The best books on coevolution and relentless evolution

John N. Thompson Author Of Relentless Evolution
By John N. Thompson

Who am I?

I am captivated and never cease to be astonished by the seemingly endless variety of ways in which coevolution shapes the millions of species on earth into intricate and ever-changing webs of life. The reasons for my fascination are simple. Most species require other species to survive or reproduce, which means that the evolution of biodiversity is as much about evolution of the links among species as it is about evolution of the species themselves. I find immense joy in following the connections among species within the web of life, trying to understand how coevolution has shaped, and relentlessly reshapes, each link. There are always surprises along the way.

I wrote...

Relentless Evolution

By John N. Thompson,

Book cover of Relentless Evolution

What is my book about?

We often think of evolution as a slow and unobservable process, but we now know that view is wrong. Hundreds of scientific studies have now shown that evolution is relentless and sometimes astonishingly fast. Examples of rapid evolution over the time scale of human lifetimes, and even within decades, have been found in organisms as different as viruses, bacteria, fungi, plants, insects, fish, and birds. At every time scale, some of the relentless evolution is driven by adaptation to changing physical environments, but much of it is due to relationships among species as they coevolve with each other in evolutionary arms races, mutualistic symbioses, and competitive battles. This book explores how and why much of relentless evolution is driven by the coevolving web of life itself. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich

Why did I love this book?

It is almost impossible to choose just one of Bernd Heinrich’s many eye-opening books on the natural world. These beautifully written essays on “the inconnectedness of all of life” explore how species solve the problems of surviving and reproducing in a world packed with millions of other species. These stories, gleaned from his detailed observations and experiments in nature, relate how species depend on, defend, and manipulate each other. The battles and manipulations among species he describes are the raw material for relentless coevolution. Heinrich infuses his observations in the Maine woods with wonderfully original insights, grounded in a clear-thinking understanding of current ecological, evolutionary, and behavioral science. 

By Bernd Heinrich,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Naturalist at Large as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In essays that span several decades, Heinrich finds himself at home in his beloved camp in Maine, where he plays host to annoying visitors from Europe (the cluster flies) and more helpful guests from Asia (ladybugs); and as far away as Botswana, where he unravels the far-reaching ecological consequences of elephants' bruising treatment of mopane trees. Heinrich turns to his great love, the extraordinary behaviors of ravens, some of them close companions for years. Finally, he asks "Where does a biologist find hope?" while delivering an answer that informs and inspires.

Book cover of Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

Why did I love this book?

There are few clearer examples of how species have coevolved relentlessly than the interactions between cuckoos and other birds. Cuckoos have evolved an arsenal of ways to deceive other avian species into raising their young, and their avian hosts have evolved a counter-arsenal of defenses to protect themselves from cuckoos. Nick Davies, who is one of the world’s leading ornithologists and evolutionary ecologists, has been studying this evolutionary arms race for decades at Wicken Fen near Cambridge, England. In this engaging book, he takes us on a scientific journey, relating what others had already discovered before he began his work and then what he and others have discovered since the 1980s at Wicken Fen and elsewhere through many years of patient observations and experiments. 

By Nick Davies,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Cuckoo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beloved as the herald of spring, cuckoos have held a place in our affections for centuries. The oldest song in English celebrates the cuckoo's arrival, telling us that 'Sumer is icumen in'. But for many other birds the cuckoo is a signal of doom, for it is Nature's most notorious cheat. Cuckoos across the world have evolved extraordinary tricks to manipulate other species into raising their young. How do they get away with it?

In this enormously engaging book, naturalist and scientist Nick Davies reveals how cuckoos trick their hosts. Using shrewd detective skills and field experiments, he uncovers an…

A Planet of Viruses

By Carl Zimmer,

Book cover of A Planet of Viruses

Why did I love this book?

Parasitism of other species is probably the most common way of life on earth. It is not uncommon for a species to have tens to hundreds of parasites that exploit it. Viruses have fine-tuned the parasitic lifestyle to the extreme, attacking just about all other forms of life and fueling the evolution of counter-defenses in their hosts. Viruses co-opt the genetic machinery of their hosts for just about everything they need to replicate themselves. Carl Zimmer’s book is not only the best introduction I know to the remarkable diversity of viruses, it also is written with the crystal clear, elegant prose and solid scientific grounding that are the hallmarks of all his writing. 

By Carl Zimmer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Planet of Viruses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 2020, an invisible germ-a virus-wholly upended our lives. We're most familiar with the viruses that give us colds or Covid-19. But viruses also cause a vast range of other diseases, including one disorder that makes people sprout branch-like growths as if they were trees. Viruses have been a part of our lives for so long that we are actually part virus: the human genome contains more DNA from viruses than our own genes. Meanwhile, scientists are discovering viruses everywhere they look: in the soil, in the ocean, even in deep caves miles underground.

Fully revised and updated, with new…

Book cover of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution

Why did I love this book?

Plants and insects make up most of the species on earth, and they have spent millions of years interacting and coevolving with each other. In this book, Anurag Agrawal weaves together what scientists have learned about one of the most charismatic of these interactions, those between milkweeds and monarch butterflies. He explores why the evolution of these interactions never ceases, but he also shows us just how difficult it can be to sort out how particular species coevolve. The book is a window into why the interactions between plants and insects may be the most diverse interactions that have ever evolved between complex organisms. Agrawal is a leading researcher on the evolution of interactions between plants and insects, and, fortunately, he is also an absorbing writer. 

By Anurag Agrawal,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Monarchs and Milkweed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fascinating and complex evolutionary relationship of the monarch butterfly and the milkweed plant Monarch butterflies are one of nature's most recognizable creatures, known for their bright colors and epic annual migration from the United States and Canada to Mexico. Yet there is much more to the monarch than its distinctive presence and mythic journeying. In Monarchs and Milkweed, Anurag Agrawal presents a vivid investigation into how the monarch butterfly has evolved closely alongside the milkweed--a toxic plant named for the sticky white substance emitted when its leaves are damaged--and how this inextricable and intimate relationship has been like an…

Book cover of Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees

Why did I love this book?

Perhaps more than any other group of animals, the 20,000 (or more) known bee species make the case that much of evolution is about the diversification of ways in which species interact with each other species and form coevolutionary alliances. In this book, scientist/naturalist Thor Hanson gives us a whirlwind tour of that diversity, showing us that honeybees are just the tip of the iceberg of the many relationships between bees and plants. As with the other authors on this list, Hanson is a reliable guide with a passion and wonder for whatever he chooses to study and write about, using clear, accessible, and enjoyable prose. 

By Thor Hanson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Buzz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Popular science at its most accessible: fun, fascinating and full of engaging pen portraits of the scientists and bee enthusiasts he meets in the course of his research' Melissa Harrison, Guardian

'A smooth and accessible account of the insects that provide a significant amount of what we eat, introducing their fascinating diversity of behaviour. A reminder of why bees are wonders that we must protect.' Matt Shardlow, BBC Wildlife

Bees are like oxygen: ubiquitous, essential, and, for the most part,
unseen. While we might overlook them, they lie at the heart of relationships…

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