The Science of Evolution: Books

Where to Start?
The preceding pages have provided abundant resources to help us understand why contemporary evolutionary theory is so well supported. Hours of lectures (audio and video), stacks of essays, and shelves of books can be found in the first several sections of this website (see Table of Contents). 
One great place for Christians to start is with one or two of the 10 books listed in our page "Creation through Evolutionary Means: Books." There, Christian authors seek to both clear away some of the unnecessary objections that people of faith have raised against evolutionary theory and to introduce the evidence for evolution in a clear fashion.
Below are more resources that develop further much of that evidence.

Here the Fascinating Science of Evolution is Made (Relatively) Simple  

The first two books, by Carl Zimmer and Jerry Coyne, are the best non-technical, lay-friendly, broad-scoped, up-to-date books I've encountered. They are well-organized, easy to follow, and well written. They are a delight to read and make the science as accessible as it is fascinating. These first two books would be my top-choice recommendations for anyone who wanted to familiarize themselves with what evolutionary theory is all about. --DRV

Carl Zimmer
The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution (Greenwood Village, CO: Roberts and Company Publishers, 2009). Amazon
Carl Zimmer is one of the country's leading science writers. The New York Times Book Review calls Carl Zimmer "as fine a science essayist as we have." In his books, essays, and articles, Zimmer reports from the frontiers of biology, where scientists are expanding our understanding of life. He has won numerous awards from institutions, including the 2007 National Academies of Science Communication Award. He also lectures regularly at universities, medical schools, and museums.  A regular contributor to the New York Times and magazines like Scientific American and Discover, he is the author of numerous books. Biosketch  His blog: Loom
Product Description
The Tangled Bank is the first textbook about evolution intended for the general reader. Zimmer, an award-winning science writer, takes readers on a fascinating journey into the latest discoveries about evolution. In the Canadian Arctic, paleontologists unearth fossils documenting the move of our ancestors from sea to land. In the outback of Australia, a zoologist tracks some of the world's deadliest snakes to decipher the 100-million-year evolution of venom molecules. In Africa, geneticists are gathering DNA to probe the origin of our species. In clear, non-technical language, Zimmer explains the central concepts essential for understanding new advances in evolution, including natural selection, genetic drift, and sexual selection. He demonstrates how vital evolution is to all branches of modern biology--from the fight against deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria to the analysis of the human genome. Richly illustrated with over 300 illustrations and photographs, The Tangled Bank is essential reading for anyone who wants understand the history of life on Earth.  Table of Contents and Full-text of Chapter 1

The National Center for Science Education is pleased to offer a free preview of chapter 10, "Radiations and Extinctions," which addresses biodiversity. Zimmer writes, "In this chapter we'll examine how scientists study biodiversity, analyzing patterns over space and time and then creating hypotheses they can test. We'll explore how lineages of species grow, and then how they become extinct. We may, biologists fear, be in the early stages of a catastrophic bout of extinctions on a scale not seen for millions of years. By understanding the past of biodiversity, scientists can make some predictions about the future we are creating." 

The Tangled Bank is the best written and best illustrated introduction to evolution of the Darwin centennial decade, and also the most conversant with ongoing research. It is excellent for students, the general public, and even other biologists. E. O. Wilson, Pulitzer-prize winning author

Carl Zimmer’s excursion through the evolutionary epic is without equal.  His gift for the scientific narrative is on full display through The Tangled Bank, and he leads his readers onward with an energy and delight that never disappoints. This marvelous text is an extraordinary introduction to the depth and richness of evolutionary science. Kenneth Miller, Brown University, author of Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul and co-author of Miller & Levine’s Biology

Zimmer has produced a wonderfully thorough introduction to evolutionary biology. With his prose and color diagrams by leading artists produced specially for this volume, The Tangled Bank will be a powerful tool to introduce students to the explanatory power of evolution and the way that it integrates different fields of knowledge. I have no doubt that this important volume will find its way into diverse courses in the curriculum. Neil Shubin, University of Chicago, author of Your Inner Fish

More reviews

Listen to an interview about The Tangled Bank on Science & The City, the podcast of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Carl also wrote the book Evoution: The Triumph of an Idea (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001, 2006). Amazon  This book served as the companion to the PBS Series: Evolution (see on-line resources). 

Jerry A. Coyne

Why Evolution Is True (New York: Viking Adult,  2009). Amazon 

Coyne (PhD, Harvard) joined the University of Chicago faculty as a Professor of Ecology and Evolution in 1991. He was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007. The original problem raised by Darwin was the origin of species. This is also the main focus of Coyne's work, aiming at understanding the origin of species through the genetic patterns it produces.     Academic biosketch  Excerpt from the book

