Field of Science

Books on evolution

Continuing on the theme of Darwin's 200th birth anniversary and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, we have some great forthcoming books on the topic.

1. Carl Zimmer's "The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution " (October 15) promises to be perhaps the most visually attractive introduction to evolution, lavishly studded with color photos and schematics. Zimmer has already written the excellent "Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea" which I will highly recommend.

2. Richard Dawkins's "The Greatest Show on Earth" (September 22) should divert some attention from his greater recent fame as an atheist. The whole atheism debate makes it easy to forget that Dawkins has been one of the best science writers of our time. His earlier books on evolution hardly need introduction and there is no doubt that his next book will also be filled with crystalline and poetic prose. Here's an excerpt that details the domestication of the dog from wolves and sheds some common misconceptions.

3. Among books already published, probably the single best book for understanding the core essentials of the topic is Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True". The chapter on sexual selection is especially laudable. Also add Sean Carroll's "Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species"

I have some thoughts on what I saw as interesting analogies between descriptors used to gauge sexual selection and molecular descriptors for biological activity, but more on this later.


  1. Try "Darwin's Ghost" by Steve Jones. It goes through the "Origin of Species" chapter by chapter (even with Darwin's headings at the beginning, updating what we know now compared with what Darwin knew back then. If you have the time, read "The Origin of Species" chapter by chapter along with it. Darwin wrote for people who knew a lot less than we know now. Darwin's style takes some getting used to, and Jones is a facile writer. But the power of Darwin's mind is stunning, and he wins every chaper hands down, even the one where he seems to espouse Lamarckism (no one back then had any understanding of heredity).


  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I will take a look at Jones's volume. I had painstakingly read The Origin of Species in college. Although the language takes some getting used to, the book is one of the best 'original' works comprehensible to the layman and as you say, the power of Darwin's mind is indeed stunning; it's remarkable how right he was about so many different things. Nonetheless I should take another look at the book since I will probably understand it better now.


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