A brisk survey of the origins and development of modern biology’s key idea.
Larson (History and Law/Univ. of Georgia; Evolution's Workshop, 2001, etc.) picks up the thread in the 18th century, when biologists began to question the biblical account of creation. French naturalist Georges Cuvier, recognizing that certain animals had become extinct, invoked the biblical flood to explain the extinctions. Not all his contemporaries bought that explanation; English geologist Charles Lyell argued that Earth’s history was better explained by the steady working of everyday processes over sufficient time. That insight, coupled with Thomas Malthus’s explication of population dynamics, was at the root of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, “survival of the fittest.” Larson aptly summarizes the familiar story of Darwin’s discoveries and the ensuing sensation, with good coverage of such important supporting figures as T.H. Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace. He also offers balanced treatment of the religious objections to the proposal that human beings arose from some lower form without divine intervention, as well as to the idea of “improving” the human species by selective breeding, a notion that in the form of eugenics led eventually to the Nazi death camps. Still, most 19th-century biologists enthusiastically endorsed evolution. Filling in gaps in the fossil record, they built a strong case for evolution in such species as horses and, eventually, human beings. Meanwhile, Gregor Mendel formulated the laws of heredity. When Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA, the precise mechanism of Mendelian heredity became clear, and the notion that acquired characteristics might be inheritable finally died. While fine-tuning of the details of the theory continues, evolution is now as firmly established as any principle in science. Larson does a fine job of showing the main intellectual currents, effectively setting them in historical context.
Thoroughly readable, evenhanded, and well documented.