A nod from Dawkins

September 28, 2012 • 8:00 am

At the risk of seeming a bit self-aggrandizing (which of course is true), I have to say I’m chuffed at a mention of WEIT on a Daily Beast post, “What Richard Dawkins reads: Jerry Coyne, Helena Cronin and more.” Like my previous interview at The Browser, where I recommended Dawkins and four other books, he selects WEIT as one of his five biology reads—the first one.  Indulge me if I quote what he says:

Why Evolution is True
By Jerry Coyne

The Origin of Species, Dawkins says, should be taken for granted as the must-read of evolution. Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, marshals the evidence in favor of the “fact” (not “theory”) of evolution. “His book is extremely clear, very well written, and lays out the evidence in a way that, well, if you read it, only an idiot could fail to end up believing in evolution,” Dawkins says.

The book is similar to The Greatest Show on Earth, and even came out the same year. Each author knew the other was working on a book about the evidence for evolution, but they avoided talking about it until they were finished. Was he surprised by any differences between the two? “I suppose it’s inevitable that there’d be similarities—the best evidence is the best evidence. But I learned some things from his book that I hadn’t put in mine, like the fascinating fact that the genes for having a good sense of smell, which are present in a dog, are in us as well. It’s just that they’ve been turned off. Which is a fascinating vestige of an evolutionary past when our ancestors would have had a much better sense of smell.”

It’s nice of Richard to say those things, and the logistical issue is true: we both knew we were working on books on the evidence for evolution, but didn’t discuss the issue for fear of duplicating our contents. I was also quite scared that my book would be completely overlooked because Richard is not only a bigger name, but a better writer. Fortunately, there’s sufficiently little overlap between the two that they can both be read with profit, and mine didn’t do too badly.

Richard’s other four recommended books, all of which I’ve read (and also recommend), are The Ant and the Peacock by Helena Cronin, Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Randolph Nesse and George C. Williams,  Splendid Isolation by George Gaylor Simpson (the evolutionary biogeography of animals in South America), and Narrow Roads of Gene Land, by W. D. Hamilton. Go over to the Beast and see what he says about them.

40 thoughts on “A nod from Dawkins

  1. Greatest Show On Earth is a personal favourite I recommend to everyone. I’m just reading WEIT now and, so far, look forward to doing the same 🙂

    (ebooks and phones, a fatally attractive combination)

  2. Good grief, you are an excellent writer. I can take Dawkins’ style in measured doses, while your direct, friendly, and informal style I read from the beginning to the end, learning much science in-between. 🙂

    A good writer is not eclipsed by another good writer.

  3. At the risk of sounding obsequious – WEIT is a better book that ‘Greatest Show…’. This doesn’t mean GSOE is bad, it’s just that I recommend WEIT as the go-to book for any non-scientist (and scientists in other fields) who want to know about the evidence for evolution. Clear, concise and a great writing style. I bought and read both books at around the same time shortly after they came out.

  4. In terms of presenting the evidence for evolution in a concise fashion, I think WEIT and Only A Theory are my two favourite books. I like Dawkins’ writing, but let’s be honest, if you want to sway anyone who may be sitting on the fence, you want to hit them with the facts in as few pages as possible.

      1. Ancestor’s Tale is complementary to WEIT. They go about their business in different ways, both good, both offering important perspectives on evolution.

        Question for JAC: Though not written as textbooks, I’d think both WEIT and A’s T would make excellent texts for university level courses in (say) “the elements of evolution.” Have they been adopted for that purpose anywhere?

        1. My life would be much different now had I read a book like that my freshman year of college (at a Christian university)! There are a lot of classes that watch debates on subjects like evolution or ID that last over an hour sometimes, when you can read Dr. Coyne’s book in a few hours. You’ll want to come back of course, but you can plow through WEIT pretty quick because it is so clear.

      2. I consider “The Ancestor’s Tale” to be the absolute crown jewel of any science popularization book that I have ever read. My only complaint is that there was not enough in it. He says he doesn’t like to repeat chapters from previous books, but I think that should have been broken for this one.

      3. I’m working through The Ancestor’s Tale and really enjoyed all of the examples in it. It also gives a lot of evidence, although it is more explanatory. Right now I was surprised at the examples that it gives for the biogeographic evidence for evolution.

        What I like most about WEIT is that Dr. Coyne explains so well not only what the evidence is, but in each case why it is testable and that it makes predictions. It is a good book for explaining science.

  5. Dr. C.: You are a wonderful writer! And, seriously, as much as I love Dawkins’ writing, I prefer WEIT to The Greatest Show On Earth.

    I think you show more of the actual evidence (Dr. Dawkins speaks of it in more general terms IMO) and I think yours marshals it in a tighter, more persuasive argument.

    Well done!

  6. I have both books and I enjoyed both of them and still refer to both of them in almost an equal way when trying to bring home the truth and fact of evolution. Yes, WEIT is more concise and an easier read, but Greatest Show is more elaborate and therefore more informative for a non-scientist such as myself.

    And almost everyday I still find something useful in Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

    No need to choose between them at all.

  7. JAC quote:-

    “I was also quite scared that my book would be completely overlooked because Richard is not only a bigger name, but a better writer. Fortunately, there’s sufficiently little overlap between the two that they can both be read with profit, and mine didn’t do too badly”


    I love both of you as writers. I think you are more direct & Dawkins is more ‘professorial’ with a tendency to go off at tangents & to wander deep into footnote land. I quite understand this impulse to digress because otherwise one is obliged to leave out some irresistible nuggets. I don’t know how much of your direct style in WEIT is your nature & how much is due to the firm grip of the editor.

