Darwin, evolution & science books for holiday gift giving (2019)

This is a great time of the year to gift science books to family and friends, or even yourself – axial tilt is the reason for the season, after all. Here are some recent books about Darwin, evolution, and related topics:

FOR YOUNGER READERS

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Darcy Pattison, Pollen: Darwin’s 130 Year Prediction (Little Rock, AR: Mims House, 2019, 33 pp.; illustrated by Peter Willis) ~ This award-winning book looks at a very specific aspect of Darwin’s work: his predicting that a type of moth would be found that would be adapted to pollinating a specific orchid flower. The year is 1862, and Darwin receives a package with a specimen of a star orchid from Madagascar, with a 11.5 inch nectary. He predicts that a species of moth with a very long proboscis (a flexible, elongated part of an insect’s mouth) must exist in Madagascar that can pollinate such a flower. Darwin knew of no such species, and his fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace thought about this problem too. Darwin died without such a species being found, but in 1903 a new species of hawk moth from Madagascar was described that indeed had such a proboscis. While many considered this moth and the star orchid to be a great match, still no one had witnessed the act of pollination between the two. Not until 1992, at least, when the German entomologist Lutz Thilo Wasserthal set up a camera in a tent where he placed some of these orchids, and while the moth is rare he was able to capture a photo of this species pollinating the star orchid. And thus, Darwin’s prediction 130 years before was shown as correct. This book does a great job in telling a scientific mystery story and introducing various biological concepts. The publisher also has children’s books about the physicist Michael Faraday, the physicist Ernst Chladni, and on how a 1919 eclipse tested Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Order Pollen: Darwin’s 130 Year Prediction: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (for those wishing to learn more about this topic, check out these three articles: 1/2/3).

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Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species adapted and illustrated by Sabina Radeva (New York: Penguin/Crown Books for Young Readers, 2019, 64 pp.; see some images here) This is a beautiful adaptation of Origin for elementary-aged children. The author, a graphic designer with a background in biology, begins by sharing a Biblical view of creation via illustration (without mention of the Bible or Christianity), followed by a brief overview of Buffon’s and Lamarck’s thoughts. Then comes Darwin, the Beagle voyage, and his return home to England and his long, hard work on his theory until he publishes Origin. The focus then turns from Darwin’s life to the theory itself: variation in nature is covered before discussing artificial selection, then the struggle for existence before introducing natural selection. The Tree of Life concept comes next, followed by discussions of the difficulties that Darwin anticipated about his theory and tackled in his book: the imperfection of the geological record, organs of extreme perfection, instinct, migration (geographical distribution), and the mutual affinities of organic beings. The book largely follows the organization of Origin, and toward the end the author shares a quote from Darwin – “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important research… Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history” – next to an image of the familiar, but unfortunately erroneous, depiction of the evolution of man from apes as a linear process ending in Darwin himself (this type of illustration is known as the “March of Progress”). While I adore the rest of this book, I am bummed that this depiction of evolution crept in – it remains pervasive in people’s understanding of the subject. That said, the whole of the book is splendid, richly illustrated and peppered with many quotes from Origin, and includes much more information in an author’s note, a list of misconceptions about evolution, and an appendix bringing recent ideas in biology to bear on Darwin’s theory. Radeva has done a fine job of making Darwin’s theory comprehensible for younger readers. Order Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (Richard at The Friends of Charles Darwin also shared about this book, the UK version).

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Blake Edgar, Smithsonian Dinosaurs and Other Amazing Creatures from Deep Time (New York: Penguin/Smithsonian Books, 2019, 64 pp.) ~ Earlier in 2019, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC reopened its long-awaited renovation of their fossil halls, called Deep Time. My spouse and son were fortunate to spend some time there recently on a quick DC trip over Thanksgiving break (I shared a short video my son took on Twitter). This is a companion book to the exhibit, and includes breathtaking artwork from paleoartist Julius Csotonyi (his paintings serve as murals throughout the exhibit). The publisher describes the book as “present[ing] some of Earth’s strangest and most unusual creatures from as early as 3.8 billion years ago. Beginning with the first evidence of life, it moves through periods of biodiversity and mass extinction and into a look at the first dinosaurs, mammals, pterosaurs, and other fauna and flora from the Archean to the Quarternary eras. It offers a rare look at some of the world’s most fascinating creatures from sauropods, the largest creatures to ever walk the land, to the top carnivorous predator Tyrannosaurus rex, as well as the mastodons, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, walrus-whales, and other beasts that seem outlandish to us now.” This is a book that children and adults can both enjoy. Order Smithsonian Dinosaurs and Other Amazing Creatures from Deep Time: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

