by STEVE JONES
Steve Jones describes Darwin's The Origin of Species as "the only bestseller to change man's conception of himself ... without doubt, the book of the millennium." That book's sensational central proposition, that speciation arose from descent with modification through the mechanism of natural selection, constituted a kind of Grand Unifying Theory of the biological sciences, allowing what had been until Darwin's time an essentially anecdotal practice to cohere into a modern discipline. In the century and a half since its publication, Darwin's big idea has been attacked many times, on many grounds, but has never convincingly been refuted. Yet, as Jones points out, hardly anybody reads The Origin of Species now for its science. It is celebrated as a landmark in the history of ideas, as a contribution to the philosophy of science and as a masterly work of high Victorian prose. The idea of evolution has pervaded almost every aspect of human thought. But it has almost been forgotten that it is primarily a work of science. Almost like a Whale is an attempt to redress the balance. Jones, himself a geneticist, assumes the mantle of Darwin and rewrites his masterpiece for the modern reader, borrowing the structure and thesis but writing with the benefit of 150 years' hindsight. Throughout the 20th century new sciences have emerged that have in all cases buttressed the central claims of evolution, chief among them embryology and Jones' own discipline of genetics. Almost Like a Whale draws widely on them for its arguments and many illuminating stories and case- studies.
It is a bold and ambitious project, carried off with considerable style and wit. Any suspicion of lightness is misplaced, though, as the seriousness and profundity of the underlying arguments are signalled early in the book: Jones destroys one of the main creationist objections to the theory of evolution--that no-one has ever seen it happen--with a devastating account of the well-documented 50-year evolution of the AIDS virus into its present varieties. The title is not a near-miss reference to Hamlet: it is Darwin himself, speculating on whether a bear seen swimming and catching food with its mouth as it swam, might represent the first, behavioural step on an evolutionary journey towards a new creature" almost like a whale." This is a powerfully entertaining book, engrossing in its science, erudite and cogent. --Robin Davidson
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