Monday, 1 October 2012

"Frogs Flies and Dandelions: the making of species" by Menno Schilthuizen

Review by Linda Mingay (on BSc Biological Sciences)

"Frogs, Flies and Dandelions" is a thought-provoking read in many senses. It covers allopatric and sympatric speciation in detail, clarifying the different ways that species diverge from one another. Many of the examples quoted are ones we've come across before in lectures (chiclids, sticklebacks etc), both in Biodiversity in the first year and in Ecology in the second year but there are many other examples used in the book that reveal the difficulties in identifying how and why speciation occurs. The writing is straight-forward and while sources are clearly quoted, their use is not cumbersome and intrusive in the way that they often are in scientific papers and some other books. In fact, overall the use of vernacular works well, helping to keep the text accessible. Let's face it, when you see a section titled "wondrous willies" it makes you want to read on!

I found the section on the dark side of sex particularly interesting. For those who have not yet read the book, in many species there is a sexual arms race going on whereby males find ways of preventing females from copulating with other males and then females counter these with strategies to overcome them, leading to ever more complex methods of both sexes attempting to manipulate the gene pool. It's particularly fascinating to realise that these methods happen in tiny creatures such as insects. That's not to say the rest of the book isn't readable, quite the reverse, it's just that this section has a real ghoulish quality that surprised me.

For me, in addition to the understanding of speciation that the book brought, a key learning was the way that the scientific community often closed down on new thinking and scientists who brought forward new ideas were subjected to derision and in some cases ridicule, causing damage to their professional reputations. It demonstrated that often the road to acceptance of a scientific principle is fraught with difficulties and challenges. I wonder how many other less tenacious scientists may veer away from publication of their findings if they realise that they are controversial? The struggle for the acceptance of sexual selection where females choose their mate(s) is a great example of a theory that had a rocky road to acceptance despite it now being widely recognised, as is the whole area of sympatric sp

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