FOR OLDER READERS

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Bill Jenkins, Evolution Before Darwin: Theories of the Transmutation of Species in Edinburgh (New York: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, 232pp.) ~  Publisher’s description: “This book is the first major study of what was probably the most important centre of pre-Darwinian evolutionary thought in the British Isles. It sheds new light on the genesis and development of one of the most important scientific theories in the history of western thought. It was long believed that evolutionary theories received an almost universally cold reception in British natural history circles in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, a relatively recently serious doubt has been cast on this assumption. This book shows that Edinburgh in the late 1820s and early 1830s was witness to a ferment of radical new ideas on the natural world, including speculation on the origin and evolution of life, at just the time when Charles Darwin was a student in the city. Those who were students in Edinburgh at the time could have hardly avoided coming into contact with these new ideas.” Order Evolution Before Darwin: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

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Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: Natural History Museum, 2019, 520 pp.) ~ This is a small, and handsome facsimile edition of the second edition of Origin from 1860, with a green cover mimicking that of the original first edition from 1859 (the title page bears a stamp stating “British Museum Natural History”, so I assume this is taken from the Natural History Museum’s own collection). Darwin’s single diagram of a tree of life is included as the book’s endpapers, and while the text is that of the second, the “Historical Sketch” from the third edition is included. From the short introduction: “Reproduced here is the second edition… which is essentially the same as the first edition, with a few minor corrections, and so reflects Darwin’s original thoughts before the additional evidence and reviews emerged” (anyone wishing to learn in great detail the difference between the different editions of Origin and their publication histories should head here). While there are many current editions of Darwin’s Origin one could have on their shelf, this affordable and highly-pleasing edition would be a great way to go. Order On the Origin of Species: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

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Ricardo Rozzi, Kurt Heidinger, and Francisca Massardo, Tracing Darwin’s Path in Cape Horn (Denton/Punta Arenas, Chile: University of North Texas Press/ Universidad de Magallanes, 2018, 288 pp.) ~ This is quite the book for any serious Darwin aficionado or armchair – or actual – traveler/naturalist. From the publisher: “Charles Darwin spent the majority of his 1831-1836 voyage around the world in southern South America, and his early experiences in the Cape Horn region seem to have triggered his first ideas on human evolution. Darwin was not only a field naturalist, but also a scholar of the observations of the European explorers who preceded him. This book illuminates the foundations of Cape Horn’s natural history that oriented Darwin’s own explorations and his ideas on evolution, which acquire the highest relevance for planetary sustainability and environmental ethics. Richly illustrated with maps and color photographs, this book offers a guide to the sites visited by Darwin, and a compass for present-day visitors who can follow Darwin’s path over the sea and land that today are protected by the UNESCO Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve.” Order Tracing Darwin’s Path in Cape Horn: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

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Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: How One Extraordinary Society Shaped Modern Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, 400 pp.) ~ From the publisher: “Cambridge is now world-famous as a centre of science, but it wasn’t always so. Before the nineteenth century, the sciences were of little importance in the University of Cambridge. But that began to change in 1819 when two young Cambridge fellows took a geological fieldtrip to the Isle of Wight. Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow spent their days there exploring, unearthing dazzling fossils, dreaming up elaborate theories about the formation of the earth, and bemoaning the lack of serious science in their ancient university. As they threw themselves into the exciting new science of geology – conjuring millions of years of history from the evidence they found in the island’s rocks – they also began to dream of a new scientific society for Cambridge. This society would bring together like-minded young men who wished to learn of the latest science from overseas, and would encourage original research in Cambridge. It would be, they wrote, a society “to keep alive the spirit of inquiry”. Their vision was realised when they founded the Cambridge Philosophical Society later that same year. Its founders could not have imagined the impact the Cambridge Philosophical Society would have: it was responsible for the first publication of Charles Darwin’s scientific writings, and hosted some of the most heated debates about evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century; it saw the first announcement of x-ray diffraction by a young Lawrence Bragg – a technique that would revolutionise the physical, chemical and life sciences; it published the first paper by C.T.R. Wilson on his cloud chamber – a device that opened up a previously-unimaginable world of sub-atomic particles. 200 years on from the Society’s foundation, this book reflects on the achievements of Sedgwick, Henslow, their peers, and their successors. Susannah Gibson explains how Cambridge moved from what Sedgwick saw as a “death-like stagnation” (really little more than a provincial training school for Church of England clergy) to being a world-leader in the sciences. And she shows how science, once a peripheral activity undertaken for interest by a small number of wealthy gentlemen, has transformed into an enormously well-funded activity that can affect every aspect of our lives.” Order The Spirit of Inquiry: How One Extraordinary Society Shaped Modern Science: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (reviews can be found at Nature, Kirkus Reviews, The Biologist, The Geological Society, and Times Higher Education).

