November 2, 1994
The beginning of modern biology can be dated with some precision to 1859 and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. For 125 years, the mechanism of natural selection, Darwin’s vision of life as chance variation in the hereditary material of organisms, and the preservation of better variants in his “survival of the fittest,” has served as the only explanatory thesis for life on earth – for its array of forms and behaviors, its origins and extinctions. To paraphrase Keats, “Darwin is truth, truth Darwin. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The “Leopard” in the title of How the Leopard Changed Its Spots is the science of biology, today poised for massive change in its theoretical perspective. Here Brian Goodwin, described by colleagues as “the poet of theoretical biology,” proposes an alternative to the modern synthesis of Darwinism and twentieth-century genetics. Goodwin rigorously and clearly demonstrates the flaws in the quasi-religious fervor with which Darwin’s theory of natural selection is defended, and presents another, equally powerful engine for the origin and diversity of species.
The consequences of this altered perspective are both scientific and metaphorical. The images of Darwinism that color so much of modern life – survival of the fittest, selfish genes, survival strategies, “a war of all against all” – are incomplete, says Goodwin. If we regard organisms is more than survival machines, they take on an intrinsic value, with worth in and of themselves. Darwinism has shortchanged us, scientifically and ethically, for more than a century. This book demonstrates that organisms are every bit as cooperative as they are competitive, as altruistic as they are selfish, as creative and playful as they are destructive and repetitive. Erudite, dazzling, and elegantly written, at once a brilliant application of the laws of physics to the study of life, an exposition of the powerful force – not Darwinian selection – that shapes life on earth, and a meditation on the evolution of complex forms, it is certain to be the science book of the year.
Brian Goodwin is a professor of biology at the Open University, Milton Keynes, and the author of Temporal Organization in Cells and Analytical Physiology. He is co-author, with Gerry Webster, of Form and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles of Biology. He lives in Aspley Guide, England.