Friday, December 09, 2005

Good books on evolution   posted by Razib @ 12/09/2005 09:54:00 PM

With all the 'debate' about Intelligent Design out there I'm sure some of you are curious about evolution. I just heard from an acquaintance of mine that he purchased Mark Ridley's anthology Evolution (Oxford Readers). Good. Recently I happened to refamiliarize myself with some old articles in The Boston Review by H. Allen Orr, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Rochester. Here is an interesting snip:
To a historian or electrician, Behe certainly looks qualified. He is a biologist. But it's not that simple, as can be seen by turning the tables for a moment. If I, an evolutionary biologist, were to announce that biochemistry is deeply flawed-I've shown, for instance, that enzymes are not catalysts-I doubt I'd get a listen. I surely wouldn't get a publisher....
Now I don't pretend to know the details of Behe's education, but I do know this: he is not at home in the technical evolution literature. His book reveals that his grasp of evolution derives mostly from the pop literature (Gould, Dawkins-good stuff, but no stand-in for the real thing) and from computer searches of the scientific literature that he strangely makes a big deal of. While I have utter confidence in Behe's biochemistry, I am less confident that he can say what soft selection, or Muller's ratchet, or the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection is-all bread and butter of evolutionary biology....

What Orr referes to is a problem. In the fall of 1996, when I read this piece in The Boston Review, I was pursuing a degree program in biochemistry. I found Darwin's Black Box unconvincing, Michael Behe after all was simply reworking some old philosophical ideas in cytochemical clothing. But on a fundamental technical level I had missed most of Orr's points, I didn't know what the Fundamental Theorem was, nor Muller's ratchet. Going over Orr's work for The Boston Review I am struck by the density and layers of information that he nested within them, the subtle sneers, crystal clear insights and occasional dirty tricks.1 10 years after I first read Orr's articles I now have an "evolutionary education," I know the details of the processes of microevolutionary theory, the fundamentals of population genetics. I was missing that back in 1996.

Obviously the man on the street is never going to know much about evolutionary genetics, and acceptance of evolution will have to be via faith or a cursory examination of the literature. But you my dear reader are not the man on the street. The 'technical' aspects of the first minimal tier of evolutionary biology are trivial, basic algebra and difference equations. Introductory textbooks are pretty accessible to anyone with high school algebra, so here are texts that I think are useful if you don't plan to become an evolutionary biologist, but want to get a deeper grip on the topic:

(in order of mathematical technicality)

Evolution, Mark Ridley (the text, not the anthology)
Evolution, Doug Futuyma
Molecular Evolution, Wen-Hsiung Li
Evolutionary Genetics, JM Smith
Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics, D.A. Roff (this is the only one where the mathematics starts to swamp the biology)

For the more population genetically & quantitatively curious:

Principles of Population Genetics, Daniel Hartl, Andrew Clark
Introduction to Quantitative Genetics, D.S. Falconer
Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative Traits, Michael Lynch, Bruce Walsh

After getting through some of these The Selfish Gene or The Red Queen will read like breezy and relaxing novels. By laying down the foundational skeleton you can sit back and appreciate the unfolding architecture as wordsmiths like Dawkins apply gilded flesh to the bones.

I'm not saying read all of these books. For my money, I think Evolution by Ridley and Principles of Population Genetics would be the two to get if I was starting out all over again (Ridley has kind of a plodding writing style, but with the broad topic he is covering it is inevitable that the book would get tiresome at certain points). But, if you sample any of these books I would not be surprised if you had done more than Michael Behe did in preperation for this intellectual coming out! Of course, that probably screws you out of publishing a book where you hail yourself in the following manner:

The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the so unambiguous and so significant that is must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur, and Darwin....

Interestingly, when I've seen Behe taunted in debates on this point, he seems totally at ease.

1 - See Orr's exchange with Daniel Dennet. On the part about speed of change of gene frequencies when comparing selection and genetic drift, my take is that I think Dennet reveals a lack of familiarity with the lexicon of population genetics but is trying to get across the ubiquity of functional constraint. I think Orr knows this, but he's toying with him and pretending like he doesn't know it because Dennet is not fluent in the lingo. Whether this behavior is kosher or not, that's up to you to decide.