The rating system is as follows:
**** = A classic: methodical research, important topic, an entertaining read
*** = Really good: an authoritative if not necessarily brilliant effort
** = Respectable: not very exciting or off the topic of evolution, but worth reading
* = Not so great: some useful information, but the research and/or writing is poor
** Michael Allin, Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris (Walker and Company, New York: 1998)
Brief, breezy book on the 1826-1827 journey of the first live giraffe exhibited in France. There's very little on evolution per se, and there are digressions on early Egyptology and contemporary political events in France and the Ottoman Empire. But it's well-written and fun, and Geoffroy is a major figure in the text, so there's some interesting material on him.
* S. Baatz, Knowledge, Culture, and Science in the Metropolis: The New York Academy of Sciences 1817-1970
Deadly dull, unfocused institutional history that's occasionally of interest because Torrey was involved early on, and because the Academy brought together turn-of-the-century New York systematists and evolutionists like Boas, Britton, Morgan, Osborn, and Wilson. Mostly, though, there's just a lot of information about the Academy's organization and such things as the various buildings that housed it.
** Mark V. Barrow, Jr., A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon (Princeton University Press: 1998)
Well-researched, medium-length, mostly engaging account of the ornithology's development in America, starting with studies of taxonomy and distribution based on private and museum collections, and ending up with studies of migration and behavior based on birdwatching and banding. Barrow mostly focuses on the internal institutional history of the American Ornithologists' Union and its relationship to the nascent conservation movement, the late 19th century explosion of amateur interest in birds, and the early 20th century development of university programs in ornithology. However, the narrative is of interest to evolutionists because many key museum workers who contributed to evolutionary theory, ecology, and biogeography also were heavily involved in the AOU, including Allen, Chapman, Hart Merriam, Joseph Grinnell, and Mayr.
*** Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Theories in the Decades around 1900 (Johns Hopkins University Press: 1983)
A fascinating discussion of Lamarckism, orthogenesis, and radical mutationism, with a persuasive thesis explaining the reaction against Darwin not just as the result of religious beliefs, but of the lack of a genetic mechanism and experimental evidence.
** Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence (Cambridge University Press: 1990)
A combination Darwin biography and outline of 19th century evolutionary thinking, so it rehashes not just Bowler's work but everyone else's as well. That said, it's brief, interesting, and clearly organized, and it hits all the high points, so it makes a good introductory text (as does his meatier 1984 book Evolution: The History of an Idea).
*** Peter J. Bowler, Life's Splendid Drama: Evolutionary Biology and the Reconstruction of Life's Ancestry, 1860-1940 (University of Chicago Press, 1996)
Sweeping, if not terribly well-organized discussion of the era's contentious and illuminating phylogenetic research, with a chapter on biogeography. Shows that the rapid rise and fall of evolutionary tree-building was due to fundamental methodological problems, e.g., the failure to develop any standard method for recognizing and resolving convergent evolution, and the inability to transform comparative morphology into an experimental field. More than almost any other book on 19th century evolutionary biology, this one cuts to the heart of scientific debates instead of digressing upon political and philosophical issues.
* Robert A. Croker, Pioneer Ecologist: The Life and Work of Victor Ernest Shelford, 1877-1968 (Smithsonian Institution Press: 1991)
Croker concisely presents a reasonable balance of personal, scientific, and political details, and Shelford had wide-ranging interests in ecology and conservation, and significant connections with the early Chicago biology group, leading ecologists like F. Clements, and organizations like the ESA and Nature Conservancy. But Shelford himself was so dry and disinterested in evolution that readers of this site won't find the book very entertaining.
**** Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (University of Chicago Press: 1989)
Exhaustively detailed analysis of the 1830s evolution scene in London, focused on Grant and his opponent Owen. The political spectrum is bewildering and the cast of players is huge, but the strength of Lamarck-Geoffroy inspired theories among that era's medical school teachers is a major revelation. Some of the most intellectually challenging history of science I've seen.
*** Adrian Desmond, Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest (Addison-Wesley: 1997)
This is an excellently researched and entertainingly written 600-page ode to Huxley (the first half was issued separately in Britain in 1994). It not only finally gives Darwin's most colorful supporter his due, but artfully interweaves the story with the entire sweep of Victorian history, making it the most awe-inspiring intellectual goldmine of a biography that I've ever read. Alas, both subject and biographer eventually get carried away with philosophical and political topics having little to do with biology, making much of the last half, and especially the afterword, a chore. Still, I'd recommend it for anyone who's had enough of Darwin but wants to learn more about his impact.
