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Building from basics,
This review is from: The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution (Hardcover)
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]