Monday, June 23, 2008

Evolution Now

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, public reading of short papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace at a meeting of the Linnean Society launched the idea of evolution by natural selection on the world.

If you want a primer on how far biology has come since then, you can do no better than read Carl Zimmer’s elegant, lucid and vividly written Microcosm, which uses a century of research on the humble bacterium Escherichia coli, found in the lower intestine of every human being, to illuminate our understanding of metabolic control, horizontal and vertical gene transference, evolution, the social life of bacteria, the origin of life, arguments against creationism, the ethical and practical problems faced by genetic engineering and synthetic biology, panspermia, and much more. One of the best and most thought-provoking science books I’ve read for a long time.

Following a discussion about the similarities between the evolution and organisation of metabolic networks of E. coli and the growth of man-made networks like the Internet, Zimmer concludes:

At the Dover intelligent design trial, creationists revealed a fondness for analogies to technology. If something in E. coli or some other organism looks like a machine, then it must have been designed intelligently. Yet the term intelligent design is ultimately an unjustified pat on the back. The fact that E. coli and a man-made network show some striking similarities does not mean that E. coli was produced by intelligent design. It actually means that human design is a lot less intelligent than we like to think. Instead of some grand, forward-thinking vision, we create some of our greatest inventions through slow, myopic tinkering.

Slow, myopic tinkering: hmmm, more or less exactly the way I work.


Anonymous Al R said...

I'm trying to catch up on Evo-Devo myself, after realising that just because I read Dawkins, Gould etc 15 years ago doesn't mean the debate hasn't moved on a bit...

June 24, 2008 10:29 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Ed Regis's What Is Life is a pretty good primer if you want to know more about synthetic biology. Not sure what the best general book on evo-devo might be though...

June 27, 2008 6:53 am  

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