    I enjoy Dawkins’ dry & sometimes acid humour. I think some of his work would have benefited from a tighter, more brutal edit ~ in terms of what material to leave out. I think some of his books should have been two or even three books!

    I wish both you, Dawkins & a few other rationalist writers would explore the Sam Harris model of pushing out an essay every six months or so. Example his 26-page PDF/Kindle Lying which is selling at a very reasonable £1.94 here in the UK.

    1. I also think these essays could be collected together every other year as a physical book if enough rationalists took up the format ~ not as focussed as John Brockman’s annual question collections though.

  8. I was amazed when I picked up Darwin’s Origin of the Species a while back at how readable he actually was. I had read Dawkins’s books (pretty much all of them) so it wasn’t new, but I realized how much he had relied on Darwin (inevitable I suppose). I had not read WEIT at the time. (hangs head in shame) I still haven’t, though it is on my kindle!

    I do remember Dawkins, in one of his books stating that Coyne had written the book on speciation, if I remember rightly, that cite was for your book “Speciation.”

  9. Well I’ve read one of Richard’s reads, (the disease one), two more are not available on Kindle, the last one, Geneland, is in three volumes, only the third of which is available on Kindle and they want $80 for it! So I don’t think I’ll be reading any of them dammit.

    1. ‘the disease one’? ‘Geneland’? Not sure which books you’re talking about, there. I can’t relate that to any of Richard Dawkins’ books with any confidence.

        1. Oh yeah. She did say ‘Richard’s reads’ not ‘Richard’s books’, now I look again. My mistake.

          My only excuse is that most of the previous posts were comparing Richard’s books with Jerry’s, so my mind was running along those lines.

          I hate when that happens. 🙁

  10. As much as I enjoy reading Dawkins for the style in which he presents his case, I actually preferred WEIT over GSOE. Much preferred The Ancestor’s Tale and The Blind Watchmaker.

    1. As I’ve been reading WEIT, I’ve been wondering where to go from there. I’ve read a number of popular works (e.g. Prothero 2006, Shubin 2008, Carroll 2006, Mayr 2001, Dawkins 1976, 1986, 2004, etc.) but I feel like I can only get so far and want to take the next step in understanding. What are some good intermediate level books? I have The Extended Phenotype and Making Sense Of Evolution on my “to read” pile, but I don’t know if either would be an appropriate next step, or if I need some intermediate before them. Help please!

      1. Yes, definitely The Extended Phenotype. You might also try “Adaptation and Natural Selection” by G.C. Williams. And if you’re really ambitious; try a good textbook, like “Evolution” by Doug Futuyma. It depends what your aims are: simply to learn more about evolution?

        1. Yes, it’s simply to learn more about evolution.

          I’ll definitely check out the Williams book, finally get round to reading The Extended Phenotype, and if I can hunt down the Futuyma book if I can get it at a reasonable price. Thanks for the recommendations.

  11. I have no preference; both were wonderful. I’ve posted at least once on this web site that when I am asked “what should I read to find out about this stuff?” my briefest recommendation list is:
    1) Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (how science works).
    2) Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True”
    3) Richard Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth” (two overviews of the convergent multiple lines of evidence for evolution).
    4) Donald Prothero’s “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters” (the fossil evidence).
    5) Sean B. Carroll’s “The Making of the Fittest” (the DNA evidence).

    Jonathan Weiner’s “The Beak of the Finch” is also amazing, and is my next recommendation. I also have a much longer list available 😉

    The other four books that Professor Dawkins mentioned have all just now made it on to my “to read” list. Thank you!

  12. The Cronin book is, well, a bit too Dawkinian I think, what with non adaptive structures being deep down adaptations too and the gene being the only unit of selection.

    I can see why Dawkins endorses it, but one would think he’d enjoy challenging himself a bit more.

  13. I can see that many reader commented similarly, but a bit of redundancy won’t be a harm there.

    I read both book and I think WEIT is better organized and cleaner. If somebody not familiar with the topic asked me to recommend just one book, I would certainly recommend WEIT.

    Actually I think that those books of Dawkins that were written with the explicit purpose of “evangelise” (sorry for the choice of word) are flawed compared to his best. The Selfish Gene and the Ancestor’s Tale are better written than either The Greatest Show or The God Delusion. Sometime I have the impression that there is some anger in the latter two that has a bad effect on the quality.

    They are still very good books in the perspective of the whole related literature, but they are lacking in the perspective of Dawkins’ own elsewhere better showed skills.

  14. I’d like to add my compliments to your writing JC. As coincidence would have it, I just finished reading WEIT THIS VERY DAY!

    Having already read Richard’s book I think I am able to fairly compare the two. I found WEIT clear, concise and to the point. A “pleasure to read prose”, as my English teacher once said.

    While I thoroughly enjoyed “Greatest Show”, I found Richard’s writing rather verbose. Often I found myself wishing he’d move on, having spent more than enough time explaining a single point. Of course, this may be that he was targeting a lesser informed audience, and he may have felt it necessary. Although, I have read his other books and his style is consistent.

    To the point. I loved WEIT. I’m keeping it handy if ever I find the need to slash and burn a creationist.

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