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4.3 out of 5 stars
The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
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on 17 June 2008
Genetics science has mushroomed the last 50 years, overturning many cherished preconceptions in biology and other Natural Sciences, while buttressing other theories with an abundance of hard scientific evidence. Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection has been in the later category, with its core assumptions confirmed by the new data about DNA structure, history and function.
The book is composed by a series of essays on the nature and function of genes within the DNA code, embedded in the cells of every living organism. The author offers ample evidence, from experimental data, about how exactly the workings of genes are ultimately responsible for the shaping and evolution of the Natural World around us. The point of the whole demonstration is to establish that Natural Selection mechanisms, as defined by Darwin about 150 years ago, are alive, well and firmly supported by the new data.
The text is aimed at the general public but some knowledge in basic biology and DNA function will help the reader to follow the arguments more closely. It is not a prerequisite though, since the author explains thoroughly the more stringent points, with help from the illustrations.
The last part of the book is the most disappointing, since it involves the denial of evolution, based on religious grounds, and a dire comment on the continuing destruction we inflict to the planet's ecosystems. The author's position, and one that I personally agree totally with, is that alarm bells are already sounding in many quarters and we no longer have the option of intellectual blindness.
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VINE VOICEon 8 May 2010
In this book the author examines how genomics, the comparitive study of species DNA, has enhanced and furthered our understanding of evolution and how this new evidence helps propel the case for evolution as the basis for life's diversity beyond any reasonable doubt.

Using examples as diverse as the bloodless icefish of antarctic waters, the evolution of trichromatic colour vision in primates, fossil genes and the science of Evo Devo, the author shows how these consistently validate the reality of Darwin's central idea of natural selection acting on variation within a population.

Whilst he doesn't dwell too much on anti-evolutionary ideas he does spend some time showing how these discoveries undermine intelligent design and why it is important that evolution is taught and understood and shows using the example of Lysenko how disastrous the consequences can be when the scientific process is stifled or abandonded all together.

In the final chapter, the author reels off a depressingly familiar series of tales that show how the denial of evolution, ignorance of our own impact on "unnatural selection" coupled with the politics of greed and self interest have bought so many of our planet's species to the brink of oblivion.

Overall, a really well written, accessible and thought provoking book. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in evolution and why it matters.
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on 20 December 2017
Author is excellent but somewhat spoiled by the publisher using cheap paper and pale,difficult to read typescript.Photographs very poor-this is not unusual. Would it really hurt the publisher`s profit that much to produce some decent quality? Why not even colour photos ?
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on 19 April 2017
Brilliant written using DNA as a bluepint
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on 14 May 2009
There are some lengthy reviews already of this book, and I'm not going to add to the wordage much, even if I were capable. I found this book very difficult to understand for much of the time, but determinedly ploughed on, to be was rewarded with some some real nuggets of information. Then all of a sudden, about three-quarters of the way through, the book becomes totally accessible to the normal reader, and I was glad I had persisted. (Atlhough Mr Carroll was preaching to the converted in my case, I'm glad to have some ammunition I can use, even if it won't come from the opening chapters!)
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on 11 February 2007
It's a sad commentary that any book on biology published in the US must devote pages and ink to refuting the rants of "anti-Darwinists" in that nation. Richard Dawkins ["The Selfish Gene"] holds a chair at promoting "Public Understanding of Science" at Oxford. Carroll, whose role as a professor of genetics provides firm underpinning, is establishing himself in a similar niche in the US. This book is an example of how well he can fulfill that undertaking. In his previous work "Endless Forms Most Beautiful", Carroll described some of the manifestations of the genome's activities. In this book he delves more into today's operations within the genome and how those were derived from the distant past.

