Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: An Introduction to Biological Evolution

An Introduction to Biological Evolution
Kenneth V Kardong
Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2005. 322 pages.
Reviewed by
Werner G Heim

There are several excellent textbooks on the market for upperlevel courses on evolution for biology majors in colleges and universities, but there are few recent books suitable for a class meant for general liberal arts students or for intelligent adult readers curious about the subject underlying all of modern biology. Kardong's An Introduction to Biological Evolution begins to fill the gap. It covers most aspects of the science of evolution, gives an excellent historical introduction, and sometimes points out the broader societal implications of particular aspects.

After a historical introduction, Kardong lays the groundwork with chapters on time and on heredity. The origin of life is covered only briefly, but the course of evolutionary change over time is well presented, perhaps somewhat incongruously in the same chapter with discussions of genetic coding, protein formation, and cellular metabolism. A strong chapter on the evidence for evolution is perhaps placed somewhat too early in the book, before most of the evolutionary mechanism has been discussed. The core material — selection, variation, and speciation — is handled well and in some detail. Perhaps the weakest part of the book is a chapter on life history because the reader might not see the relation of this subject to the evolution process.

The two chapters on human evolution present the material clearly while steering a middle course between the whirlpools of views among paleoanthropological experts. While the dispersal of Homo sapiens from Africa is well covered, there is no mention of the genetic tools by which some of these migration paths are studied. One learns little of such techniques as blood typing, haplotyping, mitochrondrial DNA analysis, X- and Y-chromosome analysis, and so on, as tools for migration studies or intra-specific evolution.

A final chapter, "Evolutionary biology: Today and beyond", tells many interesting biological tales but does not always show their evolutionary components. A discussion of the evolutionary patterns seen in the HIV or flu viruses would have helped bring evolutionary biology into the reader's life. Three short appendices — on cell division, taxonomy, and molecular clocks — contain materials of a slightly more technical nature. A glossary helps with the specialized terminology.

There is, however, a glaring omission: The book says virtually nothing concerning the attacks made and being made on the concept of evolution and on the unhindered teaching of this science. Surely an educated citizen should know something of the groups in our society that are attempting to bring their supernaturally-based views into the biological sciences classroom. Equally important, the reader should learn to recognize the axioms and procedures of science so that he or she cannot be fooled by those who falsely claim that their views are equally good science as alternatives to evolutionary biology. The intended readers of this book are or will shortly be the votes who elect members of school boards, state legislators, and governors. If these voters cannot distinguish good science from bad or from nonscience, it will not be surprising if their children will be taught something other than good biology.

The author deliberately chose to use colloquial language, sometimes resulting in the use of fifty words where forty might suffice, but making for easy reading. He does not shy away from technical terms when these are needed. The sequence of topics is suitable for class use without major rearrangement and the general continuity is good. While there are the usual misprints and minor problems, the material is, with perhaps a very few exceptions,accurate and properly presented. The black-and-white illustrations are mostly clear and helpful.

In summary, we have here a fine book suitable for the layperson, whether student or not, but one that could be substantially improved in an anticipated second edition.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.