, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 343–346

Nothing makes sense except in light of evolution

Sherrie Lyons: Evolution: The basics. London and New York: Routledge, 2011, 198pp, $90.00 HB, $19.95 PB


    • Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Utah
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s11016-012-9739-1

Cite this article as:
Zarpentine, C. Metascience (2013) 22: 343. doi:10.1007/s11016-012-9739-1

In the early 1970s, Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” Since that time, the influence of evolutionary theory has only expanded. In recent years, evolutionary thinking has spread beyond biology into fields as diverse as philosophy, economics, medicine and literary studies. This expansion has led some evolutionists to modify Dobzhansky’s dictum, asserting simply that nothing makes sense except in light of evolution. Whether you agree with this claim or not, students and scholars will find that Sherrie Lyons’ book Evolution: The Basics offers a compact introduction to evolutionary theory and the background necessary to discuss the import of evolutionary theory in their own field.

The surge of interest in Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution by natural selection that accompanied the 2009 bicentennial celebration of Darwin’s birth makes clear how much there still is to say about Darwin’s thought and its effect on the work that followed—indeed, it is no wonder that it is still referred to as Darwinian evolution. Understanding Darwin’s contributions is often essential to understanding subsequent theoretical developments. Introducing this background by integrating history and theory is among the greatest strengths of Lyons’ book. Evolution: The Basics weaves a lively and readable narrative that introduces key concepts and terminology of evolutionary theory. This book will be of use in any course or context in which the impact of evolution is debated.

The book begins by setting the stage for Darwin’s work. Chapter 1 includes a discussion of pre-Darwinian geology and fossils. Early evolutionary ideas, including Lamarck’s theory, are introduced, followed by a discussion of Natural Theology and William Paley’s argument from design. The first chapter is completed by a strong critical discussion of contemporary proponents of intelligent design and some brief remarks on the nature of science.

Chapter 2 places Darwin’s theory in historical context, tracing Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle, his discovery and development of the theory of natural selection through to the publication and reception of the Origin. It includes a helpful discussion of Charles Lyell’s geology as well as a sensitive account of Darwin’s observations of the tribes in Tierra del Fuego and his views on the races of man. A detailed exposition of the argument of the Origin is followed by a treatment of the subsequent debates over saltation and speciation. Here, Lyons’ own work on T. H. Huxley allows her to offer an insider’s view of these discussions.

The next chapter takes the reader from Darwin’s theory of pangenesis through the modern synthesis following the re-discovery of Gregor Mendel’s work in the early twentieth century. This chapter maintains the reader’s interest by mixing an account of Darwin’s observations of semi-autonomous polypi of coral and the rabbit blood-transfusion experiments of his cousin, Francis Galton, with exposition of cell division and Mendel’s pea plant experiments. T. H. Morgan’s work on Drosophila leads naturally into the development of population genetics and the publication of the “Columbia Classics” by Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, G. G. Simpson and G. Ledyard Stebbins—the architects of what Julian Huxley dubbed “the modern synthesis.”

Chapter 4 covers subsequent developments: the discovery of the structure of DNA and criticisms of the modern synthesis, including punctuated equilibrium and evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). This includes a helpful explanation of the basics of DNA transcription and replication. Nice discussions focused on the adaptive radiation of the cichlids in Lake Victoria and on Rosemary and Peter Grant’s work on Darwin’s finches add concrete examples of natural selection. A discussion of Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium also serves to introduce developments in paleontology pioneered by Dave Raup and Steven Stanley. This chapter concludes with a historical discussion of development and the re-thinking of homology brought about by evo-devo. While Lyons mentions the discovery of homeobox genes, including a discussion of some of the dramatic discoveries in this field would have added to the interest of this section.

Overall, the first one hundred pages, comprising Chapters 1–4, is an excellent account of the history and controversies of evolutionary theory from before Darwin right up to the present. These chapters cover an impressive range of topics and concepts without sacrificing clarity. The book continues with a chapter on human evolution and is concluded by two chapters covering a hodgepodge of issues ranging from the evolution of life and disease to evolutionary psychology, ethics and neurobiology.

