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I have gone through all days days of book lists, but I thought I would finish up the year by bringing it up to a baker’s dozen, an extra gift for the holidays. This time, I present a list of weird, kooky, and fun books, but still at least somewhat related to to fossils, evolution, and zoology.
Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? The Hilarious History of Creationist Pseudoscience at Its Silliest by Paul Senter. 2019. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle Upon Tyne. ISBN: 978-1-5275-3042-3.
Needless to say, I am in disagreement with creationists. But I am sometimes in awe of just how far they will go to support their beliefs. Some creationists have gone to great lengths to support their view. Ironically, a common theme pushed by creationists is a form of hyper evolution taking place far faster than any rational person could possibly accept, with dozens of new species being created with each generation for hundreds of years. Senter has collected some of the more outrageous examples here, including the one giving the title to the book, an idea that dragons were actually dinosaurs that literally breathed fire, according to the creationists that proposed and support the idea. To be fair, these ideas are not supported by all creationists and scientists supporting evolution have come up with their own unbelievably silly notions from time to time (sailing dimetrodons, anyone?), but looking at the silliness helps us to remember that keeping an open mind and true skepticism are actually very similar. Both say look at the evidence before accepting or rejecting an idea and never try to twist the data to fit a preconceived opinion. The difference between pseudoscience and science is that while both invite speculation and imagination, science requires supporting evidence before one accepts it and then periodically revisits it to see if it still holds up under new evidence.
Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths by Darren Naish. 2016. Arcturus Press. ISBN: 1784288624
of requiring evidence, cryptozoology is another great topic for science versus pseudoscience. A common fallacy many people fall into is that idea that all ideas and opinions are equal, so if you can’t disprove something, you should accept it as true. No, logic dictates you should ask for evidence before accepting something as real. Otherwise, we are forced to accept every cockamamie thing everyone says, which would be ridiculous and would lead us straight away into doom. Naish here does a great job of debunking the most popular myths of today. Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, and others are known around the world, but the evidence indicates they don’t actually exist. The myths make for a wonderfully interesting read and they do spark the imagination, part of why they are so popular, but the reality is a bit different. Naish makes the reality a fascinating read too, so one can enjoy the stories and still retain the sense of wonder even while understanding the reality. Naish’s takes on why these myths are so popular makes an interesting read in and of itself. I have the book, you should too.
The Loch Ness Mystery Reloaded by Ronald Binns. 2017. Zoilus Press. ISBN-13: 978-1999735906
The Loch Ness monster, aka “Nessie,” is arguably the best known of all cryptids, with dozens of books and movies to supposedly uncover the truth. Binns has written several books on Nessie. This book is a follow up to his 1985 book, “The Loch Ness Mystery Solved,” in which he discusses all the evidence to date for the creature. After going through everything, what does he find? Hoaxes, misunderstandings, a lot of people not understanding biology or physics, and absolutely no evidence that stands up to scrutiny. This is probably the best book available for collecting all the available evidence and understanding what it really means. If you are interested in the Loch Ness monster, you will want to get this book.
Decline and Fall of the Loch Ness Monster: Contested Histories and Revisionist Tales by Ronald Binns. 2019. Zoilus Press. ISBN-13: 978-1999735937
Binns was not done with Nessie in 2017. This year sees yet another book on the topic by Binns. In this book, he reviews past writings about the creature and looks at the evolution of Nessie as a cultural phenomenon through the varied tales by various authors who altered, enhanced, embellished, and added to previous stories, with Nessie changing in appearance and personality along the way.At the end, Nessie has become something that is less believed as real and more accepted as fun legend, believed in as an expression of the desire for mystery still being out there.
Disentangled: Ethnozoology and Environmental Explanation of the Gloucester Sea Serpent by Robert France. 2019. Wageningen Academic Publishers. ISBN 978-90-8686-335-8
Sea serpents are central in stories of maritime adventures. One of the most famous and supposedly most often reported is the Gloucester sea serpent seen around the east coast of the United States in the 1800s. This book, as it states, is the definitive work on the subject, detailing all the stories, sightings, and suppositions about the serpent. More importantly, it goes into what it might actually have been using sound knowledge of actual ecology and zoology. If you want to know all about the most famous of supposedly real, but probably not, maritime monsters and what it might really have been, check out this book. It is an excellent work on scientific study of a nonscientific topic.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. 2017. Tor. SBN-13: 978-0765395238
This book was recently suggested to me and I find the whole premise just hilariously fascinating. Gailey tells the true story of an astoundingly poorly thought out plot by the United States government to import hippos and introduce them to the swamps of Louisiana. Ostensibly, the idea was to create an alternative food source. Sadly for those of us who love the idea of hippos in the States, things did not go as planned and the idea was abandoned. Just think, if things had gone differently, we could have had stories of people being killed by hippos right here. Hippos, in case you don’t know, are far more dangerous than alligators or crocodiles. They are big, they are strong, they have huge mouths with enormous teeth, and they are famously aggressive and territorial. Crocodiles flee from hippos for good reason.
What would the holidays be without zombies? So to properly celebrate, here are a couple of books to fill that need.
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain by Tomothy Versteynen and Bradley Voytek. 2014. Princeton University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0691157283
Ok, so this book is not exactly new, but it is new to me and honestly, how many books out there actually take a serious look at zombies from a neurological perspective and are written by actual neuroscientists? One that I know of. This book looks at various behaviors in zombies and then tries to explain them using real neuroscience. Along the way, they cover loads of real science and facts about the human brain. So if you like zombies and real brain science, you should find this book hilariously informative. It may be a bit dated, but it is still a fun read. By the time you finish this book, not only will you know more about the brain, but you will know why zombies are always saying, “braaaaiiinsssss.”
Plight of the Living Dead: What Real Life Zombies Reveal About Our World-And Ourselves by Matt Simon. 2018. Penguin Random House. ISBN 9780143131410
Zombies are real. Maybe not the undead human, flesh-eating monsters of the movies, but therea re otehr versions. Fungi that take over the minds of ants, until they explode out of their heads. Wasps that sting roaches in the brain and turn them into living incubators. Parasites that cause animals to walk into the open mouths of their predators. Zombies are everywhere. This book gleefully explores zombies in real life and all the ways other creatures can hijack our brains.
