William Brown + Andrew C. Fabian (editors)

Cambridge University Press 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010 https://dannyreviews.com/
Darwin contains written versions of eight public lectures given in 2009 at Darwin College, Cambridge, on Darwin's influence, the reception of his ideas, and applications and aspects of modern evolutionary biology.

With a distinguished set of contributors, writing for a general audience, it is an attractive and approachable collection. It suffers the common problem of such collections, however, in being rather unfocused. Categorising them rather roughly, three of the essays are on Darwin's influence and the reception of his ideas, three present ideas from rather different areas of modern biology, and the others offer perspectives from philosophy and economics.

Biographer and historian of science Janet Browne looks not at Darwin's life but at how other biographers have approached that over the last one hundred and fifty years. Starting with Darwin's own autobiography and his son Francis Darwin's Life and Letters, "there have been around 30 or so biographical studies of Darwin". Browne examines the different ways these address Darwin's intellectual development, and the insight this provides into the worlds of the biographers.

In "Global Darwin" historian James Secord covers two topics related to "communication". The first is the background to The Origin of Species, in Erasmus Darwin's work and in the controversial Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation of 1844. The second is the immediate reception of The Origin of Species, where Secord touches on details of its translation, publication and reach outside the West, notably in China and the Islamic world. Following Dewey, he emphasizes the complexity and breadth of Darwin's ideas and the difficulty of summarising them.

On the broad topic of Darwin in the literary world, novelist Rebecca Stott can only tackle a few themes. She looks at the transmutation of form in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, Charles Dodgson's Alice in Wonderland and Edward Cooke's "Darwin Animals" and the dethronement of humanity from its privileged place in the universe in H.G. Wells. And she touches on "the entanglement of terror and beauty" and some poetry.

"By the second half of the twentieth century there are fewer Darwinian monsters about in British novels. There is a return to some kind of beauty and enchantment in the Darwinian vision — a return to a preoccupation with webs and networks and what we would call the entangled bank not of human-animal kinship but of mutual dependency"

Geneticist Steve Jones argues that human evolution is drastically slowing, due to decreasing variation — a "Grand Mediocrity" — in survival and reproductive success and to faster and better mixing of populations.

"Darwin's grand factory for improbability is running low on fuel: and as long as the modern world remains a relatively comfortable and sexually calm place, its capacity will remain a shadow of what it once was."

Sean B. Carroll explores how molecular genetics has changed our understanding of evolution. He considers as case studies the adaptations of icefish in Antarctic waters, rock pocket mice in the south-western United States, and changes in eye function accompanying a shift to darker habitats.

Craig Moritz and Ana Carolina Carnaval look back to Darwin and Wallace's central biogeographical insights. They then present some current work that uses process-based models to predict biodiversity from climatic and geographical data, along with examples from the Australian wet tropics and the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil.

Economist Paul Seabright presents some sociobiology, looking at stress, life-cycle energy transfers and homicide rates in hunter-gatherers and chimpanzees. This has some interesting material but also displays the common problems of the genre, with some appeals to "common sense" and plausibility rather than actual evidence. ("Among the pressure that led to the evolution of human beings with large enough brains to be able to learn, the reward of hunting was obviously one of the leading factors.") He also touches on sexual selection and on Darwin's views on race and sex.

John Dupré's chapter "Postgenomic Darwinism" might, as he himself suggests, better be titled "post-Darwinian genomics". It looks at some of the ways in which "evolutionary processes may be more diverse" than envisaged by Darwin or the neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis. These include lateral gene transfer and reticulation of the tree of life, cooperation and problems defining the "organism" or unit of selection, and the big bug-bear of "Lamarckian" evolution and epigenetic effects.

Separate references are provided for each essay but there's an integrated index for the volume. The latter seems unlikely to be useful and the title Darwin, while it follows a tradition of one word themes for the annual lecture series, is not particularly helpful either. Anyone with an interest in biology or the history of science is likely to find some of the essays it contains compelling, but the collection as a whole lacks any logical coherence and is too scattered to have an obvious audience.

There's no independent (paper) publishing format of the right size, so essays of this length are dependent on finding themselves in the right collection. In this case the whole is not mightier than its parts, and the individual essays in Darwin are effectively crippled by their bundling and unlikely to reach anything like their potential audience.

Note: this is a preprint of a review to appear in Systematic Biology.

December 2010

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%T Darwin
%E Brown, William
%E Fabian, Andrew C.
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2010
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780521131957
%P 210pp