Top Books of 2012: Palaeontology

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These are my top 10 palaeontology books of the year, running the gamut from historically-oriented books detailing the histories of palaeontological discoveries and of the science of palaeontology to books about now-extinct animals (e.g. dinosaurs). There is one children’s book (about dinosaurs, of course; #10), with most of the books aimed at educated laymen or working biologists; a couple of purely academic books are mixed in too.

  1. Long. The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex. (University of Chicago Press)
9780226492544_p0_v1_s260x420 I had to debate myself about whether to put this awesome book in the zoology or the palaeontology section, because it is part overview of weird ways animals have sex, and part scientific memoir of Long’s palaeontological research and findings. In the end, the palaeontological stuff wins out, because Long uses his research to illuminate the evolution of sex. In any case, I recommend anyone to read this book just for the quirkiness described in it, and also to see how exceptional finds in palaeontology can give us insights into things we wouldn’t think palaeontology would have a say about.

  1. Falk. The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution. (University of Chicago Press)
full-cover-Falk_Fossil-206x300 A 2012 paperback release of a 2011 hardback, this book is an insider’s account of the scientific and popular controversies of the varying interpretations of the Taung child and of Homo floresiensis. I have a thing for these kinds of books that don’t just talk about the facts, but also give the perspective of the scientist who is working on them, because it gives the best view on how real science evolves and progresses, away from the idealised conceptions of philosophers. This book is an excellent showcase of that, using two prominent fossil cases and described by Falk, whose illustrious career in part revolved around them.

  1. Fastovsky & Weishampel. Dinosaurs: A Concise Natural History. (Cambridge University Press)
dinosaurs-a-concise-natural-history This is the ultimate book for someone who’s not a dinosaur palaeontologist, but is nonetheless interested in the biology and study of dinosaurs. It’s not a textbook, but it’s not some picture guide. It’s a comprehensive overview of what we currently know about dinosaurs, without the niggly anatomical details that a proper textbook like The Dinosauria would have. It also discusses the open questions that we have. In all, a great resource for anyone from the serious amateur to the professor stuck teaching about dinosaurs even though they’re not his/her specialty (it’s happened to me several times).

  1. Sánchez. Embryos in Deep Time: The Rock Record of Biological Development. (University of California Press)
9780520271937 Non-palaeontologists are often surprised at the fact that we have preserved life history stages of various animals – from vertebrates of different ages to the moult stages of trilobites (the majority of trilobite fossils are in fact exoskeletons discarded after moulting). This book exposes them all to show the utility of palaeontology in studying the evolution of development. I was impressed by the phylogenetic breadth it covers, including examples I had no idea about.

  1. Sepkoski. Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. (University of Chicago Press)
rereading-the-fossil-record-the-growth-of-paleobiology-as-an-evolutionary-discipline This book arguably belongs in the history of science list, but I’ll put it here because it’s more relevant to palaeontology as a science. It’s an outline of the history of palaeobiology, the field that combines palaeontology and evolutionary biology, using fossils to study evolution and evolutionary patterns. For a long time, palaeontologists were regarded as irrelevant stamp collectors (it’s a view that still persists among idiotic scientists); palaeobiology turned that over on its head. The book overall is excellent, going from the 19th century to the present; if I had one qualm, it’s what I perceive as a bit of US-centrism, but that may be due to my education in Germany exposing me to palaeontologists who presaged palaeobiology’s development as a field.

  1. Maxwell. Piltdown Man and Other Hoaxes: A book about Lies, Legends, and the Search for the Missing Link. (American Book Publishing)
piltdown-man-other-hoaxes-book-about-lies-legends-jonathan-maxwell-paperback-cover-art A book on scientific hoaxes. It’s not an academic text, just a breeze through some prominent ones, especially those involving palaeontology and cryptozoology. I include it here because of the large section on Piltdown Man.

  1. Berta. Return to the Sea: The Life and Evolutionary Times of Marine Mammals. (University of California Press)
return-to-the-sea-the-life-and-evolutionary-times-of-marine-mammals Arguably a book that should be in the zoology list, I put it here because it discusses the fossil history of cetaceans and pinnipeds and takes a deep time view of everything. Despite its somewhat high price, it’s actually easy-reading and I easily recommend it to the interested layman.

  1. Reynolds & Gallagher. African Genesis: Perspectives on Hominin Evolution. (Cambridge University Press)
african-genesis-perspectives-on-hominin-evolution Please note that there’s a strange screwup with Amazon link above: the title is some weird quantum stuff, but the rest of the page is on this book. This is an academic text containing a comprehensive review of all known hominin fossils and what they tell us about human evolution, as well as current open questions and unknowns. Not easy reading, but if you’re a palaeontologist or palaeoanthropologist looking for the most up-to-date human palaeontology compendium, this is it.

  1. Meredith. Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life. (PublicAffairs)
born-in-africa-the-quest-for-the-origins-of-human-life A 2012 paperback of a 2011 hardback, this is a book bridging history of science with human palaeontology, explaining the history of the major findings in human palaeontology and their implications, and how our views on hominin evolution have evolved in the light of new discoveries. Highly recommended if you’re into human evolution (I’m not, hence the low placing).

  1. Gee & Rey (ill.). A Field Guide to Dinosaurs: The Essential Handbook for Travelers in the Mesozoic. (Chartwell Books)
9780785829027 This is by far the current best dinosaur book for children. It’s got gorgeous illustrations by Luis Rey, one of the top palaeoartists today, it’s as accurate as can be for the intended audience, and the descriptions and information are even usable for middle and high school students. So, in all, if you’re looking for a book to give to a child or teen who’s fascinated by dinosaurs, this is the ultimate one.

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