The Evolving Tree of Life

A look at how the principles of evolution have progressed

Arthur, Wallace. Evolution: a developmental approach. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 404p ISBN 9781444337204, $175.00; ISBN 9781405186582 pbk, $99.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2011

Although evolution and development (formerly embryology) have been linked since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), and although the two topics have been the subject of numerous books, this is the first undergraduate textbook to present evolution entirely from a developmental perspective. Appropriately, section 1.1 in the introduction is titled “From Darwin to Development.” But this is not a typical evolution textbook, as the other chapter headings illustrate. In chapter 2, Arthur (zoology, National Univ. of Ireland) focuses on evo-devo, which is the now well-established intellectual tradition from which the book evolved. There is, as is appropriate, considerable emphasis on genes, especially developmental genes and gene regulation. Four chapters (15 percent of the text) deal with altered timing and position as evolutionary developmental processes. Emphasis is on origins, patterning, and integration of body parts, with examples from two of the three multicellular kingdoms of life: animals and plants. This is important; few unicells have development. This book is about the origin and evolution of multicellular organisms, not about organismal relationships, the tree of life, or extinctions. The style is lucid, the illustrations are lavish, and the length is just about right for an undergraduate course resource. Summing Up: Recommended. All students, researchers/faculty, and professionals. B. K. Hall, Dalhousie University

Baum, David A. Tree thinking: an introduction to phylogenetic biology, by David A. Baum and Stacey D. Smith. Roberts and Company Publishers, 2012. 476p ISBN 1936221160, $75.00; ISBN 9781936221165, $75.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2013

Charles Darwin clearly demonstrated descent with modification as a fact of all life and natural selection as the prime mechanism responsible for evolution. It is less well appreciated that Darwin revolutionized scientists’ understanding of the relationships between organisms. The tree of life is not the imposition of structure onto nature by humans, but a reflection of the connections between organisms or different degrees of relatedness. Appropriately, the book contains a reproduction of Darwin’s sketch of descent through common ancestry. Since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, trees have grow into the field of phylogenetic biology, this textbook’s subtitle. Evolutionary biologists Baum (Univ. of Wisconsin) and Smith (Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln) have succeeded in bringing modern thinking on phylogenetic trees into a single authoritative, well-organized, clearly written, accessible, and much-needed volume, providing an enormously important service to those needing to work with phylogenetic trees. The five-part work discusses organismal relatedness; the best ways to represent trees; the optimal ways to determine which one(s) of numerous (often hundreds) of trees most accurately reflects the realities of nature; and the many available methods that should be used to make those determinations. A glossary and chapter quizzes support the text. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates in biology and above. B. K. Hall, Dalhousie University

Eldredge, Niles. Darwin: discovering the tree of life. W.W. Norton, 2005. 256p ISBN 0393059669, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2006

People in Western societies continue to argue and debate Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Eldredge (American Museum of Natural History) gives readers new biographical details of the scientist’s life and critically focuses on the historical period when Darwin stopped being a skeptical creationist and became an evolutionist. He explores the intellectual and intuitive leaps that Darwin took in developing the theory of natural selection. By closely analyzing Darwin’s numerous notebooks, letters, and edited manuscripts, Eldredge draws a multidimensional portrait of the man as a humanist, naturalist, and reluctant evolutionist. He explains how Darwin came up with his theory of natural selection. What did he make of the massive amount of notes on natural history that he took during the voyage of the Beagle? Why did he wait 20 years to publish his theory? This is a companion book to the American Museum of Natural History’s touring exhibition, intended to celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009. Eldredge, a prolific author, is a well-known evolutionary biologist (punctuated equilibrium theory). In the final chapter, he vigorously takes aim at intelligent design, rejecting it as “conveniently untestable.” This very attractive and beautifully produced book is richly illustrated. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty/researchers; general readers. S. M. Paracer, Worcester State College

Evolution since Darwin: the first 150 years, ed. by Michael A. Bell et al. Sinauer Associates, 2010. 688p ISBN 0878934138 pbk, $69.95; ISBN 9780878934133 pbk, $69.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2011

