short sittings as it couldn't hold my concentration.
Darwin is quoted occasionally throughout book and these quotes contrast with the rest of the text. The quotes are far more digestible then the surrounding text and far more compelling too.
My hope was that after reading this book I would at least have a sound understanding of evolution. I have not achieved that, therefore I really can't recommend this book.
on 15 December 2014
Arrived as expected, nothing much to say, no damage at all, very good price!
This is a splendid introduction to the subject of evolution revealing both the strengths and weaknesses of the theory, representing the broad consensus of opinion among the scientific community and providing a knowledgeable presentation of Darwin's original theory recast in its twenty first century intellectual context.
The basic tenet of the theory is that the Earth is a planet orbiting a star (the Sun) formed from "a process of gravitational condensation of dust and gas" about 4.6. billion years ago. All living organisms "are the descendants of self-replicating molecules..formed by purely chemical means" more than 3.5 billion years ago. According to the theory successive life forms have been produced by a process of "descent with modification" (natural selection) and related to each other by the tree of life.
The theory continues that all vertebrates can trace "their ancestry back to a small fish-like creature that lacked a backbone over 500 million years ago." The authors admit the further back in time they go the more difficult it is to establish relationships but argue that "there are clear signs in ...genetic material of common ancestry."
It follows from the theory that previous theories of special creation have been replaced by the idea "that human beings are the product of impersonal forces and that the habitable world forms a minute part of a universe of immense size and duration" which can be understood by the application of "the scientific method of inference from experiment and observation without reference to religious or governmental authority."
In fairness to the authors they recognise there are problems with the theory such as the process of adaptation. To meet this they raise the far from convincing argument that just as engineering constantly produces improved models e.g. artificial knees, cars so nature has improved on earlier models, citing the work of animal and plant breeders in support of their claim. However, in each case quoted by way of example, the changes have been designed and modifications have been introduced by humans not by impersonal natural forces.
Similarly, in discussing the evolution of eyes the authors suggest "Rhodopsin is used in all animal eyes and is also found in bacteria. Starting with this simple ability of cells to detect light, it is easy to imagine a series of steps in which increased light-capturing abilities evolve step by step leading eventually to a focusable lens that produces a sharp image." However, there is a world of difference between "imagining" such steps and "knowing" that they occurred. In making such statements the authors are reproducing an "evolution of the gaps" rather than an example of the scientific method.
The authors claim, "Although we know nothing of the details of the selective forces driving the evolution of human mental and language abilities, which evidently far exceed those of other animals, there is nothing particularly mysterious in explaining them in evolutionary terms." Such explanation is attributed to control by genes, arguing that, "mutations have been found which lead to deficiencies in specific aspect if grammar in the speech of their carriers". In that case there should be whole populations of stammerers or people with an inability to learn structural forms of language.
The weakness of evolutionary theory lies in its adherence to the Darwin's idea, copied from the equally discredited Malthus, that life was an outgrowth "from the war of nature, from famine and death". The "struggle for existence" envisioned by both is both discredited and indefensible. In addition, like many ideologies - religious, political and philosophical - evolutionary theory is so broad that it can be made to fit any circumstances without critical appraisal. In this respect the scientific community undermines its own credibility by assuming the theory to be valid rather than adopting a critical approach.
However, it would be unfair to allow the previous statement to stand without qualification. The modern state of evolutionary theory is an outgrowth of the modern synthesis of Haldane et.al. which led to modern evolutionary biology. Within the latter there are clear divisions between those such as Dawkins who believe that natural selection is the primary force guiding evolution and scientists such as Steven Rose who argues that natural selection does not fully explain the complexity of evolution and that we are overlooking something big. I remain unconvinced that studying fruit flies, as did John Maynard Smith to whom the book is dedicated, really provides useful information about the human race.
One does not have to be a supporter of Intelligent Design to see the weaknesses of evolutionary theory, in particular, the notion of natural selection or the "survival of the fittest" which was, from the outset, the main idea against which opponents of Darwin objected. It would appear that modern evolutionary theorists are no nearer a concrete understanding of what it is they advocate. The authors argue that "the term fitness is merely a useful short-cut to help express briefly the idea that characteristics sometimes affect organisms' chances of surviving and/or reproducing, without having to specific a particular characteristic." To imagine that this constitutes "scientific inquiry" is an insult to the intelligence.
So why have I given the book five stars? Firstly, the holding of erroneous opinions is an insufficient reason for giving it less. Secondly, in stating their case, the authors lay bare their assumptions in a manner which is easily discernible. Thirdly, whether one considers the theory of evolution is proven or not (and I remain unconvinced that it is), there are far too many books which seem unable to separate scientific theory from philosophical or religious opinions.
In its own terms to book is an excellent presentation of the theory of evolution. One doesn't have to agree with its assertions to recognise the qualities it does have. I would suggest everyone reads it and makes their own mind up accordingly. As a very short introduction it's far better value for money than mud-slinging exchanges of opinion that too often devalue the debate on the issues it raises.
I've been reading up on philosophy and recently completed "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. As a result of these studies I wanted to get a bit more information about evolutionary theory, so I purchased this little book. Unfortunately it was fairly difficult to understand for a relative newcomer to this subject. I had thought that it would be a basic introduction to the topic , but in my opinion it requires a reasonably advanced knowledge of biology to fully comprehend it's contents , something that I do not have. The book also doesnt make any reference to arguments against Creationism -it just presents dry facts in an academic sort of way. All in all it was a bit of a disappointment - not really the book I was looking for.