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on July 23, 2001
"The Evolution Explosion" by Stephen R. Palumbi, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2001.
By David Liscio
Anyone seeking an eloquent explanation of recent evolution as it relates to human impact -- from the use of herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics to AIDS treatment and genetic manipulation -- should find "The Evolution Explosion" a worthwhile read.
Harvard University biology professor Dr. Stephen R. Palumbi has written what is essentially a text on fast-paced evolution, in a style more akin to travel and adventure books, yet packed with scientific detail.
From the start, he explains that the task is "to bring home the equally common impact of evolution on daily life - and not through eclectic recourse to scientific theory or historical anecdote. Instead, I need to do it through examples about how evolution in the world around us matters." To make his point, Palumbi refers to the fertile soils of Kansas that "are part of the everyday life of millions of people - and billions of insects and weeds. And evolution lives among the fields and stalks the checkbooks of struggling farmers - here, like everywhere else, living in the many weed and insect species that have evolved resistance to pesticides." Palumbi notes that as long ago as 1954, a young Paul Ehrlich studied the impact of DDT and evolution of flies that would survive and resist the deadly chemical. As the author explains, Ehrlich's famous work, "The Population Bomb," is partially a result of "the DDT dustings (Ehrlich) and his future wife endured at drive-in movie theaters during Kansas' aborted attempt at mosquito eradication."
Consider this: American troops during WWII dusted themselves and civilians with a white powder. In 1944, entire neighborhoods of Italian villages were coated to keep typhus-bearing lice in check. The epidemic was soon declared dead. "But complete victory was short-lived, and only a year later, DDT-resistant insects were reported," Palumbi writes. "By 1946, houseflies in Sweden were resistant, and by 1951, mosquitoes and flies in Italy were resistant not only to DDT but also to a wide range of the new pesticidal chemicals like chlordane, methoxychlor, and heptachlor."
The author adds that both Egypt and the U.S. used DDT to control mosquito-borne malaria from 1947-52, even though the disease was already on the decline because of extensive dredging. It is yet another example of attempts by human to intervene and, ultimately, speed up the natural evolutionary process.
Palumbi, 44, who in 1996 relocated his laboratory after 11 years from the University of Hawaii to Harvard, articulately lays out the issues surrounding AIDS treatment, the use of antibiotics, and the genetic "tinkering" linked to the fight against crop-destroying diseases, all framed in terms of evolutionary speed.
The researcher most recently caused a stir in the scientific community by using molecular genetics to show that the meat of a certain whale species was contained in fish products sold by Japanese commercial markets. Although the product was marked as containing whale, Palumbi's technique showed that the specific whale was a member of an endangered species.
The book publicist quotes Harvard University's Edward O. Wilson as commenting that Palumbi "has hit upon and clearly explains one of the most important but widely neglected issues of our time in biology, medicine and agriculture: the potential for the swift evolution of our organisms when accelerated by human activity."
Bottom line: evolution is generally thought of as slow, with significant change requiring millions of years, yet human intervention can dramatically speed up the process through efforts to improve the quality of life. The benefits and risks of such intervention must not be ignored....
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It has become clear over the last few decades that evolution can take place much more rapidly than Darwin ever imagined. The evolution of the AIDS virus is a particularly compelling case in point, and one of the focal points of this engaging book about how our efforts to control our world can bring about unwanted evolutionary change over time periods measured not in millennia, but in weeks and months. Mostly it is microbial evolution that Harvard Professor of Biology Stephen Palumbi writes about, the AIDS virus, the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, staph and other infections, but also insects and plants, particularly the insects that eat crops and the plants we call weeds, and even fish. At the center of change is the "evolutionary engine" that is continually at work adjusting organisms to their environments. Change the environment of a creature and the creature changes to keep its fit, a never-ending phenomenon that frustrates our efforts to eradicate harmful pests and deadly diseases.
Palumbi shows how it is not enough to spray our fields of amber grain with pesticides because the pests will inevitably evolve to flourish in the new pesticide-filled environment. It is not enough to throw antibiotics at the bacteria that invade our bodies because they too will evolve to flourish. Our efforts to combat the scourges of field and body are now seen as just one half of the prey/predator, parasite/host phenomenon of co-evolution. As Palumbi phrases it, "The disease dance continues, turning to the evolutionary tune, and both players must step smartly." (p. 90) We must take the power of life forms to evolve rapidly into account, and realize that they will react to our efforts. This is the evolutionary arms race, the "Red Queen" hypothesis, that keeps us (if we "step smartly"enough) and our enemies in the same place even though we are both running at full speed. This may be seen as a kind of cosmic joke at those who would find "progress" in evolution.
En route on bringing us up to speed on rapid evolutionary change, Palumbi sets some sort of record for the use of colorful language. There is some distraction as metaphors and analogies fly about like confetti at a wedding , but he is so clever that we forgive him. Some examples:
p 16: "...as unknown as the dreams of a sleeping infant."
p. 56: a trait (a recessive gene) is said to lie "dormant like thoughts on a Saturday morning."
p. 102: a virus is compared to a credit card.
p. 107: a typical viral attack on the immune system "has more plot twists than a soap opera."
p. 137: expressing the too-optimistic hopes of a five-year malaria eradication program: "...by then, surely malaria would be gone like the world's last car payment."
p. 240: "bad ideas" are compared to "anchovy daiquiris" that "live on only in a few people with fishy breath."
In short, this book colorfully illuminates one of the most significant conundrums of our time: despite our best pesticides, our most powerful antibiotics, our most clever and hopeful chemical cocktails, we are not winning the war against pests and disease. We are at best holding our own. The message of this book is perhaps we can do more if we take into account the power of the evolutionary engine, and finds ways to use it to our advantage.
