The Evolving World

Feeling pragmatic? Is your focus entirely practical, on what works and what will get the job done? Are you one of those fighters for evolutionary biology who waves away all the theory and the abstractions and the strange experimental manipulations, and thinks the best argument for evolution is the fact that it works and is important? This book, The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by David Mindell, does make you sit down and learn a little history and philosophy to start off, but the focus throughout is on the application of evolution to the real world. It does a fine job of it, too.

An early chapter discusses at length the issue of agriculture and domestication, which is most definitely an example of applied evolution. Short summaries of the genetic and evolutionary histories of dogs, horses, cows, cabbage, etc., are given, all nicely illustrated, and with discussions of some of the dangers of human meddling as well. It’s all very well organized, and the examples are going to be useful in my introductory biology course as well as in arguments with creationists.

Then there’s a chapter on evolution in public health and medicine. Again we get concrete examples — HIV, influenza, West Nile, malaria, etc. — and background on the basics of epidemiology and on mechanisms of evolution of resistance. A chapter on conservation and evolution introduces the importance of biodiversity and explains why evolution is important to conservation and how evolutionary principles allow us to trace lines of descent.

There’s also a chapter on evolutionary metaphors and how we can infer and use principles of descent in language and religion, for instance. The book has a nice cladogram of the Abrahamic religions listing key characters; I was amused to see that the primary innovation at the stem is circumcision, and that monotheism comes later.

Evolution is also of increasing importance in the court and classroom. The author makes the case for forensic sciences, and also that education in evolutionary principles is essential for both the informed citizen and the future scientist. There is a little bit about the conflict with creationists, but not much; the author endorses NOMA,a position I detest, but does so for a utilitarian reason. While rejecting it as poor logic, he says it’s good diplomacy — another purely pragmatic rationale (did I mention that this book is all about practical reasons to accept and use evolution?).

This isn’t a book with a lot of rhetorical fireworks or much discussion of the bleeding edge of evolutionary theory, but dang, it’s useful stuff. It’s going on my bookshelf in that section where I keep books that have proven handy in prepping for lectures, and it ought to be a good source to hand to any doubters who can be swayed by a solid foundation in application.


  1. #1 Shawn Wilkinson
    July 25, 2007

    As a Louisiana resident and a supporter of fine arts, it is very important to support the New Orleans Museum of the A.rts. Oh, you mean Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria. Lame.

    But consider this book added to my wish list.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 25, 2007

    Blech. NOMA.

    Whatever I’d say has already been said, so that’s that. Moving on. . . .

    The book has a nice cladogram of the Abrahamic religions listing key characters; I was amused to see that the primary innovation at the stem is circumcision, and that monotheism comes later.

    This tallies nicely with some of the interesting history lessons in Hector Avalos’s books (props to the DI for their inadvertent advertising campaign). For example, the divine name translated in Deuteronomy and elsewhere as “the Most High” is really Elyon, who was a god distinct from Yahweh, and the chief deity of the Ugaritic pantheon.

  3. #3 donna
    July 25, 2007

    So the real way to tick off the fundies is to talk about the evolution of religion? Heh. Fun!

  4. #4 b.schac
    July 25, 2007

    I took a class with Prof. Mindell at Michigan last year, and he was great. It was kind of an evolution class for humanities majors, and I didn’t learn much I didn’t know being interested in evolution outside of school curricula, but he still made it an engaging experience.

    Also, he made quite clear his strong opposition to Intelligent Design and whatnot, dedicating large parts of a few lectures (this was a class on evolution) to dissecting its idiocy, as well as comparing the poll numbers on belief in evolution in America and other countries. I later saw a general lecture he gave on biodiversity, in which he spent some time debunking common creationist myths. It was refreshing to see a matter of fact refutation of this silliness.

    Despite any condoning of NOMA, he’s a dude who’s on our side.

    I’m sure this a great read, and I’ll look to pick it up. He’s a funny guy, as well, so I’m sure he has a great voice.

  5. #5 Bob Ramsey
    July 25, 2007

    I’d like to see more book recommendations, especially from you, PZ. I’ve finished “At the Water’s Edge,” “Climbing Mount Improbable,” “The Blind Watchmaker,” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” and I’m looking for something to read next. I still need to pick up “The God Delusion.” I’d be interested in some other general evolution/biology books. I’ve picked up a number of paleontology text books, mainly for the pretty pictures. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m not a biologist by any means at all, just someone with an interest in various prehistoric beasts, evolution, and science in general.

