Niles Eldredge had an interesting concept in writing The Pattern of Evolution, at least one that shied away from the norm of popular writing on evolutNiles Eldredge had an interesting concept in writing The Pattern of Evolution, at least one that shied away from the norm of popular writing on evolution. No "history of life" narrative will be found here, at least not in the normal sense. The overarching theme is one against genetic reductionism, and an emphasis on both historical pattern as well as unique historical events in affecting the course of evolution. Though the subject material in itself was interesting, overall I found the book as a whole to be somewhat forgettable. There was not much here that was new for me, apart from some interesting tidbits, for example how shifting plate tectonics can lead to widespread environmental changes, which in turn affects evolutionary patterns via shifting climate or environmental factors. This obviously plays a part in facilitating higher-level evolutionary events, such as migration, extinction, and subsequent speciation and radiation of lineages.
However, the overall message, and a point particularly harped upon by Eldredge was that of punctuated equilibrium. Of course this is to be expected, given his role in formulating the theory, but I do wish that the duo of Eldredge/Gould would take a different tack in more of their books. Further, I found his final synthesis of the subjects of the preceding chapters to be rather uninspired and unconvincing. While the emphasis on the need for an understanding or theory of ecology to be incorporated the framework of the modern synthesis I can certainly agree with, the ultimate causation of major environmental events (outside of for example, extra-terrestrial objects) attributed to plate tectonics did not work well. To clarify, plate tectonics obviously cause major geological and environmental events, Eldredge gave tectonics the ability to cause regular evolutionary patterns found in the fossil record. While this may work on a very large level (that of major extinctions caused by climate change), he provided no evidence that I can remember of plate tectonics being able to cause shorter length evolutionary patterns with regularity. An example of this would be the pulsation of radiation, stability, and extinction found in the devonian delta fauna talked about in the last chapter, over the course of a few million years per fauna. Given the emphasis on patterns in the fossil record, the neglect to show exactly how plate tectonics could provide these regular pulses seems odd.
To conclude, the information given was good, the concepts were refreshing, but ultimately Eldredge did not elucidate or elaborate the point to which he was building toward throughout the book when he finally got to it. Exposition at the expense of detailed insight. ...more
I agree with the earlier (brief) review. I'm not sure what her target audience was. The information presented is either too brief and easily misundersI agree with the earlier (brief) review. I'm not sure what her target audience was. The information presented is either too brief and easily misunderstood, or is too detailed and technical for the average layperson to easily grasp.
The initial sections, as well as later sections, on evolution were laughable. The first section is barely competent in describing the basic premises of evolution. The latter section attempts a "history of life" approach, but again is simplistic and leaves out far too much information to serve much of a purpose. It feels as if Nusslein-Volhard is stepping out of her comfort zone a bit. A particular example of this is on page 131 where the caption under the diagram states that "the oldest common ancestor of humans and primates lived about seven million years ago". There are several problems with this. First, her diagram depicts only members of the Hominidae family, not primates as a whole. The common ancestor of humans and primates as a whole lived at least 65 million years ago. The other problem is the use of the term "oldest common ancestor". Technically, the oldest common ancestor of humans and primates is the originator of all life on Earth, and lived 3.6 GA or so! The correct term to use would actually be the exact opposite. A correct caption would read something like "The most recent common ancestor of humans and great apes lived about seven million years ago". This may seem like nitpicking, but I expect more from a Nobel Laureate.
The portions of the book dealing with developmental processes are good, but she doesn't seem to know who she wants to write for. The information is assuredly old hat for professional biologists, and they will likely not gain anything from it. However, the information seems as though it would also be slightly too technical for the interested layman to follow easily. She obviously has no problem with using correct technical terminology, but the problem is that there is never a clear, lucid explanation of what most of the terminology actually means or describes. In addition, the explanations of development seem more like a laundry list of what takes place, rather than an explanation. Unless the reader already has at least some sort of prior knowledge of the basics of evo-devo and embryology, it will most likely be hard to follow, or at least to visualize the processes she is describing.
On the plus side, the diagrams are very nice. They do help a somewhat in giving a visual reference to the text, but they still could be clearer about the exact movements of tissues, or how cell layers invaginate during gastrulation.
