Skip to main content

Exploring Evolution – Michael Alan Park ***

In this heavily illustrated hardback, (part of the same series as my Exploring the Universe) small enough to be readable in a way that coffee table book isn’t, but big enough to have some dramatic pictures, Michael Alan Park takes a look at evolution and its context.
The book begins with the age of the Earth and how it has changed over time, takes us through the basics of genetics and its relevance to evolution, examines the way species change over time – and how new species emerge – gives us a chapter with a particular focus on humans (we can’t help but be interested in humans!) and looks at the challenges to evolution from creationism and intelligent design. The final chapter, ‘How has the theory of evolution influenced modern society’ tries to put evolution into the context of its everyday significance, a difficult thing to do that doesn’t quite come off, so it’s an unfortunate ending.
Overall the content is fine – sometimes a little phrased the way an academic rather than a good writer would, but there’s nothing too obscure or incomprehensible. And the images are often stunning, full colour, glossy pages and well presented. It’s certainly a handsome and attractive book. There are one or two bits of the science that could be done better. In the genetics section it’s rather dismissive of the 98% of DNA that’s noncoding, where in reality, the more we learn about it, the more significant it is, showing that genes on their own really don’t tell the story.
I also think the key points about evolution that Dawkins brings out so well in his The Magic of Reality don’t really come across. One of the best bits in Dawkins book was where he imagines the whole pile of photos of ancestors for any individual and points out how each individual is the same species as its parents – you never see a species change from generation to generation – which really gets around a lot of the problems some people have with evolution. On the other hand, Park does a lovely reversal of the clockmaker analogy in his creationism section, pointing out that a clock is, in effect, evolved – because the clockmaker doesn’t design all the parts from scratch, but rather uses and adapts existing parts and mechanisms. That was brilliant.
Overall it’s an attractive book with some great illustrations.
Hardback (despite what Amazon says):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…