I hate getting to the party late. This has been one of my favorite reading topics over the last ten years or so. By far the book I’ve learned the most from has been Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Magisterial isn’t too strong a word for it, in my opinion. That said, as a recommendation for a starting point, I have reservations. It’s brilliant, it’s fun, it’s extremely well written and humane, it’s compelling, but it’s dense – in the best possible sense. The sheer amount of information conveyed, and the range of topics addressed, make it the sort of book one has to devote weeks to (and I say that as someone who can typically polish off several hundred pages of non-specialist non-fiction prose a week). I’ve been through it three times over the course of the last several years and still find myself hankering to pick it up and work through it again. Perhaps the best thing about it is that it’s a strong corrective to Steven Jay Gould’s worst tendencies – his criticisms of Gould’s most egregious faults are nearly devastating, and I say that as someone who enjoys Gould’s writing and is at least somewhat sympathetic to Gould’s politics, even if I ultimately disagree with him. The problem with Gould is that he was such an engaging writer, with a real gift for communicating with the non-scientist, that his version of evolutionary theory has become the only one in currency with a lot of lay persons, despite widespread dissent from it in the world of evolutionary theory.
As a starting point, then, I’d second the recommendation of Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch, which does an excellent job of presenting the evidence being amassed today for evolution on a short time scale observable by humans. Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge does nearly as well for phenomena we know only through the fossil record, and is particularly useful in describing what we know about how subtle mutational changes to the genotype can result in signficant differences in phenotype within comparatively brief time spans. Both are well written and lively – good reads.
Having polished off those, or even in advance of them, Steve Jones’ Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated is also well worth reading, and has the advantage of presenting essentially the same arguments and ideas as in Darwin’s original work, in the same order and structure, in the context of the most current evidence and knowledge.
If you’re going to make an avocation of this, you really do need to read both Gould and Dawkins; I’d suggest either The Selfish Gene or Climbing Mount Improbable for Dawkins, or for a light, quick read with just the basics, Dawkins’ entry in the Science Masters series, River Out of Eden. For Gould, just grab whatever’s on the shelf at the library (assuming it’s not The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which is massive).
In the tried but true department, Ernst Mayr’s The Theory of Evolution seems to have been for many years the default in-depth layman’s introduction, though it’s somewhat dated by now.
Beyond that, it’s sort of a matter of where your interests lie. I’ve been very much taken with Matt Ridley’s books, including The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (my favorite), Genome, and his most recent, Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human. As much as I’ve enjoyed Jared Diamond’s books (and that’s a lot), Jonathan Marks’ What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee provides a useful corrective to some of the more speculative aspects of Diamond’s work and that of other scientists who’ve emphasized the similarity of humans to, rather than their differences from, other species. Ian Tattersall’s Becoming Human is also quite good. Obviously, I have a bias toward books on human evolution and evolutionary psychology; if your inclination is more toward the strictly biological, no doubt the bibliographies of the works above would suggest plenty of additional material.