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The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma [Hardcover]

Marc W. Kirschner , John C. Gerhart , John Norton
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 19, 2005 0300108656 978-0300108651 1
In the 150 years since Darwin, the field of evolutionary biology has left a glaring gap in understanding how animals developed their astounding variety and complexity. The standard answer has been that small genetic mutations accumulate over time to produce wondrous innovations such as eyes and wings. Drawing on cutting-edge research across the spectrum of modern biology, Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart demonstrate how this stock answer is woefully inadequate. Rather they offer an original solution to the longstanding puzzle of how small random genetic change can be converted into complex, useful innovations.

In a new theory they call “facilitated variation,” Kirschner and Gerhart elevate the individual organism from a passive target of natural selection to a central player in the 3-billion-year history of evolution. In clear, accessible language, the authors invite every reader to contemplate daring new ideas about evolution. By closing the major gap in Darwin’s theory Kirschner and Gerhart also provide a timely scientific rebuttal to modern critics of evolution who champion “intelligent design.”

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

We all know Darwin's theory of evolution—natural selection favors some adaptations over others. But where do new adaptations come from? This problem baffled Darwin and is the main point of attack for opponents of evolution. Kirschner and Gerhart, professor at Harvard and UC-Berkeley, respectively, present their solution to the problem and take a few timely shots at the advocates of intelligent design. The key to understanding the development of complex structures, they say, is seeing that body parts as seemingly different as eyes and elbows are formed from the same basic molecular mechanisms. Thus, the authors propose, the metabolic building blocks of life functions can be rearranged and linked in novel ways with less chance of fatal variations than random mutation of DNA would allow. One piece of evidence they offer is the frequency of periods of "deep conservation" following evolutionary anatomical changes, where conventional theory would argue for continuous mutation and change. Though this seems like an elegantly simple solution, the underlying molecular biology is quite complicated. As for proponents of intelligent design, the authors say their theory turns some of their arguments on their head, converting "some of their favorite claims"—such as "irreducible complexity"—into arguments for evolution. (Oct. 19)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Since its publication a century and a half ago, Darwin's revolutionary theory of evolution has explained very well how natural selection winnows out the mutations most helpful in fitting a species to survive. Now two neo-Darwinian biologists have boldly extended the original paradigm by showing how the deep molecular biology of the cell actually fosters biological novelties when plants and animals need them most, not merely when random chance generates them. Surveying the latest genetic research, Kirschner and Gerhart adduce evidence that nature has preserved and compartmentalized those core innovations that maximize the adaptive flexibility of species from yeasts to humans. The dynamics of protein chemistry and the plasticity of embryonic cells combine to make creatures capable of assuming many different forms in a wide range of environments. The deepest and most stable processes in biology, thus, are those that prime species for further evolution. It is this biological priming for evolutionary change that Darwin's great rival Larmark was groping toward when he stumbled into error. And it is a theoretical realignment that acknowledges this "facilitated variation" that Darwin's disciples now need in order to fend off skeptics who have latched onto the implausibility of the old scientific orthodoxy premised on entirely random and gradual change in species. Remarkably lucid and comprehensive, this new theoretical synthesis will thus shift the grounds for debate in the controversy surrounding organic evolution. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (October 19, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300108656
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300108651
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,058,051 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
159 of 169 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding introduction November 6, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The theory of evolution began as an alternative to what is now called creationism. But unlike the advocates of creationism, Charles Darwin did not attempt to build his theory of evolution by refuting the arguments of William Paley and the other creationists of the time. Instead, he based his theory on observations, on the many traits and characteristics that he observed on his long voyage on the Beagle. A successful theory of origins cannot be built merely on sophisticated rhetoric or logical argumentation. Darwin knew this and to his great credit he gave humanity a view of life that is more scientifically justified and based on common-sense observations. Any theory however has its weaknesses, due in part to the limited knowledge of the individuals that propose it. These individuals though usually recognize these weaknesses, and are cognizant that future generations may be able to resolve them, due to the more advanced experimental techniques that are then available.

Darwin knew the weakness in his theory: it could not explain variation. The authors of this book attempt to resolve this difficulty in his theory and account for the enormous novelty in the natural world. And like Darwin, the authors justify their theories with experimental results, particularly in the fields of genetics and embryology. The knowledge from these fields was of course not available in Darwin's time. The case that the authors make for the origins of novelty is both interesting and very plausible, and even though the book is targeted to a "popular" audience, readers will appreciate the book more if they have a fairly strong background in biology.
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96 of 100 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Creationist luddites repeatedly claim that life's diversity and complexity could never arise from the progressive accumulation of random genetic change - they conveniently forget non-random selection. Also dismissed are the unimaginably vast stretches of geologic time available for the constant interplay of variation and selection to shape phylogeny. They also question how genetic changes coordinate to realize new types of organisms.

