Complexity by William C. Burger (book review)

July 14, 2016 | By | Reply More

Given a choice of titles, the shorter ‘Complexity’ could mean anything. The extended title, ‘The Future Of Earth’s Biodiversity And The Future Of Mankind’ puts a different complexion on William C. Burger’s book. We are not only looking at evolution but where it leads. What you will find is how so much information sinks in so well. I mean, the biggest diversity of species happened when species lived on land and the biggest of all of these is the beetles. As Burger describes it, beetles are God’s favourite species as there are so many of them. Some 38,000 species at last count and more are always being found. Insects as a whole are a late developer in evolution as they didn’t appear until creatures stayed on land and where if they have a water connection, its fresh not saltwater.


As Burger builds up the picture of life around the world, starting from bacteria up, it becomes apparent that all species, at some time or other, share genetic material. Not necessarily always successful, look at the sterile mule, but a reassurance that where we are now learning how to gene-splice, nature has been an old hand at it for many millennia, as that’s how bacteria take on different characteristics. Biodiversity, that is each generation there are slight differences, ensures that most species can survive many major catastrophes or environmental changes that can infect or affect it. The understanding of bacteria, I should point out, is how we currently have ‘human’ insulin made by bacteria which enables Type One diabetics like myself to stay alive. Failure to change sufficiently was the downfall of the dinosaur although some members of its species survived and prospered as the birds have shown.

If you only thought that the Galapagos finches and Australian marsupials were only the demonstration of a limited choice of species expanding to fill a particular niche, Burger gives various examples from across the world, including Hawaii and Madagascar and the fact that certain animals, like lemurs, are propagating new sub-species, currently 101 up from 16 since it was first observed. A demonstration of evolution isn’t something that happened a long time ago but still going on not only with animal life but plants as well.

Something Burger does that I can’t recall seeing very often in evolution books is looking at the links between species and tectonic plate movement. This becomes very important when certain species appear on both sides of an ocean showing how far the two continents, as with South America and China, have drifted apart. It then becomes important in observing how they evolved from that point although they do tend to stay within their niche. However, they also become linked as ‘hotspots’ for biodiversity as more species, animal and plant, develop to fill in the gaps in the food chain. Ecology in practice if you will, all done to ensure species reproduce to keep their line going. Burger’s examples of how the actions of animals, like sheep eating grass, leaves openings for other plants to spawn in a meadow. Nature, if anything, is an opportunist.

An odd fact that I never put together before is that several of the products some plants produce are in fact to deter insects eating them and principally are cocaine, morphine and caffeine amongst others. Although some plants produce poison to kill their predators, some prefer to give them an unpleasant acid trip instead. In a similar way, plants also take advantage of the effect of the likes of legumes which add nitrogen to the soil. I tend to put that down to more like a lucky accident which would have happened sooner or later. In a similar way, bacteria have adjusted to being capable of digesting such poisons and ultimately a source for our antibiotics.

Burger also opened my eyes as to why marsupials give birth to their young so prematurely. Without a placenta, the offspring faces rejection from the body. I did wonder on this in as far as why didn’t marsupials evolve a placenta over the millennia but suspect that the survival rate their way didn’t encourage any possible mutant strain from surviving or at least becoming wide-spread. Environmentally, I suspect, marsupials haven’t needed to change as their habitat largely unchanged and haven’t needed to change. If that isn’t a demonstration of stagnation in evolutionary development, I don’t know what is. Newer mammal species that have been introduced to Australia aren’t under similar restrictions so I do wonder how they will change over the long haul. However Burger goes on to say that until the Europeans came to North America, there was a similar status quo there as well which got quickly eroded by the species not being able to adapt.

Lest you think mankind is being left out, Burger does a quick resume of our own evolution, even if some areas, like limb changes sounds a little like Lamarckism. I mean, longer thinner arms and legs tend to fall under that category if it was the options of choice and not those surviving to breed. All it really means is those with those characteristics had better survival chances than those who didn’t because they could get at the choice items of food and didn’t starve. It’s less the species picking these options but those that were best surviving with them. Something useful Burger points out is that fair skin, to absorb more vitamin D from the sun, and red hair were characteristics of Neanderthals and came across from cross-breeding. One thing that did puzzle me is with humans in earlier times cannibalising their rival tribes, why was there no Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease or other such problems but when you consider their shorter life-spans, maybe that never had a chance to develop.

The look at how the human population is changing the world should make most people think. Unlike the beetles, we obviously aren’t doing enough to maintain the ecology as we should. Although I expected Burger to be preachy about this at the end, his text is more about recording what is going on than offer solutions. In some respects, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He hints at how the populations from poorer countries want the kind of life-style that the wealthier countries have in terms of some immigration. Thinking about that, you would have to ask yourself would they still come had they had such ‘home comforts’ in their own countries but things are more complex than that.

As you can tell from the length of this review, I did learn a lot of things, as well as getting some different perspective and thinking on others. If you treat ‘Complexity’ as a starting block to understand different aspects of evolution and that it is still going on today, with some instances faster than others, then you will realise that the world is not in a static place and we are watching evolution at work in many species. For me, I’m still wondering why lemurs are evolving new species when humans are not. After all, we are spread around the world but maybe it’s because we adapt the world to our needs, not the other way around. What does their genome know that we don’t?

GF Willmetts

July 2016

(pub: Prometheus Books. 339 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $26.00 (US), $27.50 (CAN) , £19.02 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-63388-193-8. Ebook: $11.99 (US), $13.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-194-5))

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Category: Books, Science


About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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