Accessible Account of the Complexity of Complexity

Whatever definition is used, there is no shortage of complexity in biology, medicine, or of greatest relevance for this forum, evolutionary medicine.  As is made abundantly clear in the first-ever textbook of evolutionary medicine by Gluckman et al. (2010), in seeking to understand the evolutionary origins of human disease susceptibility there are profound challenges in charting genetic, developmental, and environmental influences on phenotype, and the interactions among these sources of variation can be exceptionally difficult to disentangle.  Therein resides one reasonable justification for reading Melanie Mitchell’s book, Complexity: A Guided Tour (2009). (more…)

Original, Concise, and Incisive Analysis of Key Evolutionary Concepts

I recently completed reading one of the most stimulating books (1) on the conceptual aspects of evolution that I have read in many years.  The author, Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher of biology at Harvard.  He has written widely on topics in the philosophy of science and is the author previously of an exceptionally thoughtful introduction (2) to that field.

The new book is intended both to clarify philosophical thinking about concepts central to evolutionary theory and to advance biological understanding of the processes of evolution.  Godfrey-Smith also proposes as an objective of the book, if I can do his precise wording justice in abbreviated form, the implications of evolutionary science for broader questions of interest to philosophers, scientists, and perhaps others. (more…)

Quirks of Human Anatomy by Lewis Held

Quirks of Human Anatomy by Lewis Held, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Book Review Held Book Cover

The emergence of Darwinian (evolutionary) medicine had led to a renaissance of many long forgotten biological topics, among which are atavistic traits (traits of our ancestors). These traits that disappeared long ago from our lineage are occasionally reappearing in present human populations, allowing a glance to our remote biological history. This is possible because the genes behind these traits are still preserved in our DNA, although not expressed in most individuals. Atavistic traits together with vestigial structures (structures that lost all or most of their original function in a species through evolution) played a major role in the establishment of Darwinian Theory prior to the emergence of modern genetics. The book Quirks of Human Anatomy revives many of these old ideas and questions (e.g., Where did our tail go?) and poses several new intriguing ones (e.g., (more…)

Darwin’s Genius and Other Mythologies of Science

Occasionally, those of us well embedded in science need an outsider, some distance removed from the action, to cast a critical eye at how we operate.  A book I highly recommend for any practising scientist to read is Fabulous Science: fact and fiction in the history of scientific discovery’  (Oxford University Press, 2002) by John Waller.  The author is a graduate in Modern History from Oxford who went on to take a Masters in Human Biology before specialising in the History of Medicine.  He reviews evidence accrued by fellow chroniclers of medical advances that reveals how we scientists regularly distort the historical record, sometimes for our own egocentric advantage, other times to promote past practitioners to hero status.  It’s a salutary tale (or rather, a series of tales) of distortion and frank misdemeanours that challenges more pious view of scientists’ cool objectivity.  And we all know it’s true.

 Waller’s account of the discovery of the isolation of insulin and the demonstration of its efficacy in resolving diabetes is a classic case of Shakespearian dimensions – human ingenuity coupled with pretence and comical folly.  We learn that Pasteur may have got the right answers but suppressed results that didn’t fit.  As a British diplomat once famously confessed, he had been ‘economic with the truth’.  For the rest of us: he cheated.

 Waller’s account of the discovery and application of penicillin is a great myth buster.  (more…)