Jerry’s choice: five evolution books

June 22, 2011 • 7:11 am

A while back, the Five Books section of The Browser, a popular book website, asked me to come up with a list of five books on evolution that I’d recommend to the general reader.  The guideline was not to choose the five best books for educating the nonscientist about my field, but simply five excellent books on evolution suitable for the layperson.

My choices were followed up by a long phone interview with editor Sophie Roell, which was then transcribed. Go here to see my five (actually six) selections, the reasons I chose each book, and my musings on each. Sophie was a great interviewer, and asked lots of good questions about evolution that were inspired by the books.

Remember that this is the transcript of a phone call, not a written essay. Given that, I think it turned out pretty well.

I chose a Darwin, a Dawkins, a Janet Browne, two Goulds (one book, one essay collection), and a Prothero.  It was really hard to narrow down the list to just five: I had to leave out classics that I thought might be too challenging for some readers, like George Williams’s Adaptation and Natural Selection, as well as books I really like but that many might not find interesting, like Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought.  If I had been given more choices, I’d add at least one more Dawkins (probably The Selfish Gene, but maybe The Ancestor’s Tale) and perhaps Mayr’s What Evolution Is.

I’m sure I’ve made some historical errors in the conversation, and I’m just as sure that readers will have their own and different choices. If you want to list your own five, or just one or two evolution books you’d recommend to our readership, by all means do so, giving your reasons.

109 thoughts on “Jerry’s choice: five evolution books

  1. One assumes it would have been gauche for you to have included WEIT on that list?

    Regardless, looks like I’ve got some readin’ to do….



    1. I wasn’t allowed to recommend my own book (and wouldn’t have anyway!), but they do blurb it at the upper right.

  2. I like the Prothero book and some of his stuff on the fossil record is great. I wish he’d just left it at that actually as some of his attacks on creationism are a bit frustrating. He’s largely attacking an older version of creationism. The modern stuff is still wrong, but it’s become more sophisticated. It’s easy for them to dismiss his points by saying he’s attacking strawmen. He should have just stuck to the evolutionary biology.

    1. I’m curious. Can you offer an example of an older, less-sophisticated example of creationism and its contrasting, newer, more-sophisticated example?

      The best I can think of, myself, would be the pre-Darwin eye v Behe’s flagellum, and that hardly seems significant at all.



      1. Well, in his discussion of the more geological side of things, he avoids mention of, for example, the RATE project. You need a fairly detailed appreciation of geochronology to be able to get to grips with this:

        On the fossily side, from memory, Prothero talks about crappy creationist attempts from the likes of Gish to argue against the horse fossil record. What he doesn’t mention are that increasingly YECs accept the horse transitional series (as can be relatively easily deduced from Talk Origins):

        It seems to me that if you’re going to bother dealing with creationists, you should be dealing with the best they have to offer. One such example is that by Phil Senter:

        1. Okay, those seem to fit the description of “updated” and “more sophisticated.”

          I’ll note that the radiometric dating one fails the sniff test, though. Their premise is that there’s been exactly as much radioactive decay as real geologists say there’s been, but that said decay happened over the past 6,000 years rather than the past 4,500,000,000 years. I think we all agree that radioactive decay releases energy. And, if we agree on the total amount of energy released but only disagree on the timeframe in which it happened…well, they’re asserting that the Earth’s interior and crust should be almost a million times hotter than it is….



      2. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, maybe? That one doesn’t seem to be used as much by “serious” creationists as it was 20 yrs ago.

        1. Sorry, I didn’t answer the second part of your question, about what more “sophisticated” arguments have been used by creationists in place of thermodynamics-laws-violations.

          In looking around a bit for possible replacements, though, I did find an interesting page on “Answers in Genesis” titled, “Arguments that should never be used“. It starts:

          …As a ministry, we want to honor God and represent Christ well when we defend His Word. This means using honest, intellectually sound arguments that are based in Scripture, logic, and scientific research. Because there are so many good arguments for a recent creation (which the Bible clearly teaches), we have no need to grasp at straws—arguments using questionable logic and tenuous or no evidence.

