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5.0 out of 5 stars Updating Darwin and his scientific interests, 1 Dec. 2009
This review is from: Darwin's Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England (Hardcover)
Steve Jones, who is a professor of genetics at University College London and a most engaging writer on evolutionary biology, wrote this book to coincide with the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of "The Origin of Species." He calls his book "Darwin's Island" to emphasize the fact that the vast majority of Darwin's work was on the biota of the island of England following his return from the voyage of the Beagle and not on what he learned during the scant five weeks he spent in the Galapagos Islands as a young man.

Darwin wrote a four-volume work on barnacles (over a thousand pages); he wrote on "Orchids and Insects," on the "Expressions of Emotions," on the "Formation of Vegetable Mould by Earthworms," and of course on "The Descent of Man" and other works, comprising in total more than six million words. Jones' intent is to introduce the reader to the wider range of Darwin's work and by doing so demonstrate why Darwin is widely considered the greatest biologist who ever lived.

Jones' technique is to devote chapters to Darwin's many interests while bringing us up to date on the current understanding. Thus we read about what Darwin learned about worms, barnacles, insects, insectivore plants, sexual selection, our facial expressions, etc., and how that agrees with or differs from what modern science has discovered. What we find out is that Darwin was amazingly prescient in many areas mainly because he worked so diligently for so many years with the kind of enthusiasm few of us can muster. And it didn't hurt that he was a brilliant man.

Darwin could have been a man of leisure because of inherited wealth, but he was driven to discover as much as he could about the natural world. He immersed himself into scientific research, performing experiments as well as reading, and corresponding with other scientists and amateurs from around the world. He dug up the ground around Down House where he lived; he dissected specimens, he worried about the adaptive vigor of his children since he had married his cousin (hence his volume on "Cross and Self-Fertilisation"), he measured things, he explored the woods and streams and seashores of his English "archipelago"; he examined fossils, and all the while he pondered deeply on the nature of life and on how evolution works.

The effect of Jones' technique in showing both what Darwin knew in the 19th century and what we know today is to emphasize how the world has changed since Darwin's time. We learn how some species have circumnavigated the globe and caused other species to go extinct, especially how the "weediest" of all species, human beings, have altered and destroyed environments and brought about changes in our use of the natural world that would have probably appalled Darwin.

Being a geneticist, Jones knows very well what Darwin could only guess at, that is, how the traits of species are handed down, how "descent with modification" works. And that is another strength of this remarkable and very readable book, demonstrating as Jones does how much Darwin was able to understand and get right without any knowledge of the basic mechanism of inheritance as expressed in genetics. How he would have marveled at what we know today.

Jones closes by seeing a "triumphant of the average" as we and other weedy species scurry about the globe mating widely instead of closely as in Darwin's time when people and other creatures seldom encountered opportunities much distant from the place of their birth. He sees what I once called "the browning of society" as natural selection irons out the differences between equatorial humankind and those from northern climes, as Asians marry the English, as Russian tumble weeds spread across the American west. When once it was the rich who had the most children, today it is the poor. Jones notes that "The gulf has closed through restraint by the affluent rather than excess by the poor." He does not speculate on what this change will have on society, but posits that the opportunity for natural selection "is in steep decline," meaning I suppose that evolutionary change in humans will become increasingly static. Musing on how that will play out in the long run, Jones writes darkly: "For Homo sapiens, some nasty surprises no doubt lurk around the corner. Some day, evolution will take its revenge and we may fail in the struggle for existence against ourselves, the biggest ecological challenge of all." (p. 286)
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