Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Darwin: Discovering the tree of life – Niles Eldredge ****

There have been a lot of books about Charles Darwin – some would say far too many. In fact, Darwin probably puts even Einstein in the shade in the way his life and work have been pulled to pieces, reassembled and made to mean pretty well anything the writer had in mind. Given this context, you have to be very brave (or foolish) to write a new Darwin book, and a very good writer to make it worth reading. Luckily for us, Niles Eldredge delivers a book that is both readable and enlightening with something new to say.
His style, though filled with scholarly authority, is very reader-friendly; this is a book you can enjoy reading, which is particularly surprising as it is to some extent tied in to an exhibition, usually the death knell for any readability in a book. Eldredge begins by giving us a thumbnail sketch of Darwin’s life, bringing in some interesting details and including poignant family photographs. He then expands on Darwin’s period of change from the creationist views he held as he departed on the Beagle to the evolutionary views that were already forming on his return five years later.
What is fascinating here is the way Eldredge analyzes the scientific process, itself in a state of evolution. During Darwin’s time there was a major change from the slightly naive approach espoused by Francis Bacon of induction from nature to the more modern approach of hypothesis, deduction from that hypothesis and test of the deductions against reality.
What enables Eldredge to get such a rich insight into the workings of Darwin’s mind is a detailed study of his notebooks, not always first hand by Eldredge, but taking as much as possible from the thoughts and ideas that Darwin captured in his many, straggling personal texts.
To traditionalist evolutionary biologists, Eldredge is something of a heretic, responsible with Steven J. Gould for the “punctuated equilibrium” theory that suggests that evolution is not a smooth process of constant change, but rather (at least in geological timescales) a process with long periods of very little change, interrupted by sudden, relatively quick developments. Although this book isn’t about this theory, he makes a very telling point how the reaction of many evolutionary biologists reflects the way geology moved from a catastrophist approach (assuming geological changes were typically like the biblical flood) to a gradual approach. Interestingly, modern geological thinking suggests things are less clear cut, more of a mix of the two with clear catastrophes happening, whether due to asteroid impact or hyper-volcanoes. It’s only a fervent support of faith in a theory over reasoning that results in the inability to consider the same possibility for evolution.
There is a section of the book that is perhaps too heavily dependent on analysis of notebooks for all but the determinedly bookish – you may wish to skim this – but later on Eldredge reverts to form and concludes with one of the best clarifications of why intelligent design isn’t a valid scientific hypothesis I’ve ever seen.
Eldredge does a good job all the way, never pushing his own theories too heavily. The book is glossy and a little on the big side (verging on being a coffee table volume in size), and perhaps could have been a little shorter – he does develop his arguments rather slowly, and a little repetitively – but overall it’s a welcome addition to Darwin literature, and well worth a look from anyone who wants to get beneath the traditional hagiography.
Review by Jo Reed

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