Sing the Song of Evolution

By de Waal, Frans B. M. | Natural History, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Sing the Song of Evolution


de Waal, Frans B. M., Natural History


Finally, television takes a comprehensive look at Darwin and his ideas.

REVIEW

Before Marxism lost its footing, its pamphlets discussed "postcapitalist" society as if the demise of free enterprise were just around the corner. I am always wary of in-your-- face declarations of victory-titles like "The Triumph of X or Y," for instance since they tend to be either unnecessary or premature. Several books on evolution and sociobiology carry such titles, and now here comes Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, the companion book to a PBS television series. Having watched the full eight hours of the Evolution video, I understand why this book title was selected, but, just as the series does, I will postpone discussing this issue until the end.

Why has no one until now had the brilliant idea of putting together a series explicitly about evolution? It is such a delightful story to tell: how Darwin began developing his theory during his travels on the HMS Beagle; how, with his habitual intellectual honesty, he gave full attention to every possible objection; Darwin's receipt of Alfred Russel Wallace's manuscript, which led to a hasty session at the Linnean Society to declare the idea of evolution by natural selection; the resistance from paleontologist Richard Owen, English cleric Samuel Wilberforce, and others; the ultimately wide acceptance of the theory; and how the Origin of Species inspired generations of scientists to look at the world in an entirely new light (as all good theories do), which confirmed at every turn the soundness of its assumptions.

The television series opens with lots of acting: a youthful Charles Darwin debating new ideas with his drunkard brother, Erasmus (named after their grandfather, who a century earlier had proposed that "Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves,/Was born and nurs'd in Ocean's pearly caves"). Then we see Darwin lighting up with recognition and understanding as he reads British economist Thomas Malthus's work on the social struggle for resources. Another scene shows Darwin, with his favorite daughter, Annie, by his side, staring through a microscope at a barnacle as she playfully pronounces the animal's name as "Barney Ickle." Annie's death from scarlet fever, at the age of ten, is also depicted, with her father angrily and symbolically turning away from the church at her funeral. Her death, Darwin wrote, had robbed him of "the solace of our old age."

A range of topics in modern evolutionary biology are covered next. We see how random selection can transform evolution into an enemy-for example, when it turns viruses into lethal pathogens (here we see harrowing images of AIDS patients and of prisoners in Russia infected with multidrugresistant tuberculosis). We also consider selection as the "friend" that shaped the evolution of the eye. This model organ is full of clues to random selection. The series does an excellent job of getting across that evolution has to deal with existing material, not only for the eye but also for quadrupedal locomotion and the genetics of fruit flies. The message is that the natural world is full of reused baggage. Truly "intelligent" design from scratch could have produced a much more effective eye-- without a blind spot, say-but evolution has to work with the old to make the new. "Tinkering" is therefore a word frequently used by the eminent scientists interviewed in Evolution.

Evolution is as much about destruction as it is about creation. Thus, one episode in the series covers mass extinctions and the need to preserve biodiversity, while another looks at sexual reproduction, without which viruses would freely attack species that are "sitting ducks" because of their lack of genetic diversity. I found these episodes most satisfying because they combine new thinking in evolutionary biology with the work of scientists who are collecting the corroborating evidence, such as in the testing of the Red Queen hypothesis (named for Lewis Carroll's character, who said to Alice, "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place" -that is, a host population continually evolves to stay one step ahead of its parasites and pathogens). …

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