BOOK: How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society

A couple of years ago, Princeton University Press published the huge volume, The Princeton Guide to Evolution (out in paperback in February 2017), which provides a large overview of evolutionary biology, as a science and its relationship to human society (you can read the introduction here). Now the press has condensed a variety of chapters that address evolution as it relates to human society into a shorter book.


Jonathan B. Losos and Richard E. Lenski, eds., How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 416 pp.

Publisher’s description It is easy to think of evolution as something that happened long ago, or that occurs only in “nature,” or that is so slow that its ongoing impact is virtually nonexistent when viewed from the perspective of a single human lifetime. But we now know that when natural selection is strong, evolutionary change can be very rapid. In this book, some of the world’s leading scientists explore the implications of this reality for human life and society. With some twenty-three essays, this volume provides authoritative yet accessible explorations of why understanding evolution is crucial to human life—from dealing with climate change and ensuring our food supply, health, and economic survival to developing a richer and more accurate comprehension of society, culture, and even what it means to be human itself. Combining new essays with essays revised and updated from the acclaimed Princeton Guide to Evolution, this collection addresses the role of evolution in aging, cognition, cooperation, religion, the media, engineering, computer science, and many other areas. The result is a compelling and important book about how evolution matters to humans today. The contributors are Dan I. Andersson, Francisco J. Ayala, Amy Cavanaugh, Cameron R. Currie, Dieter Ebert, Andrew D. Ellington, Elizabeth Hannon, John Hawks, Paul Keim, Richard E. Lenski, Tim Lewens, Jonathan B. Losos, Virpi Lummaa, Jacob A. Moorad, Craig Moritz, Martha M. Muñoz, Mark Pagel, Talima Pearson, Robert T. Pennock, Daniel E. L. Promislow, Erik M. Quandt, David C. Queller, Robert C. Richardson, Eugenie C. Scott, H. Bradley Shaffer, Joan E. Strassmann, Alan R. Templeton, Paul E. Turner, and Carl Zimmer.

You can read the first chapter here.

BOOK REVIEW: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Things happen when humans mess with the environment. It’s a simple statement, cause and effect. What happens to tiny animal-dwelling organisms (viruses and bacteria) when humans encroach into the territories of their host animals, kill them, and even eat them? They can jump to humans and cause all manner of unpleasant infectious diseases. This jumping over is called spillover, and such infectious diseases are known as zoonotic diseases (or individually as a zoonosis). The complex story of how zoonotic diseases have emerged and are affecting animal and human populations across the globe is the subject of nature writer David Quammen’s new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.

Quammen brings his usual style to Spillover: his global travels as a writer, the story of current research, and the history of science. All melded together, they make for an engrossing read. Spillover is, honestly, a scientific thriller (but nonfiction!), and I really had a hard time putting it down. He took me to Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, and parts of North America I’ve never been. He introduced me to scores of epidemiologists and disease ecologists who work tirelessly to make sense of disease outbreaks, constantly risking their own lives by exposing themselves to pathogens (Quammen, on the other hand, noted several times in Spillover that he is just writing about this stuff: “I didn’t intend to let anyone hand me a Nipah-dripping bat if I could reasonably avoid it”). He brought me close to those bats, as well as pigs, civets, horses, mosquitoes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and somewhat unexpectedly, caterpillars.

While I am happy to know much more about the zoonotic diseases that Quammen focuses on – Hendra, Ebola, Malaria, SARS, Q fever, Psittacosis, Lyme disease, Herpes B, SFV, Nipah, and AIDS – it is the larger, overall message that he shares that I find important. “Shake a tree,” he writes, “and things fall out.” In the last chapter of the book, Quammen offers a long list (he is prone to listing in his writing) of human actions that affect our connectivity to the natural world, and disease. And from those actions will likely come the Next Big One, as it is called by those working on emerging diseases, comparable to the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe in the fourteenth century, smallpox brought to the North American continent in the sixteenth century and killing millions of native peoples, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, polio (in America), also in the nineteenth century, and the current AIDs crisis worldwide. And as the case has been made clear in Spillover, it will jump from an animal to humans. Should it not be imperative that we think about how we treat animal populations around the globe, especially those that harbor zoonotic diseases? Here Quammen raises the question, but does not have much time to go into how to solve the problem. Raising that question and describing the problem in such detail makes Quammen’s Spillover a must read. To me, with its emphasis on the relationship between humans and other organisms, and with its stressing of the importance of biogeography, evolution, and ecology, this book took me back to Quammen’s two other long-researched books, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction and Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind; and it will take a place next to those on my shelf.

Spillover will be released by W.W. Norton & Company on October 1, 2012. Here’s a trailer (yes, a trailer!) for the book:

Hopefully soon I can make that a signed copy to have on my shelf, as Quammen will be in Portland on October 22nd for an OMSI Science Pub. Full details here.