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Nature’s Explorers: Adventurers who recorded the wonders of the natural world (London: Natural History Museum, 2019, 240 pp.) ~ Ten years ago I had the pleasure of spending a little time in the library at the Natural History Museum, London. I was offered a look at Alfred Russel Wallace material there. So many books on shelves and some on display on top of the shelves, one could have spent all day perusing the collection of historic natural history texts. Fortunately, the museum’s publishing division regularly puts out books that showcase what’s in their collection and beyond, such as Expeditions and Endeavours: Images of Nature, Women Artists: Images of Nature, Art of Nature: Three Centuries of Natural History Art from Around the World, Rare Treasures from the Library of the Natural History Museum, and The Art of British Natural History. The current book, Nature Explorer’s, consists of chapters on 23 explorers and naturalists with full color images of natural history illustrations, portraits, maps, or other drawings. For folks interested in Darwin, he’s here of course, as well as Wallace, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, Wallace’s fellow explorer in the Amazon, Henry Walter Bates, ornithologist John Gould, and Conrad Martens, the artist on HMS Beagle from 1832-4. That’s only six chapters – there’s plenty to explore in the other seventeen, folks whose work “constituted what we might now look back on and recognise as a first broad survey of our planet, its life and its people” Order Nature’s Explorers: Adventurers who recorded the wonders of the natural world: Publisher, Amazon (UK), Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

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Charles H. Smith, James T. Costa, and David Collard, eds., An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019, 416 pp.) ~ I will be reviewing this book in the near future for Reports of the National Center for Science Education, so for now will simply share the publisher’s description: “Although Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) was one of the most famous scientists in the world at the time of his death at the age of ninety, today he is known to many as a kind of ‘almost-Darwin,’ a secondary figure relegated to the footnotes of Darwin’s prodigious insights. But this diminution could hardly be less justified. Research into the life of this brilliant naturalist and social critic continues to produce new insights into his significance to history and his role in helping to shape modern thought. Wallace declared his eight years of exploration in southeast Asia to be ‘the central and controlling incident’ of his life. As 2019 marks one hundred and fifty years since the publication of The Malay Archipelago, Wallace’s canonical work chronicling his epic voyage, this collaborative book gathers an interdisciplinary array of writers to celebrate Wallace’s remarkable life and diverse scholarly accomplishments. Wallace left school at the age of fourteen and was largely self-taught, a voracious curiosity and appetite for learning sustaining him throughout his long life. After years as a surveyor and builder, in 1848 he left Britain to become a professional natural history collector in the Amazon, where he spent four years. Then, in 1854, he departed for the Malay Archipelago. It was on this voyage that he constructed a theory of natural selection similar to the one Charles Darwin was developing, and the two copublished papers on the subject in 1858, some sixteen months before the release of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But as the contributors to the Companion show, this much-discussed parallel evolution in thought was only one epoch in an extraordinary intellectual life. When Wallace returned to Britain in 1862, he commenced a career of writing on a huge range of subjects extending from evolutionary studies and biogeography to spiritualism and socialism. An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion provides something of a necessary reexamination of the full breadth of Wallace’s thought—an attempt to describe not only the history and present state of our understanding of his work, but also its implications for the future.” Order An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (see a review at Victorian Web).

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Elizabeth Hennessy, On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galapagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden (New Haven: Yale UNiversity Press, 2019, 336 pp.) ~ Publisher’s description: “The Galápagos archipelago is often viewed as a last foothold of pristine nature. For sixty years, conservationists have worked to restore this evolutionary Eden after centuries of exploitation at the hands of pirates, whalers, and island settlers. This book tells the story of the islands’ namesakes—the giant tortoises—as coveted food sources, objects of natural history, and famous icons of conservation and tourism. By doing so, it brings into stark relief the paradoxical, and impossible, goal of conserving species by trying to restore a past state of prehistoric evolution. The tortoises, Elizabeth Hennessy demonstrates, are not prehistoric, but rather microcosms whose stories show how deeply human and nonhuman life are entangled. In a world where evolution is thoroughly shaped by global history, Hennessy puts forward a vision for conservation based on reckoning with the past, rather than trying to erase it.” Order On the Backs of Tortoises: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (see a review from NPR).

