The Evolutionary World, by Geerat Vermeij

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I read this fascinating book while I was on a freighter island-hopping in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. Vermeij explained clearly, for example, why islands have less biological diversity than continents, why some islands are characterized by giant tortoises or giant flightless birds, why the tropics have so many nasty poisonous creatures that you do not want to step on when you go snorkeling. I could probably tell you much more, but “island” is oddly not in the index.

The subtitle of the book is “How adaptation explains everything from seashells to civilization.” But I saw the book as more a description of nature from a systems point of view - how everything interacts with everything else, how causes are rarely simple but rather are multifaceted. The book is not, as you might have guessed, a defense of the primacy of adaptation against genetic drift (one entry in the index, page 6), and sociobiology or evolutionary psychology is barely mentioned (page 18). The book tells you how adaptation explains seashells (Vermeij’s specialty), but not civilization; not really.

The book is mostly well written but sometimes gets a bit wordy and is occasionally hard to follow. It is ostensibly written for laypersons, but Vermeij sometimes uses technical words without defining them properly – a distinct drawback when the reader is floating somewhere in the South Pacific with no resources. Also, I thought that the book got a little too autobiographical at times, though it was fascinating to learn how much effort Vermeij’s mother must have devoted to making Braille texts for her son – Vermeij – who has been blind since the age of 3.

Vermeij stresses that evolution takes place rapidly under conditions of extreme competition, especially when there is a top predator (to keep everyone on his toes) and a warm environment. He also notes that species diversity generally increases with time, except, obviously, during a mass extinction. Humans, however, are the top predators of the moment, and they have been so successful that species diversity is generally decreasing and ecosystems are being reduced to tiny regions that can barely survive. (Vermeij argues further, incidentally, that species in such regions will not adapt, in part because of their isolation, and we should not concentrate on saving small, isolated regions as we do now.)

It is a surprise, then, that in his concluding chapter and elsewhere Vermeij is optimistic about our ability to survive both resource depletion and global warming. He correctly takes economists to task for thinking that we will always be clever enough to find alternate resources – their version of the “we will muddle through” theory. But he also argues that, as long as we foster competition among ourselves, we will muddle through the global-warming crisis or, as Vermeij would put it, we will adapt.

According to Vermeij himself, however, rapid evolution requires fierce competition. We may well adapt to global warming, and if we leave it to competition alone, it may be fast, but it will not be pretty – and fast in geological terms may seem mighty slow in human generations.

In brief, read this book for what it tells about the natural world. But, despite my sympathy for sociobiology, I thought Vermeij was comparatively unconvincing when he applied adaptation to civilization or society, and I, at least, do not want to wait around to see whether natural selection will kill us all off as a way of ending the global-warming crisis.

20 Comments

I have read it too.

I would give it 3 stars (worth reading, but probably won’t reread it) because of its style of writing. I found that I often had to reread sentences to make certain that I understood the meaning.

Some of the things he claims I found difficult to understand.

For example, in chapter 11 ‘Invaders, incumbents and a changing of the guard’, which starts of with the question as to why out of around a million insect species such a vanishing minute percentage have returned to seas.

He claims that; “To me, the most significant finding about marine colonisation from the land is that successful instances occur during times of global warming, when diversity in both the donor and recipient environments is rising and resources are plentiful, especially in the sea” and “although incumbents were surely present during these invasions, the ecosystem during times of expansion is sufficiently forgiving to accept active immigrants. There is room for imperfect newcomers to establish themselves and ample opportunity for these species to adapt” and, after mass extinction events “Vanished marine incumbents will therefore generally be replaced not by terrestrial immigrants, but by lineages invading from other parts of the marine realm …”

The proof he offers (in part) is that the whales appeared 52 MYA, 10 to 15 million years after the K-T event, ignoring the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum around 55 MYA, which caused a disproportionate frequency of extinction in marine species (and also was followed by increased diversity in mammal species, including, significantly, the Artiodactyla (even toed ungulates, which include the whales).

