The word curator stems from the Latin, curare, meaning “to take care”. The traditional role of a curator is to care for, manage and display collections of objects which have importance for our social, cultural or scientific heritage. Within a natural history museum, this incorporates a huge variety of disciplines from taxonomy and evolutionary biology, to specimen preservation, education and aesthetics.
In this article we take a look at some of the books that focus on the fascinating subject of natural history curation and the collections that have found homes in some of our best loved museums.
Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present Hardback | Due August 2017
Curators consider visitors’ interactions with objects and with one another; how our bodies move through displays, how our eyes grasp objects, how we learn and how we feel. Inside the Lost Museum documents the work museums do and suggests ways these institutions can enrich the educational and aesthetic experience of their visitors.
Treasures of the Natural History Museum Pocket Edition | Due September 2017
Among the many exceptional natural wonders featured in this edition are: a rare meteorite from Mars, Darwin’s celebrated finch specimens, a lethal claw from the dinosaur Baryonyx, one of the first forms of life on Earth, and some immaculately dressed fleas. The book also includes the magnificent museum building itself.
Rare Treasures: From the Library of the Natural History Museum Hardback | Due September 2017 Rare Treasures presents stunning highlights from 31 of the most historic and highly prized books belonging to the Library of the Natural History Museum. The library contains one of the most exciting and comprehensive collections of natural history literature and artworks to be found anywhere in the world.
Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums Hardback
Over the centuries, natural history museums have evolved from being little more than musty repositories of stuffed animals and pinned bugs, to being crucial generators of new scientific knowledge. They have also become vibrant educational centres. This beautifully written and richly illustrated book is a clear-eyed but loving account of natural history museums, their curators, and their ever-expanding roles in the 21st century.
Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane Hardback
This is the first biography of Sloane in over sixty years and the first based on his surviving collections. Whilst early modern science and collecting were inevitable intertwined with imperial enterprise and slavery, they nonetheless gave rise to one of the great public institutions of the Enlightenment, as the cabinet of curiosities gave way to the encyclopaedic museum.
Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures Paperback
With Science in the Archives, Lorraine Daston and her co-authors offer the first study of the important role that archives play in the natural and human sciences. Reaching across disciplines and centuries, contributors cover episodes in the history of astronomy, geology, genetics, philology, climatology, medicine, and more – as well as fundamental practices such as collecting, retrieval, and data mining.
The Wainwright Prize, first awarded in 2014, is a literary prize that seeks to reward the best British outdoors, nature and travel writing. The prize is named in honour of Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991), the British author, illustrator and hillwalker who is most well-known for his seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, published between 1955-1966.
When Simon Cooper bought an abandoned water mill in southern England, he ended up sharing it with a family of wild otters. The Otter’s Tale blends the personal story of one of them with the natural history of the otter in the British Isles.
The Running Hare tells of Britain’s traditional ploughland that is rapidly disappearing, and of the wild animals and plants that live in and under it. It is also the story of John’s attempt to take on a field and husband it in a traditional way, restoring its fertility and wildlife, bringing back the old farmland flowers and animals.
Britain’s wildlife is under threat from many sides, but a change is under way. In Wild Kingdom, Stephen recounts his sojourns throughout the United Kingdom to document how Britons are fighting to bring back and save the wildlife they love.
Following the death of his father, Christopher walked the British Isles, month by month, season by season and region by region. This is his account of the British countryside and the search for the true identity of his father.
When a riding accident left her mother permanently brain-damaged, sixteen-year-old Clover embarked on a journey around the world, eventually finding her way back to the Vale of the White Horse. This is her account of love, loss, family and the healing strength of nature.
Chris D. Thomas is a Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of York and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in July 2012. He has an interest in understanding how humans have changed the biological world, and how we might protect the biodiversity that remains. His first book, Inheritors of the Earth, is a very interesting and thought-provoking read on the current mass extinction crisis, and conservation philosophy in general, focusing on the proverbial winners, and calling out conservationists for holding viewpoints that seem more driven by nostalgia than by logical thinking about the biological future of our planet. Sure to ruffle some feathers, NHBS nevertheless believes that this book makes an important contribution, and that his arguments are more balanced than a cursory glance might suggest. We contacted Chris with a list of questions that arose after reading it.
