Evolutionary Works


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Evolutionary Works

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Abr 7, 2007, 1:23 pm

Greetings to All,

With this group’s membership recently surpassing 100 members and nearly 100,000 books, I wanted to say hello and welcome all new and old members. I also wanted to start a new thread that I thought we might enjoy.

I would like anyone who may desire to list at least one work on evolutionary biology that they would like everyone to have read. It can be any type of book however vaguely related to the life sciences. It can be philosophical in nature to straight, hard science and anything in between. The work does not have to necessarily be your favorite, or the “best” of evolutionary biology, but something worthwhile that you feel others would benefit from reading.

I’m afraid I can’t pick only one, so I’m going to give a few suggestions.

The first is something I’ve finally decided to start reading and I’ve almost completed. It is the quintessential biography of Charles Darwin, Voyaging & The Power of Place by Janet Browne. I can not say enough about these two volumes. These are very detailed, yet wonderfully written books describing the growth and development of Darwin as well as his works of science. If you are at all interested in the origin of the concept of natural selection, then give these two a chance. I read Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore about ten years ago. I thought they did a good job of packing nearly every little detail, but it made for slow reading and in my opinion was not very enjoyable. Steer clear of that one and pick up Brown’s two volumes.

Next, I would like to recommend a book for anyone who may be just beginning their reading on evolution and speciation. Frogs Flies and Dandelions by Menno Schilthuizen is an excellent and brief introduction into the latest and most popular theories of speciation as well as the controversies still surrounding exactly what species are and how they should be defined (in plants especially, the concept of what is a specie, is sometimes controversial).

The next is a collection of works by W. D. Hamilton called Narrow Roads of Gene Land. Hamilton was one of the greatest evolutionary thinkers of the 20th century (many consider him the Darwin of the 1900s) and these three volumes pack many of his writings on many different topics, mainly the evolution of social behavior and the evolution of sex. Although some papers are extremely dense and some contain a lot of mathematics, the concepts and theories that he originated in many of these make this set some of the most valued titles on my shelves. If he were still alive he would most likely be right along side of Dawkins in advancing evolutionary education.

The final work I would like to recommend today deals with a subject that I find myself more and more interested in lately, the evolution of plants. Morphology and Evolution of Vascular Plants by Gifford and Foster is by no means the only good work I can recommend on this subject, however it is one of the more straight forward and easy to read. Plants are overlooked by many people, including biologists. This volume does a pretty good job on chronicling the major steps in the evolution of early vascular plants to the modern angiosperms we are all familiar with today. Step outside your boundaries and read a little on plants.

Well, I hope someone can find something they may like to learn more about from these selections. I also hope that others will make contributions and continue this thread. Also, please feel free to start up new topics as you desire. I think we have plenty of members from varying backgrounds to start up some interesting discussions.

Maio 4, 2007, 11:19 am

Well I'll be first to mention Richard Dawkins ;-)

The most thought provoking of his has to be Selfish Gene.

But my personal favourite is The Blind Watchmaker for its poetic beauty and eloquence.

Maio 4, 2007, 8:30 pm

The Robot's Rebellion by Keith Stanovich for pushing the envelope on what it means to be rational in an age where everyone thinks they are but most of us really aren't. This book highlights how the processes of evolution and natural selection didn't build us to be wisened, enlightened creatures but somehow built us with the potential to be.

Editado: Maio 5, 2007, 6:00 am

It's a struggle to keep the numbers down. I've just finished 'The Origins of Virtue' (for some reasons the touchstone doesn't like the full title) by Matt Ridley and it's wonderful. I'll be writing a review shortly. Totally different from Genome.

For all those who loved Wonderful Life, can I recommend that you read The Crucible of Creation to set the record straight.

Maio 5, 2007, 7:36 am

(#2) The last Dawkins book I read was The Ancestor's Tale which is probably not his best and isn't about evolutionary mechanisms. But I found some points quite thought-provoking even though I skimmed some sections. Quite an interesting slant on our "relationships" to other life-forms.

Editado: Maio 5, 2007, 8:33 am

On another thread, pliptimo alerted us to an article under the title "Darwin's God," or "Heavenbound: A scientific exploration of how we have come to believe in God" by Robin Marantz Heni (New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007.) "It examines the relationship between human evolution and the capacity/need to believe in the supernatural, including whether a predisposition to religious belief is in itself an adaptive trait or a byproduct of other traits that helped humans to adapt and survive."


One reference in the article is David Sloan Wilson , author of Darwin's Cathedral. Is group selection in play again?

Maio 5, 2007, 2:13 pm

#4 For all those who loved Wonderful Life, can I recommend that you read The Crucible of Creation to set the record straight.

Interesting. Can you elaborate?

