150 of 164 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2005
The Grand Synthesis of Mendelism and Darwinism, involving such greats as Haldane, Fisher, Wright, Maynard Smith, Mayr, Hamilton, Dawkins, Dobzhansky and many more, is one of the greatest achievements of modern science. Like every great theory, the Grand Synthesis has had its prominent critics, but most of the charges laid against it have failed to take root. By the 1970's and 1980's such critics were widely dismissed as crackpots and minds were closed against their ideas.
Subtitling their 1995 book "The Lamarckian Dimension" was about as in-your-face a flaunt on orthodoxy imaginable, and I was surprised that the book turned out to be quite a credible review of our understanding of epigenetic inheritance. Their new book is on the same topic, but is much more considerate of the reader, mature, and self-assured than the author's previous foray.
Genetic (DNA), epigenetic (non-DNA chemical), behavioral (learning/assimilating), and symbolic (language, theory) information transmission are important in many levels of biological organization, from the structure of the cell to the social organization of masses of ants and humans. This much was clearly laid out in a number of recent books, including those of Maynard Smith and Szathmary, Keller, Michod, Durham, Boyd and Richerson, and others. But, this book is unique in being both accessible to the interest lay reader and having great breadth, covering many of the important levels in "multi-level selection."
I remember the first time it hit me that the problem of regulating the behavior of errant cells in a multi-cellular organism is the same, in principle, as regulating the behavior of an individual member of a social species. I also remember clearly when it first occurred to me that all of evolutionary theory consists of models of information transmission and behavior modification across time. Both of these are well illustrated in this book, sometimes in an almost poetic manner.
It is common for objectors to the Grand Synthesis to have some ideological agenda, such a Marxism, Post-Modernism, or Transcendental Holism, to put in the place of evolutionary theory. It is a great relief to find authors who express the new age of evolutionary biology without falling into these common traps. It just tells the truth, unembellished, but with a light tone.
78 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2006
This is such a good book, I wish it were better. In particular, I wish that the authors had not spent so much time discussing the effects of informational and symbolic transmission on evolution (most of which is fairly obvious) and spent more time on the fascinating topics of epigentic transmission and genetic control systems, which are extremely complex and difficult issues, and go by too fast.
The authors pose a question that evolutionary scholar rarely broach: If evolution produces and preserves adaptive traits, why does it not produce the trait that is the most adaptive of all -- the ability to directly transmit acquired adaptive characteristics to offspring? Ironically, despite their qualified claim that organisims do have such an ability, the authors provide an excellent Darwinian reason why this trait is so limited -- because a species which possesses it (like, say, humans) is so likely to "crash and burn" if it mistakenly adopts a trait which turns out to be maladaptive.
Jablonski and her co-author are neo-Lamarkians; that is, they believe (or want to believe) in the inheritance of acquired characterists. Lamarkism is deeply distrusted by evolutionary biologists for two very good reasons: there is not much evidence for it, and a mechanism for transmitting acquired characteristics seems biochemically impossible. The authors present some good arguments why this might not be so. Particulary impressive is their discussion of epigenetics -- biochemical processess not involving genes which nonethelesss affect an organism's development. Epigenetic processes pretty clearly can be affected by environmental factors, and so environmental factors do have a direct impact on bodily devlopment, and hence evolution. More relevantly, epigentic developments can apparently be directly incorporated into the organism's germ line (the system which involves reproduction), and hence heredity, without the necessity of mutation. This issue is deep and difficult probably deserved a whole book of its own.
The writing is clear and the illustrations are helpful, if a bit "cute." This book is a wonderful introduction to a problematical subject. Persons who are suspicious of classical Darwinism, but suspect that intelligent design theory is nonsense will love this book.
56 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2005
This book should make a significant impact on the direction of biologic research and theory. If it does not, the fault will lie in the tenacity of the human tendency to cling to accepted dogma and to simplicity, not to any shortcomings of the book.