And so we come to the end of our collection of books. Hopefully in all the books covered, you have been able to find something of interest to keep you busy during the holidays and beyond. Happy holidays!
On this, the last day of book lists (or is it…), I bring you a motley assortment of books about dinosaurs, snakes, and science. To begin with, I want to include a book that had been meant to be on the list for Monday, along with Norell’s book. For the life of me, I do not know how it got deleted from the list. But better late than never, I present possibly the best dinosaur book of 2018.
Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved, 2nd edition, by Darren Naish and Paul Barrett. 2018. Natural History Museum. ISBN-13: 978-0565094768
The Natural History Museum of London is known for putting out well regarded books for both the general populace and technical readers. Combine that with two paleontologists well regarded for both their scientific expertise and their ability to write for the general audience and you have a recipe for a great book. This is the paperback version of a book published in 2016. Ordinarily, that would make this kind of pointless, unless you just want to save some money over the price of a hardcover. However, it has been an eventful two years in dinosaur paleontology and Naish and Barrett took the opportunity to revise the book, making this a true second edition and one well worth getting. They even included new and better artwork, which you can see before you even open the book, as the cover art is notably different, marking a shift in tone in the artwork from the old style dinosaurs as monsters, as Naish puts it, to newer dinosaurs as living animals and part of a healthy ecosystem. All in all, if you haven’t picked up the first edition, definitely get this one. If you have already gotten it, go ahead and get this one too.
Thunder Lizard: The Art of Steve White by Steve White. 2019.
Steve White put together the wonderful Dinosaur Art books showcasing some of the best paleoart around. Now he has put out a book showcasing his own art. He has some wonderful art of dinosaurs, sharks, and others. White has included sketches showing the development of some of the art from concept to finished pieces, making the book an interesting look into his process of creating paleoart. the only thing bad bout this book i want to say is that I know of no way to buy the book currently other than asking him directly for a copy, so contact him here for your copy.
American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus by Ilja Nieuwland. 2019. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN-13: 978-0822945574
Dippy the Diplodocus is one of the most famous dinosaurs of all time, having a home for decades in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London. Dippy is one of several casts of the original that was made on the orders of Andrew Carnegie, who endeavored to supply the major museums in the United States and Europe with their own copies of the dinosaur, spreading its fame across the world. This book is an account of Carnegie’s campaign, from its origins and inspirations to reception of the dinosaur. It is a fascinating tale of dinosaur philanthropy back in the day that helped to inspire millions and spawned the dinosaur mania in modern culture and set the stage for the dinosaur research renaissance still going on today.
Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle by Lukas Rieppel. 2019. Harvard University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0674737587
Whereas Nieuwland’s book focused on one famous dinosaur, Rieppel looks at the whole era of the late 1800s, when vertebrate paleontology, and especially dinosaurs, had gripped the imagination of the nation. The first American industrialists had made their fortunes, were looking for ways to display American greatness and nothing was bigger than dinosaurs. Rieppel tells the tale of these men on their quest to find the biggest and most impressive dinosaurs in the field, and their efforts to bring them back and put them on display. Their efforts led to the dinosaur exhibitions so many people grew up with, and still think about when envisioning dinosaurs on display. They instilled a fascination and wonder into people everywhere, inspiring generations of paleontologists, authors, and movie makers.
The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug by Staffanie Strathdee and Thomas Patterson. 2019. Hachette Books. ISBN-13: 978-0316418089
If you re an epidemiologist and your spouse takes ill with an unstoppable bacterial infection, what do you do? You go to work. Reading that statement might make one think the book is horror or science fiction, but it is all too real. This book tells the story of Dr. Patterson’s illness and Dr. Strathdee’s efforts to find a cure for something that resisted all known cures. Intensive research brought to light an avenue used much earlier, but had been discarded in favor of more modern antibiotics. They used viruses to bypass the defenses. Phage therapy like this has paved the way for a whole new field of viral medicine and is the basis of gene therapy. Superbugs like those that infected Dr. Patterson, bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics, are becoming more and more prevalent and our antibiotics are becoming less and less effective, making new approaches like this vitally important. But like all revolutionary advances, it starts with a personal story.
The Book of Snakes: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World by Mark O’Shea. 2018. University of Chicago Press. ISBN-13: 978-0226459394
I just couldn’t leave the lists without just one more book about snakes and this is a good one. The previous book focused on a small part of the world. This one includes snakes from all over the globe. They come in all sizes and colors, venomous and not, docile and aggressive. But however, they come, snakes are an important part of healthy ecosystems. They are also just fascinating creatures and this book shows them off as well or better than any book out there. Packed with photos, this book will give you a wonderful tour of the wide diversity found in snakes throughout the world.
I want to end this list with two books about science itself. Science is not frizzy-haired men in lab coats doing experiments. It is a way of thinking about the world and the importance of being able to back up one’s assertions with evidence that is vitally important for people to understand. If we want to live in a world that makes sense, science needs to have a central place in our society.
The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority by Robert P. Crease W. W. Norton, 2019. ISBN-13: 978-0393292435
Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Reneé Descartes, Giambattista Vico, Mary Shelley, Auguste Comte, Max Weber, Kemal Atatürk, Edmund Husserl, and Hannah Arendt. These are the people to whom Norton has turned to gain insight into the relationship between science and politics. He begins by discussing the origins of science as an acknowledged field of endeavor and proceeds from there to discuss its ties to the humanities and often tenuous and contentious relationship with those in power. If you ever wondered why so many in politics take an adversarial role with science for the public good, how these attitudes came to be, and what can be done to counter it, you may find this book of interest.
Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes. 2019. Princeton University Press. ISBN: 9780691179001
I want to end this list with a book whose main topic is one of utmost important in today’s sociopolitical climate. As we grapple with so many people questioning things that are so obvious in the sciences, such as vaccines, global warming, and even the shape of the earth itself, we should answer the question all these people are asking, why should we trust science? As Oreskes explains, we don’t trust scientists because they use a fictional “scientific method.” Science is a way of thinking, not a singular method. Instead, we should trust scientists because it s an inherently social process. Science does not become accepted until it has been examined by checked by other scientists. Appeal to authority has less weight when even the authority has to supply data to support their claims. Science doesn’t demand to be taken at their word, they demand the data to be presented and the evidence to be examined. In a world where truth has become a commodity and equal to simple opinion, it is important we retain an arena where truth is known by the data it keeps.
In the 12 Days of Christmas, it ends on the twelfth day. But science never sleeps, knowledge is always advancing. So in honor of that spirit, on Monday I present to you the 13th Day of Book Lists, a baker’s dozen 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.
Dr. 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
Grouw 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
People 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
Like 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
Most 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.
She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer. 2018. Dutton. ISBN-13: 978-1101984598 (genetics book)
Carl Zimmer is arguably the best known science writer today, for good reason. His books are informative and fascinating to read and he has a knack for breaking hard, complex subjects down so that they are understandable to most people. In this book, he has taken on the challenge of explaining the incredibly complicated topic of heredity. He covers how heredity works at the molecular level and proceeds to discuss how it affects us as people, how we are shaped as individuals by our DNA. If that was all he did, it would be an extraordinary book, but he doesn’t stop with that. He also talks about how our environment, what we eat, what we are exposed to, the actions we take and have done to us. how these and other factors can affect what we pass on through our genes to our children and what that means for us. Heredity is more than our DNA and it is complex. Fortunately Zimmer is up to the task of making it engaging and understandable for us.
Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity by Theodore Porter. 2018. Princeton University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0691164540
What Zimmer does for modern heredity, Porter does for the history of human genetics research and its development in the insane asylums of the 1800s and early 1900s. As more people were being placed into asylums, doctors became interested in curbing the increase of insanity by studying its heredity through family histories. Before anything was known of DNA, they traced incidents of supposed insanity through families attempting to identify which families were presdisposed to insanity and what traits were being inherited that led to insanity. This led to the eugenics of the early 20th century, as their research moved from the lab into sociopolitical agendas. Along the way, they worked out many techniques later used for the study of heredity far removed from the moral debates over eugenics.
Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity by Andreas Wagner. 2019. Oneworld Publications.
How does evolution get across adaptive peaks, when to reach a more optimal level, one first has to go through a less than optimal phase? What does this have to do with human creativity? This is one of the questions that Dr. Wagner explores. In this book, he explores the way evolution, through trial and error, reshuffling of traits, and natural selection creates creativity in biological systems. As Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” By looking at the importance of diversity in nature and the ways nature is creative, Wagner discusses how we can use these traits ourselves to surmount obstacles and why it is important we work to inspire creative thinking in ourselves and our schools for society to progress.
From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett. 2017. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN-13: 978-0393242072
Dr. Dennett has written several well received books on evolution. His latest book explores how human consciousness and abstract thinking arose through unguided and natural evolutionary processes. He writes that a turning point in our evolution came about when we learned to share memes, thoughts and ideas, when we learned to teach those beyond our own kin. In short, he is following similar ideas to that of Rutherford in Humanimal and Richard Dawkins before that. What Dennett brings to the table is less original idea and more a wealth of observations and explanatory power to really dive into the evolution of the human mind without any need of special creation.
Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry by Randolph Nesse. Dutton (Penguin Random House), 2019. ISBN-13: 978-1101985663
If our minds developed through evolution and natural selection, why do we have mental illness? One answer is that creating offspring doesn’t require perfection, just good enough. Another is that our cultural evolution has vastly outpaced our biological evolution. But could it be that the feelings that may give rise to mental illness actually serve a purpose? That is the question Dr. Nesse explores in his new book. He explores the gamut of bad feelings and negative human behavior, discussing how those feelings serve useful purposes, but can lead to mental illness when unchecked, how behaviors that at one time were valuable in smaller settings, but a detriment in larger societies built on cooperation between individuals and other groups. He also discusses why what seems to be disorders persist, rather than being selected against and removed from the gene pool. Evolutionary psychology may be ridiculed by some as social Darwinism and “just-so” stories, but deciphering how evolution has affected our behaviors may help in the treatment of patients and guide society into better and more fruitful directions. If the intersection of evolution and clinical psychology is f interest to you, this book will be of interest to you.
Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present by Peter Ward. 2018. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-1632866158
Lamarck is often ridiculed for having gotten it wrong. We all know that heredity is controlled through our genes and is unaffected by changes in our bodies during our life, right? Turns out Lamarck wasn’t as wrong as people think. Epigenetics is the study of hereditary changes that are not passed on through changes in DNA sequences and recent work has shown this is far more powerful and common than previously believed. Epigenetic changes can be passed down for generations and sometimes become fixed into the DNA itself. Dr. Ward leads us through how epigenetics works, what changes it has wrought upon evolution and our current existence, and what we are opening ourselves up to through exposure to a wide variety of deleterious influences that leave their mark on our DNA through epigenetic alteration. DNA mutation is only part of the story. If you want more of the story of heredity, check this book out.
The Tangled Tree: A Radical new History of Life by David Quammen. 2018. Simon & Schuster. ISBN-13: 978-1476776620
The other bookspreviously listed have talked about the genetics of heredity and how evolution has affected human behavior in all manner of ways. Quammen goes more into evolutionary genetics focusing on a specific, important, and often overlooked issue that has been a thorn in the side of molecular systemacists since the beginning. Horizontal, or lateral gene transfer has traditionally been considered too rare to be important. However, a lot of recent work has proven this to be false. Not only is it more common that we used to think, it is spread throughout the tree of life and it has caused some of the most revolutionary evolutionary leaps that led to humans. When people talk about genetically modified organisms and gene splicing as being unnatural, they don’t realize nature has been doing this since the beginning and still does it. Viruses have been shuffling genes between unrelated organisms for billions of years. Without it, we would not be here. More importantly, it is proving to be not only a possible benefit to us now as we learn more about it and how to do it, but a threat to our existence as it creates such things as antibiotic resistance in pathogens that cause serious illness and death (it also is what will allow us to fight it). Check out The Tangled Tree for a good look at the past, present, and future possibilities of how nature and we create genetically modified organisms and what effects that has brought and what it may bring.
