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by Carl Zimmer
HarperCollins, 2001
Review by Keith Harris, Ph.D. on Dec 11th 2001


Published as the companion text to a recent PBS series on the same topic, this volume is a magnificently illustrated, comprehensive, and compelling overview of both the events leading up to the formalization of evolutionary theory, and the theory itself.  The book received well-deserved praise from a variety of major review publications, including Scientific American, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist. 

The first section of this colorful, large-format book covers the life and times of Darwin and the relevant position of the various related scientific disciplines at the time of his work in biology and geology.  Zimmer also provides what appears to be more-than-fair treatment of those scientists, thinkers and sophists in Darwin’s time who unsuccessfully attempted (by various means) to “debunk” the theory.

Parts 2 and 3 of the book, which comprise the most substantial material related to understanding evolution, focus on an explication and description of the theory and clearly show how evolution has in fact proceeded on our planet.  For all but the most die-hard anti-evolutionist, there is little to arouse controversy in these highly informative and well-written sections.  As predicted in S.J. Gould’s introduction to the book, “Public difficulty in grasping the Darwinian theory of natural selection cannot be attributed to any conceptual complexity - -  for no great theory ever boasted such a simple structure . . .” (p. xii). 

In his very comprehensive approach, Zimmer covers topics and gives supporting examples that are relevant to evolutionary theory, as well as the theory itself.  For example, he describes the methods by which fossils and geological formations are dated, and provides interesting but relevant asides, such as the story of how typhus (a bacterium that seems to be the closest extant relative to our own cell’s mitochondria) changed the course of human history.

The only sections of the book that might be considered even remotely controversial are, of course, those that address our own species.  In a chapter entitled “The Gossiping Ape: The Social Roots of Human Evolution,” Zimmer lays out current knowledge and hypotheses regarding the origin of ancestors and the advent our own kind.  He unequivocally identifies our social nature as the primary characteristic that has propelled us into the commandeering position we now hold on the planet.  The arguments he cites will be convincing to even general readers.  In addressing the so-called “creation-sciences” and the “theory” known as Intelligent Design, Zimmer is satisfyingly direct.  He demonstrates why creationism failed in its attempts to be labeled scientific and then proceeds to show how advocates of Intelligent Design, while attempting to assume a scientific mantle, have also fallen short.

An excellent (and free) teacher’s guide to the study of evolution was produced to accompany Zimmer’s book, and may be requested directly from the studio that produced the PBS series, WGBH in Boston.

© 2001 Keith Harris

Keith Harris, Ph.D.  is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.