Book Reviews

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea
by Carl Zimmer, Stephan Jay Gould, (Introduction), Richard Hutton


Hardcover - 320 pages 1 Ed edition (September 4, 2001)
HarperCollins; ISBN: 0060199067 ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.30 x 10.33 x 8.37
Other Editions: Audio Cassette  (Abridged) | Audio CD (Abridged)

Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs, January 20, 2002

This is the "companion" book of the eight-hour televised PBS special that was first broadcast in America around September 24th, 2001. Although, the televised series was a very important instrument in spreading the knowledge about evolution to the common person, I sense that it is the book version of the televised program that will endure the great passage of time. The book is well-written in a lucid and instructive manner without “dumbing down” to the reader. The physical nature of this well-crafted book, securely bound and printed on high quality magazine-type pages will surely endure repeated readings; but be forewarned -- the hard bound copy is heavy and weighs about three pounds (48oz).

The book opens with an introduction by Stephen Jay Gould, the modern day bull-dog supporter of Darwin who hails from the hallways of the comparative school of Zoology at Harvard.  Gould, once again, as he has done many times in the past, patiently points out the argumentative reply to creationists that evolution is not considered a theory by working scientists because they use:

·        Direct observation, guided by explicit theory, and buttressed by data.

·        Direct evidence for transitional stages of alterations found in the fossil record.

·        They observe the quirks and imperfections presently found that make no sense except as holdovers from an otherwise altered ancestral state. p. x., xi.

Gould lays out the reasons for the resistance to Darwin's "dangerous" idea by retelling an "urban legend" story of the alleged expression exclaimed by the wife of a lord or bishop upon grasping the significance of Darwinism:  "Oh my dear, let us hope that what Mr.Darwin says is not true. But if it is true, let us hope that it will not become generally known!"  The expression nicely sums up the anxiety felt by those in the religious community that evolution would destroy the "conviction that a benevolent deity fashioned us directly in his own image, to have dominion over the entire earth and all other creatures..." p. xi.

To me, the wife's expression is very important because it "catches" in mid-flight, wheels turning in the cognitive mind of just one individual at a specific historical timeline, at a specific local environment on the planet; the fact that the wife belonged to a particular dominate hierarchy must also be taken into consideration. The expression could easily be called an "evaluational presupposition" -- the evaluation of a series of outside events by one individual that "could" effect that person's genetic survival in the future. And of course, any presupposition, most likely would, or could, be a precursor of planned action -- human behavior. It is my strong belief that in future studies, science will determine that the bishop's wife was expressing a deep innate, yet quick, calculation over the possible loss of resources -- not the loss of a deity or morality -- that could threaten her position in her particular hierarchy -- which, of course, would effect her future genetic direction. And the planned future action, of course, would be to raise objectionable counter arguments in order to maintain one's position in the hierarchy as a defense to maintain that position (a gatekeeper position), or to go on the attack to force into submission the "forces of evil" that threaten that resource flow.

But enough of my speculations.  The book is divided into four parts, beginning with SLOW VICTORY: DARWIN AND THE RISE OF DARWINISM which gives us a marvelous introduction into Darwin's life and the nagging questions that persistently begged for answers from his inquisitive mind.  This section painstakingly presents past fossil evidence and the witnessing of evolutionary change before our eyes.  The second section, CREATION AND DESTRUCTION, gets to the very explanational heart of how natural selection works; it then touches on extinction -- including the mass extinction kind -- and how life revives itself from such disasters.

In part three, EVOLUTION'S DANCE, the book beings to point us into the direction of how co-evolution works -- the way in which the evolution of one species drives the evolution of another -- and how it weaves its web of life.  The book then teaches the reader about Darwinian medicine and how microbes work inside the human body.  Then the fun part starts with the discussion of sex -- animal and human.  It treats the subject of "passion's logic" with scientific detachment and is suitable for all readers.

In the concluding section, part four, HUMANITY'S PLACE IN EVOLUTION AND EVOLUTION'S PLACE IN HUMANITY, the books focuses on the human evolution by discussing gossip, brain size, culture, and the development of socialization.  In the final chapter of this section, the book gives an excellent debate on: What about God? in fairly presenting both sides of the creationist and evolutionary debate.  It also informs readers on the "creation" of the new religious venue called "Intelligent Design" which believes in a higher being, yet abandons the young Earth stance and embraces the evolution of man from the primates (This is somewhere I stand in the evolutionary community -- but I am very liberal in my socialization views by taking the reciprocal altruism approach).

Despite this fair debate concerning God and the creationists, one must return to the first few pages of Evolution to get the overall tone of the book and it objective; by recalling the words of Thomas Huxley -- Darwin's "bull dog" of his day in supporting Darwin's evolutionary theory of fact:

"If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." Thomas Huxley 1825-1895. p. 5.

A day after the televised PBS series was broadcast, I tuned into the local Christian radio station here in Denver, Colorado: KRKS, 990 AM, and listened to the debate being presented on James Dobson’s "Focus on the Family" radio show in which he had as his guests, two "experts" in the field of evolution. I shall not get into the particulars of their defensive arguments -- you've heard them all before -- what matters was HOW the rebuttals were presented: you could sense by the subdued and "depressed" tone that a fatal blow had been dealt to this powerful creationist's community.  I sensed that the influence of the televised show made an enormous impact on the evolutionary/creationist debate and there can be no doubts which side won this skirmish; but winning a battle is not winning the war, and the creationists will not retreat into submission until they realize that their views and presence are no longer welcome in our society. But even before we reach that stage, I feel that the evolutionary community must present overwhelming evidence of our human connection to the primates dealing with socialization and hierarchical positioning.

One has to ask: why do creationist fear the loss of their position: Well, fundamentalist will tell us that any view that takes humankind away from God, will lead all us down a slippery slope toward damnation, But, I believe what creationists really fear is the loss of "Double Procession" -- the reference that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father to the Son, and that God has commanded that a "theology of subordination" must exist that maintains the existing patriarchal social order.  American Christian fundamentalists view the family as the keystone of society, and in their world that  means that the male is "captain of the ship," and that his word is the final authority.

But, with my own beliefs aside concerning creationists, let me leave you here with my own personal beliefs about my view of evolution and God.  They do mirror the words of Sir Richard Owen on June 28th 1860 at The British Association for the Advancement of Science, Oxford, England.

"Let us ever apply ourselves seriously to the task of scientific inquiry, feeling assured that the more we thus exercise, and by exercising improve, our intellectual faculties, the more worthy shall we be, the better shall we be fitted to come nearer to our God." p. 53.

I firmly believe that the meaning of life is the solving of problems; we take joy from the accomplishment of overcoming each new challenge.  But, beneath that drive to adapt to our immediate local environment, is also this deep hidden belief that something is really outside our material world that drives our creative process. I firmly believe that their is a God somewhere out there, and that science, with each new advance, helps us to find that path back to the Creator; but I also am positive that the form God takes is not that of a father figure in the guise of a tall white male of European descent which consumed the consciousness of the males of the Enlightenment.

The book, Evolution is highly recommended for all general readers over 13. Although it barely touches on the subject of evolutionary psychology, it is an important book because if reviews all the discoveries that science has made up to, and including the year 2000 regarding biology and evolution and presents them in a lucid manner. All scientists should stop, and refresh their knowledge of this most important subject, because without any knowledge in evolution, you will not be able to grasp the fundamentals of evolutionary psychology.  This book is the place to begin your journey. 

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