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Reinventing Darwin: The Great Debate at the High Table of Evolutionary Theory 1st Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0471303015
ISBN-10: 0471303011
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

One of the world's foremost evolutionary theorists presents a fascinating overview of the arguments supporting the two main opposing theories of evolution that have developed since Darwin--one from the geneticists and the other from the paleontologists. Eldredge offers an insider's perspective of the disputes between the most famous names in the field. He explains who the key players are, why they disagree and gives a spirited defense of his side of the debate. Features all important new advances in evolutionary theory during the past two decades.

From the Back Cover

An insider's provocative account of one of the most contentious debates in science today

When Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, two of the world's leading evolutionary theorists, proposed a bold new theory of evolution--the theory of "punctuated equilibria"--they stood the standard interpretation of Darwin on its head. They also ignited a furious debate about the true nature of evolution.

On the one side are the geneticists. They contend that evolution proceeds slowly but surely, driven by competition among organisms to transmit their genes from generation to generation. On the other are the paleontologists, like Eldredge and Gould, who show in the fossil record that in fact evolution proceeds only sporadically. Long periods of no change--equilibria--are "punctuated" by episodes of rapid evolutionary activity. According to the paleontologists, this pattern shows that evolution is driven far more by environmental forces than by genetic competition.

How can the prevailing views on evolution be so different? In Reinventing Darwin, Niles Eldredge offers a spirited account of the dispute and an impressive case for the paleontologists' side of the story. With the mastery that only a leading contributor to the debate can provide, he charts the course of theory from Darwin's day to the present and explores the fundamental mysteries and crucial questions that underlie the current quarrels.

Is evolution fired by a gentle and persistent motor and fueled by the survival instincts of "selfish genes"? Or does it proceed in fits and starts, as the fossil record seems to show? What is the role of environmental changes such as habitat destruction and of cataclysmic events like meteor impacts? Are most species inherently stable, changing only very little until they succumb to extinction? Or are species highly adaptable, changing all the time?

Eldredge sorts through the major findings and interpretations and presents a lively introduction to the leading edge of evolutionary theory today. Reinventing Darwin offers a rare insider's view of the sometimes contentious, but always stimulating work of scientific inquiry.


The Miner's Canary: Unraveling the Mysteries of Extinction

"The Miner's Canary rings with integrity. The author takes care to present opposing views. Some readers, indeed, might view Mr. Eldredge as a little too self-effacing; he is, after all, one of the world's leading experts in his field."--The New York Times Book Review

Fossils: The Evolution and Extinction of Species

." . . an important and informative book. It is also delightfully idiosyncratic. This is no scholarly treatise defending academic argument. It is an essay for everyone interested in the story of earthly life."--The Christian Science Monitor

Life Pulse: Episodes from the Story of the Fossil Record

"This is Earth history on a grand scale; those who enjoy the works of Stephen Jay Gould will appreciate Life Pulse."--Publishers Weekly


