Book reccomendations on evolutionary biology wanted

The Selfish Gene is by Dawkins(, Richard). And I would rate it as inferior to Origin, myself. Darwin had the locus of selection right. Dawkins got it wrong. In my opinion. (Of course, one should really read both to determine such things for oneself!)

As for the “going to the original source is overrated” bit, I would very much disagree. That is, after all, why a bibliography is included with any scientific work. Without going to the source, it becomes difficult to evaluate what an author really said, or meant, and forces you to rely on the interpretations of another. One can find a gazillion out-of-context quotes from Origin, and unless one has read the work, one is unlikely to be able to determine whether what those quotes are purported to support is factually correct (and in many cases, it is not).

Darwin laid the foundation of modern evolutionary biology, even if many of the details have been revised and expanded since. Without an understanding of this foundation, the rest will remain confusing – as evidenced by the numerous questions and comments to be found in GQ and GD with respect to what people mistakenly believe evolution (and, specifically, natural selection) is all about.

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.

Add my vote for:

Beak of the Finch

And anything by Gould or Dawkins.

Fantastic suggestions, everyone. I’m bookmarking this! Thanks so much.