          1. Ack, I hit Post Comment too soon (again!). I shared the “Arguments to avoid” page just for the lulz. Yes, I’ve heard quantum woo waved around as a replacement, but it seems to be more trendy, not necessarily more sophisticated. Will keep looking.

    2. I was disappointed when I realized that the entire section on geology disproving a global flood, with the exception of a single paragraph, only debunks the YEC model. All of it is based on the idea that “this stuff can’t happen in 6000 years,” but that doesn’t help me when arguing with OEC’s. I’m sure geology does disprove a global flood, period, but Prothero’s book doesn’t go into it.

    1. You remind me of something I’d really love to see.

      I hope all y’all’re familiar with

      I want an expanded version that lets you put in the two species and then, for each branch, traces the lineage back to the common ancestor. Ideally with pictures.

      Dawkins has that wonderful thought experiment of a woman and a chimpanzee both holding their mother’s hands across time until the great-great…great-grandmothers are both holding one female’s hands; I want a Web site where I can create that experience for any pair of organisms.

      Oh — and I want a pony, too. Make it a pink unicorn pony while you’re at it, will you? (It’s okay if She’s invisible, though.)



      1. I and four of my chemistry graduate students were sitting around my dining room table a couple of weeks ago after dinner playing with the timetree app on a couple of iPhones. Most amusing however, was the look on the face of one of my student’s friends. After a while he noted, “You guys do know what total nerds you are, right?”

    2. Yes, The Ancestor’s Tale is my favourite overview of evolutionary history.

      Jerry’s recommendations look pretty good, though. I’ve only read two of them, and so I also have some reading to do.

    1. That was one of the books I considered recommending; Steve is a great writer and a good friend. I read that book for him in draft, and in response you bought me a case of very good viognier.

      1. He also has a very dry – and corny – sense of humour. He never tires of reeling out the old classic – time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana! In the UK the book was published as Almost Like a Whale, a reference familiar to anyone who has read the Origin.

        1. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized that Marx’s famous line wasn’t an example of an outrageous non-sequitur, but rather a pun on Drosphilia….


              1. Now you know how i feel…except multiply that by a few decades….

                And what’s a vwel here and there amongst friends?

                <sigh />


      2. Jones has been saying silly things about human evolution recently, which is a shame. Otherwise, he’s a very fine communicator of science. I really enjoyed Almost Like A Whale.

            1. Interesting. I went to that lecture. I got the impression he meant that we were removing natural selection from the equation. He has written about the Y chromosome so perhaps he was particularly thinking of older males. I imagine there is a webcast somewhere.

  3. Here’s a list of some of my favorites, including my final recommendation to Jerry. Since it seems not well known, I want to highlight Young’s The Discovery of Evolution as a must read. They are not in any particular order:

    1) Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker. My favorite Dawkins book. Better than Selfish Gene because TBW deals with bigger issues, for both the public and science (the nature and origin of adaptation), while SG deals with more technical issues. TBW is the source of many of my favorite Dawkinsisms, e.g., development as a recipe. (Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. W.W. Norton, New York. )

    2) Mayr: What Evolution Is. Uncle Ernst’s most popularly oriented book (and indeed popular: it’s still on the shelves at Barnes and Noble), and not a bad job. (Mayr, E. 2001. What Evolution Is. Basic Books, New York.)

    3) Maynard Smith: The Theory of Evolution. Out of date now, but what I used to recommend to non-science people who wanted to know about evolution.

    4) Young: The Discovery of Evolution. A really good history of evolutionary biology, which has the great advantage of including the evidence that convinced people, rather than simply stating what people became convinced of. I’m not entirely sure who the intended audience is for this book, but it would be very good for the interested layman. This might be my number one pick. (Young, D. 2007. The Discovery of Evolution. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.)

    5) Prothero: What the Fossils Say. A very well-illustrated book for a general audience. Perhaps the best book for convincing people that evolution has occurred. (Prothero, D. R. 2007. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Columbia University Press, New York.)

    6) Zimmer: Evolution. Perhaps tied a bit too closely to the PBS series. (Zimmer, C. 2001. Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. HarperCollins, New York.)

