The Darwinian Tourist: Viewing the World Through Evolutionary Eyes, by Christopher Wills (2010, Oxford University Press, 288 pages).
You’ve heard of culinary tours, art tours, and the like. As a “Darwinian tourist,” Christopher Wills travels with an eye on the life forms that have adapted to each place he visits. And it’s not just the place they’re adapted to, but each other. Leave it to professional biologists to debate specifics —Wills notes that he and a colleague disagree about the path a butterfly species will take in Israel’s Nahal Oren canyon (a.k.a. Evolution Canyon) — but any reader can thrill to the gorgeous color photos of mandarin fish and anemones and nocturnal tarsiers (taken by Wills with his Canon digital cameras) and follow this travelogue of who lives where and how that came to be. The question throughout is why different animal populations have the boundaries that they do. Why do you find marsupials here but not over there? Why do these butterflies live here and those other ones next door? Though the photos are nice, this is a book to really read. Settle in to a mind-space where the word “mere” goes with “17 million years,” and get thinking about questions like what exactly is a species and does it matter, and how does one species branch into many. You’ll read about Genghis Khan and his horses; the “Hobbits” on the island of Flores; the great migration of humans across Asia to Australia; stingless bees, Bronze Age petroglyphs, coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, and “the immense value of dogs.” Like an astronomer peering back in time by viewing stars farther and farther away, Wills looks back in evolutionary time by diving deeper and deeper into a “biodiversity hot spot” in the Indian Ocean. He also brings up DNA analysis and computer/robot simulations of evolution, using every tool in the box to puzzle out the history of life on Earth. This is a bright and thoughtful story that will take you around the planet while you curl up in your armchair.
Christopher Wills is a biology professor at the University of California and received the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 1999 Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology.