Matthew Cobb reviews two evolution books

Speaking of the TLS, in today’s issue Matthew Cobb has a nice review of two new books:

Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis, editors
The first four billion years
1,008pp. Harvard University Press. Paperback, £25.95 (US $39.95).
978 0 6740 3175 3

Jonathan Silvertown, editor
99% APE
How evolution adds up
224pp. Natural History Museum. Paperback, £14.99.
978 0 5650 9231 3


  1. Matthew Cobb
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    You knew before I did!

  2. Posted December 2, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    That’s a lot better than the last we heard from TLS/Nagel.

    Glen Davidson

  3. newenglandbob
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    The impression I get from the review of the two books is that I probably would not want to read either book, at least not without Matthew Cobb’s review as a guidepost.

    Did I read the review too quickly or is my impression correct?

  4. Posted December 5, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    RE: Revisiting Darwin’s “tree of life” sketch-hypothesis!?

    In his review, Matthew Cobb’s opening remark: “Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species contains only one illustration, and a rather dull one at that – a simple image of the tree-like branching relations between hypothetical species, with the present at the top (not all branches reach the top), and common ancestors deep in the past. In fact, the drawing does not look much like a tree – it is more like some kind of spindly weed. Although it might not seem impressive, this figure was a revolutionary way of representing life, summing up Darwin’s central idea of evolution by natural selection. This image was not the first that Darwin chose to represent his hypothesis. Shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin drew a coral-like diagram and wrote “I think” alongside it. In his notebooks he later mused that “The tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life”. Over the decades, however, the “tree” image and terminology gradually predominated.

    On the contrary (once considered seminal as Cobb describes above), the “tree of life” diagram that Darwin sketched in his notebook in July 1837, may have been modeled on “a very similar angular branching diagram constructed by Martin Barry, which that naturalist labeled “The Tree of Animal Development.” Barry’s diagram (reproduced here) was meant to illustrate Karl Ernst von Baer’s theory of relationships among animal archetypes; it appeared in a journal that Darwin read a short time before he sketched his July diagram.” — As Robert J. Richards (a historian of science and medicine at the University of Chicago) faithfully (to the history of science and Darwinism) recently revisited and pointed out in American Scientist (link above).

    Furthermore, Cobb assesses that “We now know that the species on our planet split, evolved and died out in only one sequence – there is only one true tree (or coral) of life. But what was that sequence? Given the number of species that have lived on the Earth over the past 4 billion years, there are more ways of arranging those species in an evolutionary diagram than there are atoms in the Universe.

    I thought that Darwin was a very curious, lucky, diligent, observant, and insightful student of naturalism, as he was consistently surrounded and guided by his more experienced and knowledgeable contemporaries of scholars; especially naturalists, geologists, botanists, biologists, etc; and he was able to confer and concur and relate with each of their specialized disciplines of scientific works and ideas early on — especially since after his renowned Beagle voyage (1831-36); his global data collection and interpretation and presentation; all in accordance with their then prevailing naturalism of fauna and flora and taxonomy; and of species developments and their relations to the then known geology and geography that he had learned, traveled, and observed — especially since 1837, at a time when he began to formulate and outline his budding theory of the “origin of species” as a “tree of life” configuration: a hypothesis that in a natural scheme of things (flora and fauna) all species lead to (or are descended from) a common interconnected source; as one that represented the geocentric tree (sprouting spatial and temporal branches) or the geogenic ancestry (of fossils as embedded in geology, and of species as dispersed by geography) — just as in the literary expression of imperialism as a form of government, that was rooted in the “all roads lead to [or are originated from] Rome” analogy, or the Roman centricism!?

    As such, beware of the 20th-century neo-Darwinist reductionism, distortion, and abuse of Darwin’s original works; and of the pseudo-genetic and anti-theistic “hermeneutics” of Darwinism, such as Dawkinsism (that came to mind): one which the renowned (armchair) author of over 10 reductionist books — including The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2006) — Richard Dawkins has had reduced the classical Darwinism, into his currently anti-religious rhetoric and polemic — or neo-atheism without conscience, so to speak — that I recently characterized here: “Let’s begin the Dialogue and Reconciliation of Science and Religion Now! — RE: What’s mind (or never mind)!? — Deciphering idiosyncrasies of scientific/religious rationalism vs. neo-Darwinist/ID-creationist irrationalism, in science and philosophy today!?” (PhysForumEU; August 2); and the Dawkinsian nuance becoming a nuisance that other science-philosophy critics have also commented here: “The religion-evolution ‘debate’: such an egocentric waste of time!” (TheMermaid’sTaleUSA; August 23) and elsewhere in pages of this dynamic WEIT blog!?

    Ergo, Darwin’s “tree of life” hypothesis was categorically geogenic development-based; and not a material prediction of the 20th-century molecular genetics and epigenetics; nor of the population genetics as one that the neo-Darwinism reductionists have had wildly speculated since the 1940s, merely by their attempting to (unscientifically and arbitrarily) incorporate the Mendelian “genetics” into the classical Darwinian “natural selection” hypothesis as their new, grand, overarching Modern Synthesis; or the neo-Darwinist reductionism par excellence as forever fossilized or dogmaticized as the pseudo-genetic “self-determinism” in Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene; and immortalized the reductionist misconception of the “units of cultural information” as “memes”!?

    As most (silent but erudite) scientists, philosophers, readers, etc may have known, the independent “inheritance or heredity” work of the Austrian botanist-monk Gregor Mendel’s (later dubbed genetics) was completely unheard of, by Darwin and his associates, at all. It is coincident that we now know that the “origin of genes” or biogenesis was cosmologically geochemistry-based; and that the very specific geochemistry of elements, biochemicals, and their associated products, has had sparked, initiated, created, evolved, propagated, and sustained the spread of the “origin of species” or organisms since over 3 billion years ago on this unique planet Earth — just as Darwin hypothesized (in his 1859 seminal book The Origin of Species) by grossly “open-ended” means or naturalism of natural selection, adaptation, modification, etc in their sole relations to the geological fossils and live specimens that he and Alfred R. Wallace had had collected and observed globally. However, as to the more “in-depth” or specific, scientific, and philosophical questions (or the theological of his time) of “how” and “why” of the life species began on Earth, Darwin was completely silent on these very essential and fundamental queries of geochemistry (or of genetics and ecosystems) and of our existential (especially of religious and/or spiritual) matters!

    Thus, when revisiting Darwin’s works, or reviewing extended works of others on Darwinism and evolutionary sciences, the erudite reviewer or critic must now be ready to differentiate the difference between Darwinian naturalism and neo-Darwinist reductionism; neo-Darwinism (or Dawkinsism) and creationism (or creationist supernaturalism or intelligent design theosophy); and/or even between Darwinism and his contemporary Spencerism, as I keenly pointed out in Darwin & Cameron — RE: Differentiating Darwinism from Spencerism!? (TalkingPhilosophyUK; November 24) before, etc.

    Best wishes, Mong 12/5/9usct3:22p; practical science-philosophy critic; author “Decoding Scientism” and “Consciousness & the Subconscious” (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 6, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      All these points (abiogenesis, philosophy et cetera) are irrelevant to the science of Darwin, which is what the reviewer would have to consider.

      Oh, and there isn’t anything called “scientism”. At least, outside of the religious strawman.

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