Friday, 10 December 2010

The Darwinian Tourist – Christopher Wills ****

Biologist Christopher Wills encourages us here to look at the living world from an evolutionary perspective, and to appreciate the extent to which evolution has shaped all of life. Seeing the world in the context of evolution, he argues, enhances the richness and our understanding of earth’s species and ecosystems, and the book takes us on a wide-ranging tour of nature, based on the author’s own travels, to illustrate this point.
We start by looking at the evolutionary processes which account for why individual species are the way they are, and how new species come into being. We go on to see how co-operation and symbioses between living organisms come about as a result of evolution. Later, we see how evolutionary processes have led to the huge diversity of life we find on earth, and how patterns of human migration have been shaped by, and have influenced, evolution.
Along the way, we also discover that an evolutionary perspective on the world helps us understand how to protect earth’s ecosystems. For example, in broad terms, the evolutionary processes that have shaped ecosystems have often led to there being a delicate balance between the numbers of living organisms that make up those systems. This balance can easily be disturbed, putting whole ecosystems at risk. But if we understand how evolution has created this situation, we are in a better position to preserve these balances, and can appreciate the need to be cautious when we interfere with ecosystems.
Wills mixes in amongst the science various personal stories whilst carrying out his research – such as, for example, where he gets caught up in an earthquake while studying life underwater – and these make the book highly readable. Also useful is the large number of photographs taken by the author of the landscapes and individual organisms being discussed, some very exotic, printed on the book’s glossy paper – there are photographs on probably close to half of the pages. Occasionally they can get in the way of the flow of the main text, but by and large, this does not happen, and many of the author’s photographs are captivating. They often highlight much better than text is able to the sometimes extraordinary adaptations species have evolved over time.
Given the large number of topics covered, there are inevitably occasions where the author moves a little too quickly, and assumes a touch too much prior knowledge. But this never becomes a big problem.
Overall, the book conveys well the significant explanatory power of evolution, and the benefits of taking account of the lessons an evolutionary perspective on the world can teach us. Ultimately, it is hard to disagree with the author’s message, and I would highly recommend this book.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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