Review: The Making of the Fittest by Sean B Carroll

These days I seem to be donating large numbers of books to the local opportunity shops and seldom purchasing one. The exception to the rule was my recent purchase of Sean B Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest (Quercus, London, 2008) which I read in two sittings. Subtitled “DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution” this book is only incidentally about climate change. For eight chapters it closely documents the DNA evidence supporting evolution, rigorously following the scientific process, and then in the last few chapters looks at the anti-evolution arguments and the disastrous route of DNA science in the former Soviet Union.

Perhaps prophetically, Carroll dissects the anti-vaccination arguments of segments of US Chiropractic as a similar example to those of the anti-evolutionists and it is immediately apparent that many of these arguments are the same as those put forward by global warming deniers. At the head of the list is the tactic to “doubt the science” followed by attacking the scientists involved and questioning their motives, highlighting any disagreement amongst scientists, and citing what Carroll calls “gadflies” as their main authority – those that hold some credentials “no matter how isolated and unsubstantiated their views.” He notes the denial “of evolution requires denial of the bedrock of two centuries of biology and geology.” (p.272) Likewise, the denial of global warming conflicts with a similar ‘bedrock’ period of climate science including physics and chemistry and countless measurements and experiments supporting it.

Carroll examines in some detail the story of the highly adapted Icefish and notes that:

“history shows that as circumstances have changed, globally or locally, many era’s fittest have been replaced. The fossil record is paved with creatures – tribolites, ammonites, and dinosaurs, to just name a few – of once very successful groups that evolution has left behind. The Icefish have made a remarkable evolutionary journey in adapting to the changing Southern Ocean, but theirs may well be a one way trip.” With climate change, the highly likely future extinction of the Icefish becomes apparent.

“The air temperature in the Antarctic Peninsula has risen by 4 to 5 degrees  in the last fifty years, and water temperature of the Southern Ocean is projected to rise by several degrees over the next century…it is very likely that most cold water species will not be able to adapt to such rapid changes of temperature…” p.39

The last chapter is about species suffering from what Carroll calls the ‘perfect storm’. “A perfect storm is brewing – of overfishing, pollution, and man-made climate change – that threatens to extinguish ecosystems beyond any chance of recovery”. (p.261) Carroll concludes with a quote from Churchill and uses the analogy of the disastrous lead up to World War 11. “Then, as now, most of the West’s leaders were in denial, guided by wishful thinking and blind optimism. They made symbolic gestures in worthless treaties, empty platitudes, and spineless appeasement.” (p.267) This could be an apt description of the last thirty years of climate politics in Australia.

“When the scientific process is abandoned, the lesson throughout history is failure or outright disaster in human affairs.” (p.247) We have been warned many times and I must thank Sean B Carroll for his book, as well as the chance of my purchase. Little has changed since he penned his words 15 years ago.