    7) Zimmer: At the Water’s Edge. Some of the same ground as Prothero. Zimmer is the more engaging writer, Prothero is newer and much better illustrated. (Zimmer, C. 1998. At the Water’s Edge: Macroevolution and the Transformation of Life. Free Press, New York.)

    8 ) Weiner: Beak of the Finch. Kind of like the Water’s Edge in Style, but more narrow. (Weiner, J. 1994. The Beak of the Finch. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.)

    9) Shubin: Your Inner Fish. Again, sort of like the previous two, but by a participant rather than journalist. (Shubin, N. 2008. Your Inner Fish. Pantheon Books, New York.)

    10) Darwin: The Origin of Species. I find it quite readable, and, as Mayr put it, “one long argument”. It’s rather persuasive.

    If I had to pick 5, it would probably be Dawkins, Young, Prothero, Mayr, Darwin. (WEIT was not one Jerry could recommend.)

    1. It’s nice to see a shout-out to Neil Shubin, Greg. Your Inner Fish might’ve made the cut on a list I compiled.

    2. My list would be:

      Ancestor’s Tale
      Selfish Gene
      Inner Fish
      Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

      (The first three are in a tie for best ever)

      WEIT and Ancestor’s Tale are far and way the top two books I would recommend to a newcomer. However, if you really want to understand evolutionary theory, even those two don’t hold a candle to The Selfish Gene. For a first evolution book, I think it risks turning people off with its robot metaphors, etc, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the most eloquent, direct, and easy to understand explanation of evolutionary theory that I’ve read.

      Contrast that with What Evolution Is, which I found to be confusing and boring. I remember Mayr saying something like evolution “is not” changing gene frequencies within a popultion, but I don’t remember grasping what he thought that evolution “is”. I’m sure I’m not doing him justice though… I also thought TGSOE fell far short of the standard set by WEIT and AT.

      1. At the Water’s Edge, Evolution (both by Zimmer) and Your Inner Fish are the best that I have read so far (though I have many more to go including WEIT, which I will be tackling soon!)

        Shubin is great in that he shows how evolution can be seen accross multiple disciplines (biology, anatomy, genetics, paleantology etc,) and he does an excellent job of tying them together. Plus, his account of the discovery of Tiktalik Rosea is a fascinating and insightful look into how these discoveries are made on the ground by hard-working scientists. Another highlight of these 3 books is that they do a very good job of cogently addressing all of the age-old creationist/ID claims (transitional fossils, evolution of the eye, bacterial flagella etc.) in terms that are really easy to understand.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” by Sean Carroll.

    A terrific introduction to evo-devo.

  5. For a tour through the history of life on earth, I highly recommend Richard Fortey’s Life An Unauthorised Biography. Carl Zimmer’s latest, The Tangled Bank is really good and has lovely illustrations.

    1. Steve, I’m a huge fan of Zimmer but haven’t gotten TB yet. It looks a bit daunting and text-booky. How does it compare to Zimmer’s other books? (if you have read them.)

  6. Great interview. Enjoyed reading it.

    “But I think his wife’s religiosity was the reason why there is nothing in The Origin about the evolution of humans. There’s only one sentence, which says something like ‘light will be shed on the origin of man.’ That’s it!”

    Actually there is one other example in the Origin. This point, where Darwin refers directly to humans, is repeated three times. One wonders if Darwin deliberately slipped this in, to see if it would fly under the radar. Or if it might instead have resulted from an unintended slip of his pen. My money is on the former; Darwin knew exactly what he was doing, although it was subtle.

