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Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  587 ratings  ·  84 reviews
A major new work overturning our assumptions about how evolution works

Earth's natural history is full of fascinating instances of convergence: phenomena like eyes and wings and tree-climbing lizards that have evolved independently, multiple times. But evolutionary biologists also point out many examples of contingency, cases where the tiniest change--a random mutation or
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Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 8th 2017 by Riverhead Books
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Average rating 4.02  · 
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Brian Clegg
Aug 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
There's always a danger when a science author puts themselves at the heart of their book that it can come across as 'Me, me, me!' - but Jonathan Losos has a very amiable personal style that gives the impression of having a chat with the author over a beer - and some of the best parts of the book are those that talk about Losos's own work.

The topic here - whether evolution inevitably tends to produce particular biological approaches given an environmental niche - is an interesting one, so the
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Nikki
Jun 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The question Losos asks, and tries to answer, is this: can we predict evolution? Are certain things inevitable in development — birds, humans, antibiotic resistance, etc, etc? He writes engagingly about field work, experiments, thought experiments, the various theories and people who have supported them… I definitely want to do more reading on this.

Am I convinced? Well, I’m not sure Losos is convinced that evolution can be predicted in detail; he presents some good evidence that suggests that
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Chantal Lyons
Jun 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"Improbable Destinies" is personable, easy to follow, and fascinating - well-worth a read by anyone with at least a passing interest in biology and evolution.

From beginning to end, Losos works hard to make the studies and theories in the book as vivid as possible. We get to meet the people behind the facts and dive into their trials and tribulations, from dangerous rainforest treks to lassoing lizards to battling through snowstorms. It's pretty amusing in places, and you can't help but admire
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Carl Zimmer
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I was asked to read this book, and provided this blurb:

"Is evolution a story foretold? Or is it little more than the rolls of DNA's dice? In Improbable Destinies, Jonathan Losos tackles these fascinating questions not with empty philosophizing, but with juicy tales from the front lines of scientific research. Drunk flies, fast-evolving lizards, mutating microbes, and hypothetical humanoid dinosaurs all grace the pages of this wonderfully thought-provoking book."

The question of how predictable
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Carlos
May 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction-btr
I was disappointed with this book, I basically read a 350 page book to learn what I and almost everyone else knows about evolution, it cannot be controlled , it cannot be predicted and we have no way of knowing a 100 % what factors affect it and how life could have evolved in different environments other than the Earth. I just basically described this whole book for you . Good for a beginner , not so much for someone with some background in evolutionary science.
Nick Davies
May 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
This started off absolutely fascinatingly, but waned a little towards the middle. I guess unfortunately it is a consequence of science books of this type - as wonderfully written and witty as this was, I got a lot more enjoyment out of the first hundred or so pages of this (where the key concepts of evolutionary biology were explained and plenty of examples given in illustration) than out of the middle chapters where the author goes in to a lot more detail about his own research, and about some ...more
Susan Cejka
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Splendorous! (lifted straight for the book,)accessible, informative and entertaining. Losos explains the many paths of evolutionary biology. convergence or or contingency. Kangaroos which are essentially deer have evolved nowhere but Australia. then of course there is the most interesting animal the duck billed platypus uniquely designed for its environment and in Losos's own words a one off.
i'm no academic but i learned more in this book that i ever learned in biology and loved every minute of
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Book
Mar 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: evolution, science
Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution by Jonathan B. Losos

“Improbable Destinies” is an interesting exploration of evolutionary biology. Professor Jonathan B. Losos provides readers with a behind-the-scenes access to testing ideas about evolution, out in nature and in real time. This stimulating 382-page book includes twelve chapters and is broken out into the following three parts: Part One. Nature’s Doppelgangers, Part Two. Experiments in the Wild, and Part Three.
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Richard Carter
Aug 22, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
The late Stephen Jay Gould more than once observed that, were it possible to roll back time and re-run evolutionary history, we would most likely end up with very different results. Minor differences in circumstances can lead to very different evolutionary pathways.