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (April 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471303011
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471303015
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.9 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,071,965 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Whenever one reads a book of neo-Darwinism (Eldredge calls it ultra-Darwinism) the mechanisms are mostly well explained, if not always convincing to everybody. In this sense "Punctuated Equilibrium" has been a frustrating theory, in that we are never told exactly how it works. Few of us have seen the original papers of Gould and Eldredge, and Gould's copious range of books since rarely detail his most famous idea.
I hoped then, that 'Reinventing Darwin' would give the story first hand. However, while this book gives an inside story of the politics of the 'high table', and some conflicts within modern science, there are no real mechanisms. Eldredge mentions that habitat tracking can account for stasis, by organisms migrating with latitude creep in a benign environment, rather than staying in the same latitude and adapting. (If this alone explains stasis, you read it here first!). Eldredge also provides arguments for observed evolution not following the theoretical mechanisms of neo-Darwinism for large changes, or how he explains it. But one is left wondering if punctuated equilibrium is still an observational hypothesis about the pattern of life, that nobody, including its originators, can explain how it works.
Eldredge ends on a hopeful note; that 'naturalist' and 'reductionist' scientist should try to understand each other. But the problem might be deeper than that. In my own book (The Theory of Options: A New Theory of the Evolution of Human Behavior) I suggest that 'reductionist' math might simply be incomplete, in that upwards from about 100k reproductions a second effect of gene copy kicks in, not covered in the existing equations. I might be wrong on this, but this another lesson from the punctuated equilibrium experience.
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Format: Hardcover
I really enjoyed this book, even though I don't see the importance of the debate. Each side (the scientists who study genes vs. the scientists who study fossils) has their own area of expertise, and within that area, their conclusions appear to be totally supported by the own evidence. The solution, I believe, will be found on the genetics side, as they discover exactly how a small "mutation" changes primitive organisms. Our genome is so huge, and tangled with billions of years of false starts and dead ends, that mutations in our genomes don't produce new species, the way similar mutations did in the Cambrian. I suspect this book is actually aimed at those who don't accept evolution, to show that all the available evidence has been examined "under a microscope," and that reputable scientists aren't afraid to present both sides of an issue in a single work. Contrast this with the Creationists, who feel free to present any theory, or possible interpretation of a piece of evidence, without evaluating it for credibility.
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Format: Hardcover
In 'Reinventing Darwin', Niles Eldredge presents the view of a different side of the issues presented by what he calls 'Ultra-Darwinists', the likes of Richard Dawkins and Maynard Smith. As such, it raises an important contribution to our understanding of natural history, and is essential for anyone interested in current debates inside of Neodarwinism.
Perhaps the most striking thing about 'Reinventing Darwin', is how little attention Eldredge pays to the design of actual animal bodies and behaviors. Richard Dawkins's books, for example, are filled with explanation of various complex and semi-designed things - such as altruism in 'The Selfish Gene'. 'The Blind Watchmaker' is entirely devoted to the question of how things like wings, eyes and legs are formed by natural selection.
Eldredge, on the other hand, is hardly ever interested in these issues. He does make a halfhearted attack on the 'Panglossian' kind, which is associated with Gould, but Eldredge had little to do with the paper about the Arches of San Marino. Eldredge readily concedes that the great majority of animal features are formed by natural selection (p.48).
So what is the focus of Eldredge book, and the main line of critique of the Ultra-Darwinists? The answer is the larger patterns of natural history. Eldredge believes that the history of life is not just the principles of natural selection extrapolated. Rather, Eldredge believes that in the large scale, there are different principles that govern life, additions to simple natural selection.
Eldredge is most convincing when he discusses the importance of species as players in evolution.
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Format: Hardcover
Niles Eldredge's "Rethinking Darwin" is a slender tome which advocates a major restructuring of the Modern Synthetic Theory of Evolution, pleading for a major shift away from its population genetics roots towards more emphasis on the significance of speciation and its historical legacy - according to Eldredge - in prevailing patterns of stasis seen within the fossil record. Although Eldredge does not deny the importance of Natural Selection as the primary means of evolutionary change, he notes - and I think correctly - that its relevance to speciation is still not well known, especially from a real-world "naturalist" perspective.
Building from his ideas on punctuated equilibria, Eldredge makes a very persuasive case for stasis in the fossil record and its implications for microevolution as well as macroevolution. He does an excellent job linking Ernst Mayr's theory of allopatric speciation to punctuated equilibria, noting that something akin to it - if not allopatric speciation directly - is the mechanism responsible for abrupt appearances in the fossil record. Eldredge also notes the significance of long-term stasis in ecosystems, which he has observed in ongoing research on Middle Devonian (approximately 370-360 million years) marine ecosystems in what is now New York with paleontologist Carlton Brett and his colleagues.
Admittedly Eldredge does come across as a petulant schoolboy in his tone, which is perhaps quite intentional, especially after referring to the "High Table" of British university academics of the likes of biologist John Maynard Smith. But one would be greatly amiss to pay sole attention to Eldredge's complaints, without considering some important implications for evolutionary theory which he addresses in this well-reasoned, well-written work of scientific prose.
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