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Creatures of Accident: The Rise of the Animal Kingdom

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    Available in PDF - DJVU Format | Creatures of Accident: The Rise of the Animal Kingdom.pdf | Language: ENGLISH
    Wallace Arthur(Author)

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The most important aspect of evolution, from a philosophical viewpoint, is the rise of complex, advanced creatures from simple, primitive ones. This "vertical" dimension of evolution has been downplayed in both the specialist and popular literature on evolution, in large part because it was in the past associated with unsavory political views. The avoidance of evolution's vertical dimension has, however, left evolutionary biology open to the perception, from outside, that it deals merely with the diversification of rather similar creatures, all at the same level of "advancedness" from a common ancestor―for example, the classic case studies of finches with different beaks or moths of different colors.

The latest incarnation of creationism, dubbed intelligent design (or ID), has taken advantage of this situation. It portrays an evolutionary process that is constantly guided―especially in its upward direction―by the hand of an unseen Creator, who is able to ensure that it ends up producing humans. Creatures of Accident attacks the antiscience ID worldview, mainly by building a persuasive picture of how "unaided" evolution produces advanced creatures from simple ones by an essentially accidental process. Having built this picture, in the final chapter the book reflects on its religious implications.

Wallace Arthur is a professor of zoology at the National University of Ireland,Galway. The author of seven previous books, he also serves as European editor of the journal Evolution and Development.

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Book details

  • PDF | 272 pages
  • Wallace Arthur(Author)
  • Hill and Wang; Reprint edition (September 4, 2007)
  • English
  • 6
  • Science & Math

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Review Text

  • By Stephen A. Haines on October 9, 2007

    How often do we hear - or utter - the frequent complaint: "Why is life so complex?" However, as any evolutionary biologist would be pleased to remind you, this hasn't always been the case. Wallace Arthur takes up that fact forcefully in this book. Life began very simply and stayed that way for a very long time. Earth's population remained simple bacterial forms, some DNA stashed away in a protective enclosure, he reminds us, for over two billion years. Diversity, the foundation of the evolutionary process, seemed non-existent, yet this remains the core of biological teaching today. Arthur endeavours to set this record straight, doing so with an almost conversational delivery.Keeping with the theme of simplicity, Arthur urges us to shed unnecessary philosophical thinking, opening with a chapter titled "Hand luggage only". The phrase recognises that most of us have preconceived notions of how life works. The core of that notion is that humans, just because they are complex creatures, sit somehow at the top of the evolutionary "ladder". The ability to think about life, which seems to be unique in our species, doesn't convey superiority. We are, after all, far outnumbered by the descendents of those simple organisms of long ago. Our species did emerge, and Arthur wants us to understand how. Instead of ladders, he uses the analogy of a lawn, level and with few disruptions.Explaining life, to Arthur, is an exercise in pragmatism, not ideology. Using the cell as a starting point, his tour takes us to the embryo [he's a zoologist, hence the emphasis on animals instead of plants]. The embryo is a key feature in his theme, since it is here that cell duplication and diversification are best demonstrated. How does a fertilised egg know how to build a finished body from so elemental a beginning? The author explains how genes express proteins to guide the formation of organs and structure. Once it was thought that genes only expressed on one direction, but developmental studies now show that genes interact, even between distant cell hosts. Almost more importantly, he shows how, within limits, embryos bear evidence of their evolutionary roots. Complexity, arising from simple beginnings is a traceable process. Arthur shows how modern evidence allows tracking that path for such organs as nervous systems, hearts and circulation and other features.In many ways, this is an admirable work. Arthur's chatty presentation makes one wish for a trip to Galway where he teaches to hear him discourse on this topic over a pint. He makes wonderful imagery in showing how our concept of "life" might need some re-thinking. What would a Martian arriving on a beach to discover a sand-castle think of such a regular structure? He returns to this idea in building his vision of complexity. Regrettably, he does this in a rather patchy manner, skipping about to address his topics. The novice reader will find this book something of a chore as a result. The book cries out for illustration - how many of his readers have seen graphics of the process of "gastrulation" which creates your insides? Why are trilobites important body forms? Although he provides a Glossary of terms, his "Further Reading List" is almost a joke.Finally, almost lamentably, Arthur falls into the trap of trying to reconcile his studies with the notion of "creationism". Although he dislikes "creationists" as dishonest and abrasive, he concedes their numbers, particularly in the US. Instead, his final chapter is a declaration of his "agnosticism". He has already taken a swipe at Richard Dawkins over how "gradual" natural selection works. Here, he delivers what he clearly thinks is a telling blow, linking Dawkins' non-theism with a form of "faith". Declaring there's "no evidence either way", Arthur turns to John Maynard-Smith's observation that some fish with tails spotted like stellar constellations might be suggestive of a divine being. Since that sort of evidence hasn't appeared, the author thinks he can let the matter rest. It's a very insubstantial way to conclude what is otherwise a generally delightful read. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

  • By Edward F. Strasser on November 7, 2006

    I read a lot of magazine and Internet articles about science and written in plain English for general readers. The science is usually vague and often inaccurate. Wallace Arthur manages to get across real science while avoiding jargon. For example, the old biology cliché "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is rendered as "development repeats evolution". This is followed by a few paragraphs of explanation. And he covers a number of topics which are important for understanding evolution that aren't generally included id beginners' books.The most important of these is gene duplication. The machinery that manages our DNA sometimes makes extra copies of one or more genes. The duplicate copies may then undergo mutation and take on new functions while the old ones remain unchanged. A LOT of evolution involves gene duplication. Arthur doesn't say how gene duplication happens - that requires biochemistry - but it is important to know that it happens.Another topic is development, from egg to adult. This is critical for understanding the evolution of complexity. Some genes involved in development, such as the Hox genes that Arthur mentions, are important in evolution. Copying of Hox genes is a major factor in the increasing complexity of animals; some more advanced books have charts showing the parallel between Hox gene duplication and increasing complexity. The interaction of genes and proteins is another important topic. And there are other topics, too much for me to cover in a short review.Arthur frequently pauses to relate a current topic to what came earlier in the book, or to suggest what is to come. People who read a lot of science books are used to doing this for themselves and might be annoyed by Arthur's doing it. But for true beginners, this will probably be helpful.Creatures of Accident provides only a beginning look at the natural processes that give rise to complexity. A number of other books - all more advanced - go into the subject in more depth. I have reviewed several of these and I recommend them. Click above on "See all my reviews" for more. There is also a brief summary in my Listmania list "Natural Processes That Promote Evolution". To find it, click on my name, above, and scroll down my profile page to that title. I will mention here that Sean B. Carroll's The Making of the Fittest is an excellent next book for someone who has read Creatures of Accident; a reader who has had a decent HS biology course might want to start with that book. Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful would be suitable for a college course, but is suitable for readers who are not bio students. Darwin in the Genome by Lynn Caporale looks at the evolution of those natural processes themselves. There are a number of very good books ranging from elementary to some suitable for graduate bio majors.Creatures of Accident won't convince anybody that the ID claim is false; there's not enough detail for that. But it will give beginners a start to learning what evolution is really about. And that means the prospect of a lot of exciting reading ahead.

  • By Annie on July 16, 2015

    I'd hoped for an interesting, yet short, read that discussed general evolutionary theories. As short as the book was, I struggled to find the point in much of the writing. More whimsical fancy than scientific information. My guess is that one could successfully impart the knowledge contained in this book in a well-written 10 page essay.As compared to a book that cannot be put down, I struggled to hold it up.

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