Surviving the Misinformation Age

This post is the final of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 2 on climate change here,  and Part 3 on evolutionary biology here.


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.

Several prominent sceptics have written accessible books on a wide range of pseudoscientific ideas, such as Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye (Shermer, 2016), Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Pigliucci, 2010), or Bad Science (Goldacre, 2008). In recent years, however, there seems to have been an increasing abandonment of reason.

Creating Scientific ControversiesPart of the problem is that, as alluded to in the post on anthropogenic climate change, a lot of scientific research is funded by groups with particular interests, which can lead to flawed results when they already have in mind what they want the science to show. This is discussed at length in Tainted: How Philosophy of Science Can Expose Bad Science (Shrader-Frechette, 2016). Even worse is when such groups purposefully create the appearance of controversy to confuse and mislead the public and protect industry interests, such as the decade-long campaign by the tobacco industry to create the impression there was no scientific consensus on the Not a Scientistharmful effects of smoking. David Harker has written the first book-length analysis of this in Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society (2015), which should help readers to understand and evaluate such cases, and how to respond to them. Politicians are no less guilty of this, as Dave Levitan asserts in Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (2017).

The Death of ExpertiseAccording 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 Respecting Truththink 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 The Edge of Reasonhis 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.

Making Sense of ScienceWe believe that this means that we have a responsibility, as academics, as educators, as librarians, to speak out and communicate why what we do matters, to teach critical thinking. This makes recent books such as Critical Thinking: Tools for Evaluating Research (Nardi, 2017), Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin (Dean, 2017) and A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind (Helfand, 2016)  so important. This will require us to become excellent communicators: the media likes to simplify things and deal in snappy sound bites, whereas scientists have to communicate complicated ideas that have great degrees of uncertainty. And, as many of the interviewees in Olson’s documentary Flock of Dodos agreed in its conclusion, with some notable exceptions, scientists at large are poor communicators.A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Dean, 2009) could well be considered an essential part of the academic toolkit. But, as Jo Fidgen concludes around the 38-minute mark in the BBC Radio 4 podcast we referred to in our opening paragraph, ‘cold facts are not enough, they are much more convincing when they are part of a story’. So add Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story (Olson, 2015) to your toolkit.

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.

The Evolution–Intelligent Design Circus

This post is the third of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 2 on climate change here,  and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.


Ever since Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859; 150th Anniversary Edition, Darwin & Endersby, 2009), his ideas have been much debated. There have been many scholars over the years who disagreed with some or all of his ideas, and the history of this is charted in books such as Defining Darwin: Essays on the History and Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology (Ruse, 2010), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Dennett, 1995), The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (Bowler, 1988), and The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades Around 1900 (Bowler, 1983). These academic discussions and disagreements have Evolution: The First Four Billion Yearsbeen absolutely vital to further the development of evolutionary theory and push the discipline as a whole forwards. Books such as Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (Huxley, 2010), Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (Pigliucci & Müller, 2010), Evolution: The History of an Idea (Bowler, 2009), and Evolution: The First Four Billion Years (Ruse & Travis, 2009) give a tremendous overview of the historical development of the field over the last century.

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.

A particularly notable and influential episode that had enormous consequences was the 1925 Scopes trial, in which American high school teacher John T. Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in state-funded schools (see The Scopes Monkey Trial (Moore & McComas, 2016), and The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents, though for an alternative interpretation offering, in the words of the publisher ‘an apologetic for divine creation’, see Monkey Business: True Story of the Scopes Trial (Olasky & Perry, 2005)). He was found guilty, though not convicted, and the trial escalated the conflict between strict creationists and scientists regarding the extent to which evolution would be taught as a science subject in schools. Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools (Shapiro, 2013) provides a wider historical context to The Creationiststhe trial. The matter of teaching evolution remains contested to this day. After the US Supreme Court in 1987 forbade teaching creationism in public schools on the grounds it violated the separation of church and state, Creationists rebranded their ideas to Intelligent Design, or ID for short (see Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Forrest & Gross, 2007)). These efforts have been fronted by, yet again, a conservative think tank, here the Discovery Institute. There are several books charting the controversies since the Scopes trial, for example Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution (Caudill, 2013), American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science (Moran, 2012), Darwinism and its Discontents (Ruse, 2006), and the exhaustive The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (Number, 2006). Also noteworthy is Randy Olson’s even-handed 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.

