Because of some complications of cataract surgery, I have been neglecting this blog. I hope this marks the beginning of more regular postings. I will soon be adding some science book roundups, but I want to start with a brief review of a book that caught my attention when it appeared late last year.
As a fan of Peter Ward’s often provocative but always scientifically sound writing, I was eager to read Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present.
I was aware of some surprising recent discoveries in biological inheritance in which stressful events in a grandparent’s life can change some traits in their grandchildren. The term to describe these changes is “epigenetics,” because it doesn’t change which genes are inherited but does change certain chemical markers attached to DNA that affect the way a gene is expressed (or not). So although Darwinian principles still affect the grandchild’s inherited genes, the once discredited idea of French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck that an ancestor’s experiences can change the traits of a descendant has some validity.
Does that mean that giraffes inherit long necks because their ancestors had to stretch to reach leaves high on a tree? No, but it may mean that epigenetics favored the expression of long-neck genes and thus made it more likely that those genes would be passed along.
It’s a fascinating idea, and one that I expected would bring out the best in Ward’s thought-provoking style. Yet I found myself often losing the narrative thread. The scientific content, as usual for Ward, was strong. Yet the book had a more academic feel than I was accustomed to in his earlier titles. Apparently, I was not alone. Although the professional reviews for the book were generally positive, the reader reviews at the Amazon.com link above uncharacteristically show similar struggles to mine.
So if you are a Ward fan like I am, you might want to prepare yourself for a bit of a slog this time. Still, when Ward’s next book comes out, I’ll be as eager as always to give it a try.