Evolution: The view from the cottage

Evolution is a series of short essays exploring some of the many topics under the umbrella of evolutionary theory. Using the natural landscape around his southern Quebec cottage as the central theme, author Jean-Pierre Rogel explores topics as diverse as genetically modified corn and whale taxonomy.

The cottage way of life clearly provides an important connection to nature for Rogel, and he effectively shares this connection with the reader. He has much practice in engaging people in nature appreciation: As the host of the Radio-Canada science program Découverte, Rogel has been a public figure in Quebec for years. He has also written about genetics and evolution, although he is not yet well known among Anglophones. This, his fourth book, has been translated effectively to give English-speaking readers a taste of his engaging style. Reading this book immerses the reader in his cottage experiences, fleshed out by strong factual analysis. The book is both deeply personal and highly informative as Rogel entwines personal anecdotes with scientific facts. Each chapter feels like a highly entertaining lecture from a cool university professor.

In this marriage of cottage reflections with larger ideas, there is an obvious echo of Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac. However, although both books artfully use personal vignettes to illuminate large issues, this book is not on par with Leopold’s seminal classic. Unlike Leopold, Rogel does not put forth new ideas about nature or our place in it; he simply condenses and reiterates important evolutionary lessons. In any case, it was nice to see this model of nature writing used towards a new biological topic. Many books that deal with evolutionary theory are rather cold and impersonal. Rogel shows that this does not have to be the case.

The book has also been organized well. The evolutionary topics are cleverly chosen and carefully organized to follow a larger narrative arc. Rogel begins by providing a tutorial on the validity of the theory of evolution, and then illustrates how refined and predictive this theory is. Rather than telling the reader what to think, Rogel invites them to reach their own conclusions from the biological examples he chooses. It is clear that he is an evolutionist, but he never becomes preachy towards the creationists he is clearly hoping to convert.

Despite the fact that, as a biologist, I began this book already supportive of the theory of evolution, this book was still very relevant. I learned a lot about my own area of study and about entire areas of developmental biology with which I was unfamiliar. Many popular books about evolution get bogged down in teaching the mechanics of genetics and natural selection to their readers, making them tedious to read for those familiar with the subject. Rogel, however, gets the basics out of way eloquently and quickly moves on the interesting case studies he uses to highlight his larger points. As a result, his book is not too simple for a trained biologist to enjoy but is not inaccessible to newcomers either.

One small criticism is that Rogel does not reference his cottage landscape in every chapter. This is slightly jarring to the rythm of the text, but does not have a serious effect. Overall, this book should prove relevant and valuable to anyone interested in evolutionary theory. It has particular resonance for Canadians wanting to bring this topic into their own backyards – or cottages – to connect the genetic and evolutionary topics of academia to what they see when looking out of the window.

(This book is published by Ronsdale Press: Vancouver, 2010. 168 pages.)

Emily Rondel is a zoologist and ecological scientist who wishes that she had a cottage. She manages to find daily appreciation of evolutionary processes through her work at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where the incredible diversity of life is evident in the museum’s wonderful collections.

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