Q&A with Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketThere is something undeniably captivating and alluring about fireflies. In Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, author Sara Lewis talks about the lives and surprising secrets of these creatures that light up the night skies. You’ll learn, for instance, that fireflies’ lives can be rather brief and gruesome. Lewis has spent over thirty years studying fireflies and has participated in a popular TED talk about the insects. This Q&A offers insights into why Lewis became so attracted to the idea of researching fireflies and what readers can expect to be surprised by in Silent Sparks.

What inspired you to write a book about fireflies?

SL: Ah, this book had quite a long gestation period! I’ve been doing research on fireflies for about 30 years. Whenever people hear about my job, “ Oh, I love fireflies!” is their nearly universal response. And so many people are curious, quite eager to learn more. But there really hasn’t been much accessible information out there. Even though we’ve learned a tremendous amount about fireflies over the past few decades, all these new discoveries lay hidden away in the technical literature. Scientists write primarily for other scientists, so these papers are chock full of technical jargon. Also, they can be difficult to access because they’re located behind paywalls. Knowing how many people would enjoy celebrating the science and the wonder of fireflies – that’s really what inspired me.

Who is the audience for this book, and what do you hope people will get from it?

SL: As I write in the preface: “If you love fireflies, then I wrote this book for you.” My goal is to escort people behind the scenes to explore the science behind the spectacle. How do these creatures make light? And what’s with all that flashing – are they talking to one another? What do baby fireflies look like? Are fireflies really disappearing?

One thing I hope people will take away from Silent Sparks is the immense beauty that emerges when you look at fireflies in the light of evolution. And they’ll get to glimpse the scientific process that helps us collectively accumulate knowledge. Of the few hundred scientists who’ve dedicated their days and nights to uncovering fireflies’ secrets, I’m lucky to count many of them among my mentors and friends. The book introduces quite a few of these firefly scientists – for me, their stories help the science come alive.

What’s most the surprising thing your book reveals about fireflies?

SL: Most people think there’s just one type of firefly, so the Most Surprising Revelation Award would likely go to the fact that there are over 2000 different firefly species sprinkled across the globe. And they’ve evolved remarkably different courtship styles. In North America, our most familiar fireflies are lightning bugs, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. Northern Europe has mainly glow-worm fireflies: plump and wingless, these females climb up onto perches at night and glow for hours to attract their flying males. The western US has mainly dark fireflies. These fly during daytime and they don’t light up – instead males use their fancy antennae to sniff out perfumes given off by their females.

Any other surprises?

SL: Yes, lots! Without revealing too much, I think most people will be surprised by fireflies’ gory and gluttonous childhood, for instance.

Do you have a favorite firefly?

SL: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! It’s so hard to pick just one, because fireflies have so many different lifestyles and I find each one fascinating. I guess my current favorite would have to be the blue ghost firefly, Phausis reticulata. I fell under the spell of these mysterious fireflies a few years back when I first encountered them in the southern Appalachians. Flying ankle-high above the forest floor, blue ghost males give off eerie, long-lasting glows as they search for females. Meanwhile, the blue ghost females are tiny and wingless, and they’re very hard to find. They’re nestled down in the leaf litter, their transparent bodies studded with glowspots that shine like gemstones.

Another reason I like them is that they hold so many secrets just waiting to be uncovered – we still know very little these blue ghost fireflies.

silent sparks firefly

In blue ghost fireflies, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. (photo by Raphael De Cock)

What got you started studying fireflies?

SL: I got hooked on life’s diversity early on, but it wasn’t until I completed my PhD that I started paying close attention to fireflies. One evening I was sitting out in my backyard in North Carolina, and suddenly these silent sparks rose up all around me. It was a magical moment – anyone who’s seen them knows exactly what I mean! And when I started reading about them, I realized these creatures would make perfect subjects to better understand sexual selection. This evolutionary process is responsible for the many bizarre and unusual features that help males improve their reproductive prospects: the peacock’s tail, the rhinoceros beetle’s horns, the bowerbird’s displays, the wood thrushes’ song and, as it turns out, the firefly’s flashes.

What did you learn while writing this book?

