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:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Donald Prothero
    October 26, 2011

    Greg,
    Thanks for the plug of my book! I really appreciate your support, and I’m glad you rank it so highly!

    Don

  2. #2 Lynn Wilhelm
    October 26, 2011

    Thanks for the list Greg. It’s very helpful. I like your hints for teachers. Keep them coming, I’ll need them soon.

    I have to add Dawkins’ new book for children, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. It is excellent, I’ve been reading it to my 8 year old and we love it. It’s not all evolution, but has plenty of that in it. We are both enjoying it and then I’ll be passing it on to my mother who thought Dawkins’ Greatest Show was a bit dry.

    Another good children’s book is Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story, I think the author’s last name is Peters, but don’t want to look for the book tonight.

    Oh, and Coyne’s excellent book Why Evolution Is True as well as Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.

  3. #3 Doug Kennedy
    October 26, 2011

    Reminded of a curb-side conversation with a neighbor a few years back. I mentioned climate science and Antarctic core sampling…and this Christian neighbor remarked that “there is no such thing…it is all a conspiracy by the Liberal media.” I asked him what his sources were [as I was beyond amazed at his remark] and he said, “my Pastor told me all about it.” Well, did we get into it…and about an hour or so later, I left with my brain humming on overload: [it is very hard to stay on point with a moron who only believes what his "pastor" says.]

    *&^^ Help us!

  4. #4 Lyle
    October 26, 2011

    Go to the origin of the species directly. Recall that Darwin took a long time to publish it because he feared the reaction to the book and was fearful over his wife’s reaction. To see where Darwin got his ideas go to the Principals of Geology by Charles Lyell also.
    With this you will see the principal of uniformitarinism as the basis of the theory. Since the religious types need to believe that there is a god that intervenes in the world, otherwise why worship the god, you see that the world view involved is completely different. If god intervenes in the world, then obviously being omnipotent anything god wants to do is possible.
    The point is if you differ on your basic assumptions of the world, then you have only two monologues passing each other.
    This is why going back to the original sources is a good idea they had to deal with this in the Anglican church.

  5. #5 hoary puccoon
    October 27, 2011

    Lyle @ 4– “If you differ on your basic assumptions of the world, then you have only two monologues passing each other.”

    That’s all well and good, except that uniformitarianism isn’t simply an assumption.

    18th century geologists, notably Dr. James Hutton, started out with the assumption that the global flood described in the Bible was a real event, and went looking for evidence of it. Instead, Hutton found evidence of erosion, deposition, vulcanic activity– all the forces still active today. So Lyell’s principle of uniformitarianism (which owed a lot to Hutton’s pioneering work) was based on extensive, real evidence.

    Equating uniformitarianism as an assumption on a par with biblical literalism is essentially equating facing reality with *not* facing reality, as two equally useful ways of dealing with the world.

    A book for general readers that goes into this is, “The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth’s Antiquity,” by Jack Repcheck.

  6. #6 Jack Keyes
    October 27, 2011

    Another book you might consider: Relics of Eden by Daniel J. Fairbanks. It presents a most compelling set of arguments from a genetic perspective.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    October 27, 2011

    Lynn: Good suggestions. I almost included Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Peters and a couple of other kids books, but I wanted that to be a short list, but it is a good choice. I excluded Why Evol. is True and other books like it because I was avoiding the more explicit evo-creo debate books. Don Prothero’s book has just enough reference to cretaionism, but I would include Coyne’s in a list of evo-creo debate references, as well as Genie Scott’s Evolution vs. Creationism.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    October 27, 2011

    Lyle, I’m all for going to the original sources. Or, you could read my blog posts about them and get both. However, that was not the objective here. You can’t read The Origin and Descent and come away with an understanding of our modern view of the paleo record and evolutionary process.

    But if you do to go the original sources, I seriously recommend starting with the voyage of the beagle because it gives excellent context for the origin. See also this.

  9. #9 Calli Arcale
    October 27, 2011

    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.). . . . 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.

    I have half a mind to get a copy and donate it to my church library. Might be considered too controversial — the pastor is a firm proponent of science and has preached on the topic of how it is perfectly fine that the universe is 14 billion years old so stop making us look like idiots, but we’re stereotypical Scandinavian Lutherans, so the very *idea* of conflict gives us collective willies. On the other hand, that alone might allow it to stay. :-D (Certainly there’s a lot of crap in that library, since it’s built mainly from what various members didn’t want cluttering their basements anymore.)