    Page numbers are from the 1st edition of the Origin:

    “What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?” (p. 434)

    “The points of structure, in which the embryos of widely different animals of the same class resemble each other, often have no direct relation to their conditions of existence. We cannot, for instance, suppose that in the embryos of the vertebrata the peculiar loop-like course of the arteries near the branchial slits are related to similar conditions, -— in the young mammal which is nourished in the womb of its mother, in the egg of the bird which is hatched in a nest, and in the spawn of a frog under water. We have no more reason to believe in such a relation, than we have to believe that the same bones in the hand of a man, wing of a bat, and fin of a porpoise, are related to similar conditions of life.” (pp. 439-440)

    “The framework of bones being the same in the hand of a man, wing of a bat, fin of the porpoise, and leg of the horse, -— the same number of vertebræ forming the neck of the giraffe and of the elephant, -— and innumerable other such facts, at once explain themselves on the theory of descent with slow and slight successive modifications.” (p. 479)

    1. Good spot! By the way, if anyone should recommend Fisher (see 11 below) it should be you!

      Sorry, that was an obscure BBC shipping forecast joke…

  7. Shubin – Your Inner Fish

    Recommend this book to all those who have interest in learning more about evolution.

    The notion that we come from fish is typically enough to spark their interest/skepticism. It’s not the A to Z, but it’s a great start for novices.

    Plus, Shubin is just an outstanding & engaging writer. I hope he follows that with more. Maybe Jerry you can get him to guest post on your ‘non’ blog soon?


  8. An excellent selection. Like you, I would also have gone for ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ over ‘The Selfish Gene’ . On the Gould front, I’d have gone for ‘Bully For Brontosaurus’ (because it’s thicker, and it’s the first book of his that I read).

    ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin’ would definitely have been on my list – a great way to get inside the great man’s head, and see how his mind was working at the time. I also like Steve Jones’s ‘In the Blood’ and ‘The Language of the Genes’.

    1. Yes but would you suggest them to someone who had not read a good deal about biology/evolution already to at least undergraduate level?

    2. Fisher did not write much for the general public, and some of his writing is obscure even to specialists. Fisher would skip over many intermediate steps in an argument to get to the conclusion. To be sure, he did this because he was brilliant and could easily see all the steps himself, but this makes it tough on us less brilliant readers.

  9. My Kobo E reader has ‘Origin” as well as 100 other free books. Origin is not the annotated version but it comes with a dictionary. I’ll attempt it this long summer.

  10. Timewalkers by Clive Gamble (who specializes in the archaeology of human origins.) It discusses human evolution in the context of our colonization of the globe, including of course now-extinct species of human, and explores various hypotheses about how these various species of human came to exist. It’s written for a general audience and for archaeologists, so does not assume too much knowledge about evolution but nevertheless discusses some fairly advanced concepts like exaptation in an accessible way. It’s been a while since I read it, so I couldn’t tell you what percentage of it is more concerned with material culture rather than with the biology of human evolution. I’ve unfortunately lost my copy so cannot comment further but I recall it being very engagingly written and is not likely to be more difficult to understand than, say The Blind Watchmaker.

  11. It’s a very good list, in an even better interview.

    Question, though: Can’t one appreciate the significance of Darwin without reading his book, and still be considered well-educated? By analogy, many non-physicists can appreciate the significance of Einstein’s famous equation, without reading Einstein’s papers on general or special relativity.

    For people with only a casual interest in biology or evolution, isn’t it counter-productive to insist on their reading Darwin, when they can get a better education in evolution or biology from authors like Coyne, Dawkins or Shubin, presuming that dense Victorian rhetoric is not to their taste?

    1. The fact that Jerry’s students will not read it says something about the age but I would stress that it is not a difficult book to read. If you find it not to your taste – which is fair enough (I have never read Dickens for example) – try The Voyage of the Beagle. It is a natural history/travel book but it is very engaging.

      1. I recently finished The Voyage of the Beagle, and found it entertaining, sharp, charming and full of amazing detail about everything. He describes everything from meals, horsebreaking, fossils, vegetation, birds, hunting methods to people, languages and society with such curiosity and wit. I was quite amazed at how much I loved that book. I’m really looking forward to reading the Origin. English is not my first language, and I can read it with no great difficulty.
        (Oh and Dickens is the best storyteller in the world. Just go ahead and read 🙂 )

        1. You guys are really making me itch to make a trip to the bookstore. Thanks for the input. I have a tough time with old english and writing that is too academic (sciencey) so I have avoided Origin and VOTB for years. Maybe it’s time to go to the source.

