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. 

The books I picked & why

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A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich

By Bernd Heinrich,

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

Why 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. 

Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

By Nick Davies,

Book cover of Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature

Why 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. 

A Planet of Viruses

By Carl Zimmer,

Book cover of A Planet of Viruses

Why 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. 

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

By Anurag Agrawal,

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

Why 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. 

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees

By Thor Hanson,

Book cover of Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees

Why 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. 

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