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Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory    by Edward J. Larson order for
by Edward J. Larson
Order:  USA  Can
Modern Library, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by David Pitt

Is there anything more exciting than a book about big ideas? Larson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a book about the Scopes trial (schoolteacher teaches evolutionary theory, you remember), chronicles the long, often convoluted history of the theory of evolution, and oh boy what a journey it is.

It begins with a delicious irony. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), the French scientist, was at the cutting edge of comparative anatomy and paleontology. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution (which was not the only theory, just the one best supported by the evidence) was based largely on discoveries that came out of Cuvier's work. Yet Cuvier himself, for reasons that seemed solid enough at the time, was vehemently opposed to the whole idea of evolution. He thought it was flat-out wrong, but it was his passionate research that laid the foundation for it.

During the late 1700s, and early 1800s, the scientific community was tossing around the idea of evolution, the notion that some species 'transmute' while others die out, as though it were the hottest potato the world had ever seen. And, in many ways, it really was: if you accepted the theory of evolution, in the social and philosophical climate of the early nineteenth century, it was as if you were denying the existence of God. It didn't help matters at all that the whole discussion was mostly hypothetical, because nobody had any real proof that any species had ever died out.

All that changed a few years later, when the first dinosaur fossils were found. Here was physical evidence that the world was once populated by creatures that no longer existed. Species really do die out. And if that's true, then maybe the other part of the theory the part that says some species evolve into different forms is also true.

Now things really get interesting. Suddenly, the debate about evolution became a battle between the catastrophists (who believed in a series of independent creations) and the transmutationists (who believed in the incremental evolution of species into more specialized forms). If you think an war of ideas between one bunch of scientists and another bunch of scientists is pretty dull, then you really need to read this book.

Anyway, along came Darwin talk about adding fuel to the fire and then the missing-link debate, and the paleontology explosion, and DNA research, and various refinements of Darwin's sturdy theory, and religious and philosophical debates, and courtroom drama (the Scopes trial again), and a whole pile of things that Darwin could not possibly have imagined.

This really is a marvelous book: world-changing ideas, larger-than-life characters, rivalries, breathless excitement, the thrill of discovery. What more could you want?

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