    2. I had read Dawkins and Gould but not – I’m embarrassed to say – Origin. So when the double anniversary year 2009 rolled around, I figured that the time was ripe.

      Prior, I had the impression that Darwin was essentially an armchair philosopher (albeit a very good one) who simply drew all the right conclusions based on his famous Beagle voyage. But when you actually read Origin, you’re staggered by the volume of evidence that he brings to bear. His notes, his analyses, his experiments, his correspondence with leading experts – it’s all extraordinary. Darwin wasn’t just a theorist – he really was a working scientist whose allegiance was always to the evidence. And this, if I may presume, is something you fully appreciate by reading Origin as opposed to just knowing about it.

    3. You might try the audio book version of Darwin (read by Dawkins).
      I went for this option because I feared that I would not be able to get into it.
      It turns out to be very clear and accessible, not at all dense and stilted Victorian prose.

      1. To be fair, Richard could probably read the phone book and make it a worthwhile listening experience…for him, I’m sure reading the seminal work of his favorite author in the subject of his deepest passion and making it come alive was about as hard as fishing in a barrel…with dynamite….



        1. Coyne has a good voice, and a real passion for the book, as well. But Dawkins recording would be a very good second bet.

  12. A great list and I was pleased to learn that I’d read three. I’ve been meaning to read Prothero for a while and this just may be the prod to do that. And what an interview–great questions by someone interested in what you have to day and yeasty responses. I think it turned out very well.

    One of the things I like about Darwin’s book is the invitation it is to me to think and to participate in Darwin’s thinking. He was a splendid writer.

    I think one of the reasons I so like Gould is that he strikes me as a modern Victorian writer. I love the tangles, places he leads us, obscure connections he makes and also the arrogance when he reports that he is probably the only person to have read a reference in the original. I miss his writing and wish he were still around. I’ve not read The Mismeasure of Man and must, especially in light of a recent revisit of the data.

    I’ve a friend who is a historian of science (physics) and he once remarked that he awaits a biography on Einstein by a writer who writes as beautifully as Janet Browne. I didn’t want her books to end.

  13. I read The Major Transitions in Evolution by
    John Maynard Smith
    and Eörs Szathmáry several years back I remember it was very good. It starts with the origin of life and goes on to treat the major “revolutions” in the history of life. A less technical and more recent variation on this idea is Life Ascending by Nick Lane.
    Both books, I think, deserve to be better known.

    1. I went to a talk by Nick Lane a few weeks about the origin of life ago & he is a very good speaker too.

  14. RE: Prothero:

    “This book is more like a textbook than any of the others. But it’s written in a popular style and is easily accessible to the layperson.”

    I’d just like to point out that his textbooks are generally pretty accessible. When I was a new geology student casting about for a subfield, Sedimentary Geology by Prothero and Schwab convinced me that I wanted to study sedimentology.

    RE: tackling less sophisticated creationist arguments: I got a “if we’re descended from apes and monkeys, why are there still apes and monkeys” email from my reasonably intelligent father-in-law just the other day. The stupid hasn’t been abolished.

    1. That last post should have been from me, not some posg2-8cc6b52a22fca03cb35836f2c5d50979. Don’t know what’s happening with my system…

  15. If I had to recommend 1 book, it would be The Selfish Gene. All of Dawkins’ books are great for laymen, except for The Extended Phenotype, which I think might be a little too difficult.

    I’m assuming you guys have read these, but I’ll mention them just in case.

    Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

    Genome by Matt Ridley
    Red Queen by Matt Ridley

    1. RD says the Extended Phenotype is his best book. Perhaps because it is not a ‘popular’ book? Yet to read it… 🙁

      1. If you’re already very much involved in evolutionary theory, I would strongly suggest reading it. It is my favorite Dawkins book.

        1. Second! EP is a wonderful book, and if you are a non-biologist like me, it has the added benefit of making you “feel smart” while still being surprisingly easy to understand – it’s a typical Dawkins book in that regard. I think that SG and EP are great for a “somewhat serious amateur” and AT is great for a “newcomer”. I really don’t like Blind Watchmaker and Cllimbing Mount Improbable nearly as much.

