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May 26, 2005

Short takes on 3 books

Over the past two weeks I've been reading three books on my spare time, some short takes now that I've finished all three.

  • Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, by Sean Carroll, basically says it all in the title. "Evo-Devo" seems like a pretty "hot" field right now, and it is a decent introduction for laymen. As I've said elsewhere I'm an amateur, but, I really didn't need another rehash of the lac operon system. But, if "lac operon" doesn't ring any bells, this book is worth it. The author starts out from the basics of gene regulation in prokaryotes, shifts toward eukaryotic combinatorial control and steps into high gear with a lot of focus on the hox genes. I found the historical interpretation of Evo-Devo as a culmination of Darwin's own thinking somewhat peculiar, I have a personal bias toward the author's integration of new findings from developmental and molecular biology within the framework of the gradualism of the Modern Synthesis, but, if you read books by those who take a less "orthodox" Darwinian tack you will find that they see in Evo-Devo a way to overthrow the Neo-Darwinian paradigm. I don't think the "radicals" are correct, but if you read this book you won't get the impression that non-gradualism has any traction within academia (though the author is pained by the tendency toward saltationism in the press).
  • Mutants : On Genetic Variety and the Human Body is a really dense and rich book. Of the three I read this is the most entertaining and data packed, unlike Carroll Armand Leroi, also an evolutionary developmental biologist (or developmental geneticist), doesn't really lay a lot of groundwork, but cuts straight to the good stuff. By necessity Leroi focuses on very deleterious single locus mutations, but the whole text is riddled with allusions to Leroi's interest in polygenic and quantitative traits which are extremely salient in our perception of human phenotype. This bears fruit in his epilogue, the "race and beauty" chapter. The ideas that Leroi has exposed in his recent essays take the step beyond mutants and asks what exactly the range of "normal" variation is. Seeing as how Leroi is now one of John Brockman's pet projects I expect a steady stream of Dawkins quality popularizations in the future.
  • William Calvin's latest work, A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond is probably his most uneven. Its format is almost reminiscent of diary entries, and he tries to cover too much ground in less than 200 pages. Much of the book is focused on Calvin's hypothesis that our motor control, in particular our incredible eye hand coordination, is at the heart of the changes that characterized the homonid brain over the last 2 million years. Calvin comes rather close to asserting that other aspects of our nature, like language, are pleitropic side effects of our increased motor skills. He also tacks back and forth between standard congitive science lingo and new theories about neurological plasticity, without really coming to any conclusion. Additionally, he was obviously hampered by a issue I have brought up before, that we seem to be in the midst of paradigm shifts in our understanding of Homo sapiens evolution and our relationship to other hominid groups (the current lingo is "hominin," but I like it old school). Calvin admits this several times in the text, and I did note that he has his finger in the wind and is clearly part of a tendency to re-humanize Neandertals. Those who criticize science as just another historically contingent social enterprise could use the Neandertal as the exemplar of this sort of process, going from brute, to man, to brute, to man, many a time. Calvin should have waited a few years until the controversies died down and a new stable state asserted itself, but I suppose he had publication deadlines.
Posted by razib at 05:03 PM