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Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich, eds., Dreamers, Visionaries, and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ This is the third in a series of books from the same editors providing short biographies of a wide variety of biologist and researchers in the life sciences: first with Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology (2009) and then Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology (2013). I’ve particularly enjoyed the biographies of Ernst Haeckel by Robert J. Richards and Rachel Carson by Janet Browne. Here’s the publisher’s description: “What are the conditions that foster true novelty and allow visionaries to set their eyes on unknown horizons? What have been the challenges that have spawned new innovations, and how have they shaped modern biology? In Dreamers, Visionaries, and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences, editors Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich explore these questions through the lives of eighteen exemplary biologists who had grand and often radical ideas that went far beyond the run-of-the-mill science of their peers. From the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who coined the word “biology” in the early nineteenth century, to the American James Lovelock, for whom the Earth is a living, breathing organism, these dreamers innovated in ways that forced their contemporaries to reexamine comfortable truths. With this collection readers will follow Jane Goodall into the hidden world of apes in African jungles and Francis Crick as he attacks the problem of consciousness. Join Mary Lasker on her campaign to conquer cancer and follow geneticist George Church as he dreams of bringing back woolly mammoths and Neanderthals. In these lives and the many others featured in these pages, we discover visions that were sometimes fantastical, quixotic, and even threatening and destabilizing, but always a challenge to the status quo.” Order Dreamers, Visionaries, and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (if you have access, here’s a review in the Journal of the History of Biology).

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The Paleozoic, written and illustrated by Estrella Vega. This foldout presentation of prehistoric creatures is fantastic. Five books, one for each of the periods of the Paleozoic Era. Line them all up and it is 42 ft long! As Vega calls it, “Prehistory Unfolded.” For more information, visit estrellavega.com (or find each of the books here on Amazon). She has the Mesozoic Era is in the works…

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M. J. S. Hodge, Before and After Darwin: Origins, Species, Cosmogonies, and Ontologies (Routledge, 2019, 362 pp.) ~ This is the first volume a paperback (i.e., much cheaper) edition of a previously published two-volume collection of Darwin or evolutionary thought articles by historian of science Hodge. From the publisher: “This is the first of a pair of volumes by Jonathan Hodge, collecting all his most innovative, revisionist and influential papers on Charles Darwin and on the longer run of theories about origins and species from ancient times to the present. The focus in this volume is on the diversity of theories among such pre-Darwinian authors as Lamarck and Whewell, and on developments in the theory of natural selection since Darwin. Plato’s Timaeus, the Biblical Genesis and any current textbook of evolutionary biology are all, it may well seem, on this same enduring topic: origins and species. However, even among classical authors, there were fundamental disagreements: the ontology and cosmogony of the Greek atomists were deeply opposed to Plato’s; and, in the millennia since, the ontological and cosmogonical contexts for theories about origins and species have never settled into any unifying consensus. While the structure of Darwinian theory may be today broadly what it was in Darwin’s own argumentation, controversy continues over the old issues about order, chance, necessity and purpose in the living world and the wider universe as a whole. The historical and philosophical papers collected in this volume, and in the companion volume devoted to Darwin’s theorising, seek to clarify the major continuities and discontinuities in the long run of thinking about origins and species.” A paperback edition of the second volume – Darwin Studies: A Theorist and his Theories in their Context – is forthcming. Order Before and After Darwin: Origins, Species, Cosmogonies, and Ontologies: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

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Thierry Hoquet, Revisiting the ‘Origin of Species’: The Other Darwins (New York: Routledge, 2018, 252 pp.) ~ From the publisher: “Contemporary interest in Darwin rises from a general ideal of what Darwin’s books ought to contain: a theory of transformation of species by natural selection. However, a reader opening Darwin’s masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, today may be struck by the fact that this ‘selectionist’ view does not deliver the key to many aspects of the book. Without contesting the importance of natural selection to Darwinism, much less supposing that a fully-formed “Darwinism” stepped out of Darwin’s head in 1859, this innovative volume aims to return to the text of the Origin itself. Revisiting the ‘Origin of Species’ focuses on Darwin as theorising on the origin of variations; showing that Darwin himself was never a pan-selectionist (in contrast to some of his followers) but was concerned with “other means of modification” (which makes him an evolutionary pluralist). Furthermore, in contrast to common textbook presentations of “Darwinism”, Hoquet stresses the fact that On the Origin of Species can lend itself to several contradictory interpretations. Thus, this volume identifies where rival interpretations have taken root; to unearth the ambiguities readers of Darwin have latched onto as they have produced a myriad of Darwinian legacies, each more or less faithful enough to the originator’s thought. Emphasising the historical features, complexities and intricacies of Darwin’s argument, Revisiting the ‘Origin of Species’ can be used by any lay readers opening Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This volume will also appeal to students and researchers interested in areas such as Evolution, Natural Selection, Scientific Translations and Origins of Life.” Order Revisiting the Origin of Species: The Other Darwins: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

