Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea

by Carl Zimmer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061138409
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/05/2006
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 359,520
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Carl Zimmer is the author of three well-received books on evolution. A Guggenheim fellow in 2002, he writes regularly for magazines, including National Geographic, Science, Newsweek, and Natural History.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Darwin and the Beagle

In late October 1831 a 90-foot coaster named HMS Beagle lay docked at Plymouth, England. Its crew scrambled about it like termites in a nest. They were packing the ship as tightly as they could for a voyage around the world, one that would last five years. They rolled barrels of flour and rum into the hold and crammed the deck with wooden boxes that contained experimental clocks resting on beds of sawdust. The Beagle's voyage was a scientific one: its crew would be testing the clocks for the British navy, which depended on precise timekeeping to navigate. Exquisitely detailed maps would be drawn on the voyage as well, so mahogany lockers were installed in the poop cabin and packed with navigational charts. The crew replaced the ship's 10 steel cannons with brass ones so that not even the slightest interference could confuse the Beagle's compasses.

Amid the flurry of preparations, a 22-year-old man picked his way. He moved awkwardly around the ship, not only because his 6-foot frame was oversized for the cramped quarters, but also because he felt profoundly out of place. He had no official position on the ship, having been invited to keep the captain company during the voyage and act as an unofficial naturalist. It was usually up to a ship's surgeon to act as the naturalist for a voyage, but this awkward young man had no such practical skill. He was a medical school dropout who, for want of any other respectable line of work, was considering a career as a country parson when the voyage was over. Once he had stowed away his preserving jars, his microscope, and the restof his equipment in the poop cabin, he had nothing more to do. He tried helping the assistant surveyor calibrate some of the timepieces, but he didn't even know enough math to do the most basic calculations.

The name of this awkward young man was Charles Darwin. By the time the Beagle returned to England five years later, he would be transformed into one of Britain's most promising young scientists. And out of his experiences on the journey, he would discover the single most important idea in the history of biology, one that would permanently alter humanity's perception of its place in the natural order. From clues that he collected aboard the Beagle, Darwin would show that nature had not been created in exactly the form it takes today. Life evolves: it changes gradually but perpetually over vast gulfs of time, driven through those changes thanks to the laws of heredity, without any need of direct divine intervention. And humans, far from being the pinnacle and destiny of God's creation, were but a single species among many, another product of evolution.

Darwin would send Victorian England into a crisis with his theory, but he would offer an alternative view of life that has turned out to have a grandeur of its own. It is clear today that evolution connects us to the dawn of Earth, to showers of comets and death-winds of stars. It produced the crops we eat and now helps insects destroy them. It illuminates the mysteries of medicine, such as how mindless bacteria can outwit the best minds in science. It holds a warning for those who would take from Earth without limits; it reveals how our minds were assembled among lonely bands of apes. We may still struggle with what evolution says about our place in the universe, but that universe is all the more remarkable.

The Beagle is remembered today only because of Darwin's experience on board the ship. But if you tried to tell that to the sailors rolling barrels aboard they might have laughed without even a glance at the young man who was pretending to know what he was doing.

"My chief employment," Darwin wrote to his family from Plymouth, "is to go on board the Beagle and try to look as much like a sailor as ever I can. I have no evidence of having taken in man, woman or child."

In Search of Beetles and Respectability

Darwin had grown up along the banks of the Severn River in Shropshire, collecting pebbles and birds, completely unaware of the fortunes that made his life pleasant. His mother, Susannah, came from the wealthy Wedgwood family, which made china of the same name. Although his father, Robert, came from less wealthy stock, he built up a fortune of his own by working as a doctor and discreetly lending money to his patients. He eventually became rich enough to build his family a large house, the Mount, on a hillside overlooking the Severn.

Charles and his older brother Erasmus had the close, practically telepathic connection that brothers sometimes have. As teenagers they built themselves a laboratory at the Mount where they would dabble in chemicals and crystals. When Charles was 16, Erasmus went to Edinburgh to study medicine. Their father sent Charles along with him to keep Erasmus company, and ultimately to go to medical school as well. Charles was happy to tag along, for the company of his brother and for the adventure.

When they arrived in Edinburgh, Charles and Erasmus were shocked by the squalor and spectacle of the city. These two boys, raised in the genteel countryside where Jane Austen set her novels, encountered slums for the first time. Politics raged around them as Scottish nationalists, Jacobites, and Calvinists jostled over church and country. At Edinburgh University they faced a rabble of rough students shouting and shooting off pistols in the middle of lectures. Charles and Erasmus recoiled into each other's company, spending their time talking together, walking along the shore, reading newspapers, and going to the theater.

Charles realized very quickly that he hated medicine. The lectures were dreary, the dissected corpses a nightmare, the operations — often amputations without anesthesia — terrifying. He kept himself busy with natural history. But although Charles knew that he could not become a doctor, he had no appetite for standing up to his father...