Tune in tomorrow for more books on Darwin and evolution.
On this, the ninth day of book lists, I present to you a motley collection of books about the inner workings of vertebrates and their journeys.
Nature’s Giants: The Biology and Evolution of the World’s Largest Lifeforms by Graeme D. Ruxton, Norman Owen-Smith. 2019. Yale University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0300239881
I loved the show Inside Nature’s Giants, a BBC documentary that can be seen now on PBS. On the show they dissected a variety of large animals, such as a python, giraffe, elephant, and even a whale. As they did so, they discussed what it took to be giant, the evolutionary adaptations of the big. It ran for four seasons and is amazing. This book, while not tied to the show, follows a similar story. The advantage of the book is that Ruxton and Owen-Smith go much farther than a few modern giants. They delve into the giants of prehistory as well. They also don’t stop with vertebrates. They discuss giant, butterflies, squid, and trees as well. They can also have much more nuanced explanations and discuss more things than anatomy. They get into the thermometabolism, behaviors, and the interplay between the animals and their environments, a critical aspect of being large. If you ever looked at an animal or tree and wondered how did it get so big, this is the book for you.
The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton by Matthew F. Bonnan. Series: Life of the Past. 2016. ISBN: 978-0-253-01832-8
This book has been out a few years and it is on my recommended list already, but I haven’t said much about it before, so I thought I would mention it now. Dr. Bonnan is most famous for his work on sauropod dinosaurs, so he is used to dealing with bones on a large scale. In this book, he discusses the evolution of vertebrates through their most obvious characteristic, their skeleton. What makes this book different is his examples using every day objects. Eggs, cameras, coffee cups, and anything else he could grab as a example is used to explain concepts as he explains how the skeleton changed from the earliest fish to modern mammals. Also, the flashcards at the back of the book are great for games.
Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek/Riley Black. Riverhead, 2019.
Riley Black (previously known as Brian Switek) covers some of the same ground as Bonnan in his book, but he goes in a different direction with it. Black is less technical than Bonnan and she focuses less on the evolutionary story. This book is more concerned with stories about the bones. Black covers cultural uses of bone in jewelry, construction (such as some churches and ossuaries), song, religion, and others. As such, Black spends much more time on the human skeleton than Bonnan, making this book of more interest to those with an anthropological bent. Both books will give you lots of information about the skeleton. You just have to decide if you want a book about all skeletons, with a mention of yours, or you want a book about your skeleton as a physical and cultural object, with some discussion of others.
Incredible Journeys: Exploring the Wonders of Animal Navigation by David Barrie. 2019. Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN-13: 978-1473656826. Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way by David Barrie. 2019. The Experiment. ISBN-13: 978-1615195374
These two are listed together because they re the same book under different titles. Incredible Journeys is the British version, Supernavigators is the American title. Personally, I prefer the British title. At any rate, this is an interesting book on the many ways that animals figure out how to get where they are going, about some of the truly amazing migrations some animals take, and the adaptations that have arisen to keep animals from getting lost. This is not a technical book, just a fun book on a cool bit of natural history.
My Penguin Year: Life with the Emperors – A Journey of Discovery by Lindsey McCrae. 2019. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN-13: 978-0062971364
People love penguins. As proof of this, just look at all the movies with penguins. We have had several documentaries with theatrical runs, such as March of the Penguins, which even got a sequel. Another one, simply called Penguins, was released this year. The story of the incredible journey undertaken by Emperor penguins, especially, moves people, as they trundle and slide across dozens of miles of Antarctic ice in the most brutal weather imaginable, not eating for months, to breed. Lindsey McRae, photography director for the BBC Dynasties: Emperor episode shared that journey for 337 days. This is his story as much as it is about the penguins. It is a story worth checking out, As an added bonus, as one might expect from a photographer, the book is lavishly illustrated, making the book a visual treat as well.
Horned Armadillos and Rafting Monkeys: The Fascinating Fossil Mammals of South America (Life of the Past) by Darin Croft. 2016. Indiana University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0253020840
Speaking of journeys, I present this book about rafting monkeys, and other animals. I listed this book in my recommendations page when it first came out, but I have never said anything about it, so now is as good a time as any. If you have any interest in mammals, you will want to check out this book. South America has been home to mammals unlike anything seen in North America. During the Great American Interchange, a lot of North American animals went south, but not many made it north, so the weird and wonderful mammals are not as well known as the North American ones. This book will introduce you to giant rodents, giant armadillos with clubs, tiny deer, and much more. Dr. Croft takes the reader on a journey throughout the Cenozoic, introducing them to a world most North Americans that is similar in aspects, but very different from what they have known.
Across the Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates by Henry Gee. 2018. University of Chicago Press. ISBN-13: 978-0226402864
Dr. Gee is a long time editor of the journal Nature, which keeps him at the forefront of the cutting edge research in evolution. As such, he is admirably suited to discuss the current thinking in the origins of vertebrates. A lot of the work has been done in genomics, a field that has exploded in recent years, and embryology. So one would hope that all this new information would have provided concise answers. Sadly, things are never that easy. More data illuminates some things while creating more questions. Gee provides a thorough grounding in what we know, what we think we know, and what we still need to learn when it comes to the state of our understanding the origins of vertebrates. This book is pretty jargon-rich, there is a lot of terminology to wade through, and he talks little about the fossil record, but if you want a good book on the field of evolutionary development (evo-devo) and what it tells us about vertebrate origins, you will want to check this book out.
Tune in tomorrow for more books about the genetics of who we are and how we got that way.
