Evolution: The View from the Cottage
The View from the Cottage
by Jean-Pierre Rogel; translated by Nigel Spencer
- Autumn 2010
- ISBN 978-1-55380-104-7
- ebook ISBN 978-1-55380-116-0
- 6″ x 9″ Trade Paperback, 176 pages
- Natural History
With all the attention given to “creationism” in the news these days, Jean-Pierre Rogel felt it was important to show how Darwin’s concept of natural selection can be seen in action in everyday situations.
Beginning with a familiar cottage scene that includes squirrels, loons, salmon and bears, Rogel expands his scope to explore the emerging field of evolutionary developmental biology, showing how genes play a role in the extraordinary diversity of the plant and animal kingdom. Readers may be surprised to discover which animal is most closely related to whales, how nature makes a fin into a paw, how salmon have adapted to gaps in fishing nets, and what really sets humans apart from chimpanzees.
Written in a lively style, based on the latest science but without the jargon too often attached to it, Evolution: The View from the Cottage celebrates evolution and finds its traces everywhere around us. You may never see loons, salmon, bears, belugas or even the humble cornstalk the same way again.
“I was immediately attracted to this book, because, like Jean-Pierre Rogel, I have a cottage in the woods. And like him, I wonder about the natural relationships and history of the plants and animals around it. It is so satisfying and rewarding to be able to dig a little deeper beneath the simple appreciation of bird calls, fall colours and yes, even marauding raccoons, to see what makes them tick and how they all connect.”
— Jay Ingram, host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet and former host of CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks
JUST OVER 150 YEARS AGO, in June 1858, the English naturalist Charles
Darwin, tucked away in the Kent countryside, received a manuscript from
a young colleague, Alfred Russell Wallace, presenting his thoughts on
nature. So innovative were these ideas, and so like Darwin’s own, finally
about to be published after twenty years, that he determined to work on a
joint publication with Wallace for the Linnean Society. This marked the
beginning of a revolution in science, and a year later, Darwin published
On the Origin of Species. The first printing sold out in a single day — lucky
author! — and it is safe to say that nothing in biology was ever the same
Their main idea that species evolve and descend from one another —
most of them disappearing in the great expanse of time — would change
the way we see the world. If Darwin and Wallace had merely been content
to present this theory, already advanced by others, their influence would
not have been as great. But they went further, explaining natural selection,
the mechanism by which evolution occurred, and convincingly showing
how it functioned. Because religious dogmas at the time preached that
species were fixed and unchanging, an inevitable clash occurred.
Today, having just celebrated the 150th anniversary of its publication
with exhibitions, books and films, the theory of evolution by natural selection
is, for scientists, unshakeable. Of course, it does not explain everything
in complete detail, even in much-studied organisms like mice, even more
so in humans, but it is a solid scientific theory, tested and proven, despite
repeated criticisms for more than a century. It is the indispensible framework
in which to explain life. As the American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky
said in 1973, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light
During the filming of a documentary for Radio-Canada in 2008, I asked
Richard Dawkins of Oxford University — a well-known defender of Darwin,
who has written eight books on the biology of evolution — about the
role of Darwin’s ideas. Here is how he replied:
I think that Darwin’s idea is perhaps the most powerful idea that any
human mind ever had in the sense that it did the most explanatory work
that actually changed the way people think, because before Darwin came
along, the whole of the living world, all this magnificent complexity and
beauty and elegance and diversity had no explanation at all. People knew it
was there, and they were describing it, but nobody knew what caused it;
nobody knew how it came into being. Darwin changed all that.
For the rest of society, it may not be so clear. Among the broad public, the
theory’s success is mixed. Often poorly known or understood, it is easily
confused with gross oversimplification (“survival of the fittest,” for example).
It is frequently challenged by fundamentalist religious belief, which
is experiencing a resurgence across the globe, and my personal crystal ball
tells me it will be a hot topic for years to come. Creationists or neo-creationists
in the Intelligent Design movement will redouble their attacks on
evolution, and this is all the more reason to discuss it publicly and show its
full power and subtlety.
This public debate is partly the context that gives rise to the present
book. It appears useful nowadays to discuss these fundamental ideas about
living things, as well as the gulf that separates scientists from the rest of
society. If science is publicly repudiated, it loses credibility and its ability,
notably among decision-makers, to solve important problems for the
planet, especially climate change and the massive loss in biodiversity. Of
course, not everything can be solved by science, but it does provide for an
exchange of ideas that esoteric or religious beliefs cannot replace without
leaving humanity and the planet at great risk.
This book springs also from the desire to provide concrete examples to
show how the science of evolution has been refined over the past 150 years.
Today, by integrating modern learning in genetics and molecular biology,
that science is more powerful and unassailable than ever. Both Darwin and
the ideas that have developed in his wake are important and fascinating.
