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.