In 2009, I published The Tangled Bank: An Introduction. I intended it as a textbook for non-majors, as well as a guide to evolution for people looking for a thorough but non-technical account of how life has gotten to be the way it is. The project proved to be far more work than I had reckoned, but I was happy with how it turned out, especially thanks to the talented artists and designers I had the privilege to work with. The reception has been gratifying; the Quarterly Review of Biology, for example, called it “spectacularly successful.” A number of courses have adopted The Tangled Bank both in the United States and abroad.
It’s hard to believe that four years have rushed by since the book came out. A lot has happened in the world of evolutionary biology during that time, some of which I’ve tried to document here and in my articles. And so, next month, I’ll be publishing the second edition of The Tangled Bank.
I’ve tried to improve on the first edition in several ways. For one thing, I’ve brought it up to date with recent research. In the past couple years, for example, scientists have sequenced genomes of species such as the gorilla and the coelacanth, and they’ve discovered important clues in those genomes about our own ancestry. Here at the Loom I reported on how microbiologists have observed what may be the evolution of a new species in their lab. In The Tangled Bank, I’ve delved deeper into this research, to show how evolution rewired the microbe’s DNA and produced an organism capable of living in a new way.
I’ve also applied some lessons that I learned while co-authoring my other textbook, for biology majors. The big challenge in explaining evolution is navigating between concepts and examples. Too much conceptual material leaves an explanation bloodless and abstract. Too many examples leave it scattershot. To find the right balance, I and my co-author, Doug Emlen, worked closely with leading experts on different aspects of evolution (John Thompson on coevolution, for example). I’ve tried to strike that balance in the new edition of The Tangled Bank as well.
The most obvious change to the book is a new chapter. I decided to include a chapter dedicated to human evolution, where I can give a focused account of our own species and look at some of the new research on human origins. But I have continued to integrate our own species into other chapters. The new edition, at 394 pages, is a bit longer than the first edition, but I’ve been careful not to let the book get bloated.
I’ve also crammed it with even more illustrations and photographs, because they help so much to drive home the wonderment of evolution. The new cover, by Carl Buell, is a portrait of Ambulocetus, an early walking whale. I write about Ambulocetus in the first chapter, which you can download for free.