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Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Lachesis More than 1 year ago
Most of the unflattering reviews stem from the fact that this book addresses evolution from the standpoint that it's true, rather than that it might be true. The fact of the matter is, a scientific theory is the closest thing involving an explanation to absolute truth. They're *all* well-validated to the best of anyone's ability. The book is about evolution; it should address evolution as truth. This had all the information of a textbook and all the interest of a novel. It was exciting, concise and well-rounded. It gave solid facts alongside theory and addressed all of the major challenges to theory of evolution. I finished it feeling satisfied in every way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding book, providing good, detailed evidence about the theory of evolution. Evolution is a theory, I'm afraid, albeit a supremely well-supported one. As far as 'facts' in science, ask any real scientist and they will tell you: there is no such thing. Nothing in science, other then solid, readily observable objects, is certain. There is this round earth, there is this hot sun, sure. But as far as scientific PROCESSES, we have no guarantees that scientific laws tomorrow will work in the same way that they work today. Ideas about PROCESSES in science can be disproven, but they cannot be proved. Evolution is not an observable body like a planet, it is a theory about a process of gradual organismic change. Even studies that attempt to 'disprove' evolution admit that much. Organismal change, and change of everything else for that matter, is inevitable as far as what mankind has observed. I don't understand why it causes people so much discomfort. This book details the processes of change, focusing on replicable studies and experiments conducted in credible settings by well-qualified scientists. And obviously, there are inherent limitations to this, one being that experimenting with evolution, in the scientific method sense of the word ¿experiment¿ is extremely difficult. Evolution doesn't lend itself well to being studied in experimental settings. One of evolution's major premises is that this process takes TIME, and a lot of it, to be observable. (This is particularly true of Macroevolution, which is impossible to even begin test within any one or even one hundred persons¿ lifetimes). Also, principles of natural change are driven by the environment, which itself changes, producing nothing but uncertainty about the 'direction' of evolutionary change. And when you can¿t predict something, it is quite difficult to construct an experimental hypothesis, which one then tests. Testing predictive hypothesies is what a scientific experiment is, by definition. The only way to do this, as far as evolution is concerned, is to control the experimental environment. If it is not controlled, the study is not an experiment, it is an exercise in observation from which inferences are drawn. But, observational studies, when considered in the aggregate, and combined with small scale experiments, do provide very credible support for the hypothesis of how evolution works. Organismal change in response to environmental stimuli is an extremely well-documented phenomenon, as this book describes, and starting with Darwin's own finches. It's pretty simple really, and it makes a lot of sense. Also, evolution doesn't require anyone to 'believe' in it. Science is a rational discipline, it doesn't ask anyone to take anything on faith. In fact, it requires scepticism. You want religion? Butt out of criticizing what you don't understand and feel free to read books about religion.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent, let me repeat, excellent text rich in information about evolution esp., as the previous reviewer had mentioned with disgust, pro-evidence to evolution. True, it may seem like this book presents the Theory of Evolution as a fact, but what is a fact? Something that can be proven true or false is it not? Yes, and therefore it is a FACT. Hence, the book is not nefarious for presenting it as such. Besides, evolution is the only substancial theory for the, ahem, origin of species--not life. The Theory of Evolution remains a theory, but an ever progressing and developing one. Is it supported by experimental results? Yes. Is it disproved by experimental results? Yes. But the pro evidence tremendously outweighs the ones against it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Zimmer does a great job of presenting evolution. This book is clear, concise, and a wonderful introduction to the process of evolution.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of Carl Zimmer's masterpiece books. Highly recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a comorehensive look at evolution and the vast body of evidence that supports the most important theory in biology. It won't convince those who have proven so able ti ignore evidence, as reviews will indicate. But for those who want to understand this elegant theory and why scientists have no problem regarding evolution as true, this book is as good a place ti start as any.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is an excellent primer on evolution and the travels of Darwin. It provides ample examples and illustrations of the development of the theory, and should give more than enough information to understand how evolutinary science applies to everyday life.
yapete on LibraryThing 26 days ago
Probably the best summary of evolution out there. Very good read. Zimmer is a great writer.
jorgearanda on LibraryThing 26 days ago
A great introduction to the topic and covers a lot of ground, from Darwin¿s life aboard the Beagle to host-bacteria arms races (stop having antibiotics, people!) to man-caused mass extinctions to whales with legs to the invention of language.If you¿re thinking of buying the book, be aware that the 2006 paperback edition does not come with those lavish illustrations the Amazon reviews mention. It¿s still worth it, but I can only imagine how much better the original -and sold out- 2001 edition is, since this is a subject that really benefits from images.
gardengallavant on LibraryThing 26 days ago
