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Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory
“I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking.” So wrote Charles Darwin aboard The Beagle, bound for the Galapagos Islands and what would arguably become the greatest and most controversial discovery in scientific history. But the theory of evolution did not spring full-blown from the head of Darwin. Since the dawn of humanity, priests, philosophers, and scientists have debated the origin and development of life on earth, and with modern science, that debate shifted into high gear.
In this lively, deeply erudite work, Pulitzer Prize–winning science historian Edward J. Larson takes us on a guided tour of Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” from its theoretical antecedents in the early nineteenth century to the brilliant breakthroughs of Darwin and Wallace, to Watson and Crick’s stunning discovery of the DNA double helix, and to the triumphant neo-Darwinian synthesis and rising sociobiology today.
Along the way, Larson expertly places the scientific upheaval of evolution in cultural perspective: the social and philosophical earthquake that was the French Revolution; the development, in England, of a laissez-faire capitalism in tune with a Darwinian ethos of “survival of the fittest”; the emergence of Social Darwinism and the dark science of eugenics against a backdrop of industrial revolution; the American Christian backlash against evolutionism that culminated in the famous Scopes trial; and on to today’s world, where religious fundamentalists litigate for the right to teach “creation science” alongside evolution in U.S. public schools, even as the theory itself continues to evolve in new and surprising directions.
Throughout, Larson trains his spotlight on the lives and careers of the scientists, explorers, and eccentrics whose collaborations and competitions have driven the theory of evolution forward. Here are portraits of Cuvier, Lamarck, Darwin, Wallace, Haeckel, Galton, Huxley, Mendel, Morgan, Fisher, Dobzhansky, Watson and Crick, W. D. Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, and many others. Celebrated as one of mankind’s crowning scientific achievements and reviled as a threat to our deepest values, the theory of evolution has utterly transformed our view of life, religion, origins, and the theory itself, and remains controversial, especially in the United States (where 90% of adults do not subscribe to the full Darwinian vision). Replete with fresh material and new insights, Evolution will educate and inform while taking readers on a fascinating journey of discovery.
This book has a Modern Library logo on it and is part of a series named The Modern Library Chronicles. I used the very handy LT series feature and checked some of the other books in the series. There are thirty-two titles that cover the history of everything from communism to the company. While reading the book ( I also listened to an audio edition) I realized that I have another book by this author, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion which is a very good book. He covers the same topic in this book.I enjoyed this book immensely. It is well written and for me very informative. This book taught me a lot about what I don't know about evolution. When the author started writing about statistical models he got over my head very fast. For the large part the author builds his story using the personalities and contributions of a group of men who over time have created present evolutionary theory. The author does an excellent job of narrating an ongoing conversation between men all over the world about this idea beginning in the late 18th Century. Each person has a different wrinkle on how to understand and explain the development of the different organisms that have inhabited the planet. Always present are those who would deny that evolution exists based upon their religious beliefs.I was fascinated by the role of Darwin's finches in the whole development of the theory of evolution. They are a group of species of finches that live on the Galapagos islands. A primary distinguishing feature of the different species are their beaks. Some have big squat beaks and some have smaller pointed beaks. The different beaks are adapted for eating different types of seeds. These species all developed from one species of finches that moved to the Galapagos and mutated into the different species that Darwin found. In modern times there has been intensive field work done on these birds to try to understand the process of species differentiation.In the present day field naturalists find that geographic isolation is very important for the development of new species. The geneticists talk about isolated gene pools.Many of the scientific ideas that make up the story of this theory originate in one individual. The author's full life portrayals of these men and the effects of their personalities on their ideas was fascinating. The genius Watson who with Crick discovered DNA is a molecular biologist. He is also a rather mean minded person who has no use for the ideas of field naturalists. This narrows the scope of his ideas.The author has an excellent section on the culture wars. The development of scientific creationism has made the battle for the schools a present day problem. The end of the 20th century saw a resurgence of the groups opposed to evolution. I know in my state the Chief Judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals was the head of a group that opposed the teaching of evolution. The author also mentions eugenics, the dark side of evolution.This is just a smattering of what is covered in the book. It is chock full of interesting people and interesting ideas. The well crafted writing makes it a pleasure to read. I think I will seriously look at some of the other titles in the series. If you have an interest in this topic and are not an expert I recommend this book.read more
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Larson, a Pulitzer-winning historian (Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion), traces the history of the contentious concept of evolution from Darwin's predecessors, like Cuvier and Lyell, to his early advocates, like Asa Gray (who tried to keep God in the mix) and Thomas Huxley, and "postmodern" advocates such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. Larson reminds readers that Darwin hasn't always been held in as high esteem as he is today, even among scientists: at the beginning of the 1900s, the concept of evolution was widely accepted, but natural selection was not. Larson demonstrates that only through advances by mid-century population geneticists like Haldane, Fisher and Wright and sociobiologists like the late William Hamilton have most scientists come to accept all of Darwin's theories. Larson devotes chapters to dark episodes in evolution's history like the early 20th-century eugenics movement and the Scopes trial, where, Larson proposes, Clarence Darrow's theatrics may have done the cause more harm than good. This latest entry in Modern Library's Chronicles series isn't "evolution for dummies"-it requires concentration and some effort-but Larson's survey should make valuable reading for young people going into the sciences and other science buffs. Illus. not seen by PW. (On sale May 4) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved