Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, Edward J. Larson. New York: Modern Library Chronicles, 2004.
Summary: A history of the development of evolutionary theory, including both the antecedents to Darwin and Russell and the extension of this theory, the controversies, both past and present that it provoked, and the genetic discoveries that have further revealed the theory’s mechanisms.
The theory of evolution is perhaps one of the most contested of scientific battlegrounds, both in terms of internal debates about aspects of the theory, and the conflict, particularly in the U.S., around this theory and at least some branches of Christian belief. What Edward J. Larson gives us here is not a scientific or theological treatise but rather a highly readable history that explains both key developments, even those preceding Darwin, and the controversies that resulted down to the time of publication (2004).
The tale begins with studies of both biological specimens and fossil finds by figures such as Cuvier and Lamarck that suggest both a great antiquity for life on earth that stretches the bounds of creation accounts in the Bible as they were understood, and also suggests both continuities and discontinuities between species in a kind of tree of life. Scientists before Darwin, as well as other thinkers thought in terms of some form of evolution but could not understand how one species developed from another. Were adaptive characteristics inherited, as in Lamarck’s proposals? How did speciation occur?
Larson discusses the work of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace who are rivals for the title of the “father of evolution.” Each was coming to similar conclusions about natural selection and were even in touch with each other and jointly published a paper on natural selection. But it was Darwin’s book, On the Origin of the Species, that captured public attention and led to the primary association of his name with the theory.
The book also traces the history both of subsequent key findings, particularly in Mendelian genetics and the critical work of Watson and Crick, as well as some of the darker sides of Darwinism in “social Darwinism” and eugenics trials culminating in the genocide of the Holocaust. While not laying these developments at the feet of the theory, one does see in this history the darker tendency of humans to “help natural selection along” and sometimes at any cost.
Larson also gives an even-handed overview of the anti-evolution controversies both of the Scopes trial era and more recent efforts. He profiles the principle opponents of evolution and their ideas, as well as the problematic elements in what they propose. He also chronicles more recent controversies within the scientific communities around sociobiology as well as “punctuated equilibrium” that calls into question more gradualist accumulations of adaptive traits.
What Larson does is offer us a good history that seeks to be even-handed and not polemical in explaining the rise of evolution as a theory as well as the objections raised (as well as why they have not gained traction with the wider scientific community). Without wading deep into either science or theology, he offers clear explanations of each and thus helps us understand the history of one of the most important ideas in the last two centuries. A great piece of both history and science writing for a general audience!
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