          Since you brought up EP, I would revise my above list to include it and exclude either DDI or IF!

    2. As a layman, and even more so when “The Extended Phenotype” was published, I express the view that “The Extended Phenotype” is accessible to laymen. (I was however disappointed by the absence of The Selfish Plasmagene chapter.)

      My Dawkins’ recommendation would be either for The Extended Phenotype, or for The Ancestor’s Tale, a Gould essay collection, by Dawkins, with an unifying theme.

      For Gould I’d plump for Wonderful Life. The alternative would be one of the earlier essay collections, before he got self-indulgent – but which one?

      For a more techical book Verne Grant’s Plant Speciation. (I haven’t read Coyne and Orr.)

      Add The Beak of the Finch, for evolution in microcosm, and round off with a lighter work – Dougal Dixon’s After Man: A Zoology of the Future.

  16. OK – to do different, as we say in Norfolk, I will offer some different books – though many mentioned above I would agree with.
    1. Plan and Purpose in Nature (1996) by George C.Williams. This is about adaptation as he says – the problem that organisms are not perfectly fitted for the environment but are deficient as he puts it.
    2.The Eternal Frontier (2001) by Tim Flannery. This is a book about evolution and biology of North America from the Chixculub impact to the present.
    3. The Evolution Explosion (2001) by Stephen Palumbi. This book looks at how humans have accelerated evolution for example in poisoning insects we have selected for resistant strains, or the evolution of HIV. His examples show evolution is here and now and not in the past alone.
    4. How Brains Think (1996) by William Calvin. I know things move rapidly in this area but Calvin has some interesting ideas on a Darwinian process of how thoughts emerge. He has an extensive website.
    5. Extinction, Evolution and the End of Man (2002) by Michael Boulter. (Another palaeontologist). He discusses for example biodiversity and whether there is a pattern to extinction (see Raup’s Extinction) & what we are doing in that direction ourselves. As he says in chapter one’s title, “The past is not over”.

    I would add River Out of Eden by RD as it is elegant and concise in his way, The Hot Blooded Dinosaurs by Adrian Desmond as it was my first pop science book in 1977, and I am reading (among many other things) Life on Earth by David Attenborough as he writes very well, has beautiful photos. He would be read more if so many of his books were not big and lavishly illustrated (too big to read on the train).

    1. The Williams book, which is indeed excellent, was published in the USA as The Pony-fish’s Glow.

  17. I haven’t read Browne, but I quite enjoyed Irving Stone’s The Origin. I know, it’s fiction… but I think his portrait of Darwin is accurately drawn. Any one care to comment?

  18. FYI, I just picked up Prothero’s book on sale from Columbia University Press for $14.75; that’s for hardcover!

    1. Also, I *loved* the Pulitzer-Prize winning book by Johnathan Weiner “The Beak of the Finch” despite its too frequent (IMNSHO) refernces to god.

    1. Argh! Not resorting to ruddy Aquinas again? “No theologian worth his or her salt would see God as an “entity” as Philip Kitcher does.” ??? What a moron – if it takes a theologian to define and understand what a god might be, how the heckis any ordinary peasant supposed to? Thanks for the link – even though it has made my blood pressure rise.

  19. I think everyone should read my favorite Dawkins book, The Ancestor’s Tale. I’ve given it to two different people, who, while not godly folk, were indifferent to evolution. Both found it fascinating – and convincing. My favorite Darwin book is the earthworm book with the impossible to remember title, but I guess that doesn’t qualify, not really being about evolution. It’s short and highly entertaining, though. Anyone who chews tobacco and then breathes on worms to see if he can discern a sense of smell is OK with me.

    1. I gave AT in a family grab-bag at Christmas a few years ago and got a Francis Collins book back the following year. Very disapointing.

  20. Thank you for posting! That was a really good interview and more books for my shopping-list! Enjoyed reading this very much.

  21. Now I have more reading to do 🙂

    I liked the interview as well, good questions and interesting answers.

  22. ASnother plug for Shubin’s Inner Fish.

    It’s engaging and accessible while being very informative and convincing.