As the US Supreme Court forbade the teaching of Creationism on the grounds of it being a religion, ID proponents argue theirs is an evidence-based scientific theory. In their view, certain complex features of the universe and living beings are irreducibly complex, and thus proof for the existence of a divine creator. These ideas are elaborated in books such as Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (Axe, 2016), Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (Denton, 2016), Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (Meyer, 2013; Stephen Meyer is the head of the Discovery Institute), Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (Meyer, 2010), and Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Behe, 1995; considered by many the foundational text for the ID movement).

Many biologists have widely criticised ID, and it is generally considered as a pseudoscience. See amongst others Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design (Avise, 2010), Why Evolution is True (Coyne, 2009), The GThe Greatest Show on Earthreatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Dawkins, 2009), Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) (Young & Strode, 2009), The Panda’s Black Box: Opening Up the Intelligent Design Controversy (Comfort, 2007), Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond (Petto & Godfrey, 2007), Doubting Darwin?: Creationist Designs on Evolution (Sarkar, 2007), Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (Brockman, 2006), Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (Shermer, 2006), The Counter-Creationism Handbook (Isaak, 2005), God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory (Shank, 2004), or Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (Young & Edis, 2004). Even earth scientists have felt the need to speak out (For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (Schneiderman & Allmon, 2009)). Several books deal specifically with claims that fossil evidence of transitional forms is lacking (Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Prothero, 2007; second edition, 2017)), or the idea that evolution Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Mattersreveals a grander design (Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Ruse, 2003), and The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (Dawkins, 1976; 40th Anniversary Edition, 2016)). For contributions hypothesising how complexity might have emerged naturally, see for example The Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle (Wagner, 2014), or The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself (Turner, 2007).

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 Science and Religiondeadlock 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 Monkey Trials and Gorilla SermonsDarwin 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.

Click here for the final part, which looks at books on how to deal with misinformation (coming soon).

Anthropogenic Climate Change: Arguments for and against

This post is the second of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here, and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.


There is a broad scientific consensus about the reality of climate change and its causes. Readers starting off on this topic have plenty to choose from to get them started, for example Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (Romm, 2015), Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction (Maslin, 2014), or the rather whimsical Ladybird Expert book Climate Change (Juniper & Shuckburgh, 2017). Al Gore thrust the topic into the limelight with An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do about It (2006). For those who want the full picture, there is Climate Change 2014 (IPCC, 2015), the fifth series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC operates under the auspices of the United Nations, and was set up at the request of member The Discovery of Global Warminggovernments in 1988. Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (Archer, 2011) is an excellent starting point to help readers understand the science behind the assessment reports. Another valuable contribution is The Discovery of Global Warming (2008), written by science historian Spencer R. Weart, one of the few books charting the historical development of climate science.

But the science is only one facet of climate change; this spills over into politics and policy. Despite decades of research by scientists and an expanding body of evidence, the world at large, both its leaders and everyday individuals, seem unable to make much headway in addressing the issue, and unable to agree what the best way forward is. A good starting point analysing this from many sides is The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Dryzek et al. 2011). William Nordhaus is one of several economists to have written about policies implemented so far (and their ineffectiveness) in The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (2013). Other books have been written offering explanations as to why we seem unable to act, tapping into psychological and sociological aspects, for example Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Norgaard, 2011), Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Hamilton, 2010), and Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Hulme, 2009). And plenty of authors have issued calls to action, ranging in tone from polemic (This Why We Disagree About Climate ChangeChanges Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Klein, 2014)), to ominous (Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Hansen, 2009)) to seemingly fatalistic (Too Late: How We Lost the Battle with Climate Change (Maslen, 2017), Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Hamilton, 2017), or Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed, and What It Means for Our Future (Jamieson, 2014)).

