Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth (review)
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Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth. By Edmund Russell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xxi+216. $22.99.

Consider these remarkable lines from the work under review: “90 percent or more of the cells in and on our bodies belong to other species hitching a ride. This is a good thing, too. We depend on these bacteria to survive” (p. 43). “. . . the single best predictor of the location of endangered plants, mammals and reptiles in the United States was the presence of agriculture” (p. 53). “Some of the most important innovators for the Industrial Revolution were plants and long-dead Amerindians” (p. 127). “Perhaps, then, the future of industrialization lies in becoming ever more biological rather than less” (p. 142).

It is rare that a scholar conceptualizes a new field of interdisciplinary study, which is what “evolutionary history” likely will become, given Edmund Russell’s elegant interlocking of two disciplines that long have faced in different directions. In Russell’s hands, evolutionary history recasts core assumptions in both domains. For most historians, biology, particularly non-human biology, has been little more than background noise. For biologists, history has seemed tangential to their research, except in environmental and epidemiological areas. Russell’s work invites a careful rethinking of such boundaries, shows pathways toward fruitful interactions, and demonstrates how a series of historical notions and biological conventions can be reimagined.

Among the many arresting insights Russell delivers are that evolution continues speedily in our current age and that human actions have precipitated planned and unanticipated evolutionary paths, much more extensively in the last century. His close reading of Darwin, moreover, shows that evolution is not just about mutations spawning new species, but includes changes in a population’s traits, and is not solely a random process (an error I’ve long made). Indeed, noting three additional versions of selection beyond high-profile “natural” selection—sexual, methodical, and unconscious—opens up our understanding of evolution to historical agency and to unintended consequences.

Russell also carefully traces vectors through which humans have influenced the dynamics of organisms’ survival and reproduction—hunting and fishing, efforts at eradication, environmental assaults, breeding, etc. Feedback loops from human actions, in turn, powerfully affected human options and human evolution. For example, fishermen taking all the big cod and then cheating on net-opening sizes to scoop up yet smaller fish wiped out occupations and communities along the Atlantic Coast (pp. 27–29). Also, serial chemical attacks on disease-carrying insects selected for the [End Page 472] most resistant strains, whose offspring in turn transmit illnesses that select for the most resistant humans—human and insect populations thus shape each other. Bringing these dynamics into relation with public policy adds focus and immediate relevance to such complex and challenging ideas. Throughout, Russell not only interlaces science and history, but also presents scientific concepts and their implications in crystalline prose, accessible to non-specialist readers. In an era when science is so widely misunderstood (at times intentionally), this is invaluable.

On the history side, Russell crisply evokes the ways evolutionary history can reposition debates among scholars. His reframing of the co-evolution of human cultural traits in relation to Staphylococcus’s genetic traits demonstrates a serial reciprocality in which the pathogen proves as resilient as the humans are determined. As he notes, we are used to detailing “one way impacts,” but this more inclusive vision illuminates otherwise-hidden complex, interactive processes. Similarly, Russell’s reexamination of the classic English Industrial Revolution narrative transforms a UK inventor-centered tale into one about a global web of relationships. Early textile mechanical inventions failed due to the short fiber cottons available, not just because of “mechanical problems.” Once long-staple varieties from the Caribbean arrived to alter the problem set, an evolutionary answer beckoned: proliferation and refinement of the more machine-friendly strains operated in tandem with increasing technical adequacy to build Lancashire into an industrial powerhouse. In this enriched version (chapter 9), biology and the Amerindians’ adaptation of varieties enabled profitable production and capital formation on both sides of the Atlantic. No longer can a simpler, linear story suffice to capture...