1. In your book, you quite rightly argue that, despite species going extinct, there are species who are benefitting from our presence and the changes we have wrought to our ecosystems. You acknowledge that our influences largely seem to result in an accelerated introduction of species in new areas. Will the net result of this great reshuffling not be a world that is suited only to generalist species (the proverbial rats and pigeons) at the expense of specialists?
This is not quite how I see it. Take your two examples. The Asian brown rat was a regular rodent (granted it was omnivorous, but so are many other rodents), before it hitched a lift with us around the world. Today, the brown rat mainly lives in and around human habitation and farmland, except on islands that lack native rodents, so you could simply call it a specialist on human-modified environments. The feral or town pigeon originated as a specialist cliff-nesting pigeon (the rock dove) in western Europe, the Mediterranean, and into western Asia. It is still a cliff-nesting bird, living on our buildings. Neither the feral pigeon nor the brown rats are unusually generalised, relative to many other birds and mammals. It is their proximity to us that makes us think of them as generalists. I don’t think we should synonymise ‘successful’ or ‘living in human-modified environments’ with being a ‘generalist’.
2. In Chapter 6, “Heirs to the World”, you mention that most current conservation efforts focus on trying to defend the losers. You argue that, though honourable, it will be more effective to back the winners, i.e. those species that will make up future biological communities. An important theme in the recent book Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want it Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future is that the loss of wild crop varieties through extinction is threatening our future food supply. Many of these wild varieties might have the potential of providing new food sources when our current crop varieties will inevitably succumb to new insect pests or pathogens, or can provide other benefits (e.g. pharmaceuticals). This is why projects such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and other seed banks are so important. Do you see any value in the conservation of threatened species, or is this crying over spilt milk?
I argue that we should in most instances continue to protect ‘species’. Rare species may become common and hence fulfil important roles in future ecosystems, and species that we currently ignore (or have not yet discovered) may become economically, medically or socially important to us in the future. Hanging onto as many species as possible is not a preservationist agenda, but rather a means of maintaining the building blocks of future ecosystems, fuelling biological changes that will take place in the coming centuries. Similar arguments apply to rare genes that belong to wild relatives of plants and livestock that we already use. They provide long-term resilience and flexibility.
3. In Chapter 11, “Noah’s Earth”, you call for a new conservation philosophy that acknowledges that life is a process, not a final product. In your view, this philosophy would rest on four overarching principles: a) accept change, b) maintain flexibility for future change by conserving species wherever possible, c) accept that humans are natural and that anything we do is part of the evolutionary history of life (this includes not shying back from employing any and all solutions at our disposal, including genetic techniques – none of them will make the world less natural), d) live within our natural boundaries. In the remainder of that chapter you elaborate on the first three principles, but not the fourth. How do you envision realising this fourth principle?
As I say: “We know that we cannot expect the bounty to continue if we carry on killing animals faster than they can breed or cut forests down faster than they grow. This strategy failed when our ancestors drove most of the world’s largest land animals to extinction, and it has played out in the last few centuries as whale and fish populations have collapsed under the pressure of over-harvesting. We need a resilient and sustainable approach. We should aim for maximum efficiency, by which I mean that we should pursue strategies that fulfil all human needs – and, where possible, desires – of every citizen on Earth while generating the least possible collateral damage to the global environment.”
Harvesting a species faster than the survivors can reproduce can be thought of as a relatively ‘hard’ natural boundary (once a species is extinct, it is no longer a resource), but other bounds are much softer (a forest with one fewer species still grows), and hence we often need to specify tolerable levels of change, rather than catastrophic points of no return. These issues deserve book-length treatment on their own, which is why I did (deliberately) somewhat duck the issues!
