Hardly any biology students today read The Origin of Species; it is mostly students of literature who do this, which suggests that many people regard it as mainly of historical interest, which is a pity. Steve Jones has set himself the ambitious and possibly eccentric task of correcting this misapprehension by updating Darwin's book for the twenty-first century. The principal difficulty faced by Darwin was the lack of a satisfactory explanation of the mechanism of inheritance, so Jones, as Professor of Genetics at University College, London, is in an excellent position to supply the deficiency. This he has done, although his contribution extends well beyond genetics and he adduces an astonishing volume of facts to illustrate Darwin's thesis. Among these facts the case of the constantly evolving AIDS virus appears a number of times, like a spectre at the feast.
Richness and diversity are indeed the dominant characteristics of this book. Darwin's method was to state the principles of his theory and then provide numerous facts, many drawn from domestic breeding of pigeons and other livestock, to support his arguments. Jones does much the same except that his supporting evidence is more widely based. No doubt every fact he mentions will be known to one specialist or another, but there can be few who know all of them.
The problem with this approach is that the relentless flow of information can become overwhelming; one feels the need to surface and get one's breath back. However, Jones is a sprightly writer with a nice light touch and he includes plenty of jokes. Sometimes I thought he was just a shade too flippant: referring to bacteria as bugs strikes me as journalistic to a fault. Also, the sheer volume of facts has resulted in some explanations being abbreviated to the point where they are scarcely comprehensible.
Jones uses Darwin's chapter titles and concludes each chapter with a summary in Darwin's own words; the whole final chapter is taken directly from The Origin. But although the book is a homage to Darwin, it is not hagiography; Jones has deep respect for the great man but is not afraid to point out where he was mistaken. Above all, however, it is a powerful demonstration of the truth of the theory of evolution (a word which, ironically, does not appear in The Origin). It would be a good text to place in the hands of anyone who doubts the validity of this theory, though doubtless no such person would read it. Failing that, it may stimulate some biology students to read Darwin; but, if they don't, Jones is the next best thing.