The year 2009 was a great year for evolution–it marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th of The Origin of Species, marked by celebrations and symposia worldwide. These papers were presented at one such event at Stony Brook University, and range over a wide swath of evolutionary theory and Darwiniana. Following an introductory section with an excellent review of developments over the past 50 years by D. Futuyma and broader historical surveys, there are sections with two to five papers (and sometimes additional shorter commentaries). These include “Populations, Genes, and Genomes”; “The Evolution of Form” (adaptation, evolvability, embryology); “Adaptation and Speciation” (including ecology); “Diversity and the Tree of Life” (evolutionary history, paleobiology, phylogenetics); and “Human Evolution (including a nice essay by T. White on what Darwin actually wrote on this topic, coupled with a survey of White’s research in Ethiopia as if he were explaining it to Darwin). A final section includes an essay and a commentary on the future of evolutionary biology; the essay overemphasizes genetics and the commentary overemphasizes theoretical aspects of evolutionary biology, so that topics in morphology (including evo-devo), systematics, and paleontology, among others, were ignored. Overall, an excellent survey of evolution today. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through researchers/faculty. E. Delson, CUNY Herbert H. Lehman College

Ginsburg, Simona. The evolution of the sensitive soul: learning and the origins of consciousness, by Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka. MIT, 2019. 646p bibl index ISBN 9780262039307, $50.00; ISBN 9780262351096 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2019

This book, which considers the evolutionary origins of consciousness, is deep in many senses of the word. It is historically deep, covering the earliest origins of life on the planet and proceeding through time—with a long pause at the Cambrian explosion—to culminate with modern day animals. It is deep in a philosophical sense, exploring the views of thinkers such as Aristotle, Lamarck, and Darwin and present-day theorists including Dennett and West-Eberhard. It is phylogenetically deep, covering a broad array of organisms. By not focusing specifically on mammalian consciousness, the authors offer a refreshing change from most consciousness studies. Ginsburg (emer., Open University of Israel) and Jablonka (Tel-Aviv Univ.) contemplate what single-celled organisms can do and assesses the neural complexity of groups such as cnidaria, echinoderms, and cephalopods. No trace of the vertebrate-centrism one usually sees is present here. Finally, the text is conceptually deep, containing diagrams of circuitry such as in genus Aplysia, models of connections, and thorough explanations of learning modes, from habituation to unlimited associative learning. While not a book to be taken lightly or read quickly, this is well worth the time and thought necessary to tackle it. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students and researchers. J. A. Mather, University of Lethbridge

Ingraham, John L. Kin: how we came to know our microbe relatives. Harvard, 2017. 292p bibl index ISBN 9780674660403, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2017

In Kin, Ingraham (emer., Univ. of California, Davis), a leading figure in microbiology, has written a masterwork on evolution with emphasis on microbes. The book critically discusses various efforts to “construct” the Tree of Life and addresses the proposed positions of microbes (bacteria, archaea, and viruses) in the Tree. He explains how advances in genome analysis have illuminated our understanding of the relationships between various microbes and between microbes and eukaryotic organisms. His discussion of the means by which microbes exchange genetic material and how gene transfer affects the Tree is particularly informative and thought provoking. Ingraham uses real world examples to illustrate how an understanding of the evolutionary relationships between microbes can directly affect aspects of human health and medicine. The narrative is enhanced by anecdotes of Ingraham’s own work and his interactions with other scientists. Each chapter includes suggestions for further reading. The writing is engaging but, in places, may be too sophisticated for the general reader. Overall, this is a captivating and thorough treatise on the evolutionary relationships of micro-organisms and is most appropriate for readers with a background in the biological sciences. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above; faculty and professionals. —M. S. Kainz, Ripon College

Jablonka, Eva. Epigenetic inheritance and evolution: the Lamarckian dimension, by Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb. Oxford, 1995. 346p ISBN 0-19-854062-0, $49.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 1996

Jablonka and Lamb ask if the inheritance of acquired characteristics plays any role in evolution. Their review also explores an aspect of Darwinian evolution that in many cases is rather neglected, i.e., the origin and nature of the variations often found in hereditary evolution. Lamb and Jablonka are in addition concerned with timely questions about the importance of non-Mendelian inheritance that provide an excellent basis for some further discussion, experimental investigation, and modeling. An extended list of references completes the book, which will be of much interest to all biologists and science historians. Upper-division undergraduate through professional. J. M. Carpenter, University of Kentucky