When I refer to the ‘least possible collateral damage to the global environment’, I am thinking about the development of technological and social ‘game changers’. For example, most meat production is based on filling our fields and barns with cows, sheep and chickens, which we then kill for food. If we could switch to the consumption of ‘factory-grown’ cultured meats, powered by renewable energy, it would dramatically reduce pressure on the land; although admittedly not by as much as if we all became vegetarians.
4. Your book makes many valid points as to how our current thinking around species conservation is in conflict with itself, or simply illogical (e.g. the distinction between native and invasive species, because, seen over long enough time scales, species distribution has always fluctuated. Or the idea that there is no one period in the history of life that we can take as a benchmark of the idealised pristine state the world should be in. Or simply the idea that conservation means “freezing” the world in its current (or a former) state – after all, the only constant of life on our planet has always been change). You also, provocatively I would say, argue that many island species that have gone extinct were effectively already evolutionary dead ends, having evolved in environments free from predators and pathogens. We have merely hastened their demise, but they would eventually have gone extinct anyway. Should we really give up on them?
I don’t think it is particularly controversial (or provocative, therefore) to say that most flightless and disease-susceptible terrestrial birds (as opposed to seabirds) that live on oceanic islands represent evolutionary dead-ends, on a time scale of ten or so million years. What are the alternatives? They would never be able to establish viable populations on continents because pathogens and predators are present. Confined to their island homes, they would eventually have died out, either when the islands eroded away, or when additional continental species arrived without human intervention (for example Darwin’s finches have ‘only’ been on the Galapagos for two to three million years). In most cases, we have accelerated the extinction of such species but not altered their eventual fate.
What we should do with the few remaining survivors is another issue. What I argue in Inheritors of the Earth is that we should think quite broadly. Can we introduce new genes to disease-susceptible birds that will make them resistant (for example to save the remaining Hawaiian honeycreepers)? Can we cross predator-susceptible birds with related species that reproduce fast enough to survive the new levels of predation (for example to save New Zealand black stilts)? Could we introduce new strains of bird malaria that are less potent, and displace the existing fatal ones? In other words, can we make the endangered island forms more resistant in some way and the continental invaders less virulent, so that long-term coexistence becomes possible? If not, then maybe we should indeed abandon some of the losers, and contemplate releasing continental walking birds (which can resist pathogens and predators) and pollinators, rather than dwell too long attempting to recreate a biological world that was inherently unstable.
5. One argument in favour of trying to conserve the “charismatic megafauna”, such as elephants and rhinos, are that they function as flagship species, and that conservation efforts aimed at them can benefit whole ecosystems. In your book, you don’t really go into this. What are your thoughts on the concept of flagship species, especially in light of your argument that “defending the losers” is ultimately a lost cause?
I am generally in favour of large, flagship species because they require large areas to protect, and this indirectly benefits many other species (though flagship conservation is not sufficient because it may miss areas of endemism). They are also culturally important to conservationists as well as to the general public, gaining public and political support for conservation. The giant panda has been globally important, and critical to the conservation of Chinese forests, despite being a slightly ‘dodgy species’!
When I discuss losers, remember that I then add the question “can we turn them into winners” (or at least into survivors). For the large megafauna that still survive, this is easy. We can choose not to hunt them to extinction any longer. It is already the case that large birds and large mammals are tending to recover in Europe and North America, and this is also true of the Great Whales. They were losers in the context of historic human culture, and there is no necessary reason why they ‘must be’ losers. Once ivory and rhino horn ‘culture’ is turned around, there will be nothing ‘wrong’ with these species either.
6. If you were put in charge of a major conservation organisation, say WWF, what would you do differently? Would you, for example, have greenlighted their recent campaign to try and protect the last remaining individual vaquitas (the threatened porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California)?