** A. Hunter Dupree, Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend Of Darwin (Harvard University Press: 1959; reprinted by the Johns Hopkins University Press: 1988)
Similar to Lurie's Agassiz in its competence, detail, approach, and subject matter. Unfortunately, the righteous, humble Gray was far less a compelling figure than the self-aggrandizing and spectacularly wrong-headed Agassiz. But it's an excellent follow-up to that book or to any serious study of Darwin's immediate reception.
** Mary Alice Evans and Howard Ensign Evans, William Morton Wheeler, Biologist (Harvard University Press: 1970)
An entomologist well-known in his day, Wheeler was productive and erudite, if not much of an evolutionary theorist. However, he knew everybody and worked everywhere - the MPM, Allis Lake, Woods Hole, Clark, Chicago, Leipzig, Naples, Texas, the AMNH, Harvard, BCI, even Ward's Natural Science Establishment. And the authors are savvy enough to include tons of details about all of these people and places, making it a great resource on turn-of-the-century American biology.
** John Farley, The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin (The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1977)
The subject of spontaneous generation was confusing to those who argued about it, with assorted flavors of materialists, vitalists, evolutionists, and Creationists lining up on each side. Not surprisingly, readers may end up just as confused. There's also a lot of stuff here about evolutionarily marginal issues like parasite life cycles, the development of the cell theory, the Pasteur-Pouchet debate, and biochemical theories of the origins of life. But with such a sweeping coverage of 19th century biology, there are numerous points of contact with Darwinism that do involve quite a few key figures (Buffon, Cuvier, Haeckel, Huxley, Lamarck, Tyndall, Wallace). A reasonable diversion for serious students of the history of biology.
*** Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa (Harvard University Press: 1983)
A devastating refutation of Mead's famous portrayal of Samoan society as an easy-going paradise of free love for teenagers. Freeman's writing is stiff and repetitive, but well-organized, so the book is a quick and enjoyable read. The book's hundred-page historical introduction is of special value to evolutionists: it not only explains Mead's intellectual upbringing as a disciple of Boas, the course of her own Samoan research, and the history-changing reception of her book, but the much deeper roots of the 1920s nature-nurture debate in the controversy over eugenics, going all the way back to Galton. Although half the book is concerned with cultural practices and conflict in Samoa, it's still an excellent evolutionary diversion. Reprinted in 1996 as a paperback with some interesting new material and the new title Margaret Mead and the Heretic (meaning Freeman).
*** Gerald Geison, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (Princeton University Press: 1995)
A well-written, informative account of Pasteur, easily one of the most important biologists of all time. On top of being the only modern, English-language source on the man, it has an interesting organization that focuses on a series of key experiments in Pasteur's career, showing that his noble public image matched poorly to his sometimes ethically marginal and always politicized research methods. Only a section on the spontaneous generation controversy deals directly with evolution, but the very lack of evolutionary research in late 19th century France is directly tied to Pasteur's leadership, so if you want to understand that subject start here.
* William Irvine, Apes, Angels, and Victorians: The Story of Darwin, Huxley, and Evolution (McGraw-Hill: 1955)
A deceptively small and witty book that devolves into a tedious account of evolution's impact in the 19th century. Irvine displays a frightening lack of interest in biological and biographical detail, instead picking apart Darwin and Huxley's philosophical, religious, and political opinions with a patronizing, psychoanalytic bias. Even worse, the joint biography structure never gels because of the great differences between the two men in age, interests, and lifestyle. Anything by Peter Bowler or Adrian Desmond is a better investment of time.
** Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin: Grandfather of Charles Darwin (Charles Scribner's Sons: 1963)
This book has four major strikes against it: it's really short, it's quite out of date, it jumps to conclusions about the originality and influence of Erasmus Darwin's evolutionary thinking, and it was written by an engineer and literary critic, not a professional biologist or historian. That said, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and by the end I was warming to King-Hele's thesis that Erasmus was a brilliant intellectual jack-of-all-trades, and that his evolutionary speculations were easily among the most insightful of the century. I'll hold off recommending this until I get a look at King-Hele's later, more detailed books on the same subject.