This is an excellent introduction or review of the theory basics. This covers sufficient detail to supply a solid foundation of evidence of change in species without being boring.Only towards the ends does Mr Zimmer seem to begin to present ideas with some bias. I did not read the 'Natural History of Rape" by Thornhill & Palmer but I did read the original paper on the scorpion fly rape behavior. This paper was given very short shrift by Zimmer despite being good research and well written. Since the paper was not listed in his bibliography I assume he didn't even read it. The scathing review he quotes points to a small portion of the book using a small data sample that may have been of marginal applicability but I remember reading statistic papers with very large data samples relating human behavior and rape victim ages so I know there is far more work being done that is relevant but not mentioned in Mr Zimmer's critique. This type of work by evolutionary biologists is slapped down by Zimmer as being based on minute samples and because their "samples usually a few dozen American undergraduates- mostly white, mostly affluent, - can hardly be expected to represent the universal human condition." This statement is implying this was all that was being done but I have read papers with a far broader data base so I know this isn't true.Zimmer is being very loaded in his method of presenting the work he is ctirisizing. So while I may not be utterly familiar with all the work this type of obvious bias makes me hesitate to take other items as being fairly presented. This is me nit picking on one segment of a book I enjoyed but it bothered me.
bexaplex on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Science writing, and especially history of science writing, always has two opposite goals. On the one hand, one wants to show how brilliant and far reaching the described work is, wrapping the story into a neat narrative and disarming the opponents of the described ideas and theories. On the other hand, one wants to portray the research process as honestly as possible, and there are always diversions, bumps in the road, lengthy periods of verification, dissent among scientists and the public at large, personalities of key players. Balancing between these two poles is what makes great science writing, and Zimmer does an admirable job. This book is sort of a catch-all story of evolution, from Darwin's biography to current scientific research in diverse fields (virology and human health, ecology, genetics) to the debate about what should be taught in American public schools.Gould's introduction is a little odd, since the book is mostly history and his topic is decidedly philosophical (the nature of scientific knowledge). Zimmer does get into a little bit of philosophy at the end, but that's clearly not his strength. The best parts of the book are the insights into Darwin's life and the lives of the people who are still testing the hypotheses spawned from the theory of natural selection. There are some very personal details (the color of Anne Darwin's vomit) and some very good quotations from researchers that perfectly encapsulate the fascination with the subject, the large body of observation and the hesitation to speculate before more evidence is gathered that seems to be widespread among people knee-deep in a research project ("One possible scenario is that pathogens wipe out entire gardens. Then the ants are forced to go to neighboring ants and steal a replacement, or temporarily join with them in one happy community. But occasionally we also see them invade a neighboring nest and wipe out the ants and take over their gardens." p. 206).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A well written and even handed exploration of the topic of biological evolution with the religious objections confronted and addressed. Get the hardback book as the ebook does not contain the pictures that so much help the explanation. Well worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If there is proof of evidence then prove it. Most people just believe it cause that is what there taught, supposed "facts" from a thesis that cannot be proven but can be disproven in every aspect. For instance how come its been over 5000 years and we have seen adaptions to environments at best but we are still in the same species when stars(our sun) could not possibly live long enough for humans to evolve let alone form into living organisms not to mention the bible says that God created the earth and all the creatures living on it.please don't believe the lies they (our culture) will tell you.P.S. please don't just get mad read with as open a mind you can manage and also reply to "that jesus freak"P.P.S. we can debate about other topics such as the big bang theory or how you know God is real or even why you think someone hates you.All this coming from a 14 year old missionary's kid who has saved one person from suicide.Jesus loves you whether you care, want him to, or even if you hate him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is 100% false. God is the creater of all things. Stop trying to force lies down peoples throats. God created everything, eben you who is reading this. I'll pray for you all, hoping that one day you will discover the truth.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
By Lifthrasir; Bookmaster Who created us in the first place? How did combustion create perfection? Dont diss religious people, we can read what we want and say what we wish. PS Darwin said "I am quite conscious that my speculations run beyond the bounds of true science. . .it is a mere rag of a hypothesis, with as many flaws as sound parts."
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book had a tighter story dealing with evolution that most others have had, but the book still tended to present evolution as fact instead of a theory. In addition to this, it glossed over/ignored the evidence that tends to disprove this theory. As you read this, it becomes quite evident that the major purpose is to convince you that evolution is 'fact' and that the major purpose is NOT to educate you on evolution: giving you the unbiased evidence for and against. I would suggest this book to anyone who already believes in evolution or wants to believe in evolution. I would not suggest this book for anyone who is wanting an unbiased, whole picture of what evolution really is.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is irresponsible to continue to present evolution theory as FACT. In the last century there has been mounting evidence each decade that MACRO-evolution is statistically absurd/impossible.Molecular biology,Cosmology,Astrophysics and statistical probability mathematics have disproven macro-evolution. Darwin himself was 'gravely' concerned of the lack of intermediary links in fossil records that still do not exist to this day.Macro- Evolution is based on soft science and crumbles under the weight of the above stated hard sciences of physics.A more appropriate title to this book is MacroEvolution: A hoax beyond a reasonable doubt.