I’m not going to answer your first question because that would be a whole new book (or job if they offer it to me!). I’ll just say that, on day one, I would request a review of activities, and for every measure currently being undertaken to prevent change or decline, I would ask for the staff to develop an additional measures to promote changes that would increase diversity (or the status of an endangered species).
As for the vaquita, I am no expert. However, it is evolutionary distinct, and it is a perfectly viable species if we were stop killing it (including through gillnets). It is not a species that one should necessarily give up on. More broadly, it is a symptom of the mismanagement of the world’s marine resources. We sorted out farming on land a long time ago, but we are still more or less acting as hunter-gatherers in the marine realm. It is hopelessly inefficient.
If I had an infinite supply of money, I would be looking to invest in fish farms (they can be locally damaging, but humans still need food), and I would also invest in new GM crops which produce fish oils so that the farmed fish could be fed on terrestrial plants rather than ‘wild caught’ marine resources. Beyond that, I would invest in cultured fish meat (factory grown muscles), further reducing the need to catch wild fish. The aim would be for virtually all fish consumed in the year 2100 to be farmed or, ideally, cultured as tissues in factories.
Whether or not the vaquita itself can be saved, these strategies are all about generating permanent means of providing a global supply of fish meat without causing anything like as much collateral damage as takes place at present.
7. As mentioned above, I think your book makes excellent arguments. And yet, reading it also brought with it a certain sense of unease. It almost feels a bit defeatist, as if we might just as well give up on fighting to save threatened species and just go with the flow. I can see this argument not being popular. A lot of people feel we have a moral responsibility, as an intelligent, thinking species, to not drive other species over the edge, and to put a stop to our destructive ways. Isn’t saying “everything we do is natural, we are just another step in the evolution of life” a bit of a cop out?
I’ll leave others to discuss morals!
Saying that everything is natural, including all conservation actions we take, allows us to take ‘affirmative action’ for wildlife in a manner that some conservationists would historically have been nervous about (“I can’t do that, it would not be natural”). So, I see it as an opening up of new conservation opportunities, not a cop out.
8. It is perhaps a bit early to ask you how the book has been received. But, clearly, when a book like this is written, it is often based on years of work and research that has led up to it. These ideas did not just appear. So, how have your viewpoints been received so far?
The response to the book seems good so far, but it is far too early to judge. You are right, I have put some of these views out there previously, and they have received a mixture of responses. Many people seem very supportive. However, invasive species biologists are mostly negative, I think fearing that non-native species legislation could be undermined, more than genuinely questioning the biological thesis (that may just be my interpretation). There are also those, such as E. O. Wilson, who consider that I and others are being Anthropocene apologists. I understand their point, but we cannot simply continue to wish that we live in an unchanged world. We have to develop an understanding of biology, and an approach to conservation, that works with change rather than against it.
9. Obviously, there are many parties in our society who stand to gain a great deal from ignoring conservation concerns and steam-rolling ahead with “business as usual”, continuing to destroy natural habitats for corporate gains. With this book now poised to be published, do you not worry that your narrative will be hijacked, the way has happened with the debate surrounding climate change? I can already see people using your arguments to legitimise their actions, arguing along the lines of “this biologist said that the extinction crisis really isn’t such a big deal. See? Lots of species doing really well!”. Have you considered strategies to prevent this from happening?
I nearly didn’t put fingers to keyboard for this very reason. However, if we build a case for conservation based on a loss-only view of the world, eventually it will fall. The edifice is already creaking. A more balanced view that admits to the reality of biological gains as well as losses should, in the end, lead to more rational decision-making.
In terms of conservation, I have stated my own views. In the Epilogue, I write: “If [existing conservation] efforts were abandoned, the extinction rate would escalate. A major task of conservation is to keep the losses towards the lower end of the likely range – as well as to encourage biological gains. Although I have been advocating a more flexible approach to the environment, and specifically to conservation, nothing I have said should be used to undermine attempts to save existing species or maintain protected areas.”
