Book Report: Evolution in a Nutshell

“It’s not going to be a bestseller, there’s no doubt about that, but that’s OK,” says Martin Malloy, author of Evolution in a Nutshell. “What’s more important to me is that a few people get the message.”

Malloy, a former writer for Waynesville, N.C.‘s Enterprise Mountaineer, started research for his book about 20 years ago. He claims the topic of evolution has fascinated him since childhood, making this work a life-long pursuit. However, the biology-based study into human origins has long sparked passionate debate not just among scholars but also from religious-based schools of thought.

Creationism (the belief that the universe was formed by a deity, as depicted in the Christian Bible’s book of Genesis) and Christian fundamentalism (which opposes the concept of human evolution) are the major opposition camps to evolutionary theory. Malloy, now retired, is wary about reaction to this touchy subject. “The resistance to evolution theory was horrific,” he recalls.

But for those who are interested in the topic and new to the very extensive array of material, Nutshell is a beginner-appropriate primer. The book’s first four chapters lay out the fundaments, from the discoveries of scientists Mary Leaky and Jane Goodall, to the role of viruses and bacteria in species development. In the book’s table of contents, each chapter is underscored with a list of humorously-names topics (“Two chimpanzees with good intentions,” “Rousting Rip out of bed by Punctuated Equilibrium,” and “Cannibals having friends for lunch”) which, unfortunately, don’t come with corresponding page numbers.

Breaking down the dense chapters might help a bit, as the book is a slow and information-dense read, but the author’s quick wit goes a long way to making the most Poindexter of material pretty palatable to the less-than scholarly reader.

“The Homo species Neanderthals are often portrayed as stoop-shouldered stumblebums with low IQs, except their brains were larger than the species often self-proclaimed to complement the cosmos,” Malloy writes. His point is well made, but still … that he manages to work “stumblebums” into a paragraph is gold.

Another fun passage: “Neoteny is adaptive in certain animals such as the water doll, a salamander which remains and thrives in its larval stage like Peter Pan who never grew up.” Neoteny is the retention of juvenile features in adult creatures. According to the dictionary this is why mature ostriches have the down feathers of nestlings. To throw in the Peter Pan reference is to explain a complex biological occurrence with a pop culture reference all but the dimmest of stumblebums can catch. Information dense or not, Malloy’s Nutshell has a charming way of making science fun by making fun of science.

But there’s more to Nutshell than just understanding the finer points of natural selection and genetic drift. The author claims that evolution theory answers questions that philosophy and religion aren’t able to broach. “My studies of evolution make me much more tolerant of people,” he says.

Martin Malloy reads from Evolution in a Nutshell at Osondu Booksellers (184 North Main St., Waynesville, 456-8062) on Friday, Nov. 16.

The book is available at Malaprop’s, Trafford Publishing and Amazon.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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