Saturday, June 20, 2009

Review of Why Evolution is True By Jerry A. Coyne

Review of Why Evolution is True
By Jerry A. Coyne
Review by C. Paula de los Angeles

Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
–Michael Shermer

Out of all the books on Darwin and evolution I have read this quarter, a University of Chicago biology professor’s, Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True has been my favorite. Opening with the above quote, everything about this book was elegant and tight—the writing, the explanations, the questions asked and answered. The student of both leading biologists Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould, Coyne provides a comprehensive and convincing dissertation on why evolution is true, science-that’s explained-in-a-way-that’s-easy-to-understand included. In a way, Why Evolution is True is an updated Origin, with all the recent developments in biology filled in—the new fossils, the population genetics, the evolutionary developmental biology; it’s all there.

My two favorite chapters were 1) Chapter Three, Remnants: Vestiges, Embryos, and Bad Designs and 2) Chapter Eight, What about us?. The former explains how the imperfect designs of humans and animals do not lend credence to an Intelligent Designer, or watchmaker in the words of antecedent theological William Paley. He cites ostriches that can’t fly, the human tial or coccyx, and pseudogenes like GLO, which doesn’t allow humans to make vitamin C, though most primates and guinea pigs can. The latter chapter proposes that evolution may still be in action, humans are evolving, citing the variable ability to digest lactose across human populations and drug resistance as examples. In an explanation of race, Coyne argues, the presence of different races in humans shows that our populations were geographically separated long enough to allow some genetic divergence to occur.

What is most compelling is Coyne’s logic and attitude. Though he seems frustrated that we still have to convince the public of “why evolution is true”, 150 years after natural selection was proposed by Darwin, he is patient with the reader. Coyne is enthusiastic and is able to explain the biology, the science, and its importancein a simple and elegant way. For Darwin, the scientists, and every individuals, evolution matters. To the body of literature, popular science, and research on evolution, Why Evolution is True matters.

Review of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882 by Charles Darwin Edited by Nora Barlow

Review of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882
By Charles Darwin, Edited by Nora Barlow

-Review by C. Paula de los Angeles

In her edited version of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow, granddaughter of the legendary Charles Darwin, revives sections on religious and contemporary thinkers that two important women in his life, his wife and daughter, purposely censored due to the sensitivity and controversial nature of his religious views and thoughts on his still-living-at-the-time contemporaries. What Barlow’s edition adds to the previous incomplete ones is a compelling introduction on context, the evolution of the editions, and the reason for previous exclusion of these sections, restoration of sections that were once thought to be potentially harmful to the family patriarch’s reputation, detailed footnotes on historical and social context, and appendices including importance correspondence letters concerning life events, including the initial disapproval of Darwin’s plea to go on the Beagle by his father as well as the Butler controversy. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin is great for learning more about Darwin’s personality rather than the gravity and details of his body of scientific work.

Originally written in 1876 at the ripe old age of 67, Darwin’s autobiography is a well-thought over self-reflection of the life of a scientist and shy recluse. Filled with tales of awe of nature, boyhood academic troubles, and scientific discovery, this autobiography is intended for the private audience of his family. It is clear that Darwin wants his children and grandchildren to remember him as an exceedingly scientific man, who was loving, but often kept to himself. The reader must be careful of the assumptions that are made when one writes a memoir of himself with a specific intended audience; an autobiography reveals how he views himself and how he wants to be remembered.

As goes his reputation and evidenced by this work, Darwin was first and foremost, a scientist. In his autobiography, we see the beginnings of his empirical explorations of nature from his boyhood appreciation of beetles to his collection of animal and plant species aboard the HMS Beagle to his later extensive document of Cirripedia. From his personal writings surrounding the publication of his scientific ideas, a humble and thankful Darwin emerges. In explaining the reception of On the Origin of Species, his seminal work, Darwin thanks fellow contemporary thinkers and friends, Lyell, Hooker, and Wallace for their contributions. To me, this was somewhat conflicting with the Darwin that wrote the introduction to the On the Origin of Species, who was often reluctant to cite potential competitor scientists or family members as influencing his thoughts.

