July 2003

Christian Walters

nonfiction

In the Blink of an Eye by Andrew Parker

Life as an evolutionary scientist must be a bitch. Your subject matter is flung back across five billion years, the only paleontologist most people have ever heard of is Ross on Friends, you're hassled by drooling creationists, and movies from Godzilla to X-Men have mis-educated the public for generations on what a mutation really is. I expect the pay isn't stellar, either.

All that makes me confused as to why Andrew Parker would write a book about what sparked the Cambrian Explosion, a remarkable increase in the number of species starting about 544 million years ago and lasting a mere six million years (or, as creationists call it, "the fifth day"). Essentially, 544 million years ago there were three phyla, and 538 million years ago there were 38. Scientists since Darwin have been stumped on that one, as have the literally dozens of lay-people aware of the mystery.

Parker's theory is that the development of sight kicked the door wide open for unparalleled evolutionary change. Everything had to adapt to both predators and prey having a powerful new sense, and the process of adaptation sent all the old species flying off in all sorts of directions. Prey had to learn to either hide or intimidate, and predators had to hunt and distinguish food from non-food. It would be sort of like growing up illiterate, then suddenly finding out you're able to read. How much new information would become available to you? How would your life change from that point on?

It's an elegant and powerful theory, and Parker spent 300 pages making a convincing case, at least to a non-scientist like myself. Parker is a strong writer and has the rare gift of being engaging when talking about bioelectric signals during seed-shrimp mating. I never got bored while reading it, though I sometimes wondered why I was learning so much about an inedible shrimp.

Anyhow, the book starts off with a remedial intro to evolution and gradually builds up to Parker's stunning eyeball conclusion. I don't know if other scientists think he's right or wrong, but Parker certainly beats the rest of us into line. Thinking back now, without having read any critiques of the theory, it seems obvious that the sight thing was the Cambrian catalyst, and those other scientists must be morons to have not seen it already. And I'll feel that way until someone makes an equally compelling theory about the importance of the inner ear or something.

But we have a book that's too basic for a real biologist to mess with, and a subject that's too esoteric for almost everyone else. Most people who do pick it up will enjoy the experience, but unless you're in that narrow band of people interested in biology/paleontology/zoology without any real training, you probably will never pick it up.

In the Blink of an Eye by Andrew Parker
Perseus Publishing
ISBN: 0738206075
352 Pages