Book Review: The Tangled Bank

A few months ago, Sci had a secret shame. A secret, secret shame. For Sci is a science blogger, and blogs on Scienceblogs and…
…didn’t know ANYTHING about evolution.
Ok, perhaps that wasn’t exactly true. But Sci’s a physiologist, not an evolutionary biologist. I studied neuroanatomy, not HOW that neuroanatomy evolved. In my day to day life, I could care less how it GOT that way, what I’m concerned with is what goes wrong with it, and how I can go about fixing the problems to improve the lives of people. Let’s just say they don’t force us grad students to take classes in evolution, and while the basic ideas were covered in Bio 101, I hadn’t had much exposure to them since. It’s not that I don’t WANT to know about evolution. But if you’re going to give me a choice between, say, a book by Stephen Jay Gould and a book by Oliver Sacks, well…
And Sci’s always been a little ashamed of herself over this. I mean, I’m a SCIENTIST! Evolution is one of those things I’m…supposed to know about. For cocktail parties (cause, y’know, grad students go to a LOT of cocktail parties). Like stem cells and vaccines, there are things that people who aren’t scientists just kind of expect scientists to be versed in, or at least to have a relatively well-founded opinion on. Sci hates to disappoint.
And so, when, in the deep, dark night of a relatively early Wednesday morning before her first cup of coffee, Sci expressed her shame to Laelaps, Brian immediately had a solution. “Carl Zimmer just wrote a book on it!” quoth Brian, “you should ask to review a copy!”
Hmmm…learning about evolution (check). Learning about it from a blogger I totally respect (check! His tattoo gallery is wicked!). Free book (BONUS!).
I emailed Carl. I was TOTALLY TOTALLY thrilled when I realized he had actually HEARD OF ME!!! *squee!*
And a few days later, I got a TOME in the mail. A tome of SCIENCE!!!
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(DUDE! Is that Tiktallik on the cover!? SWEET!)

The Tangled Bank: an Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer
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Unfortunately, Sci got a galley copy of the book. For those unfamiliar with the publishing world, that means a GIGANTIC PILE of xeroxed pages, as yet unbound. I ended up being very sad about this, which I will get into. SciCat, on the other hand, approves of the galley copy, and is in favor of all books being in this format. She’s sitting on it now.


Basically, the Tangled Bank is a textbook describing evolution, beginning with the concept of genetic mutations and how changes arise from them, and going all the way up to the evolution of brain structures and behavior in apes and humans. It’s simple and clear, providing enough background to give some cool specific examples, while not being too complicated for someone without a lot of experience in the area.
This book is, hands down, the best textbook I’ve ever read. I suppose that’s kind of faint praise, as it is, after all, a textbook. Bar’s not to high on those. But Sci’s read a bunch of textbooks of varying qualities in her time, and this is by far the best. The Tangled Bank is so well written that most of the time, I forgot I was reading a textbook entirely, and thought I was reading some really well done scientific nonfiction.
This book is full of specific, colorful examples, so much so, that while reading, I was often compelled to look up, turn to Mr. SiT, and say “did you know that…”. And now, I know about evolution. I won’t say I’m the most well-versed person in the world, but I LEARNED stuff! New interesting stuff!
For example, I knew all about the bacteria experiment where they got bacteria to evolve over 42,000 generations to eat citric acid instead of glucose. But I had NO idea about the lizards!! Did you know there was an evolutionary experiment done with lizards? It turns out they put these little insect eating lizards on an island 30 years ago. The island had none of the insects the lizards usually ate. When they came back in 30 years, they found that the insect eating lizards now ate PLANTS, that they had bigger heads better for chewing tough plants, and that they were slower and stumpier, and didn’t defend good bug territory like their old ancestors once had. Evolution in action! AWESOME!
The examples are very many in this book, which is one of the things I particularly appreciated. There are examples of bacteria evolution, which genes are involved and which proteins this results in, and how these proteins work, all the way up to evolution of behaviors. There is an excellent chapter on how sex shapes evolution, and another on how reproduction (the raising of offspring) shapes evolution. It all paints a great portrait of how evolution acts on a species at realms very small and very large, and how these changes impact our environment, and indeed, our every day lives.
One of the things I particularly appreciated about this book was that each chapter opened with a specific example, not only of evolution, but of the scientists who were studying it. And I’m not talking Darwin or Mendel (though they are, of course, featured). Not only did you get insights into evolution, you got insights into the lives of scientists, scientists working on evolutionary biology TODAY, not hundreds of years ago, showcasing the fact that evolutionary biology is a thriving field full of some truly wild findings (including things like the evolution of venom, and yes, the evolution of finches). I think this is a really inspiring way to present scientific evidence, to show not only what is being discovered, but who is doing the discovering. And I hope that maybe, some student will read this book, see that guy chasing snakes in Australia or that woman studying duck penises (TOTALLY AWESOME), and think “hey, you know, I could do that…”
Whether you’re teaching a class on evolution, taking a class on evolution, or just interested, you’re going to want this book for the examples, the clarity, and the excellent storytelling. And here’s where Sci gets a little sad about her galley copy. This book was so good that I want to keep a copy of it around, to look into for reference, and possibly to give some necessary smackdowns when people say there’s not real evidence of evolution (you wanna go see those lizards? You can!). You’re going to want this book on your shelf, too. And your cat, possibly, will want a galley copy.
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6 Responses

  1. I too made it through undergrad and grad biology/ecology without having a single class on evolution. Genetics, check; basic evolution in bio101, check; anything else, nope! I wonder how many other bio&otherwise/scientists have progressed through their academic careers without a single course in evolution – and why? I finally read an Evolution textbook this year… fantastic. Will have to check this new one when it’s out and about for general consumption.

  2. High praise! I may have to purchase a copy… I’ve been reading little teasers on The Loom for ages now.
    What you talkin’ ’bout, the bar’s not high on textbooks? Textbooks are awesome!

  3. Sci thinks she’s in rough shape on evolution education? I have literally not taken a biology class since seventh grade. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Thanks for reviewing this, Sci! I still have to write up a review of my copy, but I agree. It is definitely the most useful compendium of evolutionary science I have encountered.

  5. Sounds great, I’ll have to pick up a copy of this when it comes out. Like Stephanie Z above, I haven’t taken a Biology class in ages but would love an up-to-date, yet approachable, guide to the topic.

  6. I am a huge fan of ink stains on dead trees but this is also the age of the web. For some, that will be more accessible. I highly recommend the UCB site: Understanding Evolution

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