Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first described epigenetics to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a theory that was supplanted by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Now paleontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward uses the epigenetic paradigm to reexamine how the history of our species—from deep time to the outbreak of the Black Plague and into the present—has left its mark on our physiology, behavior, and intelligence.
No area of epigenetic research is more controversial than the idea that such [genetic] marks might be inherited across generations. In Lamarck’s Revenge, Mr. Ward grips this most controversial area of epigenetics and doesn’t let go ... Mr. Ward eloquently describes the scenario at the end of the Permian, roughly 250 million years ago: the greatest mass extinction in the history of Earth ... For Mr. Ward, every problem is a nail and epigenetics is the hammer. He lumps together genetic mechanisms like horizontal gene transfer with epigenetics, and every example of epigenetics serves as evidence for the proposition that epigenetic inheritance must matter. This leaves no room for explaining real scientific debates about how epigenetics may shape biology ... Still, even if Mr. Ward tells an imperfect and sometimes exaggerated story, this area of science is fascinating.
A fascinating journey into the relatively new field of epigenetics ... outstanding ... Skilled in both science and writing, Ward walks readers through its history, mechanisms, and the current fierce debate over its role. The best introduction so far to one of the most controversial elements of 21st-century evolutionary science.
...frustrating ... Ward’s analysis ranges widely ... Ward references the classic study showing how starvation impacted one and perhaps two generations in the Netherlands following a WWII-era famine, but provides little hard evidence beyond that example. Without a proposed mechanism for such long-lasting effects and without data indicating such effects exist, Ward leaves readers with little more than suppositions.