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How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization

by Geerat Vermeij

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-59108-3
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

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.