So you want to learn something about evolution

So you’ve read Origin of Species and you want to learn something about modern evolutionary biology (or you’ve decided to save the classic for later, but you still want to get the low-down on modern evolutionary studies). There is a cornucopia of new books on evolution, so which do you choose? Which one should you start with? Now I’m going to make some daring assumptions. First, I’m assuming you want the science behind the discipline from the horse’s mouth—real evolutionary biologists presenting their best case. As I’ve said before, we ask our neighbors to learn about LDS Faith from us, rather than the evangelical literature. We really should apply that broadly and learn our evolution from evolutionary biologists. It’s only fair you know.

Now, there are a number of ways to tack into learning a little something about the science. Evolutionary biology touches so many biological disciplines and as a result are many ways to approach the subject. For example, say you are mad about fossils. You love the petrified little wonders. Then Donald R. Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters is the book for you. This book explores evolution from the story that unfolds from the Earth itself. Nicely illustrated this book will walk you through why fossils provide so much evidence for evolution. The chapters are long and detailed and while the reading is not light, it is deeply informative. After, however, you will (amusing your are fairly rationally inclined) forever have to abandon any attempt to explain fossils as a bunch of smashed together previous creations on other earths, so if that idea is dear to you, best not read this book.

What about DNA? Suppose fossils are just not your cup of herbal tea and you find them just so many rocks, but CSI has got you curious about DNA and its powerful brand of evidence. Well, fear not, LDS scientist Dan Fairbanks book, Relics of Eden will have you following the case with skill and clarity. Molecular biology has busted the door wide open and a cashe of stunning evidence for evolution by natural selection. Dan writes like an angel.

But what if DNA stuff makes you yawn? What if what you really want to know is, “Why do I have tail bones?” and “Why do human embryos have gill slits and look so, well, fishy?” Then the book for you is Neil Subin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. He provides a wonderful look at evolution as expressed in our bodies with it’s leftover stuff from our fish days. This is a fun book. You’ll never look at your fins . . . I mean hands . . . the same way again.

Not in the mood for a long haul, but want to get at the facts quick? Then try the Oxford Short Introduction to Evolution by Brian and Deborah Charlesworth. It will have you up to speed in no time. The book is breathtakingly clear, informative, and its done in an economy of space. In addition, to Evolution there are Oxford Short Short Introductions to Human Evolution, Darwin, Life on Earth, and they are all also brilliantly clear and highly recommended.

A longer version of an introduction that gives a very complete view of evolution is Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. This is nicely illustrated and well written. Coyne is one of the world’s premiere evolutionists (and is someone I’ve argued with about obscure points of evolutionary process in the academic journal Evolution—but no hard feelings, his book is great). But he brings you up to speed in almost all aspects of evolutionary biology (be warned he has pictures of humans with tails and this always weirds me out (with apologies to those of you with tails (I’d just rather not see them))).

Intelligent Design got you confused? Has their whirlygig of misinformation got you scratching your aching head? A whole spate of new books will help you clear your noggin. Three by philosophers of science give a blistering critique of ID and will help you see why mainstream biologists are still staring like deer into a head lamp that anyone is taking this junk seriously. Phillip Kitcher’s book Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith is the shortest and most readable. It’s also the most well written. He demonstrates quite convincingly why ID is both bad science and bad Faith. Sarkar’s Doubting Darwin: Creation Designs on Evolution more carefully deconstructs the ID agenda by clearly showing what they are saying, why it’s not science, and how their arguments fail. These two are aimed at popular audiences and are written at the level of say a Scientific American article. The last of these three is a seriously philosophical tour de force that rigorously takes on the ID arguments. Philosopher Elliott Sober’s Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science carefully looks at how evolutionary arrangements are constructed, the evidence behind those arguments and the logic behind evolution’s claim to being a science. However, this is for the logically or mathematically trained and if things like Pr[W_i(P)|P]>Pr[W_i(P)|notP] don’t sound familiar then I would go to one of the other other two. However, this is possibly the best defense of evolution ever written. It formally and with great rigor dismantles the ID’s pseudo probability and mathematical arguments and places evolutionary arrangements on philosophical terra-firma. This is a hefty book weighing in at 400 pages, but for those who really want to get at the heart of evolution and remove any remaining sentiments that ID is even close to being a science, this is your best choice.

