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Pulitzer Prize (Nonfiction)
The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil
record persists as the trade secret of
To the genuine horror of family, friends and coworkers, I am an evolution skeptic. Mind you, that is not the same thing as being a Creationist. I do not believe that God created the Universe four thousand years ago and planted fossils in the earth just to test our faith. I do however think that what we know for certain of the evolutionary processes seems to be awfully similar to the way we breed animals and plants, which if it does not necessarily imply one, at least leaves open the possibility of an intelligence guiding the whole deal. More importantly, I am simply unsatisfied with the explanations and "proofs" for great evolutionary steps, for instance the development of the eye or the wing and the link from ape to man. So when a Pulitzer Prize winning book came along, it's very subtitle suggesting that evolution has been observed and documented, I was naturally curious. Sadly, Jonathan Weiner's tale, though interesting, has done nothing to change my mind.
For the purposes of this review, let me separate two concepts: Natural Selection and Evolution. If we understand natural selection to embody the idea that certain features and characteristics which appear among certain members of a species and convey a survival advantage tend to then come to predominate within that species, then this would appear to be inarguable. This idea is easily understood. The taller members of species X have an easier time reaching the leaves upon which they feed. The shorter ones die out. The taller ones breed and tend to have taller rather than shorter offspring. Within a few generations they are mostly pretty darn tall. No problem.
The real core of this idea is that the pressure to survive which nature itself places upon all species--through climate, food supply, etc.--is capable of producing the same type of changes in those species that humans can cause through breeding programs. We need look no farther than the dachshund and the St. Bernard to realize that selective breeding can lead to huge changes in physical appearance, temperament, intelligence, and other characteristics over a period of generations. Assume some kind of ur-dog existed in the distant past and that all of the myriad breeds of dogs with which we are now familiar are descended from this ancient ancestor. We are well aware of how we have bred different varieties of dogs to suit our own purposes; the remaining question is: does nature also act upon dogs and other species in a similar way, selecting out certain characteristics which enhance the chances of survival and then, via intercourse between the survivors, breeding this characteristic into subsequent generations?
If the answer to this question has not always been a clear "yes," it has at least been a strong "probably." For anyone who still harbored doubts, Weiner's book should clear them up. He chronicles the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant, evolutionists who have studied the finches of the Galapagos island of Daphne Major for over twenty years. Over that time they identified some 13 species of Darwin's famous finches, which have adapted to everything from vampirism to vegetarianism. They have also been able to demonstrate that the process of change occurs visibly from one generation to the next, so that they can actually measure and record increases in beak size from one cohort to its' descendants. They seem like very dedicated people and rigorous scientists and their story makes for interesting reading.
But, at the end of the day, these finches, which Weiner tells us have been in the Galapagos for millions of years and which the Grant's research shows are capable of such rapid change, are still just finches. They still just have two wings, a beak, little clawed feet, etc. The amazing truth of the book is not actually how fast the birds can change, but how little they've changed. The story simply does not move us any closer to understanding genuine "Evolution."
By "Evolution" I mean the much broader historical process by which birds, dogs, man and everything else were created out of primordial ooze. Let us assume for the moment that natural selection suffices as a mechanism to steer this sort of evolution. Even over a period of millions of years, this process would require change just as rapid as that which the Grants observed among Darwin's finches. But it would also require a qualitatively different kind of change; it would require the type of change which is not simply a matter of a bird's beak length varying, but instead the kind of change wherein that bird becomes something other than a bird or at least the kind of changes which would precede that kind of species changeover.
It's now commonly thought that birds descended from dinosaurs. Fine. If this is the case, we have to ask ourselves: what is the process by which some vestigial hint of a feather eventually became a wing? What advantage did this original little nubbin on a pterodactyl's shoulder confer, that resulted in it being bred into the species? It's easy to see how, the beak already existing, it might be helpful to the bird for it to be longer or shorter as circumstances dictate. Likewise, it's easy to understand why you'd breed a dog like a St. Bernard to help effect rescues in the snow rather than one like the dachshund. But as always with evolution, the problem is that we are reasoning backwards, from the end result.
What advantage did some one celled organism million of years ago derive from some tiny mutation that lead eventually to the eye? Mustn't the process of developing the eye taken millions, even billions of generations? And if we'd been there to observe it, wouldn't such a fundamental, albeit gradual, change have been apparent to us? Where then are these types of changes occurring today? What is the next eye? Shouldn't we be able to see something that will give us an advantage as great as the eye did developing within ourselves today? We see our species get taller, less hairy (except for me), grow smarter, etc.. We see all the ways in which we are changing in the same way as finches; why then do we not see the changes that will enable us to make the leap to the next species? Why in the century and a half since Darwin proposed his theory and we've been on the lookout for such a change, have we never seen anything resembling this process anywhere in the natural world?
There was a story in The New Yorker, within the past year or two, about a physicist who has a fascinating probability theory. He posits that it is extremely unlikely that anything is extraordinary, it is always much more likely to be typical and average. He was discussed in the context of Millenarian hysterics. People all over the world believe that the turn of the millennium signals the end of the world. They want this moment to be extraordinary. The physicist (I'm sorry I can't remember his name) argues instead that this moment more likely falls somewhere in the middle of the long continuum of existence, than at one of the end points. If Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years or whatever, it is more likely that it has another 4.5 billion to go than it is that we happen to be alive at the moment it ceases.
Similarly, it seems likely that if theories of Evolution are accurate, we are simply in the midst of a long process, not at it's culmination. We, and all the species around us,. should be changing just as rapidly as we would have had to in the past to have gotten to this point from our humble origins in the muck. It is extremely unlikely that we happen to be alive during a unique pause in the process. So where is it? Where is the evidence that we are changing in these fundamental ways?
Jonathan Weiner says that:
Life is always poised for flight. From a distance,
it looks still . . . but up close it is flitting this way
In fact, the directions it flies off in are so cribbed and circumspect--add some beak here, make these predominantly white butterflies predominantly black, make the Japanese people five inches taller on average since WWII--that we are left with most of the basic questions about evolution unanswered. Until someone can start to answer these real questions, books like this one simply gild the lilly, confirming scientifically what we all knew intuitively; that you can breed a general characteristic into a species as long as it is just a minor variation from the preexisting mean. Whoopee!
It's not that this is a bad book, more that it's enthusiasts claim entirely too much for it. The subtitle should be "A Story of Natural Selection in Our Time." It shows that natural selection occurs, but Evolution is another story.
-REVIEW: of THE DANCE OF LIFE Courtship in the Animal Kingdom. By mark jerome Walters(Jonathan Weiner, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of WHO GOT EINSTEIN'S OFFICE? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study. By Ed Regis (Jonathan Weiner, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of MEDITATIONS AT SUNSET A Scientist Looks at the Sky. By James Trefil (Jonathan Weiner, NY Times Book Review)
-ARTICLE: The Pulitzer Prizes: Journalism and the Arts Bestow a Most Prestigious Honor (April 19, 1995, NY Times)
-REVIEW: THE BEAK OF THE FINCH A Story of Evolution in Our Time. By Jonathan Weiner (Douglas H. Chadwick, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of TIME, LOVE, MEMORY A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior By Jonathan Weiner (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of TIME, LOVE, MEMORY A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior. By Jonathan Weiner ( Lewis Wolpert, NY Times Book Review)