A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change – and the Limits of Evolution by Felipe Fernández-Armesto - review by John Gray

John Gray

Transmuting the Point

A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change – and the Limits of Evolution


Oxford University Press 294pp £20 order from our bookshop

In a popular American blog propagating Darwinism, Felipe Fernández-Armesto reports, a well-known biologist with mildly unorthodox views has been described as needing a ‘good punch in the balls’. Fernández-Armesto writes, ‘This is almost as nasty as any odium theologicum rival religious dogmatists have ever exchanged.’ It is a characteristically civilised comment on what has become a thoroughly uncivilised debate. For some of its most ardent proponents, Darwinism is not a scientific theory about the origins and development of living things but instead a comprehensive world-view. For these evangelists, evolution enables us to understand everything that exists – not least human culture.[1pass]

A mix of wide and deep learning and rigorous argument, beautifully written, A Foot in the River demolishes this way of thinking. Fernández-Armesto is no enemy of science. Already in the early 1970s he was holding a seminar with a colleague on what they called ‘historical ecology’, which aimed ‘to

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