Almost Like a Whale

I’ve just finished reading Almost Like A Whale: The Origin of Species Updated by Steve Jones, inspired by the edition of In Our Time a couple months back on the whale’s evolution. The title of the book is a reference to the passage in The Origin of Species for which Darwin was most vilified when it was first published in 1859. “In North America, the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth,” he wrote, “thus catching, almost like a whale, insects in the water.” The implication that bears might share an evolutionary path with whales, was deemed both outrageous and lunatic at a time when the literal truth of Genesis seemed indisputable.

Andrew Berry, wrote in the London Review of Books:

The swimming bear is one of the details Darwin got wrong. Whales were not derived from bear-like ancestors; rather, they are related to Artiodactyls, the group of mammals that includes pigs and cows. Exactly how they are related to this group is a matter of debate, and illustrates nicely the richness of Darwin’s legacy. There are fossil whales, and since the Sixties, palaeontologists have carefully reconstructed a hypothetical route from terrestrial mammals to modern whales via an extinct group, the mesonychians. The story has changed with the application of DNA sequencing to the business of sorting out who is related to whom in the natural world. Whales are derived from a specific group within the Artiodactyls, the hippopotamuses. In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense: you might expect fully aquatic mammals to be derived from semi-aquatic ones. But it is only through the combination of two hugely disparate strands of biology – palaeontology’s interpretation of ancient rocks, and molecular biology’s exploration of a microscopic world – that the mystery surrounding one of evolution’s greatest triumphs, the mammalian return to water, has been solved. Darwin, himself a genuine polymath, competent in geology, palaeontology, systematics, ecology, animal behaviour and developmental biology, would be proud.

What Steve Jones has done is to take the structure of  Darwin’s book and rewrite it taking into account the scientific knowledge accumulated since the book was published –  the growth of the fossil record and advances in geomorphology, biogeography and genetics in the last half-century – to show how these illuminate or reinforce Darwin’s original thesis.  The book takes the first principles that Darwin uncovered, and then reapplies them to contemporary questions: Aids, DNA classification of extinct species, genetically modified crops and so on.  A lot has happened in the 140 years since its publication, and maybe Darwin is now out of date.

It’s an immensely readable and absorbing book, enlivened by Jones’ humourous touches (“The sea squirt, after an active life, settles on the sea floor, and, like a professor given tenure, absorbs its brain”).

I noted with interest Jones’s position on GM crops: that the scientists who so glibly transfer DNA from species to species do not have any idea of the power of evolution, or what may happen in the future. ‘Those who cast down the barriers to hybridism will soon be reminded of what evolution can do.’

Jones concludes the book with these words:

Some of Darwin’s ideas survive, while others have been proved wrong. The Origin of Species survives as a work of art as much as of science. Its message remains. Man, the highestof animals and the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, emerged from the war of nature, from famine and death, as much as did all the others. Humans, alone, have gone further.  As a result, much of what makes us what we are does not need a Darwinian explanation.  The birth of Adam, whether real or metaphorical, marked the insertion into an animal body of a post-biological soul that leaves no fossils and needs no genes.  To use the past to excuse the present is to embrace Payne Knight’s pathetic fallacy, that society can be explained in terms of the animal world. However, the new insight that biology gives us into our history releases us from the narcissim of a creature that is one of a kind. It shows that humans are part of creation, because we evolved.

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