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


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.


Today in Science History

From Today in Science History:

Richard Darwin Keynes (Born 14 Aug 1919). British physiologist who did pioneering work on the mechanisms underlying the conduction of the action potential along nerve fibres. Early in his career, he worked with the giant nerve fibers of squid, which would help discover how nerve impulses are transmitted in all animals. In later resarch, he determined how electric eels project electric fields outside their bodies. Keynes was the first to use radioactive sodium and potassium tracer atoms to follow the movements of these atoms when an impulse is transmitted along a nerve fibre. He has written extensively about the life and work of his great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, beginning with The Beagle Record (1979).

Paul Bartsch (Born 14 Aug 1871; died 24 Apr 1960). German-American zoologist who was an authority on molluscs, but had broad interests in natural history including plants and birds. He began his career as assistant curator of marine invertebrates at the US National Museum, Washington, DC., but then worked until retirement for the Smithsonian Institution (1896-1942). He represented that organisation on numerous zoological expeditions. In 1902, he initiated a systematic, scientific bird banding program (credited as the first in North America since John James Audubon) by banding 23 Black-crowned Night-herons at Washington, DC. During WW I, he invented a gas detector for the Chemical Warfare Service in 1918. Bartsch organized the first Boy Scout troop in Washington.

Ernest Thompson Seton (Born 14 Aug 1860; died 23 Oct 1946). Anglo-American naturalist, writer and illustrator who applied these skills in over forty books on wild life, woodcraft, Indian lore and animal-fiction stories. As a capable naturalist, in his field observations he made detailed studies of morphology, physiology, distribution, and behaviour. His fame as author began with Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) – still in print a century later. Over a period of twenty years he delivered over three thousand lectures. Believing in promoting the values of ethology and ecology, he was chairman of the committee that established the Boy Scouts in the U.S. (1910). Seton envisioned the North American Indian as a model for the movement, but Baden-Powell’s military structure was adopted as in Britain.

Frederic Ward Putnam (Died 14 Aug 1915; born 16 Apr 1839). American archeologist, naturalist and museum administrator who played a major role in the popularization of anthropology, its acceptance as a university study, and instigated more anthropological museums. After entering Harvard College as a student (1856), he was much influenced by Louis Agassiz. As Curator of the Peabody Museum (1875-1909), Putnam organized numerous pioneering expeditions in Southwest and Central American archeology. As director of the anthropological section of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1891-93), he mounted an impressive exhibit. It created wide-spread interest in anthropology, and subsequently became the nucleus of the great collections of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Richard Jefferies (Died 14 Aug 1887; born 6 Nov 1848). (John) Richard Jefferies, born near Swindon was a naturalist, novelist, and essayist. He began his literary career as a local reporter in Wiltshire, and from then on he wrote many works of natural history and country life, and essays in journals and magazines. Jefferies relied greatly on ‘field notebooks’, where he entered his meticulous observations on the life of the countryside. Wild Life in a Southern Country, in which the author, sitting on a Wiltshire down, observes in ever widening circles the fields, woods, animals, and human inhabitants below him, was published with success in 1879. He wrote his autobiography, Story of My Heart (1883). His vision was unappreciated in his own Victorian age but has been increasingly recognized and admired since his death.

Today in Science History

From Today in Science History:

Louis Agassiz (Born 28 May 1807; died 14 Dec 1873). (Jean) Louis (Rodolphe) Agassiz was a Swiss-born U.S. naturalist, geologist, and teacher who made revolutionary contributions to the study of natural science with landmark work on glacier activity and extinct fishes. Agassiz began his work in Europe, having studied at the University of Munich and then as chair in natural history in Neuchatel in Switzerland. While there he published his landmark multi-volume description and classification of fossil fish. In 1846 Agassiz came to the U.S. to lecture before Boston’s Lowell Institute. Offered a professorship of Zoology and Geology at Harvard in 1848, he decided to stay, becoming a citizen in 1861. His innovative teaching methods altered the character of natural science education in the U.S.

John Lubbock (Died 28 May 1913; born 30 Apr 1834). 1st Baron Avebury. English banker, politician, naturalist and archaeologist who coined the terms Neolithic and Paleolithic. Like his father, astronomer Sir John William Lubbock, his scientific work was an avocation. Lubbock was a friend and advocate of Charles Darwin. He discovered the first fossil remains of musk-ox in England (1855), and undertook archaeological work identifying prehistoric cultures. As a naturalist, he studied insect vision and colour sense. He published a number of books on natural history and primitive man. In 1870, he became a member of Parliament. The legislation he initiated included the Bank Holidays Act (1871) and the Ancient Monuments Act (1882) and the Shop Hours Act (1886). He was made a peer in 1900.

Today in Science History

From Today in Science History:

Sir Edwin Ray Lankester (Born 15 May 1847; died 15 Aug 1929). British zoologist whose interests embraced comparative anatomy, protozoology, parasitology, embryology and anthropology. He was one of the first to describe protozoan parasites found in the blood of vertebrates. Lankestrella (a parasite related to the causative agent of malaria) carries his name. His work contributed to an understanding of the disease. Based on his investigation into the comparative anatomy of the embryology of invertebrates, Lankester endorsed Darwin’s theory of evolution. In anthrolopology, his activities included the discovery of flint implements, evidence of early man, within Pliocene sediments, in Suffolk. He was Director of the British Museum of Natural History (1898-1907).

(Alexandre-)Henri Mouhot (Born 15 May 1826; died 10 Nov 1861). (Alexandre-)Henri Mouhot was a French naturalist and explorer of the interior of Siam, Cambodia and Laos (1858-61), he is remembered for his reports of the ruins of Angkor, capital of the ancient Khmer civilization of Cambodia. The location was known to the local population, had been visited by several westerners since the 16th century, but it was Mouhot’s evocative accounts and detailed sketches that popularized the Angkor series of sites with the western public. He drew the attention of western scholars to the many ancient terraces, pools, moated cities, palaces and temples as important archaeological sites. His books were published posthumously as he died in Laos at the young age of 35 from malarial fever on his fourth jungle expedition.

ARTICLE: Charles Darwin and Prehistoric Archaeology

The latest issue of the journal Archives of Natural History has an article by P. Lucas entitled, “Charles Darwin, ‘Little Dawkins’ and the platycnemic Yale men: introducing a bioarchaeological tale of the descent of man.” Here is the article abstract:

A small box of animal bones, forwarded by Charles Darwin from North Wales, led to excavations by William Boyd Dawkins in Denbighshire between 1869 and 1872 and in Flintshire in 1886. Neglected riches of the archival record allow glimpses of Darwin and his family and contribute to this first narrative account of a pioneering episode in prehistoric archaeology which resulted in the three most important discoveries of Neolithic human remains in North Wales (and their later apparently near total disappearance). Many of the leg bones had features of the flattening of tibia (platycnemia) and femur (platymeria) first noted by George Busk in Neolithic bones from Gibraltar in 1863, and by Paul Broca at Cro-Magnon in 1868. Within a few years flattened leg bones were recognised across the globe, subsequently in samples extending back to the Middle Palaeolithic and forward to modern hunter-gatherers; platymeric shafts have been found at early hominin sites. Busk’s platycnemic index and understanding of flattening as related to muscular activity anticipate the work of modern bioarchaeologists. Dawkins was recipient of a much quoted account of the Huxley-Wilberforce confrontation at Oxford and opponent of Darwin’s views on human origins: his work opens up instructive perspectives.