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Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICEon December 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
"Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life" is the elegant companion volume to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Darwin exhibition which opened recently here in New York City and will remain on view at this museum through May 29, 2006. Afterwards "Darwin" will tour several museums in North America - most notably Chicago's Field Museum - before completing its tour - appropriately enough - at London's British Museum of Natural History in time for the bicentennial of Darwin's birth in 2009. Niles Eldredge, Curator, Division of Paleontology, AMNH and the exhibition's curator, is truly one of the world's foremost evolutionary biologists, perhaps best known for developing back in 1972, the evolutionary theory known as "Punctuated Equilibrium" along with his friend and colleague, the late Stephen Jay Gould. Eldredge combines his splendid gifts as a scientist and writer, along with his keen interest in the history of science, in writing this book, celebrating Darwin's genius as a field and theoretical biologist and geologist. Drawing upon Darwin's own writings, Eldredge traces Darwin's scientific development during the celebrated HMS Beagle voyage and at his suburban London estate at Down. Furthermore, he demonstrates with ample eloquence why Darwin's Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection is a genuine scientific theory, saving until the final chapter, a superb rebuke of "Intelligent Design" as a credible scientific alternative (Those who believe that "Intelligent Design" is a credible scientific theory - it's merely an untestable, unscientific idea - should read Robert Pennock's "Tower of Babel", Kenneth R. Miller's "Finding Darwin's God", or Eugenie Scott's "Evolution Vs. Creationism".). Anyone interested in reading a fascinating book on scientific discovery shouldn't hesitate purchasing this elegant tome.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Niles Eldredge's new book on Darwin and evolutionary theory, intended as a text for lay readers, is quite good in (at least) two respects. (1) It is the first text for general readers that investigates closely the development of Darwin's ideas between 1836 (when he returned from the Beagle voyage) and 1859 (when he published "On the Origin of Species." This material is succinct and perceptive in the way that it sets out the sequence of emergence of Darwin's key insights. (Sometimes this sequence reveals doubts that Darwin had to overcome.) In addition to this explicative work, Eldridge also (and perhaps more importantly) analyzes the conceptual frameworks that Darwin constructs during this period. (Most especially the moment when Darwin turns his thinking fully around and attempts to derive expected phenomena from his theory). (2) The chapter that outlines the relationship between Darwin's own work and the subsequent history of evolutionary science is also succinct, perceptive, and very informative. Eldredge is successful in simultaneously establishing the remarkable continuity between Darwin and all of evolutionary theory while also highlighting some key issues that Darwin got wrong.

However, despite these strengths, this book will be best read by those who already have a clear grasp of the basic features of evolutionary theory. As many others have said, there is no better source for such an introduction than "On the Origin of Species" itself.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
It is embarrassing that surveys show that most Americans do not believe in evolution, and do believe in scientifically unsupportable concepts that they have seen in the movies, like dinosaurs and humans living together. The great American Museum of Natural History in New York has always done what it could to combat this sort of ignorance, with a magnificent standing display of dinosaurs. It is now putting on a big exhibition entirely devoted to Charles Darwin, the man who revealed that natural selection and descent with modification were the ways that life on Earth worked. (This is not to neglect Alfred Russel Wallace, who deserves to be better known as the co-discoverer of evolution. It was his discovery of the same principles that made Darwin finally reveal his own decades of thought on the matter, and the papers of the two discoverers were simultaneously published. Darwin, however, published more on the subject, dug into it more deeply, and did his own researches that have made his contributions preeminent.) The curator of the exhibition, Niles Eldredge, is famous on his own for advocating (along with the late Stephen Jay Gould) a modern modification of Darwinism, punctuated equilibrium. For those who cannot get to the exhibition, or who wish to spend more than an afternoon absorbing its ideas, Eldredge has written _Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life_ (Norton). There are, deservedly, much bigger books that serve as biographies of this great thinker who was in many ways a completely admirable scientist and human being. The book has a basic short account of Darwin's life, but was written to give a history of the internal thought underlying Darwin's big ideas. Eldredge has gone back to the notebooks to trace inceptions, rather that to summarize the findings that were eventually published in the epochal _On the Origin of Species_ for an invigorating look at how this model scientist came to believe as he did.

Eldredge makes clear from the beginning that Darwin was up against religious orthodoxy. The greatest religious barriers he had to overcome were his own. Time and again, Darwin confronted creationist ideas but found simpler and more reasonable ones in the natural world. In his researches, starting with the voyage of the _Beagle_, he was confounded by trying to figure out the mind of God. Why, for instance, was God extinguishing some species and creating others when he could have gotten it all right in the first place? To ask such questions was not to give an unflattering picture of the capabilities of the designer, but to seek if there were not a better, more natural explanation. Eldredge takes us through the notebooks, showing the intuitive and creative leaps Darwin made, for instance, upon encountering the writings of Thomas Malthus. Before that, though, his fieldwork had convinced him that species were not immutable but rather gave rise to one another. Darwin's ideas, in retrospect, look exceedingly simple (and his friend and advocate Thomas Huxley wondered why they had taken so long for anyone to see). He didn't get everything right, but the confirmations of his overall thought continue to pour in. Evolution is a testable notion, and has passed so many rigorous tests that it is extremely unlikely that it will be overthrown in the future.

