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

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  847 ratings  ·  122 reviews
A major new book 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
Kindle Edition, 382 pages
Published August 8th 2017 by Riverhead Books
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Jan 08, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love books about science that are written by scientists in the field, especially when they can write well. This means that not only are their books informative--that is the bare minimum--but they also have a fun attitude, and they put the reader into the story of their investigations. Well, this book by Jonathan Losos does exactly that. While he gives the reader all the background story of what other scientists have done, he also conveys all the starts and stops and challenges that he faced wh ...more
Brian Clegg
Aug 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 com
Dec 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Our ideas about evolution are constantly changing as we learn more. Losos starts off by discussing Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould in which he argued for the dominating importance of historical contingency in evolution. IOW, exact events & their order determine how an organism evolves & he thought that we, homo sapiens, were highly unlikely. Losos seems to disagree, but spends quite a bit of the book showing examples of convergent evolution. Towar ...more
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 yo
Carl Zimmer
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 e
Chantal Lyons
Jun 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"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 th
Peter Tillman
The Inquisitive Biologist wrote:
"Improbable Destinies is a splendid piece of science writing that I can highly recommend. If the question this book poses sounds even remotely interesting, you should do yourself the pleasure of reading it."
His review is first-rate, and Prof. Losos's book caught my attention from the opening pages. High hopes he can keep it up!

He could. Now, let's see if I can distill my 6 pages of notes into something coherent. But my botto
May 27, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Steven Peterson
Dec 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an intellectually exciting book. The author begins by looking to Stephen Jay Gould's book on the Burgess Shale as a takeoff point. Gould argued that evolution would go one time--and another way another time even if circumstances were similar. Each evolutionary path by a species would be unique.

His own graduate research suggests that that is not an immutable expectation. As his studies continued and as he addressed ongoing research, he found a number of things. For one, under similar circ
Susan Cejka
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Vincent Poirier
Nov 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. Evol
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 strik
Mar 28, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
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 pop-sc ...more
Craig Werner
Mar 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 evol
Dec 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely amazing!! So so so interesting and I learned so much.
Apr 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 o
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.

Jan 11, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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 la ...more
Kimberly  Edwin
Sep 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
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
sarah bybee
Apr 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
was going with 3.5 stars until the conclusion when Losos mentioned perry the platypus. instant boost to four.
on that note, the author questions if perry is introspective, to which i would argue yes, citing my evidence as that song 'when we didn't get along' and the whole episode with the peter the panda debacle.
as for the actual book though, really solid if you're into evolution or whatever. or if you're not. i read some of the Real Published Science Papers mentioned in this book for my evolutio
Jente Ottenburghs
Wonderful book about the predictability of evolution. The book centers around the debate between Stephen Jay Gould and Conway Morris. In his book "Wonderful Life" Gould argued that life would look completely different if we replayed the tape. Humans will probably not evolve. Morris, on this other hand, argued that the evolution of humans is inevitable and used the widespread occurrence of convergent evolution as main argument. In this book, Jonathan Losos explores this question using the latest ...more
Dec 28, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A unusual book

As evolutionary books go , this one was very wide ranging. From lizards to rodents to e.coli to the Platypus. Convergent Evolution and Punctuated Equilibrium are treated as equals and yet some how deficient as explanations for Evolution . Indeed I was left wondering.
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.
Nov 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 firs
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 n
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Losos' book is a great example of how a complex topic can be brought to a general audience in an exciting writing style, accompanied by beautiful illustrations. Having a background in evolutionary biology myself, I am probably not the best person to tell how accessible the book is, but my feeling was very positive.
I loved discovering all the examples and counterexamples of convergent evolution. There is obviously still a lot to learn on the topic and there will certainly never be a clear-cut ans
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 problem ...more
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57 likes · 15 comments
“It turns out that Darwin and a century of biologists following him were wrong in one key respect: evolution does not always plod along at a snail's pace. When natural selection is strong—as occurs when conditions change—evolution can rip along at light speed.” 1 likes
“This is where the debate between contingency and determinism becomes personal. If we can predict not only when rapid evolution will occur, but what form it will take, we will be able to derive general principles and thus be better positioned to respond effectively. But if each case of rapid evolution is contingent on the specific circumstances, then we'll have to start from scratch each time we face a new weed, pest, or disease, figuring out how our evolutionary foe is adapting and what we can do about it.” 0 likes
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