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Wednesday, 23 January 2008 00:00

Evolution In a Nutshell — the book

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Evolution In A Nutshell by Martin Malloy. Trafford Publishing, 2007. 302 pages

Evolution is one of those wonderfully fiery topics which, when broached at parties or family gatherings, can convert otherwise reasonable friends and relatives into raging maniacs, shouting, slamming their fists onto the table, and crunching beer cans against their heads (somewhat like chimpanzees signaling irritation or fear).

Evolutionists follow the path laid out by Charles Darwin in the middle of the nineteenth century. Creationists — originally a term for Christians who didn’t buy Darwin’s evolutionary theories, and now a catch-all phrase for anyone who believes that some sort of “creator” had a hand in the making of life on this planet — are the opponents of Darwinism.

Here your reviewer must explain his own position. I am too ignorant to worry about whether Darwinists or Creationists have the answers regarding my origins. My church allows for arguments from both sides, with the understanding that God lurks behind either theory. My own education in regard to evolution includes a high school biology course in which the teacher taught evolution, a college course devoted primarily to flora rather than fauna, and some light reading over the years about the bitter fights between creationists and evolutionists. When such evolutionary arguments occur, I am inclined to slip away to the kitchen, pour another drink, and then rejoin the party in hopes of finding someone wanting to discuss the state of modern poetry or the meaning of class and colonialism implicit in the “Last Tango in Paris.”

In other words, I recognize my ignorance regarding evolution. I do think, however, that the two sides forget that both evolution and creationism are theories, and that the final evidence simply isn’t available. Yelling louder than the opposition may give a proponent a temporary victory, but the war, it seems to me, is far from over. Without any final, irrefutable proof from either side, however, and with no real stake in the game, I’d rather head for the bar.

In Evolution In A Nutshell (Trafford Publishing, ISBN 141208849-6), Martin Malloy writes that “the book is not meant to be a downer, but purposeless evolution isn’t compatible with ‘hope springs eternal.’” Evolution in a Nutshell isn’t, as Malloy stresses, a downer because of its fine writing. Malloy, a proponent of the theory of evolution, manages to amuse us in his advocacy of evolution by his witty writing and by bringing to his arguments such diverse sources as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Generals Lee and Grant at Appomattox, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind.

Malloy spends approximately the first half of his book discussing the basics of evolution before turning his attention more exclusively to a comparison between chimpanzees and human beings. He discusses topics ranging from cellular growth and reproduction to otters (which are ‘half’ animals in that they are partially adapted to water and land), from the Devonian Period “as the Age of Fish when the emergence and proliferation of new species burgeoned” to a discussion of the Biblical David as supposedly bisexual and what that may mean in terms of genetic speculation.

In his defense of evolution, Malloy does play fair in terms of his claims. He continually has recourse to language that adds to his arguments a tentative quantity. Again and again, he tells us that certain speculations to which he has recourse are theoretical, that no final proof is possible at this point in our knowledge of the far distant past. Such tentativeness reveals, despite Malloy’s clear predilection for the theory of evolution, a concern for truth, a desire to be honest.

Yet there are problems with Malloy’s book. The first has to do with documentation. Evolution In A Nutshell has no index. Nor are there footnotes in this book, which would have benefited by such references. The bibliography itself seems sketchy; there are nearly as many bibliographical entries for literature and prose — Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, John Milton — as there are scientific references.

The second problem has to do with organization. Although the table of contents lists chapters and then a page-by-page topic list, the text itself does not reflect the list. Such sub-chapter headings would have proven enormously beneficial to the book’s organization and readability. Malloy lists subtitles like “Skull hole and the human vagina,” “Matricide,” “Love is not a virtue,” and scores more, but then doesn’t put the subtitles to work within the book itself.

Finally, Malloy seems sometimes to overstep the bounds of the limitations that he himself has set. Throughout Evolution In A Nutshell, he uses again and again phrases like “Many scientists believe ...” or “Some evolutionary scientists subscribe to ...,” yet when Malloy himself develops his social evolution theories at the end of the book, he disregards these cautions. His comparison of the American Civil War to the Gombe ape war in Africa seems at best a stretch, at worst a ridiculous comparison more fit for Saturday Night Live than a serious examination of evolution. Like some other writers before him, Malloy extends the scientific theories of evolution to the social and anthropological spheres, where they so often appear either false in their application or just plain silly.

Despite these reservations, Martin Malloy’s Evolution In A Nutshell is a worthwhile contribution to the debate over evolution and to the ideas of social evolution. Even so, if such a topic comes up some evening when I’m with other people, my own battle-cry will be: Martinis anyone?

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