(Also a brief mention for those coming from Continental philosophy who would like explore the implications of evolution, Darwinism and Philosophy edited by Vittorio Hösle and Christian Illiesis is a wonderful edited volume on why Darwin matters philosophically and how Natural Selection may have something to say to you.)

Religion and Evolution? I can’t praise anyone higher than Kenneth Miller. A Catholic biologist, he has spent a lot of time developing a faithful view of Evolution and Religion. He will introduce you to evolution in his book: Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution but will unapologeticly show how faithful responses that do not involve overt creationism or ID are possible. In his new book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, like Kitcher, he shows how ID is bad faith and poisons both science and faithful responses to the reality of evolution. The nice thing about Miller is that he is coming to these insights as a person of faith (Kitcher is not) which brings an authenticity to views of uniting faith and evolution.

Evangelical Christian and Physicist Karl W. Giberson also writes a wonderful book, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Again he argues that a fully faithful belief in evolution is possible and in fact mandated in a world where its truth has become rationally undeniable.

For serious theological work on Darwin’s revolution and faith, Catholic theologian John Haught’s books Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution and God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution are unparalleled in both their perspective that evolution must be taken seriously by theology, and that God cannot be absented from human knowledge. These are for those at least marginally familiar with current trends in theology.

There are also a couple books worth looking into. Forty Days and Forty Nights and Monkey Girl follow the Dover Trial in great detail and show what’s at stake with the evangelical attempt to get ID taught in the school. If you are concerned about education and the future of science teaching in the US, read one of these. Both cover the facts. I like Monkey Girl a little more, but either one will do the job.

So there are my recommendations to get you started on understanding arguably the most important scientific theory of the modern area. Really. No other theory has added more to your life. Including advances in medicine and agriculture and just about anything that has to do with life.

In closing I offer this:

D&C 107: 7

7 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith;

And From D&C 88:

78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
 79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—

We live in an an age when we’ve never known more about life and its processes. Join the conversation and see what we’ve learned. It will not threaten your faith. As I’ve argued time and time again in this blog If evolution is true, its true and part of the gospel. It’s exciting stuff.

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13 Responses to So you want to learn something about evolution

  1. S.Faux says:

    “No other theory has added more to your life”

    Sometimes I hear the specious argument that evolutionary theory has no practical value. I wonder how cancer scientists react to that argument as they do their studies on rats.

  2. SteveP says:

    I agree! I think if people realized how deeply evolutionary biology touches their lives they would be shocked! Thanks for pointing that out example!

  3. Jared* says:

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve read some of the books on your list and agree that they are good. Others I hope to get to.

    I would also add any of Carl Zimmer’s books, but I’ll single out “Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea”. It’s just a great, easily readable all-around introduction.

    And if you want to dig into human evolution, Chris Stringer and Peter Anderews’ “The Complete World of Human Evolution” is a great book. I haven’t read it all the way through yet, but it is loaded with information and has lots of pictures.

  4. bfirwin says:

    As an interested non-scientist by career, I can vouch for Kenneth Miller’s two books. They are highly informative AND readable. I have yet to read Fairbanks “Relics of Eden,” and Haught’s “Deeper Than Darwin,” but they lie in the growing stacks of books at my bedside waiting to be read. Thanks for the recommendations, Steve!

  5. SteveP says:

    Thanks bfirwin, it’s good to get the the perspective on non-scientists on this.

    Jared, you’ve led me to so many good books I owe you a great debt of thanks, in fact, I think I first learned about “Your Inner Fish” from you.

  6. Cap says:

    I haven’t read any books specifically on evolution, what would you suggest to get started with?

    I will say ‘Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body’ sounded really interesting to me. I feel that where I know where my beliefs stand, and can defend them easily enough, but I would like more knowledge on the matter.

    Great post though, and I love your finishing quote: ‘…If evolution is true, its true and part of the gospel. It’s exciting stuff.’

  7. L says:

    Richard Dawkins – the blind watchmaker.

