Suppose you are an intelligent, thoughtful person with a thirst for information, a desire to be challenged, and a tendency to not accept received knowledge at face value. You are embedded in a traditional Christian culture where most of your family, your child’s teachers and friends and those friends’ families, the people where you and your spouse work and most people in your social circles assume that Evolution is “only a theory” and should be taught, if at all, along side alternative theories such as that the earth is 6,000 years old and was created in seven days. But you don’t want that. You want your children to be educated using modern ideas, or at least, ideas that date to the mid to late nineteenth century and later, about how life works, where it comes from, and how it has changed over time both in terms of details (what was when and where) and process (how). But despite the fact that you are well educated and well read, you’ve not been exposed to that body of knowledge.
This will be a struggle, a fight even, against academic indolence, against strongly held opinions; An invasion across a sea separating two worlds … two world views. You might have to land on a beach somewhere. You hope, however, that this can be a surgical strike. You need to educate yourself on the basics of evolution. You need to find a way to talk your way out of confrontation should that happen. You need resources for your children. You may not realize it now, but you may also need training in Defense Against the Snark Arts, should you encounter paraprofessional creationists.
You need to arm yourself. With books.
Before we lay out what books you need, I just wanted to mention that most issues in evolutionary biology can be addressed in one of four ways, looking at one of four different aspects of how life, the universe, and everything works: The phylogenetic (fossils, family trees of species, what an organism brings to the table from its past); Ontogenetic (how an organism develops in its own life time and how adjustments to that developmental process determine outcomes); Mechanistic (how stuff works … how does an eye make an image in the brain, how does skin function as part of the immune system); and, of course, Ultimate (the adaptive aspects of life, natural selection and its creative products). That may seem like a bit of a digression but you’ll find that most books related to evolution can be described in these terms, at least in part. So, if you want to know what a “great book on evolution” would be, I’ll need to know if you’re thinking fossils or adaptations.
Here is what you will need, minimally.
- A book on the history of life and the big picture of evolution, for yourself, to hide under your mattress and read at night with a flashlight. That will be mainly but not entirely phylogenetic.
- Another book on evolution that takes a more ontogenetic and adaptive view of evolution, that you also hide under your bed.
- A book that simply has a lot of pictures of fossils and stuff and is also full of information … more pictures than words … so if you get caught by your child reading your evo-porn you can pull that out and look at the pretty pictures together.
- One or two children’s books that utilize or imply evolution, or at least, dinosaurs, to slyly drop into your children’s book collection.
- A book addressing the evolution-creationism debate from the perspective of a religious person, which you can refer to when formulating your arguments when your mother in law catches you reading your evo-porn.
- A book that is a horror story about what happens when anti-evolutionary sentiment turns into activism and everybody has to get lawyers. That will be especially important if your children go to public schools. Give a copy to the principal.
And, for the most part, you want most of this material to be about evolution and not so much about the debate about evolution, when it can be. Because your objective is really to learn about evolution, not have a big fight. But you will be armed in case it comes to that.
The Evolution Arsenal: The books you need to engage in evolutionary biology
Start with getting a grasp on the fossil record. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald Prothero (PROTH aro) is a very enjoyable read and covers the fossil record, outlines historical problems in evolution, discusses methods, and all of that. Don’s book also discusses the problems creationists have with the fossil record and evolution, and why they’ve got it wrong. But, this is not a book about the evolution-creationism debate. It is a book about evolution that addresses that debate to some degree.
Donald Prothero’s book has lots of pictures and stuff, but for the visual enrichment part of the equation, I’d recommend DK’s Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth. DK is always good for this sort of thing. Thousands of illustrations of fossils and reconstructions and all sorts of stuff. There are other books that have good illustrations and information such as Evolution of Life (with the foreword by Gould) but they are out of date and ultimately that will matter, because even though at the moment you may not really care if the particular version of bird evolution you are seeing in a book is what is being thought at the cutting edge, you are going to run into that or some other question and you’ll want to feel reasonably secure in the currency of your reference library.
For a more ontogenetic and adaptive perspective that relates evolution more to humans (and thus allows for a more personal touch) I recommend Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Vintage) by Neil Shubin. It’s an inexpensive paperback and as long as you read Chapter 1 last (seriously, trust me) you’ll love it, and will find numerous ways to relate evolution and the study of evolution to the things around you. Like fish. Or, say, if you go to the grand canyon or have a disease or something. The ways in which Prothero’s book and Shubin’s book overlap are more mutually supportive than redundant.
For children’s books, I’ll just throw out a few suggestions. This will depend so much on age and what you know a kid likes that a specific suggestion would likely miss the mark. Consider:
- Earthsteps: A Rock’s Journey through Time
- Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities (For Kids series)
- Earthsteps: A Rock’s Journey through Time
- The Little Giant Book of Dinosaurs (Little Giant Books)
OK, now that your child’s library is sorted, and you’ve read your two big-person books about evolution and pretty much get the idea, how do you deal with the evolution-creation thing when everyone is sitting around at Easter Dinner and six year old sally asks an embarrassing question, such as:
“Mommy, do you think the pterosaurs went extinct because of competition with early birds, or because of the KT meteor impact 65 million years ago?”
Ken Miller is one of the authors of one of the very small number of text books that are used in virtually every high school or first year college biology classes. Ken is probably the biggest name in the initial counter-attack on Intelligent Design Creationism, which proposed that various anatomical parts of organisms (like the flagellum of the protist) could not have evolved but must have been designed. Ken wrote an essay and made a video in which he did the unthinkable: He explained how they were evolved and could not have been designed. Whatever.
Ken Miller is also a Catholic and wrote a book called Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (P.S.). Now, you must understand that as an Atheist I can’t endorse this book and of course there is no “Darwin’s God.” But if you are the person I think you are, you will want a copy of it, and you’ll find it interesting. Get two copies so you can loan one to Uncle Frank or somebody.
There is enough religion in this book that I advise public high school teachers to NOT recommend this to students who come to them after class with questions about god vs. Darwin. It has enough science in it that I recommend that public high school teachers should feel comfortable recommending it to concerned parents who show up at conference. It all depends on how one interprets the Constitution of the United States of America, which may or may not apply to any given person reading this because you could be Canadian or something. Anyway, get Miller’s book.
And finally, the horror stories. There are two. One written by Barbara Forrest, who lost her government job for suggesting that we should make sure Evolution and not Creationism is taught in public schools (how she lost her job is an interesting story I won’t go into now). It’s called Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design and discusses the problem from a policy, law, and scientific point of view. And I would pair this with The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma V. Darwin in Small-town America by Lauri Lebo.
“Dover” refers to a very important Federal Court decision which is essentially the Roe v. Wade of the evolution-creationism struggle. The Dover decision is unassailable legally and asserts that Intelligent Design is creationism, and affirms that creationism is religion, and reminds us that there will be no teaching of religion in science class. Lebo was a reporter covering the trial as her creationist father was …. well, actually, it gets complicated. It is quite a story.
If you are who I think you are you won’t bother with these last two books because that is not what you are really looking for, and I understand and respect that. But I thought I’d mention them for completeness.
But you will find your own completeness. These are just suggestions.