  23. As an interested layperson, these would be the 5 I would recommend.

    1. Neil Shubin – Your Inner Fish
    2. Jerry Coyne – Why Evolution Is True
    3. Sean Carroll – The Making Of The Fittest
    4. Richard Dawkins – The Ancestor’s Tale
    5. Ernst Mayr – What Evolution Is

    1. Seeing how many people have suggested What Evolution Is, I’m going to have to give it another chance. I really found it so boring that I couldn’t finish it the first time I tried.

    2. I enjoyed Sean Carrol’s The Making of the Fittest as well. He ventured a bit into the math behind variation without getting too technical. I wonder where one can find more detail though?

  24. I like the interview, and the book suggestions are quite informative. I have to admit to being unedumacated now, as I have not read Darwin yet, but will remedy that soon.

    I also like the emphasis on encouraging professional scientists(and anyone else for that matter) to read the popular books in order to understand clear writing styles, and how to make complex concepts understandable and entertaining to the reader. Clear writing for clear understanding is a good thing 🙂

  25. I really like Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. He expands the idea of natural selection and ties it to algorithms, artifacts, research and development, skyhooks and cranes, engineering, philosophy, and ideas. He is not afraid to use the word design when talking about the good designs found in nature, while fearlessly stripping naked the paradox of design to show why a creator in unnecessary.

  26. Excellent. Thank you for this list, Professor Coyne. I now have some new books to read on these wonderful warm Northern California nights (except for the Dawkins selection, which I’ve already read).

  27. I enjoyed reading the interview. Tops on my list is WEIT, which is how I came to learn about this site.

    And I ditto those who recommend Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish. Although a short read, the most impressive thing about it is how it demonstrates the predictive power of a successful theory. I had the pleasure of hearing Shubin speak in Menlo Park during a book signing event. If you have about 35 minutes you can view the talk on Youtube (in 2 parts) at and (please excuse my “missing link” reference)

    Speaking of Gould, I picked up Dinosaur in a Haystack in a used bookstore. Is it a good one, or one to miss?

    Prothero’s book was excellent if you’re sitting in the choir already. If you’re among the unconverted sitting in the pews you wont stay long enough to even hear, or see, the evidence. He kind of clobbers creationists early. I can’t imagine one enduring to the end of the book.

    Personally I enjoyed Climbing Mount Improbable, but haven’t read The Blind Watchmaker. But thanks to the recommendation I will.

    Speaking of Dawkins, has anyone watched his interview with Wendy Wright from the Concerned Women for America? It was illuminating to witness Wright’s depth of confusion about evolution, but it was also disappointing… Dawkins gave up too much ground, I thought. Especially when he confessed (several times) that an ethics based on evolutionary theory would lead to a terrible state of affairs. But ethics DOES have a basis in evolution! And what greater impetus for ethical behavior is there than to recognize that all of life is related? We are not merely members of a small clan within one species… rather all living things belong to one giant family. Anyway, I think Dawkins dropped the ball on that one.

    1. I would surmise that Dawkins meant that “survival of the fittest” would not be a good model for a modern ethical society, and would agree with you that evolution informs us greatly on things like altruism, social behavior, and family.

      1. And yet it was Dawkins as much as anyone who clarified to me that survival of the fittest does not entail society red in tooth and claw.

        1. “Survival of the fittest” at the gene level explains just about everything. I believe this is Dawkins point of view, which he expressed so brilliantly in The Selfish Gene.

          Unfortunately, this same phrase has been misinterpreted by the ignorant, who attempt to apply it at the level of the individual organism — meaning human beings.

        2. Nor does it entail all sweetness and light. I think you need to reread him, or at least do a little web research.

          I have many times written (for example in the first chapter of A Devil’s Chaplain) that I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to the science of how life has actually evolved, but a passionate ANTI-Darwinian when it comes to the politics of how humans ought to behave. I have several times said that a society based on Darwinian principles would be a very unpleasant society in which to live. I have several times said, starting at the beginning of my very first book, The Selfish Gene, that we should learn to understand natural selection, so that we can oppose any tendency to apply it to human politics. Darwin himself said the same thing, in various different ways. So did his great friend and champion Thomas Henry Huxley.