However, this edition of the autobiography made me more excited about two other aspects of Darwin’s life: 1) the women in it and 2) his views on religion. Young Charles’ first memory involves sitting on the knee of his sister Caroline and being cut accidentally by her. Often recalling memories together, Darwin was clearly close to his sisters. Another possible influential womanly figure in his life seems to be his late mother, who he does not remember much of, except for her black dress in death or his mom’s saying that she would only ask him to do things that would be good for him. The citing the death and absence of his mother numerous times leaves the reader wondering about the effect of this event on Darwin. Moreover, Darwin’s love for his wife, Emma Wedgwood is endearing and brings out the loving husband and wife in Darwin. He speaks lovingly and appreciative of her and takes the time to discuss religion, a topic of genuine concern for Emma. Women who are notably missing detail or mention at all in this autobiography include his beloved daughter Annie, who died at a young age.

Barlow’s edition of the autobiography is most strengthened by its addition of the previously omitted comments on religion. In it, Darwin is depicted as a man who cannot accept a divine design of nature, with his observations and empirical discoveries of nature and natural selection at work. Instead of focusing on critiquing a deity, he seems to bolster the importance of nature and natural selection. From his musings, it appears that Darwin did not just jump to the conclusion that there is not a divine maker in the sense of the Bible immediately, but came to this realization after extensive observations and reflections on the empirical data.

The society the people within it that Darwin describes serve as a way for the reader to learn about the historical and social climate at the time of his work. It is quite shocking that Darwin’s theory continues to be debatable although the environmental climate today is more religiously critical and scientifically based than the one of his day. While this autobiography does a great job developing the persona of Darwin for the reader, its brevity does not do his scientific theory justice, with only brief mention or summary of his ideas. Perhaps this is fitting to a familial audience, but for aspiring and critical scientists, his treatises including On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man may be more useful.

Review of Janet Browne's Darwin's Origins of Species

Review of Darwin’s Origins of Species: Books that Changed the World
By Janet Browne

Review by C. Paula de los Angeles

As the foremost historian on scientist and evolutionary thinker Charles Darwin, Janet Browne successfully writes an accessible and vivid “biography”, or account of the past and continued development of the man’s most influential work On the Origin of Species, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, first published in 1859. Her book adequately fits the niche of a “popular science” type novel, great for an introduction to the topic or overview of general ideas.

In this straight-forward, elegantly written historical biography, Browne documents not only the history of Origin, but of Darwin as well. Structurally, the book is divided into five sections, beginning with Darwin’s childhood, then a discussion of the influential ideas, then the publication, then the controversy surrounding the publication, and most uniquely, a section on the legacy of the scientific treatise. Throughout these sections, Browne does a fine job balancing the narrative of Darwin, such as the anecdote involving chemistry labs and his brother, Erasmus, with an explanation of the scientific ideas, such as the explanation of Lyell, and then Darwin’s gradualism.

What is most noticeable and influential in the environment that Janet Browne paints Darwin growing up is the Victorian society, in which “apes or angels, Darwin or the Bible” and revolution were the questions of the day, and other great thinkers (the work of his contemporaries and predecessors significantly influence his thinking, often making it difficult to understand why Darwin was unique and not just an extension of previous thoughts), such as Lyell and Marx. Origin was received during a time when big questions were being asked, and it seemed to provide an answer that not everyone was ready for yet. In fact, on some questions, Darwin was noticeably silent, in particular he avoided the discussion of human origins and of divine presence in the natural world.

One of the Browne’s greatest strengths is to compare Darwin and Darwin’s work with other contemporary thinkers and their ideas. For example, Browne’s comparison of anonymous author Robert Chambers of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Darwin of Origins in the second section highlighted not only the need for Darwin to acknowledge the influences of other great thinkers of his time, but also his ability to also be highly critical of them in order to make his own work better, “obsessively, he began to build up his own edifice of dependable factual information that would be so much admired when he eventually published Origin of Species, and which life his book far above the ordinary”.

Browne made numerous observations that were especially interesting to me. For one, she discusses the difficulty of vocabulary that Darwin encountered in writing his work, “the language he had to hand was the language of Milton and Shakespeare, steeped in teleology and purpose, not the objective, value-free terminology sought by science”, certainly factors that could influence the reception and perceived validity of his work. I also enjoyed her critical analysis of the structure of the book, offering an explanation for the “Difficulties of the theory” chapter that Darwin includes, one that she believes makes the Origin an honest account. Having read from numerous other biographies that Emma, Darwin’s wife, was a great force in censoring some of his religious ideas, I was pleased to read that Emma helped with editing the book in a value-free way.

