Now in Paperback: Evolution - The First Four Billion Years

Evolution: The First Four Billion Yearsedited by Michael Ruse & Joseph TravisBelknap/Harvard paperback, 2011This behemoth of a book first lumbered into view in 2009, just in time for the bicentennial of the birth of the man whose name is forever synonymous with evolution, Charles Darwin (and also the sesquicentennial of the publication of his notorious book). The hardcover was something of a developmental dead-end: rock solid, yes, but also rock-heavy - even when read in bed with its wide spine nestled in a bed of basset hound flab, it was inhospitably unwieldy, and there could be no thought whatsoever of perambulatory perusing. Nearly three years later comes the paperback edition, and the ungodly ranks of evo-fans everywhere should rejoice: Belknap/Harvard have done a superb job in crafting a great substantial paperback that's nonetheless capable of being wedged into a shoulder-bag and lugged around.It almost need not be said that the book is substantial in every other way as well. No more extensive or spectacular overview of evolutionary science has ever been intelligently designed. Every aspect of what Edward O. Wilson in his Foreward calls "one of mankind's greatest discoveries" is given thorough, lovingly detailed consideration in these chapters, beginning with some 400 pages of general essays with titles like "The Origin of Life," "Adaptation," "Social Behavior and Sociobiology," and "Human Evolution." True to the rather abstruse nature of the topic (and true to Belknap's rather egghead reputation), some of these opening chapters stray into elevations that may leave the layman a bit light-headed:

The essential question in deciding between these two different theories is not whether pyrite-mediated organic synthesis can occur, but whether direct CO2 reduction and synthesis of organic compounds can be achieved by a hypothetical two-dimensional living system that lacks genetic information. Proof of Wachtershauser's hypothesis requires demonstration not only of the tight coupling of the reactions necessary to drive autocatalytic CO2 assimiliation via a reductive citric acid cycle but also of the interweaving of a network of homologous cycles that, it is assumed, led to all the anabolic pathways, as well as replication (Maden 1995).

But others are admirably succinct and clear, even when dealing with permutations both new and startling:

 ... Galapagos finches can evolve a 10% change in average body size or bill size in a population in a single year in response to either droughts or heavy rainfall. In drought years food availability is low, the birds must rely on large seeds with thick seed coats and individuals with wide, heavy bills are more effective in harvesting such seeds and are more likely to survive and reproduce. Because there is a genetic basis to bill size and shape, the next generation of finches exhibits larger, heavier bills. This is classic microevolution.

At page 400, the broad-subject essays stop, and the next 600 pages are taken up with an alphabetical glossary of terms and concepts and names that in less ambitious hands might have been a book unto itself. Here we get everything from Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873) the famous American immigrant scientist and lecturer (Mary P. Winsor renders him warts and all, unfortunately):

Agassiz argued that each species was the product of a distinct act of creation and cannot change, but he understood geological time and firmly rejected the biblical story of creation. His concept of species was severely challenged when he encountered people of African descent, and his response does him no credit. He insisted that human races were actually distinct species, an opinion welcomed by slave owners.

to Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), the luckless savant who discovered natural selection independently from Darwin and then spent the rest of his life mentally backing away from the implications of that discovery, as Martin Fichman somewhat wordily summarizes:

Although he remained an ardent selectionist in his overall analysis of evolutionary processes, Wallace regarded natural selection as inadequate to account completely for the origin and development of certain human characteristics, notably consciousness and moral sense. Instead, he suggested that other agencies of a nonmaterial nature had been, and continued to be, instrumental in the origin and future evolution of the human species.

One of the highlights of this magnificent collection of writings comes right at the beginning: editor Michael Ruse's essay "The History of Evolutionary Thought" is so learned and lively that it would have pleased that prince of all Darwin-popularizers, Stephen Jay Gould:

What about humans? From the first, Darwin was always stone-cold certain that humans are part and parcel of the evolutionary process. His encounter on the Beagle voyage with the natives at the bottom of South America, the Tierra del Fuegians, had convinced him of that. In the Origin, however, tactically Darwin decided not to make much of the human question. He did not want to conceal his thinking; h simply did not want it to swamp his general points about evolution and its process. Hence, in one of the great understatements of all time, he said merely, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."

This book throws a glorious amount of light on its subject - light some would argue it badly needs, since the theory of evolution by means of natural selection has come under fire even in secular American classrooms, where it's seen to conflict with traditional religious values. True to its all-embracing mandate, Evolution: The First Four Billion Years covers that conflict as well.