1st Edition

Darwin's Reach 21st Century Applications of Evolutionary Biology

By Norman A. Johnson Copyright 2022
    430 Pages 21 Color & 10 B/W Illustrations
    by CRC Press

    430 Pages 21 Color & 10 B/W Illustrations
    by CRC Press

    430 Pages 21 Color & 10 B/W Illustrations
    by CRC Press

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    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).



    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


    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

    "… the manifold areas of applied evolutionary biology have not been comprehensively described until now. Norman A. Johnson, at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, has stepped up to the challenge… 

    Johnson starts with present-day issues, such as phage therapy, in which selection for phage resistance in pathogenic bacteria may reduce their resistance to antibiotics providing an opportunity to introduce natural selection and costs of adaptation. The chapter "Going Viral" treats viral epidemics, focusing on the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic and illustrating the use of phylogenetic inference in tracing the spread of such epidemics….

    Johnson has done a real service in his well- researched (with about 900 literature citations) review of a very diverse, sprawling subject. He has written a fine book, a remarkably comprehensive survey of an important dimension of evolutionary biology. "

    Douglas Futuyma in Evolution, 2023

    "Johnson undertakes a wide variety of topics… including evolutionary medicine, pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS, mosquito-borne diseases, personalized medicine, cancer, agriculture, biodiversity, and invasive species. He concludes with a few chapters on evolution and society, including genetic analysis in criminal investigations, warfare, and the non-existence of human biological races…I would not hesitate to suggest it as supplementary reading for interested undergraduates. It should provide useful insights for evolutionary biologists, geneticists and health professionals. " 

     — Michael A. Goldman In Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 2023.