Whether you are giving gifts to others or to yourself this holiday season, this list of the best popular science books of 2017 in biology — evolution and ecology combined with zoology and a plethora of other disciplines — is a great place to start reading and gifting
Truly, 2017 is The Big Year for wonderful popular science books about biology. It’s taken me one agonizing week to narrow down my choices for the best biology books of 2017 into a stack that can be purchased and carried home and read. This list could easily have been three times longer, and I still would not have exhausted my choices for this year’s most faboo biology books. Despite the fact that you can hardly make the wrong choice when purchasing a 2017 book that focuses on some aspect of biology, here’s the list of books that I think are the best.
How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut (University of Chicago Press, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
How fast can evolutionary changes occur? One useful way to examine this question is by studying the domestication process itself. In this amazing book, we learn about the famous experiment to domesticate silver foxes that has been ongoing in Russia for more than 60 years. The authors interweave the turbulent times of Soviet-era anti-evolution science, Lysenkoism, with more recent Russian history and biography, especially of the late Dimitri Belyaev, who started this experiment. There’s plenty of fascinating science here, too: how selectively breeding for tameness unintentionally changed the appearances of these foxes; how hormone function changes as the result of domestication, and how this, in turn, influences and changes behavior; and what genetic mapping reveals about where genetic changes occurred on the silver fox’s 17 pairs of chromosomes — a more straightforward process compared to studying the domestication process in dogs, which have more than twice that number of chromosomes. In addition to the science that underlies this long-term experiment, the book includes charming anecdotes about individual foxes. This beautifully-written book reads like a novel — a hard-to-put-down novel. It includes lots of lovely color photographs of foxes and their puppies, which are really danged cute. This book will appeal to dog (and fox) lovers, but also to anyone who wants a clearer understanding of evolution and genetics and the domestication process, of how politics affect science, how science itself has evolved with the appearance of new, more powerful technologies, and of course, how two dedicated and courageous individuals can change the world. If you read only two biology books this year, this is one of those two that you simply must read.
This timely and provocative book examines animal behavior, sexual behavior, and feminism, and thus, for those reasons alone, I could write pages about how fascinating it is. Ornithologist and author, Richard Prum, begins by documenting the scientific evidence that supports Darwin’s overlooked theory of sexual selection, which results from individual females choosing their mates. We meet a wide variety of bird species with impressive courtship displays and fabulous ornaments: moonwalking Red-capped Manakins who are the Michael Jacksons of the bird world; Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings; and the Peacock, which is famous for its extravagant train of iridescent feathers, just to name a few. After rigorously establishing the scientific framework that documents how female birds have created the flamboyant males of their species by selectively choosing who to mate with, Professor Prum then investigates how sexual selection applies to primates. Although these chapters are more speculative, this is where the ideas become even more compelling. (Well, for those who don’t appreciate birds.) Particularly interesting are the discussions about why human males have such large penises compared to our closest relatives: chimpanzees and gorillas. This meticulously researched and gripping book will appeal to everyone, and I do mean everyone: the evolution of duck penises and human penises combined with cultural evolution and the power of female choice will change how you think about why human society and religion are the way they are. There are more than enough ideas and information in this carefully argued book to spark manyinteresting discussions with your friends and drinking pals. If you read only two biology books this year, this should be one of your two essential reads.
The Evolution of Beauty was chosen as a “Best Book of the Year” by the New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Smithsonian.
This readable book provides a fascinating review of historical and current research into co-evolution by detailing the special relationship between America’s iconic migratory butterfly, the Monarch, and its host plant, the toxic Milkweed. In this book, the author, ecologist and evolutionary biologist, Anurag Agrawal, traces the life of a Monarch butterfly from an egg to a milkweed-chomping caterpillar, to a chrysalis undergoing that developmental alchemy known as metamorphosis, and finally, transformation into the migratory adult. The author recounts the classic evolutionary battle between the Milkweed, which evolved toxins to prevent their leaves being eaten, and the Monarch butterfly, which developed the ability to capture and concentrate Milkweed toxins in their bodies for protection from their own predators (usually birds). Professor Agrawal discusses Monarch butterfly conservation efforts and includes his own ideas about the reasons for the recent decline of Monarch butterfly populations. Written in clear and accessible prose, this lavishly illustrated and authoritative book is targeted to the nonspecialist and will be especially enjoyed by fans of butterflies and other insects. One caveat: don’t get the Kindle version.