In "The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma" Kirschner and Gerhart propose 'facilitated variation' as an evolutionary mechanism to resolve these and other issues. Recent advances in cellular and developmental biology have shed new light on how evolutionary biology generates novelty (new features). Although natural selection is well understood, variation as a component of evolutionary theory has been less well developed.

Darwinian orthodoxy aggregates a large number of successive mutations, each usefully selected for the survival of the organism, to produce novel structures such as wings or eyes. Facilitated variation posits that physiologically adaptable 'core processes' (conserved by evolution across vast periods of time and groups of organisms) - along with properties such as weak linkage and exploratory processes - enable proteins, cells, and body structures to interact in numerous ways to create novelty from a limited number of genes and mutations. Life has evolved an evolutionary architecture (or toolbox) that promotes novelty and complexity - and minimizes deleterious outcomes.

Several hundred core processes generate the morphology, physiology, and behavior of an organism during development. Some have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions or even billions of years.
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69 of 73 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How We Are Designed To Evolve March 18, 2006
As the title The Plausibility of Life suggests, this book is intended to counter a central claim of creationism, the claim that it is implausible -- indeed virtually impossible -- for complex life to have evolved through variation and selection. Instead of taking a defensive position and trying to prove that evolution really did happen, he is demonstrating that the creationist argument is lame. He does this by showing that organisms have built-in processes which promote evolution.

Central to the argument is the notion of "conserved core processes". An example given here is a protein called Ras, which acts as an on-off switch for a variety of processes. Having evolved in one context, it was later combined with other components to control other processes. It is rather like using off-the-shelf parts to build automobiles instead of designing each new model from scratch.

There are too many other examples to summarize them here. The author's point is that nature has ways of promoting evolution beyond simple point mutations. It is worth noting that, regardless of how life came to be, evolution is now part of the design.

The book is rather elementary in that there is little technical jargon and no molecular biology. On the other hand, it will probably not be accessible to those who have not already read a couple of books on evolution. I decided to rate it 4 stars instead of five because it drags in spots (but only in spots) and it is sometimes unclear (but only sometimes). In high-school terms, I would give it A-.

Other books look at this aspect of evolution from different points of view and using other examples. I recommend some of the books I have reviewed. (Click above on "See all my reviews." You will have to go beyond the first page.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars ideal for those with a basic understanding of evolutionary history
Very good information, making connections between micro and macro evolution. Although it may be helpful for it to have been written in more "plain" language. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Avery Beck
5.0 out of 5 stars Facilitated variation
This is the book to read to hear a hypothesis to a central mystery of evolution - how can random mutations generate adequate and apparently cooperative variation to explain the... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Keith Aspinall
2.0 out of 5 stars Darwin doubted by scientists
This serious work by Kirschner and Gerhart (K&G) is notable as it is a de facto take-down by eminent biologists at the most prestigious academic institutions of Darwin's theory. Read more
Published on February 20, 2011 by Frenchy
5.0 out of 5 stars Helped bring me up to date
This book is incredible. I have to admit that it's been eons since I actually did any real reading in the research that has been done in evolutionary biology. Read more
Published on July 27, 2010 by Atheen M. Wilson
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin's Dilemma Solved?
When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution based on variation and selection, he could explain selection but not variation. This was Darwin's dilemma. Read more
Published on May 27, 2010 by Randolph Eck
2.0 out of 5 stars Fact Check
The authors mentioned that archaea only exist in the harshest environments on earth. This is simply not true in the least bit. Read more
Published on September 29, 2009 by Justin
5.0 out of 5 stars Plausability of Life Review
What makes life itself fit to survive? Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart organize what we know about genetic history and about the workings of organisms, to explain how the... Read more
Published on July 2, 2009 by Julie Lakehomer
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing, important ideas; needs improvement
Bookreview: Plausibility of Life by Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart

After a long, long hiatus, I hope to start writing more reviews. Read more
Published on January 25, 2009 by Scott Stratton
5.0 out of 5 stars This is excellent!
This is an excellent introduction to the effect of epigenetics on evolution. I would recommend this book to anyone who is not familiar with epigenetics.
Published on August 25, 2008 by Mark LaJoie
5.0 out of 5 stars Plausible Enough, Thank You!
Most readers, I assume, would declare that Life is Plausible enough, as long as they haven't overspent their Visa cards. Read more
Published on April 7, 2008 by Giordano Bruno
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