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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At 1/07/2010 02:43:00 PM, Anonymous Pit said...

I am an amateur of biology and evolutionary theory.

I agree that the book deserves the praises.
Recently I have read a book that tries to explain evolution of animals based entirely on epigenetic mechanisms.
The book is Epigenetic Principles of Evolution.
Any expert opinion or comment on the book would be appreciated.



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