Exploring Evolution

My first reaction when I received this splendid book was, “Wow! Great pictures!” Not to mention high-quality printing, paper, and layout. At 22 x 28 cm, the book is not exactly a coffee-table book, but neither does it feel like a textbook. And no wonder: It is published by a publisher, Vivays Publishing, which apparently specializes in art, architecture, and interior design, with, now, several science titles.

You could probably get by by looking at the pictures, which range from DNA to diatoms to Darwin to Darrow to dinosaurs, and reading the occasional caption. That would be a mistake, though; the text is clear and concise and, as the title promises, explores evolution.

The book, Exploring Evolution, by Michael Alan Park, opens with a discussion of the scientific method and testability, and clearly explains that a good, well supported theory, while incomplete, is tantamount to fact and unlikely ever to be falsified: “The earth really revolves around the sun…. Gravity is a real force. The continents are really moving. Evolution is really happening.” The chapter on the age of the earth is actually a history of gradualism and catastrophism; a discussion of radiocarbon and potassium-argon dating has to wait for the chapter on creationism.

The book goes on to cover a bit about genetics and then switches to Lamarck and Darwin, before going back to modern evolutionary theory. If that sounds disjointed, it was not. I thought, though, that Lamarck’s model could have been fleshed out a bit, and page 67 had a silly swipe at him: “Had Lamarck been correct, the dinosaurs would have automatically been able to change, as much as needed.” Lamarck may have thought that the blacksmith passed his strong arms to his sons, but I doubt that he thought that the blacksmith could have passed any needed adaptation whatsoever.

I would have liked the illustrations under “The processes of evolution” to be more like flow charts, but maybe I have been hanging around with engineers too much or too long. The chapter on how species evolve was generally clear, but the figure on punctuated equilibrium (p. 85) made it look as if the common ancestor survived as a species to the present. Two evolutionary trees, one with plateaus, might have shown the difference between stasis and gradual change more clearly. The history of life on earth is brief but well illustrated.

The book spends relatively much time on human evolution, perhaps because, as the author notes, it is to many people “the most controversial aspect of evolution.” I was frankly a bit put off by his insistence that races are cultural constructs. Maybe they are, but the argument put forth in the book – that the dividing lines are blurry – could equally be used to argue that species are cultural constructs too. The discussion needs tightening.

The chapter on creationism is stronger on intelligent-design creationism than on young-earth creationism and its close relatives. It is not enough to tell a YE creationist that we know the age of the earth for various reasons; rather, it is necessary to refute their arguments in detail. Not that either approach will do much good, I am afraid. The section on ID creationism is good and clearly explains the difference between prior and posterior probabilities, though not in those terms. The refutation of irreducible complexity includes a full-page illustration of the probable development of different kinds of eye in different phyla of mollusk. Contrary to a statement in the book, however, ID creationists do not necessarily accept natural selection; it is common descent that they generally accept. Theistic evolutionists, perhaps, accept natural selection, but theistic evolutionism is not discussed. The claim that religion and science can coexist is stated but not defended.

The final chapter outlines in a few pages how evolution has influenced modern thought; besides discussing modern medicine, the chapter does not pull any punches when it dwells on eugenics. The book concludes with the evolution of language.

Mostly the book was clearly written and well composed. There were, however, a few exceptions. The index is incomplete. On page 45, I puzzled for several seconds over the statement, “43 = 64.” It should have been “43 = 64.” Similarly, 12C and 14C should have been 12C and 14C. Also, the copyeditor should not have allowed the inconsistency between “5.6 mya” and “seven mya.” “Seven mya” should have been “7 mya” (or, better, 7 Ma, but that is a discussion for another time).

Additionally, a gorilla (not to mention a human) will be surprised to learn that primates are arboreal (p. 106), and the figures on pages 117 and 119 use the term “archaic Homo,” but that term is never defined in the text. The ergotism that I agree did not cause the Salem witch trials is found in rye, not wheat. And I frankly wondered what were the two major religions on page 127.

The book is very slick (I do not mean that pejoratively) and extremely well illustrated. I found it a little hard to read because of the light typeface and especially the captions, which are set in tiny, gray letters. The level of the writing is roughly young adult, and I imagine that the book would make an excellent supplement to a high-school biology course. At $35, the price may be more than the average young adult wants to pay, so I suggest that you buy one for your local high school – but be sure to peek between the covers before you part with it.

Finally, a caveat: Do not confuse this excellent treatise by a professional anthropologist with the dreadful creationist tract, Explore Evolution.