          1. The quote you provide is essentially the same point Dawkins makes in the Wright interview. But his analysis is wrong, for the simple fact that we DO live in a world where ethical behavior has emerged, and it DOES seem to produce a lot of happiness and productivity where it is found. It is agreed that a society based on Darwinian principles would not be all sweetness and light, that is not what I meant to imply. But that society would be no worse than those in existence today; it must duly acknowledge that to exhibit altruism and empathy can be a successful survival strategy. And while nothing about natural selection can impose an ethical stance either way, it can impose a punishment if a lesser successful strategy is chosen. Therefore, I think that we CAN use knowledge about natural selection, or group selection, to choose a successful ethical model for ourselves. That’s how I think about it anyway.

            1. But that society would be no worse than those in existence today;

              Of course you haven’t one iota of evidence for this rather broad and somewhat outlandish claim, which undermines your entire argument. Clearly there are many, many forms a “Darwinian” society could take, in principle anyway, and to state that they would be “no worse” than our present reality is, no offense intended, quite ridiculous.

              You should read more Dawkins before attempting to summarize his position from a few stray comments in that Wendy Wright interview. At least read The Selfish Gene, for heaven’s sake.

              1. I agree, a society based on the principles of natural selection could take many forms. Perhaps I should have said that there’s no reason to think that ON AVERAGE a society based on Darwinian principles would be any worse than those in existence today. Dawkins has made it sound like the state of affairs would be, without a doubt, completely negative. Where is the evidence for that view?

                As evidence to support my revised statement I suppose that I would have to cut and paste the entire history of civilization as Exhibit A. Almost all successful societies settle upon a fairly similar basic moral framework: (murder and incest..bad, community..good). Our world IS a Darwinian world. And which societies IN OUR WORLD tend to flourish? Has it been those which value more a rugged individualism, as in a closed society governed by despots, or has it been those which have somehow learned to embrace freedom and cooperation? While you may be able to cite some counterexamples of successful dictatorships, I would point out that the cooperators tend to kick ass on the despots. (Nazi Germany comes to mind, Afghanistan).

                I have read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. I’m sorry that I do not automatically defer to Dawkins. He was after all talking about genes, not about societies, as he gently reminds the reader.

            2. You’re really talking about two different things, here–true natural selection vs. “applied” (by humans) principles derived from some types of observable natural selection that we could use to consciously derive an ethos.

              I don’t dispute that there are observations we can make about, say, how cooperation amongst social animals in some instances appears to increase the “fitness” of the overall community–but that’s not in any way strict biological selection. Probably the clearest area of demarcation would be medicine; it’s totally unnatural to intervene as we do–think of the “weeding out” nature would otherwise be accomplishing.

              Nor does selection occur in a vacuum–naturally we would co-evolve with the other species in our habitats. No species is automatically favored. Evolution is as much about chitrid fungus, Dutch Elm disease, and HIV as it is about us.

              It appears to me that you’re inflating a matter of philosphy with the science of Darwinian evolution. Dawkins’s comments, OTOH, refer to nothing but the science of evolution by natural selection as we know it. I’m sure most evolutionary biologists would agree that philosophically there are lessons to be learned from evolution that could inform how we choose to live our lives, but that’s quite a ways removed from living in a strictly Darwinian system.

              1. Well said, Diane G.

                I’m not sure even Deep Thought could compute an “average society” based upon Darwinian principles. How one would even pose the question mathematically?

                For that matter, what does the expression “no worse” even mean in this context? Maybe we should get Sam Harris in here. Dr. Harris… what is the worst of all possible societies? Can you give us a Letterman Top-Ten List?


              2. Ha! So true. (And if anyone could/would attempt such a list, my money would definitely be on Harris.)

                Thanks for the compliment; and I’m sure you realize my “inflating” was supposed to be “conflating.” (Grumble at proof-reading fail…%$#!*)

  28. Some good suggestions here.

    Timely for me, since I have just broken my wrist and will be sitting around not doing much for the next 6 weeks or so. Gives me an excellent opportunity to do a lot of reading.

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