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Book review: Almost Like a Whale, by Steve Jones

Note: I started to review this book without realising that I had already done so almost twenty years ago. Unusually, I've decided to update the review. What I write here isn't a radical revision of what I wrote previously but I think it's a better reflection of what I think about it today.

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. 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; Jones, as Professor of Genetics at University College, London, was in an excellent position to supply the deficiency. So naturally genetics figures prominently in the book. The constantly evolving AIDS virus provides a useful example of how this works, and it figures prominently in the book, like a spectre at the feast (treatment was not as advanced when Jones was writing as it is now).

Genetics is important in the story but Jones ranges much more widely, to adduce an astonishingly large volume of biological information to illustrate Darwin's thesis. No doubt every fact he mentions will be known to one specialist or another, but there can be few who know all of them. It was mainly this that kept me reading, but the problem with Jones's method is that the relentless flow of information can become overwhelming; one feels the need to surface and get one's breath back. Jones seems to have felt this himself; his explanations are sometimes compressed to the point that they become difficult to understand. Probably that is why I found this book less enjoyable than most of those by this author.

As a rule Jones is a lively writer with a light touch and plenty of humorous asides, and these do figure here, such as the comment on the life cycle of the sea squirt which, "after an active life, settles on the sea floor and, like a professor given tenure, absorbs its brain". And, as in his other books, he can come up with a fine elegiac passage as he contemplates the ephemeral nature of human existence.

Sixty billion people have lived, he says, since modern humans first appeared, but only a tiny number of these have left any fossil traces.

The lost armies of the dead have a moral for evolution. They are a reminder that the geological record is a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines.…The history of ancient Egypt, of the present century—and of the existence of our own species—will soon be gone for ever.

The book is written as a homage to Darwin, and this extends even to its literary style. It 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. None of this produces a sense of discontinuity. Darwin's phrases sometimes find their way into the text; in further echoes of the past, Jones quotes measurements in feet rather than metres and flouts political correctness by constantly using "Man" and "he" to refer to the human species.

Taken as a celebration of Darwin's opus the book certainly succeeds, but beyond that I'm not sure who its audience is likely to be. Probably few readers will be impelled to go back to Darwin's own work, if that was Jones's intention. At least in part he appears to be hoping to counter the arguments of critics who claim that Darwin's thesis is "just a theory" which is contradicted by numerous facts. Jones presents plenty of evidence to contradict such views, but I doubt that any advocates of "Intelligent Design" will be among his readers. So the book is likely to appeal mainly to those who are already convinced of the truth of evolution by natural selection and sexual selection.

Readers in the last category may find useful information to use in arguments with friends and acquaintances, although they will need to keep in mind that today (2019) it is twenty years since the book appeared and much new information has come out since then. For example, Jones states that the human genome contains 75,000 to 100,000 genes, but these numbers have now been reduced to about 20,000 and this is probably still falling. And the "interlude" at that makes up the penultimate chapter, which looks at human evolution, has been overtaken by events. Advances in genetics mean we now know much more about the Neanderthals, including the fact that they (and the Denisovans, unknown when Jones was writing) interbred with humans outside Africa.

None of this is Jones's fault, of course; it was inevitable. And probably he would not be too perturbed by the flood of new informatio on human origins and the speculation that has accompanied it. "With so little from the past, anthropology is one of the few sciences in which it is possible to be famous for having an opinion, and until more facts emerge such speculation is bound to emerge." All the same, I was surprised to find Homo erectus\ described as "a large-brained ape that looked rather like a man".

The index has been prepared with less care than I would expect.


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