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Book Review: The Darwinian Tourist: Viewing the World Through Evolutionary Eyes by Christopher Wills

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At first thumb-through, the heft and gravitas of The Darwinian Tourist: Viewing the World Through Evolutionary Eyes may lend it an academic air. And while it’s certainly scholarly, a few mid-flip cease and desists may allow the notice of some novelties and riches that are not quite textbook examples of a quintessential biology book.

Perhaps an endeavor-in-print with the mantis shrimp will jump out at you, a creature with claws so strong they can crack a diver’s face mask or break through a glass aquarium. Marvel some pages later at the pre-evolved existence of a “stupidworld” that harbored forgetful predators with poor vision, the Mr. Magoos of the ocean blue, if you will. Take actions and traits to a human scale with Australian divers who are given to “muck diving” into the muddy and shallow but creature-rich Dinah’s Beach in eastern Papua New Guinea. Or read about the cross-dressing festivals of the Kuruba aboriginal tribal group in southern India.

Whether it seems you missed some days in school or not, Christopher Wills, Professor of Biological Sciences and member of the Center for Molecular Genetics at the University of California San Diego, leaves his lab coat behind to take the reader on an armchair venture in biodiversity to demonstrate — in an accessible and sumptuous personal narrative illustrated with over 100 original photographs — how ecology and evolution have interrelated to create the world we live in.
Wills first sets the itinerary by encouraging us to view the world through an evolutionary outlook that will imbue “a renewed sense of wonder about life’s astounding present-day diversity, along with a new appreciation of that diversity’s fourth dimension – its long evolutionary history.”

That sense of wonder, by the way, can be a tough nut to crack, especially when Wills has to convince us that humans are related to the water-breathing cuttlefish – or rather, that we had a common ancestor.

In any case, to provide a little framework, within the context of the flora and fauna in Part I: The Living World, and Part II: The Human Story, The Darwinian Tourist starts by exploring the evolutionary processes which account for why individual species are the way they are, and delves into how new species come into being. Wills subsequently explains how collaboration and symbioses between living organisms come about as a result of evolution. Later, we see how evolutionary processes have led to the huge diversity of life we find on earth, and how patterns of human migration have been shaped by, and have influenced, evolution.

The history of biological sciences and evolution is refreshingly narrated in erudite and scintillating language – and humor — that facilitates reading and benefits learning. When Wills asks, innocently enough, “ How do we know that … sea urchins share an evolutionary kinship with scuba divers and merchant bankers?” we may never look at a merchant banker the same way again, let along scuba divers.

Furthermore, in discussing the onset of the Cambrian geological period 542 million years ago, when “everything changed,” including the appearance of a multiplicity of animals and a world shaping up like our own, Wills finds it helpful to engage in a musical analogy. Stating that the start of the Cambrian was “like the beginning of a concert after an unconscionably long period during which the orchestra seems to have been merely tuning up,” the author goes on to declare that “The sudden commencement of this full-throated evolutionary concert was so dramatic that geologists have named it the Cambrian explosion.”

Apart from the straight and narrow narrative, which isn’t always so straight and narrow – the chapter on “How Domesticated Animals Changed the World” is particularly fascinating with many complex and unimagined details — the occasional happy accident or accidental happenstance describes an event a resourceful Wills is particularly adept to deal with and write about. Certainly, the makeshift, improvisational nature of these changes are in keeping with the impulses that drive evolution – mutation, natural selection, chance events, and genetic recombination.

Nothing, however, could have been so unexpected and surprising as the “series of physical blows accompanied by loud hammering noises” that jolted a scuba diving Wills and his crew in the waters off the islands of Micronesia. At first puzzled, Wills soon enough determined by a slow-motion landslide of mud and debris moving down the slope of the channel toward them that they had experienced an earthquake, “Nature’s jackhammer,” as he called it.

Once everyone had scrambled to safety and they had the chance to compare notes with others on land, they realized that the impact of the quake – 5.4 on the Richter scale – was astonishingly different above and beneath water. “We realized that the water,” Wills notes, “eight hundred times as dense as air, had magnified the pounding effect of the compression waves generated by the quake.”

Elsewhere in “The Shifting Earth,” a little more note-comparison digs up a little biographical dimension chronicling “Darwin’s jackhammer,” when having come ashore from the Beagle in 1835 near the Chilean town of Concepcion, the pioneering biologist endured an extremely strong earthquake, much stronger than the one Wills experienced. Darwin, Wills writes, was so overwhelmed by the destructive force of the compression waves generated that Darwin described the geologic vibration as something akin to being “shivered as if they had been blasted by gunpowder.”

In fact, notes Wills, “It is a good thing that scuba gear was not available in 1835, or Darwin might have been collecting specimens underwater, where he would almost certainly have been killed by those compression waves.”
emphasis on Australasia

Cohesive, highly structured — but not too tightly wound — The Darwinian Tourist is an engaging read for those with discriminating wanderlusts, while degrees in genetics or biology are unneeded in order to appreciate. The many color photographs are an added bonus. The book’s publication also coincides with the International Year for Biodiversity, a multifaceted program of research and education about the world’s ecosystems.

About Gordon Hauptfleisch