In terms of my personal growth, I learned to love writing again. For this book project, I really wanted to make the science accessible. Yet scientific writing uses a highly precise, concise shorthand; jargon works really well when scientists are communicating with one another, but this language can be difficult for others to understand. It took a few months, but finally I remembered how much fun it is to write in plain English! Adjectives, punctuation…the possibilities were thrilling!

silent sparks firefly

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

As I researched the book, I also learned a lot about the many interconnections between humans and fireflies. Around the world, fireflies elicit a nearly mystical reverence. But nowhere on Earth are fireflies more intricately woven into the cultural fabric than in Japan. As I describe in Silent Sparks, the Japanese people have enjoyed a profound love affair with fireflies for more than a thousand years. But I hadn’t realized how narrowly these beloved insects escaped being extinguished from the Japanese countryside during the twentieth century. Now, through research and widespread restoration efforts, Japanese fireflies have made a remarkable come-back to become a symbol of national pride and environmentalism.

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Interview with Sean B. Carroll, author of The Serengeti Rules

CarrollIn the fields of biological and environmental studies, Sean B. Carroll has made a name for himself not only as a scientist, writer, and educator, but as a storyteller. In his newest book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, Carroll argues that the most critical thing we have learned about human life at the molecular level is that everything is regulated.

Carrol uses medical analogies, comparing the current blight on nature to a disease that ravages the body. The book will leave readers considering life on several scales, both personal and global. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about the book:

One of the central themes of your book is that “everything is regulated” in life. What does that mean?

SC: What it means is that at all scales of life the numbers of things are controlled. For example, in our bodies, the concentration of every kind of chemical – hormones, salts, enzymes and fats, and the numbers of every kind of cell –red cells, white cells and so on, are maintained within certain ranges by regulation. Similarly, in nature, the numbers and kinds of animal and plants in a given place are regulated.

Why is all of this regulation important?

SC: Regulation is very important because diseases (heart disease, cancer and so on) are generally abnormalities of regulation, when too little or too much of something is made. Likewise, in nature, when key species are lost or removed, too many or too few individuals of other species persist, and that habitat becomes unhealthy and may collapse. So learning the “rules of regulation” is very important to both medicine and conservation.

What have we learned about those rules?

SC: A century-long quest of biology has been to discover how life works, and that entails the deciphering of the “rules of regulation” in the body and in nature at large. The stories that make up the book are about those pioneers who tackled the mysteries of regulation and discovered important rules that have had huge impacts in medicine, ecology and conservation.

The scientists portrayed in The Serengeti Rules are admirable, sometimes heroic figures. Why did you choose to organize the book around their stories?

SC: I am a firm believer in the power of stories. Science is far more enjoyable, understandable, and memorable when we follow scientists all over the world and share in their struggles and triumphs.

You use an analogy from sports to explain how scientists have figured out how to treat many diseases. How does that analogy apply to medicine?

SC: In the body, the key “players” are molecules that regulate a process. To intervene in a disease, we need to know what players are injured or missing or what rules of regulation have been broken. The task for biologists is to identify the important players in a process, figure out the rules that regulate their action, and then design medicines that target the key players. In the book, I tell the stories of just how that was done to make such dramatic progress against heart disease and cancer.


CC Image courtesy of Celso Flores on flickr

Your book is called The Serengeti Rules. What are those rules?

SC: Just as there are rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place. I have called these the “Serengeti Rules” because that is one place where they have been worked out and they determine, for example, how many lions, or buffalo, or elephants live on an African savanna.

But these rules apply all over the globe, in oceans, rivers, and lakes, as well as on land.

Do these rules apply then to conserving and restoring species?

SC: Absolutely. But in contrast to the considerable care and expense we gladly undertake in applying molecular rules to human medicine, we have done a very poor job in considering and applying these Serengeti Rules to human affairs. For centuries we have hunted, fished, farmed, forested, and settled wherever we could, with no or very little grasp of altering other species. For a long time, we did not know any better, but now we do. So minding these Serengeti Rules may have as much or more to do with our future welfare than all of the molecular rules we may ever discover.

But as you describe in several chapters, there have been some encouraging successes in restoring species and habitats

SC: Yes, and I thought it was very important to tell those stories, to show that even war-torn and devastated places like Gorongosa National park in Mozambique could rebound given time, protection, and the efforts of just a small band of extraordinarily dedicated people.

You visited Gorongosa in the course of writing this book. What was that experience like?

