Improbable Destinies

Improbable Destinies coverImprobable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution
Jonathan B. Losos
Riverhead Books (August 8, 2017),  382 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $13.32

It was kind of a synchronistic event that I came across this book. I was driving home from Toastmasters on a Thursday shortly after 1:00 pm listening to my regional NPR station. Normally another program was on at that hour, but for some reason they were broadcasting a segment of All Things Considered. Host Robert Siegel mentioned the name Stephen Jay Gould, of whom he said he was a fan. He then introduced Jonathan Losos, who grew up reading Gould and became a student of his.

I remember Stephen Jay Gould from the 1970’s and 1980’s when I avidly read his column in Natural History magazine as well as his books. Gould was an evolutionary biologist whom we lost way too soon in 2002. He had what were at the time some rather revolutionary theories about evolution. He was one of the first to propose the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, now a widely accepted theory. He was also a proponent of “punctuated equilibrium” which stated that species generally remained stable, except for bursts of rapid change.

In the present book Losos describes his own current work and that of colleagues. Much of evolutionary theory has gone beyond Gould. One popular theory is “convergent evolution” which states “related species are more likely to convergently evolve the same traits when faced with similar selective pressures.” Take the body types of sharks and dolphins for example. The other theory presented here is that evolution can be rapid when environmental circumstances dictate.

At times the deluge of examples became a bit tedious, but in general this was fascinating reading. As Losos tells us near the end of the book, “At the end of the day, we know that evolution is not random or haphazard.”

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