"I never met a bird watcher who was not a naive adaptationist, but why? I think it may be that, if one watches an animal doing something, it is hard not to identify with it, and hence to ascribe a purpose to its behaviour." - John Maynard Smith (Sussex University)

 

"In very large part this has been has been a British pastime, traceable to the fascination with birds and gardens, butterflies and snails that was characteristic of the pre-war upper middle class from which so many British scientists came." - Richard Lewontin (Harvard University)

 


John Maynard Smith 1920-2004

The Alfred Russel Wallace Page

Collected Papers of R.A. Fisher




 

 

Marek Kohn

 

The idea of evolution by natural selection was first announced in Britain, and it has always played better in Britain than anywhere else. British thinkers seem to have risen to its challenges more readily than scientists in many other countries. They have been more awestruck and more inspired by what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls 'Darwin's dangerous idea".

A Reason For Everything, published by Faber & Faber, is a book about a series of British evolutionists and how they responded to the idea of natural selection. It looks at the lives and thought of six influential thinkers, from Darwin's time to the present: Alfred Russel Wallace, Ronald Aylmer Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, John Maynard Smith, Bill Hamilton and Richard Dawkins.

The central idea running through the book is that of adaptation, the design produced by natural selection. When 'adaptationists' look at living creatures, they are inclined to suppose that each of their features has a purpose, for which it has been shaped by selection. They tend to assume a reason for everything. And for British scientists, that has been an extremely productive assumption.

A Reason For Everything is about far more than the science, though. It is about Britain and natural history, butterflies and snails, impassioned beliefs and ideological struggles. It is about how each of these individuals responded to an idea which made God optional as an explanation of the living world. It is the story of how they pursued meaning in life.

 

'Here is a supremely intelligent author ... whose authorial judgement is meticulous.' - Graham Farmelo, London Sunday Telegraph

'A marvellous book ... Kohn is an excellent science writer, combining concision, variation and erudition with a novelist's ability to draw character.'  - James Flint,  New Scientist

'Kohn is a wonderful writer. The clarity and purity of his prose are admirable, and he explains the science, and the debates about its details, in an absorbingly attractive way.' - A.C. Grayling, Literary Review

'One of the best science writers we have ... It is a real triumph of Kohn's to have opened the hearts and unhidden the reasoning of the men that he writes about.' - Andrew Brown, London Guardian

'Marek Kohn has written yet another brilliant book about great debates in science' - Neal Ascherson, London Observer

'I would not have believed that any single author could have got everything so right about these people ... All facets are displayed, with the science explained precisely and clearly ... And he is a talented and witty writer, which makes his well-digested mix of biography and science read like a well-constructed novel.' - Paul Harvey FRS, Times Higher Educational Supplement

'He writes with elegance and verve, and has the gift of putting the science across a part of the narrative in a way which is wholly engaging without compromising the detail ...  It is a very good book' - Richard Fortey FRS

'A well-written and carefully researched account ... Every evolutionist should read it' - Steve Jones, Nature




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