Top Books of 2012: Evolution

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The subjects covered here are varied and not limited to pure evolutionary theory. There is a bias towards academic books; the popular and layman level ones are numbers 5 (creationism), 6 (simulated evolution), 8 (epigenetics), and 9 (molecular biology). The others are on the expensive side and are meant for undergrads and up.

  1. Pfennig & Pfennig. Evolution’s Wedge: Competition and the Origins of Diversity. (University of California Press)
evolutions-wedge-competition-and-the-origins-of-diversity This book is all about an evolutionary phenomenon first formalised in the 1950s called character displacement, where the differences between two closely-related species become more pronounced when the species coexist, most often due to the action of natural selection minimising sexual confusion and maximising competition. The Pfennigs, two leading evolutionary ecologists, argue that character displacement is an engine for speciation. Get this book if you want to get your biological thinking honed and challenged, because it isn’t a book stating facts to memorise, it’s a book stating hypotheses – in other words, it’s one of those essential reads that any biologist interested in the subject should try to get to grips with and critique. For that, it gets the number 1 spot.

  1. Royle, Smiseth & Kolliker (eds.). The Evolution of Parental Care. (Oxford University Press)


While parental care (parents altruistically investing into the survival of their offspring) is common in mammals and birds, overall it’s fairly rare and so worthy of study wherever it occurs. This book explains the evolutionary conditions needed for parental care to arise, using phylogenetically diverse case studies and evolutionary theory to puzzle out all sorts of related questions, such as the varying roles of males and females and subsequent sexual selective effects, the role of life history and life history evolution, familial cooperation and conflict, and many other subject. Recommended if you’re interested in animal sociality and related evolutionary theory.

  1. Dieckmann, Doebeli, Metz & Tautz. Adaptive Speciation. (Cambridge University Press)
lg Adaptive speciation is biologically-driven speciation that occurs due to disruptive selection, i.e. when the extreme traits in a population are selected for. The book gets third place because adaptive speciation has been a focus in speciation research for the past decade and a half, with a lot of theoretical studies and modelling having been done by now, and this book provides a timely summary and outlook.

  1. Kunz. Do Species Exist? Principles of Taxonomic Classification. (Wiley-Blackwell)
do-species-exist-principles-of-taxonomic-classification No evolution book list would be complete without one book on the age-old species problem. This year’s version is an interesting hybrid that lays out the various concepts, but deals with them with the practicing biologist in mind, not the philosopher. For that, I applaud it.

  1. Fitch. The Three Failures of Creationism: Logic, Rhetoric, and Science. (University of California Press)
the-three-failures-of-creationism-logic-rhetoric-and-science This year’s token creationism-destroying book, written by one of the founding fathers of the study of molecular evolution. It’s a very thorough takedown of creationism from every aspect, as the subtitle suggests. I do have to warn that it isn’t an easy read that you can quickly flip through to find an easy answer to a creationist argument. It’s meant to be read and the essence of its arguments taken in, rather than be a quick rebuttal source (there are a lot of other books if that’s what you want). I, for one, enjoy this approach, but I can see others not liking it. The book is aimed at undergraduate level.

  1. Long. Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology. (Basic Books)
darwins-devices-what-evolving-robots-can-teach-us-about-the-history-of-life-and-the-future-of-technology If I had to choose my top pop. evolution book of the year, it would be this one, and I heartily recommend it for everyone to read. Its topics include simulated evolution and the origin of intelligence. The latter is interesting for those who like the idea of AI or want to see just how easy it is for intelligence to evolve. The former is something I’ve often thought about – I have written evolution-simulating programs before, and I’m a big fan of SimLife and SimEarth, but the things that Long describe here go way beyond such simplicities. I don’t want to spoil it, so I will just say that you are missing out by not getting this book.

  1. Wheeler. Systematics: A Course of Lectures. (Wiley-Blackwell)
253698 If you want to teach yourself systematics, this book is for you.It’s just a series of lectures and exercises compiled by Wheeler, one of the top systematic biologists. It’s not an advanced text on the bells and whistles of systematics, it’s just aimed at making sure you understand what you’re doing and why, and getting results from the very beginning of the process.

  1. Francis. Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Genes. (W. W. Norton & Company)
epigenetics-how-environment-shapes-our-genes If I had to choose the one field that gets warped and misunderstood popularly, it’s epigenetics. I recommend this book as the most basic level introduction to the subject – it’s not an advanced book at all, meant purely for the lay reader. It’s a quick read and will help you clarify the bullshit from the real science next time the science journalists screw things up.

  1. Hoffmann. Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos. (Basic Books)
lifes-ratchet-how-molecular-machines-extract-order-from-chaos One of my pet peeves is watching those cell biology videos showing reactions happening purposely and all in order. I understand the need to educate, but this is extremely deceptive – the cell is a fundamentally chaotic place where reactions occur stochastically. This book is a breath of fresh air because it emphasises this point, and then uses biophysics to explain how order arises. It’s a brilliant exploration of emergence, and it’s all written with the layman in mind. Get it if you’re at all interested in how cells work, in the origin of life, or even if you just want an indirect debunk of intelligent design lunacy.

  1. Grime & Pierce. The Evolutionary Strategies that Shape Ecosystems. (Wiley-Blackwell)
0470674814 The last book is a return to academic fare. This book showcases reductive ecology at its best, distilling the wild variety of ecological interactions and life histories into their evolutionary advantages and tradeoffs, thereby showing that there is common ground among the ecological disparity. The case studies range from microbes to animals, and even palaeontology is included in the mix, making the book a very comprehensive resource for those interested in eco-evolutionary dynamics.

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