Two new books centered on evolution and the human species

Here are two new books centered on evolution and the human species that readers here may be interested in:


Philip Lieberman, The Theory that Changed Everything: “On the Origin of Species” as a Work in Progress (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 232 pp.

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Publisher’s description Few people have done as much to change how we view the world as Charles Darwin. Yet On the Origin of Species is more cited than read, and parts of it are even considered outdated. In some ways, it has been consigned to the nineteenth century. In The Theory That Changed Everything, the renowned cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman demonstrates that there is no better guide to the world’s living—and still evolving—things than Darwin and that the phenomena he observed are still being explored at the frontiers of science. In an exploration that ranges from Darwin’s transformative trip aboard the Beagle to Lieberman’s own sojourns in the remotest regions of the Himalayas, this book relates fresh, contemporary findings to the major concepts of Darwinian theory, which transcends natural selection. Drawing on his own research into the evolution of human linguistic and cognitive abilities, Lieberman explains the paths that adapted human anatomy to language. He demystifies the role of recently identified transcriptional and epigenetic factors encoded in DNA, explaining how nineteenth-century Swedish famines alternating with years of plenty caused survivors’ grandchildren to die many years short of their life expectancy. Lieberman is equally at home decoding supermarket shelves and climbing with the Sherpas as he discusses how natural selection explains features from lactose tolerance to ease of breathing at Himalayan altitudes. With conversational clarity and memorable examples, Lieberman relates the insights that led to groundbreaking discoveries in both Darwin’s time and our own while asking provocative questions about what Darwin would have made of controversial issues today, such as GMOs, endangered species, and the God question.

This book is reviewed, along with three other new titles about Darwin, in the Times Literary Supplement, and the author of said review discusses it for the TLS podcast.  And a so-so review from Publisher’s Weekly.


Kostas Kampourakis, Turning Points: How Critical Events Have Driven Human Evolution, Life, and Development (New York: Prometheus Books, February 2018), 384 pp. 

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Publisher’s description Critical historical events–or “turning points”–have shaped evolution and continue to have a decisive effect on individual lives. This theme is explored and explained in this lucid, accessible book for lay readers. The author argues that, although evolution is the result of unpredictable events, these events have profound influences on subsequent developments. Life is thus a continuous interplay between unforeseeable events and their decisive consequences. As one example, the author cites the fusing of two chromosomes, which differentiated the human species from our closest animal relatives about 4 to 5 million years ago. This event was not predictable, but it had a profound effect on the evolution of our species thereafter. By the same token, certain unpredictable circumstances in the past enabled only Homo sapiens to survive to the present day, though we now know that other human-like species also once existed. The author contrasts such scientific concepts grounded in solid evidence with prevalent misconceptions about life: specifically, the religious notion that there is a plan and purpose behind life, the widespread perception that intelligent design governs the workings of nature, the persistent belief in destiny and fate, and the attribution of an overly deterministic role to genes. This excellent introduction for laypersons to core ideas in biology goes a long way toward dispelling such misconceptions and presents current scientific research in clearly understandable, jargon-free terms.

Again, this book is reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly.


ARTICLE: Darwin’s Influence on Mendel: Evidence from a New Translation of Mendel’s Paper

A recent article of interest in the journal Genetics:

Darwin’s Influence on Mendel: Evidence from a New Translation of Mendel’s Paper

Daniel J. Fairbanks and Scott Abbott

Abstract Gregor Mendel’s classic paper, Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments on Plant Hybrids), was published in 1866, hence 2016 is its sesquicentennial. Mendel completed his experiments in 1863 and shortly thereafter began compiling the results and writing his paper, which he presented in meetings of the Natural Science Society in Brünn in February and March of 1865. Mendel owned a personal copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species, a German translation published in 1863, and it contains his marginalia. Its publication date indicates that Mendel’s study of Darwin’s book could have had no influence while he was conducting his experiments but its publication date coincided with the period of time when he was preparing his paper, making it possible that Darwin’s writings influenced Mendel’s interpretations and theory. Based on this premise, we prepared a Darwinized English translation of Mendel’s paper by comparing German terms Mendel employed with the same terms in the German translation of Origin of Species in his possession, then using Darwin’s counterpart English words and phrases as much as possible in our translation. We found a substantially higher use of these terms in the final two (10th and 11th) sections of Mendel’s paper, particularly in one key paragraph, where Mendel reflects on evolutionary issues, providing strong evidence of Darwin’s influence on Mendel.

