Home | Intro | About | Feedback | Prev | Next

Evolution. cover

The book is accompanied by an extensive free website (click on image). Chapter 27 & 28 are available online here. Glossary


Nicholas H. Barton, Derek E.G. Briggs, Jonathan A. Eisen, David B. Goldstein, Nipam H. Patel (2007)
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, hardback 833 pp. (1)

reviewed by Gert Korthof. Published: 28 sep 2007. (Update: 19 Oct 2015)

Francisco J Ayala:

"At 833 pages, Evolution by Barton et al. is a large book, and it is copiously and helpfully illustrated with photos, figures and line drawings, mostly in color. The lion's share consists of Part II, The Origin and Diversification of Life, and Part III, Evolutionary Processes. The three chapters of Part I introduce the history of evolutionary biology, including molecular biology, and the evidence for evolution. The final two chapters, in Part IV, provide an excellent, up-to-date summary of human evolution. The discussion of the Out-of-Africa and multiregional hypotheses of the origin of modern humans is nuanced rather than dogmatic. A section on Genomics and Humanness is brief but incisive. The final chapter on Current Issues in Human Evolution is exemplary and can be profitably read by medical geneticists seeking to establish associations between genes and diseases.

The enormous strides made in the field of evo-devo during the last two decades are integrated in two clearly written and superbly illustrated chapters of Part II: Multicellularity and Development and Evolution of Developmental Programs. Surprisingly, however, five of the nine chapters of Part II are dedicated to the history of microbial evolution, and only one chapter deals with the diversification of plants and animals.

Only three pages of Part II are primarily dedicated to the concepts and methods of phylogenetic reconstruction. I would have expected a more extensive treatment of cladistics and other methods of phylogenetic inference (2). The molecular clock and its virtues and pitfalls are also very much shortchanged, in my view, receiving only a few pages of discussion in a chapter dedicated to Variation in DNA and Proteins.

The expertise of Barton et al. in population and evolutionary genetics is eminently displayed in Part III, which makes up somewhat more than half of Evolution. All the bases are covered, and well covered at that: mutation and variation, population structure, random drift and gene flow, selection, social evolution, speciation, and much more. Algebraic symbolism and equations are not excessive but may be off-putting for students with scant mathematical training. The authors could have further explained the biological significance of the equations and segregated the mathematics away from the narrative text, in 'boxes' and other pedagogic devices, more often than they do. The last two chapters of Part III, Evolution of Genetic Systems and Evolution of Novelty, are priceless. In length, depth and excitement, these two chapters go far beyond what is typically covered in evolution textbooks. The increasingly relevant topic of the evolution of evolvability is helpfully included, and evo-devo considerations are again brought to bear in these chapters.

There is little that is inappropriate or unseemly in Evolution. However, in the introductory section on historical background, dates are given for some scientists and books but not for others, even important ones. Do we need to be told three times on a single page that Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology was published in 1830? And do we need three photos of R.A. Fisher, two of them the same photograph reversed, and one not listed in the index? I found the index less complete and helpful than I would prefer. These minor deficiencies are mostly editorial matters, and if I bring them up it is so that they may be attended to in future editions of this superb textbook". Source: (3).

Noteworthy is chapter 20 which explains that some topics in evolutionary theory (evolutionary optimization, evolutionary games) can be constructed without detailed knowledge of genetics and chapter 24 about the evolution of novelty. A useful chapter is: 'Evidence for Evolution', including a paragraph 'Objections to Evolution' (5). Symbiosis is discussed in chapters 8 and 24, but strangely enough Lynn Margulis (my review) is neither mentioned in the text, nor in the Further Reading section, nor in the index.
Lens crystallins are discussed (p.708), but 'gene sharing' is not mentioned (4).

Strikingly, the authors created a separate chapter for 'The Origin of Life' (chapter 4, 87-108). This is a wellcome addition to the book. In Evolution textbooks this issue is usually discussed in a short paragraph, if at all. The Origin of Life was neither part of Darwinsim, nor of neo-Darwinism. The fact that it is now included in a textbook of evolution does not mean the problem has been solved but probably reflects the growth of the Origin of Life field. A minor criticism is that the problem of the prebiotic synthesis of RNA is not mentioned and (except in Figure 4.20) the pre-RNA world and alternative RNAs and DNAs (such as TNA) are not discussed (10).

A subject that is absent is the evolution of the brain. The word brain isn't even in the index. However, in chapter 25 about human evolution skull sizes and the evolution of language are discussed, but no comparative brain anatomy and function is present. This shortcoming cannot be explained by lack of data. There are some excellent books about the subject: Georg F. Striedter (2005) Principles of Brain Evolution; and John Allman (2000) Evolving Brains. Chapter 26 on current issues in human evolution compensates a lot for this shortcoming. Evolutionary Psychology is not ignored (pp 778-780 of chapter 26). However, EP's hypotheses are misrepresented as unsurpising intuitions. As if no hypothesis testing and data collection was involved (8).

Other topics which are not discussed are: climate (6), niche construction (7), 'epigenetics' (11), 'phenotypic plasticity' and 'Snowball Earth hypothesis' (not found in the index). These topics could help students to connect current global warming issues with climate changes in the history of the earth and of life. The word 'Eugenics' is mentioned once on page 82 but is inadequately explained (9).
The book as a whole has a strong emphasis on genetics (evolution from the point of view of genetics). This results for example in a good discussion of DNA-repair (12) (or: error-correction, or: proofreading), a subject which is sometimes barely discussed or is even completely absent in other evolution textbooks. The relation of DNA-repair with mutation rate, and the Eigen paradox are explained. However, I didn't find a textbook sofar that discusses the origin and evolution of DNA-repair. Remarkably for evolution textbooks.