We are going to start the week off with some of the best dinosaur books that have come out in the past year or so, a bit of paleontology history, and a good set of paleontology kids books to check out. If this doesn’t satisfy your dinosaur interest, there will be more coming as we wrap up the lists.
The World of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated Tour by Mark A. Norell. 2019. University of Chicago Press. ISBN-13: 978-0226622729
Dr. Norell is the paleontology curator for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and has written what is possibly the best general audience dinosaur book of 2019. This book is like a personal tour of the AMNH dinosaur collections by their chief curator who answers all your questions and regales you with all the stories of each display as he explains all about dinosaurs. Norell gives a general introduction to dinosaurs, then goes through each group of dinosaurs as represented by a few specific animals. The book is packed with high quality photos of the fossils, some of the best illustrations you will find anywhere, and top quality reproductions of old photos, maps, and charts. If you ever wanted to go to the AMNH, or even if you have and wanted to get the most out of the visit as possible, this is the book for you.
Dinosaur Facts and Figures: The Theropods and Other Dinosauriformes by Ruben Molina-Perez and Asler Larramendi. 2019. Princeton University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0691180311
You may have seen books that tried to be this before, ones that talk about the biggest, fastest, etc. You may have seen ones that talk about specific dinosaurs and give you lots of numbers like weight, length, etc. but this one is a step above. This book has better illustrations than the standard book like this, it has more accurate, scientific charts, it provides phylogenetic relationships. The production values in this book are a cut above any book like this I have seen. Moreover, this book does something I have never seen in any other book like this. It provides a discussion of its methodology for coming up with the data. If you want a book that is a ready source of numerous dinosaur facts and you want one that makes an effort to be factual over flashy, this is the book. You won’t find “Awesome!” or “Terrifying” in big, bold, colorful fonts. What you will find are facts, tables, and illustrations that will satisfy your quest to actually learn about dinosaurs, while inspiring you to learn more.
Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew by John Pickrell. 2017. Columbia University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0231180986
For a book titled “Weird Dinosaurs,” this is an unexpected find. There have been several books published with such titles. They have all been picture heavy and filled with superlatives and adjectives in big, bright letters designed to excite and dazzle the young mind. this book is very different. There is little in the way of art at all. This is a text that tells stories of the people and events surrounding the finds of some of the newest and strangest of dinosaurs. Pickrell is not a scientist. He is a science journalist. As such, he excels at telling stories of science discovery. He spends less time describing the fossils than he does discussing what they mean for the field. So if you are ready to move beyond the glitz and sink your teeth into the stories behind the glamour, to move beyond the marvel of the weird into understanding it in a larger context, check this book out.
Acrocanthosaurus Inside and Out by Kenneth Carpenter. 2016. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN-13: 978-0806153933
No dinosaur book list from a person based in Arkansas would be complete without mentioning the book focused on the only giant predatory theropod in the state. We may not have any of the famous tyrannosaurs or well known names of the carnosaurs, but we do have Acrocanthosaurus, which truthfully should be as well known as the others because with sizes reaching almost 12 m, it ranks among the largest known theropods; and with the high spines (thus the name, meaning “high-spined lizard), it stands out from the crowd of tyrannosaur-like theropods. Dr. Carpenter gives this dinosaur its due by focusing an entire book on the genus, providing the reader with everything they might want to know about this animal. Along the way, he discusses how and why we know what we know, so not only will you learn all about Acrocanthosaurus and how it compares to others, you will learn the process of studying dinosaurs.
King of the Dinosaur Hunters: The Life of John Bell Hatcher and the Discoveries that Shaped Paleontology by Lowell Dingus. 2018. Pegasus Books. ISBN-13: 978-1681778655
When people think of dinosaur discoveries, they tend to think of the paleontologists who studied them, but few people think of those who went out into the field and collected the dinosaurs in the first place. These days, paleontologists go out into the field and lead the expeditions, but in the 1800s, museums would often hire teams of professional field teams to find, excavate, and ship home the fossils. Marsh and Cope, paleontologists famous for their rivalry, hired such men as Charles Sternberg to lead the expeditions. John Hatcher, while today much less known than Sternberg and the more famous paleontologists, was one of the most prominent men in the field, leading expeditions in Wyoming and elsewhere that led to the discoveries of some of the most iconic dinosaurs in history and becoming an important paleontologist in his own right. Dr. Dingus provides a welcome spotlight on this often overlooked, but important, person in the history of vertebrate paleontology.
Dinosaur Empire!: Journey through the Mesozoic Era (2017) Ocean Renegades: Journey through the Paleozoic Era (2018) Mammal Takeover!: Journey through the Cenozoic Era (2019) by Abby Howard. Earth Before Us series. Amulet Books.
If you are in the market for paleontology books for an older elementary school aged kid, check out this series. These graphic novels take the form seen in such books as the Magic School Bus, wherein a guide takes a student back in time to look at living animals representing the different ages. Each book covers a different Era, defining what the time spans are and the major animals representing the time periods, as well as topic about biological concepts such as evolution and ecological niches. In this case, a student named Ronnie who needs help to pass his class from an eccentric neighbor who happens to be a paleontologist with a time tunnel. The information is a step above the Magic School Bus and the books are entertaining. If you like Mrs. Frizzle and her wacky bus, you should enjoy the Earth Before Us series.
A Brief History of Life on Earth By Clemence DuPont. 2019. Penguin Random House. ISBN 9783791373737
This is a strange, but intriguing book. The book provides a trip through time, each time period getting a two page spread showing an illustration of the time period giving an idea of the life forms present and the major environment in which they lived. Each section has a short paragraph providing a quick introduction to the time period. It is not written at a level too high for little kids, but not high enough for an adult, reading something like a description you might find on a display in a museum. the interesting thing about this book is that it is huge, at 22″ by 29″ and folds out into a timeline 26 feet long. For this alone, I think it worth checking out. It is a fascinating timeline providing an absorbing look at our earth’s history.
