The Evolutionary World, by Geerat Vermeij

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.