That won't keep people from trying. It is significant that there are really only religious rather than scientific objections to evolution, even if religious objections are sometimes dressed up in scientific garb. Eldredge's last chapter, wittily titled "Darwin as Anti-Christ", reviews the religious objections. Mainstream Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have had little problem with the concept of evolution. Christian fundamentalists adhere to the literal account, Eldredge says, because they must not succumb to doubt over any section of the literal Bible and because if we are "descended from monkeys" (always the phrase used by those ignorant of real descent) we will for some reason not be able to lead moral lives. It is no surprise that Eldredge finds such arguments unconvincing, but he spends several pages explaining the problems of creationism's new clothes, Intelligent Design. Darwin's ideas are testable, have been tested, and have prevailed. The Intelligent Design advocates have found a conveniently untestable proposition, for basic scientific rules insist we would have to use our senses to gain evidence of the supernatural, which just isn't done; and if the design force isn't supernatural, then the first step must be to demonstrate that it naturally exists. However, Eldredge's well-illustrated book is not a polemic. Those who are looking for a basic explanation of Darwin's ideas, and how they came to him, and how he eventually told the world of them, will enjoy this book immensely.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This is the companion book to the excellent Darwin exhibit now at the American Museum of Natural History which is scheduled to tour several other natural history museums in the years leading up to the Darwin bicentennial in 2009. The most exciting new finding featured in this book and the exhibit is the study of the "transmutation notebooks" in which Darwin scribbled his thoughts during the late 1830's. These show that Darwin had the basic ideas of natural selection long before he was previously thought to have developed them.

The problem with the book is that Eldredge intrudes on numerous occasions in order to bring up the theory of "punctuated equilibria" whch he, together with the late Stephen Jay Gould, developed. While certainly Eldredge has the perfect right to describe his theory in a book describing his own thoughts, it isn't on topic in a book about Darwin's thoughts. It is also somewhat misleading to the general public (the primary audience for this book) because while Darwin's idea of natural selection is almost universally accepted by biologists, the acceptance of "puncuated equilibria" is decidely a minority position.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
In some places, challenging Darwin is a cottage industry. In the US, it's almost a multi-national in size and scope. Challenges have run from his upper middle-class origins and existence to whether he was the first to define how evolution works. It's the last point that Niles Eldredge counters here with some vigour. In this life of the man whose novel concept of life should have overturned the concept of who we are, Eldredge is forced once again to mount the barricades in Darwin's defence. Much of the theme of this book is "when" Darwin came to the idea that transmutation of species was the key to life. Although most scholars hold that Darwin concluded species change sometime in the mid-1840s, Eldredge pushes the idea further back, even possibly during the Beagle voyage of the 1830s.

As a publication associated with a new touring exhibit from the American Natural History Museum in New York, Eldredge deftly keeps his text associated with the artefacts on view. As the curator of the exhibit, he's in a prime position to give the material a good portrayal. A dedicated Darwinist, Eldredge is intimately involved in what the naturalist thought, why he thought it and, so far as possible when he came up with his ideas. Eldredge has thoroughly investigated Darwin's notebooks in preparing this book. It was clearly a labour of love. Besides his research skills, Eldredge is an expressive and convincing writer. He has a point to make, and presents it with skill and verve. Even the unitiated is unlikely to feel bogged down by arcane information. The author's fluent language is a joy to read.

Darwin's career is essentially outlined here. The element of chance is strangely muted. It was almost a fluke that led Darwin to walk up the gangplank to board the Beagle. It was a chance occurence that he was in Chile during an earthquake that raised sealife above the ocean. A chance remark about tortoises slipped by him almost unnoticed. What would have happened if Albert Russel Wallace had sent his own groundbreaking paper to somebody else, such as Henslow? All those near-misses were overcome, as Eldredge forcefully notes, by Darwin's dedicated pursuit of what he did learn. It's easy to dismiss Darwin as a plodder, but this account shows that every step was carefully sighted and reviewed for what it might contribute. In no small measure, Darwin provided a significant leap forward, not only for our understanding of life, but in the pursuit of scientific excellence. He may not have had all the answers, but those he put forward were firmly buttressed. Given that Darwin was an observer and not a laboratory researcher, his accomplishments become yet more noteworthy.

