Trees of life run rings round creationists

November 1, 1996

NEW USES FOR NEW PHYLOGENIES Edited by Paul H. Harvey, Andrew J. Leigh-Brown, John Maynard Smith, and Sean Nee Oxford University Press, 349pp, Pounds 39.50 and Pounds 19.99. ISBN 0 19 854985 7 and 854984.

About a year before my dad died we had an interesting conversation. We talked about my genetics and evolution teaching, which stimulated him into giving me a very passable account of the evolution and domestication of the dog, initially from a wolf-like ancestor some thousands of years ago, through to the selective breeding which has generated the astonishing variety of canines we have today. This was not bad for a guy who was born in a small village in Cyprus, and had no formal education past the age of 11.

Now dad was extremely religious, and believed that God had placed man (and animals), fully formed, on the earth, so I probed a little deeper, and asked him how the wolf-like ancestor came to be. He thought for a second and suggested that the ancient wolf might also have had an ancestor, perhaps bear-like, from which wolves and bears eventually arose. "And, man ?" I asked him. He thought again for a few seconds, realised the trap, and smiled. "You have a point," he said (in Greek), meaning that perhaps there was something to Darwin's account of the evolution of man from the (ancestral) apes.

There is nothing terribly remarkable here. An intelligent layman had used his common sense to think critically about one of life's mysteries, perhaps even to question the dogma with which he had been raised.

This kind of open-mindedness about our origins seems to be in particularly short supply at the moment, especially in America. It appears that in many parts of the country, an atmosphere exists reminiscent of the Scopes trial of 1925, when a teacher in Tennessee was convicted of the "crime" of teaching evolution. You may have seen the excellent Hollywood movie about the trial starring Spencer Tracey and Frederic March.

Creationists are on the offensive almost everywhere, touting alternative theories to evolution, such as "abrupt appearance theory", and litigating for equal time to be devoted in schools and colleges to "creation science". For years the religious right has been demanding that biology textbooks omit references to Darwin, and publishers, fearful of losing sales, have often surrendered to them. Education committees have been infiltrated, and attempts are being made to replace school biology textbooks with those that include "creationism". These alternative "theories' to evolution, which are often framed within a nonreligious pseudoscientific mantle, nevertheless imply the workings of a Creator or Designer, and as with all pseudoscience, are untestable.

It is therefore a good time to have a serious book on evolution, where the rigour of scientific experimentation is applied. New Uses for New Phylogenies is an edited work, consisting of a series of chapters written by contributors to a Royal Society meeting. If focuses on the various "trees of life", or phylogenies, that can be drawn to represent the evolutionary relationships between species, or even between individuals or groups within a species. Darwin's only diagram in the Origin of the Species is a hypothetical phylogeny. Modern phylogenetic research often uses gene sequences rather than morphological criteria for evolutionary reconstructions, because a long string of say 500 nucleotides (the DNA four-letter code), gives potentially 500 characters that can vary between species. This is far more informative and gives better resolution than the few indices that can be quantified from an animal's limb, for example.

In this volume, these trees are used to study past population dynamics, past and future Aids virus evolution, mutual coevolution of hosts and parasites and conservation of species, to name but a few of the many subjects covered. These types of sophisticated investigations reflect the fact that phylogenetic analysis has progressed far beyond its early roots in the basic "which species is evolutionarily closer to which?" question, hence the "New Uses" in the title.

The chapters are concise (some are too concise), but with plenty of references, and written with the authority of some of the major figures in molecular evolution.

For me, the book was a gift from God, because I had not updated my final-year undergraduate molecular evolution course for this semester. It arrived for review a week before I began, and saved me hours of library work. The book is excellent, suitable for final-year biologists, but particularly appealing for postgraduates, and I suspect it will make a significant contribution to their teaching for the next few years. It is definitely not for the nonbiologist reader.

C. P. Kyriacou is professor of genetics, University of Leicester.

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