Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha
Title: Explaining Life Through Evolution
Author: Prosanta Chakrabarty
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Evolutionary biology is a branch of biology that deals with the processes responsible for the evolution and diversity of life on earth. From the very first ancestor to all life on earth to the very first modern human ancestor, a lot of questions remain answered. The emergence of related fields like genetics and specialised tools like radiocarbon dating has enabled scientists and evolutionary biologists to put together a clearer picture of how life would have probably evolved.
Explaining Life Through Evolution by Prosanta Chakrabarty opens a window to four billion years of eight million species that we see on this planet. It not only adds to existing literature but also gives straight answers to straight questions on the evolution of life on earth. Indeed, it is an unputdownable book that explains life.
Chakrabarty is an evolutionary biologist at Louisiana State University where he is a professor and curator. A Senior Fellow at TED, a Fulbright Distinguished Chair, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this is his first and indeed a great work.
The schema of the book is clear: it does not simply narrate the story of evolution; it is more than about where we came from. It brings to light who we are. As humans, we logically focus more on identifying differences between us; no matter how small they are. Chakrabarty demystifies the notion to emphasise our similarities with each other than many of us are willing to believe.
As more and more people take ancestry tests, sending their DNA samples and money to genealogy testing centres, Chakrabarty says, we need to be educated on what the results actually mean, scientifically; and we all have to decide together what it means socially. We should be celebrating the fact that this diversity comes from the same little drops of water and sunlight, each just shining a little differently. Like all species, we are defined by our differences as much as by our similarities.
He begins the book by saying: “There is a beautiful Sanskrit word, ‘ayurveda’ that translates in English to the science of life. Although generally relating to human health or homeopathic medicine, I’d like to see the shift of the usage of ayurveda to its literal translation as perhaps an enlightened synonym of biology, élan vital or perhaps of evolution. It is a term that makes me think of how words and phrases can have different meanings for different people and how words too can evolve. Even the word evolution’ evolved in Charles Darwin’s time from a meaning closer to development (in the sense of a developing embryo) to its current definition, essentially the accumulation of heritable changes in organisms that can lead to the formation of new species from ancestral forms.”
He goes on: “Interestingly, Darwin and others instead used the now obsolete word transmutation, which then meant something closer to our current definition of ‘evolution. Over time, the meanings of words can change, but previous usages remain part of their history, just like species can retain the historical features of their ancestors. Except in biology, modifications often lead to entirely new species, so perhaps if we changed ‘ayurveda’ to ‘ayurvedology’ we’d have a better fit with the evolution analogy.”
Through this intelligent and aptly illustrated book, Chakrabarty encourages us to think of life which is always in the making. If we look at the eight million species with who we share this planet, we have to imagine them all as having evolved over four billion years. They’re all the product of that fruition. Visualise all as young leaves on this ancient and gigantic tree of life and we will appreciate that all of us are connected by invisible branches not just to each other, but to our extinct relatives and our evolutionary ancestors.
Divided into four parts (‘A Personal Prologue’, ‘The Evolution Revolution’, ‘Questions and Misconceptions’ and ‘Why Understanding Evolution Matters’), this book — all of the 230 pages– is a reader’s delight. Chakrabarty weaves his lived experiences into this poignant discussion on evolution, covering key concepts that are vital to the understanding of current conditions like change and natural selection.
If it is important for any book on evolutionary biology to discuss how the discipline has been misused to puff up socially constructed categories like gender, Chakrabarty does that with precision.
The glowing analysis sheds light on the problems with historical and present-day interpretations of evolution while enlightening us about those who work at the cutting edges of the field. Another important feature of the book is that it guides us through viral pandemics and social change, and provides the three R’s to enable us to work together toward a thriving future.
Somewhere in the book Chakrabarty differentiates between science and religion. “Science is about observing and testing natural phenomena in order to give a reasoned, evidence-based explanation for those events. Religion, on the other hand, can provide answers to questions science doesn’t cover (e.g., what is the meaning of life?) but it can also provide answers that can’t always be tested. For instance, let’s say your answer to why apples drop to the ground when they fall out of a tree is ‘God made it happen’; that isn’t something I can prove false, because I can’t test it. There isn’t room for questioning things or scientific inquiry if you believe flatly that ‘God controls everything that happens’.”
He further points out the pitfalls of deep-seated religious conviction in the present-day world: “The other problem with teaching religion in a science class is that there are many religions with a variety of beliefs. Faith-based beliefs about creation differ by your religious persuasion. In one version of the Hindu creation myth, the Earth was part of the lotus flower that grew from the navel of Vishnu, and then the world was populated by Brahma and will be destroyed by Shiva. If l taught that version of creation as the truth in my science class, [I] wouldn’t last very long as a teacher. However, maybe this religious take would do well in the so-called ‘Indian Science Congress’, especially among participants pushing fringe Hindutva ideas that take some religious ideas literally (e.g. Brahma discovered dinosaurs).”
Chakrabarty presents one of the most accessible texts about evolution. It is a handy volume for an educator, scientist, or curious reader because the presentation of the theory of evolution provides a charmed balance between solid scientific research and hilarity that teaches, advises, and entertains.
Meaningful, wide-ranging and argumentative, this is a must-read book. It will propel us to imagine and reimagine life around us.
 Guiding principles like reading, writing Arithmetic
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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