Evolution is a continuous process in which living things change and evolve. In this way, highly complex organisms and disparate anatomical structures have emerged over the past four billion years – just think of the ability to breathe air into the lungs, convert fins into gills or develop spines.
Paleontologist Neil Chopin, an expert on fish and amphibians, takes the reader on this life journey and tells stories from paleontologists, biologists, and geneticists as well as from research.
Genetics as an engine of life’s evolution
The book is not a classic introduction to the theory of evolution, Chopin assumes a basic knowledge of it. Nor is it a fossilized depiction of tribal history. Instead, the author uses fossil, historical, and biological examples to explain the fundamental role of genetics in the evolution of life. In simple terms, it describes phenomena and developments observed in anatomy and fossils that can be explained by genetic backgrounds. The English subtitle of “Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, From Ancient Fossils to DNA” is more appropriate for the actual content than the German content.
The structure of Chopin’s “Life Story” resembles the entangled and folded double helix of DNA: the author subtly and excitedly connects the various strands of narrative with each other. An integral part of his life story, from early childhood through school and university to post-doctorate, he gives insight into the historical research aspects of evolutionary theory and genetics – giving the book a personal touch. Of course, the famous Archeopteryx, considered an ancient bird, and the attempts of Thomas Hunt Morgan to cross with fruit flies should not be lost.
The second narrative tape is a reasonably described introduction to developmental genetics, which deals with the mechanisms by which genes work and advance evolution. Chopin’s examples correspond to milestones of evolution – sometimes with fundamental changes in genetic and anatomical schemas. But given the difficulty of identifying them in the fossil record, the biologist is looking for valid comparisons in genetics: How have mutations changed the entire body? What changes can be used to activate or deactivate whole gene sequences? What symbols control the individual development of organisms – from the first cell to the final adult organism?
Through paleontology comparisons with genetic experiments, which have investigated the function and effects of genes, Chopin simulates the evolution of life in parts. This enables him to explain evolutionary jumps. The life story does not necessarily take place in small, incremental steps, but it can sometimes take genetic shortcuts, as was the case with the development of certain cellular organelles, the development of the spine and gills, or the transformation of fins into legs.