Chapter 5 introduces T. H. Huxley’s work on humans and his famous debate with Bishop Wilberforce, as well as Alfred Russel Wallace’s early view on the evolution of humans and his later doubts about the power of natural selection to account for human intelligence, which prompted Darwin to write The Descent of Man. Lyons offers a detailed discussion of Darwin’s theory of the origin of the moral sense. In this chapter too, Lyons’ earlier work on T. H. Huxley brings much to the discussion.

This chapter also contains a nice discussion of paleontological and genetic evidence of the evolution of humans. The discussion of hominid fossils ranges from early discoveries of Homo erectus, through the work of Louis and Mary Leaky in the middle of the twentieth century, right up to the most recent additions: the hobbit (Homo floresiensis) and Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus). The chapter continues with an up-to-date account of Neanderthals and their disappearance and the molecular evidence favoring the Out-of-Africa hypothesis of human origins. It concludes with a discussion of the scientific promise and social perils of collecting indigenous DNA.

A chapter on the origins of life, microbial evolution and disease follows. While these issues do not necessarily fit together naturally, it is refreshing to see them covered in an introductory book. Theories of the emergence of life, though speculative, are extremely interesting, such as the possibility that DNA-based life evolved from earlier RNA-based life. Sequencing the genome of micro-organisms has led us not just to an appreciation of the prevalence of lateral gene transfer, but also to a re-thinking of the structure of the tree of life itself. Understanding disease from an evolutionary perspective is increasingly attracting attention in the biomedical community and raises previously unappreciated questions: Why does disease persist? Why is cancer not more pervasive than it is? Lyons highlights the advantages of this perspective discussing the Red Queen hypothesis, the evolution of sexual reproduction, and offering a brief case study of HIV. Her treatment offers readers a chance to get slightly ahead of the curve in an area of research that shows great promise.

The final chapter, “Humankind’s future: an evolutionary perspective” presents a discussion of various research aimed at understanding human behavior: sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics and neuropsychology. Beginning with a discussion of E. O. Wilson’s controversial Sociobiology and the critique registered by Gould and Richard Lewontin in the late 1970s, it continues to a critical discussion of evolutionary psychology. It proceeds to a brief discussion of the evolution of language and then to evolutionary ethics. This latter section considers W. D. Hamilton’s work on inclusive fitness and E. O. Wilson’s recent rejection of kin selection. The book concludes with discussions of the evolution of empathy, mirror neurons and speculations about the future of humanity.

The final chapter is perhaps the weakest, insofar as it can only hope to touch on a smattering of very interesting research in this vicinity. The section on evolutionary ethics considers none of the interesting recent work by philosophers, although its discussion of Huxley, Herbert Spencer and Peter Kropotkin does help to put contemporary debate in historical perspective. The discussions of empathy and mirror neurons tend toward sensationalism: while highlighting exciting discoveries, they do not adequately convey the controversy that exists in this area of research.

Lyons warns readers of the risk of social values influencing the study of human behavior and origins. However, while she is generally good about illustrating theoretical ideas with historical examples, her discussion here lacks a concrete demonstration of the hazards of such ideological influence. Similarly, in spite of pointing out the dangers of biological determinism by assuming a strong relation between genotype and phenotype, Lyons falls victim to similar simplifications. In her discussion of empathy, for example, she states: “It is hard-wired into us. We don’t decide to be empathic, we simply are” (175). Of course, this ignores the important role that social processes play in shaping such capacities.

Nevertheless, the issues covered in the final two chapters illustrate the way in which evolutionary theory has expanded over the last half century and no book that is as compact as this one could do justice to all of these. Lyons has produced a book that will be very useful in a world in which, increasingly, nothing makes sense except in light of evolution.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012