Darwin's Reach : 21st Century Applications of Evolutionary Biology book cover
1st Edition

Darwin's Reach
21st Century Applications of Evolutionary Biology

ISBN 9781138587397
Published December 28, 2021 by CRC Press
430 Pages 21 Color & 10 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

The application of evolutionary biology addresses a wide range of practical problems in medicine, agriculture, the environment, and society. Such cutting-edge applications are emerging due to recent advances in DNA sequencing, new gene editing tools, and computational methods. This book is about applied evolution – the application of the principles of and information about evolutionary biology to diverse practical matters. Although applied evolution has existed, unrecognized, for a very long time, today’s version has a much wider scope. Evolutionary medicine has formed into its own discipline. Evolutionary approaches have long been employed in agriculture and in conservation biology. But Darwin’s reach now extends beyond just these three fields. It now also includes forensic biology and the law. Ideas from evolutionary biology can be used to inform policy regarding foreign affairs and national security. Applied evolution is not only interdisciplinary, but also multidisciplinary. Consequently, this book is for experts in one field who are interested in expanding their evolutionary horizons. It is also for students, at the undergraduate and graduate levels. One of the public relations challenges faced by evolutionary biology is that most people do not see it being all that relevant to their daily lives. Even many who accept evolution do not grasp how far Darwin’s reach extends. This book will change that perception.

Key Features

  • Emphasizes the expanding role evolutionary biology has in today’s world.
  • Includes examples from medicine, law, agriculture, conservation, and even national security
  • Summarizes new technologies and computational methods that originated as innovations based in part or whole on evolutionary theory.
  • Current. Has extensive coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and other recent topics.
  • Documents the important role evolution plays in everyday life.
  • Illustrates the broadly interdisciplinary nature of evolutionary theory.


The applications of evolutionary biology are far too numerous to include in just one book. Plus, new scientific findings emerge almost every day underscoring the central role evolution plays in our lives. The author has established a blog site to highlight these fascinating discoveries. Please visit https://darwinsreach.blog to be inspired by “… endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful [that] have been, and are being evolved.” (the last line of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species).

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Paging Dr. Darwin

Fighting resistance is not futile
Why we get sick

Chapter 2: Going Viral

A tale of two pandemics
A closer look at SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses
Evolution and coronavirus spillover
Using evolution to track viruses
Evolving viruses
What genetic variants affect COVID susceptibility, and why?
HIV/AIDS: the other pandemic

Chapter 3: Vectors of Disease

The lethal mosquito
Malaria’s genetic legacy
Why are some mosquitoes vectors?
Antimalarials and evolution of resistance
Mosquito control
Gene drives

Chapter 4: Mismatch: Are We Trapped by Our Past

The consequences of missing old friends
Climb every mountain
Blessed are the cheesemakers
Evolutionary mutant models
How are we evolving?

Chapter 5: From Genetic Mapping to Personalized Medicine

The potential of personalized medicine
Cystic fibrosis: a success story
Association mapping, linkage disequilibrium, and haplotype blocks
GWAS success stories in autoimmune diseases
Getting the dose right
Watson’s ApoE status: A tale of genetic privacy
Limitations of GWAS

Chapter 6: Cancer: Darwin meets the Emperor of All Maladies

We have met the emperor…
Hallmarks and snowflakes
Cancer’s long history
Peto’s paradox and the elephant genes in the room
Comparative oncology: Beyond Peto’s paradox
Drivers and passengers
Genotype by environment interactions and cancer
Cancer and tradeoffs
Resistance cancer drug resistance

Chapter 7: Human Life History

Prader-Willi and the pregnancy tug of war
Progesterone and its receptor
Why are human babies born so helpless?
Why do human females have such a long post-reproductive life?
Fathers provide most mutations


Chapter 8: Darwin at the Farm

Lessons from potatoes
Making a better tomato
Mornings are for coffee and contemplation
Unintended consequences of improving crop yield
Vavilov’s Legacy

Chapter 9: Managing Agriculture

Benjamin Walsh, Darwinism, and pest control
Herbicide resistance
Insecticide resistance
Biological control
Gene drives to thwart agricultural pests

