Improbable Destinies: An interview with Jonathan B. Losos

Jonathan B. Losos with his favourite research subject: the green anole

Jonathan B. Losos is an evolutionary biologist, currently at Harvard University. He is best known for his research on speciation in Caribbean anoles, a genus of iguanian lizards. Previously, he has authored Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. His latest book, Improbable Destinies: How Predictable is Evolution?  is an incredibly enjoyable romp through evolutionary biology, examining the phenomenon of convergent evolution (i.e. the process by which different organisms have evolved the same or similar traits independently over time), and asks the question: how repeatable is evolution really? After reading this book recently (see also the review I left for the book) I contacted Jonathan to talk some more convergent evolution with him.

1. As a biologist, I can understand your fascination with convergent evolution. But to introduce yourself to the readers, what drew you to study this one topic out of all the fascinating aspects of evolution? Was this interest there from the beginning, or did you chance on it as your research progressed?

I’ve been interested in convergence ever since I learned about evolution because convergence of species living in similar environments is such a great demonstration of the power of natural selection. However, when I conducted my doctoral work on Caribbean Anolis lizards, I truly became fascinated by the phenomenon.

2. In your preface, you write how your PhD project on lizard diversification in the Caribbean supported ideas on convergent evolution. Right after writing up your thesis, Gould published his book Wonderful Life, in which he stressed the importance of contingency, arguing that evolution is unpredictable. You write you were taken with his book. How did you go about reconciling Gould’s views with your own?

Evolutionary biology is unlike most sciences in that it is a historical science. We can’t just do a key experiment or derive an equation and solve the problem. Rather, like detectives, we have to build the best case to understand what happened in the past. In addition, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, life finds a way. In fact, evolution occurs in myriad different ways – almost any way of evolving you can imagine has occurred somewhere, some time. In this way, evolution is an inductive sciencewe can’t derive general rules for first principles; rather, we have to go out in nature and develop many case studies. Only in that way can we recognize the general patterns from the interesting exceptions.

It is in this light that I reconciled my one research on Anolis lizards, which indicated that evolution has travelled very much the same course four times on the different islands of the Greater Antilles (the large islands of the Caribbean), with Gould’s ideas that evolution, for the most part, is unpredictable and unrepeatable. I considered the Anolis situation to be one of the exceptions, fascinating, but out of the ordinary.

3. Part two of your book describes a plethora of field studies, including your own work on Anolis lizards, which by and large show that evolution is repeatable. Some people, botanists especially, have raised the objection that such findings could also come about by phenotypic plasticity. You have addressed this objection yourself experimentally and found that phenotypic plasticity only plays a limited role. Have others done the same, and is this something that is routinely considered and excluded as a possible explanation in this kind of research?

Phenotypic plasticity – the ability of genetically identical individuals to produce different phenotypes when exposed to different environmental conditions – has long been known. However, until recently, it was mostly considered to be noise in the system, non-adaptive phenomena that mostly served to prevent natural selection from producing evolutionary change (the reason being that natural selection might favor one variant, but if different variants in a species were genetically identical, then selection wouldn’t lead to any evolutionary change). However, in recent years we have realized that plasticity may be an important part of the evolutionary process. Although phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in traits such as anatomy, physiology) among individuals in a population may not be genetically based, the ability of a species to produce different phenotypes in different conditions is itself a genetically based trait that may evolve adaptively. Thus, species may evolve to exhibit great phenotypic variation as a response to living in many different environments. As a result, the amount of research on phenotypic plasticity has skyrocketed in the last two decades.

Improbable Destinies

4. Towards the end of Part Two, you point out another weak point of most field experiments. They generally start off with genetically related populations and so are likely to be predisposed to generate parallel evolutionary responses. Furthermore, statistical analyses might filter out the exceptions to the rule. Has experimental work by now moved on to using genetically dissimilar starting populations to investigate if convergent evolution is powerful enough to funnel different populations towards the same evolutionary outcome?

I wouldn’t say that this is a weak point of field experiments. Rather, it is a consequence of the hypothesis that is being tested. If you want to understand why guppies evolve to be more colourful in the absence of predators, then the appropriate experiment is to create multiple replicate populations of guppies in different conditions and see what happens. But, as I wrote in the book, we would expect very similar, closely-related populations to evolve similar adaptive responses to the same questions. One approach would be to conduct parallel experiments on many different species of fish to see the extent to which they adapt in similar ways (or in differing ways). Right now, I’m unaware of anyone doing this. However, different researchers sometimes ask the same question with different species, and this is the most likely way we will be able to address this question.

