The Pattern of Evolution. Niles Eldredge. 250 pp. W. H. Freeman and Company, 1998. $24.95.
Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. Philip H. Gosse. 376 pp. Ox Bow Press, 1998 . $34.95.
So much in life is about the search for harmony among the seemingly indecipherable features of our world. The grand questions of how we and this world came to be are at the top of this chaotic pile of factual and interpretive notes. Although science seems to be closer to the answers, our success has only unveiled more, deeper questions. Two attempts at synthesizing knowledge of how the world took its present form come from not only two different periods in the research but also two different groundings of belief. Omphalos, first published in 1857, two years before On the Origin of Species and now reprinted, is swamped in the surroundings of special creation: a last-ditch effort to thwart scientific materialism. The Pattern of Evolution, Niles Eldredge's latest book, embraces scientific materialism on an evolutionary theme by the simple act of trying to expand our understanding of the forces at work.
Pattern is as much a historical sketch of the emergence of geology and evolutionary biology as anything else. James Hutton's A Theory of the Earth (1785) formed the basis of modern geology; the natural processes we see today can explain the past. This was modified and brought to a larger audience by John Playfair and later under the banner of uniformitarianism by Charles Lyell. Together they ratified the concept of natural processes to account for the earth, provided there was sufficient geological (deep) time. This would help set the stage for the emergence of evolutionary biology that was firmly entrenched when Origin of Species was published. However, it took another 100 years to begin to understand the more complete theory of the earth, with regard to plate tectonics/continental drift. "Geologists and paleontologists," Eldredge writes, "for the most part had forgotten Hutton's lead, that patterns in the rocks really have much to tell us of the way things must be working in the natural world."
Not only the patterns geologists and biologists see but also the pattern in which the ideas have emerged. The patterns seen must be convincing. This is why, for example, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck was relegated a minor role in evolutionary history. Darwin succeeded where "others had failed to establish the idea of evolution because his patterns were so convincing," Eldredge says. By examining the patterns seen, from the birth of geology and evolutionary biology through the emergence and synthesis of genetics with the other sciences, it is possible to see a unification of global evolution. Life and earth, as we have become increasingly aware, are not inseparable. This can be seen in the more contemporary role of ecology, which looks at the relations among not only species but also habitats. Ecology as a concept must have existed in the past as it does today, and this is where Pattern becomes most useful. Eldredge finds patterns that link evolutionary biology, including his and Stephan Jay Gould's punctuated equilibrium, and geology with ecology: The biosphere is in many ways the result of the lithosphere in all its fractured, contorted, moving glory.
Philip Gosse's attempt at keeping the faith in a world of science is vividly illustrated in Omphalos. Similar to Eldredge in that they are both searching, Gosse, in some ways, was handicapped by the biblical glasses he wore. Everything, he maintains, including the fossil record, was the result of a divine law. The two main themes, almost repetitively illustrated, are his "prochronism" (organisms as part of creation) and "diachronism" (in existence since creation). If Gosse ignores Huttonian geology (something he should have known about) or the patterns seen in existing species, then the divine law can work. Look at the wonders he describes in typical yet uniquely his own Victorian style:
I see yonder a more terrific tyrant of the sea than the Swordfish. It is the grisly Shark (Carcharodon). How stealthily he glides along, cutting the glittering surface of the sea with his dorsal, and now and then protruding just the tip of the upper lobe of his caudal in the wake of the other! Let us go and look into his mouth; for neither animals nor elements present any impediments to these investigations of ours.
Example after example, from all reaches of the animal, plant and microbiological worlds, is provided by divine law as called "into existence five minutes ago." The world, in all its beauty, wonder, history and complexity, was thus created.
One may get tired of the repetitiveness or even the quirkiness of his belief, but at the same time, Gosse was one of the greatest naturalists of his time and it is easy to see his passion and the willingness to relate the wonder of the world to the common folk. Omphalos is a grand historical document of the early attempts to come to reason with the emergence of the scientific doctrine of evolution. If there is any fault to be had it is with the publisher of this reprint. A contemporary prelude to this volume that puts Gosse, his ideas and those of the early-19th century in perspective would have been extremely valuable.
Both volumes warrant reading for similar and dissimilar reasons. Despite the contrary views, both are syntheses of where our world has come from; both express the wonderments of our world and both search for understanding.—Tim Tokaryk, Eastend, Saskatchewan, Canada