Mysteries are not necessarily miracles. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Back in college, a friend started the tradition of collecting and then distributing a list of five book recommendations from each of our friends to get some ideas of what to read over the summer. To this day, each spring he is still sending out the email, soliciting suggestions – and I always look forward to getting that list. With the summer weather upon us, I figured I’d share one suggestion, because I just finished a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of evolutionary thought and research. That book is Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species by Sean Carroll (find it at the library: QH 361 C275 2009).
In this book, published in 2009, Sean Carroll tells the stories of the major explorers and scientists whose discoveries have shaped our understanding of evolution and human origins. Starting with tales of Alexander von Humboldt’s tropical adventures beginning in the 1799 in search of new species that influenced the later explorations of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Henry Walter Bates (of Batesian mimicry), the book covers the expeditions of all kinds of characters who sought evidence of evolution in living species, fossils and molecules.
The list of stories covered in under 300 pages is extensive, including paleontologists & geologists such as: Charles Walcott (discovered the 500 million year old Burgess shale fossil deposits that revealed the Cambrian Explosion), Roy Chapman Andrews (dino excavator and likely inspiration for Indiana Jones movies) … and anthropologists: Eugene DuBois (discovered Java Man – first documented specimen of Homo erectus), Mary & Louis Leakey (discovered numerous early hominid fossils along with evidence of tool use and bipedal stature)… the list goes on… I have left a number out, but each story is well worth the read. With inspiration like that, this might be just the book to motivate your ambitious fieldwork this summer.
The longer I study biology, the more interested I become in learning not only about biology itself, but also about the context in which discoveries have been made. I am more and more curious about the stories of people whose passion for their subject, combined with their personal experiences and critical thinking, have led them to the great discoveries that shape our current view of the world. This book not only sheds light on these intriguing personalities, but also connects the dots between them, showing how the process of science is the collective work of many individuals who were not afraid to confront the unknown.
So, now I want to know… what are your recommended books for this summer?