5. Part Three of your book looks at long-term laboratory experiments with bacteria. It seems here too, results initially suggested convergent evolution is the rule. Until exceptions starting cropping up on the longer term. Does the answer to the question whether evolution is repeatable depend on the timescale over which you look? Are we too focused on the short-term if we conclude that convergent evolution is the rule, rather than the exception?

That’s a keen observation. In Rich Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment, the story after 14 years was that evolution is pretty repeatable. Then, 30,000+ generations into the experiment, one of 12 experimental lines evolved a very different adaptation, one that still hasn’t been matched in the other 11 lines after another 14 years. So, yes, the longer one conducts a study, the greater the chance that rare, unique adaptations will occur (and we must remember that 30,000 generations are a drop in the evolutionary bucket). On the other hand, as Rich Lenski himself says, if the LTEE is continued long enoughmaybe for 300,000 generations – then perhaps the other 11 populations will discover the new adaptive solution as well. So, yes, definitely, these studies need to be continued much longer. Most studies today, LTEE’s fame and influence notwithstanding, are much shorter in length (note: Loses and Lenski edited the book How Evolution Shapes Our Lives. ed.).

6. You conclude your book by saying that in the short term evolution is predictable, but that the world of biological possibilities is a vast one, and that in the long term, chance events have had a large impact. Given the many books dedicated to the topic of convergent evolution, and the way it speaks to people’s imagination, do you think we have overestimated the importance of this mechanism? Are we too keen on seeing patterns where there are none?

Well, we need a bit of historical perspective on this question. Until recently, we thought of convergent evolution as relatively rare. Great examples of the power of natural selection, worthy of being in biology textbooks, but not at all common. Now, thanks to the work of Simon Conway Morris and others, we realize that convergence is much more pervasive than we used to believe. This has been a valid contribution to our understanding of evolution. Nonetheless, some workers have gone too far, in my estimation, in emphasizing the importance and prevalence of convergent evolution. It is a common and important aspect of evolution, but it is not the only story.

Improbable Destinies is available to order from NHBS

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).

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.

 

Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS

The Cambrian Explosion: an interview with paleobiologist and author Douglas H. Erwin

The Cambrian Explosion jacket imageThe Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity synthesises latest research about this massively siginificant moment in evolutionary history. Author Douglas H. Erwin introduces himself, the subject and some of the life forms that emerged.

Could you please provide a brief evolutionary history of Douglas Erwin as a paleobiologist.

I expected to be a biologist when I was in high school (or a doctor). But when I arrived at Colgate University as an undergraduate I discovered that geology was much more fun than biology (no pre-med students, for one thing). My teacher and mentor, Bob Linsley, was a fantastic teacher – Steve Gould used to claim that he was the best undergraduate paleo teacher in the US. Bob got me hooked on paleo, on evolution, and on Paleozoic snails (my systematic speciality, and Bob’s). Then I was off to UC Santa Barbara to study with Jim Valentine for my Ph.D. Although my Ph.D was on Permian snails from the SW US and the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, I was quite interested then in the Cambrian explosion, and Jim and I wrote several papers on it. I have been at the National Museum of Natural History since 1990, working on aspects of Paleozoic gastropods, the causes and consequences of end-Permian mass extinction and on aspects of macroevolution, particularly the Cambrian. I have been fortunate to have been able to visit many of the critical Ediacaran and Cambrian localities, and to have had wonderful colleagues on associated projects, including a bunch of colleagues associated with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute at Harvard and MIT, and developmental biologist Eric Davidson on the evolution of gene regulatory networks, which features prominently in the later stages of The Cambrian Explosion.

What is the importance of the Cambrian explosion in evolutionary history?

