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 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.

  2. #2 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.

  3. #3 Mrs Tilton
    July 25, 2007

    That should keep you going for a bit 😉

    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 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.

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