Robert E. Kohler, Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life (University of Chicago Press: 1994
Good source for material on the Morgan group. Haven't had time to fully review this yet.
* Url Lanham, The Bone Hunters (Columbia University Press: 1973)
A short and not very insightful joint biography of Cope and Marsh. But it does have lots of good detail on their adventurous fieldwork, major empirical discoveries, and legendary feuds.
**** Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life In Science (University of Chicago Press: 1960; reprinted by the Johns Hopkins University Press: 1988)
Authoritatively researched and excitingly novelistic, this is a must-read for students of 19th century biology. Glosses over Agassiz's numerous students and makes less of socioeconomic forces than a more modern treatment might, but you'll hardly notice with so much else of interest going on.
** Dov Ospovat, The Development of Darwin's Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838-1859 (Cambridge University Press: 1981)
A blow-by-blow analysis of Darwin's gradual assembly of the natural selection theory, based on correspondence and early, unpublished manuscripts. Ospovat makes it clear why Darwin held off publishing, and that the theory was much more than just one great idea. That said, only budding Darwin scholars will be interested in this level of analysis.
** Douglas J. Preston, Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History (St. Martin's, 1986)
This is a fun book, taking a scattershot approach to both historical and loosely "current" research escapades connected with the American Museum. The organization is unusual, the first part proceeding in chronological order and the second part focusing on recent events in each of the museum's major departments. Anecdotes abound, but there's an account of the museum's early days under Bickmore, a chapter on Akeley, and plenty of stuff on vertebrate paleontology, including accounts of Osborn, Sternberg, Brown, and the Andrews expedition to Mongolia. Not a serious historical work and now a bit out of date, but definitely a good read.
*** William B. Provine, Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology (University of Chicago Press: 1986)
Exhaustive 500-page biography of Wright. Because Wright worked mostly in isolation from other geneticists and his personal life wasn't terribly interesting, Provine goes into great detail about Wright's intellectual contributions. So the material is often challenging, if not always of the most immediate historical relevancy. It's just too monumental and detailed for anyone but a historian or a genetics student, but there is good material about all sorts of other early 20th century geneticists, including mentors like Castle, collaborators like Dobzhansky, and competitors like Fisher.
** Peter Raby, Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travellers (Princeton University Press, 1997)
A colorful, if not very focused account of 19th century British explorers, inventorying their exploits in semi-chronological order. As it happens, most of them were key figures in evolutionary biology: Humboldt (I suppose he's an honorary Brit), Darwin, Huxley, Hooker, Wallace, Bates, Spruce, even Galton. So despite the heavy use of secondary sources and some marginally relevant, but interesting material on geographic exploration, late-Victorian female naturalists, and Victorian literature, this is a painless way to feed your curiosity about the history of field biology.
** Ronald Rainger, An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935 (University of Alabama Press, 1991)
It's not easy to write an exciting book about a man who was a far more successful administrator and fund-raiser than a scientist, but Rainger gives it a good shot. That means focusing the spotlight on the more worthy paleontologists who were important in Osborn's life, including Cope, Matthew, and Gregory, and emphasizing the racist, imperialist, and elitist overtones of Osborn's theoretical papers and museum exhibits. One does get a sense of how Osborn autocratically led the AMNH to a position of total dominance in the field of vertebrate paleontology, but the man's very unpleasantness makes the story occasionally tedious and never truly inspiring.
* Philip Ritterbush, Overtures to Biology: The Speculations of Eighteenth-Century Naturalists (Yale University Press, 1964)
This is a somewhat disjointed, but interesting account of 18th century scientific writings that had a bearing on biology, with a strong emphasis on botany. Ritterbush's main, and not terribly thrilling argument is that two invalid paradigms caused considerable confusion: attempts to use Newton's "ether" to explain all manner of physiological phenomena, and attempts to justify the scala naturae by stressing analogies between plants and animals. None of this is too tightly linked to evolution, but there is some useful information on Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, John Hunter, etc.
** Martin J. S. Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology (American Elsevier: 1972)
Short and understandably sketchy review of paleontology's history from the early Renaissance onwards. Great introduction for students, with material on pre-19th century developments that is hard to find otherwise.