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. With great care, attention to the scientific evidence and a wonderfully accessible style, Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, presents an overwhelming case for evolution. Ranging from biogeography to geology, from anatomy to genetics, and from molecular biology to physiology, he demonstrates that evolutionary theory makes predictions that are consistently borne out by the data—basic requirements for a scientific theory to be valid. Additionally, although fully respectful of those who promote intelligent design and creationism, he uses the data at his disposal to demolish any thought that creationism is supported by the evidence while also explaining why those ideas fall outside the bounds of science. Coyne directly addresses the concept often advanced by religious fundamentalists that an acceptance of evolution must lead to immorality, concluding that evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go. Readers looking to understand the case for evolution and searching for a response to many of the most common creationist claims should find everything they need in this powerful book, which is clearer and more comprehensive than the many others on the subject. Illus. (Jan. 26) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Coyne (Ecology and Evolution/Univ. of Chicago) patiently explains that the "theory" of evolution is neither open to question, nor one of several alternative theories. Indeed, he writes, the accumulation of fossil finds, the use of molecular genetics to establish kinships and estimate the years since species shared a common ancestor, as well as the existence of intermediate forms (between reptiles and birds for example) are all neatly laid out. So, too, are the atavisms (like tails in humans) reminding us that we carry remnants of our past in our genes. Nor are species perfect, as presumably an Intelligent Designer would fashion them to be. Numerous examples - including the male urethra running through the prostate gland and the narrow female pelvis that enables bipedal walking but also inflicts great pain during the birth of our big-headed babies - demonstrate how nature compromises, configuring new features but making do with parts at hand.

Coyne discusses natural selection as the engine of evolution, but also mentions genetic drift, whereby random changes can occur in gene frequencies over time in a small, isolated population. Sex also drives evolution, as Coyne illustrates with many examples of male competition and female choice. The abundant evidence provided makes this an apt primer for high-school biology teachers. But there's more here than that. The closing chapters address what is the real issue for anti-evolutionists: the fear that subscribing to Darwin's ideas reduces humans to materialist beasts lacking "moral values." You can't derive meaning, purpose or ethics from evolution, Coyne responds, taking to task those extreme determinists who look for evolutionary adaptations in every bit of human behavior. The study of nature may be a spiritual experience, he acknowledges, citing scientists like Einstein who found it so, but evolution is neither moral nor immoral. It just is.

There are many superb books on evolution, but this one is superb in a new way -- it explains the latest evidence for evolution lucidly, thoroughly, and with devastating effectiveness. Steven Pinker

For anyone who wishes a clear, well-written explanation of evolution by one of the foremost scientists working on the subject, 'Why Evolution is True' should be your choice. E. O. Wilson

An engaging and accessible account of one of the most important ideas ever conceived by mankind. The book is a stunning achievement, written by one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists. Coyne has produced a classic. Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish (below)

Robert L. Dorit, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Smith College, offers a review of Coyne’s Why Evolution is True in The American Scientist entitled  "Truth and Consequences"

More by Coyne

"Sociobiology, Evolution, and Religion" (in reality, the lecture would have been better entitled, "Why the Case for Intelligent Design Fails"), given at the University of Chicago, Graham School of General Studies, May 22, 2007. Podcast Webpage    mp3 link
Note that Coyne, like Richard Dawkins (below), thinks science and religion are incompatible and criticizes scientific organizations that allow for religious accommodation. See, for example, his blog post "Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down" Chris Mooney, Discover magazine, takes issue: See the recent article "Atheists for Common Cause With the Religious On Evolution

Sean B Carroll

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution (New York: Norton, 2006). Amazon 

Sean Carroll (PhD, Tufts University) is Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics and an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at the University of Wisconsin. His research has centered on the genes that control animal body patterns and play major roles in the evolution of animal diversity. Major discoveries from his laboratory have been featured in TIME, US News & World Report, The New York Times, Discover, and Natural History.
More on Professor Carroll >>     HHMI Biosketch   Video interview with The New York Times
DNA is the genetic blueprint of all creatures — it contains the operating instructions for everyday life and for making the next generation. Very recently, an important new dimension of DNA has been revealed -- it contains a vast and detailed record of how species adapt and change. That is, DNA is a living chronicle of Evolution. We can now pinpoint the precise changes in DNA that have enabled the marvelous creatures that inhabit our planet to adapt to its many shifting and sometimes extreme environments, from the freezing waters of the Antarctic to the lush canopy of the rain forest. We finally understand not just how the fittest survive, but how they are made.

Video Lectures
This lecture was given at The Wisconsin Academy and overviews some of the hot topics from The Making of the Fittest: From Darwin to DNA: November 13, 2007 (using free Real Media software or for DVD purchase)
This lecture was delivered at Case Western Reserve University, September 11, 2008. YouTube

Washington Post Book Review: Anyone sitting down to write about evolution immediately faces a big problem: too much material. Evolution encompasses 4 billion years of history on a worldwide stage. Do you take the Russian novel approach and try to cover everything? Or do you write short stories and hope they cohere?

University of Wisconsin biologist Sean Carroll chooses the latter option in 'The Making of the Fittest.'..." He dwells on critical periods in life's long saga: the evolution of complex cells in ancient oceans, of the eye in a microscopically small worm, of color vision in Old World monkeys and African apes (most animals cannot distinguish between red and green), of light skin in humans. He spends time with each story; he wants his readers to appreciate the details of how evolution works. Yet he still conveys the grandeur of the broader enterprise.

Carroll makes good use of a common thread that ties his stories together. Individuals, species and entire groups of organisms may come and go, but the molecule known as DNA never dies. It lies coiled within cells, orchestrating the production of proteins and simultaneously acting as a repository for the stored-up experience of the ages. When a cell divides, DNA arranges for itself to be copied, but the copying process isn't perfect. In this way, DNA generates evolutionary experiments. Most of these experiments are failures. But some succeed, and the success stories have ensured the survival — indeed, the exuberant proliferation — of life on this planet.

