by Carl Zimmer
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, Publishers Weekly,
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 Darwins
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. Goulds 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 cells 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) teachers guide to the study
of evolution was produced to accompany Zimmers book, and may be requested
directly from the studio that produced the PBS series, WGBH in Boston.
© 2001 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.