Reinventing Darwin:
The Great Evolutionary Debate

Niles Eldredge

Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Readers of popular works on evolution by Gould and Dawkins can be forgiven for wondering if they are talking about the same thing: they seem at times to be not so much arguing against each other as simply ignoring one another. In Reinventing Darwin Eldredge approaches the subject rather differently, tackling head-on the most prominent debates within evolutionary biology. He takes as his starting point the invitation back to the "High Table" extended to paleontologists by John Maynard Smith: on one side of the table he sits the "Ultra-Darwinians", on the other the "naturalists". Eldredge himself sits with the latter (he was, after all, coauthor with Gould of the original punctuated equilibrium paper) and he doesn't hide his own opinions. His tone is collegial rather than polemical, however, and he listens to the arguments coming from the other side of the table.

After the table is set, Reinventing Darwin serves up as entree a history of twentieth century evolutionary theory and a brief introduction to the concepts of natural selection, adaptation, and cladistics. Chapters three to five are the macroevolutionary main courses: stasis and gradualism; punctuated equilibrium, species definitions, and speciation; and species sorting, the connection with ecology, and mass extinctions. Chapter six considers the evolution of large, complex systems and introduces Eldredge and Salthe's idea of dual genealogical and economic hierarchies (at a rather more accessible level than their original paper on the subject). For dessert we have an overview of sociobiology and the successes, failures, and paradoxes of Ultra-Darwinism.

Eldredge lacks the literary and rhetorical flourishes of a Gould or a Dawkins, but in many ways that is an advantage: I think he offers a better insight into what is at stake in current debates within evolutionary biology than either. He also conveys the excitement of a discipline in which many interesting theoretical questions remain unanswered. Reinventing Darwin is a veritable feast for anyone interested in evolution.

December 1996

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%T Reinventing Darwin
%S The Great Evolutionary Debate
%A Eldredge, Niles
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%D 1995
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0297816039
%P xi,244pp