Others, most notably Simon Conway Morris, hold that evolution is far more predictable than Gould would have had us believe. As evidence, they cite the interesting phenomenon of convergent evolution where different species evolve
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Gracie
Mar 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, non-fiction
This is one of the better pop-science books I've read. Losos does a great job explaining many different scientific experiments and how they fit into broader theories of evolution. I appreciated that nothing was overly-dumbed down or one-sided. Losos presents a variety of conflicting but not always mutually exclusive ideas that provide nuance to his ultimate argument about the predictability and repeatability of evolution. The book was full of evidence, yet did not feel like a list as some ...more
Craig Werner
Mar 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nature, science
Delightful, especially if you've been following the Stephen Jay Gould vs. Simon Conway Morris celebrity death match (okay, that's possibly an overstatement) since it started unfolding with the publication of Gould's Wonderful Life. If that doesn't mean anything to you, you may still like Improbable Destinies--if only for the nifty illustrations--but I'd recommend starting with Wonderful Life and Conway Morris's Crucible of Creation.

The core issue at stake is whether the pathways followed by
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Vincent Poirier
Nov 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, science
In 1989, the late Stephen Jay Gould published Wonderful Life, a book intended both for the general public and for professional scientists. In it, Gould presented his thesis that today's lifeforms are the result of a historical process founded on contingency, that is if we were to rewind the biological history of the earth back a half billion years and let the tape play again, there would today be lifeforms but they would not have the shapes we see around us now. The animal kingdom would have no ...more
Sophia
Apr 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was good but not great. It's good for someone who has not read much about evolution but is suddenly super interested, someone over 50 who is still convinced that evolution is a super slow process, and it's good for someone who is particularly fascinated by how experimental evolutionary science works in practice.

I've read a lot about evolution, and so I found almost nothing new in terms of general understanding on how evolution works. In fact, the book focuses so much on just one type
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⋟Kimari⋞
Improbable Destinies is broad in scope, but shallow in depth, offering a very basic overview of evolution portioned into bite-sized examples. The language is far too colloquial, the author even uses the term baby daddy. Ugh, no, just no. The topics are repetitive and uninspired, most are discussed in a multitude of other books in this genre. I had a similar reaction to The Genius of Birds. If you liked The Genius of Birds and you're looking for something similar, pick up Improbable Destinies.

You
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Ryan
Jan 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nature
While the subject matter is intriguing - whether evolution is deterministic and can be predicted in terms of the forms it will take when organisms are put under the same conditions over time, it is such a complex topic involving countless factors that almost nothing conclusive can be gleaned even after lengthy discussion. Frustrating and unsatisfying to say the least! The meat of the book deals with the experiments that have been conducted over the last decades, be they in the field or in the ...more
Kimberly  Edwin
Sep 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An excellent overview of convergent evolution, and of long term evolution experiments that put to the test Stephen Jay Gould's thought experiment of "rewinding the tape" of evolution to determine if we would get the same results (i.e. humans). Many times, convergence happens, but once in a while you get an astonishing result that results in dramatic change and a new life form. Clearly explained and well written, this is an engaging read.
Dave Schoettinger
If you are a creationist, you will find this book largely irrelevant, or, at best, wildly speculative science fiction like Star Wars, but with less formulaic plot lines. This is because this book is about evolution. People of advanced age, such as myself, tend to think of evolution as a vague process that turned monkeys into humans a long time ago, but isn't terribly applicable to one's current life. Professor Losos would disagree with this assessment. He describes evolution as a force of nature ...more
Don  Kent
Sep 27, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Confession being purportedly good for the soul, I will confess that I did quite bit of speed-reading of the second half of this book. While the author did a creditable job of covering this huge subject his emphasis on convergence made the book rather tedious.
Sara
Nov 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book was so overlooked! It was really good. :)

The book questions how ubiquitous convergent evolution is. He gives examples of convergent evolution in nature to demonstrate how surprisingly common it is for two unrelated lineages to adapt in the same way. He also speak to the speed of evolution and how it is much faster than Darwin imagined given the right selective pressure.

