Ten books by Richard Dawkins

You don’t have to agree with everything professor Dawkins stands for to acknowledge that, since Carl Sagan, he has been one of the most prominent science popularizers lately. He has succeeded in putting his message across several times throughout his more-than-30-year-long career as a science writer. I decided to draw up a list of his books and give a short account of each, though I must admit I haven’t read them all myself.

The Selfish Gene (1976)
The one that made him famous and controversial overnight. In it he argues that natural selection acts on genes, not on the level of populations as previously held. This is where he invented the term meme as a unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene. This is still the book most people identify Dawkins with, although some of the ideas might seem outdated.

The Extended Phenotype (1982)
Here he elaborates on the ideas put forward in The Selfish Gene, but in a way that’s a tiny bit more technical, while retaining its readability. Dawkins regards this book as his most significant contribution to evolutionary biology. Subtitled The long reach of the gene, phenotypes are not necessarily limited to the organism itself, but can be manifestations extended beyond that. Think of the beaver’s dam.

The Blind Watchmaker (1986)
One of his most popular works, in it he takes on the task of explaining how evolution works, using the metaphor of a blind watchmaker, meaning that evolution has no purpose in creating endless forms. He wrote the book to, in his own words, “persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”

River Out of Eden (1995)
His shortest book, it basically contains summaries of topics mentioned in his previous books. He goes on to explain evolution through genes and human ancestry. He also contemplates how Darwinian evolution may take place outside our planet.  The title comes from Genesis. Illustrations by his wife, actress Lalla Ward, can also be found in here.

Climbing Mount Improbable (1996)
This work is a book-long rebuttal of the obnoxious creationist claim that the chances for complex organs, like the bacterial flagellum or the human eye, to evolve are so meagre that they surely must be the handiwork of an intelligent designer. At first glance it looks improbable, but evolution moves across the adaptive landscape gradually, and given enough time, it will certainly reach the peak of that metaphorical mountain.

Unweaving The Rainbow (1998)
The relationship of science and art is dissected here. John Keats once blamed Isaac Newton for destroying the rainbow by simply explaining it. He tries to persuade the reader that natural wonders like the rainbow do not necessarily lose aesthetic value once their mystery is solved. To the contrary, dissecting nature has the capacity of actually enhancing its beauty.

A Devil’s Chaplain (2003)
This is a collection of essays written over the years. The subtitle says it all: Reflections on hope, lies, science, and love. The topics are diverse, it contains a eulogy for his friend Douglas Adams, an essay that disrobes postmodernism, as well as an open letter to his then minor daughter, giving her advice on how to evaluate evidence and view things with a critical and open mind.

The Ancestor’s Tale (2004)
In the fashion of The Canterbury Tales, Dawkins takes a pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution starting from humans. Along the way he stops at every major cornerstone to relate the most interesting facts (tales), and what we need to know about that particular ancestor. Spanning billions of years he finally arrives at the origins of life. My personal favourite. It’s time for a re-read, I reckon.

The God Delusion (2006)
Sold over 2 million copies, this one virtually made him an international superstar and an iconic figure of atheism. It became one of the four great books of the so-called “new atheism”, the others being The End Of Faith by Sam Harris, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and Breaking The Spell by Daniel Dennett. Not the easiest read, but well worth the effort.

The Greatest Show On Earth (2009)
He had written books on evolution for decades, before he realized he never actually laid out the evidence for it. With the upsurge of the intelligent design movement and its dumbed down version creationism, he felt the need, alongside other notables like Jerry Coyne or Neil Shubin, to lamentably write this book. The evidence is clearly demonstrated here, to deny it, like all creationists do, would be an act of lunacy.

As revealed in recent interviews, Dawkins is currently working on a children’s book, in which he intends to explain evolution in a way that’s understandable even to the youngest of the inquirers.

Inside Nature’s Giants

A great new series was broadcast in the UK this summer: Inside Nature’s Giants. In each programme, veterinarians and biologists dissect a big animal to trace its evolutionary past. It contains numerous explicit scenes showing the giants’ internal anatomy. It is as enjoyable as any of BBC’s nature series, including those narrated by Attenborough.

The first series can now be viewed on YouTube. Here I embed the first 10 minutes of each four episode.

