Most Recommendable (Popular) Book on Evolution (and science more generally)


Discussion by: Russell W
While I realize this topic often comes up, it is also one which is often in need of updating as new scientific research becomes available, and as new writers and publications come out. 

I wanted to know readers opinions on the following:

1. Which books/resources would you consider the best (popular) explanation and defence of evolution? (Why do you consider them so?)

2. Which books/resources would you consider the best (popular) explanation for any of the sciences most generally? (e.g. physics, cosmology, etc.)

(To clarify, by “resources” I am also considering the potentiality of multimedia resources.)


  1. Richard’s own book The Greatest Show on Earth has to be the best of anything out there. Climbing Mount Improbable is another, but Greatest Show is easily the most readable by anyone, at least with a brain.

    Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel isn’t about evolution per se, but it does touch on human development in a scientific and brilliant way. Like Richard Dawkins, Diamond is very easy to read for a non scientist like me.

  2. Any video with Bryan Cox or Neil DeGrasse Tyson. You need to teach people that there are both enough years to explain us existing in the most roundabout of ways and enough rare things happening, on a daily basis, everywhere in universe, so as to make our existence something that is so not remarkably special that we need supernatural to explain it. After that any Dawkins book on evolution will do nicely.

  3. The Selfish Gene, by Dawkins. Lay people are prone to many errors, such as Lamarkian or orthogenetic thinking, and it educates people beyond those errors. Reading it has given me tremendous advantage in understanding genetics, and perhaps science in general.

    Thunderf00t is a youtube user who had an epic debate in which he produced a series of videos. Not only are these strong arguments relevant to creationist dogma, I found them very educational. In the course of his debates, he explores many topics for the sake of lay people. I learned a lot from his video on probability.

  4. If you couple Dawkin’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” with “The Making of the Fittest” by Sean B. Carroll you will have all your bases covered. Richard discusses all the evidence and has a brilliant way with prose. Sean B. Carroll takes you through cutting edge evolutionary biology replete with mathematics and wonderful examples. I recommend both and think of the authors with highest regard.

  5. I should have included the requested explanations: Why Evolution Is True is complete, accessible without being patronizing, and simply the best one-volume book on evolution I have yet read. That is not to say that Richard Dawkins’ books aren’t excellent, they are, but the one book devoted to the topic I most recommend is Why Evolution Is True. Pale Blue Dot addresses many faith-based arguments and assertions with eloquence unique to Sagan, but the book is really about the universe and the future so it is very uplifting.

  6. These days people like Brian Cox,Jim Al Khalili ,Richard Dawkins,Stephen Hawking,
    and Iain Stewart are promoting science at a level never before seen in my lifetime (David Attenborough’s contribution is also important )
    I have watched all of these teaching maestros several times and would tell Cox if I ever met him?to spend all his time promoting science as the number of applications for Physics has increased by a staggering 23%.
    If he can keep this trend alive ?who knows? There might appear new equivalents of Newton,Dirac,Einstein,Feynmann etc.
    A program I really liked is”Genius of Britain” a compilation of British scientists and engineers who changed the world.
    I first became a resolute fan of science promotion by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
    A book by Prof Cox and his pal Prof Forshaw on E= MC^2 I would strongly recommend.
    I have a mini library of science books and the one I love is by Graham Farmelow on the genius of Paul Dirac.
    It’s called”A very strange man”

  7. On top of all the above, especially by Dawkins and Cox, may I suggest something lighter, especially that you are looking for ‘popular’, namely a fusion of science and imagination that is “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter? I read it years ago and will read it again, I’m sure. There are hardly any human characters in it, just some at the end since it starts many millions of years ago and traces our human origins from the very first little primates that were shrews. Fascinating, explanatory and visionary.

  8. BTW,
    The Ancestor’s Tale (Dawkins) is the most detailed resource I’ve found. I read it over the course of a whole summer. Slowly going through it and highlighting and taking notes…. A masterpiece.

  9. I read “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne, and “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Dawkins, almost back-to-back and have to admit that they’re pretty comparable, and very accessible. I liked Coyne’s explanation of sexual selection, and Dawkins’ explanation of the E. coli experiment – so essentially, read both.

