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Mark Pallen – The Rough Guide to Evolution

June 15, 2009

LibraryThing Early Reviewers70. The Rough Guide to Evolution by Mark Pallen (2009)

Length: 346 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 07 June 2009
Finished: 11 June 2009

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program (from February!)
Why do I have it? Because I’m getting my Ph.D. in biology, for starters.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 01 June 2009
Verdict? Probably not something I’ll personally refer to very often, but definitely good for non-specialists.

Summary: The Rough Guide to Evolution says in its introduction that its aim is to “present the educated lay reader with a readable and trustworthy introduction to evolution”. Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, tackles this task by breaking his subject matter into three main parts. The first, entitled “Ideas and evidence”, looks first at the history of evolutionary thought before Darwin, then at Darwin’s life and ideas and how he changed the science of his time, before delving into the main lines of support for evolutionary theory, and some of the highlights of current evolutionary biology, and how the science has been shaped and refined in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species.

The second section, titled “The greatest story ever told”, gives a history of Life on Earth, starting with current ideas about the origins of life, and moving through the paleontological record, with an entire chapter devoted to hominid paleontology and human evolution.

The third section is titled “Impact”, and examines how evolutionary theory has affected a variety of other areas of science – obviously fields like geology and archaeology, but also further-flung fields like linguistics and computer science – as well as other areas of life such as the arts, politics, and religion. Pallen also includes an extensive “Resources” section, which includes the expected “further reading” bibliography, but also includes extras like maps and guides to locations important to Darwin’s life.

Review: The Rough Guide to Evolution is, I think, pretty successful at its stated purpose: to provide an introduction and overview of the history and current state of evolutionary science, as well as to look at the impacts that “Darwin’s big idea” has had on other disciplines as well as other areas of society. Not every idea is presented the way I would have done it, but on the whole I think it comes off as very understandable to the lay-person, without sacrificing scientific accuracy, or condescending to the reader by dumbing down the principles involved.

The “Rough Guide” series of books are, as I understand it, half travel guides and half upscale versions of the “_______ for Dummies” books on a variety of topics in science, technology, culture, and more practical life matters. The Rough Guide to Evolution is a organized like an introductory textbook (i.e. with large subject headers topping every few paragraphs, and sidebar boxes with extra related information), and while I could see using some chapters in an introductory level biology class, Pallen does an excellent job of gauging his audience; this book is clearly written for the scientifically-literate public, not the specialist. The “hard science” parts are interspersed with enough trivia, anecdotes, and occasionally silly asides (want to know what Darwin would have had on his iPod? This book will tell you!) to keep things lively, and the coverage is broad enough to encompass all of the high points of the field without dwelling over-long on any particular subject.

Despite being impressed with the skill with which Pallen explains complicated theories and discoveries, I wasn’t always wild about the way some of the information was presented. The book as a whole tends to put an emphasis on the scientist first, and the science second; maybe the average reader is more interested in the people than in the work they did, or maybe it makes the science more relatable to know something about the people involved, but I thought that the focus on the people (names bolded and birth/death dates listed throughout) detracted from the ostensible purpose of the book, which was to explain the science and why it’s important.

To take an example: the section on kin selection starts with a mention of the topic, then talks about Haldane and Hamilton, the two scientists who formulated the concept, then explains the principle, then gives a quip from Haldane about it, then explains the basic mathematics of the principle, and only at the very end explains why kin selection is important and what phenomenon in the natural world it helps to explain. Personally, I think this organization is somewhat backwards; it would make more sense to me to start with the biological phenomenon, give the explanation, and only then talk about how/who/when it was discovered. But then, I’m a scientist, of course I’m going to think the science is the most interesting part.

In general, though, I thought this book did a lot of things well; big things, like straightforward explanations, engaging writing, a clear explication of the evidence for evolution, and not shying away from some of the more controversial aspects of the topic, but also little things, like drawing evolutionary trees in such a way to dispel the implication of humans (or mammals) at the “top”. (Plus, I’ve got to give some love to any book that includes a full-page box on the Flying Spaghetti Monster.) The formatting wasn’t my favorite (the bolding of names and terms every few lines was really distracting), and some of the organization isn’t how I would have done things, but overall, I was impressed. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: The Rough Guide to Evolution is probably too basic for those who already have a firm grounding in biology, but it would be an excellent choice for someone who’s interested in learning more about the history and current state of the science without getting bogged down by the level of detail provided by a textbook.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Mark Pallen’s evolution blog
Darwin Day Celebrations
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: A hundred and fifty years after the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution permeate our society.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2009 9:04 am

    Really like the format!

  2. June 15, 2009 10:13 am

    This would probably be good for me, since I have little to no grounding in biology.

  3. June 15, 2009 12:39 pm

    Christina – Thanks!

    bermudaonion – Whenever I write a review of a science book, I’m always really curious to know how it would have been from the perspective of a layperson… and whenever I write a review of pretty much any other non-fiction, I’m always curious to know how it would have been from the perspective of an expert. :)

  4. June 17, 2009 11:48 am

    I got this book for LT also, and I really liked the format, because it works great for just “dipping in” now and then and extracting a tidbit of knowledge, without having to commit yourself to a textbook!

  5. June 17, 2009 7:59 pm

    This looks like it would be pretty interesting. I admit that I am way too intimidated to tackle Darwins Origin however the illustrated edition is pretty appealing lol!

    And I love that you included a link to the Church of FSM :)

  6. June 18, 2009 9:33 am

    rhapsody – I hadn’t considered that approach – I read it straight through – but it’s definitely organized for easy “dipping”!

    Joanne – I’ve been trying to read the Voyage of the Beagle for months now, and I just keep stalling out (he’s still in Brazil at this point… haven’t even gotten to Tierra del Fuego, let alone the Galapagos!) It’s not hard to read, exactly, it’s just… clearly of a different era. The Origin’s similar… I think because he was writing to convince people who were of a very different mindset, he spends a LOT of time hammering on subjects (like the ability of artificial selection to produce really extreme variants over time) that seem totally self-evident today.

    And where better to spread the Pastafarian faith than in a review about evolution? :)

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