It is one of the critical major evolutionary transitions in the history of life, an episode where virtually every aspect of life on the Earth changed, with impacts on everything from the chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere to the nature of sediments in the ocean. So understanding not just the new fossils but the larger context of the interactions between changes in the physical environment, ecology and evolution is key to understanding what happened. For evolutionary theory, the Cambrian explosion raises some really interesting challenges to how we understand these events. Jim and I argue that it is only by looking at changes in the physical environment, ecological opportunities, and developmental novelties, that we can begin to understand the mechanisms involved, and moreover, that some of the processes force us to extend some traditional approaches to evolution.

The Cambrian Explosion internal imageCould you briefly introduce one or two of the specific species that came into being so we have some context – I imagine we are not talking about life as we know it?

No, the world of the Ediacaran and Cambrian was a much different place from our world today, and indeed the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods were themselves much different from each other. Rangea is a representative of one of the oldest Ediacaran lineages, the Rangeamorphs. These are found in a variety of frond-like morphologies, and have a fractal structure, so that as you zoom in the frondlets have the same form as the overall frond, as do the petals that make up each frondlet. Opabinia, the beast that graces the cover, is one of my favourite of the Cambrian animals, and one that also illustrates the transformation of our understanding of these animals since Stephen Jay Gould wrote Wonderful Life. In 1989 Opabinia, with five stalked eyes and the long proboscis, was one of the ‘weird wonders’. Thanks to more study and phylogenetic methods of reconstructing evolutionary history we now understand that Opabinia is part of the panarthropod diversification, and is positioned on an evolutionary tree between the Cambrian lobopods and the true arthropods. But these two illustrate something else – whereas Rangea probably fed by adsorbing [not absorbing!] dissolved organic nutrients and lacks any discernible gut, eyes, etc., Opabinia was a mobile, predatory animal, with those great five eyes, appendages, and a gut. The contrast between these two illustrates something of the complexity of the ecological and developmental changes between the Ediacaran organisms and those of the Cambrian.

The book contains reconstructions by illustrator Quade Paul. Paleo art must be quite an intriguing process. What was the nature of your collaboration, and how do you come to settle on a ‘final’ representation of each creature?

Doing illustrations with an artist is always an interesting experience, particularly since I probably have not just zero artistic ability but actually negative artistic ability (sucking it out of those who do). But Quade was great to work with. He is the first artist I have worked closely with who used a lot of the new digital tools, and that was quite a learning experience for me. Jim and I selected the animals we wanted to illustrate, and sent Quade copies of illustrations from the scientific literature, or previous reconstructions, and in many cases copies of the original scientific papers. For a couple of the commonly reconstructed animals of the Burgess Shale we had to steer Quade away from some of the reconstructions found on the web. Then there was considerable back and forth between us getting the details of the critter right, refining the pose and the background details. Artists always want to know about colours, but of course fossils aren’t any help, so we had to infer these from studying modern marine animals. The quality of Quade’s work speaks for itself I think.

The Cambrian Explosion page detailIn what ways might the latest research about Earth’s evolutionary past affect current conceptions about biodiversity?

Many people often think of biodiversity in terms of the number of species, in part I think because species are easy to count. But there are many other components of biodiversity – ecological function, morphologic disparity, phylogenetic history, etc. One of the themes of this book is that to understand evolutionary history we often have to look as much at these other aspects of biodiversity. Similarly, as we confront the challenges of the current biodiversity crisis, I am among those biologists who feel that we have to consider conservation priorities in a broader context in order to maximize the amount of evolutionary history that we preserve for future generations.

Do you have any more books in the pipeline?

The Cambrian Explosion was the beginning of a new project on evolutionary innovation that I expect will extend over the next decade. Part of the project involves a book that will involve a much more comprehensive look at evolutionary innovations and major evolutionary transitions through the history of life, from the origin of life to aspects of innovation in humans. This will be a pretty big book, but much different from (and much less illustrated than) The Cambrian Explosion. And one always has other ideas…

Buy a copy of The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity

Available Now from NHBS

Book of the Week: Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful

Continuing our selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful

Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful jacket imageGeorge McGhee Jr


What?

New volume in the MIT Press Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology.

Why?

Following the ethos of this series which looks in detail at the theoretical models behind the practical application of the biological sciences, this new volume looks at the phenomenon of convergent evolution through its manifestation in animal and plant biology, as well as in natural systems of all scales from the molecular world to large-scale ecosystems, and finally extending into the realm of mind where convergent characteristics are found in phenomena like tool use, and the evolution of various behaviours such as reproduction and herding.

