Evolution and Its Discontents
How the godfather of natural selection came up with the idea and why it still holds up.

Reviewed by David Brown
Sunday, August 27, 2006


An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin

and the Making of His Theory of Evolution

By David Quammen

Atlas/Norton. 304 pp. $22.95


The Case Against Intelligent Design

By Michael Shermer

Times. 199 pp. $22

Evolution isn't hard to understand; you don't need to know about thermodynamics or the unique property of the speed of light. Evidence for it is part of ordinary life, visible in both the general similarity of many organisms and the crucial differences between them. Evolution has an intuitive logic that isn't the case with, say, Einstein's ideas.

So why do people have such a hard time accepting evolution and its engine, natural selection? How could it be that in 2005, according to a Pew Research Center poll, 42 percent of Americans surveyed believed that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time"? These two wonderful books try to explain why such a richly documented and proven theory (by science's standard, which allows no certain proof outside mathematics) remains so difficult for some people to accept.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin comes at the theory, and opposition to it, historically. It lays out the conditions, both personal and cultural, that allowed the brainstorm of natural selection to hit Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, two Englishmen, more or less simultaneously in the late 1850s. David Quammen, a science writer whose previous works include The Song of the Dodo , begins his story with Darwin's return to England in 1836 after five years wandering with the survey ship HMS Beagle. (He would never leave again.) Quammen's book is about the birth of an idea, seen through the life of person who birthed it.

And a long gestation it was. It took Darwin more than two decades to make sense of what he'd seen and collected, to formulate his theory, test its key features, and write it up and publish it, in 1859, as the epochal On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life . It's an agonizing story of procrastination and perfectionism that left Darwin in a dead heat with Wallace, a younger and less patient man.

Darwin made several important observations soon after arriving home. He'd found in many places a large number of similar-appearing species, such as the now-famous finches of the Galapagos, each with a differently shaped beak. He noticed that physical isolation appeared to go hand in hand with those differences and with "speciation," the division of living things into distinct, non-interbreeding populations. He also noticed that fossils of extinct species were often found in places where animals that resembled them now lived.

In a series of secret notebooks, Darwin charted his growing belief that species were not fixed but transmutable. He intuited that they arose from common, extinct ancestors. But how could this happen? He needed at least two more insights to answer the question.

One came from the parson-economist Thomas Malthus, who calculated that animal and plant populations always reproduce faster than their food supplies grow, ensuring that far more of every species will be born than will make it to adulthood. Competition and death on a massive scale are unavoidable features of life, Malthus observed. The other idea Darwin needed was that individual organisms differ recognizably from each other even when they are of the same species.

As Darwin plodded, Wallace was charging along. Fourteen years younger, a surveyor and beetle-collector with no college education, he was the apotheosis of the self-creation, courage and enterprise that characterize so many explorers and scientists of his era. His teacher was the Amazon, and he learned more quickly than Darwin. Wallace financed his trip by sending skins of tropical birds and other exotica back to rich collectors in Britain. Unlike Darwin, who tended to take one of each type of animal and plant he described, Wallace went for as many as he could get in his gun sights.

"The abundance of naturally occurring variation within species was a crucial clue to the transmutation mystery, unnoticed by most naturalists of the day," Quammen writes. "Darwin needed eight years with barnacles, following five years of travel and ten years of study, to awaken him about variation in the wild. Wallace saw it sooner because, besides being an alert observer, he was a commercial collector, hungry and broke."

In their own ways, both men put the pieces together: Tiny variations, arising randomly and pointlessly, occur among individual organisms. In a few cases, those changes make a difference in an individual's ability to compete for food, habitat and mates. Such an individual is more likely to have offspring, or at least to have more of them. Over time, the population with that adaptive change grows. Over a very long time, it may become a new species, distinct from its ancestors.

Three papers encapsulating this incendiary theory -- two by Darwin, one by Wallace -- were read to the Linnean Society in London on July 1, 1858. The rest is history . . . and present-day politics, cultural struggle, religious controversy and jurisprudence, which is where Michael Shermer picks up the story.

A historian of science, the director of the Skeptics Society and a columnist for Scientific American magazine, Shermer lays out the case for evolution cogently, if not in great detail, in Why Darwin Matters . He then does what many scientists are unwilling to do: He engages and answers the arguments of people who don't accept evolution. He does this with care and respect but without any false even-handedness.

It has always been hard for some people of faith to accept that nature's marvelous complexity could be the product of natural selection -- a passive process incapable of intent and unguided by any divine hand. Nevertheless, the evidence for evolution is everywhere. In the last two decades, it has gotten a massive boost with the various genome projects (on human, mouse, yeast and worm cells) that demonstrate just how interrelated organisms are on a molecular level. As Shermer puts it, "While the specifics of evolution -- how quickly it happens, what triggers species change, at which level of the organism it occurs -- are still being studied and unraveled, the general theory of evolution is the most tested in science over the past century and a half. Scientists agree: Evolution happened."

With zest but without gloating, Shermer takes on the arguments against evolution and mows them down.

One of them is many creationists' new favorite, "irreducible complexity." This is the idea that complicated structures or processes, such as the bacterial flagellum or the tightly linked "cascade" of blood-clotting proteins, couldn't have evolved because only the finished products were useful, not any of the simpler intermediates. But it turns out that partly evolved flagella are found in nature: Cells use them for secretion or attachment, not locomotion. As for the clotting cascade, it is not "irreducibly complex." Some species have versions considerably simpler than ours that clot blood just fine.

He also addresses the hidden agenda of "intelligent design," which he says is the promotion of religion in general and fundamentalist Christianity in particular. "Intelligent Design is a remarkably uncreative theory that abandons the search for understanding at the very point where it is most needed. If Intelligent Design is really a science, then the burden is on its scientists to discover the mechanisms used by the Intelligent Designer," he writes. "The veneer of science in Intelligent Design theory is there purposely to cover up the religious agenda."

In a bit of his own proselytizing, Shermer tries to show why political and social conservatives should actually embrace Darwin's discovery, not vilify it. Evolution has given rise to species (and not just our own) that value social cooperation, monogamy and altruism -- the very values so many conservatives feel are threatened by the secular world. Natural selection, he writes, "is precisely parallel to Adam Smith's theory of the invisible hand " -- a process whereby self-interest creates order and a self-correcting whole that is larger than any of its parts.

This last argument -- evolution as the natural world's equivalent of free-market economics -- is a heroic attempt to make Darwin's idea more palatable to some of its detractors. But purely on the evidence, evolution is an idea that hasn't needed special pleading for a very long time. ยท

David Brown is a science and medicine reporter for

The Washington Post.

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