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March 13, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

One thing that's often struck me about the discussion of human evolution -- both pro and con -- is that the people who are arguing often don't know much about the subject. Schools teach the subject (if they teach it at all) very badly, and the shriekers on both right and left have so muddied the issue that many people still aren't sure if evolution is a science, an unproven theory, or just some nasty leftist/atheist lie.

I don't want to re-fight the battle here (you can get plenty of yelling on that topic elsewhere on the internets). But I'd encourage people, regardless of their predisposition to the whole idea of evolution by natural selection, to read some books on the modern state of the theory. A lot has changed in just the last twenty years, especially in genetics and the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo").

First up is a basic explanation of what the so-called "Modern Synthesis" of evolution by natural selection really is. The best modern book on this topic, in my opinion, is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. Yes, Dawkins is a militant atheist jackass; yes, he's a complete tool. No matter. This is still the best book I've read about the basic theory underpinning evolution. His later books tend to be strident anti-religious tracts, but not this one.

Another good primer is Jerry A. Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Again: whether you agree or not, you need to understand where the modern science is at, and this book does a splendid job of explaining it.

When you've got the basic theory under your belt, a good follow-on is Matthew Ridley's The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. This book does a good job of explaining why humans are the way they are -- why in some ways we're like our ape cousins and in other ways not.

You might give Sean Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo-Devo a try. This book ties the gene theory of evolution to the "evolution by natural selection" science in a comprehensible way for beginners.

For Christians (and maybe even those of other religions who struggle with the implications of human evolution), I've found Karl Giberson's book Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution to be a necessary "bridge" to the more science-oriented books. It's more of a cultural history than a science book, but it does a good job of showing how religious belief and and understanding of human evolution do not necessarily conflict. Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God is another book in the same vein.

Finally, one of my favorite books on the philosophy of science ("How do we know this is true?") is Edmund O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. (When you hear someone -- again, pro or con -- say that evolution is "a theory", what does that mean? This book will explain it.)

(You'll note that I didn't include any of Darwin's own books in this list. They're mainly interesting as historical artifacts now from a scientific standpoint, and a beginner is better advised to use modern sources to understand the current state of the theory. Darwin was writing long before, e.g., we knew anything about genetics. It's amazing how far he got on simple observation and intuition!)

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posted by Monty at 08:41 AM

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