As for the extinction ‘big deal’, biological gains of the Anthropocene do not let us off the hook. A simple linear extrapolation of the current rate of extinction wipes out about three-quarters of all species in the next ten millennia. This is risky, given that species represent our planet’s biological parachute. All future ecosystems will be formed from the descendants of existing species, and we do not know which of today’s currently-rare species will be important components of future ecosystems (especially if humans alter the planet in yet another, unexpected way). Letting rare species go could have major long-term consequences. My advice would be not to discard the biological building blocks of our planet lightly.
In the preceding two sections we have given a very brief survey of two areas that are the subject of intense public debate, and that see a lot of distortion or denial of factual knowledge to fit preconceived ideas. But the problem is not limited to these areas and we currently find ourselves amidst a storm of misinformation, fake news and alternative facts. In this final section, we draw attention to a number of recent books that will help readers think more clearly, logically and rationally, and give them the tools to see through spin and hyperbole.
According to books such as The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Nichols, 2017), and Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age (McIntyre, 2015), another part of the problem is the internet. In the opinion of these authors, easy access to information and egalitarian platforms in the form of weblogs where everyone can have their own say, are some of the factors that have bred a generation of opinionated, poorly informed people, who think they know enough on a topic after a quick scour of Wikipedia. This is accompanied by an underbelly feeling that expertise is synonymous with elitism, leading to distrust of any form of authority. In his pithy book Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (2014) Harry Collins provocatively puts forth the notion that not everyone’s opinion counts equally. Or, as Robert Dorit wrote in 1997 in American Scientist when reviewing Darwin’s Black Box, ‘[…] opinions should not be mistaken for expertise’.
As Julian Baggini explains in The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (2016) this is not about stifling dissenters, or stamping out opposition. Science thrives on scepticism and reasonable debate. But the key word here is reasonable. The current wave of anti-expertise sentiment is not just attacking scientific knowledge, it is attacking the very framework that generates these findings. As Michael Specter said in his 2010 Ted Talk The Danger of Science Denial, ‘you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts’. And, as Prothero argues in Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (2013), this matters to society at large. Whether we are talking about addressing climate change, or the return of nearly eradicated diseases because more and more people refuse to vaccinate their children, the ill-informed opinions of some can affect us all, especially once they enter voting booths.
To end on a sober note, we must not forget that science is a human endeavour, and as such prone to all the failures and follies of man. In our search for a deeper understanding of the world around us we stumble, we falter, and we fail (on a side-note, this is not all bad, but a necessary part of scientific progress, as Stuart Firestein lays out in Failure: Why Science is So Successful (2015)). Worrying, also, is the 2015 Science paper reporting that a lot of published research findings cannot be replicated (though see this follow-up critique, and a rebuttal of that critique). And although this paper specifically talked about psychology research, a commentary in New Scientist highlighted how other disciplines also suffer from this problem, something which is explored more in-depth in Stepping in the Same River Twice: Replication in Biological Research (Shavit & Ellison, 2017). But this is no reason to discard the scientific process. Science may have its failings, but science can fix it.
From the outset, however, there has also been an intense clash between evolutionary theory and religion, especially in America, both in general (see for example The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Fuller, 2017)), but especially with the fundamentalist Christian school of thought of Creationism. The Oxford dictionary defines this as ‘The belief that the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation, as in the biblical account, rather than by natural processes such as evolution’. It was Darwin himself who, in an 1856 letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, dubbed its proponents, who objected to the emerging science of evolution on religious grounds, Creationists.
Many hard-line scientists, Richard Dawkins included, argue that there is no debate to be had in the first place. There is no point arguing facts with a believer. Engaging these beliefs, and, as the Discovery Institute would have it, ‘teaching the controversy’, merely provides legitimacy to a non-existent controversy (though see Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Laats & Siegel, 2016) for a proposition on how to break the deadlock between science and religion). This touches on the age-old question of what dialogue there can be between science and religion. Dawkins, known for his militant atheism, is outspoken on the matter in his polemical The God Delusion (2006; 10th Anniversary Edition, 2016), while other authors have branded this as a futile effort (see for example Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue (Gingras, 2017) and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (Coyne, 2015)).
