Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: Improbable Destinies

Knowing the author’s name from the world of herpetology, I was expecting there to be slightly more about his research on anoles from the get go. However this is restricted to a single chapter, which in itself is interesting enough. The majority of the book documents other case studies from the scientific literature to answer the question of whether evolution is predictable? This question is an important one, especially for biologists with some big names such as Stephen Jay Gould postulating that if you were to replay the tape of life, evolution would take the same path. Jonathan Losos covers this topic in his own unique way, exploring the science that helps provide insight into an answer in this pleasurable read.

We as the reader travel the world to explore the research behind the case studies from Losos’ own Anolis lizards in the Bahamas, to guppies in streams in Trinidad. There are a number of these examples from the vertebrates described, down to microbes which of course have shorter generation times. Losos makes the compelling argument that most research topics can be viewed through the lens of convergent evolution and that many researchers often find out they’ve been studying it all along. It takes a powerful mind to look at a study, realise how the research fits into evolutionary biology (even if the research was never framed that way) and write it in a highly accessible and enjoyable format.

I enjoyed the conversation tone set out from the beginning as it feels like Losos is talking directly to you. This is something that is either achieved well in popular science books, or it’s a train crash. I am yet to find the middle group but thankfully Losos is on the right side of this analogy. I know to some that this can be irritating but to me, this is where the real passion of the author can shine. There are also some lessons in science philosophy which is always interesting, I really enjoy understanding how others view and picture the world we live in. Especially those of authors I am still yet to read or may not of heard of in the past, everything about Improbable Destinies just fuels my curiosity.

I won’t give anything away as this is one of those books that you need to read by yourself to fully enjoy. I wish I had the time to read it cover-to-cover and I could seen this happening if I did. Ultimately though Losos answers whether evolution is predictable or not and what this means for astrobiology and other more radical branches of science.

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