Jablonka, Eva. Evolution in four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life, by Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb. Rev. ed. MIT, 2014. 563p bibl index afp ISBN 9780262525848 pbk, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE December 2014

In this revised edition (1st ed., CH, Oct’05, 43-0921), Jablonka (history and philosophy of science and ideas, Tel Aviv Univ., Israel) and Lamb (formerly, Birkbeck College, Univ. of London, UK) present a critique of evolutionary theory and attempt to update that theory to include nongenetic modes of inheritance, all in a format accessible to nonspecialists. Given the scale of the undertaking, the book is remarkably effective. Most of the material is readable, requiring little advanced training in the subjects discussed. The examples illustrate the principles well, and the questions raised are thought provoking. Most of the diagrams reinforce the content, and the reference list is good. The book is not perfect; the authors are often slow to get to points, and the end of each chapter and the entire final section of the book consist of (contrived) dialogues between the authors and themselves. In addition, the text is occasionally unduly combative in the discussions of historical and present-day approaches to evolution. The final section (new to this edition) describes advances in epigenetics in the nine years since the first edition was published. Despite its shortcomings, Evolution in Four Dimensions, part of the “Life and Mind” series, offers useful insights into postgenetic evolutionary theory. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals/practitioners. R. M. Denome, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University

The Theory of evolution: principles, concepts, and assumptions, [ed.] by Samuel M. Scheiner and David P. Mindell. Chicago, 2020. 442p bibl index ISBN 9780226671024, $120.00; ISBN 9780226671161 pbk, $45.00; ISBN 9780226671338 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2020

Scheiner (National Science Foundation) and Mindell (Univ. of California, Berkeley) present 17 essays that address the present and potential (or future) state of the theory of evolution. The first eight essays cover “overarching issues” that shaped the present theory (part 1). These include pivotal moments in the theory’s history, the philosophy and architecture making the present theory effective, and foundational core concepts, such as homology, the nature of species, and the tree of life. The remaining nine essays (part 2) evaluate the state of various “constitutive theories” that build on or support the core theory. These include, for example, natural selection, evolution-of-life histories, phenotypic plasticity, and speciation. The quality of the writing is good throughout, but readers are assumed to be already well versed in the concepts and jargon of the field. The essay on the philosophy of evolutionary theory is addressed more to philosophers than practicing scientists, and the essays on natural and multilevel selection are notably math driven. The figures are minimal but good, and the reference list is huge (exceeding 70 pages). The volume will help scientists and philosophers of science appreciate both the architecture of the present theory and how that architecture might evolve. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. R. M. Denome, MCPHS University

The Tree of life: evolution and classification of living organisms, ed. by Pablo Vargas and Rafael Zardoya; tr. by Anne Louise. Sinauer Associates, 2014. 713p bibl index ISBN 9781605352299, $97.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2015

The tree of life is a representation of the evolutionary relationships among all living organisms (phylogeny). Building on Darwinian principles, modern systematists use a combination of DNA sequences, morphological structure, and other data to clarify these relationships for their own worth and as underpinning for various evolutionary studies. This English-language update of a 2012 Spanish version also updates such comparable works as Assembling the Tree of Life, edited by J. Cracraft and M. Donoghue (CH, Apr’05, 42-4627) and the less successful The Timetree of Life, edited by S. Hedges and S. Kumar (CH, Nov’09, 47-1409). Here, 44 chapters cover groups of organisms, from the huge domains (e.g., Bacteria and Archaea, which lack cell nuclei, and Eukaryota—all of the familiar nucleated organisms) through many groups of plants and mostly invertebrate metazoans to the most familiar chordates (vertebrates and allies). Each chapter has a standardized format, including defining characters, previous and current classification, evolutionary review, and other topics. Eight further chapters cover basic systematics and evolutionary topics, including speciation, biogeography, ecology, behavior, and development (evo-devo). Three final chapters focus on methods in (mainly genetic) phylogenetic research.  Although designed for students, the level of technical writing is high, making the book less accessible for beginners. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through researchers/faculty. E. Delson, CUNY Herbert H. Lehman College