Not the easiest book to digest, given the depth of the author’s scholarship and the mental leaps he makes, but an...

THE EVOLUTIONARY WORLD

HOW ADAPTATION EXPLAINS EVERYTHING FROM SEASHELLS TO CIVILIZATION

A transcendent view of evolution as adaptation, not only accounting for the origin of species but as the force that can explain the accumulation of knowledge, economies and civilization itself.

Darwin studied finches for clues; Edward O. Wilson studied ant societies. For naturalist Vermeij (Geology/Univ. California, Davis; Nature: An Economic History, 2004, etc.), snails and other mollusks have been the great teachers. The Dutch-born author, blind since age three, has travelled the world studying extant and fossil snails (and many other lineages). They illustrate for him how adaptation involves the feedback an organism gets from competitive and cooperative interactions in a given environment, shaping the selection process by which the organism survives and propagates—or not. Consequently, clam shells are thicker in a more predatory environment, and snails have honed survival mechanisms such as spines that make them hard to hold and are able to repair cracks. Those and countless other examples of prey-predator behaviors, mating strategies and responses to unpredictable challenges in marine, fresh water, island and continental environs reinforce the analogy Vermeij makes between adaptation and scientific hypothesis-making—endeavors that are provisional and subject to revision in light of new circumstances. The author draws on his immense background in geology and biology to develop surprising, and arguable, analogies between types of adaptation in nature and the development of language, legal systems and economies. He comes to grips with the role of humankind as top predator and exploiter, noting that for all the downside of global warming, in the long run it can create new opportunities and accelerate evolution. In the face of today’s loss of diversity and overconsumption of resources, our only hope is a change of values, he concludes, noting past progress with regard to slavery or child labor.

Not the easiest book to digest, given the depth of the author’s scholarship and the mental leaps he makes, but an exhilarating narrative that will surely invite debate.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-312-59108-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Aug. 27, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2010

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

Did you like this book?

more