Friday, May 1, 2009

Remarkable Creatures

by Connie Barlow

This being the Year of Evolution (Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th of his On the Origin of Species), nonfiction readers have a wealth of new and classic books to choose from on the man and his message. And one of them is by my husband, Michael Dowd. Michael’s Thank God for Evolution (reissued in softcover by Plume in April 2009) was one of five books reviewed under the title “Darwin Roundup” in the 8 February 2009 issue of The Los Angeles Times (see link below).

The review actually begins with Michael’s book and then quickly moves on. The biographical underpinnings of the author and his itinerant ministry seems to have struck the reviewer as
an opportunity to hook the reader with humor. M. G. Lord writes, “Today the couple has no permanent residence. Dowd thumps Origin of Species as ardently as the Bible. His movement's logo is a Christian fish smooching a Darwin amphibian (which, if you can bear its cuteness, can be purchased on a baseball cap at

Among the four other books reviewed in the same article, the one that receives the most accolades is
, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution, by well-respected Darwin scholars Adrian Desmond and James Moore. This book is poised to roundly defeat (at least in intellectual circles) a long-standing contention that establishment of evolution as fact and natural selection as the processs underlying it promotes rascism and other antagonisms between human groups. To the contrary! Indeed, I recall how taken I was more than two decades ago when I read Voyage of the Beagle and there encountered Darwin’s strong words against racism, slavery, and the brutal treatment of domestic animals — all of which he encountered in his explorations of South America.

Those of us within the sciences know, of course, that the measure of the man (or woman) who originates or supports a scientific theory should have no effect on how the scientific community as a whole judges the merits and usefulness of the theory. Nonetheless, because all battles against the evolutionary worldview now unfold entirely outside of science,
Darwin’s Sacred Cause should make it decidedly old-fashioned to continue to blame Charles Darwin and his scientific success for cruel philosophies and practices advocated by political and intellectual leaders whose influence was on the wane before I was even born.

For Michael and me, ever on the road, audiobooks are increasingly the way we keep up on the sciences and cultural ideas that interest us. Thus far
we have listened to three fine books of or by Darwin: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (by David Quammen), Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography (by Janet Browne), and Darwin’s own The Voyage of the Beagle. Michael and I equally enjoyed the two new biographies — and we highly recommend both, especially to readers whose tastes incline toward biography and away from science. Though I listened twice to Darwin’s autobiographical sketch of his 5-year voyage, I did it on my own time, as Michael did not have the patience to persevere through long descriptive passages.

But the book that had us “wowing” to one another, and sometimes
weeping with joy and pride that our species has been able to discover so much about the past from hidden and scattered evidence — evidence that requires quests that span multiple generations — is Sean B. Carroll’s latest book, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species. A developmental and evolutionary biologist, Sean B. Carroll, in my view, has become the Stephen Jay Gould of this generation in his ability to write science books that scientists and nonscientists both commend.

I liked it so much that I posted my first online review at, which I have linked below. But first, the Publishers Weekly review will give you a sense of its contents:

“In this thoroughly enjoyable book, Carroll (Endless Forms Most Beautiful), a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin, provides vignettes of some of the fascinating people who have made the most significant discoveries in evolutionary biology. He starts with some of the experiences and insights of great explorers like Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, then turns his attention to paleontologists who searched for the fossil evidence to support the new theory of evolution. Among them are Eugène Dubois's discovery of Java Man; Charles Walcott's discovery of the Burgess Shale and the evidence it provided for the Cambrian explosion; and Neil Shubin's recent discovery in arctic Canada of Tiktaalik, the intermediary between water- and land-dwelling vertebrates. Carroll closes with studies of human evolution, from Louis and Mary Leakey to the advances of Linus Pauling and Allan Wilson, which indicated that Neanderthals were cousins of Homo sapiens rather than direct ancestors. While there's little that's new here, Carroll does weave an arresting tapestry of evolutionary advancement.”

For those who want to stock up on the evidential basis for evolution in order to ward off denunciations by doubtful friends and relatives, the two best books of 2009 will likely be, Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne and The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins. I have just begun to read the former. Dawkins’ book is scheduled for release in September 2009. Because his 2004 science book, Ancestor’s Tale, has been so useful in my work (it is the basis for an interactive children’s curriculum that I wrote, “The River of Life”), I expect Dawkins’ book to be eloquent, accessible, brilliant — and utterly convincing.

» Connie’s review of REMARKABLE CREATURES on

» Connie’s children’s curriculum, “RIVER OF LIFE”

» Book Review in Los Angeles Times, “DARWIN ROUND-UP”

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