For almost a hundred years, biologists have clung to the `modern synthesis' as the sole explanation for all evolution. Evolution, according to its core tenet, results from accidental, random errors in genetic copying in cell division. A few of these mutations give the organism an advantage over other members of the species, and, hence, greater survivability and opportunity for producing offspring. Hence all hereditary characteristics are said to result from this process which is `directionless,' `blind,' and pure chance. To many laymen and to more than a few scientists, this creed may be understandable as one cause of evolution. But as the sole cause it runs contrary to common observation, and common experience, and is difficult to accept.
That difficulty is undoubtedly one factor, though only one, feeding life into ideas of totally unscientific `creationism,' intelligent design, literal acceptance of the Biblical story of creation, and/or the dogma of Bishop Usher for a world created suddenly 6000 years ago.
Yet in the past five or six decades have come increasing reports in the scientific journals of instances of rapid evolution in various species, both in the laboratory and in nature, following change in habitat or in environment. These changes were too adaptive to the new milieu, and too rapid to be attributable to chance mutation. Further, intriguing hints of heritable change through various biological processes, have appeared. These include among other processes, `epigenesis,' the interaction of the environment with the genome; and the role of the largest part of the genome (the genes forming only a small part of it) in determining which genes shall be expressed and when.
The accumulating body of evidence is large and is growing. This volume collects substantially all of the important evidence and presents it in an understandable, coherent, manner, with intelligent explanation and interpretation. It contains scientific evidence and explanation for inherited change that is not entirely genetic, not entirely random, nor undirected. It explains how organisms, seeking to adapt and hence to survive, can react to new circumstances in ways that are targeted to specific threats, ways that ultimately become inherited by future generations. It speaks to the specialists, but in language any interested layman, such as myself, can understand. It should be widely read by all who are interested in evolution, particularly those grappling with the obvious shortcomings of the `modern synthesis.'
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2006
In 1829 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who wrote voluminous evolutionary ideas, was buried, virtually penniless, in a rented grave. There was no rest for the weary or the dead when decades later August Weismann cut off the tails of twenty-two generations of mice, discrediting Lamarck's idea of acquired characteristics and driving yet another nail into the poor man's coffin. (For more about Lamarck's life and ideas see J. B. Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984 and the insightful comments by Richard W. Burkhardt and David Hull therein).
As Lamarck was interred, his daughter remarked that the future would avenge him. It appears that time has come. Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb's Evolution in Four Dimensions provides an extraordinary explication and synthesis of hereditary mechanisms (genetic, epigenetic, behavioral and symbolic) that may be called Neo-Lamarckian - the set of ideas that extend heritable, adaptive changes beyond natural selection to include "...internal (evolved) systems that generate "intelligent guesses" in response to the conditions of life." (p. 361). The mechanisms Jablonka and Lamb explore include, but go well beyond, the 20th century concepts that locked inheritance inside Mendel's merkmal or Crick's Central Dogma or Morgan's Drosophila chromosomes and observable traits. In so doing, the authors make an important contribution to the 21st century paradigm about heredity that is a-building. (Other contributions include: Mary Jane West-Eberhard's Developmental Plasticity and Evolution, Oxford Univ. Press, 2003; Massimo Pigliucci's Phenotypic Plasticity, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2001; Gilbert Gottlieb's Synthesizing Nature-Nurture, Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997).
Dr. Jablonka, Professor of Biology at the acclaimed Cohn Institute in Israel and Ms. Lamb, formerly Senior Lecturer, Birkbeck College, University of London, extend the ideas in their previous work (Epigenetic Inheritance and Evolution, Oxford Univ. Press, 1995; The changing concept of epigenetics, New York Academy of Sciences, 2002, 981, 82-96.) The book is divided into three parts. In the first, the authors provide a fine summary of the modern development of evolutionary ideas, and the most detailed and extensive description of genetic mechanisms that I have found in a book aimed at a general readership. Almost certainly, anyone reading Chapter Two (From Genes to Characters) and Chapter Three (Genetic Variation: Blind, Directed, Interpretive?) will eschew conventional notions of "The gene for...." that are everyday fare in the media.