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David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (New York: Pantheon/Penguin, 2019, 304 pp.) ~ From the publisher: “It is widely understood that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution completely revolutionized the study of biology. Yet, according to David Sloan Wilson, the Darwinian revolution won’t be truly complete until it is applied more broadly—to everything associated with the words “human,” “culture,” and “policy.” In a series of engaging and insightful examples—from the breeding of hens to the timing of cataract surgeries to the organization of an automobile plant—Wilson shows how an evolutionary worldview provides a practical tool kit for understanding not only genetic evolution but also the fast-paced changes that are having an impact on our world and ourselves. What emerges is an incredibly empowering argument: If we can become wise managers of evolutionary processes, we can solve the problems of our age at all scales—from the efficacy of our groups to our well-being as individuals to our stewardship of the planet Earth.” Order This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (read an excerpt here, and reviews at Nature, Psychology Today, Massive Science, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly).

For more book ideas, see:

  Darwin, evolution & science books for holiday gift giving (2018)
  New graphic novels about Humboldt’s and Darwin’s travels
  New book provides wide overview of the history of natural history
  BOOK: Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

Also, my friends at The Well-Read Naturalist and The Friends of Charles Darwin always have recommendations and reviews for new nature books to check out.

On the bookshelf: Darwin, dinosaurs, and Victorian science

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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!

Alistair Sponsel, Darwin’s Evolving Identity: Adventure, Ambition, and the Sin of Speculation (University of Chicago Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ When I attended (and presented) at the Darwin in the Field conference in Cambridge, England in 2009, I met Alistair Sponsel, then a post-doctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. At this conference, Sponsel re-examined Darwin’s claim that he developed his theory of coral reef formation on the west coast of South America, arguing that Darwin only developed the theory after leaving South America (a “eureka” moment on the island of Tahiti). Almost a decade later, Sponsel has published his book on Darwin’s coral reef theory. From the several chapters I’ve enjoyed so far, this is undoubtedly the most academic of books presented in this post. Sponsel has meticulously surveyed Darwin’s writings to reassess many aspects of Darwin’s coral reef studies during the voyage of HMS Beagle and his subsequent publications on the topic. While it is undoubtedly enough to flesh out a valuable contribution to Darwin studies, Sponsel goes further to give new light on the question of why Darwin delayed the publication of On the Origin of Species. Rather than fear of the religious backlash to a book about evolution keeping Darwin from publishing his theory, Sponsel aims to show that Darwin was concerned with how theories should be presented, and his caution stemmed from the critical response to his geological publications of the 1840s. His efforts to gain as much evidence in support of evolution by natural selection was to avoid the “sin of speculation,” as he felt about his coral reef work.  I look forward to the rest of the chapters in Sponsel’s book. Anyone interested in how Humboldt influenced Darwin will want to check this one out. Order Darwin’s Evolving Identity: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Roland Jackson, The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer, and Public Intellectual (Oxford University Press, 2018, 608 pp.) ~ Later this year the sixth volume of The Correspondence of John Tyndall, for which I was a co-editor, will be published. And this July, I will begin work as a co-editor for the tenth volume with Roland Jackson, who this year published this biography of Tyndall. Having worked on Tyndall’s letters in graduate school and over the last couple of years, as well as writing about Tyndall and Darwin for my graduate paper, I am familiar with the major points of his life and scientific career. Yet I’ve only focused on narrow ranges of his lifetime – there is much more to learn about this towering figure of science in the nineteenth-century that most people have likely not heard of. Almost halfway into this biography, I’ve found Jackson’s narrative style to my liking; and it will be a great resource for information when working on my next volume of Tyndall letters. Order The Ascent of John Tyndall: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us (Anchor Books/Penguin, 2018, 448 pp.) ~ I have not yet delved into this paperback edition of Prum‘s well-received book (Doubleday, 2017), one of the New York Times ten best books of the year, but I certainly will when I have finished other books in this post. Here is the publisher’s description: “In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature? Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum—reviving Darwin’s own views—thinks not. Deep in tropical jungles around the world are birds with a dizzying array of appearances and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus Pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty years of fieldwork, Prum has seen numerous display traits that seem disconnected from, if not outright contrary to, selection for individual survival. To explain this, he dusts off Darwin’s long-neglected theory of sexual selection in which the act of choosing a mate for purely aesthetic reasons—for the mere pleasure of it—is an independent engine of evolutionary change. Mate choice can drive ornamental traits from the constraints of adaptive evolution, allowing them to grow ever more elaborate. It also sets the stakes for sexual conflict, in which the sexual autonomy of the female evolves in response to male sexual control. Most crucially, this framework provides important insights into the evolution of human sexuality, particularly the ways in which female preferences have changed male bodies, and even maleness itself, through evolutionary time. The Evolution of Beauty presents a unique scientific vision for how nature’s splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.” Here are some videos of recent lectures Prum has given on this topic for the Chicago Humanities Festival, Heyman Center for the Humanities, and the American Philosophical Society. It is worth noting that 2017 also saw the publication of Evelleen Richards’ Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (University of Chicago Press), “a comprehensive and meticulously researched account of Darwin’s path to its formulation—one that shows the man, rather than the myth, and examines both the social and intellectual roots of Darwin’s theory.” Order The Evolution of Beauty: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Adrian Lister, Darwin’s Fossils: The Collection that Shaped the Theory of Evolution (Smithsonian Books, 2018, 160 pp.) ~ Before I had a copy of this book myself, I read a review of it on the website Massive, where it states, “Darwin’s Fossils is overall a dry and dull book. The first chapter or two is lively, pulling together Darwin and a cast of characters, either scientists waiting in Britain for crates filled with samples Darwin mailed back or the crew of the Beagle. That’s just the introduction though, and when Darwin’s Fossils gets to the meat of the text, it’s nothing but data and figures. It’s the worst caricature of science writing made flesh. The illustrations are worthwhile, but little else is.” I am not sure where this reviewer finds that the bulk of the text is just data and figures. Yes, the measurements of the variety of fossils Darwin discovered are included, and the book is chock full of illustrations, photographs, and maps, but what would you expect from a book that’s purpose is to describe “Darwin’s fossils”? But, such data hardly constitutes the bulk of the text. So far, a third of the way into the book, I find the author‘s style to be enjoyable as he not only describes the fossils as Darwin would have found them, but gives the readers an idea of how they fit into Darwin’s developing theory but also what the modern thinking is about the animals these bones came from. The book is split into chapters on how Darwin came to be a naturalist, giant mammal fossils, petrified forests, marine fossils, and coral reefs, with a final chapter on Darwin’s theory development. I look forward to continuing this read (it sits on my nightstand), and think anyone interested in Darwin, paleontology, or travel in the pursuit of science would likewise enjoy it. The author, Adrian Lister at the Natural History Museum, London, has also organized the digitization of Darwin’s fossils to be made public online (here). Order Darwin’s Fossils: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (William Morrow, 2018, 416 pp.) ~ My gateway into learning about Darwin and evolution was through books about dinosaur paleontology, my fascination with the prehistoric beasts spurred by seeing the film Jurassic Park (1993) when I was 15 (the film came out 25 years ago this month!).  Two of the first dinosaur books I read were wide-ranging, covering what was known about a variety of dinosaurs by examining recent discoveries and theories, across the globe and with scores of paleontologists. John Noble Wilford’s The Riddle of the Dinosaur (1985) and Don Lessem’s Kings of Creation (1992), copies of which both still sit on my bookshelf, grabbed my attention from cover to cover. Brusatte, a paleontologist with at the University of Edinburgh, likewise brings readers up to date on the current thinking about the lives of that group of vertebrates that ruled the planet for more than 150 million years, why they went extinct, and about the evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs (where Darwin gets a mention when Archaeopteryx is discussed). Although I never went on to get a degree in paleontology like I originally intended, I always look forward to a good book about dinosaurs. Order The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & NobleIndiebound.

