Ask Surly Amy: Evolution Books
Dear Surly Amy,
Earlier in the year I picked up a copy of The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins, and devoured it. What surprised me though is that my very religious father wanted to read the book just after me. But now, a good couple of months later, he’s still barely past the prologue. According to Dad, Dawkins uses too many complicated words. The bigger problem though is that he has religious satellite TV, newsletters and preachers giving him a package of neatly packed lies and misinformation in highly personable, very easy to understand language. To him, his ability to understand something easily speaks a lot to its truth. Is there anything I can give him that speaks to the details of evolution in very plain and easy to understand language? The challenge: for adults. I have found some things, but they all seem aimed at children or school students, which my almost 70 year old dad would find kind of insulting.
~The Next Stage of Human Evolution
Dear Next Stage of Human Evolution,
Yes, yes I can recommend a book.
In fact, I can recommend a whole pile of books!
I polled my friends on Facebook and on twitter and asked them what evolution book they would recommend and many wonderful people responded with oh-so-loved favorites. I imagine them all dog-eared, coffee stained, napped upon and adored – as a good book should be. I compiled all those favorites into one easy to browse list of books on evolution. This list is in no particular order and if anyone has any more books to add to this list, please mention them in the comments.
I am leaving out Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth because it was already mentioned and I am also sorta leaving out Darwin’s own On the Origin of Species because the goal is ease of understanding and most people don’t find it easiest to enter into a study of science with the source material. But I have to mention my favorite evolution book which is very, very close to the source and very beautiful. It’s basically the Origin of Species with drawings! Hey, sometimes lovely images can make the content easier to swallow. Although, I do acknowledge that it may not be the best introductory book.
I am linking to the book on Amazon because that site often allows you to browse the first few pages of a book. That way you can see if the writing style is what you had in mind. And I haven’t read all of these books so I can’t personally speak to the content of everything listed.
Books on Evolution
1. Charles Darwin on the Origin of Species – The Illustrated Edition (It really is a beautiful book.)
2. Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne (This was the number one most recommended books of the people I polled.)
3. The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (This one also had a LOT of recommendations.)
4. At the Water’s Edge by Carl Zimmer.
5. Almost Like A Whale by Steve Jones.
6. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (Also highly recommended.)
7. The Rough Guide to Evolution by Mark Pallen
8. The Tangled Bank by Carl Zimmer
9. Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton
10. Science On Trial by Douglas J. Futuyma
11. Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler
12. For the religious: Coming To Peace With Science by Darrel Falk.
13. Introducing Evolution: A Graphic Guide, by Dylan Evans & Howard Selina.
14. Evolution: What The Fossils Say And Why It Matters. by Donald Prothero
15. What Evolution Is by Ernest Mayr
Hope this was helpful and I hope you can find a book your dear-ol-dad will enjoy!
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You left out Gould! I loved “The Panda’s Thumb” and would recommend it, even if it is a little dated.
For people who need big fonts because words are hard, I would recommend the following:
While not specifically about evolution, David Quammen’s “Song of the Dodo” is a great book about island biogeography and how evolution and speciation happen on islands – punctuated by the great storytelling and adventures of the author. I really enjoy his writing – his compilations of short essays are good science reading too.
Thanks guys! Yeah, I knew I would miss some. This is how you guys show that you are the best commenters on the intertubes! ;)
I’d take the Ernst Mayr’s “What Evolution Is” off the list. I’m a science geek, and he was using too many words I didn’t know. I’ve been reading lots of evolution books looking for exactly the same thing your questioner was looking for, and I haven’t found the perfect one yet. Mayr wasn’t it, that’s for sure.
I need a book that’s
200 pages or under,
Illustrated in color,
Uses easy language,
A clear and concise explanation of the basic ideas of evolution and the evidence confirming it,
Not written for children, and
Not by anybody controversial.
I haven’t found it yet. I’ll check out some of the other books on your list in hopes of finding it.
The problem is, if someone is coming at evolution from a non-scientific viewpoint they may not understand some of the concepts in “adult” evolution books.
I think that a young-adult book that doesn’t talk down to the reader, like Loxton’s book and Bang!: How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino are a good start.
If someone is truly looking to understand the issues they should not take a basic book (especially a well written and illustrated one) as an insult. After all you wouldn’t expect to jump straight to reading Cervantes when first learning Spanish.
Got another one to add, actually.
Am I a Monkey? by Francisco J. Ayala
It is incredibly simple and short, while being straightforward and factual. I read it over lunch one day about a year ago.
Everyone seems to have hit evolution. One thing that might help tho, is a book on genetics. There’s one for kids by Charlotte Pomerantz called “Why You Look Like You” that I remember loving as a kid. Less help in this context, I guess.
So I will second the suggestion to go for the “Gould” and in fact I’d recommend “Wonderful Life.” Even if you don’t buy punctuated equilibrium — I am not sure where the state of the art is there — it’s a great way to introduce the reasons why evolution doesn’t have to have a preferred direction. I thought so anyhow. Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” is good too.
I found The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins) to be really good.
‘The Science of Evolution and The Myth of Creationism… Knowing What’s Real—and Why it Matters’ by Ardea Skybreak is a very approachable book that I found in the young adult section of my local library last summer. It not only lays out the case for evolution, but explains what is wrong with creationist theories. I don’t come from a science background, so it helped me build up toward more difficult books. I enjoyed Coyne’s ‘Why Evolution is True’ more, but Skybreak’s book really lays down the groundwork better if you are starting from scratch.
I’m currently reading The Evolutionary Word by Geerat J. Vermeij. It is very interesting because the author goes through some very basic principles related to evolution and opens them to the broader context of human society and shows how they can be used to understand what we a s humans experience. And it is also so interesting to understand how a paleontologist without the ability to see, observes!!
AGH!! It’s supposed to be “The Evolutionary World” not Word…. where’s that edit button when you need it?
I think all the suggestions have been great so far, but I’d like to say, don’t knock children’s books. I once heard that if you want to learn a subject that is completely new to you, you should start in the children’s section of your local library. A good kid’s book will give you an overview and introduce the main concepts and terms. If you’re still interested, you can then head to the adult books.
BTW, this is true for more than science. I’ve studied a few foreign languages, and they always start with what a native speaker would consider a baby book. Nobody feels embarrassed to be playing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ their first time at a piano, why feel bad about starting with a children’s book on evolution?
Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson is a pretty fun read.
it’s not exclusively about evolution, but Bill Bryson’s _A Short History of Nearly Everything_ explains a lot of scientific concepts, including evolution, from the POV of a non-scientist. basically, he got scientists to explain things until he understood.
it’s a thick book, but the individual topics aren’t too long. and it’s very funny.
Dawkins’ “Magic of Reality”? It’s written to the reading comprehension age of children (or possibly even religious fundamentalists ;-)), covers not just evolution but many other areas of science, many of which are misrepresented by religious myths and shows many of the different myths – including Biblical ones – that different cultures have invented to account for the natural world (I particularly like the Gilgamesh flood myth, the obvious origin of the Biblical flood myth – which I’m sure Dawkins chose because creationists pin so much on the latter), and last but not least because it is gorgeously and helpfully illustrated by Dave McKean.
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