Evolution 101
November 21, 2017 5:55 PM   Subscribe

What are some good books to explain the basics of evolution and how it works while countering creationism and ID?

What are some good books that 1) explain evolution in a way that's easy for non-scientists to understand and 2) directly address and debunk creationist/intelligent design arguments?

I'm particularly interested in how to address common creationist arguments like the evolution of the eye and brain, microevolution vs. macroevolution, etc. - basically something along the lines of TalkOrigins but in the form of a book. Most of the books I've seen explain evolution but don't bother dealing with those claims, so one that does both would be useful to me.
posted by thedarksideofprocyon to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
this is the intro. advanced.

both essay collections. you'll have to read, understand, and process. not really a point-counterpoint brief training slide. good, solid, dense.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:01 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Beak of the Finch
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:03 PM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Science, Evolution, and Creationism, by the National Academy of Sciences. (Note that although there's a charge for the ebook, the PDF is free.)

"How did life evolve on Earth? The answer to this question can help us understand our past and prepare for our future. Although evolution provides credible and reliable answers, polls show that many people turn away from science, seeking other explanations with which they are more comfortable.

In the book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a group of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine explain the fundamental methods of science, document the overwhelming evidence in support of biological evolution, and evaluate the alternative perspectives offered by advocates of various kinds of creationism, including "intelligent design." The book explores the many fascinating inquiries being pursued that put the science of evolution to work in preventing and treating human disease, developing new agricultural products, and fostering industrial innovations. The book also presents the scientific and legal reasons for not teaching creationist ideas in public school science classes."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:14 PM on November 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

Why Evolution is True
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:28 PM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Chapter 3 of Herron and Freeman's Evolutionary Analysis directly addresses creationism and intelligent design, including the evolution of the eye. Chapters 1 and 2 address micro- and macroevolution and common ancestry. It's a pretty good all-round introduction to evolution. I seem to recall that I first came across it in an online discussion where a couple of professors said that they liked using it in classes where they knew creationist objections were going to be raised. It does a reasonable job of laying out the evidence.

It won't prepare you for the Gish gallop, but hardly anything can, really.

The 4th edition can be had for very cheap. It doesn't have the latest on the most quickly moving subfields (evo-devo, molecular adaption, cooperation), but for your needs it'd probably be fine.
posted by clawsoon at 7:52 PM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Dan Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea is pretty good.

Richard Dawkins, not everyone's favorite around here, gets really specific and deep about the examples of like eyes and flagella and stuff. The Blind Watchmaker is a good entry point for his stuff.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:57 PM on November 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

Dawkins is an excellent communicator, and you'll find yourself understanding the arguments and evidence very well after reading him. The one thing to watch for with Dawkins is that he takes firm stances on ideas which are still being argued over by scientists. He'll present settled science and a controversial viewpoint with exactly the same confidence. Read Dawkins, but don't only read Dawkins. Stay a little skeptical, especially when he talks about subjects like sex, cooperation, the direction of evolution, and the primacy of genes.

When he's doing battle with creationists, though, as in The Blind Watchmaker, he mostly stays on uncontroversial ground and is an excellent read.
posted by clawsoon at 8:24 PM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Dawkins’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Really nicely written and shows how we know what we know about evolution. I find Dawkins tiresome when he talks about religion, but enjoyable when he talks science, and that book is him in highly enjoyable mode.
posted by snowmentality at 9:02 PM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Your Inner Fish comes at it a bit sideways, but was more effective in convincing my creationist students because it came at it sideways. It's by one of the discoverers of Tiktaalik (the fish who did pushups, an important "missing link" in the fossil record) who teaches both human anatomy and paleontology. The central conceit of the book is showing weird little bits of human anatomy, and how it came from our evolutionary ancestors, and explaining the modern science that helps us see how. So there's a chapter about how fins became hands, and one about what hair, feathers, breasts, and teeth all have in common, and some fuckin' fantastic ones about the fucked up architecture of the human skull, and where the mammalian ear came from and why you get dizzy when you're drunk, and, yes, the eye.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:03 PM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Don't forget to read up on the DNA evidence for evolution. It's often ignored by creationists, perhaps because it's as difficult to refute as criminal conviction based on a DNA match.

I haven't had a chance to read either book, but from reviews and Google Books previews I'm thinking that Sean Carroll's The Making of the Fittest and Daniel Fairbanks' Relics of Eden both look to be good introductions to the DNA evidence for evolution.
posted by clawsoon at 9:54 PM on November 21, 2017

Response by poster: That's a great list of books there. Thanks for the help - my knowledge of Dawkins is that before his more unpleasant side came to the fore he did quite a bit of important and interesting work, so I have no problem reading him with your caveats.

