The point of the book is not to provide references to those who already know the science, but to illuminate evolution to the many who are unsure about it. The approach used is to look at the problem of the origins of life and the mechanism of hereditary through the eyes of historical people involved in answering some of the questions, which makes it more appealling to the general reader. There is only a four page reference list, but an extensive index.
It is divided into 19 chapters. It begins with the ideas of Linnaeus, Buffon, Hutton, Lamarck, Cuvier and Malthus from the 18th to early 19th century. Their ideas provide the groundwork for the next 3 chapters which consider the work of Darwin and Wallace, and the Origin of the Species. This comprises the first 104 pages of the book. The next 11 chapters and 160 pages consider the emergence of genetics, genes, and DNA, to provide the mechanism for life and what evolution must work on. It commences with Mendel's work, and it proceeds by looking at the questions that the researchers that solved them asked. The role of the chromosome, and genes, and the mechanism of gene expression are discussed. The contributions of Hugo de Vries, T.H. Morgan, Friedrich Miescher, Avery, Watson, Crick and many others are discussed using this approach. The science is presented together with personal stories to make it more interesting to the reader who likes a bit of gossip to liven up the science.
Chapters 16 consider the question of the origin of life from inorganic molecules, which is where the book shifts from historical experiments to considering the more current problems. This chapter is particularly optimistic and avoids some of the problems in the models of the origin of life and the incredible information jump that occured when living organisms appeared. Chapter 17 looks at the evolutionary tree of life, based on molecular biology studies of how changes in the sequences of proteins, RNA and DNA found in different organisms can be used to trace out evolutionary trees. This may be useful for many who were educated when biologists thought of two kingdoms, plants and animals, and bacteria; today there are three kingdoms recognised, an additional kingdom of archaebacteria has been distinguished from these other two kingdoms. Archaebacteria are like the bacteria that live in hot springs, or in extreme environments and appear to be closer to the original living organisms than either of the other two kingdoms of life.
Chapter 18 is nearly 50 pages long, and provides a personal and interesting story of the discovery of fossil human remains, and how this data fits with molecular evolutionary studies. The proposed tree for human separation from other primates is being redrawn, and will continue to be modified as more fossils are found. The final chapter asks whether there is a danger in being too smart?, and looks at the future of humans. In the age of global environmental awareness of the environmental crises it is not suprising that a book such as this will conclude with a chapter on such issues and human survival.
This book provides a useful introduction to the history of biology, especially with regard to evolution and genetics. It is not the only book that covers such issues, though it is more comprehensive in its coverage than most. For people who do not have alternative recent books on these topics, it is good value reading for public and biology students, and any biologist who wants to broaden their knowledge. The authors make references to their desire for creationists to read their book, and it would be well if they did. This book is not however, a science versus religion book. We are learning many interesting things about our probable evolutionary ancestors, and all should open their eyes to our knowledge. Science has filled many gaps in our knowledge, there are many overs yet to be discovered, but for everything we have (explainable or unexplainable) we should be thankful.
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