Best evolutionary biology books, from Stephen Jay Gould to Richard Dawkins
Published 15/09/2010 | 12:47
Tom Chivers picks his favourite five books from the scientific field of evolutionary biology, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.
A disclaimer: these are not the definitive top five popular science books on evolution. They couldn't be; there are thousands I haven't read. Other people have suggested works by E O Wilson, Michael Sherma, Peter Medawar and dozens more. And, of course, I felt that including On The Origin of Species would be cheating slightly. But, of the books I've read, these are my favourites.
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989)
Stephen Jay Gould
It's pretty much obligatory nowadays to prefix Stephen Jay Gould's name with the term "late, great", but it is easy to forget how controversial he was in his lifetime. His most famous contribution to evolutionary biology was the idea of "punctuated equilibrium" - claiming that evolution was not steady, gradual progression, but long periods of stasis interspersed with periods of rapid change. It was hailed in some quarters as a threat to Darwin's theories. But Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, among others, dismissed them as a storm in a teacup. Dennett was particularly harsh, calling Gould's work a "self-styled revolution" and sparking an entertaining ding-dong battle between the two in The New York Review of Books.
But Gould, fairly or otherwise, will probably be best remembered for his popular works. A splendid writer (as Dennett acknowledged), he was able to make complex ideas, of genetics and biochemistry and probability, accessible to lay readers. Wonderful Life, his most famous book, looked at the "Cambrian explosion" - the (geologically) sudden appearance of complex multicellular life around 530 million years ago. The book provides a useful corrective to human ideas of destiny, that we are the predestined pinnacle of evolution; as Gould points out, of the many apparent phyla of creatures that appeared in the explosion, many are long dead. One, pikaia, is thought to be an early ancestor of all vertebrate life; but pikaia and its like could easily have gone extinct, and the world would look very different. A hefty dose of chance, not innate superiority, has led to the global domination of hairless, straight-backed apes.
Many of Gould's points have been questioned or straightforwardly disproved in the two decades since Wonderful Life was first printed - notably, Hallucigenia, one of the Cambrian animals he thought was unrelated to any modern creature, is now widely thought to be an ancestor of today's arthropods. But his general point, that fluke and serendipity have profoundly influenced the history of life and that intelligence is not an inevitable outcome of evolution, is still debated.
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life (2004)
He may have annoyed a lot of people, but no-one does clear explanations of evolutionary biology like Professor Richard Dawkins. Since there are only five books in this list, I have had to limit myself carefully; it would be easy to pick five Dawkins books that have a case for inclusion. His most recent, The Greatest Show on Earth, is one; a straightforward explanation of the evidence for evolution.
But Ancestor is certainly one of his best. At its heart is a simple conceit; here we are, standing in the present. If we walk backwards through time, we will meet each of our ancestors - and, most importantly, each of our common ancestors with other animals. First we meet early humans, including the last common ancestors of all humans; Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam. Next comes our common ancestor with chimpanzees, about six million years ago. Then with gorillas (seven million), orangutans (14 million), old world (25m) and new world monkeys (40m), before getting back to all the other mammals, then other vertebrates, then invertebrates, and eventually plants, fungi, bacteria and so on. At each meeting, one of the other descendants of that common ancestor tells a tale of their evolution; so our 440-million-year-old common ancestor with flounders tells us how its eyes ended up on one side of its head, an imperfection that shows us how evolution never works on a clean slate.
It could be a set of Just-So stories, but it is carefully evidenced - or, where evidence is patchy or non-existent, assumptions and guesses are clearly labelled. But more than almost any other book it gives a sense of the journey that life has travelled, not deliberately, not guidedly, but inexorably.
Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (1999)
Ridley has been in the news over the last couple of years. He was a non-executive director on the board of Northern Rock, the bank which collapsed so spectacularly in 2008, requiring a huge government buy-out and marking the beginning of the financial crisis. Lately he has made headlines as the author of a book called The Rational Optimist - decried in some parts as a Panglossian attempt to ignore the problems facing humanity, hailed in others as a refreshing counterblast to the doomsayers in the press. (Without getting into it here, his largely undimmed enthusiasm for free markets and distrust of government involvement, while not unreasonable, make interesting reading in light of his history.)
