Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory


Edward J. Larson’s book traces the history and controversy of evolution and evolutionary theory from pre-19th Century Darwin to today. The author has written many books on natural history and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his book on the Scopes Monkey Trial. In Evolution, he presents a work which is fast-paced and deeply researched. The book will not only help the reader understand the debate between science and faith, but explores how these competing ideas are locked in a battle for our future selves. While this is an extrapolation, one future focuses on science where we have and use the scientific method, logic and reason to gain an understanding of the natural world to bring us joy and closer to humanity. The other uses faith and always leads to the same conclusion, one where personal ownership of a deity contributes to violence and ignorance on a monumental scale.

Larson begins his book with a review of Georges Cuvier, the French-German creationist Protestant who was also a biologist and natural historian born into a comfortable family in 1789.   Cuvier was the first naturalist brave enough to conclude that many fossils indeed come from extinct species. The idea of extinction broke from the previous religious-scientific posture which assumed all animals perfect forms as they were the creation of a perfect god. Therefore, no animal could go extinct since in god’s perfection, that would be impossible. While Larson notes, “(Cuvier) was a lion of nineteenth-century French science…his reasoned scientific arguments of special creation held back the tide of evolutionary thought.”

In further discussing pre-Darwinian ideas, Larson does a fine job bringing the reader to understand Comte de Buffon, yet another French naturalist. Historically, Buffon is considered to have been an aggressive Atheist. Without calling his ideas “evolution,” Buffon did see the relatedness of species from various continents, noting that geography and climate impact a species appearance. And while not calling these changes in appearance “adaptation” Buffon definitely felt it was nature rather than god that changed an animal's physical body and behavior.

Larson also takes the reader through early geological polemics from geologists William Smith; William Buckland; Gideon Mantell; Adam Sedgwick; Robert Chambers, Robert Grant and James Hutton. Each man saw the flora and fauna found in geology as telling the Earth’s actual history over time. This examination came through studying fossils and examining and measuring sediments to conclude the Earth’s natural age. This actual age differs greatly from the one accepted by Biblical literalists then as today.  Although they saw historical complexity, many of these men held to the idea that special creation was necessary for these processes to take place. This of course is the current Intelligent design debate before it had a name! And it took Charles Lyell to synthesize their work on geologic natural history to make it clear that a designer is not needed for any natural process.

Larson also offers an abridged history of Darwin’s formational trip on the HMS Beagle, which is both fine and concise. However, if one is really interested in this part of Darwin’s personal history, I strongly suggest the reader find a copy of Janet Browne’s two volume biography of Darwin’s early life. The first volume,“Voyaging” is an excellent read.

In 1859, humanity was ready for evolution to take its place in the world of science and the world of ideas.  Here, the author nails the timing perfectly:

By 1859, the idea of evolution did not seem as foreign or threatening as it once did to members of Britain’s rising elite. Enriched by rapid industrialization at home and unprecedented colonial conquests abroad, they increasingly equated change with progress and saw their nation’s economic and political ascendency as the natural consequence of its superior science and technology.”

While the author also recounts the laissez-faire nature of social change proposed by Herbert Spencer or Malthus’s ideas regarding population, we have to remember that natural selection is a description of a biological process. Natural Selection cannot easily or ethically be grafted onto the social responsibility which we have to one another as members of the human family. However, even with Natural Selection taking hold in the scientific mind, the organized religious faiths saw fit to disembowel Darwin – his ideas and his seminal work. This is especially pointed out early in the book chapter entitled, Missing Links.

But as Larson points out, Darwin’s supporters, of which he had many, (including Thomas Huxley, also known as Darwin’s Bulldog) saw to it that his ideas were defended and became acceptable to the intellectual elite in Britain and around the world. Here, the author notes:

Everywhere evolution took root, it held a similar appeal for scientists. With a theory of evolution, laboratory biologists and field naturalists could begin trying to explain the origins of living things (and perhaps life itself) in terms of regular, rational, repeatable natural process rather than divine fiat.

Later chapters of the book highlight the almost visceral nature of the American anti-evolution crusade lead by the faithful in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Evangelists such as Billy Sunday, and movements attempting to ban the teaching of evolution (then and now) like the resulting Scopes Monkey Trial (but the author does not mention the equally well-known Dover, PA decision), are covered nicely. The chapter entitled, Modern Culture Wars, is weighted toward showing how religious ignorance can circumvent science knowledge and investigation.

The rest of the book details many modern scientific fields which grew up and were in part founded as disciplines because of evolutionary theory. It also chronicles the numerous discoveries, finds and connections which science makes to naturally explain our world. The later chapters also highlight numerous scientists who work in so many areas and are responsible for increasing our global understanding of life on the planet and universe through the study of genetics and biology, geology and fossils and the universe and stars, and how each relate to our own evolution.

I recommend the book and it may even wind up on my anthropology syllabus. So future students beware, you’re about to learn a lot about Darwin and the field of evolution.

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