Editado: Maio 7, 2007, 12:33 pm


It's a while since I read the books. Wonderful Life was one of the first popular science books that I read after getting switched on to them by The Selfish Gene. I loved the start, which was a description of the discovery of the Burgess Shale formations. However, the middle of the book veered into wild speculation about punctuated equilibrium, which even I could tell was pretty far fetched. (For those who want a third party view on the PE debate, see Dawkins vs Gould by Kim Sterelny.) Gould then goes on to describe the wild and wonderful creatures that were discovered. Except that ...

The interpretations of the fossils given in Gould's book were (and, I suppose, still are - not having seen a recent edition) way out, with the two key examples being a creature that was supposed to have walked on seven pairs of spines (upside down) and a circular creature like a sea urchin (actually the mouth parts of another creature). Simon Conway Morris sets the record straight in The Crucible of Creation. He was one of the team that spent years on understanding the fossils, and so was a lot closer to the subject. The sad thing is that there are few people who have read Conway Morris, and so most people have a very warped understanding of the Burgess Shale, only ever having seen Gould's view. On LT, there are 22 copies of Crucible, and 438 copies of Wonderful Life. Sad.

Maio 7, 2007, 12:09 am

#8 Noisy>

Thanks so much. Your explanation reminds my why I love LibraryThing; great info. I will keep The Crucible of Creation in mind.

Maio 7, 2007, 12:23 am


I haven't read Wonderful Life, so I don't know precisely how far out there Gould goes, but I can say that I don't think punctuated equilibrium is totally bunk. At least not the flavor they taught in my evo bio course. Its not one of those either gradualism or PE type things, and is rather both. The radiation and burst in diversity in body plans following the Precambrian extinction and the huge burst in diversity in mammals following the K-T boundary extinction are two great examples of punctuated equilibrium where species quickly adapt to fill niches that were cleared by mass extinction.

If I'm barking at shadows, much apologies.

Editado: Maio 11, 2007, 8:04 pm

Yiggy, yes, there is a middle path. Read Dawkins vs. Gould if you can find it and let me know what you think. The author does have his views, and is clear where his favour lies. There is one review on LT, and it doesn't actually say a lot. I'm only a layman, so I'd appreciate a view from someone with your background.

Editado: Maio 11, 2007, 5:25 pm

I would say that I lean towards the Richard Dawkins view of evolution, as opposed to Steven Jay Gould, but I remember flipping through my father's copy of Wonderful Life as a kid, and seeing the great artistic interpretations of creatures like Opabinia and Anomalicaris (spelling?), which jump-started my interest in science and evolution.

As far as books on evolution go, I would recommend The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins as an introduction to the subject.

Ago 20, 2007, 2:00 am

And I lean the other way, based I suppose on SJG's contention that natural history is a 'historical' science, with different a quality of data than is available to, say, a molecular biologist or a physicist.

And some of this is personal taste; Dawkins' arguments just seem so much more dogmatic to me, and I'm an iconoclast by nature.

I think the conflict ultimately comes down to whether there is 'purpose' to evolution or not. Gould thought not, and I think Dawkins doesn't either, but Gould was a lot more thorough-going about it. The PE hypothesis has a lot to do with following up on the consequences of contingency.

It's not as if Gould believed that natural selection didn't happen; he just thought the 'rate' of evolution, and even the mechanisms, could change over geologic time.

Finally, I think this is part of a larger trend in science, having to do with the gradual demise of anthropocentrism:

Copernicus - the earth is no longer the center of the universe
Newton - natural law isn't a local phonomenon
Voltaire - religion is not (necessarily) the center of human culture
Darwin - man is not anything special
Freud, Skinner - there's nothing special about our minds, either
Toynbee, Spengler - ...and there's nothing special about our history
Huxley - man isn't the ultimate 'purpose' of evolution
Eddington - the universe is REALLY, REALLY old, if stars are any indication
Hubble - the Milky Way is no longer the center of the universe. Nothing is.
von Neumann - not even the way humans THINK is special
Gould - there IS no ultimate 'purpose' to evolution

Could go on and on here. NONE of these 'advances' are necessarily right, but they do proceed in a pretty compelling direction.

Ago 20, 2007, 2:05 am

and, just for the heck of it, I'll mock myself:

wyrdchao - progress in science is an illusion!


Out 24, 2007, 6:13 am

Having just joined this group (and the LibraryThing) I would like to put my "ore" in re books everyone should read. Life's Solution by Simon Conway Morris presents a very interesting counterpoint to the Richard Dawkins view of life. It deals with convergence and presents a hypothesis that contradicts both Dawkins' extremely anarchical view of evolution and also the "can't turn back the clock and re-run it" view of the late Steven J. Gould. While Morris sometimes lacks the clarity of Dawkins, he does have new things to say, and manages to present them with less dogmatism and arrogance than the latter.