Book Review: Islands in the Cosmos

In 1916 the paleontologist H.F. Osborn published one of the strangest books on evolution I have ever read. Titled The Origin and Evolution of Life: On the theory of action, reaction and interaction of energy, the volume was an attempt to “take some of the initial steps toward an energy conception of Evolution and an energy conception of Heredity and away from the matter and form conceptions which have prevailed for over a century.” Osborn hoped that by distilling the study of life to exchanges of energy the why of evolution would finally become apparent. (As I have mentioned before, Osborn had his own peculiar views about evolutionary mechanisms.)

For Osborn, evolution was a deliberate process. Species were destined to evolve in a particular direction, and as such Osborn tried to reduce biology to physics so that he might find the natural laws which gave organisms their evolutionary inertia. Paleontologist Dale Russell has made a similar effort in his new book Islands in the Cosmos: The Evolution of Life on Land.

The bulk of Islands in the Cosmos consists of descriptions of terrestrial ecologies at different intervals of geologic time. Although Russell states that “The text attempts to be concise and avoid the use of specialized vocabulary” in hope of “making it simpler and easier to assimilate”, much of the book will be beyond the reach of non-specialists. It is shot-through with technical terms and references that require a considerable amount of background information to understand. Despite the praise Simon Conway Morris gives Russell’s descriptions in the foreword, the core of the book is a dry recitation of what organisms lived during successive eras of earth history.

I did not get very far into Russell’s descriptions of ecosystems past before I began to wonder “But what’s the point?” There was no narrative and it was difficult to pick out what Russell was trying to get at. I later realized that the answer to my question was to be found in the material that sandwiches the core chapters. A quote from Charles Darwin provides a crucial clue. Comparing the opinions of different authorities who contemplated “the phenomenon of life on Earth”, Russell writes;

A nineteenth-century naturalist, inferring the existence of deep time, deduced that even in the absence of physical change, interactions between living organisms would constantly force functionality in the direction of increasing proficiency:

If under a nearly similar climate, the eocene inhabitants of one quarter of the world were put into competition with the existing inhabitants of the same or some other quarter, the eocene fauna or flora would certainly be beaten and exterminated; as would a secondary fauna by an eocene and a palaeozoic fauna by a secondary fauna. (Darwin 1859: 335)

This selection represents one of the core themes in Russell’s book; that natural selection does not just cause organisms to become adapted to local conditions but “constantly force[s] functionality in the direction of increasing proficiency.” In other words, life is getting better and better all the time, and if we were to pit any modern fauna against one of a past era the geologically younger one would (in Russell’s view) undoubtedly win.

The ecological outlines that follow in Russell’s essay are meant to be viewed through this lens, although it is the job of the reader to keep this in mind as Russell does not often make this theme readily apparent. It is important to do so, however, as it pops up again at the conclusion of the book. As Russell’s frequent citation of scientists like Simon Conway Morris and Paul Davies would suggest he believes that the universe was fine-tuned for human life and that such conditions were made possible by some all-powerful force beyond space and time. Russell is never forthright about what this force might be, but I can only imagine that he is referring to the Judeo-Christian god. In the epilogue Russell writes;

The scope of the visible universe staggers our imagination. The general trend in fitness, which provides a conceptual means for probing the future of life in the universe, implies the existence of nonmaterial realities as yet unachieved, and points toward a maximal level of fitness obtainable through the operation of “laws impressed on matter.” The trend, by pointing to perfection in fitness, also appears to point beyond space and time toward a nonmaterial, perfect, and creative Reason. Many philosophers and theologians have held that assent to the Reason hypothesis confers increased fitness by enabling humans to live abundantly.

This is Russell’s attempt to find a loophole for God. God may be out of reach when it comes to direct observation, but the detection of “laws impressed on matter” could, in Russell’s view, justify the inference that such a supernatural being exists. Russell is most certainly an evolutionist, but this sounds an awful lot like intelligent design, and I was frustrated by Russell’s approach. As with Osborn, it is clear that Russell’s theological and philosophical beliefs have influenced what he has presented as a scientific discussion, yet he never directly addresses his personal views. The book is impersonal and is filled with technical jargon, thus putting the stamp of scientific respectability on Russell’s beliefs.

I have little doubt that if Russell wrote a more personal book in which he did not try to obscure his beliefs, like Francis Collins’ The Language of God, I would still disagree with him on many points. Even so, I think such an approach is preferable to using the language of science to try to find a loophole for a deity. Even if an evolutionary trend toward ultimate “perfection” could be ascertained (and I do not believe that any such trend exists) why would it necessarily point to the existence of “a nonmaterial, perfect, and creative Reason”? Russell could only answer such a question by being forthright about his faith, something he did not see fit to do in this book.

Much like Osborn’s Origin and Evolution of Life, Russell’s book sets out to find natural trends or laws that explain what he interprets as life’s evolutionary destiny. While I do not see the history of life the same way (my views are closer to those S.J. Gould explicated in Wonderful Life and Full House), I probably would have found Russell’s thesis more interesting had he not tried to hide his personal philosophical views behind a scientific veil. While Islands in the Cosmos might appeal to fans of Paul Davies, Simon Conway Morris, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in all honesty I must admit that it is one of the most baffling books on evolution that I have ever read.

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