Book review: "Evolution: the First Four Billion Years"

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Book review: "Evolution: the First Four Billion Years"

Postby Hardstreet on March 1st, 2009, 12:56 pm 

Any book on evolution making its debut with a large ad in the New York Review of Books is worth a close look. "Evolution: The First Four Billion Years," edited by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA), published in 2009, is a massive, 979-page collection of essays by 114 leading researchers, many of whom would be familiar even to the lay reader: Fancisco Ayala Daniel Dennet, Lynn Margulis, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott, David Sepkowski, Daniel Simberloff, and David Wake.

The book consists of two sections, the first a series of lengthy essays on various topics such as the "origin of life" (not, strictly speaking, an evolutionary topic), "paleontology and the history of life," "adaptation," "molecular evolution," and the "pattern and process of speciation." The second section is a sort of encyclopedia with briefer entries arranged in alphabetical order. The book's title implies an historical approach to the subject. However, a reader who expects a review of life's history since its origin will be disappointed. Much of the book consists of discussions of mechanisms of evolution, brief biographies of major evolutionary biologists, and the history of the anti-evolution movement. As would be expected of a book with over a hundred authors and organized, in part, like an encyclopedia, continuity clearly was not uppermost in the minds of the editors. The choice of subjects to be included seems to have been somewhat haphazard. Evolution of the genome is treated, but horizontal gene transfer, a phenomenon that makes hash of evolutionary "trees," is not. Symbiogenesis, a critical step in the early development of life, is mentioned only briefly, mainly under the entry of "Lynn Margulis" in the alphabetical section. There are separate entries on birds and insects but not on fish and mammals.

Still, despite these criticisms, the book has much to recommend it. The lack of continuity allows the reader to pick out subjects of individual interest; the entries in the book could well be read in reverse order without any loss of meaning. Of course, it is interesting to learn the thoughts of the world's leading evolutionary biologists. Each entry ends in a bibliography, greatly increasing the books value as a resource for citation and further reading. Finally, freedom from overly technical language makes the book very accessible to the lay reader. At a price of $39.95, "Evolution: The First Four Billion Years" is well worth owning.
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Postby Deftil on March 2nd, 2009, 7:39 am 

Looks quite interesting.

Thanks for the review, Hardstreet.
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Re: Book review: "Evolution: the First Four Billion Years"

Postby anky2930 on April 21st, 2012, 6:07 am 

Having little bit more costly .reduces price?
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Re: Book review: "Evolution: the First Four Billion Years"

Postby owleye on April 21st, 2012, 1:04 pm 

The title is definitely misleading in that it misled me. Of course, there are text books (including the one I had been reading) which covered what I thought it would be covering. However, it would be interesting to find a more detailed review of what we know about the origin of life than the text I'd read.

(As a side note, for some reason, John Searle begins his lecture on the philosophy of language with a belittling remark about how it's a scandal that biologists haven't figured out the origin of life by now.)

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