Carroll focuses on DNA's role as archivist rather than engineer. By comparing DNA sequences across organisms, biologists can reconstruct the changes that DNA has undergone from one generation to the next or over millions of years. Carroll uses DNA forensics as an analogy. Just as a jury can match DNA taken from a crime scene to DNA from a suspect, scientists can compare strings of DNA to identify the origins of species and the relationships among organisms. This body of evidence 'clinches the case for biological evolution as the basis for life's diversity, beyond any reasonable doubt,' he writes.

Carroll is an adept and wide-ranging writer. His narrative hopscotches from the Antarctic Ocean to Yellowstone National Park to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia to the Costa Rican rain forest. Even when he tells a well-known story in evolutionary biology, such as the linking of sickle cell anemia to malaria, Carroll finds a new way to tell it. One chapter begins, 'It is rumored that the most common last words humans utter are, "Hey, hold my beer and watch this!"' Reading 'The Making of the Fittest' is like spending a few hours with an extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic dinner companion.

Carroll doesn't gloss over the details. For example, he relies on some elementary mathematics to explain the counterintuitive aspects of evolution, such as the rapid spread of advantageous mutations through populations. Readers have to learn some molecular biology — but, honestly, this is stuff we all studied in high school. How a bill becomes law is much more complicated than the basic functioning of DNA.

In a previous book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Carroll was content to stick largely with the science. Here he has a broader agenda. 'In the court of public opinion,' he points out, 'some 50 percent or more of the U.S. population still doubts or outright denies the reality of biological evolution.' One way to interpret these poll results is simply to note how adept people are at holding two contradictory ideas in their minds — in this case, the universality of evolution and the exceptionalism of humans. The occurrence of evolution is not seriously in doubt within the scientific community. As the comedian Lewis Black points out, 'We have the fossils. We win.'

But Carroll makes a compelling case that opposition to evolution can do real harm. He describes several historical episodes where disbelief of scientific facts led to widespread human suffering: when 19th-century physicians doubted that washing their hands could prevent 'childbed fever' among the women whose children they delivered; or when Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko refused to accept modern genetics, which contributed to the deaths by famine of millions in the Soviet Union and China.

Willful ignorance of evolution could have similar consequences, Carroll warns. It could slow the advance of biomedical understanding, condemning those with curable diseases to continued illness or death. It could also obscure the threat that human actions pose to our stewardship of Earth's resources. On that latter point, Carroll is particularly ardent. 'The future of nature at present looks terribly gloomy, much as the state of geopolitics looked to Churchill in 1935,' he writes. 'Then, as now, most of the West's leaders were in denial, guided by wishful thinking and blind optimism. ... The war on Nature has been waged with increasing intensity over the past fifty years, but few powerful allies have come to her aid.'

It's a depressing note on which to end a generally upbeat book. But maybe Carroll's despair is understandable. It must be very painful for someone who understands evolution as well as he does to watch its lessons being ignored." Reviewed by Steve Olson, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group).

Other Related Books by Sean Carroll

Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).  Amazon 

Remarkable Creatures tells the stories of the most dramatic expeditions and important discoveries in two centuries of natural history — from the epic journeys of pioneering naturalists to the breakthroughs making headlines today — and how they inspired and have expanded one of the greatest ideas of modern science: evolution. We will encounter many amazing creatures of the past and present — giant sloths, gaudy butterflies, dinosaurs, ape-men, and much more — but the most remarkable creatures in these stories are the men and women. They are, without exception, remarkable people who have experienced and accomplished extraordinary things. Leading biologist and award-winning author Sean B. Carroll chronicles the exploits of a group of explorers who walked where no one had walked, saw what no one had seen, and thought what no one else had thought. Their achievements sparked a revolution that changed, profoundly and forever, our perception of the living world and our place within it.

A Conversation with the Author about the Book here

Into the Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search for Evolution (Benjamin Cummings, 2008).

The book brings the science of evolution to biology students at any level, regardless of their college major or career path. Each of the nine stories in this brief reader chronicles the dramatic adventures of an influential zoologist, geologist, paleontologist, or geneticist on their path to some of the most important discoveries that have shaped our understanding of how life has evolved.  Amazon 

Other Related Resources

Mark Pallen

The Rough Guide to Evolution (London: Rough Guides, 2008).  Amazon

Pallen is Professor of Microbial Genomics, University of Birmingham, England. He catalogues his career like this: "I obtained my medical education from the University of Cambridge and the London Hospital Medical College. I completed my specialist training as a medical microbiologist at Bart’s Hospital in London. In the mid-1990s, while completing a PhD in molecular bacteriology at Imperial College, London, I led a team of students to victory in the national quiz show University Challenge. In 1999, I took up a chair in microbiology at Queen’s University Belfast before moving to my current position in Birmingham in 2001." Academic biosketch  Blog


Have you ever wondered what Charles Darwin would have had on his iPod? Or exactly how Cartman from South Park fits into the Theory of Evolution? The Rough Guide to Evolution delves into all of this and more, from the life and works of the eminent scientist to the impact of evolutionary thinking on modern times. Read about the evolutionary history of life on Earth, the stark evidence for evolution – including feathered dinosaurs – and how Darwin’s breakthrough is still denied by creationists, who have repeatedly tried to ban evolution from the classroom. Providing a complete and authoritative overview of one of the most controversial topics of our age, the guide is an accessible one-stop-shop for all things Darwinian, while listing resources for those keen to dig deeper into our murky beginnings. Find out exactly how Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species have affected human life in the 150 years since its publication – everything from Darwinian tourism to the evolution of The Simpsons – as well as some new angles that make The Rough Guide to Evolution a must-have for die-hard Darwin fans. Rediscover Darwin’s earth-shattering explanation for the diversity of life with The Rough Guide to Evolution.

Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, recommends Mark Pallen's The Rough Guide to Evolution (Rough Guides, 2009) as the place to start. She writes that Pallen "provides a concise summary of what you need to know: a brief history of the idea that all living things share common ancestry, a complete survey of the mechanisms of evolution and a solid summary of how life originated and then adapted through time to a changing planet. He livens up the story with literary, musical and cultural references so that you never feel you are being told to eat your vegetables." She added, "Alas, it is not only non-specialists who don't have a firm grasp of the strength of theory and data supporting the modern understanding of evolution — many scientists outside the field of evolutionary biology struggle too. This entertaining handbook will bring anyone up to date." Nature 2009;460:574-577.

Excerpt from the Book

Threading through Darwin’s voyage were the twin themes of adventure and discovery. Less than a year into his journey, Darwin was already comparing his escapades to the fantastical adventures of Baron Münchausen. To the modern reader, he is perhaps best envisaged as a geologizing Indiana Jones.

There was risk and privation. Afloat, the quarters were cramped, the seasickness unrelenting. On land and sea, Darwin faced storms. Three of his shipmates died of malaria; fellow crewman, Edward Helyer, drowned collecting specimens. Darwin himself was ill on several occasions, once seriously. The voyage brought Darwin face to face with war and rebellion. He saw Napoleon’s tomb on St Helena. He visited the Falkland Islands barely two months after their seizure by the British. In a feat of derring-do, Darwin escaped revolution in Buenos Aires. He helped suppress an uprising in Montevideo, but he was confined to ship during an insurrection in Lima. In the South American equivalent of the Wild West, Darwin witnessed the ruthless genocidal destruction of Native Americans. He met the Argentinean dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, and rode and camped with the gauchos (the Hispanic equivalent of cow boys). He recoiled from the sight of drunken men belching blood and was disgusted by the bloody massacre of bullocks in Buenos Aires.

Darwin felt the full fire and fury of nature. He watched an Andean volcano erupt; he felt the earth move beneath his feet. At Concepción in Chile, he was fascinated by the devastation wrought by the shuddering earth and terrifying tsunami... Afloat, beneath the southern stars, he watched the Beagle’s masthead and yardarm shine with St Elmo’s fire, the ship afloat on a ghostly luminous sea. He saw waterspouts and precipitous blue-iced glaciers... He gloried in the exuberance of the tropical forests, the magnificent desolation of Tierra del Fuego and the boundless plains of Patagonia: “no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body”. 

Open University and London's Natural History Museum
99% Ape: How Evolution Adds Up, edited by Jonathan Silvertown (London: Natural History Museum, 2008).   Available in the US in April 2009. Amazon 

Jonathan Silvertown is professor of ecology at the Open University, Milton Keynes, and is the author of Demons in Eden and An Orchard Invisible: The Natural History of Seeds. Academic webpage

Charles Darwin was mocked for suggesting that humans have apes for ancestors, but every scientific advance in the study of life in the last 150 years has confirmed the reality of evolution.

In 99% Ape: How evolution adds up leading experts explain this fundamental yet often complex subject and guide the general reader through the latest evidence. They explore our own origins and the genealogy of living things, as well as highlighting some of the key turning points in evolutionary history.

The aim of this book is to present the latest evidence for the general reader. You don't need any background in science to enjoy this book. After all, it is about something that everyone should know. We share about 99% of our DNA with chimps and this common ancestry has the deepest implications for how we see ourselves. The greatest question, How does evolution happen? was solved by Charles Darwin a century and a half ago. Even today Darwin's brilliant idea, natural selection, is the only mechanism we know of that can produce adaptation.

In this book of four parts, we begin with Origins. The fundamental similarities of all living things point to a single origin of today's life on Earth, which means we are kith and kin to crabs and cacti. The tree of life is no longer a metaphor, but a genealogy of all living things that even now is being built from clues to ancestry hidden in the genetic code of every living thing. Darwin guessed that the human species had evolved in Africa, and the fossil evidence now shows that he was right about that too. He also wrote that it was difficult to imagine how structures as complicated and sophisticated as eyes could have evolved by gradual steps through natural selection, but in Body Building we discover that it was easier then anyone imagined. Just as revelatory is the unfolding story, illustrated by recent fossil finds and the study of gene action in surviving species of ancient lineages, of how our fish ancestors first crawled out onto land. No less amazing are the fossils and genetic studies that chronicle how whales and dolphins evolved from terrestrial ancestors. And if you thought that all the dinosaurs were extinct, we have a surprise for you.

