The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change

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9780393020113: The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change

Evolution is not only the slow process that ruled the rise and fall of the dinosaurs over hundreds of millions of years. It also happens quickly - so quickly and frequently that it changes how all of us live our lives: drugs fail because diseases evolve; insects overcome the most powerful pesticides; HIV and tuberculosis develop resistance to the newest drugs in a few months. While the ecological scars of human technology have been well publicized, the broad evolutionary consequences of antibiotic and antiviral use, insecticide applications and herbicide bioengineering are largely unexplored. Humans have a great impact on evolution. Our impact remains largely accidental but our actions have generated a burst of evolutionary change that affects the entire natural world. These changes come back to haunt us and affect our daily lives. Written for a wide audience, "The Evolution Explosion" examines the practical and critical aspects of modern evolution.

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Review:

The first thing that Harvard University biology professor Stephen Palumbi wants you to know is that evolution is a fact, not a theory. The second is this: evolution does not require eons and eons to make its effects manifest. By tinkering with genes and rewriting the laws of natural selection, we humans have lately been "accelerating the evolutionary game, especially among the species that live with us most intimately"--not our pets, that is to say, but the food we eat, the pests that share that food, and the diseases that visit us.

Almost all of this accelerated evolution--which, as in the pointed case of the human immunodeficiency virus, occurs faster than we can track it--is an unintended, accidental consequence of some well-intentioned effort to improve human life by sidestepping nature. One such consequence is the growing incidence of drug-resistant bacteria and viruses, which have mutated to survive antibiotic treatments to the point that postoperative infections from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus now pose a major threat to hospitals. Another is the arrival of pests that have evolved to survive pesticides of many kinds, pests that threaten crops around the world in a time of ever-increasing scarcity. All this, Palumbi writes, is "evolution with teeth," and such responses to our hapless prompting make humans the most potent evolutionary form the planet has ever known. Whether we can survive our own power to reshape the earth remains a question. But, Palumbi concludes, ideas evolve, too, so that we can hope against hope to think our way back to more or less normal cycles of evolutionary change. Well-written and provocative, his book makes for a useful start. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Stephen R. Palumbi is professor of biology at Harvard University.

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