You are here
Review: Encyclopedia of Evolution
It is not often that one reads an encyclopedia from cover to cover, but this task was more enjoyable than onerous. I benefited from reading articles on Eugenics, Evolutionary Ethics, Evolutionary Medicine, The Evolution of Intelligence, The Evolution of Language Ability and many other topics. There is much to commend this book, not the least of which is its dedication to Emma Darwin, Charles's devoted wife and caregiver. There are 215 entries, including biographical sketches of 47 scientists from Louis Agassiz to Sewall Wright that capture the essence of a person's contribution to evolutionary science. Each topic begins with its definition followed by details. Many entries, such as Flores Island People, Galápagos Islands, and Macroevolution are treated in up to three pages, while Lysenkoism, Red Queen Hypothesis, and Uniformitarianism are covered on a single page. Major topics such as Charles Darwin, Continental Drift, and Natural Selection are given five or six pages, and the Scientific Method merits seven pages and includes appropriate comments on the Bush Administration's abuse of science. There is a "Further Reading" section for each entry. Many articles are illustrated with helpful black and white drawings or photographs. There are cross-references in each entry. For example, the Donald Johanson sketch leads the reader to Australopithecines, Hominin, Bipedalism, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Homo Habilis. Other subjects can be located via the index. There is no entry for memes, but the index directs the reader to the Richard Dawkins account where memes are explained. The geological periods are treated in a uniform style that includes dates, climate, continents, marine life, terrestrial plants and animals, and extinctions.
The encyclopedia was written by a very well-read botanist who announces his Christianity in the introduction, but does not allow faith to overrule science. His position is elaborated in one of five boxed essays entitled "Can An Evolutionary Scientist Be Religious?" He says "yes," but he never details how to reconcile the two, nor discusses why he thinks it would be necessary. The other essays include "How Much Do Genes Control Human Behavior?", "What Are the 'Ghosts of Evolution'?", "Why Do Humans Die?", and "Are Humans Alone in the Universe?'. The three-page Scopes Trial entry has a fascinating one-page box comparing the actual trial with the 1960 film, Inherit the Wind.
The Charles Darwin biographical sketch hits all the important highlights. The writing is at times thoughtful ("Charles Darwin was to put his inherited wealth to better use than perhaps anyone ever has") and occasionally simplistic ("He was attracted to Emma Wedgwood, who also happened to be his cousin, and she liked him as well, and they were married"). I have a few quibbles as with the statement that Fitzroy chose Darwin for the Beagle voyage because of the shape of his nose. Actually, Fitzroy the phrenologist nearly rejected Darwin, but Darwin convinced him that "my nose had spoken falsely" (Barlow 1958: 72). The suggestion is planted that the death of Annie, Darwin's eldest daughter, might have been due to inbreeding, but she actually succumbed to tuberculosis (consumption) (Keynes 2001: 219).
There is a presumable typo on p 32 where Australopithecus afarensis is substituted for A africanus, which could lead to confusion. No phylogenetic diagrams are given in the discussions of Australopithecus or Homo and some of the more recent books are not cited (Zimmer 2005). As an ichthyologist I am underwhelmed by the Evolution of Fishes article. It does not say much about the group of vertebrates that has more members than all other vertebrate classes combined. Rice stated that tetrapods evolved from crossopterygians rather than lungfishes as generally thought today, and he does not cite any major ichthyological texts. Some accounts read like the synthesis that comes from consulting a few sources, but that is to be expected in a single-author work of this scope for the general public. Rice puts an astonishing amount of important information at one's fingertips.
In the Alfred Russel Wallace section, Rice confused Borneo and Sulawesi (Celebes) and garbled the mammalian examples. Wallace's Line passes between Bali and Lombock and Borneo and Sulawesi (Berra 2001). To the west of the line (Bali and Borneo) is the Oriental biogeographical realm and to the east (Lombock and Sulawesi) is the Australian realm. Sulawesi has at least one species of marsupial; Borneo has none (Flannery 1995). Five species of native felids occur on Borneo (but not tigers) while no native cats occur on Sulawesi (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002).
The appendix is a masterful 14-page, chapter-by-chapter summary of the sixth edition of Origin of Species.
There is relatively little overlap between accounts of the same subject in Milner's Encyclopedia of Evolution (1990) and the current volume. Reading both accounts of Robert Chambers, for example, will provide more information and insight than reading only one. Many topics treated in one of the encyclopedias are not mentioned in the other, so even if Milner's book is in your library, you still need Rice's encyclopedia. Pagel's (2002) Encyclopedia of Evolution is a two-volume, multi-authored work of 1205 pages, which, naturally, can incorporate more details.
Rice's coverage is broad, interesting, relevant, and informative. If you want examples of Convergent Evolution or a primer on Cladistics, Coevolution, or Creationism, this is a good place to begin. Reading this book would be excellent preparation for graduate school general exams. It can serve as a ready reference for science journalists, teachers, school board members, and the intelligent layperson. I wholeheartedly recommend this book, and at $24.95, the paperback version is good value.
Barlow N, ed. 1958. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882, with Original Omissions Restored. New York: WW Norton.
Berra TM. 2001. Freshwater Fish Distribution. San Diego: Academic Press.
Flannery T. 1995. Mammals of the South-West Pacific & Moluccan Islands. Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press.
Keynes R. 2001. Darwin, His Daughter & Human Evolution. New York: Riverhead Books.
Milner R. 1990. The Encyclopedia of Evolution. New York: Facts on File.
Pagel M, editor. 2002. Encyclopedia of Evolution. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sunquist M, Sunquist F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Zimmer C. 2005. Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Washington (DC): Smithsonian Books.