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1 April 2000 Fundamentals of Molecular Evolution, 2nd Edition
Andrew W. Douglas
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Dan Graur and Wen-Hsiung Li. 1999. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts. x + 443 pp. ISBN 0-87893-266-6. Paper, $48.95.—There exists a tremendous range of data and theory regarding the patterns and processes of molecular evolution. In a concise manner, Graur and Li provide a synopsis on the basic and dynamic elements underlying the theories and practices necessary to understand and derive this knowledge. Like the first edition (1991), the second edition attempts to bridge the data (e.g. molecular biology) with the concepts and theories (e.g. population genetics and systematics) and does so in an exceptional manner, synthesizing much of the information gained over the last decade into a broad evolutionary context. The authors state in the preface that “We set out to write a book for ‘beginners’ in molecular evolution.” This volume certainly represents an excellent primer for beginners, but it also embodies a valuable reference for more-advanced students and scientists with an interest in the field. This is partly due to its comprehensive breadth regarding the rapidly enlarging theoretical and practical framework in molecular evolutionary studies. Using the scientific method and a straightforward writing style, Graur and Li use mathematical and intuitive explanations to address problems in molecular evolution including subjects such as likelihood, mutation, transposons, genomic evolution, exon and intron change, duplication, RNA viruses, concerted evolution, and the C-value paradox.

The organization of the chapters is fairly consistent. In most cases, key concepts are introduced with brevity and clarity and the operating terms are defined. Many of the subjects are discussed within a scientific framework and are often provided with supporting evidence, alternate theories, and clear mathematical or biological examples. Most chapters contain good citations of the primary literature, and the end of each chapter includes a valuable list of papers and books suggested for further reading.

The first three chapters provide the foundation for the remainder of the book. These chapters are an excellent review of the genetics of the evolutionary process. They interweave some of the important concepts of population genetics in an outstanding manner, particularly at the level of understanding genic and nucleotide diversity. The third chapter is a commendable review of the tools and concepts necessary to use the comparative approach in the field of molecular evolution.

The fourth and fifth chapters cover a broad range of topics. In many ways, these chapters serve as a jumping-off point to the utility of molecular evolution in investigating basic questions of molecular and organismal diversity. Particularly impressive is the emphasis on the potential factors associated with rates of mutational change (e.g. adaptive radiations, loss of function, replication-dependent and replication-independent factors, gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, and synonymous vs. non-synonymous patterns). There is ample discussion regarding the various distance methods used, and the mathematical arguments are easily followed.

The final three chapters are a concise synthesis of some of the most recent discoveries within an evolutionary context. In these chapters, Graur and Li introduce theoretical and methodological elements involving genomic diversity and evolution as well as many of the problems being encountered in molecular evolution. These chapters illustrate the dynamic theories and mechanics of molecular evolution and are an excellent foundation for outside discussion and inquiry. The two appendices are also helpful. The first is a brief discussion of the spatial and temporal geological scales and their relevance to species diversity and the field of molecular evolution in general, and the second is a discussion on some of the basic elements of probability.

A key feature of the book, and one extremely relevant to avian biologists, is that it transcends any organismal bias for the more straightforward task of addressing contemporary and classical issues in evolutionary biology using molecular and theoretical techniques. In many cases, the examples are lucid and well chosen. Any book that treats such a diverse and large body of knowledge, particularly in a rapidly expanding and changing field, cannot escape the occasional error. For example, the authors cite paleobotanical evidence regarding the origin of the angiosperms to support elements of the molecular clock theory in part. Unfortunately, however, the paleobotanical data cited were misdated, and one hopes that such information does not enter into the world of dogma.

The second edition of Graur and Li's Fundamentals of Molecular Evolution is an essential tool for an introductory molecular biology or upper level/graduate evolution class, although a wider audience will probably appreciate its comprehensive and abbreviated discussions of multiple theories within different contexts. For example, scientists from other fields who have an interest in the progress of molecular evolutionary studies would find this text very approachable and a valuable desktop reference. It also provides useful information for population geneticists and systematists by clearly explaining the mechanics of molecular biology and, similarly, by demonstrating the application of data in a conceptual and analytical evolutionary framework for molecular biologists. Fortunately, the authors did not refine or shorten the book by excluding certain examples and theories. Instead, they embrace the scientific format and provide an intricate forum for additional discussion and critical thinking.


Andrew W. Douglas "Fundamentals of Molecular Evolution, 2nd Edition," The Auk 117(2), 536-537, (1 April 2000).[0536:FOMEE]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 April 2000
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