Evolution has nothing to do with progress. Most evolution doesn’t even have anything to do with adaptation, and it is perfectly possible for a change that is worse than useless to spread through a population. Paradoxically, however, such non-adaptive change may be a necessary prelude for major adaptations.
This post was inspired by a recent opinion piece (open access here1) in BMC Biology, entitled “Splendor and misery of adaptation, or the importance of neutral null for understanding evolution” (I will explain what “neutral null” means later). The paper itself is in parts highly technical, with 86 references to the original scientific literature, but I will try here to give a general overview of some of the main conclusions, and to place them in context.
Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution – Dobzhanski, American Biology Teacher, 1973
Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics – Lynch, PNAS, 2007
Darwin and Wallace both thought that evolution was driven by selection. If so, then whenever we find a feature in an organism, Read the rest of this entry
There is now a second edition of Evolution: Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen, one of the very few textbooks I have come across that can be read for pleasure. Much as I deplore the US textbook publishers’ practice of issuing a new edition every very few years, this means that the first edition, which came out in 2013, is going to be available very cheaply for all of us who aren’t using it for of course credit and can tolerate the occasional underlining. Carl Zimmer (whose formal university education was in English, at Yale) is one of our most engaging current writers on evolution, and if you have not yet subscribed to his blog, The Loom, I urge you to do so. Douglas Emlen’s lab website clearly shows his passion for sharing the excitement of evolution science, and I have already reviewed his award-winning book Animal Weapons.
For much younger readers, the PDF of Jonathan Tweet’s Grandmother Fish, which I have also reviewed, is available as a free download, which qualifies it for a mention here. The physical copy, beautifully produced and printed, is now available in the US from Amazon, and I have advised Jonathan to look for a UK distributor. Answers in Genesis concedes that “the author and illustrator do a good job of simplifying evolution through words and pictures and using terminology that is kid-friendly,” so that “it is exactly those points that make the book so deceptive.” As most readers will realise, “deceptive”, as used by Answers in Genesis, is a technical term meaning “a good argument against Young Earth creationism”. I congratulate Jonathan on having earned this accolade.
At one time, I got interested in the seemingly simple question (to which I might well return one day) of whether zebras are horses that have acquired stripes, or horses are zebras that have lost them. Stephen J Gould, it turned out, had written a perceptive essay on this very topic in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. When I went looking for this volume, I found out to my surprise that I could get hold of it, and many others in Gould’s magnificent series of essays, for pennies plus postage. (Here, one good search strategy is to start with Amazon, look for the “From” options, and then, where possible, contact the sellers directly. That way, I help the independents stay independent. For UK readers, I would also recommend searching Abe Books, although I was saddened to learn that they too are part of Amazon; I would be happy to learn of other equivalents).
Finally, most obviously, and still greatly underused even by professionals, the huge reservoir of literature available for free download in a wide variety of formats. This resource could be, and should be, even more valuable, but is limited by outrageous copyright restrictions; for no reason I can tell other than the special interest of Disney Corporation, the copyright on a work now only lapses 70 years after its creator’s death. So JBS Haldane’s seminal 1929 article The origin of life will not be out of copyright until 2034 (though if you can find it online, here for instance, you can get away with downloading a copy for individual study). And for Ernst Mayr’s 1923 paper on birds in Saxony, instrumental to his crucial redefinition of the species concept, you will have to wait until 2075, However, we have all the published works and much of the voluminous correspondence of Charles Darwin, to say nothing of TH Huxley, Charles Lyell (for all his writings, and for other seminal works on geology, many of them also available for free, see the Geological Society’s Lyell Collection), James Hutton, and even William Jennings Bryan. Legal proceedings are also in the public domain, regardless of time. So what shall we say of scholars and commentators earnestly debating Darwin’s own views on religion, in evident ignorance of what he himself tells us on the subject, in his freely available and beautifully written Autobiography?
Look, see , enjoy.
h/t reader Gordon Drumond, for disillusioning me about Abe Books