How the Snake Lost its Legs

July 7, 2014
Lewis Held

This is a popular science book about evolutionary development — specifically, it's about how various traits of animals arose from an evolutionary perspective, and how the same traits then arise during the development of an individual animal. I suppose it's intended for biology undergraduates, but as a layman I found it quite accessible, and its use of biology jargon is well-explained in the glossary. It makes heavy use of references, and in fact the reference list takes up a whopping 121 of the 278 total pages. But although it is certainly rigorous and heavy on the jargon and references (and extremely detailed), it's also engaging, easy-going and humourous.

It's structured as a collection of case studies, organized in five main chapters (dealing with specific animals or specific anatomical traits) and an "evo-devo bestiary" with a collection of animals and how (or why) they developed various of their characteristics. All have titles that seem more like something you might find in Rudyard Kipling fables than in a biology textbook:

Each little study describes the sequences of genes that control a specific piece of animal morphology, the developmental mechanisms that lead those genes to construct that animal trait, the apparent evolutionary background of that gene sequence, and often the rather weird story about how scientists discovered it - usually including some the more interesting dead ends along the way. All is described well enough that after having read one of the studies, I can give a basic (although admittedly watered down - I am a computer scientist, not an evolutionary biologist) description of - for example - how a developing snake embryo makes so many more vertebrae than, say, a mouse embryo.

The book is a treasure trove of fascinating and weird tidbits of knowledge about evolutionary development and animal anatomy. It's written with humour and great narrative skill, and was simultaneously an enlightening and entertaining read.

Highly recommended.

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