From 550 BCE to the present, R. Paul Thompson traces the remarkable journey of the development of the theory of evolution and how that theory came to be the cornerstone of the field of biology. As we travel alongside key scientists in this journey, we learn about the nature of science itself, particularly theory development.
If you were to ask a typical American high school or college student what he or she knows about the theory of evolution, you would likely hear mention of Charles Darwin. Thompson clearly demonstrates that scientific theories are never developed in isolation. They are developed in concert with many scientists who are influenced by the time and place in which they live. For example, Darwin was influenced by Lyell's Principles of Geology, which he was given at age 22, at the outset of his voyage on the HMS Beagle.
The book opens with this statement: “The idea that life evolved is very old.” Thompson situates the ideas of evolution as originating between 500 and 600 BCE, citing Anaximander of Miletus. He quickly moves on to Darwin's theory, succinctly describing its key arguments and the evidence Darwin used to support those arguments. Thompson describes Darwin's theory by stating that “The case he assembled for the mutability of species is elegant and simple – part observation, part reasoning.” Thompson details Darwin's limitations in fully providing evidence to support his theory, particularly with regard to the details of variation and transfer of traits from one generation to the next. This evidence was present at the time Darwin was articulating his theory (mid-1800s), through the work of Gregor Mendel; but it was not offered as a mechanism for natural selection until the early 1900s.
As we progress along the journey, readers learn details about the scientists themselves – how their educational backgrounds and personal lives influenced them. We learn how scientists are influenced by the propositions of others and how they reconcile those that conflict with their own.
In addition to emphasizing the importance of collaboration among scientists from various subdisciplines, Thompson also highlights the importance of other disciplines, specifically mathematics and technology. For example, biometrics and statistics have allowed us to see variations in species and track change in species over time. Microscopy and gel electrophoresis have allowed us to gain a more detailed understanding of hereditary material and how it is transmitted from one generation to the next.
Throughout the book, Thompson clearly describes how evolution has come to be the cornerstone of biology. He explains how major subdisciplines – including genetics, population genetics, biometry, biogeography, embryology, paleontology, systematics, microbiology, development, and sociobiology – have come to align with evolutionary theory in what he describes as the “modern synthesis.” He references Theodosius Dobzhansky's famous quote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” which was originally published in The American Biology Teacher in 1973.
In biology courses, we generally teach topics in discrete units such as cells, genetics, evolution, classification. In fact, these topics are not discrete, and to gain a full conceptual understanding, students need to see the connections among them. In addition, to understand the process of science, students need to know how theories are developed and modified on the basis of new information and/or a reanalysis of existing information. Thompson does excellent work, neatly telling a story that clearly reveals these important connections.
I do feel that the book falls short in its failure to address the biology topics of flow of matter and energy and interdependence. No story of evolution is complete without addressing the theory of endosymbiosis, coevolution, and biodiversity. An understanding of evolution is critical to an understanding of the ramifications of two of the most pressing problems we are facing today: climate change and loss of biodiversity.
In spite of these limitations, the book makes an important contribution to the field of biology. It would be effective in an education course for preservice biology teachers. I would recommend this book to all high school and college biology teachers. Reading the book will enhance their ability to teach major topics in biology in a more connected manner. It will also help them teach the nature of science, specifically theory development, in greater depth. I can also see excerpts from the book being effectively used with advanced high school biology students as well as in introductory biology courses at the college level. Finally, I could see the book being used in college courses specifically focused on evolution or genetics.
ELIZABETH COWLES teaches introductory biology, biochemistry, and entomology at Eastern Connecticut State University. She has taught at the undergraduate and graduate college levels for over 20 years. Her interests include insect toxicology, protein characterization, and astrobiology. Cowles holds degrees in biology and biochemistry from Cornell University and Michigan State University. Her address is Department of Biology, ECSU, 83 Windham St., Willimantic, CT 06226; e-mail: email@example.com.