Book Review: George Barlow’s new book

Book Review
by Helen Hastings

The aquarium lights go out at a certain time every evening, and what’s a fishkeeper to do but… read about fish?

The Cichlid Fishes: Nature’s Grand Experiment in Evolution
George W. Barlow, Professor Emeritus, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California at Berkeley
Perseus Books, 2000

Cichlidophiles can find many books on their favorite subject. These works, however, seem to go directly from beginner guides to dry, semi-scientific texts, perhaps poorly translated into English, with nothing in between. But publishing, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Dr. George W. Barlow has woven together his own research with that of other scientists into a rich narrative of cichlid family history to fill this void. The Cichlid Fishes does read like a family history—flashy cousins, famous uncles, strange ancestors and the like—and science is their family diary.

No mistake, this is a serious exploration of Cichlidian evolutionary success. The important research Barlow and his peers have performed over the decades has answered many questions. Experiments and observation have shown that the Cichlids’ spectacular rate of speciation arises from the physical characteristics of their jaws, thus increasing dietary options.

The strength of the research also lies in how many more questions it has raised. For example, the subject of parental care is understandably a dominant theme. The way the Discus feeds its young from secretions in its skin is documented, and the follow on question is, how did mammalian milk production evolve? The body of Cichlid data is a springboard for evolutionary studies everywhere.

Throughout this “serious” work, the reader finds that he or she is studying complex scientific theory painlessly. Barlow writes about his favorite subject with affection and humor, in a way that the hobbyist can enjoy as well as those who make a living in the field of biology. Definitions of scientific terms are seamlessly incorporated into the Cichlid story. After reading this book, you may find yourself spouting off words like “polygynandry” and “trophic” at your next hobbyist club meeting as if you were discussing the weather.

As in any family history, the story includes speculation on the future. What will happen to the fishes in this unsure world? Barlow gives statistics on the state of the Earth’s waters and our affect on them, and presents his own opinions on their significance, based on the biology of Cichlids. Will Cichlids have a chance to continue evolving?

You, dear reader, are invited to explore Cichlid Fishes for yourself, in order to form your own opinion.

Surfing the web is something else you can do when the tank lights go out. For more information about The Cichlid Fishes, Dr. Barlow and his work, see his web page at

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