Today I want to do something a little different. I already mentioned Luis Rey’s book Extreme Dinosaurs 2: The Projects, but there are several other paleo art books out there that are worth looking at, so here are some suggestions of books that have recently been published or are about to be published so you can put them on your wishlists.
Visions of Lost Worlds: The Paleoart of Jay Matternes by Matthew Carrano and Kirk Johnson. 2019. Smithsonian Books. ISBN-13: 978-1588346674
Jay Matternes is a painter who achieved wide acclaim in the 1950s for his paleoart published in the Time Life books and ever since has continued to thrill viewers for his depictions of prehistoric mammals and birds. If you have been to the Smithsonian, you may have seen six of his murals hanging in the Fossil Hall. They were removed in 2014 for a huge renovation of the hall, but they were put back into place in time for the opening of the hall this year. Assuredly timed to coincide with the opening of the new hall, this book celebrates not only those murals, but fifty years of art by Matternes. The book includes pictures of the murals and much more, as well as preliminary sketches and essays on his work. If you like paleoart and have an interest in collecting some of the masterpieces, this will be of interest for you.
Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past by Zoë Lescaze and Walton Ford. 2017. TASCHEN. ISBN-13: 978-3836555111
Speaking of classic art, if you are at all interested in the development of paleoart, you will want to get this book. Lescaze and Ford have collected an impressive display of paleoart from 1830 to 1990. It includes work from the all-time classic master, Charles Knight, as well as many others, both famous and not so famous. the work covers many styles, from Impressionism to Art Nouveau and types of art from paintings and sculptures to mosaics and murals from all over the world. The reproductions are also high quality. If you want to get a feel for the history of paleoart and how it has changed over the decades, you will want to get a copy of Paleoarte. Note, despite the cover image here, the book is in english.
Life through the Ages II: Twenty-First Century Visions of Prehistory (Life of the Past) by Mark Witton. 2020. Indiana University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0253048110
Mark Witton is a highly respected paleontologist and artist in his own right. the esteem he is held in should be evident when one considers that the original Life Through The Ages was published by Charles Knight in 1946. A commemorative edition was published in 2017, so Witton’s contribution will make a great companion to that volume. The book is not due out until April of next year, so you will have plenty of time to peruse Knight’s volume, as well as the other paleoart books you pick up this season.
Dinosaur Art II: The Cutting Edge of Paleoart by Steve White. 2017. Titan Books. ISBN-13: 978-1785653988
A book you can get now is Dinosaur Art II, featuring work from a variety of today’s paleoartists. Obviously from the title, this is the second edition of Dinosaur Art. The first one was subtitled The World’s Greatest Paleoart, but a few years have passed and a lot more art has been created worthy of addition. Witton is in there, along with Emily Willoughby, Brian Engh, and several others. A few people may be nonplussed by the fact that not all the illustrations are of dinosaurs. Other animals sneak in as well. But don’t let that stop you. There is plenty of great work here. If you like paleoart, especially dinosaur art, you won’t be disappointed.
Palaeoartist’s Handbook: Recreating prehistoric animals in art by Mark Witton. 2018. ISBN-13: 978-1785004612
To tell you how good an artist (or at the very least professionally prolific) Mark Witton is, here is yet another book by him or featuring his work. If you saw the art in the other books and were inspired to make your own, this book is worth a look. Witton walks you through all the ends and outs of creating world-class paleoart based on science. He uses as examples his own work obviously, but that of many other great artists as well. Witton does not claim to be the paragon of paleoart. Anyone can create art, but it takes an extra effort to create art that is also accurate for the science. While the science can’t tell you everything about a fossil, it can place parameters on what not to do. So being a good paleoartist also requires being a bit of a scientist as well. As such, there is no one better to discuss how to do that than someone who is highly respected for both his science and his art. The fact that he can write well makes him particularly well suited to the task. For more on this book, see Drren Naish’s review here.
Audubon’s Last Wilderness Journey: The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America by Charles T. Butler. 2018. Auburn University/D. Giles, London. pp. 280. ISBN 978-1-911282-10-5
This one is not really a paleoart book, but it is about arguably the most famous nature artist of all time. We are, of course, talking about Audubon. While he is likely most famous for his illustrations of birds, he illustrated a wide variety of animals. In conjunction with an exhibition put on by the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, this book reproduces the three volume set published by Audubon in 1845-1848. The original folios were bigger than 27″x21″, whereas the edition is a mere 12″x10″, so the prints are nowhere near as big as the original, but they are lovingly reproduced in high resolution. This was Audubon’s last great work and he is at the top of his craft. Even if it isn’t dinosaurs, the book is worth a look.
That’s it for this week. Come back next week for five more days of book lists, covering all sorts of books, including books on Darwin, evolution, bones, giants, genetics, more dinosaurs, and….zombies. Have a great weekend.
To start today’s list off, we have a few books about humans as a social animal.
Social by Nature:The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics by Catherine Bliss. 2018. Stanford University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0804798341
Sociogenomics as a recognized field is both relatively new and old. At its heart, it is simply the study of the intersection between social factors and genetics. More often, it is viewed and used with the idea the genetics controls social factors. This is eerily similar to previous extensions of this idea in “social Darwinism” and eugenics. That there is a correlation between some social factors and genetics in broad strokes is undeniable. However, the level of control genetics has on the social factors is much more dubious. Dr. Bliss explores the tremendous good that can be done with the introduction of good genetic studies into sociological issues, as well as delivering a warning for the unbridled rush to reduce sociology to a set of genes.
Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies by Edward O. Wilson. 2019. Liveright. ISBN-13: 978-1631495540
E.O. Wilson has been famous for decades, first for his groundbreaking work on ants and then this wide-ranging contributions to ecology, particularly social behavior, garnering him the nickname, the “father of sociobiology.” It is no small surprise then that in his latest book, he has turned to the most complex social systems in the animal world, our own, to examine how we became so social and developed our complex societies. To do so, he examines the evolution of complex social structures in other animals, often in some very surprising areas. With the understanding of these independent and very different groups, he hopes to pull together a basis for elucidating the evolution of our own societies. In every book I have read from Wilson, his style is easygoing and clear, making his book informative and interesting. I expect this one will be just as thought provoking.
