- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; First Edition edition (November 23, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 031259108X
- ISBN-13: 978-0312591083
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,188,762 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization Hardcover – November 23, 2010
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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
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Top customer reviews
Whether Vermeij is detailing the intricacies of snail shells, green crabs, phenotypic plasticity, or genetic assimilation, the substance is never tiresome. The text is full of brilliant observations: "Inequality and imperfection, then, appear to be universal and necessary accompaniments to life itself," "Imperfection permits selection, which in turn contributes to adaptation. The state of perfection is unattainable in the real world of economic competition and conflicting demands," "Without the incentive of competition and defense, variation simply remains variation," "Nothing in life originates or functions in isolation." Furthermore, I found that Professor Vermeij touches upon, and highlights, important points from many subjects as far afield as Read Montague's `Efficient Computational Theory of Mind' ], John R. Searle's `Status Function Declarations' ], `Distributed Cognition' ], as well as the books Diversity and Complexity (Primers in Complex Systems) and Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Vintage).
While Vermeij doesn't go into great detail concerning the mechanisms, or hierarchical nature of evolution (for more on that I highly recommend Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution or Evolution and the Levels of Selection) - he simply doesn't have to and I believe that if he did, it would simply be superfluous. Here is a quote that outlines what I mean: "The civilizations of Peru, Egypt, and Mesopotamia arose near coasts with prolific marine resources. Fertile soils in river valleys and on great river deltas produced an agricultural surplus, which was critical to the emergence of urban centers and trade in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, the Indus Valley, and coastal China. The same combination of highly productive agriculture and abundant fisheries enabled the Netherlands to emerge as a disproportionately powerful trading nation in the seventeenth-century. The economies of cities, nation-states, and international corporations are thus like the productive ecosystems of great land masses and shallow seas [sources and sinks]. It is the activities of individuals and organized groups that transformed small, isolated, slow-paced economies into large vigorous ones; and it is the added value brought to an economy by trade and innovation that builds on natural plenty to produce vibrant wealth."
In closing, I enjoyed this book immensely. What's more, I took great pleasure in Professor Vermeij's frequent calls to conserve resources; "We, like the rest of the living world, are subject to the forces of competition and cooperation that dictate how locally scarce resources are divided among organisms and among parts of organisms. Unless we replace survival and propagation with other criteria for success - a profoundly unlikely prospect - we cannot escape this reality, and we shall remain bound to history." In this regard, there are many similarities to another terrific work of Jared Diamond's, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition. Lastly, there is a great Suggested Reading list in the back of the volume. This is a great book; I highly recommend it.
It's a unique book, but it is definitely not a good source on the topic of universal Darwinism. There are just too many seashells.
So, in my opinion, 3 stars is the minimum score justifying the effort of reading a book (the book's true cost), and actually, I was very tempted to give it 2 stars, because of the author's style in writing. To me, initially, it seemed to be at a level somewhat between technical writing, that you might find in a science journal, and science writing you might find in books intended for the general population. I have another hypothesis ...
I personally think that books should be written at a level of English understandable by a 12 year old (at around the level of a Harry Potter novel, which is actually quite a good level). The actual subject matter might actually not be understandable by a 12 year old, but that's beside the point. If it's written at a higher level, then it's either for the author's enjoyment or for the sake of the book, not its content.
In one section the author writes; "In the pre-human past, most of the disruptions that placed entrenched incumbents at risk of being supplanted originated outside the biosphere. Geological convulsions in the Earth, collisions between Earth and celestial objects, and the ripple effects that these larger-than-life agencies had on the capacities of organisms to make a living were responsible for the great mass extinctions and for the innumerable lesser calamities that are so well revealed by the fossil record". 'Geological convulsions?' (super-volcanos?). 'Celestial bodies?' (asteroids?). I'm certain the author enjoyed writing that passage, but surely it could have been expressed more clearly and concisely? I won't suggest how it should have been edited (not after just finishing reading Mark Twain's "Autobiography (volume I)", in part of which Mark Twain ripped into an editor who was foolish enough to edit Mark Twain's contribution of an introduction to a book on Joan of Arc).
Most of the information seems correct, or at least plausible. Before buying, I'd suggest looking at the extract or the sample provided for the Kindle to see if the style appeals. I eventually got use to the style (although I prefer Richard Dawkins' style in putting over similar material in a much more approachable manner).
My hypothesis for the author's style of writing is that he was blind from at least the age of 3, as a result of congenital glaucoma (which raised in my mind the question as to how a blind person was, and is, capable of doing such significant work in as visual a science as biology). A person reading visual text doesn't read every word; if a person did, reading would be slow and laborious. The important words are picked out automatically and meaning gained. Typographical errors are not seen or just ignored. I'd imagine that someone reading Braille would have to read every word to get the meaning, in which case every word would become equally important? And as a result, a blind author doesn't realise that he needs to have contrast between the words that contribute meaning to a sentence and the intervening words that just provide padding?