SC: Life-changing. The people behind the Gorongosa Restoration Project are so inspiring, and the magnitude of the recovery in just ten years is astounding and so encouraging. If Gorongosa can be rescued from utter disaster, we should all take heart that we can restore other places and species.


CC image courtesy of F Mira on Flickr

When readers close The Serengeti Rules after finishing it, what do you hope they will be feeling?

First of all, I hope that they feel inspired by the stories of some exceptional people who tackled and solved great mysteries. Second, that they feel enriched with fresh insights into the wonders of life at different scales. Third, that they feel more hope for the future — that there is time to change the road we’re on. And finally, that they can’t wait to tell their friends to read the book!

You have had a very distinguished career as a molecular biologist. What inspired you to delve into ecology and conservation and write this book?

First, a desire to explore the bigger picture of life. When I gazed upon the Serengeti for the first time, I was as enchanted as any tourist, but I did not understand what I was looking at. For someone who has spent decades figuring out how complex, invisible things worked, that was a bit unsettling and embarrassing. So I dove into what was known and realized that the rules of ecology and even how they were discovered had some parallels to what we understood about life at the molecular level. These parallels had never been drawn; this book is an attempt to do that in the context of explaining why understand all of the rules matters.

And second, a sense of urgency. The disappearance of nature is an existential crisis for biology and humanity. As much as I love the world of DNA and cells, it felt a contradiction – to care so much about life at one level and to ignore what was happening to life at large. It is time to look up from the microscope.

Sean B. Carroll is an award-winning scientist, writer, educator, and executive producer. He is vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Brave Genius, and Remarkable Creatures, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent book is The Serengeti Rules. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Congratulations to Sean B. Carroll on an outstanding achievement


Sean B. Carroll has earned The Rockefeller University’s Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science. He joins the ranks of such esteemed authors as Atul Gawande, E.O. Wilson, and many others. The much-deserved award honors him for an impressive body of work, including Brave Genius: A Scientist, A Philosopher and their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize and Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. We are proud to be publishing his next book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters. Read on for a snippet from the book.

If you travel through the Serengeti, you’ll notice something odd. As you zip along in a dusty old Land Rover, your guide helpfully pointing out key elements of the surrounding flora and fauna, you’ll see vast herds of wildebeests existing in peaceful abundance. There’s nothing so very strange about that, but what is peculiar is that spotting a buffalo is a much rarer occurrence. Indeed, there are about 1,000,000 wildebeest populating the Serengeti, and only 60,000 buffalo. Why should that be?, you might wonder. At 450 kg, the buffalo is much less vulnerable to predation than the 170 kg wildebeest, after all. The answer can be found in The Serengeti Rules.


Serengeti Rule 6
Migration increases animal numbers

Migration increases animal numbers by increasing access to food (reducing bottom-up regulation) and decreasing susceptibility to predation (reducing top-down regulation).

Why are there about 50 wildebeest for every 3 buffalo in the Serengeti? Because wildebeests are constantly on the move and the buffalo stays put.

The two major ways to regulate population are predation and food limitation. The wildebeest is on a constant 600-mile path moving during the wet season toward the green, nutritious, short-grass plains and then, as the plains dry out, toward the tall-grass savanna and woodlands, which receive more rainfall than the open plains. This is how they feed themselves. How the effects of predation are mitigated is a bit more complicated. There are actually two types of wildebeest in the Serengeti. These include the vast migratory herds and the smaller pockets of “resident” populations. The hyenas and lions that prey on wildebeests cannot follow the herds because they are restricted to their territories as they raise their young. They find their food mostly in the smaller sedentary populations of wildebeests while the active ones roam free. The buffalo, meanwhile, are restricted by their sedentary lifestyle in procuring enough food to flourish quite as spectacularly as the smaller wildebeest.

Migration, then, is … [an] ecological rule, or more aptly a rule-breaker, a way of exceeding the limits imposed by density-dependent regulation.

For the first five Serengeti Rules and much more information on their ramifications both large and small, pick up a copy of The Serengeti Rules by Sean B. Carroll, coming in March 2016.