    “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin is very interesting itself, even though it lacks the details of the evolutionary process and deals more with the evidence.

    “Evolution: What The Fossils Say and Why It Matters” by Donald Prothero deals with the geological and fossil evidence for evolution, but it is largely intended as a precise rebuttal to creationist mangling of geology.

    In cosmology, “Big Bang” by Simon Singh is excellent, very readable yet very detailed, spelling out the whole process of discovery with plenty of the human element. Anyone with the faintest interest in astronomy or cosmology should check it out.

    I’ve read both “A Brief History of Time” and “A Briefer History of Time,” both by Stephen Hawking, and while I found them pretty good overall, I was struck by rather sudden jumps between basic and advanced theory, and was left with the impression that key factors were missed or under-explained. Maybe that was just me, but I’m still trying to find someone who can elaborate on Hawking radiation…

    And for video, anything and everything by Attenborough, Cox, deGrasse Tyson, and Feynman.

  10. I’m with Crookedshoes regarding RD’s The Ancestor’s Tale – which is the best I’ve seen on the evidence for evolution, as opposed to how it works & why. I have all RD’s books except TMOR, and in combination the set is hard to beat.

    Sagan, Diamond, Dennett, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, etc. for their writing, plus David Attenborough, Bryan Cox, Neil deGrasse-Tyson, Sagan, etc. for their visuals – what a fantastic education for an interested non-scientist like me.

    I’ve read my 70+ science & atheist books up to 5 times over the years, and each time is different, clearer & more satisfying as my inner landscape evolves from the added information & better comprehension.

    Also, being in my 60’s & retired, I have time to keep my brain machinery well lubricated & fueled with high-octane data, the better to understand complex ideas, plus the differing or opposing viewpoints.

    The challenges cobbled-up & asserted by evolution doubters & distorters are mind-numbing – and so sad – but it does drive us to discover more about the Reason & Science that explains reality….

  11. I had being reading a book on evolution for the last 3 weeks. it was very good , compact and informative. The book was called ‘Evolution , The basics’ by Sherrie Lyons , it goes into the narrative of evolution rather than the explicit detailed evidence. Dont let ‘the basics’ tag turn you off , it really is excellent.

    And to state the obvious you cant go too far wrong with ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’

    [Off-topic deflection removed by moderators]

  12. I had this book as well , it is excellently crafted , but it is cramed with too much detail , which I found too much to be honest.

    In reply to #9 by crookedshoes:

    BTW, The Ancestor’s Tale (Dawkins) is the most detailed resource I’ve found. I read it over the course of a whole summer. Slowly going through it and highlighting and taking notes…. A masterpiece.

  13. One book by Prof. Dawkins that is one of my all time favorites but not known as well as Selfish Gene or God Delusion is A Devil’s Chaplain. Its a collection of essays so it touches on all kinds of different topics but it has some of my favorite Dawkins essays ever and some that at least for me really highlight what it means to take a scientific approach to all kinds of issues, not just science but critical thinking in general.

  14. I read this book last year and agree with you. I would highly recommend it. In a series of dramatic stories set millions of years apart starting 65 million years ago with a shrew called Purga being chased by a hungry dinosaur, to a couple of stories based far in our evolutionary future. The book traces the unbroken genetic line of a woman on a plane to a UN convention in the near future to try to save the planet from self imposed impending destruction.
    Take a look.
    In reply to #8 by HenMie:

    On top of all the above, especially by Dawkins and Cox, may I suggest something lighter, especially that you are looking for ‘popular’, namely a fusion of science and imagination that is “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter? I read it years ago and will read it again, I’m sure. There are hardly any human characters in it, just some at the end since it starts many millions of years ago and traces our human origins from the very first little primates that were shrews. Fascinating, explanatory and visionary.

  15. Slightly off topic, Amazon are offering as the Kindle daily deal A.C. Grayling’s “To Set Prometheus Free” for 99 pence. (As of 00.01, 17/01/2013. Available untit midnight Thursday 18th.)