While I received a review copy from the publisher, I should note that David Quammen is a friend. He lives in Bozeman, MT (queue the caterpillars in the book!) where I went to school. He was well connected to the history department there and so I often heard about his research for the book and places that he had been. He also gave lectures at the Museum of the Rockies on this topic, and wrote several articles as well. I saw him last when I was in Montana in June for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project conference as he was on the home stretch with his manuscript. Congratulations on a wonderful book, David.

Tyndall Conference at 320 Ranch in Big Sky, Montana

Historical medical conference examines mystery illness of Charles Darwin

From The Republic:

Historical medical conference examines mystery illness of Charles Darwin, father of evolution


May 03, 2011

BALTIMORE — Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution revolutionized biology, but the health problems that plagued the British naturalist for decades are not as well known.

Doctors will examine Darwin’s painful illness and death at a conference in Baltimore on Friday.

The annual conference hosted by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and VA Maryland Health Care System offers modern medical diagnoses for the mysterious illnesses and deaths of historical figures. In past years, the conference has looked at Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Booker T. Washington.

Darwin, who lived from 1809 to 1882, traveled the world in his 20s cataloging and observing wildlife and later published “On the Origin of Species.” Guest speakers include Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter, poet Ruth Padel, who penned the book, “Darwin: A Life in Poems.”

Details from the university here.

Journal for General Philosophy of Science: “Darwinism and Scientific Practice in Historical Perspective”

The June 2010 issue (Vol. 41, No. 1) of the Journal for General Philosophy of Science focuses on Darwin:

Ute Deichmann & Anthony Travis, Special Section: Darwinism and Scientific Practice in Historical Perspective: Guest Editors’ Introduction

Ulrich Charpa, Darwin, Schleiden, Whewell, and the “London Doctors”: Evolutionism and Microscopical Research in the Nineteenth Century

Abstract This paper discusses some philosophical and historical connections between, and within, nineteenth century evolutionism and microscopical research. The principal actors are mainly Darwin, Schleiden, Whewell and the “London Doctors,” Arthur Henfrey and Edwin Lankester. I demonstrate that the apparent alliances—particularly Darwin/Schleiden (through evolutionism) and Schleiden/Whewell (through Kantian philosophy of science)—obscure the deep methodological differences between evolutionist and microscopical biology that lingered on until the mid-twentieth century. Through an understanding of the little known significance of Schleiden’s programme of microscopical research and by comparing certain features of his methodology to the activities of the “London Doctors,” we can identify the origin of this state of affairs. In addition, the outcome provides an insight into a critique of Buchdahl’s view on Schleiden’s philosophical conception.

Ute Deichmann, Gemmules and Elements: On Darwin’s and Mendel’s Concepts and Methods in Heredity

Abstract Inheritance and variation were a major focus of Charles Darwin’s studies. Small inherited variations were at the core of his theory of organic evolution by means of natural selection. He put forward a developmental theory of heredity (pangenesis) based on the assumption of the existence of material hereditary particles. However, unlike his proposition of natural selection as a new mechanism for evolutionary change, Darwin’s highly speculative and contradictory hypotheses on heredity were unfruitful for further research. They attempted to explain many complex biological phenomena at the same time, disregarded the then modern developments in cell theory, and were, moreover, faithful to the widespread conceptions of blending and so-called Lamarckian inheritance. In contrast, Mendel’s approaches, despite the fact that features of his ideas were later not found to be tenable, proved successful as the basis for the development of modern genetics. Mendel took the study of the transmission of traits and its causes (genetics) out of natural history; by reducing complexity to simple particulate models, he transformed it into a scientific field of research. His scientific approach and concept of discrete elements (which later gave rise to the notion of discrete genes) also contributed crucially to the explanation of the existence of stable variations as the basis for natural selection.

Michel Morange, How Evolutionary Biology Presently Pervades Cell and Molecular Biology

Abstract The increasing place of evolutionary scenarios in functional biology is one of the major indicators of the present encounter between evolutionary biology and functional biology (such as physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology), the two branches of biology which remained separated throughout the twentieth century. Evolutionary scenarios were not absent from functional biology, but their places were limited, and they did not generate research programs. I compare two examples of these past scenarios with two present-day ones. At least three characteristics distinguish present and past efforts: An excellent description of the systems under study, a rigorous use of the evolutionary models, and the possibility to experimentally test the evolutionary scenarios. These three criteria allow us to distinguish the domains in which the encounter is likely to be fruitful, and those where the obstacles to be overcome are high and in which the proposed scenarios have to be considered with considerable circumspection.

Anthony Travis, Raphael Meldola and the Nineteenth-Century Neo-Darwinians

Abstract Raphael Meldola (1849-1915), an industrial chemist and keen naturalist, under the influence of Darwin, brought new German studies on evolution by natural selection that appeared in the 1870s to the attention of the British scientific community. Meldola’s special interest was in mimicry among butterflies; through this he became a prominent neo-Darwinian. His wide-ranging achievements in science led to appointments as president of important professional scientific societies, and of a local club of like-minded amateurs, particularly field naturalists. This is an account of Meldola’s early scientific connections and studies related to entomology and natural selection, his contributions to the study of mimicry, and his promotion in the mid-1890s of a more theory driven approach among entomologists.

