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Evolution by Stephen Baxter

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

I have studied evolution for decades.  I have read most of the theoretical treatises and delved into the scientific monographs where paleontology specialists can hypothesize a world and a lifestyle from a single fossilized bone fragment.  I have followed the often passionate debates about the causes and mechanics of mass extinction and about the restructuring of evolutionary lineage.  I've consumed the coffee table books chock full of artistic re-creations, read the novels like RAPTOR RED and EVOLUTION'S SHORE, and seen the films like QUEST FOR FIRE and JURASSIC PARK, all of which dramatize small parts of the grand developmental tapestry.  I've gone through the biographies of Darwin and Wallace, and followed the public
debates about Social Darwinism, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology.  In short, while I am not a credentialed scientist, I am a well-versed amateur in this epochal saga of negentropic energy transfer.

All this suggests that I might be a bit skeptical when a novel titles itself EVOLUTION and bills itself as a story that encompasses the remote past and the deep future.  In a series of stunning tableaux, Baxter grafts the flesh and blood of the storyteller onto the dessicated bones of evolutionary history.  The reader experiences the struggles of various dinosaurs and the
early proto-mammals that lived in their shadow, and the coming of a great comet whose impact in the Caribbean causes a mass extinction that eventually sweeps up all the unfortunate saurians in its wake.  The reader sees the flourishing of the mammals and their increases in size and cerebral complexity as the earth undergoes millions of years of ice ages and interglacials.  The reader witnesses the emergence of primates on the savanna of equatorial Africa and the slow transformation of these gracile creatures into hominids who develop rudimentary language and a culture of bonding together.  Next is the great hominid diaspora to the other continents and the ultimate showdown between Neanderthals and modern man.  Finally, the entire planet falls under the sway of homo technologicus  as another mass extinction begins to take place - an unintended consequence of man's dominance over the rest of life.  In all these set pieces, the science is sound but not overwhelming.  By zeroing in on key transitional moments in time and dramatizing them, Baxter forces us to ponder the characterizations, both good and bad, that place us recently triumphant in the great chain of being.

While details differ, the motive force behind many of these evolutionary snapshots remains the same.  In the words of Solly Zuckerman in THE SOCIAL LIVES OF MONKEYS AND APES, he writes "The social relations of all mammals are determined primarily by the physiology of reproduction."  Baxter persuades the reader of this through his deft ability to re-imagine how the urge to continue the gene pool has always asserted its influence, an influence sometimes masked by the cultural overlay we call civilization.

The last fifth of this long novel carries the narrative into the far future and takes evolution off the planet and outside the realm of the strictly biological.  This is fascinating but not as convincing as is the dramatized histories.  Extrapolation is the mind's telescope, while interpolation is the mind's microscope.  The vastness of the universe prohibits the telescope's ultimate sharp resolution, whereas the intimacy of the microscope encourages the testing of inconvenient theories.  Perhaps more simply stated - we can know more and more details of the past as we perfect our instruments and perspective.  The future is a very different and more frustrating beast.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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