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BOOK REVIEWS TheMasterpiece ofNature. By Graham Bell. Los Angeles: University ofCalifornia Press, 1982. Pp. 635. $45.00. The evolutionary significance of sex is one of the principal unresolved problems in population biology. Since John Maynard Smith pointed out in 1971 that sexual reproduction has a built-in twofold disadvantage over asexual reproduction , there has been a steadily increasing volume of literature aimed at showing why so many organisms indulge in sex—or, more, precisely, how it increases their Darwinian fitness. The Masterpiece ofNature is the latest, and the most elaborate , attack on the paradox. The author brings a variety ofapproaches to bear on the subject and discusses the taxonomic and ecological distribution of sex, the cytological details of sexual and asexual reproduction, and theoretical models with equal diligence. Every piece of information and variant of theory is given close and critical scrutiny. The wealth of ideas and facts contained in it makes this book the most informative one available on the natural history of sex. It will be a valuable source to refer to for a long time. The paradox of sexuality which stimulated the book arises from the cost of sex, the reasoning that sex is invariably associated with a huge disadvantage. Unlike many recent authors, Bell correctly acknowledges that the cost of sex was recognised last century by A. Weismann. Unfortunately, the account of the cost of sex is flawed because Bell does not accept the distinction between the two versions of the cost of sex. These propose that sexually reproducing parents are disadvantaged either because they contribute only one ofthe two sets ofgenes to each offspring or because a proportion of their reproductive effort goes to producing male gametes. The author's failure to recognise the different implications of the two postulates leads to some inaccuracies. Almost everyone, including Bell in this book, has concluded that there must be a compensating advantage for sex and that this is derived from the greater genetical diversity of sexual offspring. The problem is, exactly how does this benefit a parent? Seven competing hypotheses, some with several variants, are given colorful titles (the Vicar of Bray, the Red Queen, etc.) and carefully distinguished . The author might have pointed out, however, that none of the contending hypotheses, in any oftheir various forms, has been generally accepted as offering a satisfactory explanation for the prevalence of sex in eukaryotes. The impression is given instead that there is an overabundance of adequate hypotheses . The most distinctive feature of the book comes out in the fourth chapter, when an ambitious attempt is made to discriminate among the hypotheses ofsex, Permission to reprint a book review printed in this section may be obtained only from the author. 162 I Book Reviews using a "comparative method." The taxonomic, ecological, and geographical distributions of sexual and asexual reproduction are closely examined in a series of pairwise comparisons of rival hypotheses. One alternative is eliminated by each comparison, until the one hypothesis that best explains the facts is left. The procedure is analogous to the operation of a taxonomic key. The chosen winner of the exercise is the "tangled bank" hypothesis, the title coming from Darwin's metaphor in the final chapter of The Origin of Species. According to the tangled bank hypothesis, the genetically diverse offspring of sexual parents succeed more frequently in a spatially complex environment in which a single genotype is best adapted in only a fraction of the total environment. Bell considers that his search for the advantage of sex comes to a successful conclusion with the elimination of all hypotheses other than the tangled bank. The reviewer remains unconvinced, however. The comparative method assumes that a single hypothesis is responsible for the persistence of sex in most eukaryotes, and that the "correct" hypothesis is among those considered. The tests are futile if either of these questionable assumptions is not valid. Moreover, many of the dichotomous tests that are applied have insufficient power for the tasks asked of them, either because they rest on inadequate facts or because they contain restrictive qualifications. The analysis often succeeds in ruling out one or more hypotheses in particular cases, but I believe it fails in the stated aim...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 162-163
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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