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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

Darwin's Ghost

(Almost like a Whale)

Steve Jones

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Darwin's Ghost

Title: Almost like a Whale
Author: Steve Jones
Genre: Science
Written: 1999
Length: 395 pages
Availability: Darwin's Ghost - US
. Almost like a Whale - UK
. Darwin's Ghost - Canada
. Wie der Wal zur Flosse kam - Deutschland
  • The Origin of Species Updated
  • UK title: Almost like a Whale
  • US title: Darwin's Ghost
  • Note the retitling of the book for an American audience: Darwin's Ghost implies vacuity, emptiness, a hint of the supernatural. Darwin as a shadow of his former self. Darwin who need not be taken seriously.

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Our Assessment:

A- : a very interesting, well-written modern version of The Origin of Species

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 22/5/2000 Peter Spinks
Daily Telegraph . 28/8/1999 Nicholas Mosley
The Economist B 4/10/1999 .
The Guardian B 19/9/1999 Dylan Evans
The Guardian A 23/9/2000 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent A 5/9/1999 Kenan Malik
The Lancet B 18/9/1999 Daniel Park
London Review of Books B+ 3/2/2000 Andrew Berry
Nature A- 28/10/1999 Mark Pagel
New Statesman B+ 6/9/1999 Mary Midgley
The NY Rev. of Books B+ 2/11/2000 Tim Flannery
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 22/4/2000 John Durant
The Observer B 5/9/1999 Robin McKie
The Spectator A- 31/7/1999 Hugh Lawson-Tancred
The Sunday Times . 20/8/2000 Phil Baker

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very positive, though a surprising amount of criticism about his failure to dwell on specifically human evolution (since Darwin generally passed the subject over, for a variety of reasons, it seems fair that Jones does too -- though, in fact, he does deal with it to some extent). Also, most have some doubts about the undertaking itself (the updating of Darwin).

  From the Reviews:
  • "Perhaps he is attempting to show how the theory of evolution unites the complex and seemingly disconnected facts of biology. Noble as this aim might be, Jones does not fully succeed -- at least not in my opinion -- and one is left feeling that biologists somehow don't have the grip on biology that physicists seem to have on physics." - Peter Spinks, The Age

  • "Though the tale he tells is a familiar one, he tells it well. Facts in support of evolution fairly pour off the page (...)" - The Economist

  • "Unlike Darwin, Jones is, in the end, too scared to take the theory of evolution to its logical conclusion - to the idea that our minds are the product of evolution just as much as our bodies. (...) The absence of any serious discussion of evolutionary psychology is not a minor flaw; it is like Hamlet without the Prince." - Dylan Evans, The Guardian

  • "To rewrite what Jones acknowledges as "the book of the millennium" requires considerable skill, bravado and, possibly, a touch of madness. Jones clearly has more than his fair share of all three: this is a delightful book, infused with wit and panache, and as enthralling in its own way as was Darwin's original." - Kenan Malik, The Independent

  • "However, for all its anecdotes, Almost Like A Whale rarely contains enough information on any single topic to fascinate. (...). Since the narrative has so much variety, the reader is never quite sure what point the next paragraph is going to make. Moreover, the flow of the book is frequently diverted into the slower-moving and deeper stretches of Darwin's own prose, quite conspicuous among Jones' writing. Because of its lightness, the book takes some time to gather momentum, and the best chapters are the later ones." - Daniel Park, The Lancet

  • "Its awkward Jones-cum-Darwin aspects notwithstanding, Almost like a Whale provides a fine overview of modern evolutionary biology. Even so, I wish that Jones had exorcised his Origin fixation before putting pen to paper, and written instead a stand-alone Jones-on-evolution book. Deftly informative and a pleasure to read, Almost like a Whale is almost like that book." - Andrew Berry, London Review of Books

  • "Jones succeeds impressively in his desire to bring us up to date on the facts of evolution." - Mark Pagel, Nature

  • "In most of these discussions the project seems to me surprisingly successful. Jones understands and respects Darwin's argument in a way that allows his modern contributions to remain always relevant, even when they seem to wander away from it, and provide the needed support. Deliberately using ordinary speech and avoiding learned debate, he explains the workings of evolution, as they are now understood, with beautiful clarity and, naturally, with a lot more fun and jokes than Darwin ever allowed himself. The book is a pleasure to read." - Mary Midgley, New Statesman

  • "It is perhaps inevitable that the great mass of material accumulated in Darwin's Ghost includes some unfortunate errors, which become rather dense when Jones delves into the Southern Hemisphere. (...) Despite its imperfections Darwin's Ghost has a great deal of material to pique the reader's interest and challenge the mind." - Tim Flannery, The New York Review of Books

  • "(T)ake pleasure in the bravura of Darwin's ideas and Jones's prose. There are few better or more entertaining accounts of the evolutionary process in print today than Darwin's Ghost" - John Durant, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Origin of Species reeks of the thrill of novelty, of a shocking new idea that Jones simply cannot generate in his remake. That said, Almost Like A Whale remains a thumping good read, which is just what we have come to expect from its author." - Robin McKie, The Observer

