Genetics and Evolution

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EvolutionReview - Evolution
The First Four Billion Years
by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis (Editors)
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009
Review by Eric Martin
Oct 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 41)

Michael Ruse, the prolific philosopher of biology, has his name attached to a dazzling number of monographs and anthologies on Darwin and evolution.  In Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, Ruse has teamed up with evolutionary biologist Joseph Travis to produce what is sure to become an important reference work for anyone working on topics related to evolution.  The disciplinary backgrounds of the two editors reflect the diversity of topics covered, which will be of interest to humanities scholars and scientists alike.

The book is comprised of two major sections.  The first contains sixteen essays from prominent scholars on overarching themes in evolution.  These surveys generally strike a careful balance between introducing complex topics to the uninitiated and the nuanced presentation of large bodies of research. The second section contains concise (roughly two page) encyclopedic entries on people, ideas, objects, and publications that have been central to evolutionary thought.  Together the two parts constitute nearly a thousand pages of text and make for the most comprehensive single volume on evolutionary studies.

This book fills a useful niche among the other reference works on evolution.  Keller and Lloyd's excellent (1992) Keywords in Evolutionary Biology focused on specific theoretical terms and their scientific import, but did not strive for such synoptic coverage of the topic of evolution.  Other encyclopedias of evolution typically lack the depth of Evolution's longer essays, or might exclusively focus on empirical details to the neglect of evolution's social significance.  (Also, in their attempts to be exhaustive, other encyclopedias contain entries on such sundry topics as coronary disease and bigfoot.)  In Evolution we get a single bound volume, informed by an impressive list of contributors, covering the major issues of historical significance and contemporary research, all without excessive reach.  The focus on evolution gives the book a more circumscribed field of view than other new anthologies in philosophy of biology, a growing field that increasingly deals with topics outside of evolutionary theory.

The excellent (and somewhat technical) essay on the origin of life introduces a topic too often overlooked by evolutionary theorists. From Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano we learn some of the fascinating history of this field of study, as well as the up-to-date experimental results in the attempt to piece together the circumstances of life's genesis, with particular attention to the abiotic synthesis of biochemical monomers.  Interestingly, the relationship between origins of life research and this volume's ostensible topic, evolution, is not immediately clear.  We learn about how "chemical transformations" could lead to the "emergence" of new functions, but are those transformations themselves instances of evolution?  If life is defined as that which is capable of evolving, and if the origin of life is, as supposed by the authors (p. 63), synonymous with the origin of evolution, then it remains to be seen what explains the chemical transformations prior to life.  Indeed this complicates the notion of "prebiotic evolution," (p. 64), a term the authors rely on but leave unexplained.  Perhaps the authors have in mind here some non-selective evolutionary account, such as neutral drift.  Other theorists have suggested that random drift could play a central role in the origin of life (see Kimura, 1992 and Dyson, 1999), but there is no indication if that is the intention here. On the other hand, maybe "prebiotic evolution" refers to energetically favorable chemical changes, although it would be unusual to refer to other such chemical reactions as evolution of any sort.  Perhaps we will eventually learn that the units of evolution need not have the complex properties of extant life; that would be a significant theoretical advance from current replicator theories of units of selection, which presuppose the existence of complexities that must have been absent at some earlier time.  Such boundary questions dealing with the units of selection and of life itself are part of what makes origin of life research exciting, even (or especially) if it might also appear conceptually uncertain.

Evolution's inclusion of amino acid synthesis studies, statistical appraisals of molecular evolution, specificities of self-organizing systems, and other details from active scientific efforts does not come at the expense of a broader examination of the social impact of evolution.  For example, in the encyclopedic section, together with entries on Archaeopteryx and Aristotle, we find a careful entry on Natural Theology, a topic closely intertwined with the history of evolutionary thought.  Among the longer essays is an entry on "Evolution and Society" from Manfred Laubichler and Jane Maienschein that cogently presents as many facets of that broad title as is possible in just 15 pages.  The reciprocal ties between society and evolutionary theory are illustrated with perspicuous examples from European and American eugenics, Stalinist support for Lysenko's theories, and more recent debates on sociobiology, showing how "[s]ocial needs shaped science, which then played out in society" (334).  Other essays on evolution and religion and on American anti-evolutionism give a breadth of scope to this impressive book.

Given its historical consequence, the reader might be surprised to find so little explicit treatment of the evolutionary synthesis in this volume.  Ruse's chapter on the history of evolutionary thought dedicates just two paragraphs to the synthetic theory before we are told that "By the 1950s Darwin's dream of a mature, professional science of evolutionary biology was realized" (p. 32).   What were the conceptual foundations of this change?  In what ways did the synthesis figure into professionalization?  What of the author's tantalizing suggestion about the need to purge any "extrascientific" (metaphysical and moral) aspects from this new biology?  Although the synthesis is revisited later on in Kim Sterelny's incisive essay on philosophy of evolutionary thought, the answer to those questions will need to be found elsewhere.  Fortunately, the generous bibliographies appended to each article are one of the book's great virtues, ensuring that the interested reader will be pointed in the right direction for future research.

However, in a tome such as this, one can hardly criticize for omitting material; few stones have been left unturned.  The editors successfully present a voluminous breadth of material showing evolution for what it is: not an ossified 19th century idea, but a cultural touchstone and a wellspring of creative thought and flourishing scientific investigation. 



Dyson, F. (1999). Origins of Life.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keller, E.F. and Lloyd, E.A. (1992). Keywords in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kimura, M. (1992). "Neutralism" in Keller, E.F. and Lloyd, E.A. Keywords in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


© 2009 Eric Martin


Eric Martin is pursuing a Ph.D. in the philosophy and history of biology within the Science Studies Program at University of California, San Diego.


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