We can see in the genes where Diversity comes from, how sex shuffles the deck and deals each new generation a novel and yet familiar hand. The raw material of genetic variation is winnowed to produce new species from old and can produce a lakefull of unique fishes, an archipelago of Darwin's finches or the evolutionary radiation of the flowering plants and the huge diversity of insects that pollinate and feed upon them. For our self-obsessed species, human diversity is just as fascinating and turns out to be very recent. We are all Africans, and since the bulk of the human population no longer lives in Africa, we are nearly all descended from immigrants. And so to the Here and now. Evolution is not just relevant to the past, but it is also about the present and the future. It matters now because emerging diseases like HIV and pandemic flu are evolutionary opportunists, crossing the species barrier from other primates (HIV) or our domestic livestock (flu) when they acquire the genes to do so, either from other microbes or by mutation. In the war against such diseases, evolutionary biology is in the front line of our defence.

If one thing sets us apart from our primate relatives, it is our minds. What can evolutionary psychology tell us about why we behave as we do? Religion has a logical problem with evil (why does God permit it?), but Darwinism has a problem with good, orso it might appear. How can natural selection, which favours individual success, permit the evolution of co-operation and other acts that we call 'good'? Is there an evolutionary explanation for morality? If science can illuminate the source of morality, once the exclusive realm of religion, is there any place left for God? Is a belief in God compatible with the science of evolution, or must all believers become creationists and all evolutionists adopt atheism? From the burning issues of the present, inevitably to the future: What next? Are we still evolving? What does the future hold, not just for us, but for the other species with which we share our evolutionary history and this planet?


Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008). Amazon  

Professor Shubin (PhD, Harvard) is a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, and The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.   Biosketch

A Note about the Book from the Author: This book grew out of an extraordinary circumstance in my life. On account of faculty departures, I ended up directing the human anatomy course at the University of Chicago medical school. Anatomy is the course during which nervous first-year medical students dissect human cadavers while learning the names and organization of most of the organs, holes, nerves, and vessels in the body. This is their grand entrance to the world of medicine, a formative experience on their path to becoming physicians. At first glance, you couldn't have imagined a worse candidate for the job of training the next generation of doctors: I'm a fish paleontologist.

It turns out that being a paleontologist is a huge advantage in teaching human anatomy. Why? The best roadmaps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals. The simplest way to teach students the nerves in the human head is to show them the state of affairs in sharks. The easiest roadmap to their limbs lies in fish. Reptiles are a real help with the structure of the brain. The reason is that the bodies of these creatures are simpler versions of ours.

During the summer of my second year leading the course, working in the Arctic, my colleagues and I discovered fossil fish that gave us powerful new insights into the invasion of land by fish over 375 million years ago. That discovery and my foray into teaching human anatomy led me to a profound connection. That connection became this book. 

From Publishers Weekly
Fish paleontologist Shubin illuminates the subject of evolution with humor and clarity in this compelling look at how the human body evolved into its present state. Parsing the millennia-old genetic history of the human form is a natural project for Shubin, who chairs the department of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and was co-discoverer of Tiktaalik, a 375-million-year-old fossil fish whose flat skull and limbs, and finger, toe, ankle and wrist bones, provide a link between fish and the earliest land-dwelling creatures. Shubin moves smoothly through the anatomical spectrum, finding ancient precursors to human teeth in a 200-million-year-old fossil of the mouse-size part animal, part reptile tritheledont; he also notes cellular similarities between humans and sponges. Other fossils reveal the origins of our senses, from the eye to that wonderful Rube Goldberg contraption the ear. Shubin excels at explaining the science, making each discovery an adventure, whether it's a Pennsylvania roadcut or a stony outcrop beset by polar bears and howling Arctic winds. I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity... nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that ever lived, he writes, and curious readers are likely to agree. Copyright © Reed Business Information

Oliver Sacks, Professor of Clinical Neurology at Columbia University, writes: "Your Inner Fish is my favorite sort of book--an intelligent, exhilarating, and compelling scientific adventure story, one which will change forever how you understand what it means to be human.

"The field of evolutionary biology is just beginning an exciting new age of discovery, and Neil Shubin's research expeditions around the world have redefined the way we now look at the origins of mammals, frogs, crocodiles, tetrapods, and sarcopterygian fish--and thus the way we look at the descent of humankind. One of Shubin's groundbreaking discoveries, only a year and a half ago, was the unearthing of a fish with elbows and a neck, a long-sought evolutionary "missing link" between creatures of the sea and land-dwellers.

"My own mother was a surgeon and a comparative anatomist, and she drummed it into me, and into all of her students, that our own anatomy is unintelligible without a knowledge of its evolutionary origins and precursors. The human body becomes infinitely fascinating with such knowledge, which Shubin provides here with grace and clarity. Your Inner Fish shows us how, like the fish with elbows, we carry the whole history of evolution within our own bodies, and how the human genome links us with the rest of life on earth.

"Shubin is not only a distinguished scientist, but a wonderfully lucid and elegant writer; he is an irrepressibly enthusiastic teacher whose humor and intelligence and spellbinding narrative make this book an absolute delight. Your Inner Fish is not only a great read; it marks the debut of a science writer of the first rank." 

Video Lecture

“Your Inner Fish” for the Year of Darwin, Case Western University, November 14, 2008  YouTube 

More On the Book

  • Fish Out of Water” (scroll down through the Website Archive to the Featured Story from February 2008). Human ailments as varied as hernias, hiccups, and choking are a legacy of our “fishy” ancestry. Natural History, February 2008.
  • "What People Owe Fish: A Lot," by Natalie Angier, The New York Times, February 19, 2008.

