1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating, But Flawed, Argument Emphasizing Biological Evolution's Stochastic Nature,
This review is from: The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (Hardcover)Having heard Eugene Koonin speak on the origins of eukaryotes at Rockefeller University back in May, 2008, I had high expectations for this book. In "The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution", Koonin argues that biological evolution is a "stochastic process based on historical contingency, constrained by requirements for maintaining cell organization and modulated by adaptation." To a considerable degree, I believe Koonin is right, since we find echoes of this in several decades of Stephen Jay Gould's scientific and popular writings, and in recent interest in creating an Extended Modern Synthesis that does realize the stochastic nature of biological evolution. However, Koonin doesn't make a compelling argument, since it is drowned out by his substantial emphasis - dare we say bias - toward understanding evolutionary processes primarily at the cellular level, with surprisingly few references with respect to organismal biology. It is compounded further by his suggestion that we treat his book as an introduction to understanding biological evolution from the perspective of molecular biology, but most of his reasoning seems more concerned with issues pertaining to the origin of life and the taxonomic affinities of various single-celled organisms, from viruses and bacteria to prokaryotes, than in discussing in great depth, major concepts in evolutionary biology. Regrettably, while "The Logic of Chance" was written to convey Koonin and others' work to a more general audience, it reads more like an introductory textbook in an advanced molecular biology course; those of us trained primarily in organismal biology will find this a difficult, often tedious, read.
There are several serious flaws which reduce this book's potential usefulness to colleagues and to those in the scientifically literate public who may be familiar with Koonin's research. He offers rather fleeting discussions of exaptation and phylogenetic systematics (cladistics), omitting some of the key published scientific literature, beginning with the classic punctuated equilibrium paper co-authored by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. For example, in Chapter One, I find it odd that he cites the Gould and Lewontin paper "The Spandrels of San Marco", without referencing both it and another, more important, paper on the concept of exaptation, that was co-written by Gould and Elisabeth Vrba, published a few years later in the journal Paleobiology. Nor does he discuss cladistics, assuming that readers are familiar with its terminology (which is an unrealistic expectation for a book that is meant for a more general, science-literate audience). More worrisome is his acceptance of the anthropic principle, to which he devotes an entire appendix, since that falls within the realm more of metaphysical speculation, than of science, even if there are some cosmologists who think that the anthropic principle does explain much with regards to the present physical properties of the universe. Regrettably, "The Logic of Chance" is a most unsatisfying work of popular scientific literature, and one that is suited not for a general audience, including those in the sciences, but maybe, most appropriately, only those who are most familiar with Koonin's research.
Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 19 Jul 2012 09:35:04 BDT
Last edited by the author on 19 Jul 2012 09:35:16 BDT
Mr. R. Smith says:
I have to say I disagree with most of this review. I appreciate that as an 'organismal' biologist, you are uncomfortable with the focus of the book - but that is what the book is about, and is what current evolutionary understanding is based upon. Molecular biology, not organismal biology, is the centre of modern evolutionary theory.
I think Koonin did a pretty good job of providing a guiding bibliography. He makes it clear in the introduction that there are many seminal papers he didn't have space to include, so I think your highly specific complaint about the punctuated equilibrium paper is a bit... specific.
You've also chosen, as many other reviewers have, to highlight the speculative appendix as if it in some way detracts from the rest of the book. I think it should be taken as what it is presented as - an indulgence in rumination by the author, and not a coherent part of the rest of the thesis.
Ultimately I think this book is a very welcome addition to the popularisation corpus, even if, as he admits, it is highly technical.
‹ Previous 1 Next ›