Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: Evolution's Destiny

Yesterday, Stephen King. Today, RJP Williams. What other blog gives you this?

I have written (and spoken) about the idea of Williams before and as for his ideas, I summarize many of them in my Survey of Physical Chemistry course (last I checked, the only Survey of Physical Chemistry course on iTunesU). If Owen Barfield's right and all authors write the same book repeatedly, then Williams definitely stays true to that statement and to his own character in this one. Evolution's Destiny: Co-evolving Chemistry of the Environment and Life is another facet of the same ideas, and the ideas are fascinating enough that it's worth reading them again.

Perhaps it's because I'm reading Return of the King aloud to the boys as I went through this book, but the essential Britishness of Williams's and Tolkien's writing really stands out to me. Even the sentence construction and the drawing of the graphs (or maps) is understated. Reading Williams is not like reading science writing, it's reading real science -- after all, it's a scientist emeritus putting together inorganic chemistry with evolution. Those are kind of big subjects, and this is kind of a big-idea book of the sort that we need more of.

This new book of Williams's finds him with a new co-author, R.E.M. Rickaby (those with a mere two initials need not apply), who is a geologist. As a result, in the first third of the book, geochemistry takes precedence over geobiochemistry, and there's some interesting passages about the chemistry of rocks and the like. If there's something I wanted to change about Williams's writing before, it's that I wanted more references and evidence along the way rather than sweeping (yet still scientific) generalizations. Rickaby's geological chops make it clear that this book is more substantial in that regard from the beginning.

The really nice thing is that the second two-thirds of the book, when Williams recapitulates his to-me-familiar scheme of biogeochemistry driven by oxidation, the references and evidences (mostly) keep up. I was already familiar with the work of Dupont, Alm, and others published since 2006, and how it supported Williams's earlier hypothesis with genetic analysis, but it's awful fun to see Williams incorporate their findings into his work. Bottom line: Williams was right. And for those who don't have the patience to read a chemist for a whole book, I'll work on translating Williams for the masses. Stay tuned.

Another thing about Williams is that after several books he has come out with the most evidence to go along with his most provocative title. Evolution's Destiny is determined by chemistry. I'm enjoying this meta-story and I enjoyed this latest installment. May there be more ...

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