This being a "modern" author, and a scientist who has striven for a generation to overturn a fundamental aspect of Darwin's original concept, this book necessarily preaches the notion of abrupt speciation. Darwin's use of geologist Charles Lyell's "uniformitarian" means of change has been challenged by Eldredge [and his mate Stephen Gould] with "punk eek", the idea that evolution works in a jerky fashion. Not unexpectedly, Eldredge gives this idea a good deal of ink. He attempts to ameliorate this heresy with a muted discussion of scale - the measurement of rate of change - but it's skimpy and inconclusive. The author might have done better to skim the topic and presented more on Darwin's other work. Eldredge's pushing the date of Darwin's becoming convinced of the idea of evolution in the first place is accomplishment enough for both. The final chapter throws down the gauntlet to the hordes of Christians obstructing the dissemination of Darwin's concept in education and society.

As an accompaniment to a museum exhibit, this book is richly illustrated. A multitude of contemporary illustrations, sketches, cartoons and photographs all provide visually pleasing enhancements to the text. There are even photographs of undecipherable pages from the Notebooks. In all, Eldredge has provided an fine introductory survey of who Darwin was and what he accomplished. It's to be hoped that the combination of the exhibit and this volume will retain the status Darwin deserves. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The author's intent is to describe Darwin's thought process as he developed his theory, but the author's thesis isn't presented in a very organized way. I think that time is the culprit. It looks like this book was rushed in order to meet the deadlines, one of which is a major exhibit, which the author was also responsible for.

Eldredge believes that Darwin was convinced of what Darwin called "my theory" at least 20 years ahead of his publication of it. Evolution wasn't Darwin's original idea. It had been posited before and was going to be published by another scientist, when Darwin, (perhaps the fittest because he had more evidence) decided to go public.

The author is clearly Darwin's defender, and he gives good reasons why. Eldridge feels that Darwin not only gave us a scientific view of how evolution occured, but also gave us a milestone in developing the scientific process. Eldridge more than touches on the courage it took to do this when a creation view held sway not only in England, but also in Darwin's nuclear family.

The first chapter is a bio, but it goes forward into the theory. The second chapter is more biography but it laps back and forth into the first and later chapters. The chapters on Darwin's work tell and retell biography and push forward into the thinking of today's scientists, and back and forth again.

The illustrations are not placed with the text. In one place you are left mid-word to flip through 8 pages of illustrations to get back to the text.

The book is very attractive. Its paper and its texture, the print, layout and colors are well selected. The author is very knowledgeable. I believe this book is destined to be a souvenir volume for those who enjoy the exhibit. With a little more time, this could have been a great book, maybe even a "must read" for 2009, for a very wide audience.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Eldredge is the curator of the exhibit currently at the American Museum of Natural History focusing on Darwin. This is the obligatory "companion book" to the exhibit, though in fact it's far more than just a picture book of the exhibit with explanatory captions.

The first two chapters are largely a brief biography, of Darwin but also the background that led up to his dramatic breakthrough in his understanding of natural selection. The next two chapters are perhaps the heart of the book, as Eldredge takes us through Darwin's various notebooks and manuscripts, showing in Darwin's own writings how he groped his way toward Origin of Species and the ideas therein. The last two chapters are perhaps the most interesting part of all. Eldredge focuses on what we know today about biology, and how it has followed from Darwin. Eldredge has his own strong opinions--as one of the founders, with Stephen Jay Gould, of the theory of punctuated equilibrium--and does not hesitate to cast views through that prism. He is particularly interested in effects secondary to natural selection but still significant, like geographic isolation. And the final chapter has the striking title "Darwin as Anti-Christ: Creationism in the Twenty-first Century." Here he initially points out that creationism held full sway in Darwin's world, and it was the strength of Darwin's arguments that brought it down. He then revisits some of the key arguments in evolution's favor: the nested hierarchy, the progression from simple to complex, the fossil record that clearly shows the divergence of humans from apes. He spends several pages comparing the bifurcated development according to natural selection with the more complex development of a designed object, specifically the cornet, in which good ideas jump from one lineage to another, something that is never ever seen in the tree of life.

Speaking as a non-expert, I found this a very worthwhile book, both for learning more about Darwin and his thought, and about how to muster additional arguments - as if any should be necessary - against creationism.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Niles Eldredge is an excellent writer on evolutionary theory and he was certainly a good choice to write the companion volume for the American Museum of Natural History's 200th birthday of Charles Darwin exhibition. In "Charles Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life" he covers not only the basis of Darwinian thinking, but adds illustrations of Down House, the famous sand walk, various documents associated with Darwin and some modern phylogenetic analyses. Indeed, this book gives the reader a peek into Darwin's very though processes, where he was on the right track and where he went wrong on occasion. Darwin's accomplishment is not diminished by his errors, but is more appreciated by the difficulties of arriving at the truth, or as much of the truth as humans can comprehend.