Why beekeeping in L.A. is a good thing, according to Noah Wilson-Rich

The BeeAccording to Noah Wilson-Rich, author of The Bee: A Natural History, bees exert an overwhelmingly positive influence, despite their bad rap as stinging pests. In his recent op ed in the Los Angeles Times, bees are efficient entities that produce “tangible benefits.” Wilson-Rich draws attention to the peculiar and outmoded 1879 ban on urban beekeeping in L.A.– a ban that has now been reversed– declaring that urban beekeeping in single-family residential zones is legal, and for good reason. He argues:

Bees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy annually in their role as pollinators of more than 100 fruit and vegetable crops. That number balloons to $100 billion globally. I won’t pretend that bees will put a dent in L.A.’s unemployment rate or add significantly to the state’s gross domestic product. But legal beekeeping would spur job creation, allowing skilled professionals to make a living by installing and maintaining beehives for residences, companies and schools.

According to Wilson-Rich, urban beehives are actually more productive than their rural counterpart. Urban beekeeping is already legal in numerous cities, including Washington D.C., Paris and New York, and he questions why Los Angeles, a city where allegedly ten bee colonies exist every square mile, fails to keep up with the valuable and safe practice or urban beekeeping.

Read the full piece in the Los Angeles Times here.

Noah Wilson-Rich is the founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based beekeeping service and research organization. He is the author of The Bee: A Natural History.

Math Drives Careers: Author Louis Gross

Gross jacketLouis Gross, distinguished professor in the departments of ecology, evolutionary biology, and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, is the author, along with Erin Bodine and Suzanne Lenhart, of Mathematics for the Life Sciences. For our third installment in the Math Awareness Month series, Gross writes on the role mathematics and rational consideration have played in his career, and in his relationship with his wife, a poet.

Math as a Career-builder and Relationship-broker

My wife is a poet. We approach most any issue with very different perspectives. In an art gallery, she sees a painting from an emotional level, while I focus on the methods the artist used to create the piece. As with any long-term relationship, after many years together we have learned to appreciate the other’s viewpoint and while I would never claim to be a poet, I have helped her on occasion to try out different phrasings of lines to bring out the music. In the reverse situation, the searching questions she asks me about the natural world (do deer really lose their antlers every year – isn’t this horribly wasteful?) force me to consider ways to explain complex scientific ideas in metaphor. As the way I approach science is heavily quantitative, with much of my formal education being in mathematics, this is particularly difficult without resorting to ways of thought that to me are second nature.

The challenges in explaining how quantitative approaches are critical to science, and that science advances in part through better and better ways to apply mathematics to the responses of systems we observe around us, arise throughout education, but are particularly difficult for those without a strong quantitative bent. An example may be helpful. One of the central approaches in science is building and using models – these can be physical ones such as model airplanes, they can be model systems such as an aquarium or they can be phrased in mathematics or computer code. The process of building models and the theories that ultimately arise from collections of models, is painstaking and iterative. Yet each of us build and apply models all the time. Think of the last time you entered a supermarket or a large store with multiple checkout-lines. How did you decide what line to choose? Was it based on how many customers were in each line, how many items they had to purchase, or whether they were paying with a check or credit card? Did you take account of your previous experience with that check-out clerk if you had it, or your experience with using self-checkout at that store? Was the criterion you used some aspect of ease of use, or how quickly you would get through the line? Or was it something else such as how cute the clerk was?

As the check-out line example illustrates, your decision about what is “best” for you depends on many factors, some of which might be quite personal. Yet somehow, store managers need to decide how many clerks are needed at each time and how to allocate their effort between check-out lines and their other possible responsibilities such as stocking shelves. Managers who are better able to meet the needs of customers, so they don’t get disgusted with long lines and decide not to return to that store, while restraining the costs of operation, will likely be rewarded. There is an entire field, heavily mathematical, that has been developed to better manage this situation. The jargon term is “queuing models” after the more typically British term for a waiting line. There is even a formal mathematical way of thinking about “bad luck” in this situation, e.g. choosing a line that results in a much longer time to be checked out than a different line would have.