Tongue-eating isopod: an amazing parasite

FishParasite My favourite parasite is back in the news. This is an isopod (a crustacean, closely related to woodlice) named Cymothoa exigua, and here’s what it does: it slips into a miserable fish’s oral cavity and clamps itself on the base of the tongue and commences to drain blood. As it grows on the fish’s expense, the tongue will atrophy and waste away completely leaving but a stub. Then it assumes the role of the tongue and starts acting like a normal tongue! It is no doubt hideous to look at, but it just as much amazes me how this sort of adaptation can come about. It apparently does no other harm to the host, but I still definitely don’t want one in my mouth.

Great tits took to bat-eating

An incredible behaviour has been observed in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. Great tits (Parus major) developed the habit of hunting down and killing bats for food. Scientists are quite taken aback, for these nice little passerines were not expected to be able to predate on prey as large as pipistrelle bats. The behaviour is most likely a ‘cultural phenomenon’, that is one of them made a hit by trial and error and, being quick-learners, the new type of food acquisition quickly spread through the population.

See more on this in BBC News (with a grisly photo of a half-eaten bat) and Times Online. The original results appear today in the journal Biology Letters.

Evolution in action

PD*30858692 I’ve just come across an interesting evolution item in the news. A North American mouse species has changed its fur colour from brown to blonde in a mere 8,000 years. It is a very fine opportunity to understand natural selection at work.

Let’s consider a mammalian species that lives in an environment it has adapted to through the millennia. Let it be a mouse and let’s pick a particular trait – fur colour. When the mouse lives in an area where the soil is dark, it is advantageous to sport a dark fur in order to avoid predators. But if an ice age happens to occur and a glacier deposits sand (which is much lighter in colour) onto that particular area, then, all of a sudden, the dark brown pelage turns disadvantageous and counter-adaptive. What this means is that the brown mice against the yellow background are too conspicuous to evade the attention of predators. Now, if a random mutation occurs in the colour, say blonde, and it happens to be advantageous, natural selection will preserve it. How? Let’s say in a litter of eight mice, seven is brown and one is blonde. Only one gene regulates fur colour in mice, and the blonde allele (variant of the same gene) happens to be dominant. In a light-coloured environment, the one blonde mouse is hugely favoured with respect to camouflage as opposed to its brown siblings. All the browns are selected out, and the light-coloured individual has increased chances of survival, because it blends in the colour of the sand dunes. Then in a couple of  generations (this means, of course, given the reproduction rate of mice, thousands of generations) the new colour will be fixed and the species will have adapted to its new environment.

It took about 8,000 years for the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) population of this area in Nebraska to gradually change from brown to blonde. How do we know they used to be brown? Deer mice of surrounding areas of darker soil all wear dark brown fur.

Bamboo lemurs – food specialists

1635644Three species of bamboo lemur exist in the same (and ever-shrinking) tiny area in Eastern Madagascar. They provide us with a singular example of adaptive radiation. All three eat bamboo, but in a very civil manner they feed on different parts of the plant. Why do they have to split the bamboo that way? Short answer: niche partitioning. A somewhat extended answer: closely related animals living in the same area (sympatric species) can not occupy the same biological niche (which can be a habitat or merely a certain type of food, like in this particular case), because sooner or later the stronger one would displace the other.

Ha-bs.1024Now, the gentle bamboo lemur (Hapalemur griseus) eats the leaves, while the greater bamboo lemur (H. simus), a more robust species, eats the pith of mature stalks. The golden bambo lemur (H. aureus) confines itself to the new shoots, leaf bases and the pith of narrow stems.

Here’s the catch: the parts that H. aureus recklessly gobbles up contain cyanide. No small amounts of this lethal substance is consumed by this unheeding furry creature. About 4 mg/kg of body weight would certainly kill a dog. It has been estimated that the golden bamboo lemur eats 78 mg/kg on a daily basis. Scientists are understandably baffled at this self-poisoning behaviour and can only guess in what way the animal tackles it, for the digestive system of this species has never been studied. It is another great mystery of nature that remains to be revealed. But again, evolution through adaptive radiation has found a way to allow three very similar animals to co-exist peacefully.

