A flashy feast of loose change

April 17, 1998

The Darwin College lectures have been read to the public by captivating, popular, academic speakers in a weekly series early each year since astronomer Andrew Fabian instituted them a decade ago. This book, edited by Fabian, was compiled for those of us who - had we been near Cambridge University in the spring of 1995 - would have enthusiastically attended these presentations. An appetising smorgasbord, appropriately thin, this collection of essays idiosyncratically and liberally permits each of its unconnected authors to interpret the term "evolution" as he wishes. To a biologist, claims Fabian, evolution "simply means genetic evolution". To others, including those who distinguish "revolution" from "evolution", the word means "change, or unfolding with time".

Given this kind of latitude, the eight chapters predictably reflect the preoccupations, scope and academic training of each contributor. Yet surprises abound. Fabian states in his introduction what became painfully obvious to this reader: "There is no intention that the authors should know what the others have said or written". This hands-off policy seems to me an error of judgement; the book would have benefited from some attempt at integration rather than the simple paraphrased summaries that were, most likely, lifted directly from the blurbs announcing the lectures. We would then have had more of a concerto, rather than these eight flashy encores.

Darwin was faced with the traditional problem of the anglophone world: how to explain the glories of adaptation of live beings to their appropriate environments? Stephen Jay Gould's erudite analysis takes a twist as it looks at Darwin's English naturalist predecessors, especially Robert Boyle's 1688 work. Boyle's "clockwinder God" created the world's great laws and hurled the globe on its preordained course, forging "a beautiful harmony between serious belief and untrammelled science". By tracing the English adaptationist tradition from before Darwin to Richard Dawkins-style "ultra-Darwinism" and beyond, Gould shows that the old tendency to clothe the messiness of biology with convenient theological slip-covers is still with us today. To me, Gould's temporally broad analysis of the English evolutionary thought-style is a fascinating and appropriate critique of the roots of evolution literature.

Lewis Wolpert, on an entirely different tack, suggests that an environmentally produced effect or signal became, in evolutionary time, a developmental cue. Nearly all of his examples are drawn from animal embryos of the deuterostome sort. Although, of course, his choices represent the chordate chauvinism of human vertebrates, I was very glad to have this succinct and comprehensible essay in a field I seldom read. Perhaps here we must give credit to Fabian for apt heavy-handedness. In not permitting the publication of "jargon science" and rejecting arguments based on faith or on obscure academic authorities, the editor has maintained a uniformity of standard prose and comprehensibility in each of the fields that make these potentially arcane essays, like that of Wolpert, a pleasure to read.

"The evolution of guns and germs" by Jared Diamond is my favourite essay (along with Freeman Dyson's scientific vignettes described below). Why are hamburgers, Coca-Cola and blue jeans for sale in the South Pacific and Amazonia whereas hardly any of us can even name one of the hundreds of languages spoken by the Stone Age New Guinea tribesmen with whom Diamond has worked for 30 years? Does the enormous spread of so-called western European civilisation simply imply that Europeans (and their relatives, the United Statesians) are superior to Australian, South American, African and New Guinea aboriginals? Diamond emphatically denies that "we" and "our children" are more intelligent. Indeed he claims that "most European children today suffer from the crippling developmental disadvantage of spending much of their time being passively entertained by radio, television and movies while traditional New Guinea children spend all of their waking time talking or otherwise active with other children and adults." He goes on to explain both proximate and ultimate reasons for the enormous extension of our culture, our accoutrements and technologies. His argument, based on evolution - chiefly over more than 10,000 years of plant and animal domestication - makes sense.

Richard Rogers (who as Lord Rogers of Riverside apparently needs no crutch of academic affiliation as all the others do), analyses the evolution of the city of London. His description of the relentless changes along the Thames must surely be sobering, especially for those of us used to geological timescales. His analysis ends in a call for action. We should invest in and provide resources to what some might agree is the greatest city in the world so that it and other British cities can "regain control of their evolution and destiny".

Tim Ingold ("The evolution of society") traces the difference in logic and emphasis there might have been if phrases such as Spencer's "survival of the fittest" and Darwin's "natural selection" had been replaced with "DWM", short for "descent with modification". He hoists neo-Darwinian academics on their own petards when he raises the ugly issue of the uniqueness of man. We, all of us Homo sapiens in modern society, cannot both have gradually changed in response to the environments faced by our apish and our hunter-gatherer predecessors and also (according to the "neo-Darwinian orthodoxy") have pre-specified inborn human capacities "by virtue of some innate endowment that every individual receives at the point of conception". Ingold points to the idea of DNA specification of the whole organism as "one of the great delusions of modern biology". At moments like this in the book one wishes that Fabian had encouraged dialogue instead of adopting laissez-faire.

Gillian Beer's "Evolution of the novel", although a charming contribution that has something to say about Jane Austen, Tarzan, Theodore Dreiser, Miguel Cervantes, Jack London's Before Adam, Jenny Diski (author of a 1994 book Beer highly praises, Monkey's Uncle), and many others in the orbit of literature, has little, if anything, to do with the theme of the book, evolution. Perhaps, aware of this, she includes Darwin as a "relevant" author, because "Darwin's writing always shakes loose from reductionism".

Freeman Dyson, in his inimitably wise and well-written way, really does enlighten us about the "evolution of science". He takes large exception to the Thomas Kuhnian idea of "concept-driven scientific revolutions" and points out, from his own experience, some little-known and fascinating examples of scientific revolutions that owe a great deal to the invention of new tools. May one example, that of the Vela Hotel satellites, suffice here. Beginning in the national laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, these satellites were designed to verify compliance with the limited test-ban treaty of 1963. Equipped with gamma-ray detectors, they were slated to work all the time, especially to monitor, from at least four separate points, upper-atmosphere or near-earth-orbit nuclear explosions in space. The Vela Hotel instruments, arising from the nuclear weapons culture, were designed to be deployed far beyond geosynchronous orbit and to have "absolute accurate timing".

In Dyson's words, although "the gamma ray detectors never detected any bomb tests", they must be credited as ancestors of the "Compton gamma-ray observatory now orbiting over our heads". Like many an animal organ or cell organelle that evolves a new capability under identifiable selection pressure, the Vela Hotel gamma-ray detectors became ideally suited to a function for which they were never designed. They revealed the gamma-ray universe by detecting signals that had no known human or astronomical source; an active universe that was so unexpected and weird that the scientists who first saw - and kept seeing - the gamma-ray bursts, delayed publishing their findings. For ten years, and to no avail, these astronomers sought correlations between the gamma-ray bursts and known astronomical phenomena. Dyson's stories - probably because they are told from the vantage print of his enormous personal experience - continue to delight the reader.

For those of us interested in the obscurities of the cosmos, its gravity and thermodynamic behaviour, but who have neither inclination, time nor training to peruse the abstruse language and mathematics of cosmology, Martin Rees's chapter, "Evolution of the Universe", is a good fit. We learnt of a paradox: the weaker the weak force of gravity is, the grander and more complex can be its consequences.

Fabian has put together a fine spread, though not one that is particularly held together by Darwinian, cosmic or other forms of evolutionary change through time. Each of the eight chapters has no better logic for its inclusion than the competence, cleverness and high standing of its author, yet this turns out to be reason enough to read them.

Lynn Margulis is professor in the department of geoscience, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, United States.

Evolution: Society, Science and the Universe

Editor - Andrew C. Fabian
ISBN - 0 521 57208 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 179

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