WTF, Evolution?! by Mara Grunbaum {Review}

Posted April 7, 2015 by Anya Vostinar in Humor / 0 Comments

WTF, Evolution?! by Mara Grunbaum ReviewTell me I’m not the only one that gets a painful fascination to read pop science books in my area, please! I think that this bad habit comes from wanting to know what the non-scientists in my life might be reading so that I can battle misconceptions. Perhaps I can even steer them towards the ones that tackle the difficult concepts of evolution without furthering the deeply-rooted misunderstandings the public has these days.

WTF, Evolution?! by Mara Grunbaum offered another lure by containing lots of gorgeous photos of creatures that don’t generally show up in picture books. Many of you are probably already familiar with the Tumblr WTF, Evolution?! that the book is based on, but if not, it is definitely a fun place to scroll through and see some really crazy looking creatures!

Overall, WTF, Evolution?! actually does a pretty good job at providing information in a fun and memorable way. Just like on the Tumblr, the book includes conversations between an unnamed narrator and the natural process Evolution. Evolution is often drunk, tired, or overly excited about the latest crazy thing it’s come up with. I appreciated that the answer to “why” is often “just because” or “I dunno, I was drunk” since that at least somewhat gets at the idea that there often isn’t a reason for an organism to have some trait as long as it isn’t too detrimental or is offset by some other trait.

While most of WTF, Evolution?! is one page with a picture and one or two pages with a conversation regarding the pictured organism, the chapters begin with a tiny bit more discussion about the category the reader is about to see. The chapter titles give you a pretty good idea of what they’ll be including:

  1. Awkward Solutions – This chapter highlights the fact that Evolution can’t magically come up with a new trait even if it would help the organism. Instead, it has to work with the genes the organism has and “nudge” them one way or another. Animals discussed include the Peacock Flounder with both eyes on one side of it, the Giraffe that has the benefit of reaching high leaves but can hardly bend to drink, and the Galapagos Marine Iguana that is a cold-blooded creature that dives into cold water to eat.
  2. Half-Assed Attempts – This chapter focuses on organisms that look like they aren’t quite finished. The Ocean Sunfish apparently is sometimes mistaken for a disembodied dolphin head, the Atlantic Sand Fiddler’s one giant claw and one tiny claw do look a bit accidental, and both the Asian Giant Softshell Turtle and the Pignose Frog look like they won’t be able to walk. This chapter also includes some of Evolution’s outtakes (“So Half-Assed, They’re All Dead Now”), which is always nice to see!
  3. Dark Times – The Dark Times chapter features creatures that you wouldn’t really want to see in a dark alley, apparently from Evolution’s goth phase. The Regal Horned Lizard’s defense mechanism of shooting blood out of its eyes is pretty dark. This chapter also features one of my favorite parasites: the Tongue-Eating Isopod! (Yes, I have favorite parasites, don’t judge.)
  4. Dirty Jokes – You can probably imagine what the Dirty Jokes chapter features. There are a lot of entertaining butts and genitalia in the natural world, though this chapter also mixes it up with creatures like the Eiselt’s Caecilian that just look like one of those things.
  5. Questionable Design – This chapter’s beginning discussion dances around the idea of pleitropy and closely linked genes to excuse Evolution for sometimes producing some strange results. This is definitely the chapter that highlights a lot of the obviously unhelpful traits that organisms have, such as the Babirusa’s extra tusks that grow until they pierce through the animals face and just keep growing (but are too brittle to fight with). I loved learning about the Yeti Crab though since it apparently lives near hydrothermal vents and keeps a garden of bacteria in the hair growing on its claws for food.
  6. Dreams and Hallucinations – This chapter shows off the organisms that Evolution apparently came up with while in an altered state of consciousness. Mostly its just lots of brightly colored organisms with the Narwhal thrown in as the token unicorn. This is also the chapter that features that most awesome of animals: the Tardigrades!
  7. The Nose Sessions – Well, there are definitely a lot of organisms with weird noses out there, this chapter proves that. I do want to know if the Pinocchio Frog gets any benefit from that nose though! Also, how have I never see a Saiga Antelope before, it looks fake.

There is a final interview at the end of WTF, Evolution?! that briefly touches on humans not being the end goal of the evolutionary process, but doesn’t take the opportunity to clear up the main problem I have with this book: anthropomorphizing evolution just reinforces the misconception of organisms being made purposefully.

So in the end, WTF, Evolution?! is a fun book for those of us who enjoy finding out about strange-looking organisms, but it won’t help with one of the main misconceptions about evolution. Also, if you couldn’t tell, there is a fair amount of swearing, so definitely not child-friendly reading.

Have you read WTF, Evolution?! or the blog? How do you feel about how Evolution is portrayed?

Cheers,

Anya

Anya Vostinar

I’m a doctoral student in Computer Science and Engineering and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior at Michigan State University. I am studying the evolution of various group dynamics such as altruism, cooperation, and mutualism using computational tools such as Avida and simulations. I love organizing outreach activities to bring local school children to BEACON as well as developing educational tools that take advantage of technology.

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