Primary source: The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen, one of my favourite non-fiction books.

Aging

Sometimes I wonder what’s the point of growing old. We get old because we can. Medical improvements and health care systems allow us to do so. But are we prepared for all the hardships of old age? Are we ready to lose all who are dear to us, as well as not being able to take care of ourselves due to the pain that hurts us in every single part of our body? Take a moment and think about our evolutionary past.

A couple of thousand years ago people seldom lived through their thirties. One could easily die of a tooth inflammation or a broken finger. Not to mention ‘intraspecific conflicts’, i.e. wars. People in their forties were considered exceptionally fit and resistant to diseases. It is not incidental that humans are sexually mature at 12-13 years of age. You are evolved to procreate and pass your genes on as early as you can before you suffer an unexpected accident or malady and meet your demise.

You look askance at teenage girls with child nowadays (if you ever see one), however, bearing children at so youthful an age used to be considered quite normal not very long ago. At the same time, I’m well aware of the fact that people did not have to mind their money-making careers in the Bronze Age. One didn’t have to work 9 to 5 every day just to make a living. But still, in young twenty-ish people of today, who could easily afford one or two children, the thought of starting a family does not so much as cross their minds. Most people are so busy making money that they completely miss the purpose for which they were brought upon this earth. Not few women only come to their senses (if ever) when they reach 30-35 years of age, by which time serious health issues might be involved for both mother and offspring.

My personal opinion, with hindsight, is that people should have children in their early twenties. At 24-25 at the latest. I know it might be difficult but nature did not endow most of us with much time to spend with our children.

And to all money-grubbing bachelors in their late thirties and forties: When in the course of your life do you intend to sit down, take a deep breath and tell yourself: ‘now I’ve made enough money, now’s the time for children’? At forty? Forty-five? Well, I’ve got a thing for you: you might not live to see them grow to adolescence.

Therefore I hereby call upon everyone to go grab your partner and reproduce before it’s too late!

(P.S.: Look who’s talking! The author of this piece might not be completely authoritative on the subject.)

The kiwi’s egg

My colleagues incredulously rejected the notion that the chicken-sized kiwi lays eggs six times the size of a chicken egg. Well, it wasn’t just a fancy, it really is the case. A couple of days before the egg is laid, it assumes so gigantic proportions that it fills the female’s whole body cavity, forcing the bird to fast. It’s a huge burden for the kiwi, while developing the egg, it needs to eat three times as much as usual. The kiwi has the largest egg-to-body ratio (1:5) among all birds.
kiwi with egg

I wonder what adaptive advantage this bird gains by producing such a monster egg. I think the answer lies in the lack of natural predators. No native mammals exist in New Zealand (except for bats) that could prey on them, which is the primary reason for the loss of most of the birds’ ability to fly (think of the kakapo or the takahe, all flightless) on the island. The energy necessary to fly is turned over to producing enormous eggs. Not incidentally, the lack of predation allows for the birds to have very low reproduction rates, raising only one chick per season. As a matter of course, the whole agenda is turned upside down by the introduction of invasive species like rats, pigs and feral cats, wreaking havoc in the bird nests and effectively reducing the population size of these wonderful, but hapless birds.

An X-ray image:
Kiwi egg

Teeth of a plant eater, claws of a meat eater

A most interesting fossil – Nothronychus graffami – has been found in Utah. Four metres tall, huge belly, small head, herbivorous teeth. 22 cm sickle-shaped claws. Odd coupling, wouldn’t you say? For what on earth does a leaf-eater need claws of such gigantic dimensions? Scientists have no idea. I mean, they do have some ideas, what they are in want of is evidence. Sure enough, the claws might have been great assistance in pulling down branches. They could just as likely have used them to deter predators. They might have had some reproductive advantage.

But really, all these fine hypotheses belong in the business of guesswork. Such great findings have the effect of disenchantment, and make one realize how little we know of the world around us.

Why Evolution Is True

why-evolution-coyneJerry A. Coyne from the University of Chicago is a distinguished biologist of Speciation fame and a well-known figure in the intelligent design vs. evolution debate. He for some reason felt obliged to lay out the evidence for evolution, but unlike the one mentioned above, which is a highly technical textbook (co-authored with H. Allen Orr) and an embarrassingly difficult read even for professionals, Why Evolution Is True is a delightful book designed for the average reader.