The author's selection of examples to explain DNA's role in life may seem bizarre at first glance: "icefish" carrying "anti-freeze" in their bodies, what humble pigeons tell us about life, and what human skin colour really means. Each of his examples carries an historical record of how they came to be that way. Evolution, he reminds us, builds upon what went before. Once a trait, no matter how "primitive", is established, mutation may improve its possibility of success down the generations. "Primitive", by the way, is a term Carroll shuns, since those traits that survive are clearly best suited for that organism in that time and place. It's important to understand that, since a good many health issues relying on genetic research must be considered in the light of environmental conditions. Infectious organisms change to cope with treatment and medicines must be developed to cope with their adaptations. This is the record of life, with the earliest genes bifurcating to form new traits with the passage of time and new conditions.

Carroll's chapters address a number of life's little quirks. There's a discussion of how populations shift and divide when conditions change [stickleback fish], an account of the discovery and significance of "thermophilic" microbes found in Yellowstone Park hot springs, and how Soviet politics dabbled in science to virtually destroy agriculture in the communist empire. Every chapter contributes to learning how genetics works and why some understanding of the processes involved is important. For this reviewer, however, the author's presentation of the historical beginnings and development of eyes remains the most fascinating. Although Darwin was greatly disturbed that he couldn't conceive how eyes could have evolved, modern research has determined the process. In Carroll's hands, the mechanism producing eyes is clearly revealed and almost exquisitely explained. He shows how light perception across various species provides clues to past ocular structures. Once you have read this section, you will never be able to consider "the" eye [which is too often presumed to be human] in the same way again.

The book's close, which Carroll clearly feels necessary, is somewhat depressing. Evolution shouldn't need defending - it's clearly how life works. The author has the good sense to apply practical logic in itsdefence, using the issues of over-hunting and -fishing to show how humans indifferent or hostile to the concept of life changing over time are driving evolution themselves. He deems the result of that indifference "Unnatural Selection" since it is driving down the size and adaptability of more than one species. There are plausible arguments for starting this book with the final chapter. No matter where started, however, this is a book to be read. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 16 July 2008
Most of this book is a primer on how the study of DNA code from various species sheds light on the evolutionary process. The text is as clear as such a text can be considering how abstract the DNA sequences are to even the well educated reader. There are numerous charts and tables, drawings, black and white photos (and some color plates) and such in this timely, handsome and well-presented book to guide the reader. I only wish that I could have grasped the details in a more concrete manner.

DNA codes for proteins, of which there are vast numbers. These proteins are formed from amino acids of which life uses twenty, and in turn these amino acids are called up by the sequence of letters in the code. Presumably (Carroll does not make this clear) as the zygotic cell divides, working its way to the composition of the complete organism, the DNA code is read in sequence like a tape fed into a bar code. First this protein and then that protein and then still another is made and somehow strung together in an exacting order so that, voila! a massively complex organism is constructed. What is not in this book is an explanation of how these proteins know where to go and when. Presumably that knowledge is part of the very sequence of the code, or perhaps it is implicit in the positions in space of the proteins relative to one another. In others words, the DNA code is only the most obvious and "visible" part of the microscopic reproductive process.

If you are like me and are looking for the same sort of explanation, this book will be of limited value. Prof. Carroll's purpose is not to make transparent the reproductive process at the chemical level. His purpose--and a laudable one it is--is to show how DNA analysis is yet another piece of evidence pointing to the truth of biological evolution. That is why he uses the word "forensic" in the subtitle.

One of the most powerful uses of DNA is in reconstructing the so-called "tree" (or "bush") of life. Carroll shows how it is now clear beyond almost any doubt that our closest relatives are chimpanzees and bonobos followed by the other great apes and then monkeys. He shows how DNA analysis can also (and by the same logic) be used to show the relative age of species. Interesting is the discovery of how exactly similar are some sections of code in diverse species, indicating that such code is very ancient. In fact Carroll points to "immortal" sequences of code that have resisted all attempts at corruption or mutation. He explains that such code is so nearly indispensible to living forms that natural selection is, and has always been, active in keeping it intact.

