Twelve Of The Best Books About Biology Of 2018

Whether you are giving gifts to others or to yourself, this list of the best popular science books of 2018 about evolution, genetics and natural history is a great place to start reading and gifting

by GrrlScientist for Forbes | @GrrlScientist

12 of the Best Books About Evolution, Genetics And Natural History Published in 2018.
(Credit: book jacket image composite by Bob O’Hara.)

Biology is comprised of a vast number of fields of study, not the least of which are evolution, genetics and natural history, which are my main focus in this collection. I ended up with 12 books in this group, all of which explore important biological concepts, ranging from how artificial selection has affected the evolution of domesticated animals, how urban environments have created a unique environment that is altering the evolution of birds and other wildlife, the evolution of modern humans, what caused the extinction of most of the world’s megafauna, the amazing variety of scientific model systems that are teaching us so much about ourselves and about the natural world, how plants create flowers, and several books that celebrate the rich biodiversity of trees, of bees, and of fishes. I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have enjoyed finding and sharing them with you.

Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw (Princeton University Press, 2018; Amazon US / Amazon UK)

This oversized book features exquisitely detailed drawings of skulls, skeletons, feathers, claws and more, all of which illustrate how domestic animals changed rapidly, thanks to artificial selection by animal breeders. The author of this gorgeous book, a scientist herself, argues that scientists have long overlooked the most convincing demonstrations of evolution in action by ignoring how humans have shaped the evolution and anatomy of domesticated animal breeds throughout the centuries, as her illustrations clearly show. Even if you never read a word of this well-written book (which would be a shame because the prose is excellent), the lovely drawings alone make it absolutely essential for anyone who is interested in animals, whether it is a general interest, or a more specific leaning towards animal anatomy and/or evolutionary biology. You don’t need to be a scientist, veterinarian, scientific illustrator or artist to fall deeply, madly in love with this painstakingly accurate, stunning book, so if you are buying this as a gift, be sure to pick up a copy for yourself, too.

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Professor Menno Schilthuizen (Quercus Books, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Humans have (and still are) changing plants and animals to suit our needs through selective breeding, but many wild birds and animals are now moving into cities, and are being changed by this decision so they can live amongst us more successfully. In fact, urban evolution has been occurring in our cities for centuries, under our noses, but we have only recently become aware of this. This interesting and wonderfully readable book discusses the extraordinary power of natural selection and how it’s driving evolution amongst urban wildlife, which are becoming ever more specialized to live in this unique habitat. The author includes persuasive examples of urban evolution in action, such as “city adapted” songbirds whose songs, calls, plumage colors, nesting behaviors and even peak activity times differ from their rural cousins so they can prosper in a more toxic, noisier, brighter, and busier environment than the wild spaces that their ancestors once knew. The writing is clear, the concepts are easily understood, and the examples include many familiar animals. This thoughtful and thought-provoking book will have broad appeal, but will be particularly enlightening for those who wish to learn more about how birds and wildlife are adapting to the modern urban ecosystem.

First in Fly: Drosophila Research and Biological Discovery by Stephanie Eliza Mohr (Harvard University Press, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

For more than 100 years, laboratory investigations into fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, have revealed that these tiny insects’ genes, gene networks, cell interactions, physiology, immunity, and behaviors are surprisingly similar to those of humans and other animals. Their short lifespan, easily spotted mutants and ability to reproduce in large numbers have made fruit flies into a major scientific model system that has played an important role in scientific investigations from developmental biology to the testing of new drugs and identifying mutations resulting from radiation — and of course, modern genetics would be impossible without the fruit fly. Written by Stephanie Elizabeth Mohr, a leader in the Drosophila research community, this lucid book introduces a variety of fundamental biological concepts discovered over the last century, thanks to fruit flies, and explores how Drosophila research has expanded our understanding of human health and disease, and led to effective treatments as well as a bunch of insights into important biological processes. In fact, the fruit fly has been so important to modern research that they have been the foundation for at least five Nobel Prizes. This fascinating book will especially appeal to students of the life sciences and the history of science, and to all curious people.