Amidst this fierce debate between two extremes, it is easy to overlook there are more moderate ideas. Many religious people do not support a literal reading of holy texts, and supporters of theistic evolution hold that religion and evolution need not contradict each other. The argument that geneticist Francis Collins puts forth in The Language of God (2006) boils down to “evolution is real, but it is the hand of God”. And he is not alone, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design (Bowler, 2007) traces the long history of how churches have sought to reconcile Christian beliefs and evolution, and see ‘reflections of the divine in scientific explanations for the origin of life’. Whether you agree with this or not (religious fundamentalists see it as a capitulation, while Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker has called it a superfluous attempt to ‘smuggle God in by the back door’), this rapidly leaves the realm of scientific enquiry and becomes one of personal beliefs.
In their 2013 paper, Dunlap & Jacques noted that many climate change denial books (including the ones above) are published by conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Marshall Institute. Many of these think tanks receive funding from fossil fuel or other corporations, making their neutrality questionable. Though denialist books are now increasingly self-published via so-called vanity presses, Dunlap & Jacques highlight that such books are rarely peer reviewed, allowing authors to make scientifically inaccurate and discredited claims that they can keep recycling, no matter how often climate scientists have already patiently refuted these, or shown them to be logically untenable.
Within the welter of claims and counter-claims, Michael Mann has, and continues to be, a key protagonist, starting with his famous paper in Geophysical Research Letters that contained a figure showing global temperature change over the past 1,000 years, the “hockey stick graph”. The graph rapidly became an icon in the efforts to undermine the credibility of climate science and the researchers involved (see for example “A Disgrace to the Profession” (Steyn, 2015), or The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science (Montford, 2010)). When in November 2009 thousands of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were released during a server hack – an episode that became known as “Climategate” – Mann once again found himself the centre of attention. Snippets from these emails, some of which included correspondence with Mann, were rapidly taken up by popular media, with sceptics arguing they showed global warming was a scientific conspiracy and scientists were manipulating climate data. No fewer than eight committees, both in the US and the UK, investigated these allegations and found no evidence of fraud or misconduct. Mann covers this in his books, but also see The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming (Pearce, 2006).
Oxford Dictionaries proclaimed ‘post-truth’ as the international ‘word of the year’ in 2016, on the back of Michael Gove’s ‘Britain has had enough of experts – a defining moment of last year’s BREXIT referendum – and the incessant flow of claims and counter-claims during the US presidential election. It’s kept the commentariat busy, giving rise to at least one superb analysis (listen in to Jo Fidgen on the BBC Radio 4’s Nothing But the Truth) and some dark humour (the spoof ‘Mordor National Park’ twitter account set up in January, ‘We’d like to repeat again that yes, open campfires are allowed in Mordor National Park. Everything here is on fire.’).
But in the world of books on evolution, ecology, conservation, and climate change, ‘post-truth’ is not new. It’s 16 years since the publication of the first English edition of Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001), which (publisher’s blurb) ‘challenges widely held beliefs that the environmental situation is getting worse’; 36 years since Julian Simon wrote The Ultimate Resource (1998), arguing that humanity is not running out of natural resources; and 158 years since Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859; 150th Anniversary Edition, Darwin & Endersby, 2009), triggering intense debate, disagreement, vitriol and accusations of lying that make today’s disputes look positively placid by comparison.
Our view on these issues is at once simple and complicated. As a company we are staunch believers in evolutionary theory, and the truth of findings from climate science that show how dangerous global warming is a consequence of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, and of the loss and degradation of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems. But our staff and our customers will have their own views; as is right and proper.