One long-standing debate in science is whether evolution follows a predictable course. On one side of the argument stood the late, great, Stephen Jay Gould, who claimed that if “the tape of life” on Earth was re-run, it would look very different today. Small differences in circumstances can lead to large differences in evolutionary trajectories. On the other side of this argument is Simon Conway Morris amongst others, who point out that convergent evolution belies Gould’s assertion. Convergent evolution is where distinct species evolve similar traits to meet similar challenges in similar circumstances. Examples include wings and eyes. In this compelling book, evolutionary ecologist, Jonathan Losos, shares his many years of research into anole lizards on Caribbean islands, and other studies into guppies, foxes, field mice and a plethora of other species, which demonstrate just how rapid and predictable evolution can be. Written as a personal narrative of discovery, this charming book is as engaging and interesting as I imagine it would be to chat with the author over a few beers. I was especially fascinated by Losos’s discussions of the evolutionary predictions made, and how scientists test them, and determining how particular examples of convergent evolution came about. Professor Losos’s insights into how natural selection and evolution affect the evolution of disease-causing viruses and bacteria, and securing our food supply are especially timely and important. This book is a lucid and captivating exploration of evolution and of the scientific ideas and experiments that reveal how it works.
Where does consciousness come from? How do other animals experience consciousness? How do we distinguish between mind and action? In this fascinating book, we explore the origin and evolution of sentience, consciousness and intelligence in the animal kingdom, by highlighting the development of cognition and brains in cephalopods (mostly octopus and cuttlefish) and comparing that to what we know of mammals and birds. The book follows evolution of the brain from the beginning; from mere clumps of cells that began living together, then developing the capacity to sense, act and signal, and then becoming increasingly more complex. The author, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney, is also an avid diver who tells vivid stories of his underwater encounters with his fascinating subjects. Cephalopods’ unique neural structures allow them to experience the world very differently from how birds and mammals; and, as Godfrey-Smith notes, studying cephalopods is probably as close as we will come to examining an alien mind. Throughout the book, Godfrey-Smith poses intriguing philosophical and scientific questions about the the nature of these animals’ awareness and describes some of his many delightful and eye-opening encounters with octopus and cuttlefish whilst diving. He also discusses how captive octopuses are no less clever than their wild counterparts, and reportedly perform all sorts of amazing intellectual feats: they can identify individual keepers; sneak into neighboring tanks for food; turn off lights with well-aimed jets of water; and of course, escape. This engaging book provides a captivating glimpse into the philosophy and process underlying scientific inquiry and will change how you think about how other animals see and experience the world.
Other Minds was chosen as a Top Ten Science Book by Publishers Weekly and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and was shortlisted by the Royal Society Insight Investment Popular Science Books of 2017.
I love reading about expeditions to exotic, faraway places, in search of species that are new to science. But not all species require such expensive and dangerous quests: every year, at least a few new species are discovered in the storage cabinets of natural history museums. In this book, molecular biologist and writer, Christopher Kemp, shares the stories of some of these rare specimens lurking in museum drawers or jars for decades, or even longer than a century, before an observant scientist realizes that she is looking at something new. In this book, we meet mislabeled landsnails; king crabs collected in 1906; an unknown rove beetle collected by Darwin himself; and the adorable, fluffy olinguito. We also learn that, tragically, some species have been overlooked for so long that they have disappeared before we even knew they were there. As Kemp showcases these inspiring discoveries, you’ll find yourself wondering what undiscovered treasures can be found in your local natural history museum. Clearly there is plenty of unknown biodiversity: currently, only 2 million species have been named out of the estimated 10 million that are thought to be out there (some credible estimates go as high as 30 million unnamed species), but I was amazed to learn that as many as half of all museum specimens are misidentified. Yeow! Clearly, there’s a lot of taxonomic and systematic work to be done. This engaging book is a compelling argument for the overall value of natural history museums, and for the importance of studying these collections.