More On Tiktaalik

Daniel J. Fairbanks

Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA (New York: Prometheus, 2007). Amazon 

Fairbanks (PhD, University of Arizona) is a distinguished university professor and research geneticist at Brigham Young University.

From Publishers Weekly: Genetics professor Fairbanks, author of several science books for laymen (Genetics: The Continuity of Life), presents the details of evolution as gleaned from a close study of genetics, but marshals his evidence in a conversational style readily comprehensible to general readers. Fairbanks excels at explaining the momentous discoveries in genetics in the past 20 years in clear, concise language, helpfully defining relatively new terms (introns, telomeres, transposable elements) as well as older terms (mutation, natural selection). Using comparative genomics, in which the human genome is compared to those of other primates, mammals, vertebrates, insects and bacteria, Fairbanks shows how the human genome can only be explained as the evolutionary product of numerous pre-existing species, placing humans in a family tree that ties together all life on Earth and maps its genetic changes over time. From there, he engages in a familiar critique of the "intelligent design" theory of creation ("When Faith and Reason Clash"); himself a Mormon, Fairbanks makes some interesting points regarding the canard that the sciences in general, and evolution in particular, are at odds with religion. Notes, references and extensive appendices go into greater technical detail; general readers looking for an overview of current genetics and evolution science will find this a great place to start. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Daniel Hartl, Professor of Biology at Harvard University and author of A Primer of Ecological Genetics, writes: "Brilliantly conceived, this excellent book shows how DNA sequences confirm the fact of human evolution. Wide-ranging though not superficial, detailed though not technical, filled with fresh examples and engaging vignettes, the book is respectful of dissenting opinions but leaves literal creationists with no place to hide."

Donald R. Prothero

Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).  Amazon

Prothero (PhD, Columbia) is a Professor of Geology at Occidental College and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 25 books and over 200 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks.  Academic Biosketch 

From Publishers Weekly: Prothero, a geologist at Occidental College (After the Dinosaurs), explains how rich the fossil record has become. His goal is two-fold. First, he wants to demonstrate the wide variety of transitional forms that have been found, many within the past 20 years. Second, he aims to discredit the creationist movement. I have tried to document how they routinely distort or deny the evidence, quote out of context, and do many other dishonest and unethical things—all in the name of pushing their crusade. He accomplishes both of his goals (though he can be repetitious regarding the creationists), and his descriptions of recent research, much of it his own, are compelling. Prothero explains that the Cambrian explosion of life forms was anything but an explosion, and presents the impressive transitional fossils between reptiles and birds, along with striking evidence for mammalian evolution, including the relationship among hominid groups. With good science and some specific rebuttals to creationist arguments, this book demonstrates the importance of paleontology to the study of evolution. 208 illus. (Nov.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.  
Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi of British parents, then was educated at Oxford and did his doctorate under the Nobel-prize-winning ethologist Niko Tinbergen. From 1967-69 he was an Assistant Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, then he returned to Oxford as University Lecturer (later Reader) and a Fellow of New College, before taking up the Charles Simonyi Professorship of Public Understanding of Science in 1995. After retiring from Oxford in 2008, he has busied himself with his Foundation work, advocating strongly for science and against religion. Biosketch  His webpage

Below are the best of his accessible and fascinating works on evolution, listed in order of publication. His new book The Greatest Show on Earth was recently released in the Fall of 2009.

His occasional anti-religious blast in these scientifically focused books is easy to pass over as he makes the science of evolutionary biology come alive. To explore the ways in which he extends his science into the metaphysical realm, see the references on our Scientism page.


1976. The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 3rd edition, 2006). Amazon Review

Inheriting the mantle of revolutionary biologist from Darwin, Watson, and Crick, Richard Dawkins forced an enormous change in the way we see ourselves and the world with the publication of The Selfish Gene. Suppose, instead of thinking about organisms using genes to reproduce themselves, as we had since Mendel's work was rediscovered, we turn it around and imagine that "our" genes build and maintain us in order to make more genes. That simple reversal seems to answer many puzzlers which had stumped scientists for years, and we haven't thought of evolution in the same way since. 

1982. The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press; Revised edition 1999). Amazon

This is a revised edition with a new afterword by Daniel Dennett. The Extended Phenotype carries on from where The Selfish Gene takes off. It is a fascinating look at the evolution of life and natural selection. Dawkins's theory is that individual organisms are replicators that have extended phenotypic effects on society and the world at large, thus our genes have the ability to manipulate other individuals. A worldwide bestseller, this book has become a classic in popular science writing.

'Dawkins is quite incapable of being boring. This characteristically brilliant and stimulating book is original and provocative throughout, and immensely enjoyable.' G. A. Parker, Heredity. 'The extended phenotype is certainly a big idea and it is pressed hard in dramatic language.' Sydney Brenner, Nature. 'Richard Dawkins, our most radical Darwinian thinker, is also our best science writer.' Douglas Adams. 'Dawkins is a superb communicator. His books are some of the best books ever written on science.' Megan Tressider, Guardian. 'Dawkins is a genius of science popularization.' Mark Ridley, The Times.

