The Paradox Of Evolution by Stephen Rothman (book review).

Stephen Rothman’s book ‘The Paradox Of Evolution’ is explained a little better by it’s sub-title ‘The Strange Relationship Between Natural Selection And Reproduction’. We all have an understanding of Darwin’s ‘Survival Of The Fittest’ but, as Rothman points out, we don’t really understand how it works or the choices given when reproduction is added to the mix. From my perspective, evolution and natural selection is a random dice and it depends on environmental conditions as to its success or not. If it survives beyond the original need, that’s how we start getting more divergent species. Reproduction is the means and, most of the time, the female of the species picks the best mate. The male of the species knows this and does its best to appear that way to pass on its genetic make-up. As Rothman points out, two sex reproduction ensures more random elements in the genetic make-up. If you compare the number of species from asexual choice, there is less divergence.


Some of it is like which came first, the chicken or the egg. Rothman uses the peacock as his main example of attractive plumage to entice to dull-feathered peahen to breed. He points out when the feathers are spread out, to other predatory animals it must look like a multitude of creatures so preserving its own life but the evolution of this choice is baffling. Why should bright feathers and not some other physical trait be seen as the best choice? Using this book as a starting point, I thought about this. With birds, most male birds are always the most brightly coloured, so as an evolutionary trait, it must have happened with the core species as a means to make the males stand out from the crowd. Some bird species also lose these plumes after the mating cycle is ended to give them suitable camouflage in the flock again so there are two different patterns interweaving. A pure demonstration of being fit to survive but only one of the choices. Those who didn’t change were probably eaten so removing those genes from the species pool. Where this didn’t happen meant this predatory threat didn’t affect them so you would have the diversity but in other species. Birds of prey, being at the top of the food chain, don’t have a change of plumage between sexes because nothing else is out there to eat them. There is a solid logic with this happening but it chosen strictly by which traits keep a species alive. In many respects, once the male adult has bred, its life is expendable and redundant. One only has to look at the human species where women live much longer than men to realise this trait has carried on across the species. Genetically, where some men do live much longer than women, it’s just random choice or luck. Statistically, this is bound to happen.

Genetic divergence, as Rothman points out using Gregor Mendel ‘s experiment with cross-breeding two types of pea plants where genetic differences would allow this shows that species is capable of doing what is best for survival. I mean, if it wasn’t possible, some species would die out which would mean failure to survive. Although he doesn’t cite it, you only have to look at the hybrids of tigers and lions to realise that the two cat families haven’t diverged enough to make that impossible yet. I’ve yet to hear of any attempts to cross-breed the cross-breeds to see if a new species would evolve and what traits from both families would come out.

In many respects, this book made me think more and beyond the content of the book itself. Hardly surprising, as from school age, I was specialising in evolution before turning to chemistry. In some areas, I don’t think Rothman has explored deeply enough, simply because he hasn’t looked at enough examples. Reproduction is a means to an end (sic). As species diverges to fill in ecological gaps, then the choices of attraction will differ. With humans, women will not pick men that are too similar to themselves and hence we get them picking on some pretty unlikely choices than safer bets. Genetically, it keeps these traits in the gene pool than loses them forever. A species that becomes passive or not breed fast enough is likely to die out, as witnessed by the giant tortoises this year. As to the diversity of choice, randomness keeps all traits viable should something happen that needs them to keep any species going. Although this book does not have nearly enough answers, it will surely make you think about the side-issues around evolution.

GF Willmetts

December 2015

(pub: Prometheus Books. 238 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $17.00 (US), $18.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-072-6)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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