ARTICLE: More than a Mentor: Leonard Darwin’s Contribution to the Assimilation of Mendelism into Eugenics and Darwinism

An article of interest in the Journal of the History of Biology:

More than a Mentor: Leonard Darwin’s Contribution to the Assimilation of Mendelism into Eugenics and Darwinism

Norberto Serpente

Abstract This article discusses the contribution to evolutionary theory of Leonard Darwin (1850–1943), the eighth child of Charles Darwin. By analysing the correspondence Leonard Darwin maintained with Ronald Aylmer Fisher in conjunction with an assessment of his books and other written works between the 1910s and 1930s, this article argues for a more prominent role played by him than the previously recognised in the literature as an informal mentor of Fisher. The paper discusses Leonard’s efforts to amalgamate Mendelism with both Eugenics and Darwinism in order for the first to base their policies on new scientific developments and to help the second in finding a target for natural selection. Without a formal qualification in biological sciences and as such mistrusted by some “formal” scientists, Leonard Darwin engaged with key themes of Darwinism such as mimicry, the role of mutations on speciation and the process of genetic variability, arriving at important conclusions concerning the usefulness of Mendelian genetics for his father’s theory.

Recent Darwin/evolution articles from the Journal of the History of Biology

The following articles have been published in the Journal of the History of Biology in the last year or so, and one from 2013:

Radim Kočandrle, Karel Kleisner, “Evolution Born of Moisture: Analogies and Parallels Between Anaximander’s Ideas on Origin of Life and Man and Later Pre-Darwinian and Darwinian Evolutionary Concepts”

Abstract This study focuses on the origin of life as presented in the thought of Anaximander of Miletus but also points to some parallel motifs found in much later conceptions of both the pre-Darwinian German romantic science and post-Darwinian biology. According to Anaximander, life originated in the moisture associated with earth (mud). This moist environment hosted the first living creatures that later populated the dry land. In these descriptions, one can trace the earliest hints of the notion of environmental adaptation. The origin of humans was seen as connected in some way with fish: ancient humans were supposed to have developed inside fish-like animals. Anaximander took into account changes in the development of living creatures (adaptations) and speculated on the origins of humans. Similar ideas are found also in the writings of much later, eighteenth and nineteenth century authors who were close to the tradition of German romantic science. We do not argue that these later concepts are in any way directly linked with those of the pre-Socratics, but they show surprising parallels in, e.g., the hypothesis that life originated in a moist environment or the supposition that human developed from fish-like ancestors. These transformations are seen as a consequence of timeless logic rather than as evolution in historical terms. Despite the accent on the origin of living things, both Anaximander and the later Naturphilosophen lack in their notions the element most characteristic of Darwin’s thought, that is, the emphasis on historicity and uniqueness of all that comes into being.

Dominic Klyve, “Darwin, Malthus, Süssmilch, and Euler: The Ultimate Origin of the Motivation for the Theory of Natural Selection”

Abstract It is fairly well known that Darwin was inspired to formulate his theory of natural selection by reading Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. In fact, by reading Darwin’s notebooks, we can even locate one particular sentence which started Darwin thinking about population and selection. What has not been done before is to explain exactly where this sentence – essentially Malthus’s ideas about geometric population growth – came from. In this essay we show that eighteenth century mathematician Leonhard Euler is responsible for this sentence, and in fact forms the beginning of the logical chain which leads to the creation of the theory of natural selection. We shall examine the fascinating path taken by a mathematical calculation, the many different lenses through which it was viewed, and the path through which it eventually influenced Darwin.

Matthew Morris, “We Know in Part: James McCosh on Evolution and Christian Faith”

Abstract James McCosh (1811–1894), president of Princeton College from 1868 to 1888, played a significant role in the American reception of evolution in the late 1800s – he was one of the more prominent clergyman to assuage the public’s fears of evolution while incorporating evolution into a conservative Christian worldview. McCosh was a prolific writer, whose books document his intellectual journey from hostility to acceptance of evolution. Three things will stand out in this overview that have not been emphasized in detail in other works: (1) James McCosh’s perspective on evolution dramatically changed over time; (2) McCosh’s motivations for engaging in the evolution-religion debate serve to clear up confusion regarding McCosh’s final position on evolution; and (3) the theological and philosophical basis for McCosh’s acceptance of evolution was established while McCosh was still hostile to evolution. His theological background therefore ‘pre-adapted’ him for evolution, and he was able to preach theology and evolution without substantially altering his theology.

