BOOK: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

The winner of this year’s Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize, which is awarded annually to a work of science writing intended for a non-specialist audience, went to Andrea Wulf for her fantastic biography of Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt has long been a character of interest to me: not only is “Humboldtian science” a standard topic one learns about in history of science courses (especially Michael Dettelbach’s chapter in Cultures of Natural History), but, as readers here may know, Humboldt was an important influence on Darwin.


Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 552 pp.

Publisher’s description Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was the most famous scientist of his age, a visionary German naturalist and polymath whose discoveries forever changed the way we understand the natural world. Among his most revolutionary ideas was a radical conception of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. In North America, Humboldt’s name still graces towns, counties, parks, bays, lakes, mountains, and a river. And yet the man has been all but forgotten. In this illuminating biography, Andrea Wulf brings Humboldt’s extraordinary life back into focus: his prediction of human-induced climate change; his daring expeditions to the highest peaks of South America and to the anthrax-infected steppes of Siberia; his relationships with iconic figures, including Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson; and the lasting influence of his writings on Darwin, Wordsworth, Goethe, Muir, Thoreau, and many others. Brilliantly researched and stunningly written, The Invention of Nature reveals the myriad ways in which Humboldt’s ideas form the foundation of modern environmentalism—and reminds us why they are as prescient and vital as ever.

In October I had the pleasure of attending a talk that Wulf gave about Humboldt for the Oregon Hardy Plant Society:


For similar talks, check out the recording below…

Purchase The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World through the independent Powell’s City of Books [hardcover/paperback] or Amazon [hardcover/paperback] (affiliate links).


Origins Card Game

Origins: An Evolutionary Journey is a new card game from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History that provides an overview of core concepts in biological anthropology broader topics in evolution at the introductory level for college courses.


Created by a curator at the CMNH and an anthropology professor at St. Lawrence University (Canton, NY), with illustrations by Holly Hunhold, Origins covers a wide variety of topics that are color-coded: Fundamentals (Pink); Genetics (Blue); Evolution and Variation (Green); Primates (Orange); Origins and Transitions (Red); and Being Human (Purple). The cards are then divided among nine different types of questions, from labeling images and identifying incorrect statements to identifying a subject (like a famous person or species) and telling fact from fiction. The deck also includes Forces of Evolution cards which offer specific actions for play (Bottleneck, Founder Effect, Extinction, and Natural Selection).


The game is designed for in-class use between groups of students, but the card deck can also be used individually for study. My son enjoyed going through the deck with me, answering some questions, guessing at others, or simply stating, “I’m only ten dad, how would I know that?” Instructions for play are provided online here (in PDF form here).

Here’s a video from the CMNH about Origins:

You can order a deck of Origin: An Evolutionary Journey from the publisher or from Amazon.


ARTICLE: The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

A new article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences will interest readers here. Its author, the creator of Darwin Online and Wallace Online, has devoted much time and research in reevaluating the story of Wallace and Darwin.

The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

John van Wyhe

Abstract This article examines six main elements in the modern story of the impact of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1855 Sarawak Law paper, particularly in the many accounts of Charles Darwin’s life and work. These elements are: 1 It was Wallace’s first avowal of evolution; 2 Wallace laid out the theory of evolution minus only a “mechanism”; 3 Darwin failed to see how close Wallace was approaching; 4 Lyell did see how close Wallace was approaching; 5 Lyell urged Darwin to publish because of Wallace; 6 Darwin wrote to Wallace to warn him off his path. Each of these are very frequently repeated as straightforward facts in the popular and scholarly literature. It is here argued that each of these is erroneous and that the role of the Sarawak Law paper in the historiography of Darwin and Wallace needs to be revised.

You can read this article online or download the PDF for free.

ARTICLE: The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

A new article in the Journal of the History of Biology:

The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

John Beatty

Abstract This is the first of a two-part essay on the history of debates concerning the creativity of natural selection, from Darwin through the evolutionary synthesis and up to the present. Here I focus on the mid-late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, with special emphasis on early Darwinism and its critics, the self-styled “mutationists.” The second part focuses on the evolutionary synthesis and some of its critics, especially the “neutralists” and “neo-mutationists.” Like Stephen Gould, I consider the creativity of natural selection to be a key component of what has traditionally counted as “Darwinism.” I argue that the creativity of natural selection is best understood in terms of (1) selection initiating evolutionary change, and (2) selection being responsible for the presence of the variation it acts upon, for example by directing the course of variation. I consider the respects in which both of these claims sound non-Darwinian, even though they have long been understood by supporters and critics alike to be virtually constitutive of Darwinism.