Overall, if you want to learn about evo-devo I'd go for another book. If you just want the basics, pick up Sean B. Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful. It's longer, more detailed, has more diagrams, and is just plain better written. If you want to learn about the detailed processes, get a textbook, perhaps either Carroll's From DNA to Diversity, or Scott Gilbert's Developmental Biology. ...more
A decent, but certainly out of date book. The most interesting section is that regarding the anatomy of the Burgess biota, and the historical narrativA decent, but certainly out of date book. The most interesting section is that regarding the anatomy of the Burgess biota, and the historical narrative of Whittington, Conway Morris, and Briggs is also a highlight. The more technical details of chapter three might throw some readers off, but I found them to be fascinating.
Unfortunately, most of the book is out of date. Most of the "weird wonders" that Gould describes have been taxonomically re-evaluated in the previous two decades, and technical developments in systematics (the concept of "stem groups" in cladograms), now show that much Burgess biota, ironically, belong closer to the original classifications of Walcott. Much of the biota are now considered to be stem groups of modern taxa, evolutionary aunts and uncles.
I also found Gould's continued emphasis on the "cone of increasing diversity" to be quite exhausting. Based on Gould's own definitions of diversity and disparity, there is no fundamental problem with depicting increased diversity in more modern geological eras, because there simply are more species (Gould's diversity) than in the Cambrian and Pre-Cambrian. Additionally, Gould seems to be railing against concepts that either haven't been present in the evolutionary literature for decades, perhaps centuries (depiction of an evolutionary ladder), or his examples of phylogenies are either strawmen or misinterpreted. For example, in Haeckel's illustrations, Gould does not analyze the taxonomic groups represented, nor does he consider that Haeckel perhaps wanted to show the phylogenies of the taxa he placed close to the top, and thus gave them more visual importance, because, after all, there is only so much space on the page.
In cladograms (and other methods of depicting phylogenies), if the diagram is "rooted", the root is meant to depict the hypothetical last common ancestor. Since clades are monophyletic (all descended from a single common ancestor), there is always going to be a "cone of increasing diversity", because the clade always depicts hierarchical branching lineages of descent. The only way there would not be a cone is if there truly was a ladder within a single lineage, something that Gould (rightly) disparages! One could argue that this is because Gould was simply arguing against older methods of depicting phylogeny, rather than the relatively new (at the time) cladistics, but even these do not generally follow his pattern. For example, in a classic depiction of fossil horse phylogeny (to use one of Gould's examples from chapter one), the maximum "disparity" is reached in the Miocene, and then scales back as it gets closer the the present.
Overall, the book is certainly not bad, especially when it comes to the historical and anatomical aspects. But in too many instances, Gould is simply engaging in his typical "revolutionary" grandstanding and hyperbole. Proceed carefully, and read more up-to-date texts as a follow up. ...more
Yet another of the myriad of "history of life" pop-science books, I think what makes this particular one stand out are the auto-biographical elementsYet another of the myriad of "history of life" pop-science books, I think what makes this particular one stand out are the auto-biographical elements interspersed with the scientific topics. Without these elements, the book would have been fairly generic, despite Fortey's readable and engaging writing style.
Many other books cover the same ground scientifically, most significantly of the books I have read being Don Prothero's Evolution: What The Fossil's Say And Why It Matters, and Nick Lane's Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. Both of these books cover the science in more detail, as well as with more depth, than Fortey's book. They are also much more up to date. Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything incorporates the history of science and biographical elements in a much greater depth than Fortey, and with an element of humor that Fortey usually lacks.
There was one other issue that bothered me continually as I was reading. Fortey constantly refers to such things as the "chain of life", the "ladder of evolution", higher and lower animals, and so on. While this may be a popular science book, that does not mean that the author should incorporate what amounts to lay-audience mistaken conceptions of how evolution works. Perhaps Fortey felt that a popular science book was not the place to address such philosophical issues, but plenty of other authors do so without much issue. There is no "chain of being", and there are no such thing as higher and lower animals. These are holdovers from the 19th century. Fortey should know better.
I really wanted this book to be better, and while it certainly isn't bad, it falls short of the other books I mentioned. It wouldn't be the first thing I would recommend to someone who was interested in learning about the history of life, paleontology, or evolution. There are better options. That said, if you are already well acquainted with the science, it's worth reading for the insights into how science is conducted by scientists, as well as the vivid descriptions of past ecosystems and organisms. ...more