Thursday, January 21, 2010

John S. MacNeill, Jr.

John S. MacNeill Jr. passed away on January 19, 2010, at Cortland Regional Medical Center, Cortland, New York, just five days short of his 83rd birthday. During his last years, he persevered through increasing complications of diabetes.

John was born on January 24, 1927, in Weehawken, New Jersey, the son of John S. MacNeill Sr. and Margaret Stalee MacNeill. After attending a number of different schools growing up, he graduated from Homer Academy, Homer, New York, in 1944. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 17 and served his tour of duty during the remaining months of World War II in the Pacific theater. Following the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Cornell University in 1950 and married “the girl next door,” Elizabeth “Betty” Hazzard.

After living and working in several locations throughout New York State, John and his growing family settled in Homer, New York. He then started his own civil engineering and surveying firm and subsequently joined a number of professional organizations. Participation in Cortland Rotary Club led to many rewarding years working with international exchange students, who knew him affectionately as “Papa John.” He and his wife, Betty, traveled all around the world visiting former exchange students and their families. John was proud of his Scottish heritage and took pleasure in being the drum major for the Mohawk Valley Frasers Bagpipe Band for many years, along with his wife Betty (tenor drum), son Allen (announcer), daughters Billie Jean (snare drum) and Claudia (tenor drum), and grandchildren (Aurora, Conall, and Adam MacNeill, highland dancers).

John is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Elizabeth Hazzard MacNeill, their son, Allen (Leah) MacNeill of Ithaca, NY; their daughters, Billie MacNeill of Homer, and Claudia (Jerome) Caretti of Morrisville, NY; a brother, Robert (Sue) MacNeill of Walton, NY; a sister-in-law, Joyce MacNeill of Homer; ten grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by a brother, Arthur MacNeill, of Homer.

Contributions in John MacNeill’s memory may be made to the Cortland Rotary Club, P.O. Box 5248, Cortland, NY 13045, or the charity of one’s choice. Email to: CNY MacNeills


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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Evolution: The First Four Billion Years

Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis, editors (2009)
Evolution: The First Four Billion Years
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
ISBN #9780674031753 (hardcover, $39.95), 979 pages

In 2009 scientists worldwide celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most important book, On the Origin of Species. There have been "Darwin Day" observances at hundreds of colleges, universities, and museums, and scientific conferences and meetings devoted to Darwin and evolution. Many books have also been published to mark the Darwin bicentennial, reviewing Darwin's work and its impact on the science of biology and on society in general. However, relatively few of these books have attempted to place Darwin's theory of evolution in its modern context.

A brilliant exception is Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis's anthology, Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, published by Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press
. Released on 12 February 2009, to correspond with the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, is really two books in one: a collection of original essays on the major aspects of evolutionary theory today, followed by a comprehensive biographical and historical encyclopedia of evolutionary theory and related scientific and philosophical concepts and terms.

In the first half of the book, Ruse and Travis have gathered together a collection of sixteen essays, written by noted evolutionary biologists, historians, and philosophers of science and covering most of the major topics in evolutionary biology and philosophy today. The essays begin with a historical overview by Michael Ruse of the development of evolutionary thought in western science and philosophy, followed by essays on the origin of life, paleontology, adaptation, molecular evolution, genomics, speciation, evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-dev"), sociobiology, human evolution, and Darwinian medicine. The last five essays cover the major philosophical issues related to evolution, including the relationship between form and function, the impact of evolution on society and religion, and concluding with an essay by Eugenie C. Scott on anti-evolutionism and creationism in America.

The second half of Evolution: The First Four Billion Years is a detailed biographical, historical, and scientific encyclopedia of evolution in all of its dimensions. As far as I am aware, it is the only compendium of its kind available in book form, and for that reason alone is worth the price of the book. Although there are a few missing concepts/topics (for example, "microevolution" and "macroevolution" are not defined nor covered as concepts in their own right), the coverage is generally as good as one would find anywhere. Furthermore, detailed biographies of nearly every important evolutionary biologist, historian, or philosopher of the 19th and 20th centuries are included, and bibliographical references are cited for every article and entry. Once again there are a few curious lacunae (for example, George R. Price is not mentioned, despite the importance of his mathematical analyses to current theories of multi-level selection), but I was impressed with some of the biographies of scientists less well known to most people, such as Russian population geneticist, Sergei Chetverikov, and American paleontologist and fossil hunter, Edward Drinker Cope.

Overall, therefore, Evolution: The First Four Billion Years is a fascinating compendium of modern evolutionary thought, which nearly anyone interested in the current state of evolutionary biology will find both interesting and valuable. Readers interested in a review of the most important aspects of evolution today will find it useful, and those who want to get deeper into the various topics included can follow them up using the bibliographical citations following every essay and encyclopedia entry. The only thing more useful than this book might be an online version with links to related concepts and references, but I suspect that this will not be long in coming. Until then, I recommend you pick up a copy of Evolution: The First Four Billion Years and set it somewhere you will be frequently tempted to open it up and browse!

Here is a link to Evolution: The First Four Billion Years at, where it can be purchased in hardcover for $13.58 less than the cover price. You can also browse readers' reviews at here.

And a Happy New Year to you all!


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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