A primer on evolution
Sometimes the ideas surrounding evolution can seem complicated and for regular non-science people maybe a little intimidating. There may also be confusion about what evolution actually means, what evolution being theory represents within science ( a lot of people think that a theory means it is not proven, it is just a theory, but in science a theory is an explanation for a natural phenomenon that is backed up by a large body of facts that have been confirmed through experiments and observations). A theory is about as sure as science can get about an idea.
Below are a list of my favourite and most engaging books about evolution. They would be a great addition for teachers to add to a biology or science class that touches on evolution.
1. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
If you want to know how the theory came about in the first place, you should go to the source. This is where we first find the theory we know as evolution. It may not be the easiest or most exciting read but it is where the idea started and takes you through Darwin’s thoughts and how he came up with the theory. Being the biology geek that I am it was pretty interesting to read Darwin’s actual words and ideas and how he put it all together. Having been to the Galapagos where a lot of his ideas came together it was really neat to read about his experiences there and how his observations of finch beaks was the first step in him coming to this amazing theory that explains the diversity of animal and plant life we see in our world today.
2. From Lucy to Language by Donald Johanson & Blake Edgar
This is a beautifully illustrated coffee table book about our own human evolution. It has amazing photos of all the major hominid and ancient ape fossil finds and goes into great detail about all the different hominid species that eventually led to modern humans. It also covers topics like language, culture and fire and how these played a role in our evolution. I have used this book a lot in my programs to show students the pictures as it is probably the most concise book, other than a textbook, on human evolution. If you ever want to impress your friends at your next party have this on the table and you can show off all your human evolution knowledge.
3. The Blind Watchmaker By Richard Dawkins
This list would not be complete with out at least one book by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is one of the most vocal proponents of evolution. He is an evolutionary biologist and ethologist and has written multiple books on the topic of evolution. The Blind Watchmaker is a good primer for those who are not scientists but want a book that explains why evolution makes sense over intelligent design. The watchmaker comes from the fact that intelligent design proponents say that just as a watch is too complex to not have a maker, so is the earth. Dawkins does a great job at dismantling this argument and explaining how natural selection (the process behind evolution) has no purpose in mind, but allows animals to survive that are most adapted to their environment, whatever those traits might be.
4. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan
A great book that focuses on the modern behaviours we see in our human selves and the evolutionary roots of these behaviours, from xenophobia ( see my post on the rise of Donald Trump for more info about that), to territoriality and ethnocentrism. Things have changed though since we lived in small hunter-gatherer bands where these behaviours were beneficial to our survival. Living in such an interconnected world we need to overcome these behaviours in order to work together to protect the earth we call home. The last third of their book covers our similarity to chimpanzees and bonobos and how we can learn from them.
5. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea By Daniele Dennett
This book looks at the implications evolution has for basically for everything else in our world and goes beyond the biological. Bennett discusses how evolution is the best and most reasonable explanation for the complexity we see in our world, and how even though we may want to reach for supernatural explanations about how we and all the animals and plants on the earth came to be, we can’t ignore that evolution explains it all, though in a manner that a lot of people are uncomfortable with. This is why evolution has always faced such a backlash from religious communities who feel it threatens their basic ideals.
6. The Third Chimpanzee By Jared Diamond
Most people know Jared Diamond from his books Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel. This is probably one of his lesser known books but just as interesting and well written as his others. In this book Diamond goes into how even though we share over 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos we are a vastly different species and have gone on a very different evolutionary trajectory. He goes into detail about our human behaviours and why we act they way we do, how we are similar to our ape ancestors and where we have diverged. This is a great book for anyone who is interested in our human sexuality, language and development of agriculture.
7. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
I told you there would probably be more than one book on here by Richard Dawkins. He really is one of the most eminent and passionate writers about evolution. The Selfish Gene looks at the gene and how our genes push us to act in certain ways to make sure we reproduce and create more genes. Given the title you would think that it means genes are going to think only about themselves but he goes into topics of altruism and how individuals make sacrifices for the good of the group. He takes the ideas of natural selection and evolution and brings it down to the level of the genes and turns a lot what we used to think about this field on its head. If you are interested in genetics then this is definitely a book you should check out.
Loved this post? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for updates and all the latest STEM education, primate and evolution news. You can also check out our program offerings and book your own Primate Tales program.