November 2010

How evolution explains the world we live in

By Geerat Vermeij
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Geerat Vermeij calls his new book, The Evolutionary World, “a personal, and in many ways unconventional book.” It is that, and it is a marvel.

Vermeij’s basic argument is that evolution has great, perhaps even universal, explanatory power. “Evolution has outgrown its original home in biology and geology,” Vermeij writes in his preface. “It is the foundation of a worldview in which environments, genes, organic architecture, physiology, chance, the economic struggle for life and historical narrative come together to illuminate how we live in the world.” In the 13 succeeding chapters, Vermeij explains and amplifies his arguments, drawing on his extensive observation of nature and the fossil record.

Along the way, Vermeij offers a fascinating explanation of adaptive evolution, whose processes of collaboration and competition are far more intricate—and beautiful, in a way—than those early, simplistic notions of the “survival of the fittest.” He explores why very few insects live in the sea. He examines the short-term harms—measured in thousands or millions of years—caused to life on Earth by man-made climate change and carefully speculates on the possible longer-term benefits of a warmer world, as measured by an increase in the diversity of species (though not necessarily including the human species). Using his framework of adaptive evolution and the economies they impose on life, he also accounts for the rise of consciousness, history and meaning itself. It is a profound and provocative demonstration of scientific reasoning.

Vermeij is distinguished professor of geology at the University of California at Davis and a MacArthur “genius grant” winner. Blind since the age of three, he is nonetheless a brilliant observer of nature; his passion is “all things molluscan”—seashells, in other words—for which there is an astonishing array of collections worldwide, providing evidence of adaptive evolution stretching back hundreds of millions of years. In fact, a secondary pleasure of The Evolutionary World is to see demonstrated this amazing human effort—sometimes collaboratively, sometimes competitively—to document and understand life on Earth.

Vermeij writes personably, and his arguments are detailed but free of jargon, though he explores some byways that seem to be interpretive disagreements with colleagues. But with careful attention, The Evolutionary World is very accessible even to rigorously non-scientific readers like this reviewer. Such attention is richly rewarded.

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The Evolutionary World

The Evolutionary World

By Geerat Vermeij
St. Martin's
ISBN 9780312591083

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