Non-Fiction Reviews


Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters

(2012) Daniel J. Fairbanks, Prometheus, trdpbk, 16.99 / US$19.00, 352pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14565-1

 

Humans are animals and, as with all life forms, have come to be through evolution. In Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters Daniel J. Fairbanks, a US university research geneticist working in a clinical science department, explores various strands of evidence as to how evolution has applied to our species' development. Here, the book's strength is with him exploring the afore-mentioned 'various strands'.

He begins by briefly explaining what Wallace / Darwinian evolution is through natural selection, the initially seemingly contradictory Mendelian theory of hereditary, and then the 'modern synthesis' of the two into neo-Darwinism. Following this introduction, he begins to explore the various strands of evidence for human evolution. Disturbingly, as Daniel Fairbanks accounts, 2010 public surveys reveal 40% of US citizens believe that God created humans within the last 10,000 years. I suspect many scientists in the US take this statistic more for granted even if they do find it shocking. I find it truly disturbing and hope that this figure is lower in Britain: Britain seems to be a more secular society. Yet this level of ignorance, let alone a lack of willingness for the religious to reconcile their beliefs (beliefs that otherwise may well have some other ethical and cultural merit) with the real-life (scientific) evidence, is disturbing given the demographic resource problems our planet faces this century. It is this last that seems to be providing the motivation for Daniel Fairbanks writing this book.

The first evidence strand examined is our current anatomy, how it compares with that of other species (pentadactyl limb) and not least what some may consider design flaws (such as the eye's blind spot) that a supreme-being designer (such as God) surely would not have included, yet are easily explainable through Darwinian evolution.

Next he looks at the geological record. He briefly looks at the deep time perspective, but mainly focuses on early human evolution in Africa over the past several million years and especially the Quaternary (a term he does not use but means the past two million years).

The following three chapters betray the author's academic perspective, genetics. Now there is nothing wrong with this although this means that he misses a trick or two. The first of these chapters is evidence from geography but in actuality it is an examination of current human genetics and what these (through partial DNA sequences) reveal about human migration. The second of these three chapters is entitled 'Evidence from our genome'. While this chapter title might suggest the author covers ground from the previous chapter, actually it is an explanation of genome evolution and how this by itself (as opposed to comparison with individual genetic sequences from different populations' genomes discussed in the previous chapter) tells us something about our evolutionary past. The final in this chapter triplet is entitled 'More evidence from our genome', and this chapter does what it says on the tin by looking at how individual genes within the genome themselves evolve. Now leaving aside higher school pupils and popular science readers, those whole-organism biologists whose molecular genetics may be only a dim and dated memory of course modules years gone by, these three chapters are a marvellous introductory update to this fascinating area of science.

The next three chapters also have a theme in that they look at how human evolution (and other development) has impacted on the evolution of other species (and here I include viruses though I know that many of my biologist colleagues do not consider them true species but then they do not get around the Universe that much). These chapters look at human evolution and the co-evolution of human pathogens hence health, the evolution of the species we use for food (and here non-Darwinian evolution the human selection and breeding of other species), and finally the human impact on the environment over time.

Finally, an epilogue returns to an introductory topic by exploring the need for many (the 40% of evolutionary denialists) to reconcile their personal beliefs with the evidence as have a number of bioscientists who themselves have religious belief.

Good news for those reading the book as part of study, Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters comes complete with a glossary, notes and references on chapters, as well as a subject index.

Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters is an accessible and interesting read for those into popular science being written at the New Scientist magazine level. A-level (16-18 year old) school pupils studying sciences will also find this book particularly beneficial as an adjunct to their own preliminary studies as well as to help them to relate the matters discussed to their friends studying the arts and humanities (a truly worthy thing for them to do). Finally, as mentioned earlier, those bioscientists specialising in other areas and not well versed in genetics (like myself) will find the three chapters on this aspect of evolutionary elucidation a very helpful introductory update to the genetic aspects.

A minor point, missing from the book is how deep time changes in the global climate, hence changing predominance of various biomes that in turn provided both challenges and opportunities in the evolution of our species. But then this book has been written by someone rooted in genetics and health science and not biosphere and Earth systems science like myself, so consider this last comment one of personal nuance and not of undue critical importance other than to say that the case for the neo-Darwinian evolution of humans is even stronger than that the author rightly presents.

We (in the science community) do need to present the evidence pertaining to topics of public controversy so that communities at large have the opportunity to become equipped to address such issues in an informed way. Not only is our global human society becoming ever more science and technology based, it is becoming clear that we will need a proper understanding, hence deployment, of science and technology to address the issues we all (including our children) will have to face in the coming years and decades. To this end Daniel Fairbanks' Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters makes a worthy contribution.

Jonathan Cowie


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