The book really shined through most of the beginning and middle, but it did slow down a bit toward the end. The
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ClareT
Aug 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
Was the evolution of humans inevitable or, if something different had happened, for example, if the meteor hadn’t killed the dinosaurs, would we have still evolved or would the planet be full of different creatures. Scientific opinion is split, and the author explains why.
Using various examples, including lizards that have evolved in the same way on different islands, convergent evolution is explained. But the counter argument is also given.
This is an interesting book, although at the end I’m
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Adam
Interesting topic, especially because it confronts the crux of what makes evolution a historical science in the same way that the study of human history could be without ever raising the idea that there's some philosophical impossibility involved in studying it. But while the research presented here is interesting, it feels sparse and tentative. The conclusions aren't too surprising: adaptive radiation is common and natural selection drives populations toward a set of viable solutions to ...more
Ann Cooper
Oct 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
A (long and chatty) narrative about whether Stephen J. Gould (in Wonderful Life) was right or not on the question if evolution would play out the same again if we could replay it from the start, or be quite different. Determinism, repeatability, or chance randomness? Interesting, but rather irritating and slightly coy writing at times. It included a lot of material on the experimental process with microbes that has allowed a form of replaying in the lab to show that over thousands of ...more
Amanda (Books, Life and Everything Nice)
Improbable Destinies is very informative about evolution, especially the genetics of it. I found the sections about the similarities between cross continental evolution very interesting. I appreciated that the experiments were explained in a fairly easy to understand manner. It makes scientific studies more accessible to someone not working in the field. Certain sections were more interesting than others. And some sections were boring and redundant. There were pages and pages of experiments with ...more
Farhan
Nov 17, 2017 rated it liked it
The author has a way of explaining complex scientific facts and theories in a very colloquial style. The book gave me a very engaging insight into the latest trends in the discipline of evolutionary biology. However, the author kept on filing fact after fact about numerous animals and species and was not really able to string the cited cases into a very coherent narrative. Good effort, though. I'm hoping his next book would be more focused and conclusive.
Richard Jr.
Professor Losos has done a very interesting job of trying to elucidate historical and modern convergent evolution studies and experiments in a manner that the layperson can understand based on some excellent examples, many of which have been known and available for study for a good p0rtion of the 19th and 20th centuries. As a Biologist and educator I found the entire book to be full of the kind of examples that would be extremely helpful to the professional teacher to bring variety and interest ...more
Breck
Apr 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book. It focuses on the some of the latest research in the field of evolutionary biology. One of the main topics is live experiments being done to watch evolution unfolding. For example, one experiment involved building several large pools and filling them with guppies, then changing the environment of each and observing how quickly they adapt to the new environment, becoming camouflage due to predators or more colorful in the absence of predators. A lot of the experiments ...more
Benjamin Horton
Dec 01, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Improbable Destinies is a book of formidable scope, which makes its keen focus on the question at hand all the more impressive. Losos begins by setting out the two main sides of the argument at hand: that evolution is unpredictable and the current crop of life on earth is the result of chance (espoused by Stephen Jay Gould) and that evolution tends to converge on a few select outcomes, and our existence is inevitable (advocated by Simon Conway Morris.) He then spends two chapters examining ...more
Alex Shrugged
Although not as good (in terms of writing) as Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, it is still very good writing. This book is an evolution and paleontology update, and often refers to Gould's book, making corrections, challenging some of Gould's ideas especially the "rewind the tape" idea of running evolution again and watching what happens. Gould would say (if he were alive) that if we rewound the tape and let life evolve again it would evolve into ...more
Brasukra Sudjana
Aug 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
So this book proved my hypothesis that if that genetic mutation had happened in the brain of a duck, instead of a primate, homo sapiens would not be ruling the earth today. Instead it would have been Howard the Duck. OK, not really. But basically it's similar. For thousands of generations, mutation, natural selection, and adaptation would produce what scientists call "convergent adaptive evolution" - similar anatomical, genetic, or physiological features (mostly in the same species) that would ...more
J Earl
Nov 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: won, first-reads
In Improbable Destinies Jonathan B. Losos explains in very clear terms and with wonderful examples the strengths and weaknesses of both convergent and contingent approaches to evolution. To be more specific, he explains why neither serves as a singular explanation.

Either idea, taken as THE driving idea behind the results of evolution, has too many holes. One idea a researcher I know thinks is that (forgive my explanation, I am not an expert in the field) contingency rules the day early in a
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