In this regard (and moving to the latter chapters of the book) we find a particularly delightful refutation of one of the notions of "Intelligent Design." Carroll quotes perhaps the best known of the intelligent designers, Dr. Michael Behe, as writing:

"Suppose that nearly four billion years ago the designer made the first cell, already containing all of the incredibly complex biochemical systems discussed here and many others. (One can postulate that the design for systems that were to be used later, such as blood clotting, were present but not `turned on.' In present-day organisms plenty of genes are turned off for a while, sometimes for generations, to be turned on at a later time)." (p. 244)

How brilliant this sounds! However Carroll writes:

"This is utter nonsense that disregards fundamentals of genetics. Dr. Ken Miller of Brown University has described this scenario as `an absolutely hopeless genetic fantasy of pre-formed genes waiting for the organisms that might need them to gradually appear.' As we saw in chapter 5, the rule of DNA code is use it or lose it. The constant bombardment of mutation will erode the text of genes that are not used, as it has in icefish, yeast, humans, and virtually every other species. There is no mechanism for genes to be preserved while awaiting the need for them to arise." (p. 244)

Indeed, if Behe were correct, there would be in virtually all species "silent pre-formed genes" waiting to be called upon. There aren't.

In the chapter entitled "Seeing and Believing" Carroll recalls Louis Pasteur's struggle to demonstrate to non-seeing and non-believing doctors that childbed fever was caused by their dirty hands. He reprises the horrific and bizarre story of the Soviet head of (political) biology Trofim Denisovich Lysenko who denied genetics, and how Stalin's support of him led to massive failures in agriculture and subsequent starvation. He further recalls how Mao Zedong, using the same unscientific ideas, sponsored massive starvation in China due to crop failures.

What Carroll is getting at is that political corruption of science can be very dangerous. In the United States today under the power of the Bush administration, faith-based (and corporate-sponsored) science is denying global warming and other deleterious effects of rampant pollution. This sort of science denial is likely to lead to human suffering and death, just as did the communist denial of genetics.
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on 4 January 2013
Distinguished evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll's "The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution" is a superb popular introduction to some of the most important principles of biological evolution and of the key role which DNA plays in affecting biological evolution, and thusly, influencing both the current composition and structure of Planet Earth's biodiversity. Moreover, Carroll stresses the relatively new role in which DNA evidence has played - and continues to play - in understanding the timing of events in the history of life on Planet Earth which includes the development of "antifreeze" in certain species of Antarctic teleost fish (Chapter 1) recognizing the relative "unity of all life" which, via DNA evidence, demonstrates that all life on Earth shares a common ancestor (Chapter 3), the origins of color vision in animals (Chapter 4), the history of many lineages as represented in their currently inactive "fossil genes" (Chapter 5) and why evolution tends to repeat itself in different lineages of animals (Chapter 6). One of the most lucid accounts on the nature of Natural Selection is offered by Carroll in a chapter (Chapter 2) that stresses the mathematics of Natural Selection, giving readers a succinct understanding as to how Natural Selection works as the primary mechanism for biological evolution. He also succeeds in introducing readers to the concept of coevolutionary arms races and, in citing the prevalence of the sickle cell trait in Africans and Afro-Americans, demonstrates how this trait - as the result of a coevolutionary arms race with African pathogens - is an excellent example of evolution's "improvised" nature, lacking any preconceived, premeditated conception of evolutionary progress or intelligent design. Much to his credit, Carroll notes repeatedly why DNA evidence does not support any notions of "evolutionary progress" and "Intelligent Design", devoting much of a chapter (Chapter 9) in stressing the nature of science, especially with regards to well-established, well-corroborated, scientific theories such as contemporary evolutionary theory which has at its core, the Darwin - Wallace Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection, and in demolishing the breathtakingly inane claims of Intelligent Design creationist proponents that theirs is a credible, scientific, alternative to contemporary evolutionary theory, relying almost exclusively on DNA evidence and related aspects of molecular biology in making his most credible argument demolishing Intelligent Design. Once more Carroll demonstrates why he has become one of our foremost popularizers of science, while he is still actively engaged a scientific career that may prove to be far more important than those of such illustrious predecessors as Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan.
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on 22 June 2008
All species' lifeforms are encoded in DNA sequences. In Humans this is 7 billion characters long. During replication, not all characters are copied correctly. For example, in humans it is estimated 125 or so are copied incorrectly. In certain cases this can mean the resultant amino acids and proteins, which the DNA encodes will be different. This is a mutation. If the mutation provides an advantage, natural selection will mean it is probable it will propagate throughout the species.

