Skip to main content

The Darwinian Tourist – Christopher Wills ****

Biologist Christopher Wills encourages us here to look at the living world from an evolutionary perspective, and to appreciate the extent to which evolution has shaped all of life. Seeing the world in the context of evolution, he argues, enhances the richness and our understanding of earth’s species and ecosystems, and the book takes us on a wide-ranging tour of nature, based on the author’s own travels, to illustrate this point.
We start by looking at the evolutionary processes which account for why individual species are the way they are, and how new species come into being. We go on to see how co-operation and symbioses between living organisms come about as a result of evolution. Later, we see how evolutionary processes have led to the huge diversity of life we find on earth, and how patterns of human migration have been shaped by, and have influenced, evolution.
Along the way, we also discover that an evolutionary perspective on the world helps us understand how to protect earth’s ecosystems. For example, in broad terms, the evolutionary processes that have shaped ecosystems have often led to there being a delicate balance between the numbers of living organisms that make up those systems. This balance can easily be disturbed, putting whole ecosystems at risk. But if we understand how evolution has created this situation, we are in a better position to preserve these balances, and can appreciate the need to be cautious when we interfere with ecosystems.
Wills mixes in amongst the science various personal stories whilst carrying out his research – such as, for example, where he gets caught up in an earthquake while studying life underwater – and these make the book highly readable. Also useful is the large number of photographs taken by the author of the landscapes and individual organisms being discussed, some very exotic, printed on the book’s glossy paper – there are photographs on probably close to half of the pages. Occasionally they can get in the way of the flow of the main text, but by and large, this does not happen, and many of the author’s photographs are captivating. They often highlight much better than text is able to the sometimes extraordinary adaptations species have evolved over time.
Given the large number of topics covered, there are inevitably occasions where the author moves a little too quickly, and assumes a touch too much prior knowledge. But this never becomes a big problem.
Overall, the book conveys well the significant explanatory power of evolution, and the benefits of taking account of the lessons an evolutionary perspective on the world can teach us. Ultimately, it is hard to disagree with the author’s message, and I would highly recommend this book.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…