Photo: A spread from Evolution: A Visual Record by Robert Clark (Phaidon).
The wonder of life is its ever-changing forms; it’s ability to adapt, to grow, and to thrive in a new norm. The on-going process of progress has brought us to the present day, to a world in which we continuously discover the miraculous nature of sheer existence.
In his landmark 1859 book, On the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin understood that the process of evolution follows the path of natural selection. We adapt—or we die, unsuited to carry on in a world that puts survival above all. But that which can adjust itself, flourishes, not just in its ability to replicate, but in the sheer beauty and vitality which is health.
Having dedicated more then twenty years of his life to shooting for National Geographic, award-winning photographer Robert Clark is well versed in the magnificent form that flora and fauna take, and has put this knowledge to work in Evolution: A Visual Record (Phaidon). The book is a comprehensive history of evolution illustrated with lush, evocative photographs that explore the mysteries of life.
The book begins with the theory of evolution, which is less than two centuries old—a radical change in Western thinking that shook the foundations of religious, philosophical, and scientific thought. “I am a firm believer that without speculation, there is no good and original observation,” Darwin said, willing to challenge the establishment in search of truth, and reminding us of the importance that the rules of nature supercede the will of wo/man.
Evolution reveals these rules in their many forms, as the book traverses the history of life with chapters of ancient history, birds, cold blooded animals, plants, insects, and mammals before finally arriving at the most meta chapter of them all: the evolution of evolution.
Each chapter uses a series of examples beautifully photographed and captioned to explain the significant evolutionary aspects being revealed here. Clark reminds us, “It’s sometimes tempting to think of evolution as an elegant, purposeful process, endlessly striving toward some perfect match between a species’ form and its environment. But of course that’s not true: It is actually a vast, grinding ending of random mutation and change, filled with dead-ends, wrong turns, and irrelevancies, along with the seemingly ideal forms we see all around us.”
It is a wise way to begin the book, asking us to forgo any sentimentalities or desire to romanticize nature—for nature is brutal. We see this in the chapter on ancient history, on what has died out, unable to survive the fortunes of fate. Take the mysterious Homo naledi, which lived in the same section of South Africa at the dawn of humankind—and was only discovered a couple of years ago. Who was H. naledi? How does this discovery impact our understanding of evolution? We know of the past through the fossils left behind; there is so much that has disappeared we would be wise to remember Darwin’s call for speculation as we progress.
Each chapter builds on the previous, creating an interconnected web between the many forms of life and the ways they interrelate. Evolution occurs as a result of requirement. For example, the walking leaf mantis has adapted to camouflage itself to the plants it lives among in order to avoid detection from predators.
Whereas the domestic dog has evolved along with human beings over a period of 40,000 years, adapting itself to meet our needs, be it physical, intellectual, or emotional. Clark writes, “According to the scale of typical evolution, most dog breeds have been in existence for only an eyeblink of time. But by the standards of human history, many are practically ancient, demonstrating both the longevity and the tightness of the bond between humans and canines.”
We have evolved together and continue to do so—adapting to meet the challenges and requirements of life as the environment demands. Evolution: A Visual Record gives us a sense of the complexities of life that underlie it all, reminding us of the strength and the very fragility of existence on earth—and the ways in which humanity can alter that dynamic for better or for worse.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.