Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book Review: WTF, Evolution?

Note: This program first aired January 17, 2015.

I read a lot of books, science and nature books mostly, and I am always on the lookout for new work that effectively translates heady science concepts into engaging understandable material for the public. 2005’s fabulously funny “How Animals Have Sex: A guide to the reproductive habits of creatures great and small” by David Strorm is a great example. It’s a small format, full color photographic book that surveys the amusing sex lives of a wide variety of animals. The heady topic in question? That life is incredibly diverse, and evolution has come up with an amazing array of ways for life to go on, that is, for animals to reproduce. It answers questions you’ve always wondered like, how do dolphins and whales mate? What about porcupines? And then titillates the reader with fun facts about animals you may have never heard of like Bean Weevils and Spoon Worms and Argentine Lake Ducks. I consider How Animals Have Sex to have set a high standard for this genre.

So it was with pleasure that I purused Mara Grunbaum’s “WTF, Evolution?! A theory of unintelligible design”, a 2014 release from Workman Publishing. WTF, Evolution?! follows the same small format, full color photographic design, with a sort of scrap book-y layout. The author imagines an ongoing conversation with Evolution, and the book is full of cheeky irreverent dialog, sharp enough to get your attention, smart enough to keep it. The narrator’s skeptical comments and dead pan retorts are contrasted by enthusiasm in the voice of Evolution. Each section is prefaced by a short explanation of some facet of the mechanisms of Evolution, highlighting how adaptations have given the world some very strange solutions to otherwise straightforward biological problems.

The main goal of the book is to showcase the diversity of strange adaptations that have evolved in the animal kingdom over the last 3.8 billion years on this planet. In doing so Grunbaum highlights  key misconceptions about evolution, that it has a goal in mind or some kind of intention, and that humans are the apex of evolutionary adaptation. Evolution is precisely not directional, and has no end goal in mind. As she says in the introduction “Like the rest of us, it’s basically just fumbling in the dark”. Genetic engineering aside, evolution is profoundly limited by its starting material. It can only work with the genes that are in the gene pool. The only source of new material is mutation, which happens with regularity yet doesn’t yield viable new genetic material all that often. Not every mutation is adaptive, but if it doesn’t have a negative effect, it can get taken along for the ride and persist along side genes that increase an individual’s fitness. And that makes the fact of the incredible diversity of animal forms (and they are almost entirely animals in this book) simultaneously bewildering and understandable.

If you are interested in evolution, find animal diversity fascinating, like to laugh and don’t take yourself too seriously, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy WTF, Evolution?! At a bare minimum you will see evolution from a new angle, and regardless of where you are standing, a new perspective is something that benefits us all.