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on January 11, 2002
This is a great read. Steven Palumbi shows everyone why evolution matters today in real and meaning ful ways.
Two quotes from the book
".. the best education is the one that bites back, the one that shows with clarity of glacial ice that the facts and principles of the scientific world are of crucial importance to every day life.... not through eclectic recourse to scientific theory or historical anecdote. Instead, I need to do it through examples about how evolution in the world around us matters."
And why does it matter: " And if antibiotic resistance just happens, then we have no notion of how it comes to be, and no real chance to block the rise of some of the world's deadliest forms of life. But if something evolves, then the science of evolution can chart the answer to why, and perhaps prevent or change it."
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Not everyone believes that evolution occurs, even though examples exist all around us (such as antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria). Recent studies show us that the evolution that took millions in years in the geological record now happens in months or years. What's changed? Basically, human intervention into the biological environment is becoming the driving force for evolution on earth. This outstanding book outlines this process, and argues that the process will only speed up in the future as ideas develop faster and proliferate more rapidly. Learning how to manage evolution to our benefit is our next key challenge. It is even more important than genetic engineering, because that field will trigger much inintended evolution (as it already has).
The book begins with a trip to Hawaii to rescue some rare snails for captive breeding. Along the way, many examples of human-driven evolution are observed. From there, Professor Palumbi looks at the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These strains arise in 1 to 36 years after a new antibiotic is released. Historically, it seems that bacteria tried to kill other bacteria in similar ways, so there are genetic variation escape hatches. He points out that using multiple antiobiotics can be an effective strategy for avoiding this problem. On the other hand, many diseases once thought to be under control {like tuberculosis) are on the rise again.
The HIV story is much more complex and interesting. HIV uniquely evolves in each body it invades. A better solution may be to encourage HIV to evolve in harmless ways rather than to kill it.
New bioengineered plants try to poison insects with genetic alterations. Unless farmers keep low-yield refuges, this will simply create poison-resistant insects and pests. The potential danger to our food supply is enormous. Overkill with poisons is not a good solution for a variety of obvious reasons.
A lot of biotechnology development is not considering the evolution that these innovations will create. That gap needs to be filled.
The ocean is then used as an example of how over fishing has created permanently smaller fish who grow more slowly. Without changing our approach, the sea will become a very small source of food.
The book then looks at whether humans are still evolving, and points to evidence that some diseases may be related to resistance to other diseases (cystic fibrosis recessive genes may help with avoiding typhoid).
The most interesting part of the book is in the final chapter. It talks about the evolution of ideas and their spread. It points out that ideas can evolve faster and be retained longer than evolutionary shifts. This is our key armament in the evolutionary conflicts. The book briefly reviews the thoughts of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker to suggest different approaches to the subject. I suggest that you read more of Dawkins if you have not already.
After you finish this book, start to use the metaphor of human-caused evolution as a way to create changes that will cause reactions moving towards the goals you have set. For example, if you want your children to learn more, spend time helping them understand how to connect learning to things they care about. In that way, their evolution will follow the path you want to encourage by employing their genetic and environmental influences in the most productive way.
In The Irresistible Growth Enterprise, my co-author and I argue that a major reason for pursuing human space exploration is to encourage human physical evolution and development of better means of cooperation in adjusting to the hostile space environment. What do you think of that idea after reading this book?
Imagine the potential and act on it!
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on May 1, 2002
This excellently-done book explores the human tendency to cause explosive evolution in our environments. Don't believe in evolution? Note how effectively we've caused many disease organisms to evolve resistance to our best antibiotics, in the course of less than 100 years. Or the fact that all of our food and pets have been selectively bred to exacting standards for more than 10,000 years. If we hadn't accelerated the evolution of maize, we'd still be eating cobs less than an inch long, you know. So there. And to counter your arguments: yes, selective breeding is too evolution. It's evolution by artificial selection, which is a perfectly valid mechanism. So there again.
Palumbi is both a colorful and informative writer. He spends a lot of time discussing HIV, and why it's so hard to beat (it mutates constantly, overwhelming the immune system). I would have liked a more in-depth discussion about whether humans are still evolving or not -- I think we are -- but he only touched on that subject. Nonetheless, highly recommended.
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on November 15, 2010
We are using this book in a class at OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the U. of Arizona.
It is meant for lay students, and is superb in every way.
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on December 11, 2015
Excellent book.
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on June 17, 2001
This is a thoughful, well argued overview of critical issues. It covers a lot of ground, has strong opinions, a few really awful puns, and a great sense of humanity.
It is a critical read for those ramping up to debate biotech or environmental issues.
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on June 25, 2002
One of the stones around the neck of Darwinist evolutionary theory is that it hasn't been observed to happen.Thousands of years of intensive breeding of dogs (not even the undirected evolution Darwin described) hasn't produced a new species of non-dogs. Same with cats and other living things.