BOOK: God’s Word or Human Reason?: An Inside Perspective on Creationism

My way into learning about Darwin and evolution was through dinosaurs. Specifically, that 1993 movie where genetically-engineered dinosaurs run amok on a tropical island. I read book after book about paleontology following seeing that movie when I was 15, and then eventually started coming across books that offered a different view as to what those fossils in the ground meant (including What Is Creation Science? by Henry M. Morris and Gary E. Parker, gifted to me from a friend in my high school chemistry class). I’ve long followed the conflict between supporters of evolution (ya know, science!) and those who supplant their religious-based perspective on the fossil record: creationists of the young earth variety (you know, pseudoscience!). There are some good books out there that give an overview of why the fossil record supports an evolutionary interpretation (for example, Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters and two chapters in Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution). Where this new book differs is that the evidence is shown in favor of the evolutionary perspective by five former young earth creationists. Chapters cover creationist arguments in the topics of the fossil record in relation to a worldwide flood, the age of the Earth through radiometric dating, the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, human anatomy, and perspectives on reconciling an old earth and evolution with an acceptance of the Bible. The book also features wonderful dinosaur art from Emily Willoughby.

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Jonathan Kane, Emily Willoughby, and T. Michael Keesey, God’s Word or Human Reason?: An Inside Perspective on Creationism (Portland, OR : Inkwater Press, 2016), 424 pp.