Chapter Four on epigenetics brings us back to those long-suffering mouse families whose tails were chopped off. As the experiments Jablonka and Lamb cite here indicate, had Herr Docktor Weismann manipulated a molecule during development, instead of a machete, he would have been able to alter the intergenerational transfer of characters. Chapter Five describes and analyzes behavioral inheritance systems particularly social learning and Chapter Six does the same for symbolic inheritance systems including cultural evolution and symbolic communication. Chapter Seven integrates genetic and epigenetic inheritance systems. Chapter Eight accomplishes the same for genes, behavior and language. Chapter Nine presents a Neo-Lamarckian perspective on heredity and evolutionary theory that might well have warmed Charles Darwin's heart because it is based on a closely reasoned collection of empirical data rather than the less well grounded speculations that are associated with Lamarck. Throughout, the authors take us on an intellectual journey from inside the cell up the abstraction ladder to the cultures we live in. For a related treatment cf. A.R. Cellura, The Genomic Environment and Niche-Experience, Cedar Springs Press, 2005.
There are two other features of Evolution in Four Dimensions that are particularly noteworthy. Implicit in most modern scientific theorizing is the notion of challenging hypotheses that Popper made idiomatic with his Conjectures and Refutations (Harper & Row, 1963). Consistent with this, Jablonka and Lamb aim at further insight through a dialogue at the end of each chapter between Ifcha Mistabra (Aramaic for opposite conjecture) and themselves. Also, it would be hugely neglectful not to mention the imp that got out of the ink bottle - the delightful drawings of Anna Zeligowski that illustrate key points in the text.
Evolution in Four Dimensions is a jewel readily accessible to educated readers with an interest in human adaptation over the short and the long haul.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2009
Jablonka and Lamb pull together many ideas about evolution to suggest that the Modern Synthesis prevalent since the 1930s is due for a reconceptualization. They argue that evolution involves not one but four kinds of inheritance systems: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and (in humans) symbolic. Epigenetic systems involve cellular variations appearing in the course of development, so that cells with the same DNA can develop in quite different directions. Since this information is preserved when cells divide, it can also be inherited in the reproduction of unicellular or asexually reproducing multicellular organisms. (Inheritance by sexually reproducing organisms is tricker but also possible.) Behavioral inheritance among organisms occurs through the transfer of behavior-influencing substances and through imitative and non-imitative learning. Human symbolic communication is an especially rich inheritance system, with features such as the capacity to share imagined behaviors never before tried. The genetic and non-genetic inheritance systems work together in evolution, with non-genetic changes often becoming genetically assimilated. For example, if a human population domesticates cows and starts relying on dairy products, genetic variations in the ability to digest lactose become relevant to natural selection, and so gene frequencies can change as a result of the change in customs. Jablonka and Lamb suggest that non-genetic changes often lead the way in animal evolution, with genetic changes playing catch-up.
Not only is this book a far cry from the simplistic genetic determinism that characterizes many popular discussions of evolution, but it is also a departure from 20th-century Darwinian orthodoxy. While genetic changes are usually blind to outcomes, the variations that are transmitted epigenetically, behaviorally or symbolically are often more targeted, arising in responses to signals from the environment. The environment plays the dual role of inducing as well as selecting variations, and the variations are more like educated guesses about what will work than random shots in the dark. The fact that these acquired innovations can be inherited (one way or another, though not by direct modifications of genes) means that evolution is partly Lamarckian after all, at least in a broad sense of the term.