Our purpose in this four-part series is to highlight recent publications that help readers think more critically, recognise pseudoscience, and deal with the large amount of spin, misinformation, and created controversies that pollute these discussions. In the process, we will give a brief overview of two areas that are the subject of intense and polarised public debate: climate science and evolution. As we wish to inform rather than rant, our selection of books includes views from various sides of the debates. Lest there be any doubt in the mind of the reader, this does not mean that we endorse all these views, or are planning to catalogue a wider range of books to give a platform to them. But, for the purpose of this piece, we feel we would do the reader no service by ignoring their existence.
Turtles as Hopeful Monsters: Origins and Evolution
Written by Olivier Rieppel
Published in hardback by Indiana University Press in March 2017 in the Life of the Past series
Turtles have long vexed evolutionary biologists. In Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, Olivier Rieppel interweaves vignettes of his personal career with an overview of turtle shell evolution, and, foremost, an intellectual history of the discipline of evolutionary biology.
An initial, light chapter serves to both introduce the reader to important experts on reptile evolution during the last few centuries, as well as give an account of how the author got to study turtles himself. After this, the reading gets serious though, and I admit that I got a bit bogged down in the second chapter, which discusses the different historical schools of thought on where turtles are to be placed on the evolutionary tree. An important character here is skull morphology and a lot of terminology is used. Although it is introduced and explained, it makes for dense reading.
I think the book shines in the subsequent chapters that give a tour of the evolution of, well, evolutionary thinking.
When Darwin formulated his theories, he argued that evolution is a slow and step-wise process, with natural selection acting on random variation to bring about gradual change. This is the transformationist paradigm. The fossil record has yielded some remarkable examples where a slow transformation has occurred over time, such as the development of hooves in horses. But equally, there are many examples where no such continuous chain exists in the fossil record. Turtles are one such example, as they just suddenly appear in the fossil record, shell and all. Darwin himself attributed this to ‘the extreme imperfection of the fossil record‘. This lack of transitional fossils has of course been eagerly exploited by the creationist / intelligent design movement for their own ends.
But ever since Darwin, biologists have argued, and still do, that there exist mechanisms that allow for rapid innovation and saltatory evolution (i.e. evolution by leaps and bounds). This is the emergentist paradigm. Rieppel gives an overview of the different theories that have been put forward over the last two centuries, which is both illuminating and amusing. This covers such luminaries as Richard Goldschmidt (who coined the phrase “hopeful monsters”), Stephen Jay Gould (who revived it), and Günter Wagner (who provides the best current explanation according to Rieppel).
Just a little bit more about this phrase “hopeful monsters”, as this is such a prominent part of the book’s title. According to Goldschmidt, major new lineages would come about through mutations during early development of the embryo. This, of course, has the risk of producing monsters when the organism matures, likely resulting in premature death. So, Goldschmidt proposed a theory of hopeful monsters, where such drastic changes would successfully result in new evolutionary lineages with new body plans. His explanations, which required evolution to be goal-directed and cyclical (so-called orthogenetic evolution) have become obsolete, but he wasn’t entirely off the mark either. The best current explanations, according to Rieppel, comes from Wagner (author of Homology, Genes, and Evolution) and others who suggest radical changes to body plans do originate at the embryonic stage, and that the cause is the rewiring of the underlying genetic mechanisms.
The final two chapters of the book show how the debate over turtle shell evolution has gone back and forth between these two paradigms over time. Here again, Rieppel goes quite deep into morphology, this time of the shell, with accompanying terminology. Although the consensus seems to be leaning towards changes in embryonic development being responsible for the sudden appearance of the turtle shell in the fossil record, the final chapter deals with recent fossil finds from southwestern China that have revealed a potential missing link: a turtle with a fully developed belly shield.
Overall then, this book is a highly enjoyable romp through the intellectual history of evolutionary biology, using turtle evolution as its red thread. I could have used a bit more hand-holding here and there, and I feel the book would have benefited from an (illustrated) glossary or some extra illustrations. The reading gets quite technical when Rieppel goes into expositions on skull and shell morphology. That said, this book is an excellent addition to the popular science works in the Life of the Past series.