• Order through Powell’s City of Books • Order through Amazon.com •

Publisher’s description God gave humans the ability to reason, but the Bible commands that we have faith in Him. According to Answers in Genesis, the largest and most influential creationist organization in the United States, the conclusions of human reason must be rejected if they contradict our understanding of the Bible. What are the implications of this worldview, and is it the best one for a Christian to live by?

In God’s Word or Human Reason?, five former young-Earth creationists explore the topics of science and Biblical exegesis with the goal of showing that the scientific method does more to glorify God than to denigrate Him. Instead of providing a broad-level overview of the evidence for evolution and an old Earth, this book takes a new approach that considers the detailed expanse of creationist technical literature. The six main chapters provide an in­ depth examination of these arguments in a few key areas, including stratigraphy, radiometric dating, the origins of birds and of humans, and the meaning of the book of Genesis.

Although all five authors once were young-Earth creationists, today they represent a diversity of beliefs: two atheists, two Christians, and one deist. Each has included a personal account of their experiences growing up or participating in the creationist community, as well as the factors that played into their eventually leaving. As an interfaith project, God’s Word or Human Reason? represents the common ground that people of many religious affiliations can find in their appreciation of reason as a means to understand the world.

BOOK: Ancient Earth Journal: The Late Jurassic

In 2015 I shared about a new children’s books about dinosaurs, Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous, which “combines two things I really love: learning about dinosaurs and natural history illustration.” As I noted, the depiction of dinosaurs is done by  praised by paleontologists, is presented by Juan Carlos Alonso in a nature journal fashion, as if the artist is encountering them as wildlife on a nature trip. This helps to see these animals as actual, living entities.

Alonso has published his second book in this series:

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Juan Carlos Alonso, Ancient Earth Journal: The Late Jurassic (Lake Forest, CA: Walter Foster Jr., 2016), 112 pp. Coauthored with paleoartist Gregory S. Paul.

Order through Powell’s City of BooksOrder through Amazon.com

Publisher’s description What would it be like to see a living, breathing dinosaur? Following in the footsteps of Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous, this next installment, The Late Jurassic, will take readers further back in time to a period when giants ruled the land and early mammals began to secure their place alongside the dinosaurs. The Late Jurassic period was home to many species of our favorite dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus (or Brontosaurus), Allosaurus, and Stegosaurus, to name a few. The Late Jurassic includes the latest paleontological findings to build an accurate depiction of the dinosaurs, environment, and wildlife of the period. Due to the abundance of fossils available for both plants and animals of this period, the book paints a vivid, realistic picture of the flora and fauna of the time, with more emphasis on hunting and defensive tactics, as well as early mammals and their role in the planet’s evolution, for a thrilling, thoroughly enjoyable ride through the most popular time period of prehistory. Written and illustrated in the style of a naturalist’s notebook, the reader is given a first-hand account of what it would be like to stand alongside some of the largest creatures to ever walk the earth.

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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.

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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).

BOOK: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

Donald Prothero, paleontologist, prolific writer, and recipient of this year’s Gregory Service Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, has added to his list of numerous books another that relates the wonderful world of fossils to the public:

Donald R. Prothero, The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 408 pp.

Publisher’s description Every fossil tells a story. Best-selling paleontology author Donald R. Prothero describes twenty-five famous, beautifully preserved fossils in a gripping scientific history of life on Earth. Recounting the adventures behind the discovery of these objects and fully interpreting their significance within the larger fossil record, Prothero creates a riveting history of life on our planet. The twenty-five fossils portrayed in this book catch animals in their evolutionary splendor as they transition from one kind of organism to another. We witness extinct plants and animals of microscopic and immense size and thrilling diversity. We learn about fantastic land and sea creatures that have no match in nature today. Along the way, we encounter such fascinating fossils as the earliest trilobite, Olenellus; the giant shark Carcharocles; the “fishibian” Tiktaalik; the “Frogamander” and the “Turtle on the Half-Shell”; enormous marine reptiles and the biggest dinosaurs known; the first bird, Archaeopteryx; the walking whale Ambulocetus; the gigantic hornless rhinoceros Paraceratherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived; and the Australopithecus nicknamed “Lucy,” the oldest human skeleton. We meet the scientists and adventurers who pioneered paleontology and learn about the larger intellectual and social contexts in which their discoveries were made. Finally, we find out where to see these splendid fossils in the world’s great museums. Ideal for all who love prehistoric landscapes and delight in the history of science, this book makes a treasured addition to any bookshelf, stoking curiosity in the evolution of life on Earth.

Chapter 1, “Planet of the Scum: The First Fossils,” can be read online here.