1986. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: W. W. Norton; New edition 1996). Amazon

From Publishers Weekly

Oxford zoologist Dawkins trumpets his thesis in his subtitle [that will] almost guarantee enough that his book will stir controversy. Simply put, he has responded head-on to the argument-by-design most notably made by the 18th century theologian William Paley that the universe, like a watch in its complexity, needed, in effect, a watchmaker to design it. Hewing to Darwin's fundamental (his opponents might say fundamentalist) message, Dawkins sums up: "The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the evolution of organized complexity." Avoiding an arrogant tone despite his up-front convictions, he takes pains to explain carefully, from various sides, why even such esteemed scientists as Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, with their "punctuated equilibrium" thesis, are actually gradualists like Darwin himself in their evolutionary views. Dawkins is difficult reading as he describes his computer models of evolutionary possibilities. But, as he draws on his zoological background, emphasizing recent genetic techniques, he can be as engrossing as he is cogent and convincing. His concept of "taming chance" by breaking down the "very improbable into less improbable small components" is daring neo-Darwinism. Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.

1996. Climbing Mount Improbable (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996). Amazon Review

How do species evolve? Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most eminent zoologists, likens the process to scaling a huge, Himalaya-size peak, the Mount Improbable of his title. An alpinist does not leap from sea level to the summit; neither does a species utterly change forms overnight, but instead follows a course of "slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time, non-random survival of random variants"--a course that Charles Darwin, Dawkins's great hero, called natural selection. Illustrating his arguments with case studies from the natural world, such as the evolution of the eye and the lung, and the co-evolution of certain kinds of figs and wasps, Dawkins provides a vigorous, entertaining defense of key Darwinian ideas.  

From Publishers Weekly

While an enzyme molecule or an eye might seem supremely improbable in their complexity, they are not accidental, nor need we assume that they are the designed handiwork of a Creator, asserts Oxford biologist Dawkins (The Selfish Gene). This foremost neo-Darwinian exponent explains the dazzling array of living things as the result of natural selection—the slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time, non-random survival of chance variants. Both a frontal assault on creationism and an enthralling tour of the natural world, this beautifully illustrated study is based on a set of BBC lectures, imparting a tone at once conversational and magisterial. Dawkins explores how ordered complexity arose by discussing spiders' web-building techniques, the gradual evolution of elephant trunks and of wings (birds, he concludes, evolved from two-legged dinosaurs, not from tree gliders) and the symbiotic relationship between the 900 species of figs and their sole genetic companions, the miniature wasps that pollinate specific fig species. Using "computer biomorphs" (simulated creatures "bred" from a common ancestor), Dawkins demonstrates how varieties of the same plant or animal species can vary in shape because of differences in just a few genes. Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

2004. The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004). Amazon Review

Just as we trace our personal family trees from parents to grandparents and so on back in time, so in The Ancestor's Tale Richard Dawkins traces the ancestry of life. As he is at pains to point out, this is very much our human tale, our ancestry. Surprisingly, it is one that many otherwise literate people are largely unaware of. Hopefully Dawkins's name and well deserved reputation as a best-selling writer will introduce them to this wonderful saga. 

The Ancestor's Tale takes us from our immediate human ancestors back through what he calls ‘concestors,’ those shared with the apes, monkeys and other mammals and other vertebrates and beyond to the dim and distant microbial beginnings of life some 4 billion years ago. It is a remarkable story which is still very much in the process of being uncovered. And, of course from a scientist of Dawkins stature and reputation we get an insider's knowledge of the most up-to-date science and many of those involved in the research. And, as we have come to expect of Dawkins, it is told with a passionate commitment to scientific veracity and a nose for a good story. Dawkins's knowledge of the vast and wonderful sweep of life's diversity is admirable. Not only does it encompass the most interesting living representatives of so many groups of organisms but also the important and informative fossil ones, many of which have only been found in recent years.

Dawkins sees his journey with its reverse chronology as ‘cast in the form of an epic pilgrimage from the present to the past [and] all roads lead to the origin of life.’ It is, to my mind, a sensible and perfectly acceptable approach although some might complain about going against the grain of evolution. The great benefit for the general reader is that it begins with the more familiar present and the animals nearest and dearest to us—our immediate human ancestors. And then it delves back into the more remote and less familiar past with its droves of lesser known and extinct fossil forms. The whole pilgrimage is divided into 40 tales, each based around a group of organisms and discusses their role in the overall story. Genetic, morphological and fossil evidence is all taken into account and illustrated with a wealth of photos and drawings of living and fossils forms, evolutionary and distributional charts and maps through time, providing a visual compliment and complement to the text. The design also allows Dawkins to make numerous running comments and characteristic asides. There are also numerous references and a good index.-- Douglas Palmer

From Publishers Weekly

The diversity of the earth's plant and animal life is amazing—especially when one considers the near certainty that all living things can trace their lineage back to a single ancestor—a bacterium—that lived more than three billion years ago. Taking his cue from Chaucer, noted Oxford biologist Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, etc.) works his way narratively backward through time. As the path reaches points where humanity's ancestors converge with those of other species—primates, mammals, amphibians and so on—various creatures have tales that carry an evolutionary lesson. The peacock, for example, offers a familiar opportunity to discuss sexual selection, which is soon freshly applied to the question of why humans started walking upright. These passages maintain an erudite yet conversational voice whether discussing the genetic similarities between hippos and whales (a fact "so shocking that I am still reluctant to believe it") or the existence of prehistoric rhino-sized rodents. The book's accessibility is crucial to its success, helping to convince readers that, given a time span of millions of years, unlikely events, like animals passing from one continent to another, become practically inevitable. This clever approach to our extended family tree should prove a natural hit with science readers. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 

2009. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (New York: Free Press, 2009). Amazon

150 years ago the momentous findings in Charles Darwin's masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, shook the scientific and religious world to its core. Perhaps more astonishing, the Creation-Evolution debate sparked by his seminal work of 1859 continues unabated in the 21st century. Now, Richard Dawkins, world renowned evolutionary biologist and famous atheist, takes on the Creationists with a brilliant and uncompromising look at the incontrovertible evidence for Darwin's theory of evolution.