I still find the idea that adaptive radiation happens more quickly when new niches are opened up, particularly when a mass extinction eliminates the incumbents, is more convincing.

I can almost guarantee that Prof. Larry Moran of the University of Toronto will not like this book.

SLC said: I can almost guarantee that Prof. Larry Moran of the University of Toronto will not like this book.

I went over to SANDWALK to check but, not surprisingly, no comment on that. I did some scanning through his postings; I was somewhat astounded that Moran, not noted for his sufferance of fools, linked to Todd Wood’s blog and had glowing praise for him.

I guess Moran isn’t a complete curmudgeon after all.

Todd Wood is no fool. He has some great critiques of creationist claims. He knows the science well and can spot a flawed argument. Now, despite all that he’s a YEC, but that’s his starting assumption, not his conclusion from the data. And he’s pretty honest about what the data have to say.

Gary Vermeij, now, sometimes has some dubious claims, but he’s always thought-provoking. He has some problems with cladistics and with molecular phylogenetics, but everyone has faults.

John Harshman said: Todd Wood is no fool.

I tend to like hanging on Wood’s blog. He gets a little weird every now and then, but for the most part he’s serving the stuff straight, no chaser.

I suppose I may also be savoring a bit of the pleasure of thinking just how much consternation the likes of Wood makes for other creobots. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I’m generally tolerant of evangelical TEs: they fight creobots on their own turf and it really torks the creobots off.

I, at least, do not want to wait around to see whether natural selection will kill us all off as a way of ending the global-warming crisis.

Nothing against global warming or natural selection, of course, but this is a pretty teleogical way to put it.

I think you could get the same rhetorical effect, but more accurately, by something like

“I, at least, do not want to wait around to see natural selection shaping our response to global warming, as it may kill most of us off in the process.”

Gary Vermeij has for years been among our most insightful marine ecologists and biogeographers. He has done this despite one significant handicap; being blind since his youth. On the few occasions I have heard him present talks, he has relied on reading from Braille scripts.

Am not familiar with this new book Matt, but thanks for noting it. It belongs on my reading list.

John Kwok said:

Gary Vermeij has for years been among our most insightful marine ecologists and biogeographers.

I would have called him a paleontologist. I’ve seen him talk too, and I don’t recall him using any notes at all.

John Harshman said:

John Kwok said:

Gary Vermeij has for years been among our most insightful marine ecologists and biogeographers.

While he did study invertebrate paleontology in graduate school at Yale, most of his career has been devoted to studying the shell morphology of Recent gastropoda, and using the insights he has gleamed from that for his work in marine ecology and biogeography. He’s quite a good speaker that he can deliver lectures verbatim, but the few times I have heard him up close, I did see him lecturing from his Braille notes.

I would have called him a paleontologist. I’ve seen him talk too, and I don’t recall him using any notes at all.

Typo, sorry John, should be amended as follows (see below):

John Harshman said:

John Kwok said:

Gary Vermeij has for years been among our most insightful marine ecologists and biogeographers.

I would have called him a paleontologist. I’ve seen him talk too, and I don’t recall him using any notes at all.

While he did study invertebrate paleontology in graduate school at Yale, most of his career has been devoted to studying the shell morphology of Recent gastropoda, and using the insights he has gleamed from that for his work in marine ecology and biogeography (There’s a true story - that he recounts in his memoir - that he was admitted to Yale after he had passed a “test” in describing the shell morphologies of different snails. Before then there was apparently ample skepticism within Yale’s Department of Geology and Geophysics as to whether he, as a blind student, should be admitted. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to observe that he probably knows a lot more about gastropods than many of his colleagues who have sight in both eyes.). He’s quite a good speaker that he can deliver lectures verbatim, but the few times I have heard him up close, I did see him lecturing from his Braille notes.

mrg said:

SLC said: I can almost guarantee that Prof. Larry Moran of the University of Toronto will not like this book.

I went over to SANDWALK to check but, not surprisingly, no comment on that. I did some scanning through his postings; I was somewhat astounded that Moran, not noted for his sufferance of fools, linked to Todd Wood’s blog and had glowing praise for him.

