Tangled Bank distinguishes itself amongst a heady group of recent publications as a masterpiece of science writing, publishing, instruction, and as a reference book. It has immediately become one of the books in my library that I most treasure.
2009 was a great year for students and supporters of science, especially those that study evolution given it's the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's 1st edition of The Origin Of Species: 150th Anniversary Edition
. The year was celebrated partly by several practicing scientists publishing excellent books about evolution directed towards the general reader, nearly all of which were complementary rather than redundant. Having read seven books covering evolution this year, and several that were published just prior to 2009, it's my position that Tangled Bank stands above the rest of the herd, in spite the others also being very worthy of consideration.
Not only is Tangled Bank a great book on evolution on your first read, but it is structured in a way that allows it be used as an extremely valuable reference source. At 9.75 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide, it's large enough to provide ample space on its pages which are filled with beautiful color illustrations, color photos, and other color graphics that greatly help reinforce the subject matter. The quality of the cover and the paper is also first rate so it should be able to sustain a long usable life.
While Tangled Bank is being described as a textbook, it's important to distinguish how Tangled Bank is different from the stereotypical textbook. Tangled Bank does not include quizzes, exercises, or tests; instead it can be identified as a textbook based on the structure of the subject material and framing, which is instructive rather than argumentative or a narrative like some of the other evolution books published recently. Each chapter of Tangled Bank ends with a "To Sum Up" page that presents a bullet point list to both help reinforce the objective of the chapter's instruction and help in future reference searches. While most textbooks of this quality can cost as much as $150, Amazon's current price of $40, or even the list price of $60 make this a true bargain given how many years I predict this book will be able to provide value, even as the rate of discoveries increases over time.
In addition Mr. Zimmer provides an excellent reference section categorized by both chapter and subject matter. Nearly all of Mr. Zimmer's references are either peer-reviewed articles generally accepted by the scientific community, or books popular with the scientific community that report on multiple peer-reviewed articles in a certain topical area germane to the chapter Zimmer covers. One reason Mr. Zimmer is an outstanding journalist is his intellectual honesty, where he is careful to report and distinguish between where science is confident in its explanations and where there is either controversy or a lack of confidence.
I would distinguish the closest competitor to what Mr. Zimmer does in Tangled Bank for the general reader to Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
(aka TGSOE) as follows. TGSOE is like a semester of seminars with a brilliant retired biologist with a wide command of the subject matter but also susceptible to frequent soliloquies that are often tangential, personal to the point it veers from what science understands or peer-accepts (where in the latter case Dawkins' is careful to note) and often illuminating but also sacrifices scientific findings for Dawkins personal reflections. Many of Dr. Dawkins' personal ruminations do serve to reinforce either the subject matter, scientific methodology, or are illuminative on how some research scientists think. However some of his reflections actually supplant what practicing scientists doing research are discovering with Dawkins' own non-fact based speculations, e.g., probability of life on other planets and how it could differ from life on earth.
Tangled Bank on the other hand is a more comprehensive self-guided tutorial of evolution. It's far more ambitious in terms of covering more topics within the relevant scientific disciplines and the format of instructional text coupled to far more graphics guarantees the reader will have a much better understanding of the theory of evolution than they would from books primarily focused on text alone (though Dawkins book does provide some nice color photos). I would argue that given Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True
provides a far more compelling and concise argument for the evidence of evolution than TGSOE; Tangled Bank makes TGSOE an unnecessary purchase.
While the Tangled Bank's subtitle states, "An Introduction to Evolution", it's my opinion that very few readers would not greatly benefit from owning and perusing this book even if their job is germane to some aspect of the life sciences and they've formally trained in the life sciences through the undergrad level or gone to med school. While it's true that Mr. Zimmer only introduces the topics he covers by chapter rather than drilling down into the 200-level or beyond on any of the topics, the theory of evolution covers a broad cross-section of scientific disciplines and Mr. Zimmer covers nearly all of them. So while someone whose studied developmental biology or cell biology might not learn much on those topics as they're covered here, I think they'd still benefit from Mr. Zimmer's excellent chapters covering radiations and extinctions, the evolution of behavior, or other topics tangential to their field of expertise or subjects studied years ago given Zimmer's ample reporting of recent findings. I've been studying evolution now for thirty-plus years and I either learned quite a bit about topics I'd previously covered, or was re-introduced to subjects with a plethora of additional findings since I last studied the topic.
This is truly a masterpiece of textbook publishing for the general reader.