Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond, by Niles Eldredgeh

Simon Underdown on a tale of the development of evolutionary theory

March 12, 2015

Given that this is a book that deals with a scientific theory that has more than 150 years under its belt and shows no signs of being ephemeral, its title might seem an odd choice. But upon reflection perhaps not, as it represents the nature of evolution and the life it produces perfectly. Evolution as an explanation for life is as close to cast-iron as it gets in science (let’s not get bogged down in semantics over the use of the word “theory”), but life itself is fragility exemplified. Extinction is the fate of most, while survival is a constant struggle.

Biologist and palaeontologist Niles Eldredge is probably best known as one-half of the evolutionary double act, along with the late Stephen Jay Gould, that developed the model of “punctuated equilibria” in the early 1970s. Broadly speaking, this concept suggests that most species change very little for most of their existence (on a geological timescale), but when change does happen, it occurs very rapidly, and sprouts branches on the evolutionary tree that often include new species. Some researchers regard this concept as little more than a slight tweak to existing ideas, although this could not be described as the majority view. The work of Eldredge, and perhaps more so that of Gould, has influenced and shaped the research questions of a generation of evolutionary biologists.

In some ways the reader is left with the impression that Eldredge is looking to reaffirm his role in the development of evolutionary theory over the past 40 years. It’s all too easy to focus on the more famous Gould, whose popular writing turned him into a science superstar (he guest-starred on The Simpsons – does it get bigger than that?). However, this is a very small criticism and does not detract from the power of this book and the skill with which it has been put together.

Indeed, its flow is hard to criticise. Eldredge lays out the historical development of the pre-Darwinian 19th century via the young Charles’ adventures on HMS Beagle. The use of key dates in the story of the development of evolutionary theory is especially engaging and provides a succinct way to explore complex ideas and reflect on the role played by giants’ shoulders in our current thinking.

A genuinely readable book, Eternal Ephemera makes excellent use of the style of writing that is currently enjoying a pleasing resurgence in popularity in academic works – a first-person narrative that places the writer within the context of the action. This serves two purposes. First, it humanises science, making what can often be a dry and forbidding process open and welcoming (and Eldredge’s anecdote about the late, great biologist Ernst Mayr knocking back a martini and gently mocking the author for suggesting he was having fun is especially enjoyable). And second, it allows the author to present complex and non-linear developments within an unfolding tale (the appeal of which seems hard-wired among humans).

Eternal Ephemera offers a brilliantly researched and highly readable context for understanding the development of Darwinian models of evolution. It is a book that should be read by everyone, and perhaps especially those who have questions about evolution. It will entertain the specialist, transform the understanding of students and shine a bright light into the darkness of creationism.

Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond

By Niles Eldredge
Columbia University Press, 416pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780231153164 and 1526753 (e-book)
Published 3 March 2015

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