Just in time for the holidays: great popular science books about ecology and evolution

Doing some gift shopping for the ecologist or evolutionary biologist in your life? I’m here to help! Let’s come up with a list of great popular science books about ecology and evolution.

There are lots of great popular books about evolution. Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch. Marek Kohn’s A Reason for Everything (which kind of straddles the line between popular science and biography). Probably lots of others I haven’t read. I want to read Microcosm by Carl Zimmer. And if you want to enjoy watching popular misconceptions about evolution get shot down, I hear that Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy is good.

I’m actually struggling to think of good popular treatments of ecology. I tend not to read popular science related to ecology. I tend to read popular science books on topics I know less about because I like learning new things; I already know a lot about ecology. Plus, most popular science about ecology is about conservation and climate change. I tend to go for popular science that’s more about ideas than applications. But maybe there’s stuff I’m missing? I hear The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen is good. It’s about island biogeography.

At the risk of hijacking my own thread, my favorite popular science books about other topics include Paul Hoffman’s The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (a biography, of legendary mathematician and eccentric Paul Erdös, rather than a popular science book, but far too great not to include), Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Enigma (about Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem), and William Poundstone’s Fortune’s Formula. Fortune’s Formula is about the Kelly Criterion for maximizing expected returns on wagers or other uncertain investments. An amazing story that, without stretching, involves everyone from Claude Shannon to Mafia bosses. It has evolutionary implications too, relating to the evolution of “bet hedging”, which aren’t noted in the book. Plus, it’s by William Poundstone, and he’s always good value.

p.s. Before you name “Walden”, read this.

Footnote: this is a lightly edited version of a post that first appeared in 2012.

29 thoughts on “Just in time for the holidays: great popular science books about ecology and evolution

  1. Recently I read ‘The Triumph of Seeds’ by Thor Hansen. I really enjoyed it. I’ve taken a few botany classes and I thought it was a great supplement to what I’d already learned (but it still would be a good read for someone who hasn’t studied botany).

    And I just recommended ‘Your Inner Fish’ by Neil Shubin to a friend (without science background) who wanted to learn more about evolution. It’s been a hit so far.

  2. I actually like Walden. He was certainly a weirdo but it is a good read if you don’t take it too seriously (as that NYer article does IMO).

  3. Not only is Song of the Dodo good, but Quammen’s other stuff is also fantastic. Monster of God (top predator ecology) and Spillover (disease ecology) come to mind. I used information I learned in Song of the Dodo to help with biogeography questions on my qualifying exam.

    Does Sand County Almanac count as popular ecology? And in the same vein, but contemporary, are Carl Safina’s books (particularly View from Lazy Point).

  4. “The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World”, by Emma Marris, is excellent. It’s about _ideas_ in conservation (e.g., how some bit of conventional wisdom don’t square with empirical data), rather than just a save-the-earth manifesto.

  5. I enjoyed “Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science” a while ago. It’s another reminder of how scientists are not really all that different from non-scientists. Not exactly about ecology, but the naming of species is a component of it.

    Also, “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation” is a must-read.

  6. Some colleagues and I at the Fairchild Garden recently worked on our lists of recommended reading. Here is the combined list of what we came up with:

    • “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman
    • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann
    • A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith
    • A Neotropical Companion by John Kricher
    • A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
    • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
    • An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It by Al Gore
    • Biophilia by E. O. Wilson
    • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
    • Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History by Steven J Gould
    • Exploring for Plants by David Fairchild
    • Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina
    • Get to Know Florida’s Pine Rockland Critters (coloring book) by Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition
    • Gorillas in the Mist by Diane Fossey
    • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
    • High Moon Over the Amazon by Patricia Chapple Wright
    • Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein
    • In Praise of Plants by Francis Halle
    • John McPhee
    • King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz
    • Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
    • Letters to a Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson
    • Manual of tropical and subtropical fruits: excluding the banana, coconut, pineapple, citrus fruits, olive, and fig by Wilson Popenoe
    • My first summer in the Sierra by John Muir
    • Naturalist by E. O. Wilson
    • Nature’s Palette: The Science of Plant Color by David Lee
    • One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis
    • Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano
    • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
    • Quinine: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure That Changed the World by Fiammetta Rocco
    • Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall
    • Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
    • Requiem for Nature by John Terborgh
    • River of Grass by Marjorie Douglas
    • Silent Spring by Rachael Carson
    • Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen
    • The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner
    • The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
    • The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
    • The Diversity of Life by E. O. Wilson
    • The Double Helix by James D. Watson
    • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
    • The Hidden Forest by Jon Luoma
    • The Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris
    • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
    • The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
    • The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald
    • The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest by Elizabeth Royte
    • The Travels of William Bartram by William Bartram
    • The Tree by Colin Tudge
    • The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
    • The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery
    • The Wilderness World of John Muir by Edwin Way Teale
    • The World Was My Garden by David Fairchild
    • The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
    • Tropical Nature by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata
    • Uncommon Ground: Rethinking Human Nature (collection of essays) by William Cronon
    • Voice of the River (autobiography) by Marjorie Douglas
    • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
    • Wendell Berry (poet)
    • Where do Camels Belong? By Ken Thompson
    • Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenbug

