WEIT plaudits from the Sunday Times

Posting has been slow lately as I’m writing reviews of several books for magazines, one of which is a fantastic, must-read science book.  More about that when the review goes up. In the meantime, a bit of self-aggrandizement. An alert reader informs me that WEIT has been selected by the Sunday Times (of London) as one of the seven best science books of 2009.  Checking it out, I find that I’m in amiable company: two other Darwin books are by my friends Steve Jones (Darwin’s Island) and Richard Dawkins (The Greatest Show on Earth).

The other Darwin-related book is Desmond and Moore’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause, which I’ve not yet read.  There are two books about the ill-fated Gaia hypothesis: James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia, and a biography of Lovelock by John and Mary Gribbins with the intriguing title He Knew He Was Right.

Last is a book that’s been showing up on many of the “year’s best” lists, Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man.  Dirac was indeed a bizarre and reclusive character, whose contributions to quantum physics, well known to scientists, remain largely unrecognized by the general public.  This is a timely book that I can’t wait to read.

Finally, I want to call attention to a book I received yesterday, one that should be on the shelves of all evolutionists and Darwin lovers.  It’s The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First Edition of On the Origin of Species, by biologist James Costa.  Each page consists of one column of prose from the original book, with explanations, clarifications, and annotations by Costa in an adjacent column. There are handy arrows pointing to the explicated parts of Darwin.  Costa has unearthed a tremendous amount of historical and biological information that makes reading The Origin a much richer experience.  If you teach Darwin’s book, I’d definitely recommend using this edition.


  1. Occam
    Posted December 9, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Heart-felt congrats for a well deserved-selection!

    I unreservedly recommend Farmelo’s biography of Dirac. Reviewer Philip Ball has one unfortunate take, though:
    “As Farmelo shows, Dirac was bizarre…” Dirac was bizarre, as erveryone who ever had the privilege of meeting him would confirm. Anecdotes about him abound. But Farmelo deserves much credit for going well beyond anecdote and bizarrery, being the first to provide a comprehensive study of Dirac’s personality and thinking. Some would dispute the diagnosis of autism, but there seems little doubt that Dirac’s peculiarities would be viewed by most as disturbing symptoms. Farmelo delves deep in showing the creative upside of such handicaps. He renders Dirac intriguingly human.

    Dirac’s razor-sharp views on god and religions would be quite in tune with this blog. They bear repeating, but one limpid passage is already quoted in extenso over at Wikipedia:


  2. newenglandbob
    Posted December 9, 2009 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    I have read:
    Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution” by Adrian Desmond and James Moore

    I gave it a high rating. It is very well written and you can see they did terrific research. It is a convincing.

    I also read:
    The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First Edition of On the Origin of Species” annotated by James T. Costa

    The annotations add a fair amount of understanding, especially mid 19th century people, etc.

  3. Sili
    Posted December 9, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    I don’t usually read new books, but I keep hearing good of this biography, and I do have a bit of hero worship for Dirac. (“There is no God, and Dirac is his prophet.)

  4. Posted December 9, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Cool about Sunday Times!

    Do you have any opinions on Desmond and Moore’s Darwin? I found it off-putting – too much sly knowing wink-wink rhetoric, that seemed to hint at all sorts of hidden agendas and unconscious biases and the like. Too much hinting instead of arguing.

  5. Marilyn
    Posted December 9, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Congratulations!..who reads the Sunday Times’ review in US? The only science books written in 2009 were about….evolution ..and Darwin. Excellent.

  6. Posted December 9, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    It’s a magnu … oh, never mind.

  7. Peter Newton
    Posted December 9, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed “Darwin’s Sacred Cause”. It’s a very good general biography, which looks at Darwin from an angle which has not received the emphasis it deserves. The “Darwin as racist” argument is thoroughly squashed!

  8. Posted December 9, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Congratulations! Very well deserved indeed. I love this line, from the paragraph about WEIT and TGSOE:

    this firmly consigns ­creationism and intelligent design to the dustbin, so long as reason carries the day.

  9. Jeremy
    Posted December 9, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    …the ill-fated Gaia hypothesis…

    To my mind the most devastatingly succinct critique of the Gaia theory comes from Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype. Enjoy!

    “The fatal flaw in Lovelock’s hypothesis would have instantly occurred to him if he had wondered about the level of natural selection process which would be required in order to produce the Earth’s supposed adaptations. Homeostatic adaptations in individual bodies evolve because individuals with improved homeostatic apparatus pass on their genes more effectively than individuals with inferior homeostatic apparatuses. For the analogy to apply strictly, there would have to have been a set of rival Gaias, presumably on different planets. Biospheres which did not develop efficient homeostatic regulation of their planetary atmospheres tended to go extinct. The Universe would have to be full of dead planets whose homeostatic regulation systems had failed, with, dotted around, a handful of successful, well-regulated planets of which Earth is one. Even this improbably scenario is not sufficient to lead to the evolution of planetary adaptations of the kind Lovelock proposes. In addition we would have to postulate some kind of reproduction, whereby successful planets spawned copies of their life forms on new planets.”

    • MadScientist
      Posted December 10, 2009 at 5:28 am | Permalink

      I think that was about Lovelock’s early ideas – it was rather haphazard on Lovelock’s part to claim that environmental regulation on a planetary scale ‘evlolved’. I think Lovelock does have some testable ideas; it’s rather disappointing that he doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond his computer toy “daisyworld” which he invented decades ago. (Not even so much as a real ‘daisyworld’ implemented in controlled conditions.)

  10. MadScientist
    Posted December 10, 2009 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    How is Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” ill-fated? The idea that plants and animals in large numbers can have a regulatory effect on the environment doesn’t sound so whacky. I do object to Lovelock personifying effects and speaking as if nature is conscious and deliberate – that annoys me as much as people saying things like “Species X developed Y so that it can do Z”. The biggest issue for me is that no one seems to take Lovelock seriously enough to think of experiments to test his ideas (and personally, I don’t think I’d be able to get any funding for such experiments).

    • Occam
      Posted December 10, 2009 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      Aren’t we running one big uncontrolled experiment with planet Earth?

      • MadScientist
        Posted December 10, 2009 at 5:48 am | Permalink

        There is no such thing as an “uncontrolled experiment” – at least not in science.

      • Occam
        Posted December 10, 2009 at 8:09 am | Permalink

        Sorry, should have raised the ‘irony flag’.
        On second thoughts, no, that’s precisely the problem.

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