  16. In reply to #21 by Zarniwoop:

    Jerry Coyne: ‘Why Evolution is True’.

    Sean Carrols book isa good: focuses on molecular evolution.

    Neil Shubin’s ‘Your Inner Fish’

    And Richards ‘The Blind Watchmaker’

    All good stuff. Dawkins is of course awesome, The Selfish Gene got me started in 1976. The consummate prose of all his stuff, the poetic sensibilities, round out very edifying experiences. The Shubin, though a little more workman like, gave me a fantastic feel for how evolution was a prolific (and effective) bodger of just-good-enough solutions to environmental challenges and opportunities. How bits are morphed again and again into other bits. How the two layers of skin can become a factory for hair follicles, teeth and nails, nipples and glands.

    I would also urge anyone to read a little of the history of science, not only because the lives of scientists and the evolution of their methods is interesting but also because of getting a sense of why they (we) did it (do it). What problems were they trying to solve and how this whole great adventure to end all adventures swirls increasingly through all our lives gifting us the best seat in the house so far. So-

    A Brief History of Science. John Gribbin.

  17. I’ll add my thoughts to the excellent contributions below.

    For books, I’d start with the following:

    1. “Why Evolution is True” – Jerry Coyne. Easy to understand, informative, fascinating, this could be the best science book I’ve ever read. Cannot think of a better first step.
    2. “The Ancestor’s Tale” – Richard Dawkins. Others get mentioned by Richard, but this is my personal favourite.
    3. “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters” – Donald Prothero. This one gets overlooked. I recently bought it on my Kindle and have already read it twice. Anyone who ever tries to tell you the fossil record is lacking are either unintentionally ignorant or lying. An incredibly compelling read and devastating evidence.
    4. “Making of the Fittest” – Sean Carroll. Brilliant introduction to molecular genetics and how it provides yet more spectacular proof of the fact of evolution. You’ll never think about Vitamin C production, trichromatic colour vision or our sense of smell the same way again after reading this.
    5. “Your Inner Fish” – Neil Shubin. Great, informative, compelling read. Fascinating account of the discovery of Tiktaalik as well as the unpleasant realities of palaeontology and the difficulties involved. Brilliant.

    That’s a top 5, I’d also add “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins as indispensable too.

    Finally, I’ve just received my single volume monster containing 4 of Darwin’s greatest works. I’m 124 pages in Voyage of the Beagle. Very good so far, and reads pretty well considering it was written over 160 years ago.

    Happy reading.

    Mark in Melbourne

  18. With a tip of the hat to all the others, I’ll throw in with Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” as well. Several of my non-sciencey friends I’ve pushed it onto found it very accessible mostly because so much of it follows a narrative structure and therefore reads like a story rather than a textbook. I’ve just started his new book, “The Universe Within” and so far it’s a great read too.

  19. I was an 13 year old impressionable child brought up in a Muslim family…and I remember going to my local library, and first picking up the Selfish Gene…I still remember that feeling of intellectual emancipation and of forbidden truths upon reading that we are survival machines, lumbering robots doing the bidding of the immortal genes…

    Can you imagine the pyrotechnic affect of those iconoclastic words on the mind of a 13 year old boy looking for answers…!


    Thanks Richard!

  20. Evolution is ultimately all about the molecular biology of the cell. For this reason, I think the best book on evolution is an introductory to biochemistry called The Machinery of Life by David S. Goodsell.

    I really like both the Grand Design (Hawking and Mlodinow) and The Magic of Reality (Dawkins) for dispelling the supernatural way of thinking in favor of what we actually observe.

  21. All the books by Stephen Jay Gould are wonderful. I would not recomend Dr. Dawkins books as they are pattently wrong. There is no such thing as a selfish gene. The genone is so interconnected and interrelated, it is impossible to separate the self interest of particular genes. No living organism has an identifiable self interest outside of the context of its ecosystem which is a dynamic balance of shared interest/self interest. Two other great books. The Bond by Lynne McTaggart and The Master and his Emmisary by Iain McGilchrist. There is a new ebook The True Origin of Species at .which is very interesting

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