Orthodox Darwinism has always been a philosophically puzzling doctrine. For a theory of change, it has placed a surprising amount of emphasis on the continuity of being, with change appearing as an accident that only occasionally happens to contribute to that continuity. For a theory of information, it has been surprisingly preoccupied with blind, completely uninformed variation. Jablonka and Lamb's understanding of evolution is both more dynamic and informationally richer. Inherited information is no longer confined to the genome, but can include information acquired and used in the course of development. Organisms participate in evolution not just as vehicles for the transmission of fixed information units (genes or their imagined cultural counterparts, memes, a notion J & L critique vigorously), but as active acquirers and interpreters of information. This is consistent with Stuart Kauffman's contention that life is even more complex and creative than biologists have realized.
The book is extremely well written and documented, so that the arguments are easy to follow by readers with a limited background in biology. Highly recommended for biologists and non-biologists alike.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2005
This book is a great achievement. It takes the wealth of scientific information on heredity and evolution and molds it into a new framework of thinking. By doing so it opens up new venues for research that could revolutionize the field. The authors clear explanation of the complexity of hereditary mechanisms and their original thought experiments expose how limited most of the current thinking about the role of genes is.
It is amazing that the authors succeeded to write such a revolutionary book in a way that is interesting, understandable and enjoyable even to readers without a scientific background (the humorous illustrations are a great help). This is especially important as genetics is becoming a part of everyday life. The way we think about heredity and the role of genetics influence our choices and what we regard as viable options.
Jablonka and Lamb manage to teach us a new multidimensional view of heredity. They bring data from many fields in order to show that there is much more to evolution than changes in gene frequency. Their work has broad implications for social thinking and for health (i.e. it exemplifies the need for new fields of epigenetic medicine and epidemiology).
The authors end their book with the words of the great Chinese writer Lu Hsun :"When many men pass one way, a road is made." I hope that many people will read this book, and will start paving the way suggested in this book with their teaching and research.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A recent biotechnology trade publication wrote that "epigenetic research surges on many fronts", and a study of textbooks in molecular biology that have been published in the last few years reveals that epigenetic mechanisms are relevant in biological systems. This book could be considered a definitive summary of what is known about epigenetic mechanisms in evolution, but also goes beyond it by arguing behavioral and "symbolic" variation also plays a significant role. Readers will get in-depth discussion of these terms and also get exposed to some speculation from the authors on how all four mechanisms, genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic drive the evolutionary process. However the authors are careful to note the difference between speculation and facts, and this intellectual honesty is refreshing and motivates the reader to consult some of the many references given in the book. At various places in the book, readers are expected to have a solid background in molecular biology in order to follow the discussion, but non-experts in this field, such as this reviewer, can with some concentrated effort appreciate what the authors are talking about.
Some of the highlights in the book include:
1. The reminder that genes are not "simple causal agents" with traits being the result of interactions among a collection of genes. Along these lines, gene regulatory networks have become a significant area of research in the last few years.
2. The point made that the Darwin theory of natural selection is a general theory of evolution, and does not make specific assumptions on the mechanisms behind heredity or variability. This assertion motivates the reader to search for different representations of Darwinian theory, this book being one of them, and further, ask the question as to how many such representations are possible, given the constraints of observation and experimentation. Are there for example, any "higher dimensional" versions of Darwinian theory (greater than 4)?
3. The discussion on information theory and its use in genetics.
4. The discussion on the ability of genomes to compensate for the lack of activity of a particular gene. This is very relevant to current methods in genetic engineering, which sometimes have their goal the "knockout" of certain genes.
5. The reminder that there is much that is unknown in molecular biology. One example given is the nature of the regulation of splicing.
6. The discussion on the advantages of sexual reproduction versus mere cloning.
7. The discussion on self-sustaining feedback loops in gene activity. This has connections with the field of mathematics called nonlinear dynamics, and a large amount of research in this field is devoted to understanding these feedback loops.
8. The view of the authors that RNA interference is a cellular immune system. This is an interesting idea, and motivates the reader to do further reading on whether it is an idea that is viable in immunology and molecular biology.
9. The discussion on "real-time" genome modification in the Sciara fly, wherein chromosomes are eliminated in both somatic and germ-line cells. The astute reader will naturally wonder how many other biological organisms are able to do this.