But before that, the zoology-trained Ridley was a science writer for the Economist, and the author of this graceful, clearly written account of human evolution. Explicitly inspired by Primo Levi - the chemist and holocaust survivor wrote his memoir using the periodic table of elements, tying each chapter to an element and the memories it evoked - Ridley finds on each of our 23 chromosomes a gene that speaks to some aspect of humanity, and how it came about. Intelligence, behaviour, free will, disease, ageing, sex and conflict are all covered. Most notable is Ridley's humanity about humanity, as it were: rejecting the distinction between nature and nurture, he shoots down genetic determinism, while reserving equal scorn for those who ignore the clear role of genes in behaviour. As he points out, people would be just as trapped by destiny if they were solely a product of their upbringing; at least genes are part of who we are. But he enjoys showing that the interplay of gene and environment is impossibly complex.
It's not solely about evolution; insofar as the subjects can be disentangled, it's about cellular biology and genetics as well. His 2003 work Nature via Nurture is, apparently, more about human evolution; I haven't read it, so I can't say. But Genome is a wonderful explanation of how the things that make us human are a product of our DNA.
Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995)
It's almost unfair to call this a "popular science" book; it is, on one level, a true work of academia, and besides, as Dennett says, it is not so much "science" as "interdisciplinary". Dennett is a philosopher and a neuroscientist at Tufts University, in Boston, and admits that a lot of the hardest, most detailed aspects of the biology is beyond him. But as a demonstration of how the central idea of Darwinism affects every aspect of human thinking - he calls it a "universal acid", which eats away all our comforting illusions - it is impeccable. Evolutionary thinking cannot just be contained within biology, he says: it leaks out, and transforms every other field as well.
Dennett, like Dawkins, is one of the leading lights of what is dismissively termed the "new atheist" movement, and the central idea of this book relates to the appearance of design in the universe, and how evolution explains it. It is hard for humans to imagine complexity arises out of simplicity, he says. We reach instead for magical solutions, which he calls "skyhooks", appearing out of nowhere to take the explanatory weight. But evolution provides a "crane", a material, non-mystical device which can lift the complex out of the simple. Evolution, he says, is an algorithm, a literal input-output idea that leads from simplicity to complexity, exactly as inevitably as a tennis tournament leads from 128 contestants to one winner.
It is probably the hardest book to read of these five, requiring the most careful attention. Dennett is not writing solely for the lay reader, and some of the ideas are difficult, especially for those without much of a scientific or philosophical background. But if you follow it, via its explanation of why Darwinism is both so frightening and so misunderstood, through its idea of "design space", in which he describes why the distinction between "natural" objects and "designed" ones is false, it is rewarding. At its end, he shows the implications Darwin's dangerous idea has for morality. It's not the red in tooth and claw conclusion a simplistic reading of "survival of the fittest" might give.
The Blind Watchmaker (1986)
What, not The Selfish Gene? Dawkins' first book remains his most famous, and it is also more important as a work of science, making the case for a gene's-eye view of evolution (as opposed to evolution as applied to individuals, or groups, or even species) more strongly than ever before. His second, The Extended Phenotype, was Dawkins' personal favourite, arguing that it is arbitrary to say that a gene's effects end with the body; a gene in a beaver, he says, can have an effect in the world miles wide if it improves its dam-making ability, and a gene in a cuckoo can affect the mind of a sparrow. But both those books, while brilliant, were quite narrow in scope, arguments within evolutionary theory rather than encompassing it.
Watchmaker, though, is broader in scope. He starts with the argument of the 19th-century naturalist William Paley, who said that life's complexity and apparent perfect fit to its surroundings argued for the existence of a designer; a stone on a beach requires no explanation, he said, but a watch lying on the ground would lead one to assume the existence of a watchmaker. Dawkins, who clearly respects Paley, says that after Darwin, it became clear that the "watchmaker" was evolution - a blind force.
As mentioned, Dawkins is a controversial figure in some quarters, and it may be a shame that he now gets more coverage as a "militant atheist" than as one of the foremost life-science thinkers of our time. But if you need to be reminded of his brilliance, a good place to start would be Watchmaker.