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.