Image: Bookshelves, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1725 (Web Gallery of Art)
In a continuing series, Vitae asks academics, administrators, and Ph.D.'s in the nonacademic world to pick the five books that most influenced them in some aspect of their work, professional life, and career — and why. Next up: Jeremy B. Yoder, a postdoctoral associate in evolutionary ecology at the University of British Columbia, picks his five favorite books in his field.
I’m pretty proud of my personal library, but it’s a motley collection. I have some literary classics, a lot of science fiction, a smattering of queer-studies staples, and the collected works of Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and Annie Dillard, among others. For this list, though, I stuck to the section of my shelves devoted to my discipline of evolutionary biology. I hope my choices here are a mix that captures the history of the field, the depth of our current knowledge, and the diversity of people and approaches involved in puzzling out the past and future of the living world.
The Origin of Species
By Charles Darwin
Yes, an evolutionary biologist recommending this book is like a Ph.D. in American literature recommending Moby Dick. But this obvious recommendation is still a vital one. The Origin is packed with insights that have held up for more than a century and a half — including a prescient description of how the human eye could have evolved from an ancestral cluster of light-sensitive cells, and an experiment in the relationship between the productivity of a meadow and the variety of plant species growing in it that was vindicated by a paper published in Nature only a couple of months ago.
The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction
By David Quammen
This is the book I give to folks to explain why I study evolutionary ecology. Quammen recounts how Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace came to independently discover evolution by natural selection. The book then connects their work to our modern understanding of how new species and biological communities form — and how they fall apart in the face of human destruction and fragmentation of their habitats.
Debunking common misconceptions is tricky. Real education requires not just inviting readers to laugh at wrongness, but telling them what is right. In Paleofantasy, Marlene Zuk does both, and makes it a lot of fun. She kicks the supports out from under diet and exercise fads that are based on cartoonish understandings of human evolutionary history, then pivots smoothly to explain the fascinating science necessary to reconstruct that history in a truly rigorous way.
By John H. Thompson
The living world is constantly changing, as populations of plants, animals, and microbes cope with ever-shifting climates, habitats, food sources, and enemies. Those sources of natural selection are, you might say, relentless. Relentless Evolution provides a comprehensive look at current evolutionary biology — from field studies of plants and pollinators to genomic analysis and evolutionary experiments with test-tube populations of bacteria. It shows that — more than a century and a half after The Origin of Species was first published — natural selection still provides the unifying principle for understanding the biological diversity of planet Earth and for supporting our plans to protect that diversity.
By Hope Jahren
In reading scientific journals or even popular science, it can be easy to forget that scientists are human, too. Our humanity shapes what we study and what we discover. Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl tells the story of her award-winning career in paleobiology and weaves it together with poetic essays on what she has learned about the lives, struggles, and triumphs of plants. Jahren reveals the everyday challenges of life in the laboratory and the field while beautifully communicating the joy of discovery. It’s impossible to come away from her descriptions of trees hunkering down for winter or cornfields rustling with the sound of new growth without a new appreciation for the green and growing world.
Got a booklist to share? Send it to editorial_at_chroniclevitae_dot_com. List your 5 favorite books in your field or in some other category — and tell us in a few sentences why you would recommend them — and we will consider your booklist for publication.