Mark Pallen
The Rough Guide to Evolution
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2009 by Gary McGath

(A copy of this book is being sent to me for reviewing on LibraryThing. I got impatient and borrowed a library copy. There may be differences between the review copy and the edition in the library.)

The Rough Guide to Evolution is a very enjoyable and readable book on evolution, which everyone but the incurably ignorant can probably learn something new from. It presents some solid science without getting so deep as to lose non-specialist readers like me. It also has quite a bit of fun, citing The Simpsons and the Flying Spaghetti Monster as well as Mendel and Huxley.

After a short biography of Darwin, the heart of the book is the chapters on the development of scientific knowledge about evolution. It presents the basic ideas of natural selection, speciation, genetics (which Darwin didn't know about), and a bit of molecular biology. It could make a good first systematic guide to evolution for a young, intelligent reader.

The section titled "Impact" rambles, often straining a bit to tie various aspects of the arts and humanities to evolution. The connections would have worked better if Pallen had recognized that evolution is a special case of the broader phenomenon of spontaneous order. The latter term is usually applied to human activities where order arises without central direction, but it can be applied to many things, from the formation of crystals to the formation of markets.

The best chapter within the section is the one on "Religion," which covers various religious responses to evolutionary theory. By no means are all religious people creationists, nor are all creationists in full agreement with each other. This chapter discusses the attempts to require creationism to be taught (sometimes under the label of "creation science" or "intelligent design") in public schools.

The section also includes a selection of science fiction works with evolution as a major theme. The book also discusses evolution-related music, but glaringly omits any mention of Dr. Jane / James Robinson. Oh, well.

There's a short discussion of "social Darwinism." I've encountered many conflicting claims on just what Herbert Spencer's views were about, and someday I should read him for myself. Annoyingly, Pallen lumps together "unregulated capitalism, a brutal criminal justice system, a class system locked in place by social immobility, militarism, colonialism, and worst of all, racism and enforced eugenics."

One good point deserves special mention. Pallen explains that "Occam's razor states that the preferred explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible." This is both closer to the original and epistemologically sounder than its usual characterization as "the simplest explanation is the best." I should also mention one misleading statement: In discussing the movie Expelled, he writes, "The film also drew a lawsuit from Yoko Ono over unauthorized use of Lennon's Imagine." He doesn't mention that the amount of material used (about 15 seconds) and its relevance to the context made it a clear case of fair use, and a court ruled accordingly. Update: Pallen states on his blog that he didn't mention it because the case was still in progress when he submitted the final text of the book.

The book shows its evolutionary origins in the "Rough Guide" travel books. A couple of short chapters at the end provide information and maps for the would-be Darwin tourist. Another vestigial feature is the major annoyance of the book: Something like a quarter of the material is in sidebar articles. These are useful in travel books, where the reader is generally looking for specific information, but they're a disruption in a book which you're trying to read cover to cover. I dealt with them by reading the main text of a chapter, then going back and reading all its sidebars. But these short articles, often excerpted from other works, are interesting reading in themselves.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy-to-read overview of evolution.

This review last revised on April 14, 2009

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