Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. Carl Zimmer (introduction by Stephen J. Gould, foreword by Richard Hutton). HarperCollins, New York, 2001. 364 pages, illus. $40.00 (ISBN 0-06-019906-7, hardcover).
In September 2001, the Public Broadcasting System aired a week-long series entitled Evolution. That acclaimed series, a coproduction of WGBH and NOVA Science Unit and Clear Blue Sky Productions, was supplemented by an excellent Web site containing numerous resources for biology teachers ( www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution). The series' companion book, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, is an accessible and elegantly designed volume that most biologists will want to buy. Charles Darwin would have loved it.
Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea was written by Carl Zimmer, the author of At the Water's Edge and Parasite Rex. Zimmer, a former senior editor at Discovery magazine, has contributed articles to Natural History, National Geographic, Audubon, and Science. In Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, his lively writing style dramatizes a sweeping and balanced story of the history, development, relevance, power, importance, and far-reaching implications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Zimmer presents his rich and up-to-date view of evolution in four units that focus on Charles Darwin and the rise of Darwinism, the creation and extinction of species, “evolution's dance,” and humanity's place in evolution. These units are informed by disciplines as diverse as primatology, paleontology, and genetics (from Mendel's peas to the human genome) and include fascinating stories about topics ranging from the mysteries of sex to the development of the human brain.
Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea begins with a discussion of Darwin's life and adventures aboard the Beagle, how he wrote On the Origin of Species, his fears of his own ideas, the development of our understanding of “deep time,” and the rise of Darwinism. Although the characters in Zimmer's narrative are familiar (e.g., Darwin, Hutton, Cuvier, Paley, Lamarck, Lyell), his story is nevertheless compelling. Zimmer punctuates human interest narratives with information from sources as diverse as Mendel, Arizona's Meteor Crater, Dobzhansky, mutations, and isotopic clocks. When you finish this unit, you'll not only concede Zimmer's points but also feel that you know Charles Darwin. You'll also look forward to what's coming next. This unit is the best in the book; you'll be hard-pressed to find a better overview of the history of Charles Darwin and his ideas.
In the second unit of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Zimmer expands his discussions of the evidence underlying the success and triumph of Darwin's idea. He addresses the tree of life, chance and constraint in animal evolution, and extinction. Zimmer again tells an intriguing story that includes an overview of master-control genes, Hox genes, gene duplication, and the evolution of eyes (photos of which adorn the cover). Unlike Darwin, who used overwhelming numbers of supportive examples to force readers to concede his points, Zimmer chooses his examples with restraint. Nevertheless, his examples are wonderfully effective, especially his discussions of Pakicetus (a terrestrial whale that lived 50 million years ago) and Ambulocetus (a “walking whale” from 45 million years ago). In addition to exploring the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian (when 90 percent of all species disappeared), Zimmer also discusses human extinctions. Thus, readers are given a good overview of the history of life, including evolution's many failed experiments.
In the penultimate unit of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Zimmer turns to coevolution, disease and evolution in medicine, and the evolution of sex. His examples, ideas, and presentation will again be familiar to most biologists (e.g., coevolution between ants and their fungi, biochemical warfare, the development of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides, and the evolution of HIV). The most convincing chapter of this unit focuses on sexual selection, in which Zimmer tells fascinating stories concerning female choice (e.g., combs on roosters, tails of peacocks), the manner in which some damselflies remove previous males' sperm from females with which they mate, infanticide, and a male lion's method for ensuring that a lioness will be sexually receptive and able to bear his offspring when he takes over a pride (he kills the resident cubs). The chapter concludes with a sobering comparison of the brutal, patriarchal societies of chimps with the calmer, matriarchal societies of bonobos (in which problems are often resolved with sex). Like all of the preceding units, this one is extremely well written, accurate, convincing, and entertaining.
The final unit of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea focuses on the social roots of human evolution and “the God question.” The first two chapters of the unit again present familiar information in a marvelously effective way—readers are given excellent insights into evolutionary psychology, language, the “out of Africa” hypothesis, and the development of art, technology, and culture. The unit ends with a highly personal story of Darwin's final years, and finally with his death. Like the rest of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, these chapters are entertaining, accurate, and compelling.
The only chapter of this remarkable book that disappointed me was the final one, entitled “What about God?” That chapter discusses the evolution–creationism controversy in the United States, the misuse of evolution to justify war and social inequalities, and the Scopes trial and its aftermath; it includes critiques of “creation science” and “intelligent design.” Zimmer again uses interesting examples to make his points (e.g., how natural selection can produce complex systems such as blood clotting and antifreeze in cold-water fish). He also does a good job of explaining why many creationists insist on being made directly and specially by God, and why they reject Darwin's claim that humans were “created from animals.” My disappointment in the chapter stems largely from its factual errors. Although some are relatively trivial—for example, Zimmer omits John Whitcomb Jr. as an author of The Genesis Flood and states that the Arkansas “equal time” law was challenged in 1982 (the challenge came in 1981)—others are more serious. For example, the Arkansas Supreme Court did not refuse to hear Susan Epperson's challenge to the state's law banning the teaching of evolution. Indeed, Epperson won her initial challenge of the law, and when the state appealed her victory, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the Chancery Court's decision. Similarly, it was the Arkansas Education Association, not the ACLU, that assisted Epperson with her challenge of the Arkansas antievolution law. The association's Eugene Warren refused the ACLU's offer of help at her initial trial (Susan Epperson, personal communication).
I was also disappointed by Zimmer's emphasis on Kansas's removal of evolution from its state educational standards in 1999. Although Kansas subsequently reinstated its proevolution standards, Zimmer overlooks the fact many other states continue to have educational standards that omit evolution. He also fails to note that a surprisingly large percentage of biology teachers want creationism to be taught in science classes of public schools.
Despite these concerns, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea is one of the best and most thorough books about evolution available. Overall, it is very well written, entertaining, lively, and convincing, and it effectively mixes science with human interest to produce a fascinating saga of one of the greatest ideas in history. Many biologists will want to buy this book, and all biologists will want to read it.