Great books on evolution going cheap

book cover with three leaf beetles

(Cover of 1st Edition)

There is now a second edition of Evolution: Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen, one of the very few textbooks I have come across that can be read for pleasure. Much as I deplore the US textbook publishers’ practice of issuing a new edition every very few years, this means that the first edition, which came out in 2013, is going to be available very cheaply for all of us who aren’t using it for of course credit and can tolerate the occasional underlining. Carl Zimmer (whose formal university education was in English, at Yale) is one of our most engaging current writers on evolution, and if you have not yet subscribed to his blog, The Loom, I urge you to do so. Douglas Emlen’s lab website clearly shows his passion for sharing the excitement of evolution science, and I have already reviewed his award-winning book Animal Weapons.

UnnamedFor much younger readers, the PDF of Jonathan Tweet’s Grandmother Fish, which I have also reviewed, is available as a free download, which qualifies it for a mention here. The physical copy, beautifully produced and printed, is now available in the US from Amazon, and I have advised Jonathan to look for a UK distributor. Answers in Genesis concedes that “the author and illustrator do a good job of simplifying evolution through words and pictures and using terminology that is kid-friendly,” so that “it is exactly those points that make the book so deceptive.” As most readers will realise, “deceptive”, as used by Answers in Genesis, is a technical term meaning “a good argument against Young Earth creationism”. I congratulate Jonathan on having earned this accolade.

At one time, I got interested in the seemingly simple question (to which I might well return one day) of whether zebras are horses that have acquired stripes, or horses are zebras that have lost them. Stephen J Gould, it turned out, had written a perceptive essay on this very topic in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. When I went looking for this volume, I found out to my surprise that I could get hold of it, and many others in Gould’s magnificent series of essays, for pennies plus postage. (Here, one good search strategy is to start with Amazon, look for the “From” options, and then, where possible, contact the sellers directly. That way, I help the independents stay independent. For UK readers, I would also recommend searching Abe Books, although I was saddened to learn that they too are part of Amazon; I would be happy to learn of other equivalents).

Finally, most obviously, and still greatly underused even by professionals, the huge reservoir of literature available for free download in a wide variety of formats. This resource could be, and should be, even more valuable, but is limited by outrageous copyright restrictions; for no reason I can tell other than the special interest of Disney Corporation, the copyright on a work now only lapses 70 years after its creator’s death. So JBS Haldane’s seminal 1929 article The origin of life will not be out of copyright until 2034 (though if you can find it online, here for instance, you can get away with downloading a copy for individual study). And for Ernst Mayr’s 1923 paper on birds in Saxony, instrumental to his crucial redefinition of the species concept, you will have to wait until 2075, However, we have all the published works and much of the voluminous correspondence of Charles Darwin, to say nothing of TH Huxley, Charles Lyell (for all his writings, and for other seminal works on geology, many of them also available for free, see the Geological Society’s Lyell Collection), James Hutton, and even William Jennings Bryan. Legal proceedings are also in the public domain, regardless of time. So what shall we say of scholars and commentators earnestly debating Darwin’s own views on religion, in evident ignorance of what he himself tells us on the subject, in his freely available and beautifully written Autobiography?

Look, see , enjoy.

h/t reader Gordon Drumond, for disillusioning me about Abe Books


About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on October 18, 2015, in Charles Darwin, Darwin autobiography, Evolution, Fossil record and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. A word of caution regarding the promotion of the works of Stephen Jay Gould.

    Take for example his “Spandrel’s” paper

    “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme”

    Click to access GouldLewontin.pdf

    and his promotion of:

    Nonoverlapping Magisteria (NORMA)

    I look to the likes of John Maynard Smith and Richard Dawkins to set the record straight on these and other issues promoted, all be it very eloquently, by Gould.


    • Indeed. Caveat lector. And NOMA always seemed to me either banal (if it means that we should not take factual claims by religion seriously), or false (if it alleges that religions do not make factual claims). But I assure you that the essay on zebras is very good indeed.


      • Caveat lector is indeed appropriate as is caveat emptor as a warning to those who might be tempted to buy Gould’s eloquent and poetic view of evolutionary theory.

        The point is that the answer to his question “What, if anything, is a zebra?” is very simple and very obvious when viewed from the correct, but sadly less poetic, perspective. Any such labelled entity is never anything more than that which we agree it to be.

        If we choose to call that bright thing that appears in the sky at dawn and sinks below the horizon at dusk a “Zebra” then so be it. That then is what a zebra is and it has neither legs nor stripes.

        So when Gould complains that we don’t really know what a zebra is he is merely objecting to our tardiness in deciding what we want the term to mean. Nature doesn’t care. It just goes on being natural in sublime indifference to our attempts at developing an effective categorisation terminology.

        In that article, Gould also seems puzzled by the differential rates of evolution exhibited by nature. That hasn’t been a mystery since the 1930’s so why doesn’t Gould explain why it happens? Could it be that he didn’t know the explanation?

        So I can’t agree that the article is “very good indeed”.


      • Just one comment; I see it as cladistics, not semantics.


  2. Emlen, not Emden (twice in first paragraph).


  3. Cladistics is the endeavour to identify evolutionary pathways and groupings. The use of the term “Zebra” to refer to an ill-defined clade is semantics. So a more relevant question is not “What, if anything is a Zebra?” , it is “How well do the identified clades represent the reality of evolution and what proportion of those clades do we want the term “Zebra” to denote. Nature determines the clades, we determine what we want the term “Zebra” to refer to.


    • And as I see it, Gould’s title is shorthand for what you just said. But perhaps you think I’m being too kind to him.


      • I’m with Dawkins and Maynard Smith. Being kind to Gould is not a good idea and anyway, as you know so well, science isn’t about being kind, it’s about being right.

        JMS: “Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists. All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.”


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