Lessons from the Lobster: Eve Marder’s Work in Neuroscience by Charlotte Nassim (MIT Press, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

What can thirty neurons in a lobster’s stomach teach you about the human brain? A lot, as it turns out. This engaging book by writer Charlotte Nassim tells the story of pioneering neuroscientist Eve Marder, who has devoted more than forty years of her life to studying a tiny network of neurons in the California spiny lobster, Panulirus interruptus. Compared to mammals, the simplicity of this lobster’s nervous system makes it a superb model system for generating widely applicable insights into the modulation of neural activities, equilibrium and the secrets of how neural networks function. Along the way, we learn that Marder is particularly skilled at adopting and using a wide variety of established methods in conjunction with thoughtfully-designed experiments to investigate how this neural circuit works. This brilliant book also details daily life in the lab, and reveals how Marder, “without technological fireworks or lavish funding”, is steadily working to demystify human neurobiology. It reads like a carefully-crafted detective novel, and will inspire almost everyone, especially students of neuroscience and the life sciences, and those who enjoy reading about passionate, driven people.

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees by Thor Hanson (Icon Books Ltd, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

When people talk about bees, they’re usually talking about the honeybee. However, there are tens of thousands of bee species out there, mostly overlooked, including all manner of small buzzy beasts, such as bumblebees and mason bees, leafcutter bees and solitary bees; all of which are critically important to maintaining our food supply. These bees also play important roles in human history, mythology, agriculture and even economics. This fascinating book starts at the beginning — 125 million years ago — to share the story of the bees from that special time when a branch of ancient wasps began their transformation to veganism when they started feeding pollen to their young. This delightful and informative book is crammed with a wealth of fascinating information about bees — including their evolution from that ancestral wasp, their different reproductive, nesting, and dietary habits, their preferred habitats as well as their agricultural value from ancient through modern times. I was especially impressed by the chapter examining the contributions of bees to all of the components of a McDonald’s Big Mac Meal because it was a creative and effective way to draw readers’ attention to the importance of bees to our everyday lives. Everyone, from bee fans and nonspecialists, to hobbyist beekeepers and professional entomologists, will learn something about the bees from this satisfying book.

Blossoms: And the Genes that make them by Maxine F. Singer (Oxford University Press, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Besides being beautiful, flowers are remarkable structures. But how does a plant make its flowers? Only 20 years ago, no one knew the answer to this very basic question. This delightful little book explains our current understanding about flowers, starting with explaining what plants are, discussing genes and how they evolved to work in teams, and the intricate molecular biology of how plants create flowers — their gorgeous colors, stunning varieties of petal shapes and their alluring scents — before concluding by telling the reader about the ways that humans are the accidental beneficiaries of flowers. Along the way, we learn how plants know when to bloom, how plants construct a flower properly so its particular pollinators are attracted to it, and we learn about the sorts of genetic instructions that underpin the entire process. Despite this advance in our knowledge, there is still so much to learn. The author, Maxine Singer, is a leading molecular biologist whose writing is direct and informative and, at times, humorous. If you’ve ever been fascinated by watching flowers grow and wondered how plants make them, this fascinating book is for you. I guarantee you will never look at flowers the same way again.

Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori (Laurence King Publishing, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

A brilliant blend of science, history, culture and folklore, this interesting and engaging book explores the relationship between people and trees as it circumnavigates the globe. Author and tree expert, Jonathan Drori, shares strange and fascinating stories about a variety of familiar or prominent trees species, from the redwoods of California, to Mexico’s avocado trees and India’s banyons, from Iran’s pomegranates, and Thailand’s rubber trees to Chile’s monkey puzzle trees, and tells about the trees that provide us with raw materials to make all sorts of wonderful things from maple syrup to aspirin. Each tree species is featured in a stand-alone vignette that is several pages long, making this book well-suited for dipping into whilst riding the subway or before dozing off to sleep. The quietly passionate writing is informative, interesting and quite delightful. The hardback version, which I’ve got, is one of the best-produced books I’ve read in years: the formatting is crisp and inviting, the paper is heavy and of high quality, and almost every page includes color drawings by artist Lucille Clerc that are simply breathtaking. Together, these features make this book a joy to touch, to hold and to read.

How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future by David Hu (Princeton University Press, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

The innovative ways that animals move have fascinated biologists for centuries, and also have much to teach the engineers of today about how to build better robots. The author, David Hu, who studies biolocomotion at Georgia Tech, regales us with astonishing tales of animal locomotion. For example, fire ants cling together to form rafts out of their bodies that allow them to float across oceans to colonize remote islands, and cockroaches can run at the equivalent of 200mph, bounce off walls and can even be squeezed down to one-quarter of their height and still keep going. This fascinating book not only shares research into animal movement, but also discusses how this knowledge is influencing cutting-edge technology and contributing to development of avant-garde applications in physics, engineering and robotics. This highly accessible and exciting book is a quick, enjoyable adventure. If nothing else, you will certainly gain a whole new appreciation for the near-indestructibility of cockroaches.

Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything by Helen Scales (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

As a lifelong fish-keeper, I’ve always been frustrated by people who don’t care how intelligent and truly interesting fishes are. Fortunately, marine biologist and writer, Helen Scales, has written this superb book about the fantastically diverse and rich world of the fishes, whether they live in your aquarium or in a coral reef on the opposite side of the planet. Dr. Scales starts by sharing the evolutionary history, biology, and ecology of the fishes, discusses fascinating research into their neurobiology, intelligence and memory, and details how fish glow in the dark, how they change sex, how they create colors, venoms and toxins, and explains the various methods that fish have evolved to hear and communicate — and, this is for all us kids out here, we even learn that some fish communicate by farting. This highly readable, appealing and captivating account of the lives and behaviors of fishes will delight and inform, whether you are a professional marine biologist, a student of the sciences, an aquarist or diver, or a fascinated nonspecialist who just wants to read something different.

Eyes to See: The Astonishing Variety of Vision in Nature by Michael Land (OxfordUniversity Press, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Complex, image-forming eyes are amazing structures because most animals have them, and also because eyes evolved early, and independently, many times in evolutionary history. The author of this comprehensive book, Michael Land, is a British neurobiologist and a world-renowned authority on animal vision. In this captivating book, he gives a complete introduction to the eight principal types of eyes that evolved in animals, and explains some of the many elegant, ingenious experiments that have revealed how sight evolved and how it is used it to perceive the environment and to gain an advantage over other animals. Professor Land talks about the different visual systems in a variety of animals, including spiders, which have at least eight eyes, which are all adapted to different visual tasks, and the mantis shrimp, which, despite having twelve visual pigments (humans have only three), has surprisingly poor eyesight. But perhaps most interesting is that these animals’ eyes is where visual information is processed, whereas in humans, the brain is our visual processing center. The book ends by considering how constantly shifting images from our eyes are converted in the brain into the steady and integrated conscious view of the world we experience. Although this is not a textbook (Professor Land has already written one of those), the information in this book is detailed enough that its appeal may be limited to those with either some knowledge about, or a deep passion for learning about eyes and vision.

End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals by Ross D. E. MacPhee (W.W. Norton, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

It’s easy to forget that Africa is not the only continent that was home to giant beasts, such as elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses. Such so-called megafauna could be found on all the world’s continents and on a great many islands as well — crocodiles that weighed more than a ton, huge birds weighing 500 pounds, and lemurs the size of gorillas. What happened to them? In this fascinating book, paleomammalogist and writer, Ross MacPhee, asks: what caused these mass extinctions? Were we to blame? The author provides a contemporary and detailed analysis of current hypotheses for these Near Time megafaunal extinctions — extinctions of large vertebrates and their smaller relatives that occurred around 12,000 years ago. Professor MacPhee argues that the evidence suggests that hunting, climate change, and other human activities are to blame, especially on islands. If the author’s arguments are not interesting enough for you, these now-extinct megabeasts (along with some smaller, but still living relatives) are beautifully depicted in their preferred habitats in many incredible illustrations by artist Peter Shouten that are a joy to behold, and the book also includes excellent maps and diagrams. Sadly, some paintings are double-page spreads that are split in the middle by the book’s binding, make it impossible to appreciate the complete intact artwork.

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich (Pantheon, 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK)

Where did we come from and how did we get here are two of the most enduring questions that people ask, and these fundamental questions at the center of this fantastic book. Its author, biologist David Reich, who studies the population genetics of ancient humans, has been at the forefront of human genomics for his entire professional career. In this book, Professor Reich explains how the newest ancient DNA and whole genomics technologies are deepening our understanding of human origins and migration patterns as well as providing new insights into archeology, linguistics and even medical science. For example, Professor Reich discusses how the relationships between humans and Neanderthals are just one example of many where our shared genetic history resembles a complex network of intertwining lineages rather than the more traditional view of a tree whose branches separate and never rejoin. This intriguing book is probably the most up-to-date book available on this swiftly developing field, and is a great example of how technological innovations are changing our scientific and historical views of ourselves and how we came to be.

For more faboo science books, please refer to my previous annual mini-reviews of the 10 best books about biology in 2016 and 2017.

Many thanks to the publishers and their publicity agents who graciously sent review copies of their beautiful books far off the beaten track to snowy Norway.

Originally published at Forbes on 31 January 2019.