The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall by Mark W. Moffett. 2019. Basic Books. ISBN-13: 978-0465055685
If Wilson set himself a difficult task at studying the origins of societies, his previous student Dr. Moffett sets himself an even harder task, looking at the entire life cycle of human societies. Moffett attempts to cover societies from their origins to their deaths. Moffett is a biologist. Using that as a basis, he brings in anthropology, particularly the sociology and psychology aspects (one might say evolutionary psychology) to bring a holistic, grounded view of what makes societies tick. More than half the book, as befits his background and focus, discusses other animals and human prehistory, which he then uses to make sense of modern societies. Moffett concludes that we may need an adversarial outgroup to make our societies work. Anyone who has seen The Watchmen knows the dangers of that if we don’t figure out a better way. But read the book and decide for yourself if we can make peace with our biology.
Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Nicholas A. Christakis. 2019. Little, Brown Spark. ISBN-13: 978-0316230032
Dr. Christakis covers much the same ground, but comes to a different conclusion. Of course, he is a medical doctor and sociologist, so he starts from a more optimistic viewpoint. Nevertheless, he points to the positive psychological aspects natural selection has also given us. He discusses the ideas of love, cooperation, and learning (which combined with our capacity for teaching, as per Rutherford’s thesis) give us the opportunity to transcend the negative aspects of our biology and move beyond tribalism toward a better society. Interestingly, this book, like Social by Nature, states that genes affect our behavior. Unlike the other books listed here, Christakis views this in a positive light, attempting to show the benefits that natural selection has given us and encourages us to focus on these aspects as we move forward. Whereas Moffett may be pessimistic about our ability to build a better tomorrow, Christakis views it as inevitable that we will eventually rise above.
I think these four books together make a fascinating example of people viewing the same data through different lenses. Perhaps reading all four is the best way to get a sense of who we are as a species, what we are capable of, and what we may accomplish together for good or ill. One could make an intriguing college seminar out of this set of books.
The Biological Mind: how Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are by Alan Jasanoff. 2018. Basic Books. ISBN-13: 978-0465052684
The last book I want to talk about today hearkens a bit back to previous lists. It is a reminder that we are not separate from our surroundings in very real, important ways that define who we are as individuals. Dr. Jasanoff takes the unusual and refreshing stop of detailing that our personalities are not locked within the brain, nor can our personalities be separated from our bodies, our brain included. Brain damage from strokes, injury, or simple poor nutrition, can alter our personalities, in some cases radically and generally irreversibly. But illness in the rest of our bodies can also do that. What we eat, bacteria in our gut, parasites, chemicals, even the weather can alter our behaviors and thoughts. Combine this with the profound impact experience and peerception have on our thoughts and actions and the question of free will becomes less than academic or philosophical, grounding it in the cold reality of our concrete existence. Dr. Jasanoff goes through all this and more, discussing the implications of what it all means when we say what makes us individuals.
Tune in tomorrow for something completely different as we take a look at paleoart books.
Today we are going to cover books on the evolution of a single species: us.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson. 2019. Doubleday. ISBN-13: 978-0385539302
If you ever wanted to learn about the human body, but didn’t want to wade through anatomical and physiological texts, you might want to consider this book. Bryson takes you through an introduction of the body, filling the book with facts not commonly known and debunking several commonly held myths. Along the way, he introduces some of the researchers and doctors that have helped discover what we know. Refreshingly, he does not portray the body as a perfectly designed pinnacle of creation like so many other texts of this type. While marveling at the wonders, he also discusses some of the problems that no rational designer would do, but are perfectly understandable as continuous modifications through evolution. Developed from preexisting organisms and modified to be good enough to reproduce, our body makes sense and Bryson gives a good accounting of our bodies as they really are, which are pretty amazing even if they aren’t anywhere near perfect.
Lost Anatomies: The Evolution of the Human Form by John Gurche. 2019. Abrams. ISBN-13: 978-1419734489
If you’ve ever spent any time looking at depictions of early hominids in museums or texts, you have surely come across the work of John Gurche. As the preeminent artist of paleoanthropology and hominid anatomy, his work can be seen all over the world. Now you can also see it here. From apes to modern humans, it’s all here. Illustrations go from depictions of ape hands and feet, the bones of the arm, and musculature of early hominids, all the way through depictions of the living animals. If you are looking for a visual representation of human evolution, you will find everything you want here done by the master artist himself. The artwork is not scientific illustrations, but they are scientifically accurate. It is science with an artist’s eye. At 9.6′ by 12.4′ and 3.4 pounds, there is a lot of art to peruse.
Humanimals: How Homo sapiens Became Nature’s Most Paradoxical Creature–A New Evolutionary History by Adam Rutherford. 2019. The Experiment ISBN-13: 978-1615195312
Dr. Rutherford walks us through what it means to be human. This book deals with the evolution of humans as a supposedly paragon of creation. If you are a proponent of human exceptionalism, you may be taken aback with this book. In his search to define what makes humans special, he examines genetics, anatomy, ecology, and culture. Along the way he examines several claims about human exceptionalism and skewers them all. Humans, it turns out, when one looks at traits individually, are not so special after all. We are simply animals like any other. So what made us so overtly dominant on the planet? Rutherford concludes, as have others, that it is our capacity to teach on a broad scale. Every animal can learn new tricks. A few even teach their compatriots how to do things. But the development of culture through the transmission of knowledge to even those not related to us on the scale humans have achieved seems to be unique. So when you think about who represents the best of humanity, that would be teachers.
Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich. 2018. Pantheon. ISBN-13: 978-1101870327
These days, if you want to study species and evolution, you will sooner or later have to deal with some serious genetic discussions. Population genetics has really exploded our understanding of human origins and early movements in more ways than one. It has both greatly expanded our knowledge while greatly changing what we thought we already knew. It has made the question of what we even consider as human a challenge. The primary literature can be difficult even for biologists not expert in genetic research. Fortunately, there are people like Dr. Reich, who is both an expert in the techniques and interpretation of the data and an able writer capable of explaining it to someone without a PhD in genetics. So if you are ready to get into the weeds of what it means to be human on a genetic level, but are not yet ready to read the primary literature, you might want to check this book out.
