Thursday, January 29, 2009

The List: 10 Essential Books on Evolution


We are getting pretty close to Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, so what better way to celebrate than with some excellent ruminations on biology's most important principle? These books cover a myriad of angles, from straight overview to specialized species oriented approaches. It was exceedingly difficult to come up with ten of my favorite, so I only allowed one book per author. Stephen J. Gould and E.O. Wilson were a couple of authors just squeaked out of the top ten, but they will both show up in another evolution themed list that focuses more on the more technical aspects of evolution which will be coming up fairly soon.

10. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters - Donald Prothero

It always amazes me when people claim that there are no transitional fossils. Prothero catalogs the huge variety of fossils and the story told by studying them. Evolution is a very comprehensive look at and some compelling illustrations of concrete physical examples of transitional fossils. There is also a nice bit of interest overlap with Paleophiles and Dino-nuts.

9. The Plausibility of Life - Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart

Many creationists with little understanding of Evolutionary Biology think that Darwin's original works are where evolution began and ended. Of course, most of us familiar with the scientific method know that this is an extremely silly assumption. John Gerhart and Marc Kirschner expand Darwin's adaptations and show how chance has very little to do with evolution, showcasing the elegance and tenacity of life.

8. The Beak of the Finch - Jonathan Weiner


Jonathan Weiner's Pullitzer Prize winning examination of Peter and Rosemary Grant's fascinating study of Darwin's finches. The Beak of the Fince is a beautiful and mind boggling example of how fast evolution can occur.

7. The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans - G. J. Sawyer, Viktor Deak, Esteban Sarmiento, Richard Milner


An exhaustive look at our ancestors. Vivid and detailed illustrations highlight the adaptations of those who came before.

6. At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea - Carl Zimmer

This is one of my personal favorite evolutionary subject, land animals going back into the sea. The whale and hippo connection is one of the coolest things in science. Carl Zimmer has penned an infinitely readable biological classic.

5. Why Evolution is True - Jerry Coyne

Coyne's Why Evolution is True is one of the best overviews of Evolution and a great place to start for anyone interested.

4. Your Inner Fish - Neil Shubin

Equal parts funny and insightful, Neil Shubin shows us the early roots of the human body in a variety of life forms. Complexity may not be so irreducible after all.

3. The Third Chimpanzee - Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond presents what is possibly the best account of human evolution written. Compelling and easy to read, Diamond weaves a concise tale of how we became human.

2. The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins popularization of science is impossible to ignore. Few authors can create a scientific account as appealing as any novel. The Ancestor's Tale is a gateway of sorts to his other material, and is a good base coat before delving into the shiny finish of The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins paints a picture in a homage to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, following our path from animal to animal each telling a different part of the story. The length and breadth of information in this book can be a bit daunting, but Dawkins humor and ability to teach shine through every page.

1. On the Origin of the Species (Illustrated Edition) - Charles Darwin

What better way to learn about origins of life, than with the origins of evolutionary theory? I chose this specific edition for the myriad of illustrations and footnotes much like the "annotated guide" series of literary classics.

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