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Book Review: The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer

Price: US$43:16
Hardcover: 394 pages
Publisher: Roberts and Company Publishers; 1 edition (October 15, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981519474
ISBN-13: 978-0981519470

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This Tuesday is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s bookOn the Origin of Species“. And earlier this year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth.

These anniversaries have been marked by publication of books about Darwin’s life, his ideas and various aspects of evolutionary science. Most of these are aimed at the adult reader. But here is one which will appeal to school children and young adults — an important section of readers.

The Tangled Bank is an introductory text book. It will be ideal for introductory classes on evolution and biology. But it is also going to appeal to many adults, and especially to families.

More than a text book

This is no dry old text book. Carl Zimmer is a science journalist who has already published several popular science books. His communication skills are evidence here. Zimmer’s writing is lively and readable, but still very informative. This makes the book a joy to read and it will appeal especially to young adults and newcomers to this subject.

The book is richly and appropriately illustrated throughout. I liked the useful timeline on the inside front and back cover sheets. This portrays evolution of the planet and of life from 4.6 billion years ago. Many diagrams were prepared especially for the book to explain recent findings and they show attentive work by the team of artists, editors, science advisers as well as the author. This helps to make it a helpful family resource as well as a text for undergraduate introductory courses. It is a book which growing children and students will read at home for pleasure as well as for project help.

I liked the way each chapter began with depictions and descriptions of the work of named scientists. Thepersonal link does a lot to show the excitement and adventure in the scientific process. It also helps explain the rapid expansion and empirical basis of knowledge in this dynamic science. I believe involvement of personalities and their work in the narrative will help motivate young people towards a career in scientific research.

Transitional fossils

For example, Zimmer describes the work of Neil Shubin, author of “Your Inner Fish,” and his team in the discovery of transitional fossils showing evolution of tetrapods from their marine ancestors. They found fossils of the Tiktaalik which lived 375 million years ago. Transitional forms in evolution of the whale are illustrated by Hans Thewissen’s discovery of fossils of the Ambulocetus from 47 million years ago (see figure below from book). Zimmer describes these evolutionary transitions in more depth in his book At the Water’s Edge.

The Tangled Bank also explains observation of evolutionary transitions as they occur in modern-day laboratory experiments. Zimmer describes the 20-year experiment in which Richard Lenski showed microbial evolution in Eshericia coli. This illustrates how individual mutations favoured by natural selection can be identified and verified.

Carl Zimmer provides an extensive overview of evolutionary science in 370 pages. Starting with a description of what we mean by evolution, through a brief history of evolutionary ideas, geological evidence, phylogeny, molecular biology, the nature of mutation, genetic drift and selection. The role of genes, speciation extinctions and radiations, interspecies adaptions and the benefits of sex and families. He also covers evolution of behaviour in humans and other animals, emotions and society.

Attacks on evolutionary science

Maybe Zimmer could have said more about current attacks on evolutionary science. After all, few students will be unaware of what is happening at the political and social level. He does have a 2-page spread ’How Not to Study Evolution’ which summarises the essential problem of the creationist approach. And there are also other one or two page boxes on subjects like ’What is Science?’, ’The Present and the Past in Science’ and ’How do Scientists Study Evolution.’

This book is full of information without being intimidating to the non-biologist.  It has a useful glossary and, for those wanting to go further, 14 pages of references — all related to the individual chapter and section headings.

So a readable, informative and up-to-date introduction to evolutionary science. With the added benefit of being an attractive family reference book. One that children will happily read as they grow.

I reckon it would be a great Christmas present for the science-friendly family.

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