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Niles Eldredge


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Like Eldredge's earlier book Reinventing Darwin, this one is about the disagreement (would "conflict be too strong?) between those whom Eldredge calls "ultra-Darwinians", such as Richard Dawkins, and "naturalists", of whom he is one. But here the focus is different: Eldredge is less concerned with the arguments and more with exploring the consequences of looking at evolution from the position he favours.

In one sense the book is an extended meditation on a group of tree species known as Cecropia which are common throughout the tropics. They quickly colonise empty spaces, because their seeds lie dormant all over the place waiting for an opportunity to grow. Seeing such a tree in Puerto Rico sparked off in Eldredge's mind the devastating thought: "My God, Richard Dawkins must be right after all!" The gene's desire to reproduce itself is at the heart of all ecological development, just as Dawkins maintains. Eldredge tells us he literally felt ill.

Fortunately, however, he quickly managed to regain his composure, and this book explains why he thinks the naturalists' view is right. He takes a very long view, going right back to the earliest years of the earth's existence and talking about how our ideas about it have changed; in fact, there is almost as much about geology here as there is about biological evolution. He finds the discovery of plate techtonics to be particularly significant in shaping our understanding of how plants and animals have evolved.

The physical world, Eldredge tells us, "is more than a simple backdrop to the evolution of life. The physical world changes in a regular, intelligible manner. And those changes have had profound effects on the evolution of life. These evolutionary effects are regular and lawlike. And they invite—actually demand—rational contemplation and explicit incorporation into evolutionary theory."

Eldredge writes clearly and he is always worth reading. But anyone wishing to understand the issues underlying the "punctuated equilibrium" debate that Eldredge and Gould brought about should choose the earlier book. This one is mainly for those who already think that the alternative to "ultra-Darwinism" has something important to tell us.

26 December 2009

%A Eldredge, Niles
%I W.H.Freeman and Company
%C London
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-7167-3046-4
%P 219
%K evolution, palaeontology

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