Book Review: Spider Silk

Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating.  Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig.  2011. Yale University Press.

Spiders evoke a lot of complex feelings from humans.  In a survey of teenagers asked about their top fears, spiders ranked #2–right after terrorist attacks.  A quick comparison of “kill spiders” to kill insects” on Google trends shows that about twice as many people are looking for ways to kill spiders. So, I know when I recommend a book about spiders to you, some of you will run away screaming.

But! For those that are interested in evolution, and can tolerate a few extra legs, there is a great new book available!  Spider Silk has won several awards for science writing, and it’s easy to see why. This is a wonderful introduction to the history of spider evolution, and a great review and explanation of how evolution works.  Here’s an example:

“A beneficial variation does not arise alone as a one-in-a-million chance event; rather, it is the lone survivor from a pool made up of a million other chance variations. In other words, variations do not occur infrequently, they survive and perpetuate infrequently.”

That is an explanation of one of the classic misunderstandings of natural selection!  Mutations occur all the time; you are all mutants. It’s just rare that these code changes make a difference and/or persist beyond one generation.

That is where this book really shines for me as a scientist and an educator. It’s wonderful to learn about the fossil history of spiders, and all the different types of webs they make; but what I liked most about the book  is the very readable and clear explanation of how mutation, natural selection, and other evolutionary factors created that diversity.  This includes some of the more complex biochemistry of evolutionary change.  The point mutations of amino acids that build all the different proteins in spider webs are explained in very clear non-technical language. Diagrams illustrate just how the molecular structure of spider silk allows it to function as an extraordinarily strong bungee cord.

There also are delightful humorous and historical touches sprinkled through the book, such as the use of spider silk in WWI and WWII for bomb sights.  Along the way you’ll learn about the amazing diversity of webs and spiders, and how the basic spider body has changed from their aquatic ancestors.

Also there are photos (some in color!) all through the book helping the reader to visualize the different webs and how they are produced.  I finally was able to see examples of some spiders that I had only read about, such as this turret web spider.

I highly recommend this book to readers interested in evolution and biological diversity! It is available as an ebook, too.

Additional Resources:


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. Thanks for this Bug Girl! I love spiders and am buying this book – RIGHT NOW! In all caps – that’s how excited I am. As a little girl I used to find beetles and put them in the spider’s webs to help out. Then I started feeling sorry for the beetles and it all got very complicated and existential…

    1. YES! I relate to this completely. Same dilemma with antlions and those poor ants…

  2. I absolutely cringe when I have to kill off spiders. Everyone around me wants to scream and run around crazy-like. And I’m like “you’re a 150 lb waterfilled meat bag who’s at the top of the food chain. Who’s supposed to be scared of who?” Thank you for continuing to pass on the good word buggirl!

  3. I had to kill a gorgeous Black Widow spider today. I feel so bad about that. She was about 1 1/2″ across.

    My daughter spotted her in an area that would soon have had quite a few young people around. The spider was working on a recent catch–it looked like a big caterpillar, but I didn’t look too closely.
    I also squished her egg case nearby.

    Had I been able to relocate her I would have, but it just wasn’t possible in this place.

    Am I evil?

  4. This book sounds like just the thing for my genetics-loving daughter! I think I shall buy it for her birthday later this month.

    We always try to transport spiders outside the house (if they’re big enough to be a concern) without harming them. I’m so glad neither of my girls developed the “Eeek! Kill it!” reaction to spiders or other bugs.

    That was a fun and interesting panel. Matt’s fez was great! Thanks for showing us your awesome drawing skills. ;)

    So is that Rebecca hiding under the table?

    1. Most people use bugs as a catchall to include anything with lots of legs–including spiders.

      I think that search just supports my assertion!

      But really, Google trends are not actual data; there is no axis other than time. I tossed it in for fun, not as a testable claim.

  5. We run an alternative scheme at our house. Fortunately in western europe there are no dangerous spiders around, so we let a large contingent of them roam and kill the insects for us.

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