Journal special issue on “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation”

A whole issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is devoted to the topic “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation.” The contents are as follows:

Introduction: Evolution and historical explanation
Peter Harrison, Ian Hesketh

What was historical about natural history? Contingency and explanation in the science of living things
Peter Harrison

The “History” of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Huxley, Spencer and the “End” of natural history
Bernard Lightman


Theological presuppositions of the evolutionary epic: From Robert Chambers to E. O. Wilson
Allan Megill


What are narratives good for?
John Beatty


Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life
Ian Hesketh

The spontaneous market order and evolution
Naomi Beck

Contingency and the order of nature
Nancy Cartwright


Freedom and purpose in biology
Daniel W. McShea


“Replaying Life’s Tape”: Simulations, metaphors, and historicity in Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
David Sepkoski

A case study in evolutionary contingency
Zachary D. Blount


Can evolution be directional without being teleological?
George R. McGhee Jr.

Evolutionary biology and the question of teleology
Michael Ruse

Contingency, convergence and hyper-astronomical numbers in biological evolution
Ard A. Louis


It all adds up …. Or does it? Numbers, mathematics and purpose
Simon Conway Morris

ARTICLE: The Ascent of Man and the Politics of Humanity’s Evolutionary Future

A new article in the history of science journal Endeavour might interest readers here:

The Ascent of Man and the Politics of Humanity’s Evolutionary Future

Erika Lorraine Milam

Abstract Throughout the twentieth century, contemporary understandings of evolutionary theory were tightly linked to visions of the future freighted with moral consequence. This essay traces the origins and legacy of this scientific commitment to a universal family of man in postwar evolutionary theory, and elaborates how evolutionary scientists sought to reframe the politics of human evolution by claiming that the principles governing the physical past of humanity differed fundamentally from those that would matter in the coming decades, centuries, or even millennia. Education and public engagement embodied the moral importance of actively participating in the creation of that better, future world.

BOOK: The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

When I became obsessed with dinosaurs in 1993 following seeing Jurassic Park on the big screen, one of the first serious dinosaur paleontology books I read – having found it on the shelf in my local public library – was paleoartist Gregory S. Paul‘s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide  (1988; see this three-part blog series about this book from Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs: 1 2 3). His vivid depictions of dinosaurs in action and streamlined lateral-view skeletal reconstructions became how I would imagine dinosaurs appearing as I continued to read up on the prehistoric beasts. And I credit all the reading I did on dinosaurs for introducing me to the larger subject of Darwin and evolution. So I am indeed a lover of quality books about dinosaurs.

Paul published in 2011 The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which included illustrations and descriptions of species beyond those that were predatory, as well as sections covering a wide range of topics in dinosaur biology and evolution, including the evolution of birds.

This year Paul published a second edition of The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which has been updated with the many new dinosaur species described since the first edition was published (I believe it includes those discoveries through 2015). Paleontology is an ever-changing science, and this book will most likely need to be updated again in the future.


Gregory S. Paul, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs: Second Edition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016), 2016. Hardcover, $35.00

Publisher’s description The best-selling Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs remains the must-have book for anyone who loves dinosaurs, from amateur enthusiasts to professional paleontologists. Now extensively revised and expanded, this dazzlingly illustrated large-format edition features some 100 new dinosaur species and 200 new and updated illustrations, bringing readers up to the minute on the latest discoveries and research that are radically transforming what we know about dinosaurs and their world. Written and illustrated by acclaimed dinosaur expert Gregory Paul, this stunningly beautiful book includes detailed species accounts of all the major dinosaur groups as well as nearly 700 color and black-and-white images—skeletal drawings, “life” studies, scenic views, and other illustrations that depict the full range of dinosaurs, from small feathered creatures to whale-sized supersauropods. Paul’s extensively revised introduction delves into dinosaur history and biology, the extinction of nonavian dinosaurs, the origin of birds, and the history of dinosaur paleontology, as well as giving a taste of what it might be like to travel back in time to the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

With almost 750 species’ descriptions, this book will surely get some use when my son and I wish to look up a dinosaur. But I will, as I have already done, find myself just picking up this book and perusing its pages, enjoying the colorful, anatomy-driven depictions of dinosaurs going about their dinosaurian days. And, as a field guide, Paul includes fun but thoughtful sections on how one might expect a dinosaur safari to actually take place and what if dinosaurs had actually survived, and given that, a quick discussion of large dinosaur conservation.

A preview of the book, including a nice overview of the history of dinosaur research and discoveries, can be seen here.

Purchase The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books (affiliate link).