Part of the reason there is still no clear progress is that there is still plenty of scepticism. Broadly speaking, the sceptics belong to one of two groups.

On the one hand there are the ‘reasonable’ sceptics who bring valuable contributions to the debate. These authors do not deny that climate change is happening, but are critical of model predictions (though see A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Edward, 2010) for a good rebuttal of that argument), and the efficacy of proposed policies to address the issue. Good starting points are An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (Lawson, 2008), or The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (Pielke, 2010). The latter has also published a short book that is sceptical of the oft-heard claim that climate change will increase natural disasters. His analysis, presented in The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (Pielke, 2014), concludes that these claims are not borne out by the evidence. The Lomborg DeceptionIn short, there are simply more people and more property in harm’s way, giving the impression that natural disasters have become worse. Even Bjørn Lomborg in The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001) does not deny the reality of climate change (but see The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming (Friel, 2010), for a wide-ranging rebuttal of his environmental claims).

In the second group there is a vocal minority of climate sceptics and denialists who claim climate change is being exaggerated (Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything (Michaels & Knappenberger, 2016)), is not borne out by the evidence (Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science (Plimer, 2009), Global Warming – Alarmists, Skeptics and Deniers: Unstoppable Global WarmingA Geoscientist Looks at the Science of Climate Change (Robinson & Robinson, 2012)), or can be attributed to other natural causes such as long-term natural cycles (Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years (Singer, 2006)) or solar activity (The Neglected Sun: Why the Sun Precludes Climate Catastrophe (Vahrenholt & Lüning, 2015)). Climate Change: The Facts (Moran, 2015) bundles essays touching on these and other objections.

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.

This leads to books on climate scepticism campaigns, as documented in the light-hearted The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Mann, 2016), Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics (Nuccitelli, 2015), The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Mann, 2012), The Inquisition of Climate Science (Powell, 2011), Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (Washington & Cook, 2011), Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), and Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009).

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).

One final point worth mentioning on this topic, as often pointed out by climate scientists, is that even if things do not pan out as bad as we feared, given the potentially devastating impact, we should heed the precautionary principle, as laid out in Philosophy and the Precautionary Principle: Science, Evidence, and Environmental Policy (Steel, 2014).

Click here for Part 3, which looks at the discussion surrounding evolutionary biology.

On Truth and Post-Truth in Science

This post is the first of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 2 on climate change here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here, and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.


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.

Click here for Part 2, which looks at the discussion surrounding climate change.

Book Review – Turtles as Hopeful Monsters

Turtles as Hopeful MonstersTurtles 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. Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, page 53The 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.

Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, page 181The 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.

Turtles as Hopeful Monsters is available to order from NHBS.

Book Review – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)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.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is available to order from NHBS.

A facelift for the NHBS monthly catalogue

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.

Subscribe to the NHBS monthly catalogue to receive a monthly email – the latest issue is available to view and print here, and our archive going back to 2005 can be found here.

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 (cataloguing@nhbs.com) with the details (title, author, publisher, ISBN).

Book Review – Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud

Haeckel's EmbryosHaeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud

Written by Nick Hopwood

Published in hardback in June 2015 by Chicago University Press

Readers of our newsletter may remember Haeckel’s Embryos as my pick of 2015. A more in-depth review therefore seems in order.

The German naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) is a figure I initially mostly knew from his beautiful Art Nouveau style drawings of animals and sea creatures, published as Kunstformen der Natur between 1899 and 1904. These perennially popular images have found their way into art books, an as yet unpublished pop-up book, and have of course not escaped the current colouring book craze.

Far more influential, however, are Haeckel’s contributions to the field of embryology and the now (in)famous images of grids showing embryos of humans and other backboned animals looking almost identical when just forming, and diverging in form during development. These images have become iconic, classics of textbooks right up to our current day, but are also some of the most fought-over images in the history of science, being the subject of three separate controversies, each one bigger still than the last one.