Isn’t this so-called ID-evolution debate already settled? Apparently not. Not in America, at any rate. While it’s not really an issue in Europe, a great number of people in the United States flatly reject evolution and literally interpret the Bible as the ultimate truth.

But here’s the thing: the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It’s there for all to see. Paleontology, geology, plate tectonics, biogeography, comparative anatomy, genetics, molecular biology – all these disciplines have their share to add to the ever-growing pile of evidence. You have to be blind or just plain stupid to deny it.

At any rate, Dr. Coyne makes his attempt to impart this intelligence to the lay people. After explaining in the first chapter what evolution is, in the following chapters he makes his case clearly with numerous examples from the above disciplines. Chapter 2 deals with fossils, how paleontologists work, radioactive dating methods, prominent transitional fossils like Tiktaalik (fish to amphibian), Archaeopteryx (reptile to bird), Indohyus (an artiodactyl ancestor of whales). This is really just an excerpt. There are a lot more.

Chapter 3 happens to contain my favourite example, one from ontogenesis. Not the easiest to understand, but I hadn’t known about it before. I recommend medical students pop this to their anatomy teacher: why the heck does our left recurrent pharyngeal nerve go all the way down to the heart and come back only to innervate the larynx?

The answer lies in ontogenesis and common ancestry:

One of nature’s worst designs is shown by the recurrent laryngeal nerve of mammals. Running from the brain to the larynx, this nerve helps us speak and swallow. The curious thing is that it is much longer than it needs to be. Rather than taking a direct route from the brain to the larynx, a distance of about a foot in humans, the nerve runs down into our chest, loops around the aorta and a ligament derived from an artery, and then travels back up to connect to the larynx. It winds up being three feet long. In giraffes the nerve takes a similar path, but one that runs all the way down that long neck and back up again: a distance fifteen feet longer than the direct route! When I first heard about this strange nerve, I had trouble believing it. Wanting to see for myself, I mustered up my courage to make a trip to the human anatomy lab and inspect my first corpse. An obliging professor showed me the nerve, tracing its course with a pencil down the torso and back up to the throat.
This circuitous path of the recurrent laryngeal nerve is not only poor design, but might even be maladaptive. That extra length makes it more prone to injury. It can, for example, be damaged by a blow to the chest, making it hard to talk or swallow. But the pathway makes sense when we understand how the recurrent laryngeal nerve evolved. Like the mammalian aorta itself, it descends from those branchial arches of our fishlike ancestors. In the early fishlike embryos of all vertebrates, the nerve runs from top to bottom alongside the blood vessel of the sixth branchial arch; it is a branch of the larger vagus nerve that travels along the back from the brain. And in adult fish, the nerve remains in that position, connecting the brain to the gills and helping them pump water.
During our evolution, the blood vessel from the fifth arch disappeared, and the vessels from the fourth and sixth arches moved downward into the future torso so that they could become the aorta and a ligament connecting the aorta to the pulmonary artery. But the laryngeal nerve, still behind the sixth arch, had to remain connected to the embryonic structures that become the larynx, structures that remained near the brain. As the future aorta evolved backward toward the heart, the laryngeal nerve was forced to evolve backward along with it. It would have been more efficient for the nerve to detour around the aorta, breaking and then re-forming itself on a more direct course, but natural selection couldn’t manage that, for severing and rejoining a nerve is a step that reduces fitness. To keep up with the backward evolution of the aorta, the laryngeal nerve had to become long and recurrent. And that evolutionary path is recapitulated during development, since as embryos we begin with the ancestral fishlike pattern of nerves and blood vessels. In the end, we’re left with bad design.

The following chapters deal with the geography of life, how animals came to live in the separate continents, island biogeography, bees killing giant hornets by heating them up to 80 degrees centigrade, evolution in the test tube, drug resistance, a whole chapter on sexual selection, speciation (the process of distinct species formation), population genetics, human evolution (including Homo floresiensis, the hobbit), etc.

All in all, a profoundly satisfying read, a rare gem in the market of popular science books. Last words:

We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. And we should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.

« Older entries