Books I Read: "Endless Forms Most Beautiful"

Have you ever read anything by Sean Carroll (Biology version)?  If not, you should.  At least if you are looking for some good writing about the life you share the planet with.  Dr. Carroll is a practicing evolutionary developmental (or “evo-devo”) biologist, who knows quite a bit about the genetic basis of animal development, and the seemingly uncountable ways that evolution can function in the domain of making new, and nifty, creatures.

I have read most of Sean Carroll’s books, but for whatever reason, I had never gotten around to reading “Endless Forms…” (or as I now refer to it in my thinking “It’s the Switches, Stupid!”), which is universally well-regarded, and quite possibly the book that Dr. Carroll is most famous for.  So, when looking for a new science book to read (I always try to keep one science book somewhere on the “actively reading” pile), I figured why not give it a shot.

It took me five days from start to finish.

Part of that is due to my own interest base.  As an AP Biology teacher, a lot of the fundamentals of evolution and genetics that Dr. Carroll puts down at the beginning of the book are nothing new for me, which gave me a bit more alacrity through the first three or four chapters than I would have if the last time I thought biological thoughts was several decades ago.  But my bio-chops are just a piece of what makes this book so easy to read.  When it comes right down to it, the thing is just a good time.  If you have ever wondered why animals look the way they look, and how the processes that change those appearances function, this is the book for you.  Dr. Carroll is a fan of the “tell them three times” approach (wherein he will tell you what he is going to tell you, then tell you, and then tell you what he just told you), which is as good a way of discussing abstract concepts as any that I am aware of.  But he also makes a point of hanging his conceptual framework on real-world examples, pulling them from the most widely-researched bits of evolutionary developmental biology that have been elucidated. You not only learn how evolution drives changes in animal anatomy and physiology, you also get fantastic explanations of the evolution of eyes, wings, colors, limbs, brains, and various other notable animal adaptations.  The result is as close as one can get to an enjoyable romp through animal phylogeny. 

The book does get a bit wonky in parts, but never for too long, and always with the goal of explaining something really interesting.  Similarly, Dr. Carroll builds his case throughout the book, finally culminating in a concluding chapter that serves both to seat evo-devo within the larger evolutionary framework, but also as a plea for increased scientific literacy on the part of the public.  I do wonder how important the last bit is for the audience of this book, most of whom I assume to be pretty much on the same side of the issues discussed as the author.  While I certainly count myself as a fellow-traveller with Dr. Carroll, I don’t know that he was telling me anything particularly new in the last ten pages.  Still, I certainly understand why it’s in there.  

If you want to learn about the evolution of the kingdom you belong to (is there anything more interesting to learn about?), I think you’ll find this one worth your while.