Haeckel’s Embryos is a study of how images of knowledge succeed and become the stuff of legends, or fail and fall by the wayside as forgotten side notes in history. Hopwood gives an incredibly detailed account of both the formation and the afterlife of Haeckel’s embryo drawings, and the accusations of fraud leveled at him. And you get a lot of book for your money, with 17 chapters running just over 300 pages and another 80 pages of notes and references. Measuring some 22 × 28 cm this is a large-format study that is richly illustrated (as befits a book of this type) with a large number of historical illustrations that have never appeared outside of their original context, a great many of which were dug out of the archives of the Ernst-Haeckel-Haus in Jena, Germany.

Haeckel's Embryos page 39
An example of embryological drawings circulating at the time

The book proceeds roughly chronologically, with the first three chapters setting the stage by reviewing the academic milieu into which Haeckel stepped, and the kinds of embryological drawings already circulating at the time. In chapter 5, then, Hopwood starts the investigation proper. He carefully reconstructs the making of the figures which were first published 1868 in Haeckel’s book Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, and looks at each step from planning and drawing through to printing and publishing, mining Haeckel’s archives for both original drawings and correspondence with his publisher. This book went through eleven editions over more than forty years (1868-1909) and it is interesting to see how the famous grid developed gradually from initial pairs of drawings of two stages of dog, human, chick, and turtle embryos. The first “recognisable” grid (i.e. still circulating today ) didn’t emerge until inclusion in Haeckel’s more embryo-focused book Anthropogenie in 1874, which went through six editions until 1910.

Haeckel's Embryos page 164
Haeckel’s embryo grid during its development

His work immediately came in for criticism from fellow scientists, starting mid-1869 with the Swiss zoologist Ludwig Rütimeyer. Though no outright accusations of fraud and forgery were made, one of Rütimeyer’s concerns was Haeckel playing fast and loose with the public and with science by reusing the same woodcut illustration to represent early-stage pictures of dog, chicken and turtle. This was quickly rectified in the next edition, though Haeckel was slow to admit to his mistake. This barely caused a ripple on the pond, and Hopwood does a good job of making you realise why: this was an era in which discussions between scientists took place in either private correspondence, or in publications in obscure specialist literature, here the Archiv für Anthropologie, that was only circulated locally and will not have been read by more than a few hundreds of people. No, the first proper controversy did not take place until 1875, and saw Haeckel pitted against the Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His. One of the things they disagreed on was the similarity (Haeckel) or difference (His) of early embryos.

What is shocking is how Haeckel responded to this. I have never really had a good idea of the man’s character, and solely based on his beautiful artwork for Kunstformen der Natur have always thought of him benignly. Hopwood’s history reveals a rather different side to the man; he fashioned himself as a daring pioneer, here to enlighten the ignorant public (so much for humility), and his polemic responses to opponents bristle with arrogance, provocation and ad hominem attacks. He also refused to acknowledge mistakes, and countered charges of forgery – remarkably it was Haeckel himself who introduced this word in the discussion – as necessary deductions to fill in gaps, and as a logical consequence of presenting schematic figures. Although this soiled his reputation, the lack of a hostile consensus allowed Haeckel to draw ever more ambitious grids including more species. And the continued popularity of his work meant that the sheer number of books and later pamphlets in circulation made his pictures the most widely known and accessible in this era of print. It did spur his colleagues to set higher and higher standards for vertebrate embryology and push the field as a whole forward.