  • "Jones writes with such economy that he has space for a huge range of topics, including the splendours and miseries of genetics, his own science, plate tectonics, mass extinctions, the vagaries of sexual selection, Malthusian influences on Darwin, ant and bee society, the fallacy of the argument from design and the grudging acceptance of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. On no part of this vast array does his mastery of succinct exposition and consequential development desert him." - Hugh Lawson-Tancred, The Spectator

  • "Jones writes with an intelligence that puts him in a completely different league from the current epidemic of "vulgar Darwinians". (...) Jones is equally good on the limitations of Darwinism, and on what Darwin did not say." - Phil Baker, The Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It's an ambitious and clever idea, so obvious one wonders why no one thought of it earlier: update Darwin's groundbreaking work, The Origin of Species, in light of modern scientific knowledge. Geneticist and prize-winning author Steve Jones decided to have a go at it, and proves that it is a worthwhile undertaking.
       Almost like a Whale (or Darwin's Ghost, as American audiences will find it called) adheres fairly strictly to Darwin's (literary and scientific) model. Beginning with a reproduction of the title page and the table of contents from the 1859 first edition, Jones then divides his book up nearly the same as Darwin had. Only an introduction and an interlude (the penultimate chapter which is, in fact, Jones' own recapitulation and conclusion) are slipped in; otherwise Jones follows Darwin's chapters faithfully, presenting the same argument in modernized form and including modern scientific advances unknown in Darwin's time. Convincingly, Jones allows Darwin's own chapter summaries to stand, repeating them verbatim. Sizable chunks of Darwin's own writing are also woven into the text (unattributed), and the final chapter is taken straight from The Origin of Species, Darwin's own "Recapitulation and Conclusion". Darwin's arguments, his own expression (he was a fine stylist), and his conclusions still hold up beautifully, and Jones does a good job of making this clear to the reader.
       Like Darwin's original Jones uses a wealth of examples to make the argument. The examples differ some (though Jones refers to Darwin's where possible), and include modern examples ranging from AIDS and dog shows to the movement of glaciers and currents. Our new understanding of genetics and advances in fields as varied as geology and meteorology also embellish the argument.
       Jones shows clearly how sound the theory of natural selection is and how broad and far reaching its consequences. Darwin's own work is masterfully presented, and Jones supplements it well. Science has advanced a great deal over the past century, and Jones deftly weaves in this new information.
       As in Darwin's original, the wealth of examples can, at times be overwhelming. However, Jones writes in a spry style, with enough humour to keep most anyone entertained and interested in the argument. The examples are timely (from AIDS to the (human) population explosion to the extinction of species) and, if anything, too much is alluded to only in passing. Jones' book is broad, but still only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. That is understandable; somewhat more regrettable is the lack of detail regarding many of the examples. A useful "Further Reading" section at the end of the book gives many of Jones' sources, but few of the examples are linked to their sources. From Paul Kammerer's midwife toad (Arthur Koestler wrote a whole book on the affair; Jones refers only to a "corrupt biologist") to grand genetic and geological discoveries Jones assumes a certain familiarity which (given the range of subjects) is probably too much to expect from most readers.
       Jones has some fun at the expense of Creationists and the New Ignorance, though he misses the point when he writes:

In fact, the majority of those determined to tell lies to children believe in Darwin's theory and understand how it works, without noticing.
       In fact, even in the face of an obvious case of natural selection at (relatively) breakneck speed -- AIDS -- in their midst, many Americans continue to deny the validity of the theory of evolution. One imagines that if they believed in the theory and understood how it works they would notice. The problem in the United States is that there is a fundamental failure to understand how natural selection works. This book could help rectify that, as it is a clear, well-presented proof of natural selection. Problem is, the audience of ignorants continues to choose not to believe, understand, or notice the obvious.

       Jones' shockingly says that he never met "a biology undergraduate who has read The Origin of Species", itself a sad show of ignorance and closed-mindedness (as Darwin's book, though not up-to-date, is still a splendid (and well presented) example of the scientific process and the scientist at work -- see our review). While not exactly a substitute for Darwin's original, it is to be hoped that Jones' book reaches a large audience, both among scientists (and scientific aspirants) and the larger reading public.
       This is an eminently readable book, and Jones a convincing teller. (We still like documentation linked to facts, but we realize that Jones is fairly trustworthy with regards to his statements.) Worth reading side by side with Darwin's original, for the pleasure of seeing how Jones has built up on that work, and what has changed since Darwin's time, the book also stands well on its own. A fill of fascinating facts, well related by a talented writer make it a very good read. Recommended.

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Almost like a Whale Reviews: Steve Jones Other books by Steve Jones under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Born in 1944, Steve Jones is Professor of Genetics at University College, London. He won the 1997 Royal Faraday Medal for Public Understanding of Science.

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