Every now and then a brilliant book comes along that helps us rethink what we know about a subject. Jonathan B. Losos’ fascinating, compulsively readable Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution is just such a book; it offers an opportunity for us to ponder the process of evolution, the questions that have fueled recent debates and the extent to which evolutionary biology can be confirmed through experimentation.
Harvard biologist Losos raises two key questions that lie at the heart of conversations about evolution: Is it predictable? Or is it contingent? These questions spiral into more queries: If the process of natural selection and adaptation takes place slowly over time—as scientists traditionally believed—can we really observe it and reach provable conclusions? Can we conduct large field experiments that would give us insights into evolution?
Drawing on his own experiments with lizards, as well as on the research of others in the Galapagos, Losos illustrates that the pace of evolutionary change is not glacial, and that evolutionary change can be observed over a relatively short time. He also concludes that convergence—in which species living in similar environments will adapt similar features—has emerged as a challenge to those scientists who argue that evolution is unpredictable, random and nonrepeatable. Losos demonstrates that “the contingencies of history play a minor role, their effects erased by the predictable push of natural selection.”
With vivacious writing and thoughtful, provocative insights, Losos’ captivating study of evolution deserves to be read alongside the books of E.O. Wilson (The Social Conquest of Earth) and Stephen Jay Gould (Wonderful Life).