How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution
Written by Lee Alan Dugatkin & Lyudmila Trut
Published in March 2017 by Chicago University Press
How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) tells a remarkable story about a remarkable long-term experiment you will most likely never have heard of. I hadn’t, despite my background in evolutionary biology. When the announcement for it crossed my desk a month or so ago, its subtitle immediately grabbed my attention.
For more than 60 years, Russian scientists have been cross-breeding captive foxes in Siberia, selecting for tameness, in a bid to learn more about the evolutionary history of animal domestication. Written by evolutionary biologist and science historian Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, who has been part of this experiment for close to six decades, it tells the story from its inception.
Back in 1952, geneticist Dmitri Belyaev had many questions regarding domestication. Though the breeding techniques were well understood, how did domestication start? The wild ancestors of today’s domestic animals would have likely run away or attacked humans, so what changed to make domestication possible? Being the lead scientist at a state laboratory that helped fur breeders produce more beautiful and luxurious fox pelts, he had both the knowledge and the means to tackle these questions. His plan? Experimentally mimic the evolution of the wolf into the dog using its close genetic cousin the fox. It was bold, both in its timescale, likely needing years – even decades – to yield results, but also in its timing. You see, Russia was still under the communist rule of Stalin, and one of his protegees, the poorly educated agronomist Trofim Lysenko, was waging a war on the “western” science of genetics. Scientists were expelled, imprisoned, and even murdered over their career choice. But Belyaev, having lost a brother this way, refused to back down. Far from Lysenko’s prying eyes in Moscow, in the frozen wilderness of Siberia, he started his breeding experiments, purporting to improve breeding rates in case anyone did come asking. Lyudmila joined him in 1958, and this book is their story.
It’s a story of science, and the authors do a good job distilling the findings into a reader-friendly format. The results are fascinating as the foxes rapidly evolve from wild animals to tamer and tamer companions that crave human interaction, undergoing a raft of subtle morphological changes in the process. But it’s also very much a human story. Of the women, often local peasants, who came to work at the fox farm, not necessarily understanding the science, but showing immense dedication to the cause. Of the researchers, who developed a deep love for, and connection with the generations of foxes, who rapidly became more dog-like in their behaviour and appearances.
It’s a story of persistence against all odds; the experiments are running to this day and have survived Stalin’s brutal regime, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with all the economic turmoil that that caused. And it’s a story of an opportunity most scientists can only dream of: being able to follow up on previous findings and answering questions raised by previous experiments. Uniquely, this played out during (or perhaps was able to keep going because of) a period in which our knowledge of genetics, and the technologies available, kept on developing. The measuring of neurochemicals, epigenetics, PCR, genome mapping, next-generation sequencing… as new questions were being generated, so new techniques became available to probe deeper into the mysteries of the domestication.
The book makes for fascinating reading and is hard to put down once you start it. Highly recommended.
The NHBS monthly catalogue lists all book titles that have been added to our website over the last month, classified by subject. The catalogue contains forthcoming titles, as well as re-issues, new editions, and all books new to NHBS. This makes it an invaluable and unrivalled source of information for subject librarians and all who wish to be the first to know about new titles in the subject ranges we cover: natural history, zoology, botany, ecology, sustainable development and conservation.
The catalogue has recently received a facelift to make it easier to use – all of the valuable content remains in place. It is the latest in a long tradition of book catalogues produced by NHBS since 1985, from the old newspaper-style printed catalogues to the bi-monthly NHBS Bulletins, A4 booklets with cream covers which preceded the NHBS monthly catalogue.
Suggesting new titles for the NHBS Monthly Catalogue
NHBS cataloguer Leon Vlieger adds around 300 new books each month: he sifts through countless publisher catalogues, email newsletters, websites, book reviews and customer requests to select the titles. However, we sometimes miss important new publications, and welcome any help our readers can give us. If you know of a title that should be added to the next NHBS monthly catalogue, please email Leon (email@example.com) with the details (title, author, publisher, ISBN).