An updated book list for evolutionists

A few disclaimers: I do get kickbacks from affiliate programs when you purchase books after clicking through those links. If you’d rather not fund a perfidious atheist’s book addiction, just look up the titles at your preferred source—I don’t mind. This list is not a thinly-veiled attempt to get readers to buy me presents, either; I’ve read all these, so please don’t try to order them for me. Get them for a creationist instead, they need them more.

A while back, I presented a book list for evolutionists. Now I’ve updated it, adding a few recommendations and adding links so you can choose your favorite book vendor. Celebrate the birth of your favorite deity, the astronomical alignment of your choice, or any other traditional historical excuse for a midwinter party by passing along the gift of knowledge.

For the kids:

The Evolution Book (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sara Stein. A fine book, but not for the lightweight science kid: this one tries to cover just about everything encyclopedically, so give it to the truly dedicated bookworm.

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Steve Jenkins. Another encyclopedic illustrated summary of evolutionary history for the younger set.

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David Norman. Not really intended for kids, but packed with full-color illustrations and detailed descriptions of many dinosaur groups. My kids would spend hours leafing through this one; it’s the dinosaur book I wish I’d had as a 12 year old.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Lisa Westburg Peters. Excellent, simple summary of evolutionary history, for the K-3rd grade set.

The Tree of Life : Charles Darwin(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Peter Sis. Nice picture book biography of Darwin for the kids.

From the Beginning: The Story of Human Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David Peters. An older book that may be hard to get, but worth it for the wall-to-wall drawings of the organisms scattered along the human lineage, from single-celled prokaryote to modern humans.

For the grown-up layman:

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sean Carroll. A phenomenal book; if there’s one book you should pick up for an introduction to evo-devo, this is the one.

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Matt Ridley. Orac says, “It’s a downright poetic look at each of the 23 chromosomes and what sorts of biological and disease processes genes from each of them are involved in, along with a nice dollop of evolution of the genome.”

Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Kenneth Miller. Danny Boy says, “A Christian debunks creationism and shows how evolution can be compatible with Christianity.”

Charles Darwin: Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and Charles Darwin : The Power of Place(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Janet Browne. This is the best biography of Darwin out there.

Science As a Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). John A. Moore. This is part history book, part philosophy of science book; if you know someone who doesn’t understand the scientific method, this one will straighten him out.

The Darwin Wars(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Andrew Brown. Much as we aspire to the pure search for knowledge, scientists can be testy and political and vicious, too—this is a study of the sociology of evolutionary biology.

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Carl Zimmer. If you want a general survey of the history and ideas of evolutionary biology that isn’t written like a textbook, this is the one you want.

At the Water’s Edge: Fish With Fingers, Whales With Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Carl Zimmer. The focus in this one is on macroevolution of tetrapods and cetaceans. Excellently written, with a very thorough overview of the evidence.

Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Fortey. Everything you need to know about the basics of trilobytes, with a chatty and often amusing introduction to the world of paleontologists.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Jonathan Weiner. A Pulitzer-winning account of the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant in documenting the evolutionary changes occurring in Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos right now.

Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the evolution of bird flight(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Pat Shipman. Chris Clarke says, “an excellent and readable treatment of current thinking at printing on bird evolution and the evolution of that instance of powered flight.”

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Dawkins. Mrs Tilton says, “both as a general explanation of evolution and as a particular refutation of what has come to be known as intelligent design.”

The Ancestor’s Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard
Dawkins. A step-by-step account of human evolution, working backwards through time.

What Evolution Is(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Ernst Mayr. A survey of the theory by an opinionated master.

Evolutionary Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Douglas J. Futuyma. If you don’t mind reading a textbook, this is one of the best and most popular texts on the subject.

An Introduction to Biological Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Kenneth Kardong. Another textbook, but less weighty and less expensive then Futuyma’s; a book I’d use in a freshman non-majors course.

For the more advanced/specialized reader:

From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals) (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Charles Darwin, Edward O. Wilson (Editor). I’ve read these books, but I don’t own this edition…so this is one I’ll be hinting to my wife might make a nice present. It collects the four in one volume, with introductions by Wilson, so if every you’ve wanted these seminal works for your bookshelf, here they are in an inexpensive edition.

On Growth and Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. I’m afraid no developmental biologist can list important books without mentioning this one.

From DNA to Diversity: Molecular Genetics and the Evolution of Animal Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sean B. Carroll, Jennifer K. Grenier, Scott D. Weatherbee. Like it says…molecular genetics, evolution, developmental biology. A good textbook describing the new cutting edge of evolutionary biology.

Shaking the Tree : Readings from Nature in the History of Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Henry Gee. GirlScientist says, “This is a collection of scientific papers that were influential in the field for one reason or another.” (I don’t think she intended that her recommendation come out sounding so tepid.)

Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David M. Raup. A little statistics, a lot of paleontology, a good introduction to how we try to puzzle out what the world was like from a sparse data set.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Stephen J. Gould. Massive. Indulgently written. But full of interesting ideas.

Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mary Jane West-Eberhard. Also massive. If you’re already comfortable with the conventional perspective on evolutionary theory, though, this one twists it around and comes at it from the point of view of a developmental biologist.

Biased Embryos and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Wallace Arthur. A slim and readable book about evo-devo.

The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Lewontin. A slender book that lucidly summarizes the non-reductionist position on modern biology; it’s a call for greater breadth in science.

The Shape of Life : Genes, Development, and the Evolution of Animal Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Rudy Raff. Hardcore evo-devo. A little out of date, but very influential.

For the anti-creationist:

Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Barbara Carroll Forrest, Paul R. Gross. The best summary of the sneaky political strategy of the creationists of the Discovery Institute.

Unintelligent Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mark Perakh. Nice, blunt dissection of the pseudo-science of creationism.

Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Matt Young, Taner Edis, eds. A team-takedown of Intelligent Design’s bad science.

Republican War on Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Chris Mooney. Here’s my review; all you need to know about the current political attack on science.

The Counter-Creationism Handbook(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mark Isaak. Here’s a brief review, but it’s enough to say that this is an indispensable tool for dismissing creationist arguments.

The Triumph of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Niles Eldredge. Chris Clarke says, “useful and inspiring, both as a survey of evolutionary thought and a clarion call against creationism.”

Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Massimo Pigliucci. Michael Feldgarden says, “It definitely falls into the category of “anti-creationist” and “specialized reader.” I don’t know if it’s a little too complex for the lay reader (I don’t think so). It’s an excellent and well-written rebuttal of creationism and definition of science and the scientific method as it relates to evolutionary biology.”

The Creationists(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Ronald Numbers. Sean Foley says, “For an overview of the growth and role of the creationist movement in America.”

Defending Evolution : A guide to the creation/evolution controversy (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Brian J. Alters, Sandra Alters. An excellent guidebook on how to handle creationism in the classroom, specifically for biology teachers.

I’ll also add that Coturnix has a book list, too, and if you want a more specialized list, Mike has a list of books just for birders.

Just in case your favorite evolutionist has already read everything in the list, here’s another possibility: bones! Here are a couple of sources of bones, fossils, and casts:

These kinds of lists can go on forever. Please do mention any other possibilities in the comments, and maybe they’ll make it into the next edition.


  1. says

    I have a favorite of the “anti-creationist” genre: Scientists Confront Creationism. The book came out in 1984, but it’s still one of the best books on the subject. Nothing has changed very much since Ms. Godfrey published this volume, and I still keep it on my shelf as a reminder that, when I first encountered this book it explained to me why absolutely everything I had learned in Sunday School was nonsense.

  2. SEF says

    Thanks, PZ. I’d just copied the old list link that someone else had posted and now I’ve copied this one. I’m not losing it again! (At least not until I’ve done some shopping…)

  3. Frank Sullivan says

    Thanks, PZ. I’m currently reading Gaining Ground by Jennifer Clack and it’s a great book so far. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. If you consider it worthy, add it to your list!

  4. Jyotirmoy says

    I’ve just finished reading John Maynard Smith’s The Theory of Evolution. It is more rigorous than many other popular treatments while still being accessible to a layman like me. It was last updated in 1975 but the Canto edition of 1993 has a new introduction by Maynard Smith which discusses some of the later developments.

  5. Michael Kircher says

    My wife bought for me–with a little assist from a couple scientist friends–The Ape in the Tree, by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman. About the discovery of Proconsul, a common ancestor for humans and apes. Very well written. Accessible.

  6. says

    Any chance you could give an idea of age range for the kids’ books? My nephew’s going to start reading soon, so I’m going to have to start planning ahead for what I’ll be getting him over the next few years, and I was wondering at what point any of those might be appropriate (I’m also slightly held back by not really having the slightest idea what’s supposed to be appropriate, since I was an insanely accelerated reader).

  7. says

    Speaking from my (somewhat dated, but that’s not relevant in this case, I think) experience in publishing science books, kids, and innumerable adults, go absolutely nuts for books about dinosaurs, though mostly if they have lots of color pictures of what they are believed to have looked like. I’d suggest keeping that in mind.

    Almost twenty years ago, I desperately wanted to buy the rights to Bakker’s then new book, The Dinosaur Heresies; I know it’s now dated and and always had, even upon original publication, debatable assertions, but it also had gorgeous pictures.

    And when Bantam, or whichever company it was that did get the rights, it was on the trade paperback bestseller’s list for months and months. As I had predicted it would be.

