For a very long time many people acted as if the mystery of life was solved: DNA carries the code; it makes proteins; proteins do all the work in the body; QED. But this, although the essential underpinning of the mechanism of life, did not explain how organisms developed their form a single egg and how novel types of organism had evolved. Enter the science of evolutionary developmental biology: Eva Devon for short.
Although the master pattern gene, the hox genes, were discovered in the early ‘80s and Evo-Devo developed rapidly form that breakthrough, Sean Carroll’s book in 2005 was the first to bring the new knowledge to a wider readership. Carroll is one of the leading researchers in the field and brings a broad passion for natural history to bear on the subject. Pioneers of molecule biology were often utterly disdainful of organismic biology and ecology (Edward O. Wilson has recounted his battles with James Watson at Harvard in the 1950s) but Carroll’s passion extends to the history of biology as well as the cutting edge. His title comes from Darwin and he has Darwin’s passion for nature in the round.
Endless Forms show how the hox genes sketch out body plans and how, for instance, shifting hox gene can create a snake skeleton of 200-400 vertebrae from the standard pattern of no more than 33 in human beings. Besides showing the way for the future, Evo Devo highlighted the relevance of some previously neglected work such as that of William Bateson who had explored large-scale mutations: work that decades of the Modern Synthesis orthodoxy of only tiny incremental changes in evolution had sidelined.
Endless Forms satisfies our artistic urge to know where the zebra’s stripes, the butterfly’s eyespots, the human form, really come from. The answers aren’t just-so stories, but the truth about life on earth.