A typical day at work is rather predictable for most of us, but not so for herpetologist and evolutionary geneticist, Eli Greenbaum. In his dedication to discover and study snakes, lizards, and frogs, this daring scientist goes into the field in one of the most dangerous and remote places on Earth, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He braves venom-spitting cobras, wild mountain gorillas and elephants, and teenaged rebels packing AK-47s, multiple infections with malaria and typhoid fever, and poisoning by a swarm of angry ants. Meticulously researched, fast-paced and beautifully illustrated with lots of photographs, this book seamlessly blends scientific discovery, memoir and travelogue with the historical context of the DRC’s almost legendary corruption. You may not be able to put down this inspirational page-turner until you’ve finished it.
I still remember the astonishment I felt when I first saw I saw part of a fossil jaw of a Helicoprion, the “buzz saw shark”, at the Smithsonian. This large predator was the size of a modern great white shark, and it chomped its way through the world’s seas for roughly ten million years, until it went extinct just before the great mass extinction at the end of the Permian period. How the heck does that spiralled jaw, armed with hundreds of protruding razor sharp teeth, fit into a functional jaw? I wondered. I wasn’t the first one intrigued by this fossil: the Helicoprion lower jaw, with its distinctive whorl, has mystified amateurs and experts alike for more than a century and spawned a plethora of questions. How many spirals did each animal have? Were these spirals located in its mouth as either jaws or teeth, or were they on its tail or fins? If this whorl was in its mouth, was it located on the upper or lower jaw, in the front or back of the mouth? Was this whorl one tooth with multiple protruding stabby bits, or did it comprise many stabby teeth embedded in a jaw? How much force did a bite have? So many questions! This absorbing book by journalist and writer, Susan Ewing, tells the exciting story of how two passionate paleo-shark enthusiasts — one, an artist in Alaska, and the other, an Iraq war veteran — met and joined forces to use the scientific process and cutting-edge technologies to pursue their passion to finally understand the enigmatic Helicoprion. The book is also well-illustrated with 24 pages of photographs and paintings of the fossils, reconstructions, and of the scientists. Ewing also shares lots of shark lore and painstakingly documents how paleontology worked in the past and how it has been revolutionized by state-of-the-art computer scanning and modeling technologies, combined with interdisciplinary approaches. This wonderful book will appeal to those who enjoy reading about the history of science, who love paleontology, and sharks, and especially to those who enjoy reading a good mystery.
How did the human mind — and the uniquely human ability to devise and transmit culture — evolve from its roots in animal behavior? Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony presents an interesting new idea for human cognitive evolution. This compelling and readable book discusses how human culture is not just the result of evolution — it is also the key driving force behind that process in humans. Behavioural and evolutionary biologist, Kevin Laland shows how learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellectual abilities through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback. Drawing on his own research, Professor Laland explains how animals imitate, innovate, and have remarkable traditions of their own. But, as Professor Laland argues, the characteristics that make humans unique — our intelligence, language, teaching, and cooperation — differ from other animals’ because they are not adaptive responses to predators, disease, or other external conditions. Rather, they result from our culture, and thus, humans are creatures of our own making. Although Professor Laland’s ideas may not ultimately be correct, these thought-provoking ideas are firmly based in painstaking fieldwork and key experiments that led to this new understanding of how culture transformed human evolution, and thus, are a good place to start further investigations. This engaging book will appeal to people who wish to understand human nature and civilization, whether philosophers, scientists and those with a curious mind.
If you could bring back to life a person or animal, what would you choose? In this amusing and educational book, science writer and comedian, Helen Pilcher shares her own choices from eras past, including the King of the Dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex, and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. From dinosaurs to dodos and Neanderthals, this witty book reveals how the rapidly growing field of DNA science is being used to help resurrect individual animals and even entire species. Pilcher describes current initiatives and future plans to restore deceased species, and assesses the ramifications of how these creatures might fare today. Could a pet dinosaur be trained to roll over? Would Neanderthals enjoy opera? Could a returning dodo seek vengeance upon humanity? She asks. Pilcher also asks my favorite question when faced with de-extinction: “just because we can, does it mean we should?” and explores issues relating to species that would needed for cloning efforts and the effects introducing new species would have on current habitats. Blending the very latest de-extinction technology with cloning, and hard-core popular science with levity, this charming book will generate a lot of thoughtful discussion and a chuckle or two, and will be especially enjoyed by younger readers and non-specialists.