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1 November 2008 In the Light of Evolution
Kerry L. Shaw
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In his autobiographical book Naturalist, E. O. Wilson wrote that “in the 1950s and 1960s the molecular revolution had begun to run through biology like a flash flood” (Wilson 2006, p. 219). Today, something of the reverse is happening with the techniques and approaches developed by evolutionists permeating molecular biology. For example, phylogenetic analysis plays a critical role in tracing the origins of antibiotic resistance (Dantas et al. 2008), the predictive power of population genetics has assisted in discouraging the evolution of pesticide resistance in genetically engineered crops (Rausher 2001), and the rise of molecular taxonomy has vastly increased our awareness of microbial species diversity (Giovannoni and Sting 2005). In the past, this synergy has come awkwardly, perhaps because of a difference in scientific cultures.

The new text Evolution aims to provide students with the fruits of both molecular and evolutionary scientific cultures early in their careers, with the goal of making evolutionary biology more “accessible” to molecular biology students. The book masterfully covers the field of evolutionary biology from a multicultural perspective through the collaborative writings of a population geneticist, paleontologist, microbiologist, human geneticist, and developmental biologist. Like none before it, this book should successfully introduce evolutionary biology to the present generation of students while drawing appropriate connections to molecular foundations, concepts, and the potential for new, integrative directions.

In some ways, Evolution is suitable for any student new to the subject of evolutionary biology. The book is organized into four sections: an overview, the origin and diversification of life, evolutionary processes, and human evolution. The overview combines the history of evolutionary biology with the history of molecular biology. Here are found accounts of evolutionary thought before Darwin, events that influenced Darwin's life, the development of (and opposition to) his ideas, and the integration of multiple perspectives generating the “evolutionary synthesis” in the mid-1900s. Also sketched are the historical circumstances before the birth of molecular biology; the events leading up to the discovery of the structure of DNA; and the technical advances enabling the study of DNA, RNA, proteins, and their relationship to one another and to the evolutionary process.

The frequent comparison of failed and successful theories simultaneously conveys the excitement of discovery and the fallibility of human effort at the cutting edge of biological science.

These chapters are paired and integrated, setting the stage for an extensive summary and interpretation of evidence for evolution and the remainder of the book.

In the meaty midsections of the book, students are presented with the two fundamental aspects of evolutionary biology—pattern (emphasizing current knowledge and theories on the origins of life, deep history, and the origins of phylogenetic diversity) and process (emphasizing the mechanisms of population change). While molecular perspectives are given throughout, the excitement of recent genomic and proteomic advances fortunately do not upstage a clear articulation of the pillars of evolutionary process such as mutation, genetic drift, population structure, and selection. In fact, these subjects enjoy a spectacular and detailed delivery. Considerable attention is also given to phylogeny; “tree-thinking” and diversity (especially microbial diversity); the nature, quantification, and study of genetic variation; the origin of species; the evolution of phenotypic novelty; and, in the final section, human evolution. In addition, the text offers refreshing organizational perspectives on newly consolidated subjects such as “evo-devo” (evolution and development), “cooperation and conflict,” and the evolution of genetic systems. Particularly astute analyses center on the role of optimization and constraints, evolutionarily stable strategies, and maintained polymorphisms, bringing together different traditions in evolutionary biology.

The overall treatment is quite thorough, with clear writing and engaging illustrations and photographs. At 833 pages, the book is an intense introduction to evolutionary biology, and students who are serious about digesting the material in this text will gain an impressive perspective on the subject. In other ways, Evolution will not be suitable for some courses. The genetic sophistication and integration of molecular concepts immediately bumps the discussion up to a more advanced level and could easily overwhelm beginning university students. Prior exposure to genetics and molecular biology is critical; without it, the pace through the text will surely be slow.

Given that the text operates on a relatively advanced level, students will find the extensive Web support to be exceptionally valuable for more in-depth coverage of particular topics (this resource is currently under construction, however). Fully referenced versions of the printed chapters are also available on the supporting Web site, but the conspicuous lack of references in the main text is unfortunate because students may not want to revisit material they have already read in the text. Hence, many students will remain ignorant of the link to the primary literature, and miss the associated message that the growth of scientific knowledge is an active process carried out by real people.

Despite this shortcoming, the authors do help students relate to the growth of scientific knowledge hrough considerable discussions of theories that have failed the test of time and scientific experimentation. Thus, on the positive side, the frequent comparison of failed and successful theories simultaneously conveys the excitement of discovery and the fallibility of human effort at the cutting edge of biological science.

Although I do not want to diminish the many excellent features of this book, the authors appear to have missed an opportunity in the treatment of the evolution of behavior. This is especially disappointing because behavioral evolutionary biology (“evo-bevo,” if you will) is an exciting and rapidly growing field, fed by molecular advances in areas such as chronobiology (Tauber and Kyriacou 2008) and social evolution (Robinson et al. 2005), among many others. To be fair, some behavioral topics are covered in various sections, but a consolidated treatment would better serve students, as is done in at least one of the other major evolution textbooks. The evolution of behavior lends itself well to an integrated approach across levels from the molecular to the phylogenetic, in part because of the influence of behaviorists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen. Evo-bevo—evolution and behavior—would juxtapose nicely with evo-devo, as there is intense interest in the molecular, developmental, and physiological aspects of behavior, as well as in the origins, diversity, and evolutionary causes of behavior. Behaviorists are often exposed to different cultures in biology, and behavioral genomicists appear to show no particular allegiance to any level of study, yielding optimal conditions for discovery. Students drawn to the evolution of behavior would benefit tremendously from the subject matter of this book, and the evolution of behavior certainly would seem a natural extension of the current array of topics covered.

By integrating molecular biology and evolutionary biology, the authors exploit a relatively unfilled niche for evolution texts. Smaller works exist in this area, but they cannot compare with this monumental effort to convey the current state of a burgeoning field. Thankfully, the authors devote ample attention to the pillars of evolutionary biology while making evolutionary biology more interesting to molecularly minded students, thereby spreading Dobzhansky's message that “nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

References cited


G. Dantas, M. O. A. Sommer, R. D. Oluwasegun, and G. M. Church . 2008. Bacteria subsisting on antibiotics. Science 320:100–103. Google Scholar


S. J. Giovannoni and U. Sting . 2005. Molecular diversity and ecology of microbial plankton. Nature 437:343–348. Google Scholar


M. D. Rausher 2001. Co-evolution and plant resistance to natural enemies. Nature 411:857–864. Google Scholar


G. E. Robinson, C. M. Grozinger, and C. W. Whitfield . 2005. Sociogenomics: Social life in molecular terms. Nature Reviews Genetics 6:257–270. Google Scholar


E. Tauber and C. P. Kyriacou . 2008. Genomic approaches for studying biological clocks. Functional Ecology 22:19–29. Google Scholar


E. O. Wilson 2006. Naturalist Washington (DC) Island Press. Google Scholar
Kerry L. Shaw "In the Light of Evolution," BioScience 58(10), 988-989, (1 November 2008).
Published: 1 November 2008

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