Overall, Browne paints an exceedingly positive picture of Darwin. Unlike the boy of childhood academic woes and troubles that we see in even his own autobiography, Browne describes Darwin’s studies at Edinburgh as such, “after a diligent start, sixteen-year-old Darwin found the realities of early nineteenth-century medicine upsetting. Two ‘very bad’ operations, one on a child, convinced him he would never make a doctor and he left in 1827”. In later chapters, she does not depict him as ambitious or competitive with other great thinkers, though other correspondences and works, have shown differently. While we may want to think of and worship Darwin as a heroic, all-good figure, this would be false adoration. More accurately, and perhaps more realistically, we should recognize Darwin as human, with faults and weaknesses just like the rest of us.

Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: Books That Changed the World is a well-written and well-rounded introductory book to the study of his life and major work, though suffers from an exceedingly positive picture and may leave readers thirsting for more about his scientific theory.

Review of David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin fills an interesting niche within Darwin biographies, falling somewhere in between the brevity of Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species and more comprehensive undertakings like Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin. Clearly drawing upon his skills as a popular science writer, Quammen’s candid and colored portrayal of Darwin is equal parts fascinating and divisive. While the narrative Quammen crafts is delightfully dense with Darwin’s idiosyncrasies and the various contexts surrounding the development of his work, his unapologetic interpretation of events may turn off some readers.

Quammen begins the book right after the Beagle voyage, dropping the reader into Darwin’s rush to situate his life in London. The first third of the book thus focuses on the interaction of the different factors that influenced the ideas eventually supporting the Origin of Species. Yet there are also plenty of details regarding the incubation of the ideas behind Darwin’s Origin of Species. He was consumed by meetings with Lyell and Gould to identify specimens from the voyage and working out concepts in his notebooks that would form the basis for his theories on transmutation and natural selection. His reading of Malthus provided Darwin with the key to evolution via natural selection, while his meetings with Joseph Hooker and Lyell gave him the confidence to tighten his ideas of transmutation. Quammen does a good job of balancing this narrative with glimpses into Darwin’s personal life; we see his rationality at work in his weighing of the pros and cons of marriage, as well as the common thread of genuineness that pervaded both his interactions with his wife Emma and his writing.

The middle third of the book is devoted mostly to the major points of contention regarding Darwin’s Origin of Species. Quammen’s commentary throughout is insightful but often inconsistent; his instincts as a popular science writer can be both a strength and a detraction. For example, his framing of the controversy between Wallace and Darwin works well, crafting a compelling underdog narrative that brings Darwin’s flaws regarding pride into sharp focus and provides the rationale for the kickstarting of the Origin. He also makes good points when trying to justify the twenty year gap between the start of writing and the Origin of Species, noting that it is not about which factors were most responsible but about how the factors interact.

Yet there are several instances where Quammen makes sensationalized assertions regarding Darwin’s life and detracts from the integrity of the narrative. His various discussions on the role of religion in Darwin’s life are certainly guilty of this. Quammen makes sure to emphasize the theme of religion’s incompatibility with Darwin’s work; even in the beginning Darwin is depicted leading a double life of subverting religion, working out his ideas in his “seditious notebooks.” It gets worse later on, when, in his analysis of the argument in the Origin of Species, he says that Darwin’s conception of evolution is not challenging the existence of God but the special status of man. It is a fascinating idea and true to some extent, but it does not warrant the undoing of the effort he spent to establish the incompatibility of Darwin’s ideas with religion. Such instances exemplify how Quammen’s flair for the dramatic can undermine a solid narrative.

The final third of the book finds Quammen rushing through the legacy of the Origin of Species and an overview of evolutionary biology. His survey of the Origin of Species wants to be too much for the space it is allotted; it wants to be critical and reverent but cannot pursue either to the fullest extent. The discussion of Mendel and evolutionary biology also seemed unfinished; while there is a good deal of background on Mendel’s experiments, Quammen skims over how Mendel’s work translated into the modern synthesis that revitalized Darwinism in the 20th century, offering instead a comprehensive but ultimately non-informative equivalent of a reading list.

Despite these shortcomings, Quammen does manage to craft a nuanced and intriguing portrayal of Darwin, acknowledging him as the genuine and benevolent man he was in his life and writings yet refusing to shy away from his flaws. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin provides an ultimately flawed but well-researched and accessible complement to the more neutral biographies available on Darwin. If you do decide to pick up this book, however, I would also recommend reading Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species, as it provides a more unbiased perspective on the events in Darwin’s life and fills in some of the time gaps left in Quammen’s book.