  7. Seconded Song of the Dodo and Quammen’s other works.

    A few more:

    Chemical Ecology, etc:
    For the love of insects – Tom Eisner

    Plant phys/ecology:
    The life of a leaf – Steve Vogel (a really well-written and amusing plant physiology/physiological ecology book – the author just unfortunately passed away)

    Food web ecology:
    Why big fierce animals are rare – Colinvaux (has some problems, but lots of good info, too)

    • On the Origin of Species is great, and accessible to a broad audience. But it’s science, not popular science.

      The Selfish Gene kind of straddles the boundary–it’s popular science, but it attracted a fair bit of serious scholarly attention, from philosophers of biology in particular.

  8. What about The Sounding of the Whale by D. Graham Burnett from 2013? Kind of a scientific history of many disciplines touching on whaling and cetaceans, but the first place I read about some important names in population biology, like Hjort, IIRC.

  9. Don’t know how ecologists would view these but I (geologist) really enjoyed these books by Bernd Heinrich(?):

    Winter World
    Summer World
    Ravens in winter

    Olddies but goodies.

    If you dig history and / of exploration (not new but good):

    Dugard: epic adventures of Stanley and Livingstone

    King: skeletons on the zahara


    • Yes! Heinrich is a great writer and a fantastic scientist (“constantly make and test hypotheses” or something like that). Year in the Maine Woods is great, too, if a bit less sciency than those that you mention.

      • I’ll check out the Maine Woods book!

        Yes, he’s fantastic at setting up hypotheses and testing them and his writing is easy to read without compromising the science.

        Another great older book – not science but definitely of interest to field ecologists – is “Tom Browns field guide to Nature Observation and Tracking”

  10. Entomology, ecology, biography, history all intersect: Kim Todd’s “Chrysalis:Maria Sibylla Merian and the secrets of metamorphosis” Maria Sibylla Merian was a 17th-century entomologist who did astonishing things in an era when women in science were beyond rare. It’s a great story (even if maybe not quite “popular science”?)

    • Yes, that’s getting into serious scholarly history. Perfectly accessible to and interesting to ecologists, but you read that sort of thing more for enlightenment than for entertainment (or entertainment plus enlightenment).

      Other recommendations along those lines: Dennis Chitty’s memoir, Do Lemmings Commit Suicide? And Hannah Gay’s The Silwood Circle.

      • Oh I found The Silwood Circle quite entertaining. Also a wee bit depressing. But definitely lively.

        I read Lords of the Fly as part of a Monte Carlo course while in grad school (something I can comment on another time). It was pretty engaging as well. The others are a bit stiffer, but if you know the history a bit, quite gripping nonetheless.

    • Oh, and thanks for the tip on Landscapes and Labscapes, hadn’t heard of that one, will have to check it out. I’m on a long-term quest to beef up my knowledge of the history of ecology.

  11. Song of the Dodo is seriously one of the best books I’ve ever read; I think I stayed up until 4 AM the first night I started reading it because I simply couldn’t stop myself.

    I also enjoyed The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell, which is about natural history and man’s relationship to the natural world, but throws in some ecology in subtle ways that I think would help a lay person see what ecology is actually all about, and what motivates scientists (at least a certain kind of scientist/natural historian) to study it.

  12. Slip these into your course lectures for undergraduates! I wished that when I was an undergraduate I was given more recommendation of these types of books. I think they would have been helpful catalysts to ground myself in the field. On the few occasions this did happen, I always read the books and they usually pumped me up. While the following don’t fall squarely into the category of ecology books, these are the ones I can remember hearing about from professors (mostly not until my last year, BTW):

    – Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes
    – Why We Get Sick by Randolph Nesse
    – The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (specifically, chapters about the mutual feedbacks of societal action and plant evolution)
    – Of Plants and People by Charles Heiser
    – Evolution: The History of an Idea by Peter Bowler

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