Title: Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The Science of Evo Devo
Author: Sean B Carrol
Fun Fact: It has been estimated that the millions of animals alive today represent only 1 percent of the animals that have existed at various times in the past 500 million years.
Review Summary: An interesting topic discussed by an enthusiastic author, but kept from being really engaging by the author’s verbosity, excessive attention to detail, and inclusion of some very basic biology.
Evo Devo stands for Evolutionary Developmental Biology and is a field which looks at both the way a fertilized egg becomes a living creature and the way changes in that process drive evolution. In Endless Forms Most Beautiful, the author/scientist Sean Carrol describes exciting new developments in the field (as of 2005), starting with clear, illustrated explanations of some basic concepts necessary to understand the rest of the book. As someone who does at least know the basics, this made the book drag (even more) for me, but I think it would be really helpful to someone with little to no background in biology. The second half of the book was by far my favorite part and focused on some pretty cool examples of the concepts explained in the first half of the book.
What most recommends this book is the author’s enthusiasm for his topic. Through his perspective, I thought about how incredible it is that a single cell can become a whole organism and how strange it is that the DNA shared by all organisms is so similar, yet encodes instructions for so many different creatures. As someone in a different field, I did think it was a bit presumptuous for him to declare understanding of this process the “holy grail of biology”. Also, by the time I started undergrad, a lot of the “new” research he describes was being taught in the classroom. For instance, that fact that most of the genome is non-coding and that a lot of the differences between species are caused by regulatory regions is genetics 101 these days.
My least favorite part of this book was the wordiness. Especially when describing the basics, the author came across as very pedantic. And he almost always included more detail than even I, another biologist, cared about (lists of gene names for example). I do think the book would fell less wordy to someone with less of a biology background, but most other reviews I’ve looked at also said the book could have been condensed a lot. Unfortunately, the excessive length made it harder to focus on the cool facts and as a result, the book felt kind of dry to me. To be fair, I have been a little more in the mood for fiction lately, but it’s also true that really good non-fiction can usually pull me in anyway.
Who should read this? Anyone interested in the process of evolution or of development from an egg to an animal but without a biology background.