Rony Armon, Beyond Darwinism’s Eclipse: Functional Evolution, Biochemical Recapitulation and Spencerian Emergence in the 1920s and 1930s

Abstract During the 1920s and 1930s, many biologists questioned the viability of Darwin’s theory as a mechanism of evolutionary change. In the early 1940s, and only after a number of alternatives were suggested, Darwinists succeeded to establish natural selection and gene mutation as the main evolutionary mechanisms. While that move, today known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis, is taken as signalling a triumph of evolutionary theory, certain critical problems in evolution—in particular the evolution of animal function—could not be addressed with this approach. Here I demonstrate this through reconstruction of the evolutionary theory of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), who pioneered the biochemical study of evolution and development. In order to address such problems, Needham employed Herbert Spencer’s principles of emergence and Ernst Haeckel’s theory of recapitulation. While Needham did not reject Darwinian theory, Spencerian and Haeckelian frameworks happened to better fit his findings and their evolutionary relevance. He believed selectionist and genetic approaches to be important but far from sufficient for explaining how evolutionary transformations occur.

In Darwin Family, Evidence of Inbreeding’s Ill Effects

From the New York Times (3 May 2010):

In Darwin Family, Evidence of Inbreeding’s Ill Effects

by Nicholas Wade

Charles Darwin, the author of the theory of evolution, may have been right to worry that his children’s health had been affected by the inbreeding in his own family, especially that of his wife, Emma Wedgwood, who was his first cousin.

A calculation based on first-cousin marriages over four generations of the two dynasties suggests that Darwin’s children had a mild degree of inbreeding, measured by the chance of inheriting the same version of a gene from both parents. Possible consequences of inbreeding can be seen in the children’s illnesses and degree of infertility, three researchers report in the current issue of BioScience.

Continue reading here.

BOOK: Darwin in Ilkley

Darwin in Ilkley

Darwin in Ilkley

Darwin in Ilkley is a short book by Mike Dixon and Gregory Radick:

When the “Origins of Species” was published on 24 November 1859, its author, Charles Darwin, was near the end of a nine-week stay in the remote Yorkshire village of Ilkley. He had come for the ‘water cure’ – a regime of cold baths and wet sheets – and for relaxation. But he used his time in Ilkley to shore up support, through extensive correspondence, for the extraordinary theory that the “Origin” would put before the world: evolution by natural selection. In “Darwin in Ilkley”, Mike Dixon and Gregory Radick bring to life Victorian Ilkley and the dramas of body and mind that marked Darwin’s visit.

Richard Carter of The Red Notebook posted about Ilkley before – read it here.

Merchants of Doubt

In my philosophy of science class, we have been reading articles about values in science, financial conflicts of interest, and the commercialization of science. Next week we read Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. A forthcoming book by two historians of science looks like it would fit in with this course: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Here is the Amazon blurb:

The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.

Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. Remarkably, the same individuals surface repeatedly? Some of the same figures who have claimed that the science of global warming is “not settled” denied the truth of studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, historians of science, roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how ideology and corporate interests, aided by a too-compliant media, have skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.

Darwin’s illness revisited

Diagnosing Darwin

In the British Medical Journal:

“Darwin’s illness revisited”

John A Hayman, associate professor

It is 200 years since the naturalist Charles Darwin was born. It is therefore an appropriate time to establish the nature of the illness that he endured throughout adulthood and to refute the many fanciful proffered diagnoses, both physical and psychological, or psychoanalytical.


Darwin’s symptoms may be explained by the diagnosis of cyclical vomiting syndrome, with secondary complications such as atopic dermatitis with staphylococcal infections, dental decay, oesophageal tears, and skin pigmentation. He had a severe form of this illness with periods of coalescence of episodes. His was a well defined but not well known inbornillness; he did not primarily have hypochondriasis, neurasthenia, agoraphobia, or any of the strange psychoanalytically derived maladies that have been proposed.

Read everything in between here. Hat-tip to Greg Bole.

Thoughts about this diagnosis at Why Evolution Is True.

PODCAST: David Quammen on Zoonotic Disease

David Quammen’s latest article, “Deadly Contact: How Animals and Humans Exchange Disease,” is in the October issue of National Geographic, and is available online here. Quammen lives here in Bozeman and holds the Stegner Professorship in the History and Philosophy Department at Montana State University, and back on October 11th, he spoke on the topic at the Museum of the Rockies. The lecture, “Thirteen Dead Gorillas: Zoonotic Disease and the Future of Human Health,” is now available online here. He entered the auditorium in a Hazmat suit (the picture is from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle of October 12th). I’m still bummed that I missed his talk on Darwin and religion last spring.