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.


BOOK: A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction

On the heels of two 2017 books about sexual selection – Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards and The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard O. Prum – comes another that looks at how “scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection.”

a taste for the beautiful

Michael J. Ryan, A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 208 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection to explain why the animal world abounds in stunning beauty, from the brilliant colors of butterflies and fishes to the songs of birds and frogs. He argued that animals have “a taste for the beautiful” that drives their potential mates to evolve features that make them more sexually attractive and reproductively successful. But if Darwin explained why sexual beauty evolved in animals, he struggled to understand how. In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan, one of the world’s leading authorities on animal behavior, tells the remarkable story of how he and other scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection, shedding new light on human behavior in the process. Drawing on cutting-edge work in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, as well as his own important studies of the tiny Túngara frog deep in the jungles of Panama, Ryan explores the key questions: Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals have an inherent sexual aesthetic and, if so, where is it rooted? Ryan argues that the answers to these questions lie in the brain—particularly of females, who act as biological puppeteers, spurring the development of beautiful traits in males. This theory of how sexual beauty evolves explains its astonishing diversity and provides new insights about the degree to which our own perception of beauty resembles that of other animals. Vividly written and filled with fascinating stories, A Taste for the Beautiful will change how you think about beauty and attraction.

From the publisher, there’s a book trailer and you can read chapter 1 online. Read reviews from Times Higher Education, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Ars Technica, and a Psychology Today interview with Ryan. Ryan also appeared on the PRI program Living On Earth to discuss his research and book.

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:


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.


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.

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

BOOK:Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller

A new book from the late biologist David A. West at Virginia Tech promises to fill in a gap in Darwin scholarship – that of the role played by the German naturalist Fritz Müller in the history of evolutionary biology and his relationship with Darwin through correspondence. As West shares in his introduction, Darwin’s son Francis wrote in 1887, “My impression is that of all his unseen friends Fritz Müller was the one for whom he had the strongest regard” (p. 2). It seems then an account of their intellectual friendship as well as an appreciation for Müller’s discoveries is worth a full treatment. Müller, for which Müllerian mimicry is named, appears a couple of times in Desmond and Moore’s Darwin and Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place; and Browne shares that Darwin wrote to Müller in 1864 in praise of his book Für Darwin: “What an admirable illustration it affords of my whole doctrine!” (p. 260). I thus look forward to learning more about “Darwin’s Man in Brazil.”


David A. West, Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller (Gainesville: University Press of Florida , 2016), 344 pp.

Publisher’s description Fritz Müller (1821-1897), though not as well known as his colleague Charles Darwin, belongs in the cohort of great nineteenth-century naturalists. Recovering Müller’s legacy, David A. West describes the close intellectual kinship between Müller and Darwin and details a lively correspondence that spanned seventeen years. The two scientists, despite living on separate continents, often discussed new research topics and exchanged groundbreaking ideas that unequivocally moved the field of evolutionary biology forward. Müller was unique among naturalists testing Darwin’s theory of natural selection because he investigated an enormous diversity of plants and animals, corresponded with prominent scientists, and published important articles in Germany, England, the United States, and Brazil. Darwin frequently praised Müller’s powers of observation and interpretation, counting him among those scientists whose opinions he valued most. Despite the importance and scope of his work, however, Müller is known for relatively few of his discoveries. West remedies this oversight, chronicling the life and work of this remarkable and overlooked man of science.

BOOK: Complexity: The Evolution of Earth’s Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity

This new book might be of interest to this blog’s readers:


William C. Burger, Complexity: The Evolution of Earth’s Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity (Amherst, NY: Prometheous Books, 2016), 380 pp.

Publisher’s description Tracing the arc of evolutionary history, biologist William C. Burger shows that cooperation and symbiosis have played a critical role in the ever increasing complexity of life on earth. Life may have started from the evolution of cooperating organic molecules, which outpaced their noncooperating neighbors. A prime example of symbiosis was the early incorporation of mitochondria into the eukaryotic cell (through a process called “endosymbiosis”). This event gave these cells a powerful new source of energy. Later, cooperation was again key when millions to trillions of individual eukaryotic cells eventually came together to build the unitary structures of large plants and animals. And cooperation between individuals of the same species resulted in complex animal societies, such as ant colonies and bee hives. Turning to our own species, the author argues that our ability to cooperate, along with incessant inter-group conflict, has driven the advancement of cultures, the elaboration of our technologies, and made us the most “invasive” species on the planet. But our very success has now become a huge problem, as our world dominion threatens the future of the biosphere and confronts us with a very uncertain future. Thought-provoking and full of fascinating detail, this eloquently told story of life on earth and our place within it presents a grand perspective and raises many important questions.