Best Science Books of 2017: Evolution

Several thought-provoking evolution books came out this year, which I include here not because they will necessarily be agreed with, but because it’s important to explore novel ideas; I refer specifically to Turtles as Hopeful Monsters and Evolution Driven by Organismal Behavior: A Unifying View of Life, Function, Form, Mismatches and Trends. There was also a very nice trend this year with thorough synthesis books that review entire fields and can act as textbooks, reference books, or just for general reading; featured here are the ones onDeep Homology?, Phylogenomics, and Introduction to Coevolutionary Theory. Futuyma’s latest Evolution edition came out this year, so that’s an automatic inclusion. Finally, for the lay readers and young adults, Evolution In Minutes and Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution make for great reading.

Full disclosure: I reviewed drafts of this book and received a free author-signed copy. 

The third in Lewis Held Jr.’s masterful evo-devo trilogy is the most influential book in the series. Deep homology, on the back of some highly-impressive and splashy results over the past two decades, is taken somewhat for granted these days; but the claim that anatomies as varied as the fly and the human body share the same underlying developmental genetics is a truly mindblowing revelation. Lewis Held Jr. grapples with all the evidence for and against deep homology in fruit fly and human bodies and organs. The keyword here is all: there really is no stone left unturned in Deep Homology?, and it is a testament to Lewis’s unique writing talents that the book is still so readable and accessible. This could easily have been a dry, academic book, but Lewis infuses some lightness using the occasional metaphor, Shakespeare quote, or sports reference. The subject matter is still esoteric enough that non-biologists would have some difficulty getting into the book (as opposed to the previous books in the series, How The Snake Lost Its Legs, and ), but if you are a biologist of any stripe and educational level, you will certainly appreciate a respite from the sometimes-overwhelming technicalities. Educational use is also built into the book thanks to explanatory boxes and diagrams, including the unique and somewhat charming “Vitruvian Fly” Lewis employs alongside Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. If developmental biology, evolutionary biology, or animal phylogenetics and morphological evolution are within your fields of research, then you simply must own this book. A very special mention is also needed for the reference list: it’s a truly mammoth bibliography, with a grand total of 2560 references – that is more than most legitimate textbooks, and alone ensures that the book will be on your active bookshelf for a long time.

Turtles are the most unique of the vertebrates, thanks to a crazy anatomy that has the shoulder and limbs within the ribcage. Olivier Rieppel is one of the leading reptile palaeontologists, and in , he summarises what we know about the evolution of the turtle’s body plan, what we don’t know, and especially what we can’t agree that we know: the first part of the book is a great tour of the controversies and competing models of turtle evolution, including the scientists behind and against them. However, the reason why this book isn’t on the palaeontology list is because the true purpose of the book is a discussion of Richard Goldschmidt’s hopeful monster theory. While turtles show up now and then as examples, the bulk of the book is devoted to analysing the ideas behind the concept of hopeful monsters, and how they fit within broader macroevolutionary theory. No matter what your stance on the contributions of palaeontology to evolutionary theory is, the book’s perspective is fresh and provocative, and I at least got a lot of pleasure out of debating the scenarios Rieppel presents (and I can attest that it is fun to bother neontologists with excerpts). Highly recommended for anybody looking for data-driven thought experiments about evolution.

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An important state-of-the-art update on the field, Christoph Bleidorn’s Phylogenomics: An Introduction guides you through the brave new world of molecular phylogenetics at the massive genomic and transcriptomic scale. It starts off at the cellular basis before diving into the most useful bulk of the book, the practical aspects of conducting phylogenomics – sequencing platforms, the bioinformatics required to make sense of the data, and producing trees out of it (although the phylogenetics chapter is pretty straightforward, owing to the relatively small advances made in phylogenetic algorithms and theory). The most mportant chapter, as far as I’m concerned, is Chapter 9, which describes pitfalls and sources of errors in phylogenomics – this should be a must-read, as these mistakes are sometimes not spotted and pointing them out after publication is just messy. In all, if you are into phlogenetics and systematics, this book needs to be on your shelf – there is no escaping phylogenomics anymore, and you might as well learn how to do it right. Sure, the details of how much sequencing platforms can output are probably already out of date, but the principles and foundations explained here are timeless.

Rui Diogo’s Evolution Driven by Organismal Behavior: A Unifying View of Life, Function, Form, Mismatches and Trends is a conceptual book, full of ideas that may not be acceptable to you. Nevertheless, it is ideas like this that drive science forward, and so I heartily recommend the book. Diogo elaborates on an expansion of evolutionary theory into ONCE – Organic Nonoptimal Constrained Evolution. Forced acronym word salad aside, the unique tenet of ONCE is that organisms can and do drive their evolution through their behavioural choices (this is not restricted to animals). It’s a thought-provoking view to aggrandise the Baldwin effect so much, and Drogo brings a considerable amount of evidence to bear in every chapter. Personally, I like the gist, although I would say it merely expands on modern evolutionary theory. I would recommend this book for graduate students and up, as great discussion fodder, and it does spark up interesting project ideas. An extra special commendation for the very thorough historical overviews throughout the book – if you are interested in the history and development of evolutionary thought, this book has you completely covered.

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I’ve always sworn by Futuyma’s Evolution as the best undergraduate evolution textbook – my 3rd edition is one of my most worn and annotated books. However, its old age was making it harder and harder to recommend – until finally, the new edition is out. Same quality as the 3rd, up to date, featuring a new coauthor, Mark Kirkpatrick, on genetics and genomics. Can’t ask for a better evolution textbook. I would go as far as to recommend it to laypeople as well, not just students.

And now, something that really is for the laymen, Darren Naish’s Evolution In Minutes is an extremely readable and handy guide to key concepts of modern evolution. The best book to get the curious teenager, the parent wanting to raise a curious teenager, or simply the adult needing an easy-to-grasp overview of what evolution is all about (and quite a bit of history too). I can’t think of many books that popularise evolution so well in such a succinct manner.

Getting back to the academic books, Scott Nuismer’s Introduction to Coevolutionary Theory is pretty much self-explanatory. It is the only recent book dealing with coevolution at a high level and is a must-have if it’s within your research interests. I would also like to say that in my experience, teaching coevolution is challenging because it does involve more maths and modelling than a lot of other evolution subfields; this book has managed to explain these in very accessible ways, so it can inspire some good teaching methods and plans for non-mathematician audiences.

As someone who has a deep research interest in evolvability, I gobble up anything that deals with the predictability of evolution. Jonathan Losos, herpetologist extraordinaire, delivers the latest book on the topic in Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution. It’s pretty much a take on what happens if we could replay the tape of life, much like Gould’s, but with an emphasis on experimental evolution and current field- and labwork being done on answering that. I actually enjoyed the diary and vignettes aspect of the book more than the core scientific stuff, but that may be because I’m already familiar with all the arguments on determinism, convergence, contingence, etc.. I certainly recommend this bok if you want a broad-brush, narrrative-style exploration of evolvability. It’s impeccably written, enjoyable, and if you are new to these debates, it will bring you up to speed. Kudos to Losos for not sticking to just reptiles and vertebrates (or Cambrian fossils…), but looking at a broad taxonomy and multiple fields of research (e.g. Lenski’s long-term E. coli experiment).

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