    I will pick up a copy; it should be interesting reading.

  10. #10 Marina
    October 27, 2011

    Also, for those who would rather watch (and lend) DVDs on the subject, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute gives away fantastic DVDs for FREE. The one I’ve lent out most often is Ken Miller’s evolution lecture to a high school. You can find them at: http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/

  11. #11 Peter S. Saucier
    October 27, 2011

    Don’t forget “The Lucy Man.” Check it out. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/cap-saucier/lucy-man/

  12. #12 hoary puccoon
    October 27, 2011

    Donald Johanson *isn’t* a household name? (As Peter Saucier’s link says.)I can remember when I certainly thought he was.

    But we recently visited the Neanderthal exhibit in La-Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, and the museum guide assured us that Yves Coppens [the French co-leader of the Lucy expedition] wasn’t the sole discoverer of Lucy. “It was an international effort,” she assured us, “even though everyone thinks Dr. Coppens discovered her alone.” Poor Don J.’s name didn’t come into it. So, I guess if Johanson was a household name in 1980, those days are gone.

  13. #13 Chris McCarty
    October 27, 2011

    Just wanted to point out, as many are aware, that Dr. Forrest’s testimony was also very important in the Dover trial decision.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    October 27, 2011

    Very funny. I have a couple of Johanon stories but I can’t say them out loud.

    Chris, yes, that’s correct! (I stopped myself from including that in this post)

  15. #15 G.Shelley
    October 27, 2011

    Don Prothero’s book is excellent, one of my favourite evolution books, but Brian Switek’s “Written in Stone” is also pretty good and covers much of the same material, though often from a different angle

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    October 27, 2011

    Brian’s is OK but a bit derivitive. Don has had his hands on these fossils for decades and has personally rewritten the palaentology of several groups of extinct mammals, while Brian has read a lot of Stephen Gould and stuff. Not to put down Brian, his book is good, but Don is a vastly experienced practioner in the field and he truly brings that to his work.

  17. #17 Brian Switek
    October 27, 2011

    “Not to put down Brian…”

    But you totally did anyway. Thanks a lot, Greg.

  18. #18 Lynn
    October 27, 2011

    Brian, never respond to a bad review. Your publisher must have told you that!

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    October 27, 2011

    Brian [17] But you totally did anyway. Thanks a lot, Greg.

    Sorry, I guess I did, but I didn’t mean to. I like your book a lot, although I’ve only seen a borrowed copy of it. In this case, however, my objective was to chose the one definitive book on the fossil record and evolution with a certain degree of attention to the problem brought to the table by creationists, and Don’s book is the clear choice among many. I’m sure your book will turn up on a forthcoming list of topically defined books.

  20. #20 Mike from Ottawa
    October 28, 2011

    Excellent list. I have most of the adult books on it.

    I find the Shubin & Prothero books a great one-two punch and recommend any time there is the least opportunity to do so.

    I also found Jerry Coyne’s ‘Why Evolution Is True’ very good and it is a third book I suggest to folk interested in learning more about evolution. Coyne’s blog of the same name bears little resemblance to the book which is all about the positive case for evolution.

    I’d recommend Shubin to anyone, but if I were recommending a book for someone inclined to creationism because of their religion but still somewhat open-minded (and there are some), I think Coyne’s book would be less likely to provoke a negative reaction than Prothero’s. Prothero’s book does shine as a handy compendium of everything needed for a detailed destruction of any YECs and I’ve used it as such on several occasions. The material on the Grand Canyon alone is excellent for this.

    The best thing about the Shubin, Prothero and Coyne books, though, is that they are fascinating reads even if you come into them, as I did, convinced that evolution is true. Even if there was no evolution – creationism kafuffle, they’d be well worth reading.

  21. #21 rditmars
    October 28, 2011

    Speaking of Miller, you may also want to consider his “Only a Theory” which covers the evolution/ID debate without as much God stuff, or any of the irritating quantum flapdoodle of “Finding Darwin’s God”.

  22. #22 Tilman Baumann
    November 24, 2011

    I never believed a bit in creationism, but still for me Richard Dawkins Selfish Gene was the book to end them all.

    I can apply the systems used in this book to almost any question.

  23. #23 chosen
    January 11, 2012

    something has to be created before it can evolve. they go hand in hand, to argue one is more right that the other is completely moronic and absurd.

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