The way around the problem is to avoid defining what evolution is or broaden it to simply mean "change" so that anything that changes is said to evolve. Defined that way, evolution can be trumpeted every time a rock rolls down the hill.

It's sort of like AIDS in Africa. First you had to be tested and found to have HIV to be counted as an AIDS case. Well, it was hard to test, so instead AIDS was redefined to be a class of symptoms. If you had the symptoms, you were counted. Immediately after the redefinition of AIDS, the reports started about an explosion of AIDS in Africa.Now whenever the stats need to be cranked up, a commission meets to add new symptoms to the list and expand the pool of what can be called AIDS.

These are also the author's primary methods, used in the hope no one looks too closely at all the semantic shell games being played. At times evolution is used in a context which implies "change". Then there is a shift and the idea is blended without warning to mean speciation (Darwinism). Word meanings flip back and forth without distinction so credibility can clandestinely be transferred from what everyone knows to be true (genetic variation) to that which is unproven (Darwinian speciation).

The organisms that develop resistance to antibiotics are the same type of bacteria as before they developed resistance. They have not become a different kind of bacteria. Exposure to the solvent DMSO has made resistant bacteria again susceptible to the old antibiotics. The reason isn't certain, but it appears as if it might have something to do with an external coating rather than genetic coding. Inheriting a useful slime coat from a pool of bacteria (that reproduce by splitting) is now being trumpeted as evolution without evidence, just like AIDS is exploding in Africa without testing. An artifact of definition.

It's like how one might persistently catch colds until beginning to take vitamin C supplements. If I no longer catch colds, have I biologically evolved? The author would have you think so.

The actual criticism of Darwinism is directed at the claim new information (new species) can be developed by undirected natural selection. It just has not been observed to happen.

Now if you want to falsely represent the critics of Darwinism, you can define evolution to simply mean "change". Then every time there is change in a biological system -- bingo -- you can say it "evolved". And critics of Darwinism then can be made to appear foolish and ignorant by ignoring all the "evidence of evolution (change)" exploding around them. Deeply dishonest. Lousy thinking, lousy science.

Everyone is aware of genetic variation. Blonde and black-haired spouses may have brown-haired children; tall and short may produce children in-between, etc., etc. This is the biological equivalent of painting-between-the-lines; radically different from the production of new species and the origin of life.

The subject of antibiotic resistance is a serious and interesting one, but using it falsely to wrap around evolution as a disguising cover is disingenous; an act of propaganda, not science.

It is completely true that accepting genetic variation but not speciation is a failure of imagination. Imagination is simply not enough to do the job.

Speciation by natural selection is claimed to be a science, yet hasn't been observed,isn't repeatable and can't predict results. It's not science, but a philosophy of rationalization; it allows little stories to be constructed to explain why things are without regard to reality.

Darwinist start with the question "How do I want the universe to be?" and then determine truth to fit the answer. Actual science reverses the questions: "What is truth?" THEN "How shall we live?"
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