On the bookshelf: Evolution, anthropology, geology, philosophy of paleontology, and early 20th century activism for birds

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The following titles are some of the books I have been reading or have recently obtained that readers here are likely to find of interest. Ordering links follow the descriptions of each book, but I recommend also checking your local bookstore or library!

Efram, Sera-Shriar (ed.), Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 320 pp.) ~ The publiher’s description reads: “A number of important developments and discoveries across the British Empire’s imperial landscape during the nineteenth century invited new questions about human ancestry. The rise of secularism and scientific naturalism; new evidence, such as skeletal and archaeological remains; and European encounters with different people all over the world challenged the existing harmony between science and religion and threatened traditional biblical ideas about special creation and the timeline of human history. Advances in print culture and voyages of exploration also provided researchers with a wealth of material that contributed to their investigations into humanity’s past. Historicizing Humans takes a critical approach to nineteenth-century human history, as the contributors consider how these histories were shaped by the colonial world, and for various scientific, religious, and sociopolitical purposes. This volume highlights the underlying questions and shared assumptions that emerged as various human developmental theories competed for dominance throughout the British Empire.” Readers interested in Darwin specifically will want to check out chapter 6 – Gregory Radick on “How and Why Darwin Got Emotional about Race.” Radick delves into Darwin’s writing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) as a means to understand Darwin’s thoughts on human evolution and suggests that Expression provides more evidence in Darwin’s mind of man’s animal ancestry than what he offered in On the Origin of Species (1859) or The Descent of Man (1871). Order Historicizing Humans: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Kieran D. O’Hara, A Brief History of Geology (Cambridge University Press, 2018, 274 pp.) ~ “Geology as a science has a fascinating and controversial history. Kieran D. O’Hara’s book provides a brief and accessible account of the major events in the history of geology over the last two hundred years, from early theories of Earth structure during the Reformation, through major controversies over the age of the Earth during the Industrial Revolution, to the more recent twentieth-century development of plate tectonic theory, and on to current ideas concerning the Anthropocene. Most chapters include a short ‘text box’ providing more technical and detailed elaborations on selected topics. The book also includes a history of the geology of the Moon, a topic not normally included in books on the history of geology. The book will appeal to students of Earth science, researchers in geology who wish to learn more about the history of their subject, and general readers interested in the history of science.” Order A Brief History of GeologyAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant, 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton University Press, 2014, 432 pp.) ~ One of the very first books I read about evolution when the topic grabbed me as a teenager was The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (1995), which told the story of the Grants’ lengthy study of finches on the Galapagos islands. Jump two decades later and their research in the field continues, as they describe in this newer book. From the publisher: “Renowned evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have produced landmark studies of the Galápagos finches first made famous by Charles Darwin. In How and Why Species Multiply [2008], they offered a complete evolutionary history of Darwin’s finches since their origin almost three million years ago. Now, in their richly illustrated new book, 40 Years of Evolution, the authors turn their attention to events taking place on a contemporary scale. By continuously tracking finch populations over a period of four decades, they uncover the causes and consequences of significant events leading to evolutionary changes in species. The authors used a vast and unparalleled range of ecological, behavioral, and genetic data–including song recordings, DNA analyses, and feeding and breeding behavior–to measure changes in finch populations on the small island of Daphne Major in the Galápagos archipelago. They find that natural selection happens repeatedly, that finches hybridize and exchange genes rarely, and that they compete for scarce food in times of drought, with the remarkable result that the finch populations today differ significantly in average beak size and shape from those of forty years ago. The authors’ most spectacular discovery is the initiation and establishment of a new lineage that now behaves as a new species, differing from others in size, song, and other characteristics. The authors emphasize the immeasurable value of continuous long-term studies of natural populations and of critical opportunities for detecting and understanding rare but significant events. By following the fates of finches for several generations, 40 Years of Evolution offers unparalleled insights into ecological and evolutionary changes in natural environments.” Order 40 Years of EvolutionAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Tessa Boase, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change (Aurum Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ Women’s suffrage in Britain began in 1918, when certain woman over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote, but the effort to reach such a point had begun decades earlier. Social