TITLE: Lamarck's Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution's Past and Present
AUTHOR: Peter Ward
DATE PUBLISHED: 2018
"Epigenetics upends natural selection and genetic mutation as the sole engines of evolution, and offers startling insights into our future heritable traits.
In the 1700s, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first described epigenetics to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics; however, his theory was supplanted in the 1800s by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection through heritable genetic mutations. But natural selection could not adequately explain how rapidly species re-diversified and repopulated after mass extinctions. Now advances in the study of DNA and RNA have resurrected epigenetics, which can create radical physical and physiological changes in subsequent generations by the simple addition of a single small molecule, thus passing along a propensity for molecules to attach in the same places in the next generation.
Epigenetics is a complex process, but paleontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward breaks it down for general readers, using the epigenetic paradigm to reexamine how the history of our species—from deep time to the outbreak of the Black Plague and into the present—has left its mark on our physiology, behavior, and intelligence. Most alarming are chapters about epigenetic changes we are undergoing now triggered by toxins, environmental pollutants, famine, poor nutrition, and overexposure to violence.
Lamarck’s Revenge is an eye-opening and provocative exploration of how traits are inherited, and how outside influences drive what we pass along to our progeny."
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it has interesting information about the role of epigenetics in evolution. Nessa Carey beautifully described the biological functioning of epigenetics in her book The Epigenetic Revolution, but didn't focus on how this effects the evolution of species in any great detail. This book deals with epigenetics and how this effects the genetics and evolution of species, as well as the Theory of Evolution. This book starts off with a history of science focused on Lamarck and Darwin, then a superficial explanation of what epigenetics is and how it works, followed by the effects of epigenetics on evolution, then the history of life (especially focusing on the sudden expansion of life and body forms after the great mass extinctions), then human history from the Ice Age to present times and our possible future (with far too much speculation).
One of the major problems with this book are the exceptionally lengthy run-on sentences, made longer by the really long clauses in parenthesis stuffed within the very long sentences, especially in the first half of the book (the author settles down a bit in the second half of the book). There is also a great deal of repetition with the information, not to mention all the personal opinions and biases (repeated constantly) by the author, all the tangential "stuff" (repeated constantly) about climate warming, pollution, evil parents, great extinction events and their causes, condemnation of other scientists (especially Darwin) because they didn't automatically worship Lamarck (whose ideas are simplified and used as a vehicle in this book), random insertions of irrelevant material, not to mention the political asides. The organisation of the book could also use some assistance and the author jumps all over the place (especially in the first half of the book), and sub-sections just end in the middle of developing an idea (apparently editors are an extinct species). The explanations dealing with epigenetics in general (in the first third of the book) are not particularly clear or coherent, and the run-on, multi-parenthesized (is this even a word?) sentences do not help in understanding this relatively new concept.
If you want to know about epigenetics, read The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey. If you want a book about epigenetics and evolution, wait for someone else to write a more coherent text (maybe one day Nick Lane can cover this topic - with diagrams where necessary). If you really need to read this book, borrow it first.
Note: If you found this review long winded, convoluted, with too many parenthesized run-on sentences... well, that's what the book is like.