- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (August 8, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0399184929
- ISBN-13: 978-0399184925
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 29 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,905 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution First Edition Edition
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“With an ideal combination of clarity and comedy, scholarly caution and infectious enthusiasm, Losos shows us how evolutionary biology opens up for each of us the glorious workings of our world, with surprises around every corner.” —Washington Post
“This is a wonderfully serious book with a lighthearted voice. Is evolution predictable or contingent? Big question. Why do adaptations converge? Big question. Why is the platypus unique? Smaller question, but fun! Read, enjoy, think.” —David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo and Spillover
“Packed with stories of capturing lizards in the field, Improbable Destinies explores how we think evolutionary changes happen in populations, from mice to microbes to sticklebacks. Get this for the backyard biologist in your life.” —Popular Science
“Deep, broad, brilliant and thought-provoking. . . . In staggeringly clear and engaging prose, Losos shows us remarkable vignettes of scientists working at personal and professional risk in all sorts of habitats — field, lab and museum — to elucidate stunning mechanisms of evolution. . . . He is one of the premier writers in biology today.” —Nature
“[A] compelling book.” —Science
“In a refreshingly accessible narrative, laced with piquant anecdotes, Losos underscores the human significance of science affecting not only how we interpret our own place on the planet but also how we envision life in distant galaxies. Wonderfully lucid; singularly engaging.” —Booklist (starred review)
“A thoroughly accessible analysis of whether evolution is one big crapshoot or rather mundanely predictable. No spoilers here, but the evidence presented on both sides makes for some thought-provoking reading.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“A cheerful, delightfully lucid primer on evolution and the predictive possibilities within the field.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“Every now and then a brilliant book comes along that helps us rethink what we know about a subject. Jonathan B. Losos’ fascinating, compulsively readable Improbable Destinies is just such a book. . . . With vivacious writing and thoughtful, provocative insights, Losos’ captivating study of evolution deserves to be read alongside the books of E.O. Wilson (The Social Conquest of Earth) and Stephen Jay Gould (Wonderful Life).” —BookPage
“Improbable Destinies is one of the best books on evolutionary biology for a broad readership ever written. Its subjects—the unfolding of Earth’s biological history, the precarious nature of human existence, and the likelihood of life on exoplanets—are presented in a detailed, exciting style expected from an authentic scientist and naturalist.” —Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University
“Losos explains both the science and the underlying philosophy of the questions being asked in an accessible and engaging manner . . . The book is as enjoyable as it is informative.” —Publishers Weekly
“Is evolution a story foretold? Or is it little more than the rolls of DNA's dice? In Improbable Destinies, Jonathan Losos tackles these fascinating questions not with empty philosophizing, but with juicy tales from the front lines of scientific research. Drunk flies, fast-evolving lizards, mutating microbes, and hypothetical humanoid dinosaurs all grace the pages of this wonderfully thought-provoking book.” —Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses and The Tangled Bank
“Improbable Destinies is a crackling good read, threading rich anecdote into trenchant science. It belongs on the same shelf as I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong’s gorgeously crafted account of microbes and their critical roles in our bodies; Nick Lane’s dense, groundbreaking work on the origins of life, The Vital Question; and other recent books that grapple with Darwin’s revolution, such as Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty and Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave.” —The Barnes & Noble Review
“A rich, provocative, and very accessible book, Improbable Destinies is an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the ecological theater and evolutionary play of life, expertly guided one of its most insightful observers. Jonathan Losos has shone a light on a largely unheralded cast of fascinating creatures and ingenious scientists who are reshaping our view of why life is the way it is.” —Sean B. Carroll, author of The Serengeti Rules and Brave Genius
About the Author
Jonathan B. Losos is a biology professor and director of the Losos Laboratory at Harvard University and Curator of Herpetology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. His research regularly appears in top scientific journals, such as Nature and Science, and he has written a popular series about his work for The New York Times. Losos is the editor in chief of The Princeton Guide to Evolution and a member of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. He is the author of Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles.
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For an academic scientist with a mile-long curriculum vitae, author Jonathan B. Losos has a knack for writing in a clear, down-to-earth style. Therefore most readers likely to pick up this book should be able to handle it effectively. Its drawings by Marlin Peterson are equally clear -- even attractive.
Not surprisingly Losos allows that natural selection is the power behind evolution, but with a difference that is a subject of his book. I'll quote the author about that subject:
"This book . . . is about determinism, whether natural selection inevitably produces the same evolutionary outcomes or whether the
particular events a lineage experiences -- the contingencies of history -- affect the end result." (pg. 22).
Another way to think of the question is: If the dinosaur-killing asteroid of 65 million years ago had not fallen, might evolution plus additional time have enabled the dinosaur line to develop a lizard-man with similarities to us? We are presumed to have come down from insignificant Cretaceous Period mammalians contemporary with dinosaurs. Why not a lizard-man? After all, via convergence they managed to produce a fish-like vertebrate, the ichthyosaur.
Evolution has largely been seen by scientists since Darwin to be a long, drawn-out process. Therefore, how could the lizard-man theory ever be tested? We can't "rerun the tape." However, as Prof. Losos goes on to illustrate, we can 'sort of' turn it back because scientists have discovered that evolution isn't necessarily a long, drawn-out process. <Improbable Destinies> contains chapters telling of some methods and means by which intervening events have evolutionarily affected small critters and microbes within short lengths of time. This is not to say that now we can see if lizard-man is a likelihood in society.
<Improbable Destinies> is a most interesting book packed with information alluded to (albeit inexpertly) in this review.
The first half of Losos' book surveys the arguments and some of the facts on the ground. That is, it's "gee whiz!" stuff. Parts of it read like the late Victorian evolutionary literature mocked by William Bateson, who wrote in "Materials for the Study of Variation" that the arguments presented therein amount to "if such-and-such happened, well, then, it did!" The second half is much more stimulating. Since the elaboration of the phenomenon of industrial melanism, we have come to realize that adaptive evolution can occur very rapidly even as we speak. Evolution presents a continuing tension between "phylogenetic inertia" or "niche conservatism" on one hand, and "local adaptation" or "rapid evolution" on the other. How can we reconcile, say, cases where naturalized species have evolved rapidly in their new geographic ranges, with the fact that carnivorous and scavenging beetles apparently showed no morphological change at all since the middle Quaternary? At any rate, Losos, who has been very prominent in studies of evolution in Caribbean Anoles (lizards), presents case after case in which real-time evolutionary experiments usually (but not inevitably) argue for determinism. All of these brilliantly-executed studies should be familiar to an educated public, but most are not. Were they better-known, creationists would be much less able to confuse the issues with their spurious arguments. There is thus a real need for books like this, accessible to the intelligent general reader. (There is little in it that is new to professionals, though the presentation alone makes it a good investment of time for us.) How to get the word out?
So is evolution contingent or deterministic? Yes.
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