**** Martin J. S. Rudwick, The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (University of Chicago Press: 1985)
Brilliant, extraordinarily well-researched and conceived analysis of the most important debate in the early history of paleontology, which led to the triumph of biostratigraphy, the definition of the modern geological time scale, and the rise to power of R. I. Murchison, the world's leading mid-century invertebrate paleontologist.
*** James A. Secord, Controvery in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute (Princeton University Press: 1986)
Follow-up to Great Devonian Controversy that tracks the exhausting, life-long battle between the Devonian theory's two great exponents (Murchison and Adam Sedgwick). An interesting case study showing the importance of scientific politics, it's well-written and researched, but don't read it before Rudwick's book the way I did.
* Elizabeth Noble Shor, Fossils and Flies: The Life of a Compleat Scientist: Samuel Wendell Williston (1851-1918) (University of Oklahoma Press: 1971)
Matter-of-fact biography by the wife of a grandson of Williston, a now-forgotten entomologist and Paleozoic vertebrate paleontologist. Great stuff on Marsh's research program and the early history of the universities of Kansas and Chicago, and a lot of white-washed personal details that may be irrelevant, but do at least bring the era to life.
** George Gaylord Simpson, Concession to the Improbable: An Unconventional Autobiography (Yale University Press: 1978)
Thoroughly enjoyable, if something of a travelogue with little scientific or historical content. Lots of good field anecdotes, especially about South America before WWII. Almost nothing on his personal life, as you'd expect, but also disappointingly little about the Modern Synthesis.
** Michael L. Smith, Pacific Visions: California Scientists and the Environment 1850 - 1915 (Yale University Press: 1987)
Not directly relevant to evolution, it's still interesting because of the long section on early natural history research in California, which featured such people as Le Conte and King. Otherwise there's a lot about the turn of the century history of Muir, the Sierra Club, and the fight over the Hetch Hetchy dam, which is less than thrilling.
* Robert A. Stafford, Scientist of Empire: Sir Roderick Murchison, Scientific Exploration and Victorian Imperialism (Cambridge University Press: 1989)
Apparently the only modern biography of this key figure in 19th century geology and paleontology, but unfortunately it focuses on Murchison's other roles - geographer and behind-the-scenes political operator in the service of imperialistic scientific exploration. Almost all of the action is in the 1850s and 1860s, well after Murchison's key paleontological work; and despite its brevity, the book is a slow read because it dwells mostly on the bewildering parade of minor-league explorers that Murchison sent off to survey six continents.
*** Erik Trinkaus and Pat Shipman, The Neandertals: Of Skeletons, Scientists, and Scandal (Alfred A. Knopf: 1993)
For a 400-page paperback that deals with sometimes over-familiar topics in the history of paleoanthropology, this turns out to be a remarkably entertaining read. What makes it work is two things. First, Trinkaus and Shipman manage to hit virtually all of the important episodes of pre-World War II hominid research, giving each personality and event just about the right amount of space and adding tons of useful illustrations. So the discussion never seems narrow until the focus shifts strictly to Neandertals in the last, but still interesting post-war third of the book. Second, they demonstrate genuine scientific, and often even personal, knowledge of their subject, so they're able to untangle complex anatomical and historical issues with even-handed authority. A great place to start on this subject.
* Alexander Vucinich, Darwin in Russian Thought (University of California Press: 1988)
Dry, repetitive, and devoid of any general, scientifically substantive theme, this reads as a mere catalogue of Russian personalities and intellectual movements between the publication of the Origin and the October Revolution. With its mind-numbing focus on Darwinian popularizers, reactionary anti-Darwinians, and pseudo-Darwinians like the neovitalists, it's a good example of how intellectual historians obscure interesting biological research by obsessing with vacuous religious, philosophical, and sociological debates. Still, though, there's some good stuff here on key early scientific Darwinists like A. Kowalevsky and E. Metchnikoff, plus the early reception of Mendelianism and the mutation theory in Russia.
* Mary P. Winsor, Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum (University of Chicago Press: 1991)
Disappointing account of Louis and Alexander Agassiz' careers and successors at Harvard, with a lot of digressions analyzing the frequently humdrum research of MCZ curators. Makes the tentative case that Harvard's program never really took off because the father and son mismanaged the museum and suppressed any original thinking, which comes as a let-down after 300 pages.