BOOK REVIEW, GUEST POST & GIVEAWAY: Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous

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Artist Juan Carlos Alonso’s new book Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (Lake Forest, CA: Walter Foster Jr., 2015, 112 pp.), co-authored with paleoartist Gregory S. Paul, is unlike any dinosaur book for young readers I’ve seen.

It combines two things I really love: learning about dinosaurs and natural history illustration. Alonso introduces the reader to dinosaurs and other creatures from a 44 million year slice of Earth’s history. This is a welcome focus for a dinosaur book, since nearly every dinosaur book attempts to cover the whole period of dinosaur history, excluding bird evolution to the present (165 million years).

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This slim approach allows the book to cover a more diverse group of creatures than would otherwise be possible, with new species names to learn. And the depiction of these dinosaurs, praised by paleontologists, is done in a nature journal fashion, as if the artist is encountering them as wildlife on a nature trip. This helps to see these animals as actual, living entities, and Alonso treats us to full size illustrations as well as close up examinations of interesting anatomy. The journal is organized by different dinosaur groups (Theropods, Sauropods, Ornithiscians, Pterosaurs, and First Birds), and an introduction nicely places this wildlife in context of Earth’s geologic history and discusses what kind of plants coexisted with dinosaurs of the Early Cretaceous.

Alonso was kind enough to write a guest post for The Dispersal of Darwin (for the book’s blog tour), which I share here:

As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Their size, ferocity and the fact that they’re extinct all played into their mystique. They presented more questions than answers. Back then, they were much stranger than how they are viewed now. Dinosaurs were seen as massive lumbering monsters, angrily snapping at anything within their reach. Scientists believed that the very largest were too large to support their own bodies, so they were relegated to living in the water. Everything about them seemed unnatural. They were slow, dumb and doomed to be extinct – they were an evolutionary dead end. As a matter of fact, the very word dinosaur is synonymous with outdated or extinct. Movies, books and toys also did a pretty good job of confusing our perception of prehistory as well. It seemed every movie I ever watched as a child had all prehistoric beasts like Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, saber-toothed tiger and sometimes man coexisting in one chaotic time period. The truth is much more interesting and complex.

For being called a “dead end” it turns out dinosaurs were around for a long time –165 million years to be precise. If you consider our species (Homo sapiens) has been around for about 200 thousand years that was a pretty successful run. As a matter of fact, there is a greater time span between Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex (83 million years) than there is between the last Tyrannosaurus and humans (65 million years). We now know that some modern birds are the descendants of the theropod dinosaurs, so they haven’t even become extinct.

As time passed, the strange unreal monsters that I knew as a child became as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves. Dinosaurs are, and always were animals. Animals that, like any today, ate, bred and fought to stay alive to ensure the species and bloodline would continue. The mystique I knew as a child was replaced by scientific curiosity as these “monsters” became even more intriguing to me. For me prehistoric life represents a perfect amalgamation of science, fantasy and art. All three work in unison to recreate wildlife long extinct using fact, research and some speculation based on living animals to fill in the gaps.

Seven years ago I became a father. I began to re-experience childhood wonder and curiosity through the eyes of my daughter as she grew older. It brought me back to my own childhood and inspired me to write Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous. I set out to create drawings that represented an artist’s first-hand account of studying extinct animals through a naturalist’s notebook. Much like John James Audubon, documenting bird species from previously undiscovered lands. The intent was not only to bring these animals back to life, but also to capture a snapshot of life in a 38 million year window called the Early Cretaceous. By dedicating the book to half of one period of the Mesozoic, I was able to look closely at some species rarely featured in other books and illustrate details and features that make each unique. These are the types of books that sparked my interest in both science and art as a child and it is my goal to share my interest with children.

Ultimately, I hope to write and illustrate more books in the series, each dedicated to a specific time period. This will give perspective on how some species evolved into others and illustrate Earth’s rich history of past wildlife and how our animals came to be.

The next stop on the blog tour, on August 31, is at The Children’s Book Review. And the publisher has a neat little video about the book here. I am delighted to learn that Alonso plans to continue Ancient Earth Journal books for other time periods. My interest in dinosaurs started when I was 15 and led me to a broader interest in the history of science and Darwin and evolution. And now, the giveaway!

The giveaway:

To enter for a chance to win a signed copy of Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (courtesy of the publisher), please comment on this post telling me what your favorite prehistoric animal is or about an interesting museum experience dealing with paleontology. Giveaway open to residents of US or Canada only. From the entries I will randomly pick a winner. The contest will be open until Friday, September 4, midnight PST. If you would like to enter without commenting on the blog, you can send me an email at darwinsbulldog AT gmail DOT com. Good luck!