Licence to be witty with Darwin

Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College, London, says he has never met a biology student who has actually read…

Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College, London, says he has never met a biology student who has actually read Charles Darwin's masterwork, The Origin of Species, now just 140 years old. Even scientists, familiar enough with the principles of natural selection, prefer evolutionary theory filtered through the texts and ideas of their own time.

It wasn't that Darwin couldn't write - far from it (Jones cleverly shows him upstaging Melville in a description of the Galapagos). But to read The Origin today can be to feel unsure how its details stand up to modern scientific research, how far Darwin's great theory of life is borne out by current knowledge of biology and behaviour, and the newly-accessible world of molecules and genes.

Jones's response is vaultingly ambitious: an updating of The Origin, rehearsing its arguments through current examples, and using Darwin's own chapter headings and summaries as a scaffold. He describes it as a post-modern treatment of evolution, which seems to mean a licence to be witty, even flippant, about serious affairs.

The professor is master of the popular delivery, as he has shown in his previous books, The Language of Genes, and In The Blood. The new one is liberally sown with memorable lines ("One worm, after an active life, settles on the sea floor and, like a professor given tenure, absorbs its brain"). You need enormous self-confidence not only to seem to know everything but to risk, on occasion, sounding something of a smartarse, but all is forgiven in the cause of a seamless readability.


Almost Like a Whale appears at a time of unrelieved opposition to Darwinism by American creationists. As if to prove the need for the book, Kansas is the latest US state to funk, under pressure, the teaching of evolution as scientific fact (or at least, as Jones may prefer, a chain of deduction with every link complete). One hundred million Americans, happily munching on their GM foods, still believe that God created man pretty much in his present form at one time during the last 10,000 years.

THIS triumphal New Ignorance, as Jones terms the creationist movement, is happy to see the evolution of AIDS as nature's millennial revenge on homosexuals, but resists the revelation that the same process works in life as a whole. The history of AIDS, here related in some detail, is a chilling reprise of genetic descent, variation and selection as the virus replicates itself.

Jones has an unerring instinct for the contemporary, mind-grabbing illustration. Darwin's original chapter, "On the Imperfection of the Geological Record", began as a leisurely review of the problem of the missing intermediate varieties between species in the fossil record preserved in rocks. Jones goes straight to the imagination of a culture informed by Inspector Morse mysteries: a murder victim becomes an ecosystem in his own right. Within hours after a body is dumped in an English woodland, blow-flies lay eggs around its eyes and mouth .

The book does not duck familiar objections to Darwinism (evolution of perfect organs like the eye, and so on). Indeed, in the professor's own field of genetics, Darwinism still has a lot of explaining to do. But through example heaped upon example, from a range of research even more diverse than the masters, Jones is unswerving in his argument: science without difficulties is not a science at all. His book is an enriching tour-deforce: it also demonstrates an evolution in intellect that should put the American fundamentalists to shame.

Michael Viney's most recent book, with Ethna Viney , is A Wildlife Narrative: Eye on Nature .

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author