The next couple of chapters explore the 1870s to 1900s, discussing the expansion of Haeckel’s grids, how non-scientists encountered his work, how his work was reproduced and copied, and how critics kept the issue of forgery alive by repeating the allegations. These chapters make for especially revealing reading. Although Haeckel’s drawings were more available in Germany, the critics were also more numerous here, so copying was more extensive in Britain and the US. This also largely had to do with the available techniques for image reproduction at the time, which were both cumbersome and costly. And it was not until 1892 that George John Romanes reproduced the entire grid in his book Darwin and After Darwin. This reproduction also graces the dustjacket of Haeckel’s Embryos and to this day is the most reproduced and recognisable figure in Anglophone textbooks. But most copying was creative, with authors borrowing a few figures, deleting columns, adding rows, changing drawings, etc.

Haeckel's Embryos page 215
Romanes’s version of the grid

The second big controversy erupted around 1908-1910, when private scholar Arnold Brass became a spokesman for the freshly formed Kepler League, a club formed in response to a large public lecture that Haeckel gave. Following a lecture by Brass in which he attacked Haeckel, Haeckel returned the attack in a magazine, in response to which Brass privately published a slanderous pamphlet. The ensuing backing and forthing played out not in difficult books and serious periodicals, but in widely read newspapers. Brass’s pamphlet was so radical that it embarrassed even his own Kepler League. And it back-fired when morphologists recruited a large number of professors and museum directors to sign a declaration (“the declaration of the forty-six”), which, while not justifying Haeckel’s actions where his drawings were concerned, could see no motive for fraud. At the same time the declaration condemned Brass and the Kepler League for slandering such a respected biologist. This largely ended this controversy, partially in Haeckel’s favour. In his late life in Germany Haeckel was defended, forgiven, or reviled, depending on people’s political and religious inclinations. But the scientific community at large was more than happy to let bygones be bygones.

In the English-speaking world, in the meantime, too few of the exact allegations regarding his images were known in-depth, which meant the images still had a lease of life. And chapter 16 is a very interesting chapter telling the story of how the grid images survived into modern textbooks. Although faux-pas in postwar Germany, and only occasionally adopted in British schools, they were a relative staple in American textbooks. A combination of the higher profile of evolution as a subject in the American system in the early 20th century, and little knowledge of the forgery charges, meant the pictures could survive there. The rising and falling tides of anti-evolutionist sentiment did mean they were often modified and redacted, leaving out the human embryos. This further ensured their survival as it made them less radical. Another factor of influence was the inner workings of the textbook industry, where busy authors tended to copy each other or themselves rather than spend time to go back to the sources. Later on, the shift from authors to production teams meant that authors critical of Haeckel had less influence. In a further ironic twist, the Romanes drawing of Haeckel’s grid was often used while at the same time criticizing Haeckel in the accompanying body of the text. Interestingly, embryology textbooks long excluded the drawings, as their focus was not on evolution at the time. Experimental embryology as a field languished for decades until the 1960s when the field was reframed as developmental biology, although it took until the mid-1980s for Haeckel’s figures to be introduced to this discipline. By that time a new generation was only vaguely, or not at all, aware anymore of the accusations leveled at Haeckel. This knowledge was by now mostly limited to historians of biology, and even then many Anglophone historians were unaware. The few that weren’t did not realize how much the pictures were still in use (Hopwood counts himself among this group). This nicely undercuts the assumption that images and theories are linked so closely together that they live and die in unison. And this sets the stage for the third and final controversy surrounding these images.

Haeckel's Embryos page 283
An example of the embryo drawings surviving into contemporary books

