Friday, July 25, 2008

Good Science Writers: Douglas J. Futuyma

Douglas J. Futuyma is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook [Douglas Futuyma]. He is best known for his textbooks on evolution, Evolutionary Biology, beginning with the first edition in 1979. The latest version is a shorter textbook entitled Evolution (2005).

Futuyma has also published a trade book on the evolution/creation controversy. The first edition of Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution was published in 1983 and the second edition was published in 1995. Since Futuyma is a professional scientist, he meets all the qualifications for inclusion in Richard Dawkins' book: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. But he is not there.

Douglas Futuyma is a brilliant textbook author. This kind of science writing is not usually recognized, but it should be. Futuyma's ability to accurately explain complex ideas is head-and-shoulders above that of most other textbook authors—no matter what their subject. I've chosen two excerpts from Evolution (2005) to illustrate this ability. You may find them familiar—that's because they have been widely quoted and paraphrased to the point where they seem trivial. Let's not forget that it is Futuyma who first began to explain evolution in this manner.

What Is Evolution?
The word evolution comes from the Latin evolvere, "to unfold or unroll"—to reveal or manifest hidden potentialities. Today "evolution" has come to mean, simply, "change." It is sometimes used to describe changes in individual objects such as stars. Biological (or organic) evolution, however, is change in the properties of groups or organisms over the course of generations. The development or ONTOGENY, or individual organisms is not considered evolution: individual organisms do not evolve. Groups of organisms, which we may call populations, undergo descent with modification. Populations may become subdivided, so that several populations are derived from a common ancestral population. If different changes transpire in the several populations, the populations diverge.

The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are passed via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial: it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportions of different forms of a gene within a population to the alterations that led from the earliest organism to dinosaurs, bees, oaks, and humans. (p. 2)
Good Science Writers

Good Science Writing
David Suzuki
Helena Curtis
David Raup
Niles Eldridge
Richard Lewontin
Steven Vogel
Jacques Monod
G. Brent Dalrymple
Eugenie Scott
Sean B. Carroll
Richard Dawkins
Evolution as Fact and Theory
In The Origin of Species, Darwin propounded two major hypotheses: that organisms have descended, with modification, from common ancestors; and that the chief cause of modification is natural selection acting on hereditary variation. Darwin provided abundant evidence for descent with modification, and hundreds of thousands of observations from paleontology, geographic distributions of species, comparative anatomy, embryology, genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology have confirmed this hypothesis since Darwin's time. Thus the hypothesis of descent with modification from common ancestors has long had the status of a scientific fact.

The explanation of how modification occurs and how ancestors gave rise to diverse descendants constitutes the theory of evolution. We now know that Darwin's hypothesis of natural selection on hereditary variation was correct, but we also know that there are more causes of evolution than Darwin realized, and that natural selection and hereditary variation themselves are more complex than he imagined. A body of ideas about the causes of evolution, including mutation, recombination, gene flow, isolation, random genetic drift, the many forms of natural selection, and other factors, constitute our current theory of evolution or "evolutionary theory." Like all theories in science, it is incomplete, for we do not yet know the causes of all of evolution, and some details may turn out to be wrong. But the main tenets of the theory are well supported, and most biologists accept them with confidence. (pp. 13-14)
I've also chosen an excerpt from Science on Trial (1995). In order to appreciate it, you will need a bit of background. The passage below comes from a chapter on "Chance and Mutation." The chapter opens with a brief description of a play by Tom Stoppard celled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. For those of you not intimately familiar with Shakespeare's Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters who are tricked by Hamlet and end up sailing to England where, contrary to their expectations, they will be executed. Stoppard's play is about fate and inevitability.

But just as gravity and Brownian movement may both affect the motion of an airborne particle, chance and natural selection often work simultaneously, and certain evolutionary phenomena can be understood only if we take both into account. Many populations of houseflies throughout the world have evolved a resistance to DDT—an adaptation that has come about by natural selection. In some populations, however, the adaptation is provided by a dominant gene; in some by a recessive gene; in some by a number of genes, each with a small effect. The physiological mechanism by which the genes act also varies: flies can be resistant, for example, either by having developed an enzyme that degrades DDT or by having altered the cell membrane so that DDT is less able to penetrate the tissues. These are alternative adaptive mechanisms. Which one developed in a particular population must have depended on which mutations happened to be present in the population when it became exposed to DDT—and this is very much a matter of chance. Thus, chance initially determines what genetic variations will be acted on by natural selection to develop an adaptation.

When we extrapolate this principle of indeterminacy to long-term evolution, we can understand why different organisms have evolved different "solutions" to similar adaptive "problems." By chance, they had different genetic raw materials to work with. It is doubtless adaptive for male frogs to have a vocal sac that enables them to produce resonant calls that attract females. But whether a frog developed a single sac in the middle of the throat, as in the bullfrog, or a pair of sacs on either side, as in the leopard frog, may have been affected by what mutations first occurred by chance in the ancestor of each species.

If chance is a name for the unpredictable, them almost any historical event is affected by chance. Would Hamlet's mother, watching him stab Polonius through the arras, have predicted that this would be one in a chain of events leading to the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? If you had been on the island of Mauritius in the mid-Tertiary, would you have predicted that the pigeons there would evolve into flightless dodos and then become extinct in the seventeenth century because they were easy prey for sailors? If you had seen a bipedal ape on the plains of Africa in the Pliocene, could you have predicted that this feature would prove crucial in the evolution of a larger brain and the development of human culture? Probably not; for in all such instances, the event that we recognize in hindsight as a "cause" might have been followed by other events leading to a different outcome. All of evolution, like all of history, seems to involve chance, in that very little of what has happened was determined from the beginning.

The mind that cannot abide uncertainty is troubled by the idea that the human species developed by "chance." But whether we evolved by chance or not depends on what the word means. We did not arise by a fortuitous aggregation of molecules, but rather by a nonrandom process—natural selection favoring some genes over others. But we are indeed a product of chance in that we were not predestined, from the beginning of the world, to come into existence. Like the extinction of the dodo, the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the outbreak of World War I, we are a product of a history that might have been different. (pp. 146-147)


  1. Heh... I was in his lab yesterday. But nobody was there :(

  2. hey,I heard that dr.Douglas J. Futuyma is no longer believe in Darwin's theory and finally he believe in creation , isn't he ??!?