If you cannot read Janet Browne's detailed two volume biography, this is certainly the book to read! While a great companion to the exhibit, if the reader has the opportunity to see it, it is also a stand alone text that is well worth the effort to read on its own!
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on October 13, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is not a biography of Darwin, although it does contain many biographical details. It is, rather, a close examination of Darwin's notebooks, manuscripts, and published work to reveal traces of the evolution of his ideas on evolution. Although Darwin did not go public with his theory of evolution by natural selection until 1859 with "On the Origin of Species," it is clear through his unpublished work (since transcribed, analyzed, and published by Darwin scholars) that the ideas for his theory had been percolating in his mind ever since his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle (1831--1836). In the years following this life-changing trip, Darwin read, studied, and experimented tirelessly in an attempt to understand what he had seen in South America, the Galapagos Islands, and other places. He was deeply puzzled by the patterns of life over time and place and sought a solution to that "mystery of mysteries": the origin of new species. During the years of experimentation and study, he kept copious notes, intended for his eyes only, of all his observations and conclusions. In this book, Eldredge looks into those notes to trace the path of Darwin's creative imagination at work.

It should be noted that Niles Eldredge was a colleague of the late Stephen Jay Gould. Together, they developed their theory of "punctuated equilibria," which claims that evolution was not the steady, gradual process that Darwin claimed it was. Rather, Gould and Eldredge believed that, if you follow the fossil evidence, you will see that evolution was a process of fits and starts: long periods of stasis with little change in species followed by sudden (geologically speaking) changes and many new species arising in a relatively short time, which was followed by more stasis. Their theory was met with much criticism, and it appears that, at least in part, this book is an attempt to defend their theory. Or at least the subject comes up again and again in the book.

I found the book a struggle to get through, but not because the subject is too technically difficult for a lay person. I think it is because of the author's writing style. He favors long, sometimes paragraph-long, sentences that leave you wondering, by the time you get to the verb, what the daggone subject was. So you have to reread the sentence. This may work well for Victorian novels, but not in a book studying the thinking of a great scientist.

The book contains numerous photos, illustrations, and charts. Some of these illustrations are scans of Darwin's handwritten notebooks. These are nice to see, but they do not add much to the book. More interesting and helpful are the cladograms and charts showing the relationships of major groups of organisms. There are also wonderful photographs and photos of portraits of many of the characters in Darwin's life: his wife Emma and daughter Annie (the other nine children are not shown) and many of his professional colleagues and authors who influenced him.

I especially appreciated the last chapter in the book (also, the shortest!): "Darwin as Anti-Christ: Creationism in the Twenty-first Century." The rise of religious fundamentalism in these years is a frightening thing, especially as it attempts to influence public education in America. The future of our country as a leader in the sciences is indeed at stake. Eldredge provides a brief overview of some of the legal battles and provides some ammunition for rebuttal. But I doubt that a religious fundamentalist would ever listen to a reasoned argument that he/she feared might undermine one's faith in the Bible or other holy book. But still, you have to put the arguments out there for those whose minds are not totally shut to new ideas---even those ideas that might threaten their view of the world.
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VINE VOICEon January 18, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I found this book to be both highly informative as well as beautifully produced. The author, a distingished paleontologist currently at New York's American Museum of Natural History, who was curator on the smashing exhibit last year commemorating Darwin at the museum which I had the privilege of seeing, accomplishes a number of objectives in this volume. First, he focuses upon Darwin's own history, methods and theories. Next, he does an examination of Darwin's famous Red and Transmutation notebooks, including interesting photographs of some of the pages. The reader soon comes to understand why the author feels that much of Darwin's evolutionary theory was anticipated in these journals long before he published "On the Origin of Species." This discussion is succeeded by one on Darwin's own early manuscripts (i.e., "The 1842 Sketch" and "the Essay of of 1844"), which integrates well with his analysis of the notebooks. The author also does a concise review of the "Origin" itself. One of the most interesting chapters is on "Evolution After Darwin," including the period when discussion of Darwin almost disappeared from the scene. The final chapter discusses Darwin, religion and the current "intelligent design" debate.

The author strikes a remarkable balance between a level of discussion aimed at the general reader while injecting some substantial scientific information as well. His recounting of some of the most recent leading evolutionary research is particularly informative. The book's illustrations are exceedingly helpful in illuminating the author's analysis--many are beautiful color photographs of the first quality. The book is printed on the finest glossy paper as well, resulting in a beautiful production. So, while written for a general audience, there is a good dose of scientific information as well. And the writing is always clear and concise (the entire book including illustrations and bibiography runs around 245 pages). A solid addition to the literature on Darwin and evoluton.
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