While knowing that the math exists to help decide on optimal allocation of employee effort in a store will not help you in your decision, the approach of considering options, deciding upon your criteria and taking data (e.g. observations of the length of each line) to guide your decision is one that might serve you well independent of your career. This is one reason why many “self-help” methods involve making lists. Such lists assist you in deciding what factors (in math we call these variables) matter to you, how to weight the importance of each factor (we call these parameters in modeling) and what your objective might be (costs and benefits in an economic sense). This process of rational consideration of alternative options may assist you in many aspects of everyday life, including not just minor decisions of what check-out line to go into, but major ones such as what kind of car or home to purchase, what field to major in and even who to marry! While I can’t claim to have followed a formal mathematical approach in deciding on the latter, I have found it helpful throughout my marriage to use an informal approach to decision making. I encourage you to do so as well.

Check out Chapter 1 of Mathematics for the Life Sciences here.

Q&A with Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve

Princeton University Press recently had the opportunity to talk with Ian Morris about his new book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve.

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels

In your book you look at the evolution of human values over tens of thousands of years. Can you briefly say why and how values change? Isn’t morality universal and unchanging?

The answer to the last part of this question is easy: yes and no. I say yes because in one sense, morality certainly is universal and unchanging. Our human values are the outcome of millions of years of evolution. Animals that were born with genes that predisposed them to value fairness, love, honor, decency, and a host of related virtues tended to flourish, while animals that did not value fairness, etc., tended not to flourish. As a result, a disposition toward these prosocial attitudes spread through the gene pool, and almost all humans share these same core values. The reason I also say no, though, is because the ways people have interpreted fairness, etc., have varied wildly through time. Few historians dispute this; but fewer still have seen that what causes values to change is not the deep thoughts of philosophers but the most basic force of all–energy. As humanity has moved from foraging through farming to fossil-fuel use, we have found that different levels of energy capture call for different kinds of social organization, and that these different kinds of organization favor very different interpretations of human values. To foragers, fairness often means that everyone should receive equal shares of food, respect, and other good things, but to people in farming society, fairness often means that people should receive very different shares, because they are felt to deserve different shares. Men deserve more than women, the rich deserve more than the poor, the free deserve more than the enslaved, and so on through too many categories to count. Foragers and farmers feel the ways they do not because the former are all saints and the latter all sinners, but because it would be almost impossible to run a foraging society like a feudal monarchy and almost impossible to run a farming society as a band of equals. Foragers who lean toward equality and farmers who lean toward hierarchy itend to outperform and replace foragers and farmers who do not. In our own age of fossil fuels, values have continued to mutate. We tend to believe that fairness means that everyone should receive somewhat equal–but not too equal–shares of food, respect, and other good things. Anthropologists who spend time in foraging or farming societies often feel as if they have stepped into alien worlds, where values are upside-down; and people from most periods in the past would have felt exactly the same way about us.

In our current Fossil Fuel age of values, you argue that violence and inequality have diminished greatly from past periods. That seems very counter-intuitive. Can you elaborate?

A lot of people today are nostalgic for a simpler, vanished, preindustrial world, and there are ways in which they are right to be so; but not if they value peace, prosperity, or (on the whole) equality. Across the last fifty years, social scientists have accumulated data that allow us to measure wealth, inequality, and rates of violence in the past. The results are surprising–so much so that they can seem, as you suggest, counterintuitive. Foraging societies tended to be quite equal in wealth, if only because almost everyone was desperately poor (by one calculation, the average income was the equivalent of about $1.10 per day). They also tended to be very violent (by many calculations, more than 10 percent of foragers died violently). Farming societies tended to be less violent than foraging societies (5 percent rates of violent death were probably not uncommon) and not quite so poor (average incomes above $2.00 per day were common); but they were also massively unequal, regularly having tiny elites that owned thousands of times more than the ordinary peasant Fossil fuel societies, by contrast, are the safest and richest the world has ever seen, and are also more equal than all but the simplest foraging groups. Globally, the average person earns $25 per day and stands a 0.7 percent chance of dying violently, and in some countries progressive taxation has pushed income inequality down close to levels not seen since the simplest foraging societies (even if it is now again on the rise). In every era before AD 1800, life expectancy at birth averaged less than 25 years; now it is 63 years. Despite all the things we might not like about our own age, it would have seemed like a magical kingdom to people in the past.

What are some of the ways our values might change as we move away from a reliance on fossil fuels?

