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The 12 Days of Books to Buy for Your Science Readers: On the Eleventh Day of Book Lists…

books on evolution and Darwin. The first four deal with evolution and natural (or unnatural) selection and their possible applications for human use. The last three are more historical in focus.

 Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution by Jonathan B. Losos. 2017. Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-0-399-18492-5.

losos2017Dr. Losos is a major name in evolutionary theory, especially ideas about speciation. In this book, he provides his take on the predictability of evolution. If, as Gould put it, we rewound the tape of life, how closely would it play out gin? Are the similarites we see between disparate groups due to convergent evolution because of selective forces or are they random chance? Losos talks about his research on anoles and a host of work from other people to examine this question. If you re interested in the role of fate, as some people might call it, in evolution, and understanding how evolution could work to create such a thing, you should definitely read this book. Losos has a knack for pointing out assumptions and how they lead people into conclusions not supported by the data, or at least, not as firmly rooted in fact as people might, um, assume.

Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw. 2018. Princeton University Press (Princeton and Oxford). ISBN 978-0-691-15706-1

grouw2018Grouw has written a fascinating book on selection as done by humans. Many people argue against evolution while having no problems with the evolution they witness by breeders. Humans have bent and twisted plant and animal forms for their own purposes such that people would not recognize the original organism as being at all closely related to the final products through the use of selective breeding, unknowingly perfectly copying the process of natural selection. If this was the only takeaway from this book, it would be worth recommending. But this is also an art book. Grouw’s illustrations are amazing. There are several illustrations that I would happily use in talks because they are inspired. If this was just an anatomical art book, I would happily recommend it. With everything taken into account, if you have any interest at all in bones and the incredible plasticity of species, you need to get this book.

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuizen. 2018. Picador. ISBN-13: 978-1250127822

menno2018People tend to think of evolution as moving slowly. Much has been said of humanity’s impact upon the planet and the difficulty of organisms surviving in such a changed world. But sometimes, evolution can move quickly enough that we can see it happening and record it, and we don’t have to go far to witness it. As we have become almost ubiquitous across the planet and our cities have spread, other organisms have been forced to adapt to the urban lifestyle just as humans re having to do. Dr. Schilthuizen brings a fascinating account of nonhuman life adapting the the stresses of modern urban living. He discusses the many factors that influence different animals, the stresses they face, and the adaptations in body and behavior that urban ecologists such as himself have recorded, and what it may mean for the future.

This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution by David Sloane Wilson. Pantheon, 2019. ISBN-13: 978-1101870204

wilsondavid2019Like other books on this list, Dr. Wilson attempts to explain evolutionary concepts for the general public. Other books have discussed the impact of genetics and heredity, of evolution in general, on humans, human thought, and human cultures. Wilson goes a bit farther than others on one aspect. This book focuses on evolution in human society. We have had the Darwinian revolution in biology. It is not only well accepted, but has gone through multiple iterations, being refined and improved over decades and millions of observations and experiments. It is time, he says, to complete the Darwinian revolution by incorporating our understanding into our culture and policies. To some, this is going to dredge up visions of the early 20th century evils of social Darwinism and eugenics, but that is not what Wilson is advocating at all. His aim is to show how understanding genetics and evolutionary processes, we can guide more informed social policies that benefit, rather than harm both societies and individuals. By understanding what drives us, we can take those factors into account to avoid pitfalls and past mistakes. He is answering the question that is often asked by people trying to justify removing it from schools, “Why do we need to understand evolution?”. He explains why it is of benefit everyone understand evolution and how it works.

Moving on from the workings of evolution and its uses in the present and future, the next three books deal with Darwin in a historical context. From Darwin’s Ghosts to Darwin’s Fossils and The Making of Sexual Selection, these books seek to put the man and his work in their proper historical perspective.

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott. 2012. Spiegel & Grau. ISBN-13:978-1400069378


Yes, this is an older book, it was published seven years ago, but it’s an important one. There is this popular belief that Darwin came up with the idea of evolution on his own, springing up from nothing, and if we punch holes in anything Darwin said, we somehow disprove all of evolutionary theory. Besides the fact that evolutionary theory has itself evolved in the over 160 years since Darwin published his treatise, Darwin did not come up with the idea of evolution. That idea was already old hat and commonly accepted among scientists, if not everyone. What Darwin did was to come up with a mechanism for the changes wrought by evolution. Stott provides an important service by examining the history of evolutionary thought that Darwin built upon, a history that dates back much farther past Darwin than Darwin is from the present, a history well known to Darwin which formed the foundation for Darwin’s own research and ideas.

Darwin’s Fossils: The Collection That Shaped the Theory of Evolution by Adrian Lister. Smithsonian Books. ISBN-13: 978-1588346179

lister2018.jpgMost people are familiar with the story of Darwin visiting the Galapagos Islands, which inspired him to develop the theory of natural selection. Of course, he went to a lot more places than just the Galapagos and he studied a lot more than just finches. Not a lot of people know he also studied fossils. He even mentions the paucity of the fossil record for which he was aware as a potential problem for his hypothesis (fortunately, we have discovered a lot more since then). He not only examined fossils in many museums, he collected the first mammal fossils from South America for study, along with several other fossils from the Andes. Lister has collected photos and drawings from museums all over the world documenting Darwin’s fossil collections and discusses how they contributed to Darwin’s understanding of evolution.

Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards. 2017. University of  Chicago Press. ISBN: 9780226436906


Darwin is most famous for his theory of natural selection, but a crucial part of that are his ideas on sexual selection. Whereas natural selection, as it is commonly viewed, deals with the selective survival of offspring long enough to have their own, sexual selection deals with mate choice to create those offspring. These ideas are no less important, but they often get overlooked in general discussions. about Darwin.  The general conversation of sexual selection often begins and ends with the peacock’s tail, but the theory is much richer and more involved. It is also a crucial aspect of understanding behavior in animals, including ourselves. Richards provides a meticulous study of Darwin’s work on sexual selection, teasing out his inspirations, methods, and thoughts as he develops his ideas.

Tomorrow we wrap up 12 days with a motley assortment of books about dinosaurs, snakes, superbugs, and two books on why science is important for everyone, not just scientists.

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