BOOK: Extinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life

This is a new, second edition of Eldrege’s 1991 book, Fossils: The Evolution and Extinction of Species.

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Niles Eldredge, Extinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life (Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2014), 256 pp

Publisher’s Description Extinction and Evolution recounts the work and discoveries of Niles Eldredge, one of the world’s most renowned paleontologists, whose research overturned Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as a slow and inevitable process, as published in On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin had concluded that evolutionary changes happened very slowly over millions of years. Eldredge’s work, however, convinced him that Darwin was wrong and that major evolution of life forms does not happen to any significant degree until after a mass extinction event, thus disproving the traditional view of evolution. Eldredge’s groundbreaking work is now accepted as the definitive statement of how life as we know it evolved on Earth. This book chronicles how Eldredge made his discoveries and traces the history of life through the lenses of paleontology, geology, ecology, anthropology, biology, genetics, zoology, mammalogy, herpetology, entomology and botany. While rigorously accurate, the text is accessible, engaging and free of jargon. Extinction and Evolution features 160 beautiful color plates that bridge the gap between science and art, and show more than 200 different fossil specimens, including photographs of some of the most significant fossil discoveries of recent years. This is a book with appeal to a broad general audience, including natural history readers and students.

BOOK: Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century

Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain, Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science & Natural History in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 456 pp

Publisher’s Description Rich with archival detail and compelling characters, Life on Display uses the history of biological exhibitions to analyze museums’ shifting roles in twentieth-century American science and society. Karen A. Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain chronicle profound changes in these exhibitions—and the institutions that housed them—between 1910 and 1990, ultimately offering new perspectives on the history of museums, science, and science education. Rader and Cain explain why science and natural history museums began to welcome new audiences between the 1900s and the 1920s and chronicle the turmoil that resulted from the introduction of new kinds of biological displays. They describe how these displays of life changed dramatically once again in the 1930s and 1940s, as museums negotiated changing, often conflicting interests of scientists, educators, and visitors. The authors then reveal how museum staffs, facing intense public and scientific scrutiny, experimented with wildly different definitions of life science and life science education from the 1950s through the 1980s. The book concludes with a discussion of the influence that corporate sponsorship and blockbuster economics wielded over science and natural history museums in the century’s last decades. A vivid, entertaining study of the ways science and natural history museums shaped and were shaped by understandings of science and public education in the twentieth-century United States, Life on Display will appeal to historians, sociologists, and ethnographers of American science and culture, as well as museum practitioners and general readers.

BOOK: Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin

Darwin's Dice

Curtis Johnson, Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 288 pp

Publisher’s Description For evolutionary biologists, the concept of chance has always played a significant role in the formation of evolutionary theory. As far back as Greek antiquity, chance and “luck” were understood to be key factors in the evolution of the natural world. Emphasizing chance is an entire way of thinking about nature, and it is also one of the key ideas that separates Charles Darwin from other systematic biologists of his time. Studying the concept of chance in Darwin’s writing reveals core ideas in his theory of evolution, as well as his reflections on design, purpose, and randomness in nature’s progression over the course of history. In Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin, Curtis Johnson does exactly that. He examines the work of Darwin in terms of his views on randomness and chance, and how the views changed as his work progressed. Randomness was a focal point for Darwin, and pursuing it as a theme helped significantly transform his research. Darwin’s Dice shows us how Darwin defined “chance,” and explores Darwin’s influential architect metaphor in relation to the idea. Through the lens of randomness, Johnson reveals how Darwin’s treatment of free will becomes more complex. This approach can shed light on many other quirks and points of interest in Darwin’s work, including the curiously shifting presence of giraffes in subsequent drafts of On the Origin of Species. Johnson also reexamines Darwin’s “Metaphysical Notebooks,” and discusses the role Darwin felt that chance plays in morality and religion. Darwin’s Dice presents a new way to look at Darwinist thought and the writings on Charles Darwin.

Two new Darwin statues, as a young naturalist

In the news recently, there are two new Charles Darwin statues, and they both depict the young naturalist (yay!).

The Chicago Maroon: Dr. Watson welcomes Darwin statue

Statue at the Biological Sciences Learning Center, Univ. of Chicago (Photo: Frank Wang)

Galapagos Conservation: The Making of Darwin

Statue at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz island, Galapagos

Darwin in the journals

Peter Dear, “Darwin’s Sleepwalkers: Naturalists, Nature, and the Practices of Classification” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 44:4 (Sept. 2014): 297-318.

Abstract Darwin used taxonomic arguments widely in his work on transformism and natural selection, especially in attempts to persuade other (typically non-transformist) naturalists of the correctness of his ideas in Origin of Species. But, as has long been noticed, classificatory practices in natural history were by no means turned on their head in the wake of his work. Darwin succeeded in coopting, or else leaving untouched, the taxonomic conclusions of his colleagues, because he needed to use their conclusions as evidence for his transformist views: time and again, he made points by referring to what a typical naturalists would make of things. By telling them that the kind of knowledge that their taxonomy produced was really about genealogical relationships, Darwin tried to tell naturalist that their judgments were correct even though they had not previously known why this was so: they were sleepwalkers, finding their way in the dark, and Darwin would illuminate them. His argumentative style continually attempted to draw existing practices of classification to his assistance, and made the judgments of his colleagues into surrogate phenomena that would provide evidence for his views. Those colleagues thus constituted a society that established nature by its own practices.

Aydin Örstan, “Two early nineteenth-century uses of the term “evolution” to denote biological speciation” Archives of Natural History 41:2 (Oct. 2014): 360-362.

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Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, “Charles Darwin” In Oxford Bibliographies Online: Ecology, 2014.

This is a monumental undertaking – a 24,000 word bibliography looking at Darwin and how he is studied from many angles.

The Voyage Of Charles Darwin: The Complete Series on DVD (Region 2)

Darwin aficionados have long wondered when the 1978 BBC television series The Voyage of Charles Darwin would be released on DVD. I had a post about this in 2009, here. Well, Simply Media is releasing it in the UK (Region 2) later this month: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Voyage-Of-Charles-Darwin/dp/B00MFWMPSG

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Here’s hoping for a Region 1 release soon!

BOOK: The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

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Diane Ackerman, The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 352 pp.

Publisher’s description: Ackerman is justly celebrated for her unique insight into the natural world and our place in it. In this landmark book, she confronts the unprecedented reality that one prodigiously intelligent and meddlesome creature, Homo sapiens, is now the dominant force shaping the future of planet Earth.

Humans have “subdued 75 percent of the land surface, concocted a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels, strung lights all across the darkness.” We tinker with nature at every opportunity; we garden the planet with our preferred species of plants and animals, many of them invasive; and we have even altered the climate, threatening our own extinction. Yet we reckon with our own destructive capabilities in extraordinary acts of hope-filled creativity: we collect the DNA of vanishing species in a “frozen ark,” equip orangutans with iPads, and create wearable technologies and synthetic species that might one day outsmart us. With her distinctive gift for making scientific discovery intelligible to the layperson, Ackerman takes us on an exhilarating journey through our new reality, introducing us to many of the people and ideas now creating—perhaps saving—our future and that of our fellow creatures.

A beguiling, optimistic engagement with the changes affecting every part of our lives, The Human Age is a wise and beautiful book that will astound, delight, and inform intelligent life for a long time to come.