How the secrets of evolution slowly revealed themselves to those intrepid enough to seek them out.
On the eve of Charles Darwin’s bicentennial, Carroll (Molecular Biology and Genetics/Univ. of Wisconsin; The Making of the Fittest, 2006, etc.) celebrates scientific discovery, from Darwin’s work on natural selection to Svante Pääbo’s unraveling of the Neanderthal genome. In the 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species, the author notes, a few remarkable men and women have revolutionized our understanding of ourselves and all life on earth. Carroll’s other heroes include: Darwin’s alleged rival Alfred Russel Wallace (the two men actually admired each other’s work and became lifelong friends); Charles Walcott, whose discovery of the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies raised as many questions as it answered about the Cambrian explosion of life forms half a billion years ago; Louis, Mary and Richard Leakey, who refocused the quest for the earliest hominids from Asia to East Africa; and Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish (2008) and discoverer of Tiktaalik, a transitionary form between fish and amphibians that lived between 365 and 385 million years ago. The author spends considerable time on the physical hardships these explorers endured, which in the earliest cases could be extreme, but he’s even more fascinated by their intellectual adventures as they deciphered the evidence they uncovered and used it to form theories. Some of the most exciting stories Carroll relates unfold mainly in the laboratory: Luis and Walter Alvarez’s work to make sense of the thin, dark, fossil-poor layer separating the cretaceous and tertiary layers in the geological record around the world, for example, or Linus Pauling and Emile Zuckerkandl’s development of a molecular “clock” to determine the age when species diverged from a common ancestor. These scientific adventurers inspire the author—and will do the same for experts and novices alike—with their fearless dedication to getting at the truth, as far as it can be known.
A stirring introduction to the wonder of evolutionary biology.