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Not for lay readers
on November 13, 2011
As others have pointed out, this is an advanced text on evolution, best read in the context of a graduate-level seminar. That's unfortunate, because the material could have been made much more accessible with a modest amount of effort. This review will be focused on its flaws in that regard; I'll leave it to more expert readers to assess its strengths as both a summary of the field and a synthesis of Dr. Koonin's work, particularly his controversial use of the anthropic principle.
Dr. Koonin starts the book with three chapters on the history of the field (starting with Darwin), assuming no prior knowledge of it; every term is defined along the way. But there's no index/glossary, and the rapid accumulation of definitions quickly becomes overwhelming. Even as early as the first chapter, one encounters sentences like this: "Simply put, variation is permitted if and only if it does not confer a significant disadvantage on any surviving variant." What does the word "variant" mean here, precisely--an allele? An entire organism? Or something else?
A wealth of details serve to distract from the main points being made. For instance, the captions for many of the graphs specify the software used to generate them. Interested researchers could easily find this information by looking at the cited papers. And as with so many academic books, the structure is narratively far less satisfying than it could be. Chapter 12, "Origin of life," is an exploration of how the first organism might have formed. Only later, in the middle of chapter 13, does he write, "In my view, all advances notwithstanding, evolutionary biology is and will remain woefully incomplete until there is at least a plausible, even if not compelling, origin of life scenario." So we've spent an entire chapter on scenarios with too little evidence to establish plausibility?
In short, this is a rich text, but non-specialists should probably stick to Dawkins.