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FWD (SK) Book Recommendation: _Darwin's Ghost_



I just finished the following review; the European version is already on the
bibliography, but now that it is available in the USA, other skeptics may
want to find it.  It's good.        ---Rob

------

It is hard to overestimate the influence of Charles Darwin's masterpiece,
_The Origin of Species_.  Steve Jones is an evolutionary biologist who knows
the book backwards and forwards.  He says it is "without doubt, the book of
the millennium."  Perhaps he may be accused of simply showing the bias of
his particular discipline, but he is probably right. _The Origin_ not only
changed biology forever as a specific discipline, but it changed forever our
view of ourselves.  _The Origin_ did not prove that we were not created by
some sort of divinity; no one can prove that.  But it did demonstrate that
all the diversity in nature, including humans themselves, could have arisen
by strictly natural principles, with no need to call upon a divine creation.
Darwin's claims, revolutionary as they were, were brilliantly argued and
were accepted relatively quickly by biologists and eventually by
non-biologists as well.  There are only some conservative religious
hold-outs who may claim to make scientific objections but truly make only
religious ones.  (The hold-outs are embarrassingly strong in America; Jones
cites a poll revealing that 100
million Americans believe that "God created man pretty much in his present
form at one time during the last ten thousand years.")

There is a big problem, however, with _The Origin_.  It's not so much that
Darwin got some things wrong; he did, indeed, botch some details in his
speculations.  It's that _The Origin_ was published in 1859.  Darwin, a true
polymath, knew details of geology, paleontology, ecology, animal behavior,
embryology, and much more, but he didn't know what we know now.  It's what
we know now that has resoundingly confirmed all the main ideas in _The
Origin_, and Jones wanted to show something of what the book would be like
if it were written now.  He has given us Darwin's Ghost (Random House; in
England, published as Almost Like a Whale), an updating of Darwin's
monumental book.  He has taken each of the chapters of the original, and
generally the subheadings within the chapters, and rewritten them, with
commentaries on the original and a few body punches to creation "science."
Jones says he wanted to make the original book more accessible, by writing
in "more flippant times" and leavening the scientific narrative with
entertaining asides.  Darwin's own book, he says, is "a work of high
Victorian seriousness, with no concession to any desire to be entertained."
It is true that Darwin used long sentences and long words, but those of us
who value his sensible and deliberate ponderousness will be glad find him
quoted aplenty in this new book, with summaries lifted in full from the
original.

The big thing that Darwin didn't know was genetics.  Everyone knows that
Mendel got it right, that Watson and Crick have been verified over and over,
and that we can now clone and make our own patentable species.  What is
amazing is that everything the geneticists have been able to find has
verified once again the basic truths of _The Origin_.  Darwin's own ideas
(and everyone else's in his time) about how things were inherited were a
muddle.  He thought originally that parents produced blended offspring, that
characteristics of the mother and the father would be averaged in the
children.  This would have made Natural Selection unworkable; every new
generation would have merged to the middle instead of having individual
traits that could spark better survival.  Darwin managed to construct a
theory something like Lamarckism, that the giraffe parents by stretching and
stretching their necks could impart some of that stretch to their calves.
Experiments done shortly after _The Origin_ was published, however, showed
that sperms and eggs were developed unconnected with the changes in the rest
of the body; there was no way for development from experiences to be
transmitted through reproduction.  How did Darwin get his basic idea right
when his grasp of inheritance itself was so wrong?  He was a keen observer
who had seen variation exhibited in species within the Galapagos and in the
barnacles he himself took to studying while he fretted about publishing his
book.  Variation in progeny was observable and quantifiable.  It was enough
that he knew it was always present.  The mechanisms that we now understand
to underlie variation have proved him right every time.

Surprisingly, Darwin's thought was weak on just what the origins of species
were.  His problem was that there was no real set definition of a species,
as we now think of it as a group of animals that breed well with each other.
Once again, he knew variability in barnacles, finches, pigeons, and all the
rest.  He accepted that variation among offspring was analogous to variation
of species, that varieties could be the foundations of new species.  He had
the right idea about islands: every island has species on it that are
changed versions of the animals found on the nearby mainland.  Isolating a
variety on an island allowed it to develop on its own, cutting some genetic
ties to its forebears.  We now know, in addition to geographic isolation,
the details of such things as sexual selection and temporal isolation that
keep species separate.

Darwin's concentration on islands has stood him in good stead as, in the
1960s, continental drift became acknowledged as explaining the way the lands
have shifted over the past millions of years, and incidentally, explaining
earthquakes.  No one in Darwin's time had any idea that there used to be one
connected land mass whose splinters floated over the globe, but examination
of how the lands have done so (and how the islands split away, or were
formed anew from the depths of the ocean) confirms the connections of
varieties that his keen eye and research first revealed.

There are thus ringing confirmations of Darwin's theory based on science
that Darwin could not have known.  If someone in his time could have said,
"I cannot believe that species have the connectedness you describe without
comparison of the genes involved," then the test could have been done to
Darwin's satisfaction.  As it is, the new science of cladistics and the gene
sequencing of animals and the mitochondria their cells contain are
confirming every day what Darwin got right by stubborn observation and a
brilliant mind that could not only accumulate disparate information but
generalize from it.

Jones's book is an homage, to be sure, and while it may not drive modern
readers back to the original, it illustrates in many different ways just how
wonderfully keen and accurate that original was.  It provides enough of
Darwin's own prose to give a flavor of just how carefully he thought his
writing out, while Jones's own wide learning provides happy illustrations of
how Darwin's theory fits such different spheres as AIDS, antibiotic
resistance, genetically modified plants, DNA sequencing of extinct species
in museum cabinets, and more.  Darwin himself asked the great question of
why a designer (some would prefer Designer) would design things in such ways
that indicate over and over again the descent with modification which he
showed explained all life.  Among the words which close _The Origin_ are,
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers."  The
grandeur is even greater than he could have known.

-- 
Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA)
< fortean1@frontiernet.net >
Home Page: < http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Stargate/8958/index.html >