Chapter 10: Buccaneers of Buzz: Bees and Pollination

Emily Dickinson and bees
The benefits of bees
A closer look at bee diversity
Genetic oddities of bees
A closer look at honey bees
Threats to bees
Pathogens and parasites
Darwinian beekeeping and the wisdom of the hive


Chapter 11: The Biodiversity Crisis

The biodiversity crisis
Barcoding to catalogue biodiversity
Genetic rescue
Minimal viable size
The new threat: Climate change
Genetic rescue revisited
Conservation and the microbiota

Chapter 12: Challenges in the Ocean

The Threats to Life in the Oceans
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
Chronic exposure to toxins
Warming in the oceans
Ocean acidification
The Big Picture

Chapter 13: Challenges in the City

Cities are full of life
The peppered moth
Urbanization and the great sort
Urban foxes evolve short snouts and urban plants evolve to stop dispersing
Hot time – summer in the city!
Big brains in the big city?
Roads and evolution
Speciation in the city
Urbanization and the microbiota

Chapter 14: Challenges from Invasive Species

The cane toad invasion
Gough Island and its rodents of unusual size
The threat from invasive species
Herbert Baker and the ideal weed
Becoming invasive
Native species responses to invasive species
Invasive pathogens: the case of the amphibian-killing fungus


Chapter 15: The sequence on the Stand

The search for the Golden State Killer
DNA fingerprinting
The sequence on the stand
The microbes of death

Chapter 16: Darwinian Security

Rafe Sagarin’s quest
Games animals, people, and nations play
Arms races and extreme weapons
Living with threats
Direct application to asymmetric warfare

Chapter 17: Human Genetic Diversity and the Non-existence of Biological Races

Cheddar Man
Race in America
No Races, Only Clines
Ancient DNA and Neanderthals
Ancient DNA: Denisovans and Ghosts
Only Skin Deep
Troublesome Science

Epilogue: Lessons Learned and Lamentable Lacunae

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Norman Johnson is an evolutionary geneticist, who received his B. S. from William and Mary (1987) and a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester (1992). His doctoral thesis was on the genetics of hybrid sterility between different species of Drosophila. He was a postdoctoral fellow with Michael Wade on quantitative genetics of hybrid traits between species of Tribolium flour beetles at the University of Chicago. Johnson teaches classes in genetics and/or evolution. Most of his research has been on the genetics and evolution of why hybrids between species are often sterile or inviable. Other research interests include the evolution of sex chromosomes, the evolution of extremely large dietary niches in insects, and the interplay between the relaxation of selection and the loss of traits. He wrote Darwinian Detectives: Revealing the Natural History of Genes and Genomes, published in 2007. Johnson was the lead organizer for a working group at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (in Durham, NC) on Communicating the Relevance of Human Evolution. One of the outcomes was a paper for American Biology Teacher that addresses the question, “if humans evolved from chimps, why are there still chimps?” Johnson was the section editor for the Applied Evolution section of the Encyclopedia of Evolution . He wrote three of the entries (overview of evolutionary medicine and cancer, pest management, and evolution and breeding) and commissioned a dozen other entries in subjects ranging from evolution and climate change response to evolutionary computation to evolution and national security.


In Darwin’s Reach, Norman Johnson takes Dobzhansky’s assertion that ‘nothing in biology makes sense outside the light of evolution’ to a new level. This remarkable book demonstrates how an evolutionary ‘lens’ can deepen our understanding of critical issues. With compelling prose and masterful scientific storytelling, Johnson shows exactly how powerfully evolution can illuminate and transform a remarkably wide range of human concerns, disciplines and domains. An invaluable resource for students, teachers, and anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the human experience–past, present and future.

 — B. Natterson-Horowitz, MD, Harvard Medical School

Darwin’s Reach is an intellectual tour de force that synthesizes findings about evolution from numerous fields and concretely shows how insights from pest management can help us manage invasive species as well as invasive cancers, antibiotic resistance, and much, much more. Norman Johnson is not only an eloquent tour guide who clearly unpacks complex evolutionary principles, experiments, and insights, but he’s also a public relations expert showing us how and why evolution matters to us all. This is a must read for anyone interested in evolutionary medicine, sustainable agriculture, the biodiversity crisis, and, more generally, in the intellectual challenges of applying scientific knowledge.

 — Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California Los Angeles