Recommendation for a book on Evolution

Would anyone recommend for a book on the current theories of evolution? Something geared for the layperson as opposed to a book aimed at the scientist.


I’d recommend Richard Dawkins, “Climbing Mount Improbable” as a good, enjoyable read. Or “The Blind Watchmaker”, if you can find it. Dawkins is a talented, engaging writer. His books are highly readable by the layperson (such as me!), without “dumbing down” (in fact, he abhors “dumbing down”).

Being such a huge Dawkins fan, I have to add: avoid Stephen Jay Gould. Gould too is a marvelous writer, and much of his work is well worth reading, but Dawkins insists Gould got some (more “technical”) ideas about evolution wrong. Specifically, some of the conclusions he draws from the Burgess Shale about the Cambrian Explosion are incorrect according to Dawkins (Gould writes about this in “Wonderful Life”, among other works).

I’m sure others will chime in, but Dawkins deserves a look.


I’m going to second the recommendation for Dawkins he’s an excellent writer, and really knows his stuff. I’m reading The Devils Apprentice at the moment, which isn’t specifically about evolution but does contain several essays on that topic.

Well, I will chime in with a contrary position: read Gould (but don’t necessarily avoid Dawkins). I much prefer Gould’s writing style over Dawkins’, and I agree more with Gould’s conclusions than I do Dawkins’. Many of Gould’s popular books are compilations of his essays on natural history, as seen in Natural History. He talks a good deal, not just about evolution, but about the history of science, and about the people who do science.

Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is is also a good introductory book. It covers most of the essentials and is an easy read.

I would like to recommend Abusing Science: the case against creationism by Philip Kitcher. It contains a brief lucid account of the theory of evolution, as well as descriptions of what scientific theories are and how evolution explains natural phenomena in a way creationism cannot.

At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kauffman, in which he demonstrates how biogenesis is not the wildly improbable event we usually think it is. Not quite on topic, but worth reading.

This may be better suited to Cafe Society. I’ll move it on over for you.

IMHO mod

Thanks to all for your recommendations. This is exactly the response I was hoping for and come to expect from the SDMB.


Evolution, a Communist Lie by Col. Tubalcain Billy Snowbird, USAF (ret.) :stuck_out_tongue:
(As given in the “bibliography” of Science Made Stupid)

Thanks Lumpy but I think I’ll skip that one.


It’s a bit old (1989) but I enjoyed Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution by maitland Edey and Donald Johanson (the guy that discovered Lucy, the A. afarensis skeleton.

What I like about it is that it focuses a lot on the scientists (their backgrounds, stories, and experiments) that led to the theory of evolution and how it works.

Campbell’s Biology 5th Edition.

It’s a textbook, but it’s well written and goes fairly in depth. It doesn’t try to dance around or gloss over evolution, its evidence, or WHY something is considered evidence.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time is a fascinating read for laypeople.

“The Red Queen” by Matt Ridley is something I found enlightening and refreshing, even coming from a relatively evolutionarily educated background. It disabuses many of the traditional notion of evolution.

While many of the recommendations so far are excellent, few of them are what I’d call a good general layman’s introduction to evolution; most pick up one of the many aspects of evolutionary theory and run with it in some detail. The best short, accurate, and well-written introduction for someone starting from first principles that I know of is Richard Dawkin’s River Out of Eden. It’s part of Basic Books’ Science Masters series, and like the others in the series offers a brief (172 pp) introduction to a general topic in science, written by a leading figure in the field who’s also, in most cases, a very good writer. I recommend the whole series; there are a couple that aren’t quite up to the general standard, but they’re still good, and at less than 200 pages each, all are quick reads. The series also contains George C. Williams’ take on the adaptationist argument, The Pony Fish’s Glow: And Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature (hint: the bit about “plan and purpose” is intended ironically).

With that under your belt, the next book I’d recommend tackling is Steve Jones’ Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated. Jones, another leading British geneticist, follows the organizational structure of Darwin’s original The Origin of Species, using the knowledge and theories that have been developed during the last 150 years to make the Darwin’s arguments over again with contemporary evidence. Like Dawkins’ book, it’s very well written, and I think it’s quite useful to be exposed to the case for evolution as Darwin made it, and as he might make it himself were he alive today.

Having read those, you’ll be better versed in evolutionary theory than the vast majority of people out there. You’ll also be well equipped to pick from among (and more fully appreciate) the other delights on offer in this thread, such as the titles by Jonathan Weiner, Matt Ridley, and even other works by Dawkins – even Gould, though I tend to come down on the Dawkins/Daniel Dennett side of that debate.

Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch deals with specific observable evolutionary phenomena at work in the Galapagos Islands, as tracked by scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant. Time, Love, Memory is both a profile of geneticist Seymour Benzer and an exploration of what was learned about genetics from the study of fruit flies throughout the twentieth century.

Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea is excellent on the mechanisms by which major morphological changes can be induced by relatively small genetic shifts.

Matt Ridley might be my favorite writer on matters scientific these days: I highly recommend each of his books, especially The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature and The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, not to mention his more general works like Genome and especially Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human.

Weiner, Zimmer, and Ridley are primarily writers and journalists, though each has a grasp on the subtleties and complexities of the fields they’ve written about that puts many of the nominal scientists of the world to shame. Then there are the books by the scientists themselves, some of whom are quite gifted as writers themselves. Most of Dawkins’ books have already been mentioned, and are well worth your time. Any public library will have shelves groaning with Stephen J. Gould’s output; I haven’t yet made time to read his magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, but you should peruse at least some of his work – wrong or right, he was a fascinating thinker and an outstanding writer. You also can’t go wrong with anything by William Calvin, who’s primarily a neuroscientist but as written extensively about the evolutionary history of the human brain.

The big kahuna, for me, is philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Dennett’s speciality is theory of consciousness, but in this volume he ranges over the entire field of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology to explain why, in his opinion (which I’ve come to share), evolution is “the best idea anybody ever had”. Dennett writes extremely well, and there are many places in this book where I laughed out loud, but he is extremely painstaking and methodical in this book, and it is about as dense as any non-fiction book I’ve ever encountered (in the sense of imparting maximum information in minimum space). I’ve read it three times now, and even the third time it took me a couple of months of lunchtime and bedtime reading to get through the whole 600 pages or so. It remains one of my 10 “desert island” books.

I thought Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene was his “big one”, but I also understand some people have major critiques of it.

FWIW, I read it about 8 years ago, and I think I got a good understanding of evolution from it. I recall it being example after example after a while though and I skipped major chunks of it.

Another vote for Dawkins’ “The Blind Watchmaker”. I picked up this recommendation from a similar thread (on this board) for a “book for the layperson”. And it was right on the mark, and then some.

Until that book, I had only had the high school explanation of evolution and natural selection. So at best, it was kind of a “Cliff Notes” understanding. I kind of had the basics, but didn’t see how it all fit together. “The Blind Watchmaker” not only filled in all the gaps, but it really blew my mind as well. I’ve recommended it to numerous friends since.

I just finished “River Out of Eden”. I think “Watchmaker” should be read first, although it’s kind of a toss-up. I haven’t read “Selfish Gene”, but it’s next on the list.