historian Tessa Boase tells the story of how the women’s suffrage movement was intertwined with the movement to protect British birds. The publisher’s description: “When Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with her crack squad of militant suffragettes in 1908, she wore on her hat a voluptuous purple feather. This is the intriguing story behind that feather. Twelve years before the suffragette movement began dominating headlines, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination. Its aim was radical: to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats. Leading the fight was a character just as heroic as Emmeline Pankhurst, but with opposite beliefs. Her name was Etta Lemon, and she was anti-fashion, anti-feminist – and anti-suffrage. Mrs Lemon has been forgotten by history, but her mighty society lives on. Few, today, are aware that Britain’s biggest conservation charity, the RSPB, was born through the determined efforts of a handful of women, led by the indomitable Mrs Lemon. While the suffragettes were slashing paintings and smashing shop windows, Etta Lemon and her local secretaries were challenging ‘murderous millinery’ all the way up to Parliament. This gripping narrative explores two singular heroines – one lionised, the other forgotten – and their rival, overlapping campaigns. Moving from the feather workers’ slums to the highest courtly circles, from the first female political rally to the first forcible feeding, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a unique journey through a society in transformation. This is a highly original story of women stepping into the public sphere, agitating for change – and finally finding a voice.” Order Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple FeatherAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Peter Ward, Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, 288 pp.) ~ “In the 1700s, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first described epigenetics to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics; however, his theory was supplanted in the 1800s by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection through heritable genetic mutations. But natural selection could not adequately explain how rapidly species re-diversified and repopulated after mass extinctions. Now advances in the study of DNA and RNA have resurrected epigenetics, which can create radical physical and physiological changes in subsequent generations by the simple addition of a single small molecule, thus passing along a propensity for molecules to attach in the same places in the next generation! Epigenetics is a complex process, but paleontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward breaks it down for general readers, using the epigenetic paradigm to reexamine how the history of our species–from deep time to the outbreak of the Black Plague and into the present–has left its mark on our physiology, behavior, and intelligence. Most alarming are chapters about epigenetic changes we are undergoing now triggered by toxins, environmental pollutants, famine, poor nutrition, and overexposure to violence. Lamarck’s Revenge is an eye-opening and controversial exploration of how traits are inherited, and how outside influences drive what we pass along to our progeny.” Order Lamarck’s RevengeAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Adrian Currie, Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences (MIT Press, 2018, 376 pp.) ~ I’ve read lots of books about dinosaurs and paleontology over the years, but this one suggests to not necessarily take everything a paleontologist says for granted. From the publisher: “The ‘historical sciences’—geology, paleontology, and archaeology—have made extraordinary progress in advancing our understanding of the deep past. How has this been possible, given that the evidence they have to work with offers mere traces of the past? In Rock, Bone, and Ruin, Adrian Currie explains that these scientists are ‘methodological omnivores,’ with a variety of strategies and techniques at their disposal, and that this gives us every reason to be optimistic about their capacity to uncover truths about prehistory. Creative and opportunistic paleontologists, for example, discovered and described a new species of prehistoric duck-billed platypus from a single fossilized tooth. Examining the complex reasoning processes of historical science, Currie also considers philosophical and scientific reflection on the relationship between past and present, the nature of evidence, contingency, and scientific progress. Currie draws on varied examples from across the historical sciences, from Mayan ritual sacrifice to giant Mesozoic fleas to Mars’s mysterious watery past, to develop an account of the nature of, and resources available to, historical science. He presents two major case studies: the emerging explanation of sauropod size, and the ‘snowball earth’ hypothesis that accounts for signs of glaciation in Neoproterozoic tropics. He develops the Ripple Model of Evidence to analyze ‘unlucky circumstances’ in scientific investigation; examines and refutes arguments for pessimism about the capacity of the historical sciences, defending the role of analogy and arguing that simulations have an experiment-like function. Currie argues for a creative, open-ended approach, ’empirically grounded’ speculation.” Order Rock, Bone, and Ruin: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

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Two new books centered on evolution and the human species

Here are two new books centered on evolution and the human species that readers here may be interested in:

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Philip Lieberman, The Theory that Changed Everything: “On the Origin of Species” as a Work in Progress (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 232 pp.