One more question - I've noticed that creationist use of macro/microevolution is different from the scientific usage, since they generally use it to imply that only microevolution within a vaguely defined "kind" can be observed in nature (for example, a bacterium evolving resistance to antibiotics is dismissed as 'microevolution') and macroevolution doesn't exist. My understanding is that micro- and macroevolution are real and observable scientific terms that are misused by creationists, while "kinds" have no basis in real science at all.
posted by thedarksideofprocyon at 11:20 PM on November 21, 2017

Scientists are still arguing amongst themselves about exactly how macroevolution happens. It's an active area of research and debate, in part because fossil evidence for the biggest changes is rare and the DNA evidence is new.

Some of the best-studied DNA evidence for macroevolution, in particular the Hox gene group, is presented in Sean Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Wallace Arthur's textbook Evolution: A Developmental Approach is one of the best textbooks I've read. In terms of content, it's like Carroll's book on steroids. (Carroll has his own textbook, but I didn't find it as well-written or interesting as Arthur's.) He has dozens of examples of micro- and macroevolution, explored in detail and arranged in a way that makes the underlying ideas clear. He's also clear about which parts of the science are settled and which are active areas of debate. Part III, "The Direction of Evolution", and in particular chapter 17, "The Origin of Species, Novelties and Body Plans", discusses your questions in detail. He, following G.G.Simpson, suggests that evolution be divided into three sorts: Micro, macro, and mega.
Mega-evolution: The biggest type of evolutionary change, such as that which produces a novelty or new body plan. Examples include the evolutionary origin of the turtle shell and of the vertebrate skeleton. There is still much debate as to whether mega-evolution is explicable in terms of many micro-/macro-evolutionary changes compounded over long periods of time, or whether it also includes evolutionary processes that are rare or non-existent in the micro-evolutionary realm.
His conclusion, which he makes clear isn't agreed on by all scientists, is that micro- and macro/mega-evolution are, in some cases, two different sorts of things. Creationists aren't necessarily wrong to have noticed that micromutations are small and frequent, while macromutations sometimes require crossing a fitness valley on the adaptive landscape which makes them almost certain to die out.
Studies of the proliferation of species within genera and families often suggest that macro-evolution is simply accumulated micro-evolution, with the addition of reproductive isolation. However, studies on the origin of novelties (in the realm of mega-evolution, and in the turtle case associated with the origin of an order) suggest that some things are not just accumulated micro-evolution.
We don't understand exactly how most macromutations happened. The DNA evidence, however, makes it clear that macromutations did happen. It's like Stonehenge: We don't know exactly how they built it, but the physical facts make it clear that they did build it.
posted by clawsoon at 6:14 AM on November 22, 2017

Best answer: If you want a Christian source of 2), try the wryly-titled Only A Theory by Kenneth Miller - he's a Catholic biologist who argues in favour of evolution, and against creationism and intelligent design. From the linked NCSE review: "[I]n a few central chapters, the major tenets of modern creationism and its objections to evolutionary science, such as 'irreducible complexity' and the misuse of information theory, are first fairly outlined and then convincingly dismantled".
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 6:26 AM on November 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Via a Talkorigins FAQ, I found Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy.

Via a customer review on that book, I found The Counter-Creationism Handbook, about which one customer complains, "My only real gripe against this book is that it is more or less the same FAQ from Talk Origins FAQ. The content is good and the book is put together well, but you could find it online for free already." So that might be exactly what you're looking for.

I've now read "Relics of Eden", which I mentioned upthread. It has straightforward explanations of the strongest DNA evidence for evolution in general and our shared ancestry with chimpanzees in particular. It spends one chapter on creationism, and partially deals with one creationist argument (the supposed irreducible complexity of blood clotting). I wouldn't read it for countering creationist arguments, but I would read it for arguments that creationists will have trouble countering.
posted by clawsoon at 5:32 PM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you want to dig into things a bit more, you might check out Mark Ridley's Evolution, which is designed for an undergraduate course in evolution. (Avoid the identically titled Evolution reader edited by Mark Ridley.) I know you asked for materials for non-scientists, but I find an introductory undergraduate textbook with lots of graphics and explanatory boxes a lot easier to get through than the endless prose of popular science books.
posted by grouse at 12:20 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

There was a thread here a while back that I personally found usefull
posted by ambulocetus at 6:05 AM on November 24, 2017

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