Top 2014 Evolution and Development Books

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Because of sheer volume of evolution books this year, my own tastes and biases are on full display in this top 5. Check the runners up to find something more relevant for you, including casual explainers of evolution suitable for non-academic purposes.

One of the critical lessons I always aim to get across when teaching natural selection is that it is not an all-pervasive force acting all the time. It is not a null hypothesis, and its presence needs to be demonstrated. We’ve developed many methods to do this, and this book goes through them all. Very useful reference, and recommended for anyone working in molecular evolution.

“Homology”means something different depending on which biologial circle you belong to. This book deals only with morphological homologies, which have always been the most tricky to show. It grounds itself firmly in evo-devo, rather than comparative anatomy or palaeontology, and so provides a very modern look at the problem of homologising morphological features. Full of original ways of thinking, I personally found it very refreshing, and have gotten many new ideas from the concepts that Wagner details in it. I recommend it for anyone interested in morphology and evolutionary novelties.

I’m a firm devotee of Futuyma’s Evolution, but pitting it against the Princeton Guide to Evolution is a mistake. Both are textbooks, but the Guide is aimed at a higher level, and is made for use at graduate level or as a reference. If you are a student who has exhausted Futuyma by yourself, this should be your next step up. (Next step: Structure of Evolutionary Theory!) Highly-recommended in any case.

Dolf Seilacher’s death in April this year was a great loss to palaeontology, but his scientific legacy will remain for a long time, and this book helps cement that. Since 1970, Seilacher has been developing an original framework for studying the evolutionary morphology of animals, what he called “constructional morphology”. This approach calls for a more comprehensive look at how animal form evolves: instead of just simplistically calling on natural selection and functional adaptations, it invokes the power of phylogenetic history and of skeletal architecture.

This alone was revolutionary, invoked for example by Gould and Lewontin int heir spandrels paper, and further development of the framework spawned “morphodynamics”, which adds environmental changes in time as a fourth factor, leading to the idea that morphology is never “set”, always fluid.

This book provides just about every line of evidence that Seilacher accumulated in his long career for the morphodynamic approach. It is, I think, monumental and a must-read. Not because it’s always correct – like any general framework, it overreaches at some points – but because it’s incredibly thought-provoking. If you are a palaeontologist who has to interpret mysterious fossils, or are interested int he evolution of animal forms, you have no excuse for not reading this book.

I know, we’re all sick of all these damn -omicses. But this one is actually old, first coined in 1995, so it’s an acceptable classic from centuries past. Phenomics is the field that tries to construct genotype to phenotype maps: you have a specific phenotype, which genes are responsible for it?

This is not a simple task by any means, for the same reasons that there is a gulf between micro- and macroevolution, and the fact that it’s not so simplistic as “one gene to one phenotype” is a leading light in my own research. This book is a state-of-the-field summary.Most research is now being done on model organisms or for identifying genetic factors involved in disease. For all the results this brings, the field as a whole needs a bit of a reinvigoration to get broader research appeal (or so I feel). By summarising what has been done so far, hopefully well-funded labs can take ideas and apply them to more interesting problems or at least to a wider array of organisms.

Runners Up:

Understanding Evolution

by Kostas Kampourakis [Cambridge University Press]
Price: $24.98 £16.24 EUR 27,98 - - EUR 28,33 CDN$ 33.88

On Growth and Form (Canto Classics)

by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson [Cambridge University Press]
Price: $13.94 £8.56 - EUR 14,92 EUR 13,79 EUR 14,52 CDN$ 16.88

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