Thursday, 4 August 2011
Darwin's Ghost: The Origin of the Species Updated
Biologists have a dirty little secret: while practically everyone knows of The Origin of Species (and owes much to it), almost nobody has read it. British geneticist Steve Jones wants to make the arguments contained in that great text accessible to modern audiences, and succeeds with the delightful Darwin's Ghost. Approximating the structure of Darwin's opus, Jones uses the original chapter headings and summaries as a scaffolding to build an up-to-date demonstration of the power of a few simple ideas. Heredity, variation, and natural selection are all you need to infer evolution over time, and now that Jones can fill in the gaps in Darwin's pre-Mendelian understanding of genetics, the case becomes airtight. More than a polemic, though, Darwin's Ghost is nearly as pleasurable a read as its ancestor is--one suspects that part of Jones's mission is to inspire today's readers to turn back to the grand but humble Origin of Species. While he may not be able to quite match Darwin's vast erudition or hawk's eye for detail, he still makes the theory of evolution shudder and breathe on the page. Dog breeding, mass extinctions, and weird fossils of tiny elephants all march to his drumbeat and--just when you least expect it--return to the main point that all living things share a common ancestor. Whether you're one of the elite who's had the pleasure of Darwin's literary company or you'd like a taste of what you're missing, Darwin's Ghost will bring the spirit of the great man back into your world of ideas.