New Internationalist

Book review: Metamorphosis

July 2011

By Frank Ryan

Subtitled ‘Unmasking the Mystery of How Life Transforms’, this important and illuminating book reveals how the study of metamorphosis – one of nature’s most dazzling conjuring tricks – is shedding new light on evolutionary theory. Ryan begins with the groundbreaking early naturalists who focused on the process by which a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, or a tadpole into a frog or toad. He then walks us through the development of modern entomology and brings the story right up to date with a detailed account of marine biologist Don Williamson’s controversial ‘evolution through hybridization’ theories. Williamson’s argument, still something of a hot topic in the scientific community, is that various otherwise inexplicable anomalies in evolution can be explained by the principle of cross-species fertilization, involving the sperm of one creature and the egg of another.

Frank Ryan writes with verve and conviction, skilfully marshalling his facts and painting vivid pen-portraits of his central characters – not least the engaging and self-deprecating Don Williamson, now 89, retired and relishing the debate his theory has sparked. Metamorphosis is aimed squarely at the general reader rather than the scientific cognoscenti and it is a lively and thoroughly entertaining read; one of the best scientific books of recent years.

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Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 444 This column was published in the July 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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