--Andrew Plan

Review of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin has rarely been bigger. In the midst of the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the Origin, there is little doubt as to the continued relevance of his ideas regarding evolution and natural selection. Yet a lot has changed since the original publication of the Origin; the advances made in the mid-20th century towards a modern synthesis connected Mendelian principles of inheritance to Darwin’s work thus bolstering the field of evolutionary biology. In light of such developments, the question remains: do Darwin’s ideas, in their original form, have any worth today? Can one still derive some sort of value from reading the Origin outside of pure historical value? I would argue yes. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a beautifully written and curiosity-packed piece of work; despite the aging of some of the ideas, just reading about how Darwin develops his careful argument for the validity of evolution is worth the price of admission.

The argument of the Origin, which is that species are not immutable and are subject to the laws of natural selection, can be thought of as divided into two parts. The first part of the argument, chapters 1 through 5, are the chapters in which Darwin sets up the guiding principles of his theory of evolution. He draws upon Malthusian principles to describe the struggle for existence that characterizes all life and how it necessitates the role of natural selection in favoring those individuals best adapted for the struggle. He also introduces the concept of inheritance of traits, as well as the laws of variation, both of which then play into Darwin’s own description of natural selection.

It is within this first part that Darwin establishes the basic pattern of his argument, which tries to mitigate the leap of faith readers at the time might have felt regarding evolution by arguing from the common towards the less common; Darwin uses common examples in everyday life to illustrate the viability of the largely unknown concepts that he introduces. For example, Darwin begins the Origin by discussing domestic breeding, man’s manipulation of variation by intentionally crossing different individuals within and between species. Darwin’s implicit assumption is that this is an example that has been acknowledged and seen as valid by most readers; from here he feels more comfortable then makes the transition from artificial selection to natural selection. It works; while the Origin in general requires a little bit of imagination to really understand the links Darwin makes, his unique brand of argument from example exemplifies how immediate and relevant the Origin feels when reading it, even today.

The second half of the Origin, in contrast, is an expansion of Darwin’s chapter of addressing difficulties; following chapter 6, the rest of the chapters mostly take one issue of contention that threatens the validity of Darwin’s argument – instinct, hybridization, the geological record, etc. – and systematically goes through and either disproves the relevance of the issue to Darwin’s theory or simply undermines the integrity of the issue. It is in this part of the Origin that Darwin becomes a bit uneven in terms of successfully addressing grievances; while certain issues like instinct are handled well and argued with fantastic examples (the instinct chapter in particular has really cool insights on the construction of honey comb by hive-bees), other issues, like the imperfection of the geological record, are more tenuous and see Darwin making riskier assertions. Darwin is no Lyell when it comes to discussing geology, yet he still manages to criticize the integrity of the field thoroughly in the quest to defend his theory of evolution. Overall, however, the second half of the book has many fascinating insights into how Darwin worked around the limitations of arguing with only the evidence of natural history to go off of, reinforcing the validity of the principles of evolution introduced in the first half of the book.

Despite the imperfections in Darwin’s argument, On the Origin of Species is a remarkable and well-structured account of how the evidence for evolution is all around us. While other scientists and theorists may have had the benefit of advances in evolutionary biology in explaining and justifying evolution to the masses, few of them have the mainstream accessibility and reverence for nature that Darwin brings to his nuanced writing and argumentative skills. So do pick up the Origin sometime and read it – not as some extended scientific dissertation, but as the account of a man genuinely awestruck by nature and understanding of the ways in which it works. Darwin’s ideas as purported in the Origin may not be completely right anymore, but they will always have value in their capturing of what it means to live in a world governed by evolution, and the liberation that comes with it.

--Andrew Plan

Review of Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography

Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species is an unusual Darwin biography in that it is as much about the the Origin of Species and its impact as it is about the author himself. Browne is out to convince the reader that the creation and publication of the Origin is the tale of the modern world coming into existence. A lofty goal, indeed, but Browne pulls it off wonderfully, crafting a thorough and concise account of the history of the ideas behind Darwin’s seminal work while maintaining a neutral yet impassioned voice.