  6. #6 Scotty B
    July 25, 2007

    I second Bob Ramsey’s comments. I’d also be curious what else is on that “bookshelf in that section where I keep books that have proven handy in prepping for lectures”

  7. #7 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 25, 2007

    Bob Ramsey:

    Have you seen PZ’s book list for evolutionists? It may be due for another updating by now, but it might be a good place to begin.

  8. #8 VWXYNot?
    July 25, 2007

    Another one for my wish list!

  9. #9 Peter Ashby
    July 25, 2007

    Well I can thoroughly reccomend Steve Jones’s Almost Like a Whale where he modernises On the Origin of Species keeping the same chapter structure but doing it via modern knowledge and especially the modern synthesis.

    Then of course there is the essential small reference Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is.
    Simon Conway Morris’s The Crucible of Creation about the Cambrian Explosion from the man who properly sorted out Walcott’s Burgess Shale fossils.
    I also have and liked Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind.

    Then of course there is Jared Diamond and Guns, Germs and Steel as well as The Third Chimpanzee.

    That should keep you going for a bit ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. #10 Mrs Tilton
    July 25, 2007

    That should keep you going for a bit ๐Ÿ˜‰

    And then, when you’re done, consider Mark Ridley’s Mendel’s Demon.

    [BTW, PZ should consider the following my vote for any update of his evolution reading list.]

    I’d read Ridley’s basic textbook Evolution, but had never before read any of his popularisations (does he have any others?). For laity like me, M’s D is a bit of a hard slog in places, but emphatically worth the work. In The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins alludes briefly to some spectacularly weird things. Here, Ridley discusses these weirdnesses in great detail: segregation-distorters, sister-killers and other meiotic drivers; internecine warfare between nuclear and mitochondrial genes; mother/foetus conflicts เ la Trivers; trisomies arising when maternal chromosomes seek desperately to survive the meiotic cull. BTW, I believe the American title of the book is The Cooperative Gene; Dawkins once wrote that he might as readily have given TSG that title, but it is Ridley’s book that masterfully describes how intensely ‘selfish’ genes can achieve a socialistic ideal of nigh-perfect cooperation. Ridley also argues convincingly that we humans, pace just about every other writer on evolution, do represent a (sort of) pinnacle of creation — but not in a way that will give comfort to any creationist.

    As an aside, one thing I most liked about Ridley’s book was his readiness to say ‘We simply don’t yet know enough about X’, or ‘I personally think A, B and C, but until more evidence is available, that’s all just so much speculation.’

    M’s D is, in form, a work of ‘popular science’. But if you, like me, lack a professional background in biology, this had better not be the first pop bio book you read. All the same, it should most definitely be on your list of books to read once you’ve picked up enough of the basics that you can consider Ridley’s ideas without your head hurting too badly.

  11. #11 s9
    July 25, 2007

    As your friendly neighborhood Pragmatist, I have to defend the idea of endorsing NOMA as a diplomatic tool aimed at cooperative threat reduction (CTR is a technical term, look it up) while we continue grinding away at the edifice of religious dogma by our projection of soft power into its sphere of influence. Ultimately, religion can’t survive the encroachment of science into its domain, so NOMA isn’t really as poisonous to us as it is to them.

  12. #12 s9
    July 25, 2007

    Speaking of book reviews, has PZ looked at A New Kind Of Science yet?

  13. #13 donna
    July 26, 2007

    I didn’t see it in Borders tonight but I did cover up all the Behe books on the shelves….

  14. #14 Monado
    July 26, 2007

    I highly recommend Zimmer’s Evolution as a good basic text on Evolution itself. It’s very clear and interesting.

  15. #15 Alison
    July 26, 2007

    This sounds like it might be interesting to have on my shelves, even. Do you think it would be understandable to a teen reader? I want my kids to have that kind of knowledge, as well. I tell them things as they come up, but a reference that connects it all would be great.

  16. #16 Bob Ramsey
    July 26, 2007

    Thanks to the pointers to the reading list; I missed it before.

    Definitely found some new things to look at.


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