George C. Williams
The Pony Fish's Glow : And Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature

"What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!" -- Charles Darwin (as quoted in Huxley, p. 228)
The title of this book is a misnomer. It should have been, Mother Nature is Stupid, Cruel, and Fascinating. Williams barely touches on pony fishes. He delves into a variety of thought-provoking biological topics showing on the one hand that such things as the sun, human eyes, and the draping of the testicles over the ureter are ample evidence for a lack of plan and purpose in the universe and on the other hand showing that medical science needs to become more involved in examining natural selection in order to improve medical care. These opinions are the complete opposite of a movement today that seeks to eradicate and ignore evolutionary knowledge.

Had I read The Pony Fish's Glow when in high school or early in college, I probably would have went into biology. He presents the field as such an interesting study, with major implications to nearly everyone and everything on the planet, that it would have been hard to choose another area to make a career out of. His ideas are somewhat revolutionary when he calls for people to look first at why something is happening medically rather than immediately try to counter the symptoms. Natural selection is the means by which far more than 'just' evolution has occurred. Selection and its ramifications should also be applied to pre-natal care, human diets, future technology, and other areas of life and the sciences.

Although he didn't go into several of the topics in as much depth as I would have liked, he provides an excellent annotated bibliography for further study on most of the issues he brings up. My only real complaint is that the book wasn't long enough. ;)

Williams explores how organisms have evolved in nature to "solve the problems of life." Williams accepts the so-called "adaptationist program" of "plan and purpose" in biology: that is, the idea that each attribute of an organism relates in some way to its efforts to survive and pass on its genes.

The fish referred to in the book's title possesses light-generating cells that glow through its belly. The point of this uncanny quality, Williams suggests, has to do with the fish's habitat: It lives in deep ocean waters, and the light cells in its belly will match whatever faint sunlight penetrates the water, rendering the fish invisible to potential predators lurking below. There are also some teacherly essays on Darwinism in nature, rehearsing the old vitalism versus mechanism debates, describing with clarity and skill how natural selection operates to keep what has proven to be adaptive and cull the extremes. Williams uses as his examples such disparate events as the long evolution leading to the right size egg for a given species or the process leading to establishing the right number in a litter of young. He considers such essential matters as sex, pregnancy, aging, and death in a series of chapters exhibiting a fascination with the art of conflict and compromise in nature.

Among the topics: why we have sex, why sperm are so small and eggs, in comparison, so big, why women get morning sickness and sometimes develop high blood pressure or diabetes while pregnant. Considering the evolution of body parts, Williams makes clear that we are flawed creations, demonstrating both "the power and the limitations of the evolutionary process." In sum, some old, some new variations on the question of design (or the lack of it) in nature, by an old hand, who, if he hasn't quite the style of Stephen Jay Gould, is nonetheless well worth reading.

Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction: Plan and Purpose in Nature
1. Adaptationist Storytelling
2. Functional Design and Natural Selection
3. Design for What?
4. The Adaptive Body
5. What Use Is Sex?
6. The Human Experience of Sex and Reproduction
7. Old Age and Other Curses
8. Medical Implications
9. Philosophical Implications