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A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the British Imagination Hardcover – September 2, 2004
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Kohn selects six figures who made major contributions in expounding how adaptation provides the design framework for evolution. The men, and they are necessarily men, as Kohn notes carefully, were "profoundly impressed with the power of natural selection". Kohn's title is derived from their uniformity in seeing organisms as perfectly suited to their current environment. If a trait could be identified, it must be a successful adaptation. They understood better than anybody how nature selected organisms to survive without any interference from "divine intelligence" or any other supernatural force. This, in the face of several of them continuing to profess faith in Christianity. Kohn doesn't attempt to rationalise this dichotomy. Instead he depicts each figure as he was, with strengths, interests, shortcomings and some bizarre lifestyles.
Starting with Wallace, Kohn then moves into the 20th Century with Ronald Fisher, moves to J.B.S. Haldane, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith and concludes with Richard Dawkins. Although at first glance, this seems to be a string of disparate figures, Kohn shows how these men knew and interacted with each other. Some were mentors of others, with succeeding generations adding to the wealth of insight needed to unravel the workings of Darwin's original concept. Kohn's approach provides a comprehensive picture of the advances in thought a reading of individual biographies would be unlikely to portray. It's interesting that none of these thinkers was a field researcher. Even Darwin had circled the planet with his famous stop at the Galapagos Islands. They made good use of those who relayed field observations, but their main thrust proved mathematical explanations of the evolutionary processes.
Each of Kohn's subject is a giant in his own right. Yet one figure standing out in this presentation, is John Maynard Smith. Maynard Smith, who became the most expressive critic of Stephen Jay Gould, is shown as the most effective compiler of the ideas of his predecessors and contemporaries alike. In addition, Maynard Smith is portrayed as a man anyone could hold a dialog with and not fear either a diatribe or a wandering away from the subject. Maynard Smith once had aspirations of becoming an engineer. Although not taking a "mechanistic" approach to natural selection, he would often ponder an idea, then decide he'd "better do the sums" to determine if it was a solid concept. Later, as a stereotypical British academic Marxist, he worked on aircraft design and testing during WWII. After the war, he considered various options, settling on biology. It is well for the science that he did. His fruit-fly studies led to demanding questions about animal behaviour - particularly in Darwin's challenging notions of mate selection. He also readily demolished the notion of "group selection" which gained attention for a short time. He developed the idea of "Evolutionarily Stable Strategy", which became the foundation for many students of animal behaviour. The concept is fundamental in field observations.
Kohn's dedication to the thinkers of science, combined with a fluid prose style makes this book an outstanding contribution. He has read widely and interviewed those subjects available to him. His feel for the problems these men addressed and how they resolved them is as intimate as circumstances allow. He is forthright and non-judgemental on the eugenics issue which permeated much of British biology. Although these men formed the ranks of Gould's "ultra-Darwinists" [a phrase this reviewer has never comprehended], Kohn shows the importance of their work to biology. And he does it impeccably. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]