Posted by: Jeremy Fox | May 6, 2012

Favorite popular science books about ecology?

What are your favorite popular science books about ecology?

I’m actually struggling to think of favorites. 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. But I also have a vague sense that there’s not much popular ecology out there that’s not conservation-related, and I tend to go for popular science that’s more about ideas than applications. But it could well be that there’s lots of stuff I’m missing.

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.

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 (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).

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Responses

  1. Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.

  2. The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen is a great book about island biogeography and conservation biology. Although this further supports Jeremy’s idea about many popular ecology books having a conservation focus, the early chapters trace the development of the field of island biogeography and related concepts such as the species-area relationship. Apart from the excellent writing, which makes this book such a joy to read, the thing I like most about it is the way Quammen brings to life the scientists he interviews; you feel you get to know the people behind the ideas.

    In a similar vein, EO Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist, another popular science book that reads like a good novel, provides an insider’s account of the development of some of the most interesting (and controversial) issues in ecology and evolution. I highly recommend both of these if you haven’t read them. They are not only my favourite popular ecology books, but probably my favourite non-fiction books.

  3. JR McNeill: Something New Under the Sun (focus on environmental problems).

    JB Hagen: An Entangled Bank (history of ecosystem ecology).

    SE Kingsland: Modeling Nature (you know that for sure).

    M Buchanan: Nexus. Small worlds and the ground breaking science of networks (good science journalism, not only about food webs but about networks in general).

    RC Tobey: Saving The Prairies (history of American ecosystem ecology).

    P Anker: Imperial Ecology (history of ecosystem ecology and colonialism, good except for making too much of Tansley’s ideas about psychology as the source for his ecosystem concept – see this post at my blog).

    DW Wolfe: Tales From the Underground (runs out of competition as there is no other book, to my knowledge, attempting to popularise soil ecology).

    • Believe it or not, I’ve actually never read Modeling Nature. From what I hear, you sometimes have to take what it has to say with a grain of salt, at least when it comes to the personal relations among ecologists. Dennis Chitty’s autobiography, Why Do Lemmings Commit Suicide? Beautiful Hypotheses and Ugly Facts, which I have read, is apparently a better source for how “Elton’s ecologists” got along with one another (like cats and dogs, much of the time).

      Chitty’s book also is interesting as an honest case study of self-admitted failure in science. Chitty never does come up with an answer to the question that drives his career (why do small mammal populations often exhibit cyclic dynamics?). Arguably, that’s because Chitty had the wrong philosophy of science. He was basically looking for necessary and sufficient conditions for cycles to occur, which is the wrong way to frame the problem, as the success of modern approaches, based on stochastic dynamical systems theory, shows.

      • Thanks for this tip, Jeremy. Just finished Chitty’s book and it’s really good. The recurrent failur seems to have turned Chitty into a veritable philosopher of science. Very considerate. What’s the current state of the art on population cycles in voles? Any progress on Chitty? One somehow wishes a happy end to the story even if not in his time.

      • You’re welcome Joachim, glad you liked Chitty’s book. He is strikingly honest about his failures, even though he seems not have (in my view anyway) correctly diagnosed their source.

        I’m not an expert on small mammal cycles, but I believe those who are do have a pretty good handle on them now. Fennoscandian voles in particular are an interesting story, because there is, or was, a geographical gradient in cycle period. Due, IIRC, to a geographical gradient in predator specialization. And the cycles have now vanished in many populations, due IIRC to climate change, specifically changes in snow fall which alter winter snow cover and so alter wintertime predation rates. A lot of this has been worked out by parameterizing stochastic population dynamical models, a key tool notably lacking from Chitty’s toolbox.

  4. Bernd Heinrich has written many wonderful books that encompass natural history and ecology. Just a few titles: Winter World, Summer World, In a Patch of Fireweed, Bumblebee Economics, The Hot Blooded Insects, and many more that are a joy to read.

  5. I also liked Wandering Through Winter by Edwin Way Teale

    • Yes, I probably should’ve noted that much popular ecology writing is natural history writing.

  6. I wish I had something to throw into the mix, as this is exactly the kind of book I was looking for to reacquaint myself with ecology as I was thinking about returning to school. I enjoyed “G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology” by Nancy Slack, but it is about Hutchinson’s life and not a thorough survey of ecology.


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