Over the history of life there have been several major changes in the way genetic information is organized and transmitted from one generation to the next. These transitions include the origin of life itself, the first eukaryotic cells, reproduction by sexual means, the appearance of multicellular plants and animals, the emergence of cooperation and of animal societies, anOver the history of life there have been several major changes in the way genetic information is organized and transmitted from one generation to the next. These transitions include the origin of life itself, the first eukaryotic cells, reproduction by sexual means, the appearance of multicellular plants and animals, the emergence of cooperation and of animal societies, and the unique language ability of humans. This ambitious book provides the first unified discussion of the full range of these transitions. The authors highlight the similarities between different transitions--between the union of replicating molecules to form chromosomes and of cells to form multicellular organisms, for example--and show how understanding one transition sheds light on others. They trace a common theme throughout the history of evolution: after a major transition some entities lose the ability to replicate independently, becoming able to reproduce only as part of a larger whole. The authors investigate this pattern and why selection between entities at a lower level does not disrupt selection at more complex levels. Their explanation encompasses a compelling theory of the evolution of cooperation at all levels of complexity. Engagingly written and filled with numerous illustrations, this book can be read with enjoyment by anyone with an undergraduate training in biology. It is ideal for advanced discussion groups on evolution and includes accessible discussions of a wide range of topics, from molecular biology and linguistics to insect societies....
|Title||:||The Major Transitions in Evolution|
|Number of Pages||:||360 Pages|
|Status||:||Available For Download|
|Last checked||:||21 Minutes ago!|
The Major Transitions in Evolution Reviews
Though not a formal textbook, this is not a popular book; it is a get-down-to-business book, and very edifying. If you feel frustrated because you find it difficult to follow, read the simplified version, published "The Origins of Life". If you cannot deal with that one either, then don't get into any arguments about evolution; you are not equipped for it. The book is written in pleasantly competent English (well, with Maynard Smith as the senior author, what would one expect?) but much of it takes slow and patient reading; no speed reading please -- the material is rich and takes proper digestion. There are certain basic principles in science, very, very important principles, that are so simple that most people encountering them for the first time think that the subject also must be simple and accordingly that they understand that subject. Probability theory is one example, and natural selection is another. Such fields are snares for the unwary, and this book deals with certain classes of the snares clearly and systematically, presenting a powerful overall view that should enrich the insights of most biologists and many evolutionists as well. JMS left a legacy of thoughtful, sound, edifying writings without pretension or compromise. If you work your way through it, you might be startled to find how rewarding your labour turned out to be. Smith and Szathmary deal with five major transitions in evolution, stages at which, without hurry or or obvious warning, certain emergent trends changed the game of life, or of a large part of life on the planet. They structure the material carefully and lucidly. Some readers might like to skip the first few, which dealt with chemistry and molecular biology. However, the chapters on Eukaryotes, sex, symbiosis, organisms, morphogenesis, societies, and language should enrich even people who shudder at the sight of a molecular structure. In sum, in my opinion this is a great book, not in the sense of "Isn't it just AWESOME?", but really great. A landmark in the accessible documentation of the advance of evolutionary theory and insight.