This is a fascinating account of the state of current thinking on this subject, which brings into perspective the possibilities of life on our planet and Darwin’s vision of “endless forms most beautiful”.

Who?

George McGhee Jr is Professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University and a Member of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg, Austria.

Available Now from NHBS


Book of the Week: Plant-Animal Communication

Continuing our weekly selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

Plant-Animal Communication

by H. Martin Schaefer and Graeme D. Ruxton

What?

A summary of all the latest research on this poorly understood but significant area of ecological and evolutionary research. Plant-Animal Communication jacket image

Why?

The literature on the subject is wide-ranging and of interest to a diverse section of the scientific community, and here Schaefer and Ruxton provide a much-needed synthesis of the latest research in sensory ecology, plant physiology, evolution and the behavioural sciences as applicable to plant-animal communication.

Table of Contents

Preface

  1. Communication and the Evolution of Plant-Animal Interactions
  2. Animal Sensory Ecology and Plant Biochemistry
  3. Animals as Seed Dispersers
  4. Visual Communication in Fleshy Fruits
  5. Evolutionary Ecology of Non-Visual Fruit Traits
  6. Flower Signals and Pollination
  7. The Potential for Leaf Colouration to Communicate to Animals
  8. Plant Crypsis, Aposematism, and Mimicry
  9. Chemical Communication by Plants about Herbivores Sensory Aspects of Carnivorous Plants
  10. Final Thoughts

Glossary
References
Index

Who?

H. Martin Schaefer is Associate Professor in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology at the University of Freiburg. His main research interests are the sensory ecology of plant-animal interactions in the three fields covered in this book, seed dispersal, plant defence and carnivory.

Graeme D. Ruxton is Professor of Theoretical Ecology at the University of Glasgow. His main research interests are in sensory ecology and how one species can exploit the senses of another.


Available Now from NHBS

Book of the Week: The Rise of Fishes

Continuing our new weekly selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution

Edited by John A Long

What?

A tour of the past 500 million years, seeing the evolution of fishes from “Glorified Swimming Worms”The Rise of Fishes jacket image to the diverse and complex groups we see today.

Why?

Fishes are the ancestors of all amphibians, leading to reptiles, birds and mammals – including ourselves – and they continue to dominate the world’s waters. This is a superbly illustrated guide to the process of their evolution and diversification.  The images range from clearly photographed fossils and skeletal portions, through detailed anatomical diagrams, to colourful reconstructions of life in the ancient oceans and photographs of living species.  The science is brought to life through stories from the author’s own experiences in the field. A brilliant exposition of a key drama in the evolution of life as we know it.

Who?

John A. Long is the vice president of Research and Collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. His numerous books include Prehistoric Mammals of Australia and New Guinea: One Hundred Million Years of Evolution and Palaeozoic Vertebrate Biostratigraphy and Biogeography, also published by Johns Hopkins.

Available Now from NHBS

Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth – Save 20%

If Thomas Henry Huxley was famously ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, then Richard Dawkins is probably best described as ‘Darwin’s pit bull’. – Richard Fortey, The Guardian

Save 20% on the newest book by Richard Dawkins – now available at NHBS.

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150 years ago the momentous findings in Charles Darwin’s masterpiece On the Origin of Species shook the scientific and religious world to its core. Perhaps more astonishing, the Creation-Evolution debate sparked by his seminal work of 1859 continues unabated in the 21st century. Now, Richard Dawkins, world renowned evolutionary biologist and famous atheist, takes on the Creationists with a brilliant and uncompromising look at the incontrovertible evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Get your copy of The Greatest Show on Earth today – and save 20%!

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Darwin’s Bicentenary and the History of Evolutionary Biology

It’s almost the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (February 12th 1809) and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, his ground-breaking theory on the evolution of populations by means of natural selection.

To celebrate Darwin’s Bicentenary we have a selection of books written by Darwin, including his seminal On The Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle and The Descent of Man. There is also a wide range of books about Darwin, a section on the history of Evolutionary Biology and our pick of introductory evolutionary biology books for the non-scientist.

We have also put together a summary of the latest titles in evolutionary biology and the Evolution Classics and Bestsellers – our pick of the most important books on evolution from the last 40 years.

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