10. The role of methylation in transgenic strategies. This discussion is very important to those readers who want to understand the risks involved in genetic engineering. Transgene flow is considered to be a risk by some, but methylation apparently would assist in alleviating this risk.
Some of the disappointments in the book include:
1. The use of thought experiments to argue some of the main points. This is not a major detraction, but this use can degenerate into philosophical speculation if one is not careful, and it seems the authors are aware of this.
2. The authors should have included more discussion on why they think the "four categories" of epigenetic inheritance are not independent.
3. The assertion made without elaboration that when humans imitate they always intend to do so. Along these lines the authors need to elaborate in more detail what they mean by a "modular system of imitative learning." Their thinking on this would be very interesting to those readers involved in the field of artificial intelligence. Indeed, the authors' assertion that "imitation is a context- and content-sensitive process, not mere copying" is very important to those who are attempting to implement cognitive processes in non-human machines. This is further exemplified in the authors' discussion on "radical" evolutionary psychology and its view that the brain is a collection of modules, each having a particular cognitive task. The authors are clearly skeptical about the existence of these modules, and it would be interesting to know whether they would find the concept of "entangled" modules, i.e. those where task sharing is the defining characteristic, useful for their conception of symbolic inheritance systems.
4. Since plants do not exhibit complex or intentional behaviors, the authors need to show why behavioral inheritance systems are not relevant, or weakly so, in the evolutionary biology of plants. This point is naturally made at the place in the book where the authors discuss the difficulties of showing the relevance of behavioral inheritance systems in animals, i.e. showing the existence of animal traditions and so on. This question can also be asked in their discussion on symbolic inheritance systems: plants do not interpret symbols or have symbolic grammars. Here again, the authors point to the absence (or purported absence) of symbolic systems in animals. Humans therefore seem to have a multi-dimensional inheritance system, and are therefore unique in this regard.
5. In their discussion of symbolic inheritance systems, the authors place too much emphasis on generative theories of grammar, and do not take into account other theories, such as cognitive grammar. How would these other theories be integrated into their thinking on the role of symbolic inheritance systems?
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2010
Buy this wonderful, illuminating work for your e-reader and you will improve it and yourself! You will soon wish that you had all your other great books there as well, available for rereading, scanning and searching at any time. I will not duplicate material in the other, informative reviews, but just want to express surprise that there are not more such works on epigenetic evolution (in all its forms, using "epi" in a broad sense).
I was doubtful at first about the "discussions", expecting quick straw-man knockdowns a la Simplicissimus, but they really add to the exposition. I read it on a Kindle II and only the illustrations suffered, which I figured was OK, as I didn't much care for the style, but on reviewing them on an iPad I found them engaging. Improvements would include links to the notes at the end and return links from there. Some publishers are not fully committed to this e-book thing. Buy the Kindle version for your iPad - it is not (yet?) available as an i-Book.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2007
This book provides a comprehensive but not overly technical survey of our state of knowledge as to how evolution proceeds and, in particular, why change is not totally random. They point out that there is an evolutionary bias to select organisms whose DNA is conducive to evolution, because they are more likely to have "random" mutations which are favorable; that mutation rates increase under stress such as a change in the environment; that the folding properties of DNA insure that it is the more active sections of DNA that are likely to have mutations.
The thrust of this book, however, and the material most likely to be unfamiliar to lay students of the subject, is in support of a neo-Lamarckian viewpoint, in which environment can more directly impact inheritable change. There is one beautiful experiment which illustrates the neo-Larmarckian view, with flies: stress causes genetic mutation resulting, in some flies, in a particular deformity; if these flies are selected for further breeding (as if that mutation were a successful adaptation), and this is done for 16 generations, you finally get flies which have this deformity in the absence of the stressor. The theory is that organisms accumulate genetic differences which do not impact phenotype, in fact phenotypes tend to be insensitive to many mutations, but once there is sufficient environmental stress these genetic differences manifest themselves.