No one knows what the future will bring, but there are plenty of signs that we are rapidly moving beyond fossil fuels. I argue in this book that changes in the amount of energy humans harvest from the world pushes them into new kinds of organizations which in turn favor different interpretations of core human values; if this is right, we might expect the 21st century to see the biggest and profoundest transformation in values in history. The industrial revolution released a flood of energy in the 19th and 20th centuries, which favored societies that evolved toward democracy, rule of law, peace, freedom, and gender equality; the big question is whether the 21st century will see these trends going even further, or whether it will see them going into reverse. The answer, I suggest, is that it all depends. There are signs that in the short term–roughly the next generation–we will see increasing inequality and increasing acceptance that such inequality is right, along with increasing instability and violence. In the medium term–the next two or three generations–we may see the values of the fossil-fuel age go into overdrive; but in the longer term–say the next century or so–the transformations may become so massive that it no longer makes much sense to speak of human values at all, because what it means to be a human being might change more in the next 100 years than it has done in the previous 100,000.

bookjacket Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels:
How Human Values Evolve

Updated edition
Ian Morris


Princeton University Press at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting

If you’re heading to the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Sacramento, CA August 10th-15th, come visit us at booth 303!

Louis Gross, co-author of Mathematics for the Life Sciences, will be speaking in the demo area of the exhibit hall at noon on Wednesday, August 13th. All are welcome to then join us at the booth that evening at 5:00 for wine, cheese, and a book signing!

The life sciences deal with a vast array of problems at different spatial, temporal, and organizational scales. The mathematics necessary to describe, model, and analyze these problems is similarly diverse, incorporating quantitative techniques that are rarely taught in standard undergraduate courses. This textbook provides an accessible introduction to these critical mathematical concepts, linking them to biological observation and theory while also presenting the computational tools needed to address problems not readily investigated using mathematics alone.

Follow us on Twitter @PrincetonUPress for updates on the meeting and new and forthcoming titles.

Also be sure to browse our biology catalog, which lists many books for sale at our booth:

See you in Sacramento!

Quick Questions for Günter P. Wagner, author of Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation

Wagner_Homology_au photo jpgGünter P. Wagner is the Alison Richard Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University and a pioneer of the field of evolutionary developmental biology. He is the editor of The Character Concept in Evolutionary Biology. Dr. Wagner received training in biochemical engineering, zoology, and mathematics from the University of Vienna, Austria, where he completed his Ph.D. in zoology.

He then spent six postdoctoral years at the Max Planck Institutes for Biophysical Chemistry (Goettingen, Germany) and for Developmental Biology (Tübingen, Germany) before assuming a full professorship in the Biology department at Yale University. His research focuses predominantly on the study of homology, or character identity, one of the most difficult concepts in evolutionary biology. His latest book, Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation (Princeton) provides a fresh and compelling definition of homology and how it arises in evolution.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?
Günter P. Wagner: I received my initial scientific training in chemistry, and I still love chemistry. It is a beautiful system of ideas and practices with wide applicability and utility. Part of its beauty lies in the fact that chemistry can explain a vast array of facts from the combinatorial richness of a quite limited set of basic elements. In contrast, in biology we are confronted with a vast diversity of life forms that defy a simple combinatorial explanation. Biology has to deal with radically different kinds of things, from viruses to blue whales, where one cannot escape the conclusion that radically new things have originated in evolution: humans with culture and language from non-human primates, animals from single-celled organisms, and ultimately life from non-life. Understanding how these novel forms of existence can originate became my obsession in my professional life. This book is my answer – though a partial and limited one – to this question.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
Homology, the notion that different organisms can be composed of corresponding building blocks, is one of the fundamental scientific concepts that also induce a lot of frustration among those who truly want to understand them. Homology shares this dubious distinction with concepts like species, gene, time, and space, to name a few. The frustration has one main source: the fact that it is hard to pin down how two homologous parts can be the same in spite of differences in shape, function, and underlying developmental genetic mechanisms. In particular linking character identity with our mechanistic understanding of development proved difficult. I think the main contribution of this book is to show that it is possible to forge such a link. I say possible, since it is likely that much of what I say in the book might be wrong, but it never the less shows that such a mechanistic understanding of homology is possible if we ask the right questions and give answers that are constrained by large amounts of empirical knowledge already available.

What is your next project?
I am thinking of writing a textbook on “Comparative Developmental Anatomy of Vertebrates” together with three colleagues. The idea is to recast the vast knowledge of the structure, variation, and development of the vertebrate body in light of the recent progress in comparative developmental biology and also in light of the ideas developed in this book.