The final two chapters detail the third and (for the moment) final controversy, which was set in motion by Michael Richardson (incidentally a lecturer of mine when I was studying at Leiden University in the 2000s). In several low-profile publications he criticized Haeckel’s drawings and, after comparing a wide range of vertebrate embryos, he concluded that “there is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates”. To really get the spotlight on his findings however, he lured the press with a charge of forgery which was picked up by the Times, followed by Science and New Scientist. From here on outwards the story exploded and was rapidly exploited by creationists and the burgeoning Intelligent Design movement who threw around wild claims that “a primary pillar of evolution had finally been revealed as fraudulent” and, gasp, evolution was truly “a theory in crisis”. Richardson, embarrassed by the misappropriation of his publications and the misinformation that was being spread, started back-pedalling, and came under critique from colleagues in the field. He could have seen this one coming after all. But many came to his defense and even Stephen Jay Gould weighed in with a column in Natural History magazine, separating Richardsons’s “good science” from “careless reporting” and “media hype”. Richardson publisher a further long review, finding only “some evidence of doctoring”. Evo-devo aficionados debated the issue among themselves for a few more years, and the general consensus to come out of that was that on a fundamental level Haeckel was right, but he had taken artistic license in schematising his drawings. This was too late to affect mainstream perception though, and creationists, headed by the conservative think-tank The Discovery Institute, kept on adding fuel to the fire with books, public TV debates and, with the rise of the internet, websites and blogs. Ironically, recent research in developmental biology showed that embryological similarity between species at early stages isn’t just limited to morphology, but extends to gene expression patterns. In spite of this, Intelligent Design proponents have kept the focus on the most problematic images. Hopwood likens them to the iconoclasts of the Protestant Reformation, showing off beheaded statues as emblems of defeat. It is not in their best interest to remove all traces of these images, but rather to constantly exhibit them to vilify and condemn evolutionary theory and further their own agenda. Throughout all this circus the images were of course reproduced, copied and spread further and wider than ever before.

When I read about this book, I was hoping it would answer the question “Given what we now know about embryology, how do Haeckel’s images compare? What details did he change that gave rise to all these controversies?”. Seeing that this book claims to be a definitive history, and in pretty much all other respects is, I would have liked to see a concluding chapter laying out our current state of biological knowledge and see the old images compared to what we know now. Hopwood does reproduce some of the comparative images that Richardson published in his articles, but if you really want to get to the bottom of those questions, you will have to take a look there. This is understandable though: Hopwood is a historian, so the book focuses foremost on the history of these images, not so much on the biology behind it. And when he describes the third controversy he does mention the current consensus (Haeckel embellished but fundamentally makes a valid point) and the various opinions that now circulate. But a separate chapter laying out and summarizing just the biological facts then and now would for me have really completed the work, even at the risk of repeating what is already present diffusely throughout the book.

A lot more things are covered than I have mentioned here, and particular attention is paid to the religious and political milieu in Germany at the turn of the 19th century in which the first two controversies took place. A lot of this will be unfamiliar territory for today’s readers (it certainly was for me), and the book might have benefited from some side boxes introducing certain historical periods or schools of thought.

Those criticisms aside, in my opinion Hopwood offers readers an incredibly thorough and objective account of the complete 140+ year history of these controversial images. And I expect Haeckel’s Embryos will rapidly become the go-to work for both biologists and historians to understand their full, rich, and complex history.

Haeckel’s Embryos is available to order from NHBS.

Book Review – Seeds: Safeguarding Our Future

Seeds: Safeguarding Our FutureSeeds: Safeguarding Our Future

Written by Carolyn Fry

Published in hardback in April 2016 by Ivy Press

With a topic such as seeds and Ivy Press’s reputation for beautiful books you would be forgiven for thinking that this might be another coffee-table book in the same vein as the successful series of books published by Papadakis on seeds, pollen, and fruit. Although richly illustrated, Seeds: Safeguarding Our Future is very much a popular introduction to the biology of plants, focusing on seeds in particular, with pithy chapters covering evolution of plants, reproduction, seed dispersal, and germination. The subtitle gives away the angle this book takes though, with the first chapter on the importance of seeds to humanity, and the final chapter on how we might use seed biodiversity to ensure our own survival in the future. Though modern agriculture can feed many, its monoculture approach has also led to the loss of a large amount of genetic diversity. The dangers this could pose, especially with the impact of a changing climate, is a theme that runs throughout the book. Each chapter ends with a profile of a well-known plant and a profile of one of the many seed banks around the world that operate to conserve and catalogue the genetic diversity of plants.

