Showcasing the evidence for evolution
By LAURENCE D. HURST - NATURE
Added: Tue, 06 Oct 2009 23:00:00 UTC
I am usually reluctant to claim anything to be a âfactâ. Likewise, I shy away from the word âproof â beyond the certainties of mathematics. But,as Richard Dawkins makes plain in The Greatest Show on Earth, cautious scientists like me should get off the fence. Our enterprise has established facts and we should have the confidence to say so. Evolution is one such fact, and the evidence for it is laid out in two new books by Dawkins and Carl Zimmer.
The Greatest Show on Earth is Dawkins on top form: unambiguous, beautifully argued, with prose flowing like quicksilver. He starts, as
Charles Darwin did in On the Origin of Species, by coaxing the reader down a logical path, from artificial selection and domestication, through the ubiquity of the heritability of traits, to the inevitability of evolution by natural selection. Unlike many of his previous books, the logic of evolution plays second fiddle to the evidence for it and how that evidence is obtained. He explains what we have learnt from studying the relatedness between species(phylogenetics) and the way organisms develop (embryology), from the fossil record (palaeontology)and from the geographical distribution of species (biogeography). He is especially good on the unintelligent design of organisms.
Carl Zimmerâs approach to explaining evolution in The Tangled Bank is rather different. In a non-confrontational way, he lays out the evidence for all to see. His prose,while authoritative and easy to read,is poised rather than animated. Dense with facts, the book is billed as the first textbook on evolution for the general reader, and in that framework it excels. Zimmer doesnât counterpoint the facts
of evolution with creationist assertions but biblical literalism stalks the pages like the elephant in the room.
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