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Publisher’s description Few people have done as much to change how we view the world as Charles Darwin. Yet On the Origin of Species is more cited than read, and parts of it are even considered outdated. In some ways, it has been consigned to the nineteenth century. In The Theory That Changed Everything, the renowned cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman demonstrates that there is no better guide to the world’s living—and still evolving—things than Darwin and that the phenomena he observed are still being explored at the frontiers of science. In an exploration that ranges from Darwin’s transformative trip aboard the Beagle to Lieberman’s own sojourns in the remotest regions of the Himalayas, this book relates fresh, contemporary findings to the major concepts of Darwinian theory, which transcends natural selection. Drawing on his own research into the evolution of human linguistic and cognitive abilities, Lieberman explains the paths that adapted human anatomy to language. He demystifies the role of recently identified transcriptional and epigenetic factors encoded in DNA, explaining how nineteenth-century Swedish famines alternating with years of plenty caused survivors’ grandchildren to die many years short of their life expectancy. Lieberman is equally at home decoding supermarket shelves and climbing with the Sherpas as he discusses how natural selection explains features from lactose tolerance to ease of breathing at Himalayan altitudes. With conversational clarity and memorable examples, Lieberman relates the insights that led to groundbreaking discoveries in both Darwin’s time and our own while asking provocative questions about what Darwin would have made of controversial issues today, such as GMOs, endangered species, and the God question.

This book is reviewed, along with three other new titles about Darwin, in the Times Literary Supplement, and the author of said review discusses it for the TLS podcast.  And a so-so review from Publisher’s Weekly.

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Kostas Kampourakis, Turning Points: How Critical Events Have Driven Human Evolution, Life, and Development (New York: Prometheus Books, February 2018), 384 pp. 

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Publisher’s description Critical historical events–or “turning points”–have shaped evolution and continue to have a decisive effect on individual lives. This theme is explored and explained in this lucid, accessible book for lay readers. The author argues that, although evolution is the result of unpredictable events, these events have profound influences on subsequent developments. Life is thus a continuous interplay between unforeseeable events and their decisive consequences. As one example, the author cites the fusing of two chromosomes, which differentiated the human species from our closest animal relatives about 4 to 5 million years ago. This event was not predictable, but it had a profound effect on the evolution of our species thereafter. By the same token, certain unpredictable circumstances in the past enabled only Homo sapiens to survive to the present day, though we now know that other human-like species also once existed. The author contrasts such scientific concepts grounded in solid evidence with prevalent misconceptions about life: specifically, the religious notion that there is a plan and purpose behind life, the widespread perception that intelligent design governs the workings of nature, the persistent belief in destiny and fate, and the attribution of an overly deterministic role to genes. This excellent introduction for laypersons to core ideas in biology goes a long way toward dispelling such misconceptions and presents current scientific research in clearly understandable, jargon-free terms.

Again, this book is reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly.

BOOK: Darwinism, Democracy, and Race: American Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology in the Twentieth Century

This new book of possible interest to readers would be a good one to request your academic library purchase, as it is a hefty price, as one of the co-authors notes in this list of what you could purchase instead for the same price.

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John P. Jackson Jr. and David J. Depew, Darwinism, Democracy, and Race: American Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology in the Twentieth Century (New York: Routledge, 2017), 252 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwinism, Democracy, and Race examines the development and defence of an argument that arose at the boundary between anthropology and evolutionary biology in twentieth-century America. In its fully articulated form, this argument simultaneously discredited scientific racism and defended free human agency in Darwinian terms. The volume is timely because it gives readers a key to assessing contemporary debates about the biology of race. By working across disciplinary lines, the book’s focal figures–the anthropologist Franz Boas, the cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, and the physical anthropologist Sherwood Washburn–found increasingly persuasive ways of cutting between genetic determinist and social constructionist views of race by grounding Boas’s racially egalitarian, culturally relativistic, and democratically pluralistic ethic in a distinctive version of the genetic theory of natural selection. Collaborators in making and defending this argument included Ashley Montagu, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin. Darwinism, Democracy, and Race will appeal to advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and academics interested in subjects including Philosophy, Critical Race Theory, Sociology of Race, History of Biology and Anthropology, and Rhetoric of Science.