  1. this is the most recent evolution textbook I am aware of (2007). Please note that the price at amazon and bn is too high ($100 2007) ($93.00 Jan 2008). Try elsewhere (abebooks). UK: The Book Depository (£ 34.41 2007) (£ 50.10 Jan 2008). NL: Selexyz (€ 66,00).
  2. However, there will be an online chapter 27: 'Phylogenetic reconstruction' at the publishers website.
  3. Francisco J Ayala (2007) 'A textbook for all seasons', Nature Genetics 39, 1179 (2007). - Francisco J. Ayala is in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine, USA.
  4. Laszlo Patthy (2007) 'A general theory of gene sharing', Nature Genetics 39, 701 (2007) is a review of 'Gene Sharing and Evolution: The Diversity of Protein Functions', by Joram Piatigorsky (2007).
  5. In the Further Reading section of this chapter, Futuyma Science on Trial, Pennock The tower of Babel, and Young Why Intelligent Design Fails are mentioned.
  6. David Beerling (2007) The Emerald Planet. How Plants changed Earth's history
  7. John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, Marcus Feldman (2003) Niche Construction. The neglected proces in evolution.
  8. See also the useful article: Jaime C. Confer et al (2010) 'Evolutionary Psychology. Controversies, Questions, Prospects, and Limitations', American Psychologist, February-March 2010, 110-126: "The purpose of this article has been to answer frequently raised questions, to clarify evolutionary psychology's stance on controversial issues, to correct some of the more common misunderstandings, and to highlight some of its current limitations."
  9. However, Box 18.1 (page 494) explains 'accumulation of weakly deleterious mutations' in humans. For eugenics see: William Hamilton's worries about the future of the human genome on this website.
  10. Leslie Orgel (2000) A Simpler Nucleic Acid, Science 17 November 2000: Vol. 290 no. 5495 pp. 1306-1307
  11. Evolution in Four Dimensions (my review).
  12. The NOBEL Prize Chemistry 2015 was awarded to three molecular biologists for the discovery of DNA-repair. "Each day our DNA is damaged by UV radiation, free radicals and other carcinogenic substances, but even without such external attacks, a DNA molecule is inherently unstable. Thousands of spontaneous changes to a cell's genome occur on a daily basis." (source)


  • Francisco J Ayala (2007) 'A textbook for all seasons.', Nature Genetics 39, 1179 (Oct 2007).
  • Daniel Hart (2008) 'Keeping pace with change. A textbook covering all aspects of evolution puts the spotlight on the molecular motor that drives it.', Nature 451, 17 (3 January 2008):
    "This new one by Barton and colleagues is among the best. The production quality is superb in layout, composition, typesetting, colour palette, illustrations and gorgeous half-tones; and the writing is excellent, as one might expect from such a stellar cast of experts in population genetics, palaeontology, human genetics, bacterial genomics and developmental biology (respectively)".
  • Richard G. Harrison (2008) 'The shape of things to come', Evolution, March 2008. (pdf)
    "the book is unique in integrating molecular biology with evolutionary biology." The claim is certainly true. this evolutionary biology text is unusual in its emphasis on molecular biology (including genomics and developmental genetics). Traditionalists will surely be surprised to discover that Chapter 2 deals with 'The Origin of Molecular Biology', that the structure, expression, and phenotypic effects of Hox genes (and especially the Drosophila Ubx gene) occupy 20 pages of text whereas extinctions (including mass extinctions and their causes) are covered in 2 pages, that vulval development in C. elegans gets more space than punctuated equilibrium, and that biochemistry, but not biogeography, is in the index. (...) Introductory undergraduate evolutionary biology courses (in the United States) will find the book too demanding, although advanced courses and dedicated students should certainly consider it".
  • Kerry L. Shaw (2008) In the Light of Evolution, BioScience, pp. 988-989.
    "Although I do not want to diminish the many excellent features of this book, the authors appear to have missed an opportunity in the treatment of the evolution of behavior. This is especially disappointing because behavioral evolutionary biology ('evo-bevo', if you will) is an exciting and rapidly growing field, fed by molecular advances in areas such as chronobiology (Tauber and Kyriacou 2008) and social evolution (Robinson et al. 2005), among many others."
  • Michael Majerusa (2008) 'What to tell Darwin about Darwinism', Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 23, Issue 7, July 2008, Pages 357-358.
    "Through most of the book, the authors maintain a good balance of highly accessible, interesting conceptual and sometimes philosophical material, illustrative examples from the natural world and the Eppendorf tube, explanations of how hypotheses lead to predictions and are tested, and theoretical explorations of evolutionary concepts. Many of the chapters can thus be read from start to finish without any great degree of background knowledge or extrinsic capability. This is not the case for the four chapters that concern quantitative genetics. Here, a relatively high degree of mathematical proficiency is needed to follow the logic of the arguments presented."

Further Reading

  • Scott Freeman and Jon C. Herron Evolutionary Analysis, contains par 3.7 'The debate over "Scientific Creationism" and Intelligent Design Creationism" (pages 97-105).

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional
Valid CSS!
guestbook (moderated) home: Towards The Third Evolutionary Synthesis http://wasdarwinwrong.com/korthof87.htm
Copyright ©G. Korthof 2007 First published: 28 Sep 2007 Updated: 19 Oct 2015 N/F.R.: 19 Oct 15