DNA provides detail of the mirco mechanisms and strong evidence when critical events happened in evolutionary history. We don't actually need a fossil record to explain evolution. This is the main theisis in this book.

For example, Old World Monkeys and Apes have trichromatic vision whereas New World monkeys are just dichromats. Why? When? How? Carroll explains all in succinct detail by locating the exact location of the relevant gene and then working through the sequence of events.

He uses simple mathematics, running through some probability examples and statistics analysis to the point that one has a full understand of the mirco details, feeling there are no "missing links". It's reductionism at its very best.

He then shows why understanding infectious diseases requires understanding evolution. We are involved in germ warfare. For example, in areas where malaria or typhoid fever is endemic, the genetic profiles of humans shows that they have evolved genes which provide resistance to some forms of these diseases. The problem of course is that these diseases are also evolving (not just to human resistance but to the antibiotics that are used to treat them). Our hole approach to combating these diseases is shaped by our understanding of evolution - right at the level of DNA. For example, it is the reason why triple antiretroviral drugs are used in treating HIV AIDS.

Carroll is superb at explaining micro details. The only criticism I would have is a quick run through speciation and the Popperian scientific method would have helped many who do not understand the big picture, how evolution explains new species being created and how the scientific method validates that explaination. Even though 20 minutes on google will give all that, it would have been helpful for those who do not have any scientific acumen.

The book concludes with some of the challenges facing Science. This may manifest in many forms from political circles to religious fundamentalists. When one factors in pertinent realities such as climate change it only becomes all too obvious how important it is we have a scientific understanding of the world and we make the best judgments from that.

I have read several books on evolution and this right up there with the best. It's just as good as anything I have read from Dawkins and doesn't have any of the caustic anti-religion undertones. He explicitly states that the Pope John Paul II publicly accepted evolution as do most Protestants Churches; Christian creationists and fundamentalists are really only a minority.

It is a book which contains superb explanations of the micro details of evolution. It is full of helpful diagrams, charts and graphs which really help understand the concepts being explained. Don't get it from the library, buy it because you'll want to keep it.
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on 15 July 2012
This book covers familiar ground in the landscape of pop science books on evolution at the genetic level. However, it provided me, at least, with some fresh insights, notably into making obvious the link between natural de-selection and fossile genes, and into how the evolution of switching genes can affect the application of "toolkit genes" in different parts of the organism.

At times, the attention to detail and volumes of evidence mustered to support his exposition can be a bit wearisome - "I get it, move on". But as one of his quotes from Darwin makes clear, the prodigious evidence he provides serves the purpose of making his argument in the final few chapters unassailable. The key chapter is chapter 9, which is really the point of the whole book - a rigorous attack on the nonsense that is Creationism / Intelligent Design.

He outlines his attack in a light-handed way but his intention is clear: to provide anyone who reads this book with a precise set of tools for dismantling the rhetoric of any Creationist that the reader would have the good fortune of meeting.

One of the most telling arguments that he supplies is the stark disagreement of Creationist views with the established doctrine of the Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches, such doctrines typically regarding the science of evolution as both an astounding achievement of human endeavour and a beautiful testament to the sophistication of God's creation.

He provides a variety of other analyses which serve to puncture the rhetoric of the Creationists, which once deflated shows starkly that Creationist views are not science, just myth.

The final chapter is something of a bolt-on to the main thrust of the book but consists of a useful, and quite sobering, look at overfishing. Importantly, he points out that without a correct understanding of the evolutionary impact of both fishing and the efforts to mitigate overfishing, then fish as we know and love them are doomed. The principal strand of his explanation here is that fishing for the biggest and juiciest fish creates a man-made selection pressure for top-of-the-food-chain predators to be smaller, with disastrous consequences for the underlying food chain.

Overall, this book is not really a page-turner but a worthy and rewarding read nonetheless.
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