  8. Dave C. says:


    Thanks for the list of books.
    BTW, what is so sacrosanct about evolution theory that you don’t wish for people to learn about the theory from people who are not evolutionary biologists?
    We agree that people should learn about the gospel from those qualified to teach it because it requires an understanding of spiritual conversion that cannot be conveyed if one is not already converted.
    But evolution is just another scientific theory. It is a good theory – a theory that can be sufficiently taught, understood, and grasped by non-evolutionary biologists. Sure, the best person to teach it is an educated evolutionist (horses mouth sort of thing), but surely this does not mean that others are not qualified.
    Perhaps non-biologists who teach evolution bring strength to the science because they are more likely to point out potential weaknesses. A good dose of scientific skepticism and critical thinking are always welcome, no?

  9. SteveP says:


    I don’t mean to imply that scientists are the only ones who can write about science. There are a number of professional science reporters who are wonderful writers and explain complex ideas with breathtaking clarity. David Quammen and Mary Roach jump to mind. There is nothing wrong with that. I usually prefer Scientific American to Discover Magazine (I read both) just because the former is written by scientists and the latter by science writers. However, that said, I must admit that sometimes when I’m reading far afield from my discipline, like, say, galaxy formation in cosmology, a Discover article can cut through a lot of my confusion and clarify things I’ve never understood so both kinds of writing have their place. I’m skeptical that the Discover article will make real cosmologists rethink their discipline, but I won’t discount the possibility.

  10. David H Bailey says:

    This is a very nice summary of recent books on evolution. Thanks for writing and posting this. Hoepfully this will motivate a few people to read some of these.

    I pretty well agree with Steve’s assessment of the best books — Coyne’s latest book, Ken Miller’s two books, Prothero’s book and Fairbanks’ book are the best of the lot. Haught’s books are good in the philosophical-theological category.

    Two that Steve didn’t mention, but which I think merit at least a “second prize in a beauty contest; collect $10″ designation, are the following:

    Carl Zimmer, “Evolution: Triumph of an Idea”. This book was written to accompany the PBS series on evolution about five years ago. It has lots of very nice color plates, among other things, and is a good overall introduction to evolution and the evidence for it.

    Francisco Ayala: “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion”. This is a good summary of both technical and theological problems with intelligent design. Ayala is a former Dominican Priest, as well as a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He notes, half-tongue-in-cheek, whether God should be named one of the greatest abortionists, because 1/3 of all pregnancies end in miscarriage.

    Some other books I have read on various aspects of creationism and ID, which are useful but perhaps less compelling or readable than the ones mentioned above, include:

    Forrestt and Gross: “Creationism’s Trojan Horse”.

    Young and Edis: “Why Intelligent Design Fails”.

    Pennock, ed., “Intelligent Design and Its Critics”.

    Collins, “The Language of God”.

    Petto and Godfrey, “Scientists Confront Creationism”.

    Lauri Gebo, “The Devil in Dover”.

  11. David H Bailey says:

    PS. Clarification to the above post: What Ayala meant by quipping tongue-in-cheek that God is arguably a great abortionist is this: If one tries to argue, as some of the intelligent design and creationist writers do, that God has meticulously “designed” human bodies in considerable detail, then one is left with downright blasphemous conclusions: God is evidently somewhat inept as a designer, because there are significant design flaws in our bodies, ranging from the mutation that has inactivated our ability to produce Vitamin C to the fact that many pregnancies result in flawed fetuses. This is what Ayala meant by his title “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” — evolution, in effect, frees us from clinging to a contradictory and indeed blasphemous notion of a God who made mistakes.

  12. S.Faux says:

    Steve P:

    I just put together a post on science and religion that may interest you. A good chunk of it addresses the issue of Mormon’s being evolutionists.

    I have read most of the books listed above. This fall I will be teaching a university course on human evolution, which will be a mix of basic biology, physical anthropology, and natural history of the mind (evolutionary psychology). I appreciate the book suggestions from this blog.

    One book I do plan to use is by Boyd and Silk: “How Humans Evolved.”

  13. JLM says:

    These all look very interesting.

    While the ID movement can perhaps present itself very poorly and some of the ideas it advocates are not very well thought out, I think they do represent people trying to wrestle with short comings in the way that the theory of evolution is currently formulated and applied.

    Engineer and SF author James P. Hogan sets out in much more depth and clarity than I ever could some of these questions in his book Kicking the Sacred Cow.

    Hogan it should be noted is at best agnostic on God was a strict Darwinist and has severe issues with the creation as presented in Genesis.

    Hopefully some of these books directly address the incomplete portions of the Theory he points out

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