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The Ghosts Of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms

4.3 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465005529
ISBN-10: 0465005527
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1982, respected ecologists Dan Janzen and Paul Martin published a short, provocative paper in the journal Science, asserting that many fruits found in Central American forests "are adapted primarily for animals that have been extinct for thirteen thousand years." As those species went the way of the dodo, the fruits lost their initial means of dispersal, but continued to eke out a system of procreation, Janzen and Martin explained. Their insight led to the methodological realization that to fully understand the evolutionary forces shaping these fruits, scientists must first determine the behavior of the extinct animals. Science writer Barlow (From Gaia to Selfish Genes) extends this compelling idea into a narrative stretching from the Pleistocene era up through the inception, rejection and gradual, partial acceptance of this theory by the ecological science community. The large, pendulous seedpods of a honey locust, Barlow shows, evoke the ghosts of mammoths that used to disperse the seeds. Although there are some beautiful passages, too often the writing is precious and repetitive. Barlow details her own rather simplistic observations of certain plants e.g., persimmon, osage orange and ginkgo whose anachronistic existence is similar to the Central American fruits, but she does not contribute significantly to the underlying theory. Janzen and Martin explained their ideas in nine pages. Barlow, with 20 years of hindsight and 25 times as many pages, embellishes the story convincingly but doesn't add much new information. Photos not seen by PW.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Here's an interesting proposal: we can tell a lot about the kinds of animals that existed thousands of years ago by looking closely at the kinds of fruit that grow today. A quarter century ago, this idea was so radical that its originators, ecologist Dan Janzen and paleontologist Paul Martin, had trouble even getting someone to publish their paper on the subject. This fascinating book chronicles the development of Janzen and Martin's theory and extends it by looking at new discoveries that help the experts learn how the world's ecosystems have evolved. Everywhere we look, Barlow says, we can find the ghosts of animals that evolved to eat certain fruits; the animals died off, but the fruits still grow, the only remaining part of a once-thriving ecosystem. Like the works of Stephen Jay Gould and Lewis Thomas, this account is imminently accessible for lay readers but also contains enough detail to satisfy those with some knowledge of the subject. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (March 21, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465005527
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465005529
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #666,221 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Connie Barlow (b. 1952) had 4 science books published between 1991 and 2001. All explore how a mainstream understanding of evolutionary biology can help us feel deeply rooted in this world and supported by a glorious ancestry. In 2001, she shifted her focus to online writings and curricula, as webmaster of the acclaimed TheGreatStory dot org website. In 2009 she (with her husband, Michael Dowd) launched a podcast: "America's Evolutionary Evangelists." She regularly uploads evolutionary videos to her YouTube channel, ghostsofevolution, which echoes the title of her last book, "The Ghosts of Evolution." You can sample Connie's free writings (including contributed chapters to books) at her publications page on her website (google: Connie Barlow publications). Connie is also the founder and webmaster of an ecological activist group: TorreyaGuardians dot org.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
As is often the case in my morning carpool to Kansas City, passions ran high when I raised the topic of megafaunal dispersal. George was at the wheel, I was riding shotgun, and Bob and Stan were scrunched up in the back of George's old Honda Accord. I was, to the best of my ability, explaining the arguments in Connie Barlow's new book about extinct seed dispersal partners: The Ghosts of Evolution. Connie asserts (along with veteran paleobiolists Paul Martin and Dan Janzen), that certain largish animals had big enough gullets to swallow fruits like Osage oranges whole and then poop out the seeds several miles away, thus expanding the plant's territory in the next generation. Unfortunately, nobody provides this service for Osage oranges anymore, which is why they all lie around rotting within a few yards of the mother tree every autumn.
In an attempt to confirm that a creature like a mastodon would willingly eat Osage oranges, Martin and Barlow persuaded the director of the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago to offer the fruit (scientific name maclura pomifera) to three of the zoo's elephants. "Affie, the matriarch of the Brookfield elephants, did eat maclura--but just the first fruit she was offered. After that, she showed no interest in any more. The reactions of the other elephants were strongly negative. One wasn't even willing to smell the fruit when the offer was first made. Finally, she took it from her keeper and hurled it down the hall. The second elephant did the same thing but aimed for the public area." I can't say that I blame them. As a child, I was under the impression that Osage oranges (or hedge apples) were poisonous.
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Format: Hardcover
This splendid addition to the popular scientific literature is almost as insightful and as well written as David Quammen's "Song of the Dodo". A fine overview of Dr. Paul Martin's and Dr. Daniel Janzen's pioneering work on "ecological anachronisms" in New World plants, it should be read by ecologists and evolutionary biologists, as well as the scientfically interested public. Connie Barlow has made an important contribution to Martin's and Janzen's ideas by distinguishing relative degrees of ecological anachronisms. Yet her book does contain some serious omissions and factual errors which I shall note later. Let me first sing its praises.

Connie Barlow's overview of "ecological anachronisms" is absolutely superb. She has a tremendous eye for detail, but never gets completely bogged down by it. Instead, much of what she writes is replete with insightful humor. She opens with an excellent history of Martin's and Janzen's work. Her vivid writing is a wonderful synthesis of science, natural history and biography all thrown in for good measure. I suspect historians of science interested in ecology and evolutionary biology will turn to this book as a primary reference on "ecological anachronisms".

Readers will find compelling Connie Barlow's descriptions of Paul Martin and Daniel Janzen. She treats them as a dynamic pair passionate about their unique insights into ecology and other aspects of evolutionary biology. They will also find compelling her attempts at scientific research. I suspect they will chuckle as much I did while reading about her experiments on "ecological anachronisms" in the wilds of New Mexico and the urban jungle that is New York City.

Having sung some praises, let me point out some flaws.
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Format: Paperback
"The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls..."
--from a poem by Arthur Guiterman
The exciting idea in this book is that there are trees that "lament" the passing of the mastodons and the other extinct megafauna that once distributed their seeds. What animal now regularly eats the avocado whole, swallows the seed and excretes it far from the tree in a steamy, nourishing pile of dung? No such animal exists in the Western Hemisphere to which the avocado is native. (Barlow reports that elephants in Africa, where the avocado has been introduced, eat the avocado and do indeed excrete its pit whole.)
How about the mango with its pulp that adheres so tightly to the rather large pit? As Barlow surmises, such fruits were "designed" for mutualists that would take the fruit whole and let the pit pass through their digestive systems to emerge intact for germination away from the mother tree. Note that the avocado pit is not only too large to pass comfortably through the digestive system of any current native animal of the Americas, but is also highly toxic so that such an animal would have quickly learned not to chew it. Note too that the mango pit is extremely hard, thus encouraging a large animal to swallow it along with the closely adhering pulp rather than try to chew it or spit it out. Consider also the papaya. The fruit are large and soft so that a large animal could easily take one into its mouth and just mash it lightly and swallow. Note too that the fruits of the papaya tree grow not high in the tree, nor is the tree a low lying bush. Instead the tree is taller than a bush but its fruits are clustered at a height supermarket convenient for a large animal to pluck.
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