While epigenetics is a hot topic in the study of development, this book makes a case for epigenetic mutation as a basis for evolution. It also talks about what I would term a generalization of cultural inheritance wherein the inherited behavior does not depend on teaching or watching: for example, a young rabbit learns what is good to eat through the effects in the womb of what his mother eats, and what is in the mother's feces while the youngster is in the burrow.
The authors write very well, and are clearly mindful of the reader's comprehension. The discussion of the material at the end of each chapter is a wonderful idea. Still, I would have preferred a shorter work, without so much emphasis on philosophical subtleties: an idea like the "selfish gene" is not a scientific theory to be debated, but a way of looking at things which can be suggestive and lead to new findings, but of course has its limitations. A picture, or an experiment, is worth a thousand words. Currently, unfortunately, the evidence to support the book's ideas is often thin, in fact one objective of the authors is certainly to encourage more research. In one very interesting case they seem to make too little of the evidence: the author's accept that a young bonobo, watching experimenters teaching language to his mother, developed the understanding of a 2.5 year old human, including word order and other grammatical structures, but did not mention this in their initial discussions of language or really come to terms with it.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2009
... in my opinion.
This book is quite a treat. Jablonka and Lamb significantly advance evolutionary biology by assembling a wealth of biological knowledge.
Their basic thesis is that evolution in some way acts on all forms of hereditary information carried by organisms. This is, of course, true for the information encoded on an organism's DNA, but also for information encoded in epigenetic systems, in animal behavior and in symbolic systems. The later is unique to our species.
Jablonka and Lamb argue that a type of behavior which is learned by an offspring from a parent will propagate itself from generation trough generation. Successful types of behavior will over time be enriched in the population. This type of evolution will of course be ruled by different laws than genetic evolution - changes in behaviors will not be random and un-directed as DNA mutations (and even that is not certain). Thus, the "evolution of educated guesses" is taking place.
Similar principles hold for epigenetic and symbolic evolution. Information is passed on, and will be enriched in the population if it increases the bearer's fitness. In addition, these levels of evolution interact. The Baldwin effect, genetic evolution directed by behavior, is one example of such an interaction.
These points are made with a wealth of well-researched examples, some of them based on solidly established science, some of it on new strands of research. None of Jablonka and Lamb's ideas need you to believe anything outrageous to be true. At times they speculate about the role the mechanisms they propose could have, but the speculation seems completely reasonable to me and in many cases could serve as the starting point for interesting research projects - a real strong point of this book.
What is thus presented in this book is a modernized version of evolutionary theory, taking a number of complexities into account which have previously not been assigned the importance they propably should be given. From the connection between processes at the genetic, epigenetic, behavioral and systemic levels emerges a biology where evolution is not confined to selecting for benefitial variations in DNA sequences. Rather, such genetic evolution is only at the base of a more complex evolutionary process. Dobzhansky' famous quote that "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" morphs into "All (hereditary information) in biology makes sense for evolution".
While I am excited about Jablonka and Lamb's ideas, I found their presentation at times a bit tedious. The book could be 100 pages thinner. Especially the earlier chapters have a lot of introductory material which anyone who is picking up such a book will be familiar with. A number of times they start describing an intellectual debate about a certain topic, only to abort the description at a point when it would have been interesting, since "that would lead us too far astray". The chapters are followed by a dialog between two people defending and questioning, respectively, their ideas, which is often a bit redundant.
Then, Jablonka and Lamb admittedly cover a very wide range of topics and can't be expected to be experts on all topics. But there were still some cases where they could have payed more attention. As the example for a mutagen they list LSD, which it is not, in doses consumed by humans. To confuse a piece of drug war propaganda with a scientific fact made me cringe a bit. I enjoyed the creative naivist illustrations by Anna Zeligowski which often illustrate the concepts very well.
In summary: if you are a biologist who cares about a global perspective of his field, read this book. If you are one of these wonderful "educated laymen" scientists hope are abound in the public, read it as well.