  8. rubberband says

    Many, many thanks for the recommended reading!!
    But when are YOU going to write one for us, PZ?
    (Like you have the time. . .)

  9. guthrie says

    Ok, theres enough books to keep a bibliophile like myself busy for months.

    But a little requiest- does anyone have any books about ecology they can reccomend? I think ecology is a very important science, from what little I know about it so far, so I could do with some decent books about it.

  10. Dave Ratna says

    I think The Origin of Species should be on the list.

    I first encountered Creationists in College. They pointed out problems with evolution. It got me wondering… I knew the theory had to be true. It didn’t make any kind of sense that scientists would accept it if all the flaws the Creationists were pointing out were valid. So I went looking for the evidence. I looked in biology texts (I was studying maths) and I learned a lot about DNA and how microevolution happens. But in place of evidence for macroevolution all I found were unconvincing summaries. I discovered, and that helped a lot. But I still couldn’t honestly say that I accepted the theory of evolution, because I didn’t have the level of evidence that would justify that claim.

    Then I read The Origin of Species, and after that — well, that’s it no? Darwin doesn’t assume evolution has happened. He explains natural selection, justifies it with examples and then, chapter by chapter, lays out the evidence, always without assuming that macroevolution’s a fact. Amazing. There is no way for a reasonable person to read The Origin and not be convinced that macroevolution happens. And yes, after reading Origin those unconvincing summaries I mentioned above made sense. But alone, without Darwin to put the pieces together, no.

    It’s long, possibly wrong in places; but it can’t be too wrong because nothing I’ve read in modern books, for laypeople, contradicts it: so if you’re starting from a position of honest ignorance, if you want to learn, if you want to know how we know macroevolution happens, read The Origin of Species


  11. Dave Ratna says

    Ya, I have a copy on my pda :-) But surely, the medium the book is on should have no bearing on its value to evolutionists.

    I think Origin should be at the head of the list because of what it did to me.

    At that time I didn’t know the evidence for macroevolution. Common sense told me that the theory had to be true. But if you asked me, then, if I knew that the theory was true, how could I claim that? All I had were scientists telling me it was true. No-one was explaining why.

    The books I looked at mostly assumed the truth of macroevolution and instead told me what paths it had followed. What good is that, if you’re not convinced that macroevolution has actually happened? Until you demonstrate that, all those books may as well be highly detailed science fiction.

    Then you open Origin and there is Darwin talking exactly to your doubts.

    Here’s an example of what I’m getting at:
    Origin of Species 6th edition, Chapter XI, p290

    Darwin is talking about the rate at which species go extinct and are replaced in the fossil record:

    New species have appeared very slowly, one after another, both on the land and in the waters. Lyell has shown that it is hardly possible to resist the evidence on this head in the case of the several tertiary stages; and every year tends to fill up the blanks between the stages, and to make the proportion between the lost and existing forms more gradual. In some of the most recent beds, though undoubtedly of high antiquity if measured by years, only one or two species are extinct, and only one or two are new, having appeared there for the first time, either locally, or, as far as we know, on the face of the earth. The secondary formations are more broken; but, as Bronn has remarked, neither the appearance nor disappearance of the many species embedded in each formation has been simultaneous.

    He goes on for another page, but this’s enough to get the flavour. My point is that all he does is state what we can see. We see fossil species being replaced by new species. The rate of replacement is slow; and different species last for different intervals of time. Some species persist through all the change. That’s all we see, that’s all he says. Then, a couple of paragraphs later,

    These several facts accord well with our theory, which includes no fixed law of development, causing all the inhabitants of an area to change abruptly, or simultaneously, or to an equal degree. The process of modification must be slow, and will generally affect only a few species at the same time; for the variability of each species is independent of that of all others…

    Now he shows how the facts which we’ve just observed fit the theory of evolution! Any alternative theory is forced to explain the same facts distilled at the start of the chapter.

    The whole book is like that. That’s what I call proof, and that’s what convinced me.


  12. says

    That’s what I like about Darwin, too! He starts with the observed facts. He draws logical conclusions from those facts. He does not go beyond his facts with unwarranted assumptions. When he’s guessing at a possible mechanism (genes were unknown in his day), he says so. He seldom has to be corrected. Probability and natural processes working on natural variation are sufficient to explain what he sees.

  13. Eric Sherman says

    Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters by Donald Prothero
    Evolution and the Myth of Creationism by Tim M. Berra

  14. Dave Gary says

    For the more advanced reader: “On the Origin of Phyla” by James W. Valentine and “The Evolution of Developmental Pathways” by Adam S. Wilkins are comprehensive and entertaining. I found “On the Origin of Phyla” fascinating, a real page-turner. It was, without a doubt, one of the better biologic treatises I’ve read in some time. So far, the best of the 21st century.