Kate Holterhoff, “The History and Reception of Charles Darwin’s Hypothesis of Pangenesis”

Abstract This paper explores Charles Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis through a popular and professional reception history. First published in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), pangenesis stated that inheritance can be explained by sub-cellular “gemmules” which aggregated in the sexual organs during intercourse. Pangenesis thereby accounted for the seemingly arbitrary absence and presence of traits in offspring while also clarifying some botanical and invertebrates’ limb regeneration abilities. I argue that critics largely interpreted Variation as an extension of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), while pangenesis was an extension of natural selection. Contrary to claims that pangenesis was divorced from natural selection by its reliance on the inheritance of acquired characters, pangenesis’s mid nineteenth-century reception suggests that Darwin’s hypothesis responded directly to selection’s critics. Using Variation’s several editions, periodical reviews, and personal correspondence I assess pangenesis popularly, professionally, and biographically to better understand Variation’s impact on 1860s and 70s British evolutionism and inheritance.

ARTICLES: Disciplining and Popularizing: Evolution and its Publics from the Modern Synthesis to the Present

The journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences has a set of articles in its March 2014 issue that all stem from a conference session for the History of Science Society in 2012:

Disciplining and popularizing: Evolution and its publics from the modern synthesis to the present (Introduction)
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis

Darwin’s foil: The evolving uses of William Paley’s Natural Theology 1802–2005
Adam R. Shapiro

Making the case for orthogenesis: The popularization of definitely directed evolution (1890–1926)
Mark A. Ulett

Paleontology at the “high table”? Popularization and disciplinary status in recent paleontology
David Sepkoski

Claiming Darwin: Stephen Jay Gould in contests over evolutionary orthodoxy and public perception, 1977–2002
Myrna Perez Sheldon

BOOK: Evolving: The Human Effect and Why It Matters

A new title from Prometheus Books might be of interest to readers of this blog:

Evolving: The Human Effect and Why It Matters

by Douglas J. Fairbanks

Prometheus Books, 2012, ISBN 978-1-61614-565-1

In this persuasive, elegantly written book, research geneticist Daniel J. Fairbanks argues that understanding evolution has never mattered more in human history. Fairbanks not only uses evidence from archaeology, geography, anatomy, biochemistry, radiometric dating, cell biology, chromosomes, and DNA to establish the inescapable conclusion that we evolved and are still evolving, he also explains in detail how health, food production, and human impact on the environment are dependent on our knowledge of evolution. Evolving is essential reading for gaining a fuller appreciation of who we are, our place in the great expanse of life, and the importance of our actions.

“With so many excellent books on evolution available, it’s hard to imagine another one with anything new in it. Fairbanks succeeds with a whole array of original examples that demonstrate not only the truth of evolution, but also its impact on human life and society.” – Victor J. Stenger, New York Times bestselling author of God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion

“This book provides a compact overview of the results of many lines of research, especially in genetics, which continue to deepen our knowledge of evolution. Anyone who wonders about the practical value and importance of understanding the processes of evolution will benefit from reading it.” – Eric Meikle, National Center for Science Education

“This is an important book. Fairbanks presents an overwhelming case for the correctness of evolutionary theory. It is engagingly written, with many personal glimpses, and the technical material is clearly presented and understandable. Evolving should be essential reading for anyone who wishes to be an informed citizen.” – Allan Franklin, Professor of physics, University of Colorado, and coauthor of Ending the Mendel-Fisher Controversy

ARTICLE: Did Darwin read Mendel?

This was from 2009 in the QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, but I just came across it:

Did Darwin read Mendel?

David Galton

Read no further if you want a definite answer to this question. It is a sort of detective story with clues scattered around. The circumstances surrounding the question however are so interesting since they involve two of the most important scientific publications of the 19th century.

Read the rest here.