Steve Jones – Almost Like a Whale


When looking for an image of the cover I noticed an embarrassing problem. Almost every review of the book quoted one line or other as evidence of Jones’ prose style that turned out to be a quotation from elsewhere. The main source of these is Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species is the conceptual and structural basis for this. Jones riffs on all of Darwin’s themes, in the same sequence, partly to fill in all the developments and observations denied to the original’s author but also to answer those annoying Creationist whiners who always pipe up with where’s the evidence?

This book was published in 1999, back in the era of ‘Intelligent Design’. There was a museum at the Grand Canyon purporting to show evidence of Creationist claims [‘bogus’]. These people weren’t some fringe cultists, they were, according to surveys, in the majority in America and, shortly after this book came out, got one into the White House. Darwin was somewhere between Saddam Hussein and David Icke to such folks. Jones patiently sets out, once again, how it all works and where we can find the facts, as well as discussing how little of what we know to be true can be demonstrated to the same degree of certainty. Along the way there are anecdotes and facts with which to regale anyone who’s in the same room, so it’s probably best to read this alone.

As a case for Darwin and a battery of data and arguments to support anyone trying to withstand half-baked arguments (or refusals to argue because it’s “just a theory”, like gravity) this is more than ample. It has a serious flaw at its core, that split between Darwin’s prose and Jones’. This was never intended to put forward Steve Jones’ views of how evolution works – he’d done that a lot already – but to buttress Darwin for another 150 years of assaults from zealots. In some ways, this is entirely how science should function; it’s a process, rather than a body of facts, and flourishes through doubt and testing. Had Americans (and people from other theocratic regimes) not been so noisy and persistent, Jones wouldn’t have had to be so clear, so detailed and so patient. Yet this book leaves the last word to Darwin, who turned out to be right despite not having any notion of how it might work – he published almost exactly a century before the discovery of the double helix and longer before Plate Tectonics was taken seriously. Darwin’s magisterial prose is at odds with Jones’ pithy, acerbic writing.

By Tat Wood