For this reason, I have chosen a journalistic approach aimed at drawing
attention to the newest elements of evolution. The “star,” it might be said,
is what has come to be called “evo-devo,” a contraction used by specialists
for “evolution and development.” Emerging in the past fifteen years, evodevo
is a new way of approaching evolution that relies on recent discoveries
in the biology of embryo development and in comparative genetics. The
expression evo-devo may, at the outset, seem a sort of specialist jargon and
repel the uninitiated. It does lead, however, to a newer and deeper look at
the world of living things, and it is an approach we shall hear more and
In order to deal with the science of evolution, I have presented evo-devo
themes and accomplishments through sample case histories. Frequently, a
particular anecdote or situation leads to a discussion of a question with far
broader implications, and a fresh perspective offered by modern biology.
Thus, each chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay, much after the manner
of Stephen Jay Gould, a true master in the field. As a consequence, the
reader might want to approach them in no particular order and refer to
the glossary when encountering words or concepts that are unfamiliar.
There is, nevertheless, a thread and a progression to the ideas, as indicated
by their division into three parts. In the first chapter, I offer the
familiar example of a wooded area in southern Quebec, revisiting what we
have learned from Darwin and connecting it to what modern science has
shown us. Then in Chapter 2 we come to what DNA analysis has contributed
to Darwin’s intuitive but scientifically well-founded concept of a
tree of life that includes all species. We will then see (Chapter 3) how all
this knowledge applies to our catalogues of biodiversity and the review of
the development of a well-known sea mammal, although perhaps not from
an evolutionary viewpoint (Chapter 4).
In the second part we move into the thick of evo-devo and look at recent
discoveries in architect genes that govern the making of animals (Chapter
5). The next chapter takes us into the world of finches, above all the famous
Galapagos finches discovered by Charles Darwin (Chapter 6), but as we
shall see, it is very much a story both contemporary and universal, concerning
beaks, genes and climate change. Then we turn to two applications: the
creation of paws from fins (Chapter 7) and the panda’s curious thumb
(Chapter 8). Next comes the sensitive topic of the disturbing genetic proximity
between humans and chimpanzees (Chapter 9).
The third and last part deals with how humans play with the machinery
of evolution — so much so that evolutionary changes have become rapid
enough for scientists to refer to them paradoxically as “contemporary evolution.”
We shall see examples of these changes but also some additional
examples of species conservation, for if we are capable of harming animal
and plant species, we can also help in their conservation.
Throughout, I have kept in mind all those who like to involve themselves
in nature in their moments of leisure, and to this end I have often described
personal experiences at our lakeside cottage. This is nature recomposed, of
course, not untouched nature in the wildest state — as if such a thing still
existed. Be that as it may, these are areas rich in animal and plant life that
we cling to and wish to protect. To protect well, one must know well.
First, then, this book can be seen as an invitation to take a fresh look at
nature as it surrounds us, wherever we are, in town or country. Canadians
are certainly privileged to have ready access still to large swaths of nature,
even wild nature reserves. Although many visit them, they may be unaware
of what is offered there. No matter where we live in this country, we must
become aware of the importance of the riches around us, riches we many
not even suspect to be there.
Second, it has been my goal to lead readers toward science itself and
show the strength of what it does at an essential level that concerns us all.
It is not the simplest thing to explain how life forms are built, to explain
the source of biodiversity, or what sets humans apart from the primates. In
the background there is always the sense of how this touches us personally:
each of us different, all of us cousins. The idea that all living things —
from bacteria to men, salmon to birches —share the same genetic code has
enormous implications. Finally, as Stephen Jay Gould says in The Panda’s
And then, of course, there are all those organisms: more than a million
described species, from bacterium to blue whale, with one hell of a lot of
beetles in between —each with its own beauty, and each with a story to tell.1
The following pages contain a few of these stories drawn from recent
research, often somewhat technical, though I have tried to tidy up the technical
jargon. My goal is, above all, to offer the broadest possible public an
essential part of what modern science has to offer, something I believe each
of us can benefit from: an appreciation of the basis of living things.
Reviews and Awards
Runner up in the Science category in the 2012 Green Book Festival!
“Demonstrate[s] the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and how evolution fits into a scientific understanding of this. Observations of nature surrounding [Rogel’s] cottage in southern Quebec are used to lead readers to an acceptance and comprehension of that message, without too much off-putting scientific jargon. The narrative skips between first person and familiar tutor, avoids dogmatism and preachiness, and the chapters are stand-alone essays that can be read in any order.”
— The Georgia Straight
“The book has great merit and could be of real practical use as a contemporary text in a school curriculum.”
— The Rover
“Rogel enlists his second home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships as a lens to view nature, a passage through evolutionary time in which the reader learns some fascinating facts about the loon (Gavia immer), moose (Alces alces), polar bear (Ursus maritimus), chimps (Pan troglydites), red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and, in the process, us (Homo sapiens).”
— Literary Review of Canada
“The book is both deeply personal and highly informative as Rogel entwines personal anecdotes with scientific facts. Each chapter feels like a highly entertaining lecture from a cool university professor.”
— Green Book Reviews
“Books that claim to present a coherent view of the natural world are often too simple, suitable for a curious high school student, or far too technical for anyone other than an expert to appreciate. But Rogel, a French science author/journalist based in Canada, accomplishes this elusive goal, and he does it with wit and style.”