The mass of data that proves the theory is vast, with scientific fingerprints numerous and varied. The logic Dawkins employs to explain it is the same throughout the book: the evidence that we see is exactly what we should expect to see if evolution had happened. He examines the facts from the point of view of flora and fauna, from cabbages to Great Danes. Anatomy yields a raft of clues whether from mice or fish, and the structure of molecules underscores the message even more convincingly. With answers to a miscellany of common questions, and detailed descriptions of what our ancestors would have looked like at various landmark dates, Dawkins leaves us with little room for doubt.


Watch video ad for book on YouTube  Read excerpt from Chapter One  Review by Steve Jones in The Telegraph   Review by Douglas Theobald at NCSE

Books More Complex or Technical
Evolution by Nicholas H. Barton, University of Edinburgh; Derek E.G. Briggs, Yale University; Jonathan A. Eisen, University of California, Davis; David B. Goldstein, Duke University Medical Center; Nipam H. Patel, University of California, Berkeley (Cold Springs Harbor, New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2007).  

The book has many strengths. The prose is crisp and explanations are rigorous but clear. The authors do not hesitate to discuss complex ideas or to provide appropriate caveats about the certainty of our knowledge. The Figures are useful and abundant...The expertise of the authors in quantitative, population, and developmental genetics is obvious; explanations are often less formal than in other texts, but at the same time are more sophisticated and more intuitive. The chapters on diversity include a detailed but engaging introduction to the genetics and genomics of bacterial and archaeal diversity, the origins of multicellularity, and the evolution of novelty inferred from both fossil data and from developmental biology. Although I had assured myself that I would not read the text word-for-word, I found myself deeply immersed in many chapters and read them from beginning to end. The material was not new (for me), but the descriptions and explanations seemed fresher and more compelling than in other current evolution texts. The explicit focus on questions at the molecular level determines the use of examples throughout the text, but these examples come from basic biology, not biomedical science.
Richard G. Harrison, Cornell University, Ithaca (Evolution)

For a comprehensive modern view of evolution, I could do no better than Evolution by Barton, Briggs, Eisen, Goldstein and Patel...The book aims to integrate molecular and evolutionary biology into a coherent evolutionary perspective of life on Earth, and it achieves this ambitious aim.
Michael Majerusa, University of Cambridge, UK (Trends in Ecology and Evolution)

Overall, I find this the best undergraduate textbook on modern evolutionary biology currently available because it achieves an excellent integration of classical approaches to the study of evolution with the techniques of modern molecular genetics that have transformed it, namely the use of genetic sequences, genetic markers, and genetic manipulation. The writing is consistently clear, the figures and their captions mesh very well and are pedagogically effective, and the topics covered include essentially every area of evolutionary biology being advanced by molecular genetic techniques...
William F. Zimmerman, Amherst College (The Quarterly Review of Biology)

Product Description
Evolution is a new book on evolutionary biology that elegantly synthesizes traditional evolutionary theories with contemporary concepts from genomics, developmental biology, human genetics, and other areas of molecular biology. As an innovative, interdisciplinary, and thoroughly integrated book on evolutionary biology with world-renowned author, Evolution thoroughly illuminates this major paradigm of modern science. Evolutionary principles are introduced with examples from across the spectrum of life - from "jumping genes" to RNA molecules, to populations of yeast and E. coli reared in the laboratory, to dung flies, lizards, and deer in their natural habitats. A section is also devoted to human evolution and diversity, merging recent insights from molecular techniques with paleontological evidence. Evolution is recommended as a primary textbook for undergraduate courses in evolution as well as for biologists seeking a clear, current, and comprehensive account of evolutionary theory and mechanisms.

Online Sample (pdf) includes Front Matter, TOC, About the Authors, Preface, Aim and Scope of Book, and Chapter 3: Evidence for Evolution. 

Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Simon Conway Morris (PhD, Cambridge), Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, is renowned for his insights into early evolution, and his studies of paleobiology. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society aged 39, was awarded the Walcott Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1987, and the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1998. Homepage
"Are human beings the insignificant products of countless quirky biological accidents, or the expected result of evolutionary patterns deeply embedded in the structure of natural selection? Drawing upon diverse biological evidence, Conway Morris convincingly argues that the general features of our bodies and minds are indeed written into the laws of the universe. This is a truly inspiring book, and a welcome antidote to the bleak nihilism of the ultra-Darwinists." Paul Davies, Author of Mind of God

The Next Sections:
The Education Debate
The contentious debate in North America is inflamed by two polarized extremes. On the one hand are the anti-theists who assume science tells us all we need to know about life--everything else is irrational nonsense and inherently dangerous. On the other hand are the equally passionate religious anti-evolutionists whose particular interpretation of the biblical account of creation precludes any natural explanation that science can provide (I know; I've been there). This section lists a few valuable resources that shed new light on this fascinating cultural phenomenon.
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