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Darwin's Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated Paperback – April 3, 2001

3.1 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"There are few better or more entertaining accounts of the evolutionary process in print today than Darwin's Ghost."
--The New York Times Book Review

--The Boston Sunday Globe

From the Inside Flap

Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species is probably the best-known, least-read book. One of the most important achievements of the past millennium, it did for biology what Galileo did for astronomy: made it into a single science rather than a collection of unrelated facts. Important though Origin remains, its examples and intricate Victorian prose are now a century and a half old. They are ripe for renewal and reaffirmation. Writing as "Darwin's ghost," eminent geneticist Steve Jones updates this seminal work--and restates evolution's case for the 21st century.
Jones is a writer of engaging wit and dazzling erudition and has been called "the British Carl Sagan." Using modern examples--the AIDS virus, the puzzles of sexual selection, the physiology and psychology of pets, and the unparalleled genetic success of our own species--he shows the power and immediacy of Darwin's great argument and makes us appreciate how it makes life make sense. Eye-opening and entertaining, filled with astonishing facts, amusing anecdotes, and the very latest research, Darwin's Ghost is contemporary science writing at its very best.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 377 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (April 3, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345422775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345422774
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #574,777 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I'm a bit surprised at some of the rave reviews. Although grand in its aspirations, the book only occasionally met my expectations (e.g., his discussion of HIV). I found Jones' writing style difficult - full of wit, yes, but often at the expense of clarity. I enjoyed the beginning and end of the book, but found the bulk of it tedious and wordy - not unlike the original, I guess.
This would not be a particularly good book for someone wrestling with the Big Question of design vs. evolution. Although Jones gives many, many supporting examples and facts for various aspects of evolution, they are from the beginning asserted as solid proof - he does not lead the novice reader "gently" through the accumulation of evidence. In addition, he does not provide footnotes for the many claims, and it is difficult to tell which of them are solid, thoroughly-accepted and which are opinions du jour. It often felt like he was preaching to the choir (certainly not what Darwin did or intended). This is a disservice to the reader who really wants to understand the relative depth of the various arguments and facts.
Despite my reservations, I enjoyed some of the book - especially the last chapter (which is Darwin's concluding chapter).
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Format: Paperback
Even before opening the book, its subtitle "The Origin of Species updated" is a source of irritation. Whether this is the author's own estimation of his efforts, or a bit of advertising puff added by the publisher, it is ridiculous, suggesting that Darwin's masterpiece can no longer be read for its own sake. Darwin called his book "one long argument", and that is what it is, a long coherent collection of evidence that leads inexorably to his conclusion that natural selection provides the best explanation of evolution. Of course, we know many things today that Darwin didn't know, but surprisingly little of his book has become seriously dated. A thoroughly annotated edition of the book itself (preferably the 1st and best edition) would certainly be useful -- noting where Darwin diluted his message in the later editions, and pointing to more recent observations that amplify, confirm, or occasionally contradict his ideas -- but simply rewriting it as a pile of incoherent and loosely connected sentences is most definitely not what was needed. The page of quotations from enthusiastic reviews, such as "Darwin's Ghost engagingly reworks [Darwin's] story into an enthralling read", suggests that most of these reviewers saw a different book from the one I have in front of me, or lazily based their opinions on the publisher's description.

One long argument is exactly what Steve Jones's book is not. Instead it is a long series of statements, some of them interesting and important, but with little or no coherence. Certainly, one can read the whole book with profit, and one can learn a lot from it, but it is not a pleasurable read, let alone an enthralling one.
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Format: Paperback
This book purports to "update" Darwin's Origin of Species. But, as Jones says, "It would be presumptuous to present this essay as more than a shadow of its original, in content or in form." Moreover, "The Origin is...a work of high Victorian seriousness, with no concession to any desire to be entertained. In these more flippant times I yield to the temptation to leaven a scientific narrative with tales from the curious history of evolution and those who study it."
Ok, fair enough. So, what is this book's intended audience? In Darwin's case, he was writing to the educated lay person of his day, which mostly meant Victorian gentlemen of conventional morality and religion, but interested in science, and with minds that could follow an argument and be changed. But he was writing to scientists mainly, and was acutely conscious of the need to be comprehensive, clear, and conservative as regards the evidence, and rigorous in argument.
Jones is not writing to convince his audience that all the variety of life that we see about us arose out of simpler forms (or, even, just one simple type of proto-creature) by descent with modification over eons of time, with the environment doing the selective breeding, as it were. His audience should already believe that. (Those that most vehemently do not are certainly not addressed here.) Rather, he is giving us an informal survey of natural history in its great and entertaining variety, using Darwin's great argument as a "scaffolding" upon which to hang his discussions. Throughout he implicitly assumes that you accept the reality of evolution. What he is doing is guiding you through its implications and outcomes in a great number of ways.
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Format: Paperback
I expected to find an easy and enjoyable introduction to Darwin's original. I ended up reading only the extracts from Darwin's original. How much more rationally structured and carefully exposed were Darwin's ideas and how sad the contrast with Jones' clumsy arguments and unstructured accumulation of examples. I needed no convinving about evolution against creationism. I was looking though for an adequate exposition of the alternative theories of evolution. Jones takes adaptionist/genetically-determined evolution as the "truth" and he discards alternative views in a few sentences (in his view "punctuated equilibrium" theories have been rejected....I wonder what Gould would have to say about it...). And while rejecting both in the intro and the conclusions that biological evolution can be extrapolated into human affairs, the book is full of unfounded anthropomorphic examples (e.g. cities "struggling for survival", some surviving and others vanishing!). No doubt that the acknowledgement of Lewontin, a radical Harvard biologist, at the first page of the book was the one that fooled me. The book is a tribute to Dawkins' and Spencerian ideas of evolution, not the complex evolution that Lewontin, Gould, Eldrege and others write about.

The book is the perfect example of what popular science writing SHOULD NOT BE. In order to make science accessible to the public, contestable theories are presented as undoubted "truths" and long and complex scientific debates muted.

Dr Giorgos Kallis, University of California at Berkeley
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