The Evolving Animal Orchestra: In Search of What Makes Us Musical by Henkjan Honing. 2019. MIT Press. ISBN-13: 978-0262039321
Many people think of music as a solely human thing, forgetting they hear birds sing all the time, but they tend to dismiss that as instinctual, not something done simply for the joy of music. These people might be surprised by what Dr. Honing has to say. In this book, Honing grows through the origins and evolution of musicality, showing musicality in many other animals. He takes you through the research and the quest for answers. This book is not a final pronouncement, it is a report on work in progress. The research has made it clear there is a biological basis in musicality. How far through the animal kingdom it goes, how much is biological and how much is cultural, and what the biological basis is in detail is not yet known, but researchers like Dr. Honing are getting closer to those answers.
That’s the end of another list. Come back tomorrow for books on the formation of humans as social creatures.
Extraordinary Insects: Weird. Wonderful. Indispensable. The Ones Who Rule Our World. By Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson. 2018. Mudlark. ISBN-13: 978-0008316358
People assume we are the masters of the world, but in very real terms, we are relatively insignificant compared to the insects. If you’ve never really thought about insects more than as pests and thought the world would be better without them, read this book. Dr. Sverdrup-Thygeson will show you a world run by the tiny, how the insects have an essential role in ecosystems and your very life. Along the way, with humor and lavish images of the wonderful and bizarre, she introduces the staggering abundance and diversity of the insect world. This is not a entomological textbook. Rather, this is an introduction to a whole new world intertwined with the world we see every day, but pay little attention to normally. The hardback edition came out in 2018, but the Kindle version is now available and the paperback is due out next year.
Innumerable Insects: The Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth by Michael S. Engel. 2018.
This book also deals with the insect world, but it does so in a very different way. Rather than get eye-striking photos of living insects, Dr. Ingel scoured the rare book collection of The American Museum of Natural History to find 300 years of insect research. He reproduces lithographs and illustrations from previous researchers and they are beautiful. Exquisite drawings such as these can often do a better job of showing anatomical detail than an image of the insect itself. While he discusses the insects and all the amazing thing about them, he tells the stories of the early entomologists as well. If you are interested in insects and are a history buff, you will like this book. Be warned, at 10″ by 9.3′ and 2.6 pounds, it is hefty, unless you buy the Kindle version.
Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn. 2018. Basic Books. ISBN-13: 978-1541645769
When I first saw this book listed on Amazon, I was wondering how a natural history book would work as an audiobook (there is also a hardback, paperback, and Kindle version). Unlike the others on this list, Dr. Dunn tells his story mostly through the written word, with the illustrations much more sparse and definitely less essential to the book than the previous entries this week. But it is no less intriguing. This book discusses his and others’ research into the creatures that live all around us, living in our homes, mostly unseen. Even in a clean home, there are thousands of insects, microbes, and an array of other creatures. And that’s ok. They belong there. After reading his book, hopefully you will take from it that there is an amazing diversity of life all around you and that, for the most part, sustains a healthy life for you. So don’t panic about all the creepy crawlies, celebrate them as part of a thriving community we all share, because overzealous efforts to eradicate them actually make you sick.
Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet by Anthony Martin. 2017. Pegasus Books. ISBN-13: 978-1681773124
Speaking of life that tends to go unseen, there is a world of life that lives under our feet. Animals live in the soil, crawling through it, making burrows, making their way through the blackness of caves, and generally living life underground. Most people know Dr. Martin for his work on dinosaurs, but he actually does more on ichnology, the study of tracks and traces. He spends his time studying the animals that leave their mark on and in the ground, whatever they may be. And there are a lot. Of course, there are the insects. Everyone is familiar with ant hills, but that is only the beginning. There are the clams and fish that dig into the beach sands, the beavers and other mammals that dig burrows, large animals like bears and giant ground sloths, and yes, even the occasional dinosaur. This book is written for a general audience, so like many of the others on this list, Martin does not just content himself with relaying the diverse nature living underground. He follows a pretty common trope in trying to make the research relatable through personal stories. He talks about his personal experiences. He doesn’t weigh it down by too much technical jargon. It makes the book an easy read and informative for the general reader. It is not a treatise for scholars, but a nice introduction to nonexperts to a world most people don’t think too much about.
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong. 2016. Ecco. ISBN-13: 978-0062368591
This one goes back a couple of years, but I think it is good enough to bear another mention. It is good to remember that we are not individuals, but walking ecosystems carrying, well, multitudes. As we are learning more and more these days, those other creatures are not mere passengers. They affect us in innumerable ways. They are essential for digestion, they change the way we interact with our environment. They even affect the way we think. Ed Yong is a gifted writer and he does a great job exploring the ways we are intimately connected with our environment and the way life in its many forms is intertwined. It has been said no man is an island. I am sure the person who first said that had no idea just how right they were.
Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet by David Beerling. 2019. Oxford University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0198798309
“Our brains are wired to notice animals, not plants,” says Dr. Beerling. Indeed we are. As one can see from the books I have discussed, I definitely fit into that myself. But without plants, animals would not be here. So I think it fitting that I end this particular list with a new book on plant evolution. I have tended to avoid plants because from the first botany class I took in college, it was clear to me they are far more complicated than animals. Anyone who has looked at plant genetics and reproduction knows that plants are hard. Fortunately, we have people like Dr. Beerling taking up the challenge of teasing apart the relationships and relaying it in a manner people like me can understand, for which I am grateful. The history of animal life is inextricably bound to the history of plants. Dr. Beerling does a good job of discussing the evolution of plants and how it has affected the evolution of animals, including us, and why understanding this connection is essential to our well-being as a species.
Come back tomorrow for a new set of books that focus on a singular species, humans.