Thursday, April 01, 2010

How have I got into evolution anyway?

How have I got into evolution anyway?  It goes a long way back.  From early childhood I was deeply interested in wildlife and when I was 8 or 9, towards the end of World War II, my mother bought me a book called The Story of Living Things and their Evolution, written and illustrated by Eileen Mayo (1944) who was not a professional biologist.

I was enthralled by this book and, turning the pages today, I can remember the pleasure each picture and the accompanying text gave me.

The book was scientifically blessed with an introduction by Julian Huxley.  This contains some astonishing remarks.  For example, Huxley writes that Darwin and others "finally dethroned man from his claim to a unique position of Lord of Creation."  (I though that was God!).  Then Huxley rather contradicts himself in the next paragraph by saying that "as a result of studying evolution, we now know not merely that man has evolved from lower animals, but that he is now the sole trustee of life for further evolutionary progress in the future."  (So we still are Lord of Creation!).  In the case of the second observation, Homo sapiens does not seem to be making a very good job of it.

In the main body of the book I was very struck by the pages on the evolution of the horse which presented the reader with four animals increasing in size as the smallest, Eohippus,upgraded through Mesohippus and Merychippus to the modern horse.  Why did they get bigger I wonder.  Why don't we have mice the size of horses?  Is bigness an advantage in the case of equines but less so with rodents?

A glance at Wiki shows that illustration of the rise of the horse was, to say the least, a crude view.  But I'll bet our current view will seem crude in another 66 years time.

Mayo also says that Eohippus (now known as Hyracotherium) was the size of a fox, a remark congruent with Stephen Jay Gould's observation that the idea that this extinct creature was of fox, or fox terrier, size was apparently put about in a pamphlet by a celebrated foxhunting paleontologist called Henry Fairfield Osborn.  Maybe he thought all wild animals were fox sized.  Anyway Eohippus/Hyracotherium was, at 60 cm long, only about half the size of a fox (or fox terrier).

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