ARTICLE: ‘Darwin was Wrong.’ The International Media Coverage of the Oreopithecus’ Reinterpretation (1956–1959)

An article in a 2016 issue of the journal Centaurus looks at an interesting moment in the history of evolutionary thought:

‘Darwin was Wrong.’ The International Media Coverage of the Oreopithecus’ Reinterpretation (1956–1959)

Clara Florensa

Abstract ‘Darwin was wrong’ was a headline that made news around the world in March 1956. Johannes Hürzeler, a Swiss palaeontologist, had just made public his theory that Oreopithecus bambolii, a fossil thus far classified as an extinct Old World monkey, was in fact a 12-million-year old hominid. That was 10 million years (!) older than the oldest hominids accepted at the time. Two years later he unearthed a complete skeleton of Oreopithecus in Italy. The echo of this discovery in the media was enormous yet the newspaper coverage in different western countries followed distinctive patterns. This paper will show these differences and point out possible explanations that go far beyond scientific disagreement. It will be argued that the press is a privileged source for comparing simultaneous reactions to the same scientific fact around the globe and for helping us discover national and supranational patterns of scientific discourse while linking them to their contexts. This paper also highlights the role of the news pieces as ‘supports of knowledge.’ Just like bones or scientific articles, news items circulate prompting in turn the circulation of other ‘supports of knowledge’ such as fossil remains or scientists.

The whole issue is devoted to articles on the construction of prehistoric knowledge.

ARTICLE: Darwin’s body-snatchers?

This short article in the journal Endeavour takes a creationist claim about Darwin to task:

Darwin’s body-snatchers?

John van Wyhe

Abstract For decades creationists have claimed that Charles Darwin sought the skulls of full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian people when only four were left alive. It is said that Darwin letters survive which reveal this startling and distasteful truth. Tracing these claims back to their origins, however, reveals a different, if not unfamiliar story.

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.

ARTICLE: Darwin and the Ethnologists: Liberal Racialism and the Geological Analogy

New in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences:

Darwin and the Ethnologists: Liberal Racialism and the Geological Analogy

Suman Seth

Abstract Toward the end of The Descent of Man, Darwin made a striking assertion. “I would as soon be descended,” he claimed, from a “heroic little monkey” than from a “savage” who practiced torture and infanticide, treated “wives like slaves,” and was indecent and superstitious. These lines have been often quoted but rarely analyzed. I argue here that they provide a means for following Darwin’s thought as he grappled with contemporary ethnological evidence that seemed—if today’s “savages” were to be taken as models for primeval humans—to work against his theory of sexual selection as it applied to humankind. In addition to explicating what I suggest is a crucial element of Descent, this paper has three aims, all of which help us better understand the relationships between ethnology and Darwinian thought. First, to offer a selective intellectual history of British ethnology between 1864 and 1871, focusing on those texts that Darwin deemed most problematic for his arguments. Second, and as a result, to better specify Darwin’s views on race by comparing him not to his opponents, but to his like-minded peers, a group I term “liberal racialists.” Third, to explore the utility of what I term the “geological analogy,” a mid-nineteenth-century version of the comparative method (which substituted study of “less developed” peoples today for humans in much earlier periods). Where liberal ethnologists deployed the geological analogy consistently, Darwin would be much more selective, denying its application at times in favor of analogies to lower animals. He would thus save his theoretical suppositions by denying that contemporary “lower” races, with their depraved morality, could serve as appropriate models for our apparently more decent, yet more animalistic forebears.