The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma, Marc Kirschner

Darwin struggled with questions about mechanisms driving evolution and how they played out in the living, messy, world of nature. His struggle is even more insightful when we realize that he worked before genetic and molecular concepts were understood. It was the darkness of his understanding that caused the struggle: indeed, his ideas were bolstered as biologists began to explore genetics and the molecular basis of heredity. This ability to modify ideas in light of new work is one of the most powerful elements of science and differentiates it from other realms of knowledge where rules are pre-set by fiat. See my post on how a scientific theory works here.

The sciences of genetics and molecular biology have fully matured and give insight into the workings of selection. In this book, the authors look at selection and mutation from a molecular viewpoint and argue that the rearrangement of already useful molecular packages can aid and speed evolution. They argue that natural selection isn’t random but that these packages can be altered and put together in novel ways when called upon by adaptive needs like natural Tinker Toys.

The book is thorough and the prose will be a bit heavy to the novice. The authors go into depth concerning molecular biology and this can be hard going for those unfamiliar with its concepts. Oddly, I think, they include a chapter on creationism and the ideas of intelligent design. Why include pseudoscience in an otherwise excellent book baffles me.

Even so, it’s an excellent and profitable read.


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