Browne’s book is very much the story of Darwin’s world and the Origin’s role in leading it into modernization. 19th century English society was unabashedly Victorian and increasingly industrialized. This environment of transition was ripe for the introduction of Darwin’s ideas, as both shared the mantras of specialization, diversification, and improvement. Religion, while a crucial pillar of Darwin’s society at the time, was being chipped away by an emerging contingent of philosophers questioning the validity of the Old Testament and creationism. The Origin-centric approach to this particular Darwin biography gives the book a great amount of focus. Details in Darwin’s early life that seem cobbled together in other Darwin biographies come together in fascinating ways when discussed in context of the Origin, effectively showing how Darwin’s life influenced the creation of the Origin. The book begins by retracing Darwin’s upbringing as part of the financially secure intelligentsia of Britain before moving on to Darwin’s formative years at Cambridge. During that time he cultivated his love for geology and encountered the pervasive influence of theology, two influences that repeatedly show up in the Origin. Similarly, Browne elaborates on the voyage on the Beagle’s merits as a character-building experience, allowing Darwin to develop the independence and his observation skills as a naturalist later needed to flesh out the nuances of the Origin.

This focus extends to the middle chapters of the book, where Browne summarizes the literature regarding the development, publication, and argument of the Origin. She hits all of the main points of contention, exploring the influence of Paley and Malthus while offering commentary on Darwin’s delay and the controversy regarding Alfred Wallace Russell. Her systematic reduction of the argument within the Origin is nicely done as well, breaking it down into its core principles of excessive numbers of very different offspring, the mechanism of natural selection, and the principle of divergence as well as addressing many of the common controversies surrounding the book like the rejection of the church and the lack of man’s special status.

Browne’s book is also notable for its distillation of the legacy of the Origin, offering a nicely condensed version of the key events that led Darwinism out of obscurity in the 20th century. During the late 19th and early 20th century Darwin’s ideas were countered by many scientists who found the paleontological evidence wanting, his ideas of selection incomplete. But there were scientists in the early 20th century that worked hard to draw the connections between Mendelian inheritance and Darwinian thought. In this regard Browne does a much better job than her contemporaries like Quammen in exploring the resurgence of Darwinism, detailing the role of Sewell Wright’s population genetics and G.G. Simpson’s explanation for the gaps in the fossil record in achieving the modern synthesis that arguably reshaped the field of biology into evolutionary biology.

Yet it is Browne’s reverent and accessible writing style that elevates her content above other Darwin biographies. Throughout the book she manages to maintain brevity while sacrificing very little in terms of intellectual integrity or sufficient exploration of key issues. Browne’s description of Darwin’s writing in the Origin as “dazzling, persuasive, friendly” very well applies to the quality of writing at work in her book. I was genuinely surprised by how much her passion for Darwin’s work contributed to her book’s readability, as it is a legitimate page-turner. Admittedly, this affectionate writing style also means that the rough edges of Darwin’s personality are smoothened over more than they should be, drawing attention away from the less savory personality tics like the pride that emerged in controversies like the Wallace publishing fiasco. But the reverence never crosses the line into idolatry; at the end of the day, Browne is just genuinely passionate about discussing Darwin’s contribution to the modernization of society and science, and the biography as a whole benefits greatly from it.

While other biographies may be more comprehensive or controversial, Browne’s considerable abilities as a writer and her undeniable admiration for Darwin makes this work a truly enjoyable read, regardless of prior knowledge of Darwin. As far as introductions go, Darwin’s Origin of Species is definitely the work to beat for anyone new to the life and works of Charles Darwin.

-Andrew Plan

Friday, June 19, 2009

Finch work pays off: the Grants awarded Kyoto Prize

Much congrats to Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have recently been awarded the 2009 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences. Aren't they cute? They're also the first husband-and-wife team to receive the prize...go marriage!

The Grants, who are both professors at Princeton, were recognized for their work on evolutionary adaptions as a reaction to enviromental change. They have spent 35 (!) years studying the finches that Darwin made famous in his trip to the Galapagos aboard the Beagle; their most significant study, published in 1996, showed how beak size and shape of ground finches changed within the course of a few generations as a result of the differing availability of different size seeds. Together, they have published over 200 papers and have recently published a book about their experience detailing the finches of the Galapagos, entitled How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin's Finches.

Their dedication to evolutionary biology is ridiculous, as the couple still makes yearly visits to the Galapagos to study finch morphology. The work has paid off though, as the general consensus in the scientific community is that evolutionary biology is closer to a stage where obtaining proof is tangible thanks to their long-term commitment to the field.

It's really nice to read a story like this, as it warms both the brain and the heart. I'm sure that the married life of two very prominent and busy scientists must be taxing to maintain and nurture, so I'm glad to hear that the Grants are not only making it work but are also able to accomplish extraordinary things in the field of evolutionary biology, which is an unenviable task in itself. Darwin would be proud.

Article link here:

-Andrew Plan