"This book has been about the major changes that have taken place in the way in which information is encoded, and transmitted between generations." So say both authors on the last page (p. 309) in The Major Transitions in Evolution.The above citation is a good summary of the entire content of the book, in which evolutionary biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry try to describe all the historical transitions that had to take place to get from a dead rock in space to the planet Earth that we are familiar with. Even though this sounds interesting, like most of 'big history', this book is not for lay people. It is much too technical and too professionalistic to be readable by wide audiences. And this last point brings me to the most important point about this book. Maynard Smith and Szathmáry are professional scientists (mathematician and chemist respectively) and they focus on explaining all the important steps in evolution by giving an overview of the current (then-current: 1998) scientific status on the relevant topics. They continuously use jargon and, even while using much illustrations to make their points, are simply no story-tellers. It is, hence, ironic that in chapter 16, on the topic of the origin of societies they write:[i]"The trouble with theories of society is that their formulations are so lengthy and so complex that they are hard either to grasp or to test. Theories should be formulated briefly, even if the facts to which they are relevant must be described at length. The Origin of Species [Darwin's book] is a long book, but no biologist regards it as impossible to outline Darwin's theory in a few sentences." (p. 273)[/i]Perhaps. But at least The Origin of Species is easy to grasp because Darwin took the time to level with his readers: first introduce the concept in familiar terms (evolution by artifical Selection of livestock), then explain the concept is new terms (evolution by natural Selection) and afterwards adduce the concept by all the relevant facts (the importance of geographical distribution in the origin of species, etc.). This is something Maynard Smith and Szathmáry don't do: they briefly state their theories and claims, without introducing the reader to terms or context; they drop their ideas for the reader to grasp. So be warned: the book is a struggle to work through. And perhaps a somewhat unnecessary struggle at that - most modern day handbooks on evolution explain all the facts from The Major Transitions in accessible terms and with (comprehensible) pictures and graphs to illustrate the processes. Nevertheless, the main point of the book is strong: evolutionary history is littered with small steps and changes, that accumulated, over eons of time, in the (apparently designed) complexity that we observe today. The authors see the following (rough) important historical transitions as key steps:1. The origin of replicating molecules from static molecules (this has, among other things, to do with polarity differences on molecules).2. The origin of independent (i.e. enclosed) replicators: lipid membranes to shield the internal from the external.3. The origin of RNA as gene (chromosomes) and calatyzing enzymes.4. The origin of DNA and the protein-building processes (using RNA in new functions).5. The origin of prokaryotes, and consequently eukaryotes.6. The origin of sexually reproducting populations.7. The origin of cell differentation, leading to plants, fungi and animals.8. The origin of societies (for example, the social insects).9. The origin of mankind.10. The origin of language, coevolved with anatomical changes like the larynx, our cognitive abilites and consequently tools and culture.(Although these transitions are all very interesting, the book concisely deals with the elemental ideas without elaborating much. Expect to be fed dry scientific statements about the current state of affairs in research about the topic involved; don't expect to be instructed in the topic.)Once again, I cannot refrain from saying that one could better use a contemporary handbook of biology to study the workings of things like cells, DNA or the differences between plants and animals. This book is just too narrow and specialistic in scope. I understood the most important thoughts that both authors wanted to bring across, but I didn't really delve into all the details - they simply don't interest me and I've read about these exact same processes and phenomena in other places. I simply don't see the need for this obscurity... I'd like to end this review by giving my personal opinion. Not on this book in particular, but on this kind of books in general. In my view, a lot of writing in science and philosophy is unnecessarily obscure. I cannot help but suspect that this is (at least partly) some form of aristocratic tendency in the writers of such works. They create a work that only 'insiders' can grasp; if you cannot grasp their texts, you're simply not up to the task. This arrogance annoys me ever more, the more I read books on these topics.I can accept that some topics are simply abstract and hard-to-explain. I also agree that some ideas are just harder to grasp. I do also understand that the mathematics involved in some of the topics in this kind of books are necessary and make these topics harder to explain to lay people - a legitimate reason for making books more abstract. But I cannot (and will not) accept that things like cellular processes and the underpinnings of evolution are that hard, either to grasp, or to explain. Richard Dawkins is able to explain the key ideas of evolution in 250 pages; whereas someone like Maynard Smith needs 350 pages (his book The Theory of Evolution) and demands much more cognitive power of the reader; to explain the exact same thing! I find it funny to read reviews (afterwards) in which people claim "if you don't understand this book, don't get involved in arguments about evolution." The sheer arrogance. (Scientists will object that science works only by meticulously defining your concepts and hence the need for obscurity. But please do this in your journals. As soon as you step into the world, make yourself understandable to your audience - this is the only purpose of language.)
I found it difficult to follow and too geared towards specialists in evolutionary biology. I'm reading their "origins of life" next so that the ideas hopefully sink in a little more. It's interesting to see just how complex evolution gets when you get into the nuts and bolts of it. It's far more complicated in practice than just saying "natural selection".
Despite the reviewers blurbs mentioning that this is a very readable book, this is not a title for the regular lay person. It's very readable though, just very hard to understand when not an expert on the matter.