Researchers look to the past — and the future — in ‘Evolution: The First Four Billion Years’

Michael Ruse (left) and Joseph Travis

One is a biologist; the other is a historian and philosopher. Together, two Florida State University professors from very different backgrounds have assembled what many are already calling the definitive work on the subject of evolution.

"Evolution: The First Four Billion Years" is the name of a new, nearly 1,000-page book edited by Joseph Travis, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Biological Science and dean of Florida State’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Michael Ruse, the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and director of the university’s Program in the History and Philosophy of Science.

Working together over more than six years, Travis and Ruse enlisted some of the world’s top scholars from a variety of fields — genetics, paleontology, epidemiology, theology and philosophy, to name a few — to write a series of "big picture" essays describing their particular areas of expertise as they relate to evolution. What emerges is a multifaceted picture of what is perhaps the most discussed and debated scientific concept of the past 150 years.

"We wanted to provide a single source where we could make a definitive statement about all that we currently know about evolution, as well as what we don’t know," Travis said. "We also wanted to look forward at where modern science is going as it pertains to the study of evolution. People have this idea sometimes that evolution is just some dusty old relic from the 19th century, but in fact our knowledge base is growing every day."

Ruse said that the variety of disciplines contained in "Evolution: The First Four Billion Years," and the new ideas that such a mix can inspire, make the book unique.

"I’m a historian and philosopher, Joe’s a biologist, and we collaborated," he said. "A lot of the articles in the volume reflect this interdisciplinary perspective. We have history, we have philosophy, we have religion, but we also have world-class biologists like Francisco Ayala, who’s one of the leading, still-active evolutionary biologists today."

While the first half of "Evolution: The First Four Billion Years" is composed of contributors’ essays, the second half — more than 500 pages’ worth — is an encyclopedic compendium containing "almost everything you’d want to know about evolution," Travis said. Concise, accessible entries include traditional topics such as mass extinctions, challenging ones such as the evolution of altruism, and controversial ones like industrial melanism or race. Also featured are summaries of the works of historic figures ranging from Aristotle to Charles Darwin, as well as modern leaders such as E.O. Wilson and David Jablonski.

You might fear that a body of work this comprehensive is not for everyone, Travis acknowledged.

"I would envision that the book would have its greatest appeal to graduate students, advanced undergrads and secondary school teachers," he said. "However, we wanted this book to be something fun and informative for the layperson as well."

Ruse added: "Keep it by your couch or bedside table and dip into it whenever you have a few minutes. The ideas are compelling and the personalities intriguing."

Appearing at the beginning of the Darwin Year of 2009 — the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his groundbreaking "On the Origin of Species" — "Evolution: The First Four Billion Years" couldn’t have come out at a better time.

"Obviously, much of what we now know about evolution has its roots in the truly revolutionary work of Darwin," Travis said. "Hopefully our book will honor his legacy in this landmark year."

The book also comes out as The Florida State University prepares to honor Darwin and others whose discoveries in science, religion, philosophy, history and the arts have shaped our understanding of life and of humanity. "Origins ’09: Celebrating the Birth & Life of Beginnings," will be held from March 17 to March 28. It will bring to Tallahassee such world-renowned scholars as biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson and anthropologist David Johanson, co-discoverer of "Lucy," one of the most important fossils ever found. Visit for a complete schedule of events.