“Dealing with the intellectual challenges was the reward, not the obstacle, in this project.”

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be myself! In the sciences there is an enormous pressure to conform, which is in part necessary to make science the coherent communal effort that it is. But it also has the potential to kill creativity and thus the search for answers where there have not even been good questions before.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
Certainly the biggest challenge was to find a way to have the focus and the continuity of effort for writing the book, while at the same time running a lab, teaching courses, and responding to the needs of the University. It is not so much time, per se, that is hard to come by – but a predictable continuity of quality time for thinking and writing. Dealing with the intellectual challenges was the reward, not the obstacle, in this project.

Why did you write this book?
The topic of homology and innovation has fascinated me for many decades, but at one point I had to accept that the subject matter was way too complex to adequately be dealt with even in a very long article. The complexity of the subject results from the large amount of factual, relevant information and from the many facets it has from genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, and evolutionary biology, and even philosophical issues. There was no way I could deal with this in any other format than in a book.


Günter P. Wagner is the author of:

5-29 Wagner Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation by Günter P. Wagner
Hardcover | 2014 | $60.00 / £41.95 | ISBN: 9780691156460
496 pp. | 6 x 9 | 25 halftones. 105 line illus. 4 tables. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400851461 |Reviews Table of Contents Introduction[PDF]

Enrico Coen Shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

Enrico Coen – Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life
Shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

The Royal Society Winton Prize celebrates outstanding popular science books from around the world. The winner will be announced at an award ceremony at the Royal Society in London on November 25th.
For more information about this award and event, click here.

Cells to Civilizations Cells to Civilizations is the first unified account of how life transforms itself–from the production of bacteria to the emergence of complex civilizations. What are the connections between evolving microbes, an egg that develops into an infant, and a child who learns to walk and talk? Enrico Coen synthesizes the growth of living systems and creative processes, and he reveals that the four great life transformations–evolution, development, learning, and human culture–while typically understood separately, actually all revolve around shared core principles and manifest the same fundamental recipe. Coen blends provocative discussion, the latest scientific research, and colorful examples to demonstrate the links between these critical stages in the history of life.

Coen tells a story rich with genes, embryos, neurons, and fascinating discoveries. He examines the development of the zebra, the adaptations of seaweed, the cave paintings of Lascaux, and the formulations of Alan Turing. He explores how dogs make predictions, how weeds tell the time of day, and how our brains distinguish a Modigliani from a Rembrandt. Locating commonalities in important findings, Coen gives readers a deeper understanding of key transformations and provides a bold portrait for how science both frames and is framed by human culture.

A compelling investigation into the relationships between our biological past and cultural progress, Cells to Civilizations presents a remarkable story of living change.

Enrico Coen is a plant molecular geneticist based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, United Kingdom. He is the author of The Art of Genes, a fellow of the Royal Society, and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. His awards include the Linnean Gold Medal and the Royal Society Darwin Medal.

New Biology Catalog!

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Of particular interest is The Princeton Guide to Evolution, a forthcoming comprehensive, concise, and authoritative reference to the major subjects and key concepts in evolutionary biology, from genes to mass extinctions. Edited by a distinguished team of evolutionary biologists, with contributions from leading researchers, the guide contains some 100 clear, accurate, and up-to-date articles on the most important topics in seven major areas: phylogenetics and the history of life; selection and adaptation; evolutionary processes; genes, genomes, and phenotypes; speciation and macroevolution; evolution of behavior, society, and humans; and evolution and modern society.

For further reading, check out John Tyler Bonner’s Randomness in Evolution. In this concise, elegantly written book, he makes the bold and provocative claim that some biological diversity may be explained by something other than natural selection.

Also be sure to note Daphne J. Fairbairn’s Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom. While we joke that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, our gender differences can’t compare to those of other animals. Looking at some of the most amazing creatures on the planet, Odd Couples sheds astonishing light on what it means to be male or female in the animal kingdom.

We’ll also see you at the Society for the Study of Evolution’s annual meting June 21-25 in Snowbird, Utah at booth 14. Please join us Saturday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m. for a reception in celebration of the publication of Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom and our forthcoming The Princeton Guide to Evolution. Meet the authors and editors, and enjoy wine and cheese!