Evolution’s Adventurers

This year (2009) is the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of his publication of The Origin of the Species. Books are rolling off the presses to commemorate both. If you are interested in the history of evolutionary thought from Darwin to today, I highly recommend Sean B. Carroll’s Remarkable Creatures.
Carroll is a professor of molecular biology and genetics. He has published two previous books: The Making of the Fittest and Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Thankfully, despite his academic training, he is able to communicate scientific discoveries clearly and without jargon. And he’s an excellent storyteller.
Remarkable Creatures tells the stories of people whose adventures in some of the world’s remotest places changed the way we thing about “the mystery of mysteries,” that is, the origin of species. Part 1, “The Making of a Theory,” focuses on Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle and the journeys of Alfred Wallace and Henry Walter Bates into the Amazon. Darwin and Wallace independently discovered the role of natural selection in evolution based on their travels.
Part 2, “The Loveliest Bones,” tells the story of six major paleontological finds: Eugene Dubois and “Java Man,” Charles Walcott and the Burgess Shale, Roy Chapman Andrews and dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert, Walter and Luis Alvarez and the K-T extinction, John Ostrom and the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, and Neil Shubin and the Tiktaalik “fishapod.” Each of these discoveries confirmed or revised evolutionary biology in significant ways.
Part 3, “The Natural History of Humans,” examines three significant advances in the understanding of human evolution: the discovery of the oldest human remains in Africa; the use of DNA to date and trace the course of human evolution; and the relationship between Neanderthals and homo sapiens.
In an Afterword, Carroll agrees with George Gaylord Simpson’s appraisal of how Darwinism has changed human understanding. Paraphrasing Simpson, he writes: “Darwin’s new picture of ancestry meant that humans have no special status other than our definition as a distinct species of animal.” As a Christian theist, I disagree with the implication, though not necessarily with the science. And I wonder if Carroll sees how ironic it is for one and only one species of “animal” to ponder questions of its own significance. At the end of the day, the discoveries made by Carroll’s adventurers are less interesting than the adventurers themselves. They—we—are the truly remarkable creatures.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s