From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Combining superb writing with first rate science, Vermeij, a UC-Davis geologist and MacArthur fellow, explores the intricacies of evolution in a way that "show how understanding its mechanisms and consequences yields an emotionally satisfying, esthetically pleasing, and deeply meaningful worldview in which the human condition is bathed in a new light." He focuses on the importance of adaptation, how organisms interact with their environment, and examines the ways that both are altered. Making liberal use of his expertise in natural history, he supports his arguments with thoroughly engaging examples from ecosystems around the globe. Vermeij also redefines the longstanding question of nature vs. nurture so as to make it more accessible to future investigation by asking: "In which circumstances does genetic determination become so rigid that environmental influences on variation wane?" Had Vermeij stopped here, he would have written a wonderful book. He goes on, though, using the concept of adaptation in natural systems to discuss how these principles influence all aspects of human society, from religion to morality. This fabulous book deserves widespread attention by specialists and lay readers alike. (Dec.) (c)
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Vermeij’s first scientific love was for seashells. That led him marine biology to paleontology and, eventually, to the profession of geology, the discipline that, through Lyell’s influence on Darwin, midwifed evolution and remains critical to demonstrating that evolution is the correct mode of thinking about the development of life. In each of 13 chapters, Vermeij takes an aspect of the theory of evolution through adaptation and discusses how the physical evidence ascertained by science verifies the theory. Of course, this involves a lot of particulars about different creatures in different circumstances, all of which his congenial instructive tone and clear exposition make an absorbing joy to read. In each chapter, he also states how the aspect of adaptation at hand can be seen in human development, from the phenotype to civilization. He says his aim is to convince us that no supernatural agency is necessary to the development of life. But he’s no philosopher and misses that mark completely. As an explicator of evolution, however, he’s first class. --Ray Olson