Seeds internal image 1

Carolyn Fry is well-placed to write on this topic, having previously published books on Kew’s Millenium Seed Bank Project and on plant hunters. Furthermore, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens have endorsed the book and several of their experts have contributed expert advice. The book is a good primer on plant biology, and I noticed the short sections on, for example, reproduction were a great way to brush up on my slightly forgotten textbook knowledge. The seed bank profiles, pretty much one for each continent, are interesting little sections, highlighting the important work done here to safeguard against future threats to agricultural crops. Though shortly mentioned in the final chapter, I would have loved to have seen the futuristic Svalbard Global Seed Vault profiled in the same way. As a planetary back-up of agricultural seed collections around the world, this surely is one of the most impressive and intriguing seed banks.

Seeds internal image 2

All in all this is an excellent introduction to seed biology with a focus on conservation and agricultural importance, executed to Ivy Press’s typical high production standards.

Seeds: Safeguarding Our Future is available to order from NHBS.

Book Review – The Book of Frogs: A Lifesize Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World

The Book of FrogsThe Book of Frogs: A Lifesize Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World

Edited by Tim Halliday

Published in hardback in January 2016 by Ivy Press

Ivy Press brand themselves as makers of beautiful books and The Book of Frogs is a fine example of this. These pictorial books (which we have informally dubbed The Book of… Series) have so far covered fungi, eggs, beetles, leaves, and now frogs (note: if you live on the other side of the Atlantic pond you might have noticed that Chicago University Press has the rights for the US).

Like the other books, The Book of Frogs is a hefty tome, weighing in at 2.3 kg, and portrays 600 representative species from across the Anuran family tree. It includes common and endangered species, and even some which sadly have since gone extinct. A short, 30-page section introduces the reader to the basics of frog biology, including their life cycle, calls, population trends and threats, diseases, and taxonomy. The text is aimed at a broad audience with little or no prior knowledge. Terminology is explained, and a 4-page glossary is included in the back (although does anyone really need to have things like “armpit” and “groin” defined for them?). The text is free from footnotes, and is not referenced, although a very short section with recommended reading is included; and there was the occasional factoid that aroused my curiosity (e.g. the specific frequency range of frog’s hearing means females are effectively deaf to males of other species) and made me want to look at the underlying literature – but it’s no great loss.

Book of Frogs internal image 1
The meat of the book is the 600 brilliantly illustrated pages that follow, each profiling a species. The same layout is followed throughout the book with the top third displaying some technical data: species name; adult size range; a table with family, synonymy, distribution, adult and larval habitat, and conservation status; a world map illustrating distribution; and a line drawing. The bottom two-thirds of the page contains a caption and two paragraphs of text giving a morphological description, some particulars on behaviour, reproduction etc., and a description of similar species. The real highlight is of course the photo content. A huge number of individuals and organizations have been approached to source high-quality images, which have been painstakingly cut out of their background. Most photos are duplicated, one life-size, the other blown up or scaled down. They highlight the diverse and sometimes bizarre appearance of frogs. Look out for the large-mouthed Surinam Horned Frog, the spectacularly coloured poison frogs in the family Dendrobatidae, or the barely frog-like Purple Frog. The book is a delight to flip through.

Book of Frogs internal image 2
Obviously, this book is not intended as a field guide or identification guide. Neither is it in-depth enough to be considered a fauna or encyclopedia, nor an iconography such as coleopterists and conchologists understand this term, although it does remind one of this to some extent. Given its global coverage, you can of course only give a selective cross-section in 600 pages. But calling it a mere coffee table book would not do justice to the carefully curated text. To my mind this book is squarely aimed at the armchair naturalist and those who love beautiful books, as the books in this series are eminently collectible. They make perfect gifts too.

Ivy Press has hit on a very successful formula here and I’m curious to see what will be next (butterflies, feathers, shells?). There are plenty of other small and colourful things to be found in the natural world that could be pictured in this format.

The Book of Frogs is available to order from NHBS.