Review of The Evolutionary World by Geerat Vermeij

The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization by Geerat Vermeij
(Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 336 pages, $26.99, December, 2010)
Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Note: This review was originally published in the Dallas Morning News on December 12, 2010, and is the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.

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To earn the title of distinguished professor of geology at the University of California, Davis, Geerat Vermeij had to be an astute and careful observer, an original thinker and analyst, and a skilled teacher and communicator. All of those qualities are on display in his new book, The Evolutionary World. It is, as his subtitle notes, a fascinating look at How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization.

In his preface, Vermeij compares the exploration of natural phenomena to the joy of immersing oneself in the sacred music of great classical composers. He himself does not believe in a supreme being, but he understands spiritual impulses nonetheless. He does not dismiss theists, but rather calls on them to go beyond their “worst fears of evolution as a heartless process devoid of all higher meaning and purpose.” He respectfully invites them consider his view “that understanding where life comes from and how it has adapted adds value to the love and admiration we feel for our fellow creatures.”

This naturalistic bent is coupled with a literary flair. Consider this from a seashell-collecting expedition to the Aleutian North Pacific shore:

Hands and fingers numb quickly in waters as cold as five degrees Celsius, so I donned fingerless mittens in order to make observations and collect specimens for later study. Except for the fragrant flowers of sea peas, the land vegetation–a springy cushion of grass and cow parsnip, but no trees–gave off little of the sweet smell I had come to associate with northern meadows. With bald eagles squealing overhead and Steller’s sea lions barking from the rocks nearby, there was no doubt that we were in a wonderfully remote outpost, visited by fishermen but no longer permanently occupied by civilians.

That passage is all the more remarkable because it produces a vivid mental image without a single visual cue. Vermeij has been totally blind since the age of four, and he has transferred his acute powers of observation to his remaining senses.

The book has two distinct themes. The first eight chapters are largely historical. They present the way a changing world has shaped our species and our cultures. Vermeij’s provocative questions and insightful comparisons between natural selection and human behavior (often in the context of economics) surprise and delight even those readers who are well-versed in natural history.

The final five chapters are more speculative and predictive. Here Vermeij leaves his area of expertise for “an exploration of the geography and history of threats, opportunities, and adaptations.” Although he is never ideological, the book takes a definite political turn.

The most serious threat Vermeij discusses is climate change. He recognizes that we are entering a period of human-induced global warming, but he looks at its consequences on a geological time scale. He describes past episodes of global warming and the resultant adaptations that have made Earth more productive in the long run. But he also notes that long-term success is always preceded by short-term disruption.

Some readers will find two problems with that analysis. First, the coming episode of global warming will not be a long-term event. Rather it will be a spike that dissipates as humanity uses up most of the available fossil fuel or human population declines.

Second, the disruption will be severe and “short-term” may mean centuries. Before the climate returns to its pre-industrial state, humanity may have to adapt to rising seas by abandoning major cities. Likewise, the world’s adaptation to millions of climate refugees may begin with political upheavals.

Still, even with the dubious climate-change analysis and the change in tone of the last five chapters, Vermeij remains an engaging and provocative teacher throughout. Readers will not regret their decision to spend a few hours in The Evolutionary World with him.

Fred Bortz’s 19 science books for young readers include Astrobiology, which discusses the possibility of other evolutionary worlds.