Genetics and Evolution

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Darwin's UniverseReview - Darwin's Universe
Evolution from A to Z
by Richard Milner
University of California Press, 2009
Review by Bob Lane, M.A.
Oct 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 41)

In case you missed it, 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece, "On the Origin of Species." Already, there have been exhibitions and lectures, television documentaries and radio shows, postage stamps and playing cards.  2009 has been a great year to learn about Charles Darwin and his revolutionary theory of natural selection. The resources made available on the World Wide Web are quite amazing, and the books published are equally informative and insightful in placing Darwin in the history of ideas. A list of the books, events and documentaries that have been produced are available here. Obviously, the best way to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is to read it. Unfortunately, many have not. Especially Darwin's critics.

Letters to the editor in local newspapers across North America are too often a platform for such "criticism". The letters I have read suffer fatally from the Strawman fallacy; exhibiting almost immediately the writer's ignorance of the primary text. Recently I tangled with my local Member of Parliament who rose in the House of Commons to claim Darwin was wrong and a creator god had to be at work. His knowledge of Darwin's theory of natural selection was, shall I say, limited.

Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z by Richard Milner is an easy way for the biology beginner to open a door to the wonders of Darwin, his life, his work, his friends and enemies; as well as the history of his scientific theory. The book is also a joy for readers already familiar with Darwin and his work. Every reader will find something new and fascinating between its covers. It is thorough, interesting, and an absolute delight to read from A to Z. Neither an encyclopaedia nor a biography, nor a biology text book; Milner's book functions admirably as all three.

On the way from A to Z the reader learns about Abang, the orangutan toolmaker (8); P. T. Barnum (35); Samuel Butler's anti-Darwinism (82); the coprolite industry (92); the "Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon" (227); Kennewick Man (257); and Zoopharmacognosy (452); and hundreds of other interesting entries.

As everyone knows Darwin's work revolutionized not only biology, but most disciplines in the sciences and the humanities. Evolution provides a brand new way of looking at the world. William Paley's (340) book Natural Theology is the perfect foil for Darwin's book in that both writers observe the same marvelous natural world and yet draw different inferences. Paley's famous "the watch in the heath" example provides the best argument from analogy for the existence of a creator or designer. Paley looks at the world and sees a creator's hand responsible for the observed design. Darwin looks more closely and infers a process over time which produces changes in a predictable way and does not require super natural involvement.

Milner's book is not just a compilation of interesting alphabetically arranged entries related to Darwin and his work, although it is that; but also a comprehensive introduction to the joy of discovery, the passion stirred by a new paradigm, the flim-flammery of those looking to cash in, and the difficulties of achieving scientific objectivity. Biography, science, poetry, and even movies are here for the readers' enjoyment and edification.

The book is a revised and updated successor to Milner's earlier Encyclopedia of Evolution containing some one hundred new essays and filled with pictures, diagrams, and text. In the original preface, reprinted in this edition, Stephen Jay Gould, a childhood friend of Richard Milner, writes "he has produced a popular book worthy of Darwin's words to his friend Thomas Huxley, as he importuned his old friend and combative champion to write a work on evolution for the general public: "I sometimes think that general and popular treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.""

Richard Milner is an associate in anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, a contributing editor of Natural History Magazine, and a performer -- his one-man musical Charles Darwin: Live & In Concert has toured the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Australia, and the Galápagos Islands. [Visit Milner's musical performance website here.] He was a childhood pal of the late Stephen Jay Gould (who wrote the Preface), and there is a charming photo of both of them, circa 1954 -- Gould was known on the playground as "Fossilface," and Milner as "Dino."

As Gould remarked, "Milner has given us so much more than a conventional reference work. His book is a series of mini-essays on the highways and byways of this most socially contentious of all scientific ideas."

What a great gift Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z will be for anyone interested in ideas!


© 2009 Bob Lane


Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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