I guess Moran isn’t a complete curmudgeon after all.

I made that comment because Prof. Moran is one of the most vociferous critics of adaptation and is a strong promoter of genetic drift.

SLC said: I made that comment because Prof. Moran is one of the most vociferous critics of adaptation and is a strong promoter of genetic drift.

He tends to be vociferous in general. I was very surprised that he was so nice to Todd Wood.

There are a lot of people who think Wood is just another creationist. A creationist, yes, but by no means an ordinary one.

As a YEC I would correct this a little. originally diversity was great in a post flood world and refilling of earth. later yet the water level rose and flooded lands making islands. This indicated by the great number of dwarf creatures found in fossils on islands. likewise insects also were hampered. Later still there was constant loss to diversity. Island differences are not from competition but rather from diminishment with minor realignment. The flaw in evolution is seeing from a little a great deal come. Creationism sees great diversity as the original and then poverty. The amazon of today is the better example of the past world. Wealth first. then loss.

Robert Byers said:

As a YEC I would correct this a little. originally diversity was great in a post flood world and refilling of earth. later yet the water level rose and flooded lands making islands. This indicated by the great number of dwarf creatures found in fossils on islands. likewise insects also were hampered. Later still there was constant loss to diversity. Island differences are not from competition but rather from diminishment with minor realignment. The flaw in evolution is seeing from a little a great deal come. Creationism sees great diversity as the original and then poverty. The amazon of today is the better example of the past world. Wealth first. then loss.

You do realize that mass extinctions are a basic part of modern evolutionary understanding, right? But why would God create animals like trilobites and dinosaurs only to allow them to die out?

Dale Husband said:

But why would God create animals like trilobites and dinosaurs only to allow them to die out?

Evidentally at least one dodo still exists.

Robert Byers said:

As a YEC I would correct this a little. originally diversity was great in a post flood world and refilling of earth. later yet the water level rose and flooded lands making islands. This indicated by the great number of dwarf creatures found in fossils on islands. likewise insects also were hampered. Later still there was constant loss to diversity. Island differences are not from competition but rather from diminishment with minor realignment. The flaw in evolution is seeing from a little a great deal come. Creationism sees great diversity as the original and then poverty. The amazon of today is the better example of the past world. Wealth first. then loss.

Yeah, Robert, but what does your hero David Berlinski think about it? You don’t have the brains to come up with even Berlinki’s incoherence.

Robert Byers babbled:

As a YEC I would correct this a little. originally diversity was great in a post flood world and refilling of earth. later yet the water level rose and flooded lands making islands. This indicated by the great number of dwarf creatures found in fossils on islands. likewise insects also were hampered. Later still there was constant loss to diversity. Island differences are not from competition but rather from diminishment with minor realignment. The flaw in evolution is seeing from a little a great deal come. Creationism sees great diversity as the original and then poverty. The amazon of today is the better example of the past world. Wealth first. then loss.

Do you realize that your moronic explanation directly contradicts what the Bible says, in that EVERY LAND ANIMAL THAT WASN’T IN THE ARK DIED?

That, and, if you don’t believe in evolution, why do you hypocritically invoke a distorted version of it to handwave away island dwarfism?

Dale Husband said:

You do realize that mass extinctions are a basic part of modern evolutionary understanding, right?

Robert Byers is a prideful, lying idiot for Jesus incapable of realizing anything. Don’t be so foolish enough to assume that he is capable of grasping rudimentary logic.

But why would God create animals like trilobites and dinosaurs only to allow them to die out?

Because Robert Byers worships a version of God that is petty, cruel and illogical.

Well if that’s the case, then why are there more species and families of organisms alive today than at any time in the past? I guess Robert got his facts wrong again. Maybe it’s time for another flood to keep the upstarts in line. Maybe that’s who is behind global warming.

Please stop feeding (and insulting) the Byers troll. It cannot learn and is just baiting you. I will send further such discussion to the Bathroom Wall.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on January 15, 2011 11:25 AM.

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