Books to read to become a palaeontologist

Despite (or because of) writing a long piece on ‘how to become a palaeontologist’, I still get loads of questions from people who want help and advice about getting into this field. While I encouraged people to read a lot, I didn’t get too specific since everyone has different backgrounds and areas they want to get into, and books (especially on dinosaurs) come out in a huge flurry and tend to date quickly. However, a recent query and some pondering led me to realise that actually there’s a core group of books I would recommend which is likely to be a useful starting point years or even decades from now (and indeed, many of the books are already decades old).

What may surprise people is that basically there’s no dinosaurs on the list and not really any palaeontology. This is because people who want to learn about palaeontology, whether just because they are interested, or because they have an active plan to becomes one, tend to get really obsessed with facts. Learning lists of formations and dates and faunal lists and how many teeth a species have are useful, but this use is limited. This stuff constantly changes and gets out of date and if you don’t know it or forget it, you can always look up the answer. What is infinitely more useful, is understanding – a knowledge of the principles at play and the fundamental basis of how organisms and systems work, and how we obtain and apply that knowledge.

In other words, reading dinosaurs books is a poor way to learn about palaeontology (in some ways, I’m obviously not suggesting someone who wants to work on dinosaurs shouldn’t read books on dinosaurs or learn about them). So with that in mind, here’s my list of ten books to read to get into palaeontology. I should stress that this is very far from exhaustive and it’s skewed to books in areas that I am interested in, and as a result there’s not a lot of geology in there. Still, at least ¾ of this list will be useful for anyone wanting to embark on a palaeontological career or just getting a better understanding of the field, or for that matter almost any are of biology.

These are presented in a rough order in which to read them where I think they would most benefit and build on each other, though equally that is far from important and it wouldn’t really be an issue to read them in a random order.

 

  1. Charles Darwin – Origin of Species

If I’m honest, it’s pretty tedious and repetitive as a book to read (the Victorian style of popular science writing doesn’t necessarily hold up too well 150 years later) but it can hardly be avoided. It’s so fundamental to the basis of modern evolutionary theory as well as being so important historically that even if it’s a slog to get through, any wannabe biologist of any stripe should read it.

  1. Richard Dawkins – Selfish Gene

A modern classic and important to understand the role and important of genetics in evolution. As such it’s an important successor to The Origin and is also something of a period piece for the state of biology and evolution when it was written.

  1. Carl Zimmer – Evolution

A few years old now, but an excellent introduction to modern evolutionary theory and its foundations and a very good place to start for anyone wanting to learn anything in depth about biology.

  1. Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

For me the best ever popular science book. This is a brilliant grounding in both the basics of science (geology, physics, chemistry and biology) as told through the history of those fields with input from a huge number of respected authorities in their fields. I reread it every year or so.

  1. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner – Freakonomics

Something of a wildcard this, it’s not without issues, but it’s a very entertaining read and it shows well that with careful thought you can make the most of almost any dataset to say something meaningful about a subject. With data at a real premium in palaeontology, a book on creative analysis (which is also a lot of fun) from limited informationis something rather useful.

  1. Ben Goldacre – Bad Science

All the examples might be medical, but this really is an exemplary book on how experiments should be set up and how things should be analysed. It’s a wonderfully easy read and while it’s not about statistics per se, it does really get to the root of preparing and planning your work and understanding what you can and cannot grasp from data, as well as how people mishandle and misinterpret results.

  1. Armand Marie Leroi – Mutants

An absolute favourite of mine and the book that got me to be interested in, and understand, development. A wonderfully written book and deeply engrossing and linking together human biology, development, genetics and history.

  1. Paul Colinvaux – Why Big, Fierce Animals are Rare

This book is slowly aging but as an introduction to population ecology it’s still excellent and provides an excellent foundation for understanding so much of the pressures that influence organisms.

  1. Matt Ridley – The Red Queen

A brilliant and perennially popular book on sex and sexual selection and its importance in shaping evolution, diversity anatomy and behaviours. A must read if you want to understand a selective driver than can be even more powerful than natural selection.

  1. Neil Shubin – Your Inner Fish

The closes this list probably comes to palaeontology, this book explores the world of EvoDevo and the increasingly important role palaeontology plays in other branches of biology to understand evolution and deep time. It also covers some major palaeontological discoveries and advancements in the field so is rather a 2 for 1 in that sense.

 

And an extra bonus number 11 that is actually (a bit) on dinosaurs

  1. Deborah Cadbury – The Dinosaur Hunters

Wonderfully written book on the story of the origins of palaeontology as a science and featuring Owen, Mantell, Buckland, Anning and plenty of others. This is pretty much a historical book, but having an appreciation for the origins of the field and science of the time is important and useful to know and this is a very compelling read.

7 Responses to “Books to read to become a palaeontologist”


  1. 1 jennifermacaire 14/04/2020 at 9:19 am

    I’ve no wish to become a paleontologist, but I’ve read some of these books and loved them (especially The Selfish Gene) – and I’m thrilled to get a list of More books like them to read! Thank you!!

  2. 3 Константин Рыбаков 14/04/2020 at 10:41 am

    Thank you for the list!

    Speaking of books dedicated to the history of dinosaurs research, what do you think about Edwin Colbert’s Men and Dinosaurs? Have you read it? Is it good?

    • 4 David Hone 14/04/2020 at 12:42 pm

      I read it years ago and can’t really remember it, so for me at least it clearly wasn’t very memorable. IIRC it was more or less a product of its time – interesting, but now really dated.

  3. 5 luisvrey 14/04/2020 at 10:44 am

    … can I add that I personally prefer the Blind Watchmaker to the Selfish Gene? Open the eyes of anyone and it’s more accessible.

    • 6 David Hone 14/04/2020 at 12:41 pm

      I think lots of people prefer his later ones, but TBH I’ve only read a couple and this remains something of a modern classic so was my pick, but arguably any of his evolution books (Unweaving the Rainbow, Climbing Mount Improbable etc.) would be fine.

  4. 7 jrabdale 26/04/2020 at 5:23 pm

    I think that “Dinosaurs” by Thomas Holtz has become the standard go-to book for any ordinary person who is beginning to get serious about the study of dinosaurs. Certainly there are more advanced university-grade books that are out there, but I think that Holtz’s book is a good starter. And basic “Intro to Physical Geology” and “Intro to Historical Geology” textbooks are essential to becoming a paleontologist.


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