Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory

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Modern Library, 2004 - History - 337 pages
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"There is a grandeur in this view of life, that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." - Charles Darwin In this brisk and deeply erudite history of one of the greatest single ideas of all time, a Pulitzer Prize winning science historian takes us from evolution's theoretical antecedents in the emerging paleontology and fossil-mania of the early 19th-century to Dar- win's (and Wallace's) brilliant breakthrough and its consequences; from the discovery of "the secret of life" (the double-helix) to the theory's greatest triumph: the modern synthesis. Larson attends throughout to social context: the social and philosophical earthquake that was the French Revolution; the devel- opment, in England, of a laissez-faire capitalism sympathetic to a Darwinian ethos (with adherents typically putting plucky Englishmen atop the evolutionary ladder); the emergence of Social Darwinism and the dark science of eugenics against a back- drop of industrial revolution; the American backlash against evolutionism that culminated in the Scopes Trial; and on to today, with the pendulum gradually swinging from "nurture" to "nature" once more. Telling his story through the lives and careers of the scientists who constitute it, Larson introduces us to a host of biologists, innovators, eccentrics, and explorers, among them Cuvier, Galton, Wallace, Erasmus Darwin, Huxley, Morgan, Mendel, De Vries, Crick and Watson, EO Wilson, and so many more. Rivalries, fierce competition for the highest stakes, brilliant solutions to seemingly-unsolvable mysteries (such as the mystery of inheritance), and the constant danger of religious backlash inform an account with no dull moments. Both celebrated as one of mankind's crowning scientific achievements and reviled as a threat to the most cherished human values, "Darwin's dangerous idea," over 200 years, wholly transformed humankind's view of life, religion, origins, and itself, and remains controversial, especially in the United States (where a full 40% of Americans do not subscribe to the full Darwinian vision). There is a lot of new material in this book. Amazingly for a book of short compass, it is also definitive: no major figure or intel- lectual current is omitted. This is a book that will raise the science IQ of readers while taking them on an exhilirating journey. Praise for Larson's previous books: "Evolution's Workshop beautifully presents the variation of human thinking about scientific problems. I can't remember another book I found as stimulating. It is a must not only for evolutionists (I have learned a great deal from it) but for ever philosophically inclined naturalist." Ernst Mayr

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Evolution: the remarkable history of a scientific theory

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Pulitzer Prize winner Larson (Richard B. Russell Professor of History, Univ. of Georgia; Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion) has written ... Read full review

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It's continually shocking to me how resistant our society is to the idea of evolution. Why do some religious people choose to take a stand in the face of so much evidence? Even the Catholic
Church accepts the general tenets of the theory. I'm very interested in finding out more about why the need to deny it is so important to religious fundamentalists.
I'm also fascinated by the widespread notion that Darwin's achievement was to describe evolution, when it was his concept of the mechanism of natural selection that was so transforming: A grand thought experiment, in the face of near-total ignorance about how genetics works, that finally provided a coherent explanation for the myriad observations of evolution in action that any animal breeder could testify to. While the fact of evolution is unassailable, the competing views of its ultimate nature are very interesting.

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About the author (2004)

EDWARD J. LARSONis Russell Professor of History and Talmadge Professor of Law at the University of Georgia. He is the recipient of multiple awards for teaching and writing, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book,Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. His most recent book isEvolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands. His articles have appeared in dozens of journals includingThe Atlantic Monthly, Nature, The Nation,andScientific American.

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