Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (Book Review)

I recommend this book to anyone interested in both the findings of the Theory of Evolution and its historical, epic struggle, which continues even today, and will continue for years to come. Edward J. Larson begins with the evolutionary theorists, such as the catastrophists, leading up to Charles Darwin (men like Cuvier, Lamarck, Owen, etc.), until the modern synthesis we have today. Larson is an excellent writer, which is why he won the Pulitzer Price for Summer of the Gods in 1998, and makes Darwinism accessible to the layman, while remaining informed and extremely caring about this undeniably significant, controversial scientific theory. Its possible mechanisms for breeding forth all the magnificent diversity of life on this earth have themselves, as Larson meticulously highlights, been a matter of vigorous scientific dispute among evolutionists, and Larson uses the hypotheses and disputes over their certainty as a mechanism to fuel his book forward.

Since Darwin’s release of On the Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no school of thought which the discoveries laid out within have not permeated, not to mention the spawning of the abhorrent pseudo-science of Social Darwinism, for which Darwin’s scientific theory was perverted for the sole purpose of justifying eugenics (which can be found in Plato’s Republic), imperialism, nationalism, racial and class segregation, sterilization and Nazi Germany. They came to their rightful and pitiful end in due course, but the fact and study of the theory itself lived on, and empowered by the mid-Twentieth-Century’s discoveries in genetics, this elegant “theory of evolution by natural selection” has since been “the organizing principle of modern biology.”

Personally, my favourite character throughout it all is Thomas Huxley (AKA: Darwin’s bulldog), who promised Darwin he would go to the stake for this mighty theory of his, and who rightly told off the asinine and impudent, Anglican Bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, at the infamous 1860 British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Oxford, after he had frivolously and obnoxiously asked Huxley if he was related to apes on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side:

“‘The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands,’ Huxley whispered as he rose solemnly to reply. No transcript exists, but Huxley claimed to have said, ‘If then the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.’ The exchange quickly became legendary. At a time when science and the Church battled for authority to explain origins, Huxley had smitten the bishop in his own lair. Those on Huxley’s side felt the boundary line between science and religion shift underfoot.” – Page 95

I would like to just second that preference of Huxley’s myself. Anyhow, you can clearly see that Larson has a taste and knack for the dramatic.

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