The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature
Author Mark Sumner AKA DevilsTower
220 Pages; About $12.00 New
Today we review and interview a book and an author that need no introduction. He's written 32 books and his writing has been gracing this site since 2007. I'm talking of course about the talented Mark Sumner. I've read his latest book and, trust me, like everything else Mark writes, it's just a joy to read. The Evolution of Everything is absolutely written for the layperson and still a delight for the scientifically inclined, stuffed full of great analogies, unexpected anecdotes, and thoughtful comparisons. And you can win a free signed copy in comments below.
DarkSyde: The title is the evolution of everything, what's that mean?
Mark Sumner: When I first started writing about evolution, one of the things that was frustrating was that a lot of people seemed to have a very vague idea of how it happens. Which is odd, because the principle that Darwin and Wallace discovered -- natural selection -- may be the simplest, most straightforward idea in science. One of the things that made it hard for people seemed to be the great spans of time involved. Once you start talking about millions or billions of years, people's eyes roll up. Then it struck me that while natural selection operates over generations, there are other kinds of selective pressure that operate much more quickly. Look at the smart phone market as an example. There's been an explosion of variety and steady growth in capability just in the last few years. Those changes, like changes in the natural world, have come in response to changes in the environment, only that environment isn't the Serengeti, it's customers and carriers.
Yes, consumer pressure and changes in the marketplace are only a metaphor for natural selection -- but I think it's a good one. And this idea goes both ways. Not only can we learn about evolution using the products around us as examples, we can look at evolution for lessons in areas outside of biology. People want to draw a bright line between things we do and things that are "natural," but there is no line. It's
all the natural world.
DS: What's gave you the idea to write about a book about everything evolving?
MS: I think it was the Ford Mustang idea that came up first. I was researching an article on the evolution of horses and looking for something to give the piece a little color. A 1973 Mustang (351 Cobra Jet black & gold for those that like old Mustangs) was the first car I ever owned, and I thought it would be fun to talk about the Mustang just to ease into 3,000 words on fossil toe bones and teeth. I was only looking for just a few lines of material, but what I found was a really interesting story. The Mustang II -- the one that Mustang lovers are supposed to hate -- actually turned out to be a hero of the first oil crisis. It was one of the first American cars built to very high quality standards, and it got decent mileage at a time when other cars really didn't. Sales of that first Mustang II were actually higher than the original car. It was one of the few success stories of that time when a lot of cars, and car companies, were floundering. The Mustang II practically saved Ford and it's definitely the reason that the Mustang is the only "pony car" that has been in continuous production since the 1960s.
Once I had that story, it was fun to fit it together with events in natural history. The oil crisis became an "extinction event" and the Mustang II -- like the real horses that outlived a lot of their Ice Age competitors -- became the thrifty little generalist that outlived all the big, bulky specialists.
DS: What's the difference between everything evolving, and the social & market Darwinism used or misused by various ideologies, from free market fundamentalists to fascists, and the specific cultural or commercial items in your book?
MS: In the essays I wrote for Daily Kos, I spent a lot of time on the product comparisons -- how sea cows are like hardware stores, what extinct Mammoths can tell us about one hour TV dramas. But when I wrote the book I felt compelled to go back and fill in some of the gaps. Why do people have such odd ideas about evolution? Why are reporters still asking about a "missing link," when that idea comes from Medieval folklore? Why are so many people quick to associate Darwin with everything from ruthless business practices to the Nazis? Why is "Social Darwinism" based on ideas that Darwin wouldn't recognize? I didn't know the answers to those questions myself, which meant I got the chance to spend several months digging through 19th century journals, 1920s newspapers, and books that went back to the 1500s. Which is my idea of fun.
What I found was that those who scream out against Darwin and those that distort his ideas to support their own agendas are really working for the same thing: preservation of the social hierarchy. What makes Darwin's idea dangerous isn't so much that things change, People realized that long before Darwin. What makes Darwin scary, then and now, is that his idea is so simple. So easily understood. So obvious. So egalitarian. On both sides of the aisle, what people are really saying is "there has to be more to it than that. After all,
I'm important and whatever brought me here has to have been designed especially with me in mind." But, errr... no. No it doesn't. And wasn't. And isn't.
It seems like every year in physics brings with it more complexity. That "standard model" I was taught as a kid looked simple enough, but now it's crowded with strange quarks and tau neutrinos and gauge bosons. On a larger scale, most of the matter and energy in the universe is invisible to us, and the resolution of basic forces doesn't look a lot closer than it did decades ago. I like the fact that biology, in some ways the most complex of physical sciences, is driven by one of the simplest ideas. An idea that kids can grasp in an afternoon. A hundred and fifty years of trying to disprove evolution, conducted at great expense by dedicated opposition, has proven that Darwin was not only right, but more right than he knew. Evolution by natural selection is, by an overwhelming degree, the origin of new species in the natural world.