An Evolving Creationist
February 1, 2019 6:58 AM   Subscribe

A friend of mine, who describes herself (accurately, I believe) as an open-minded creationist, reached out to me, asking me to recommend a book to her about Evolution.

She is college educated, but not an intellectual used to reading Science books, and this isn't a subject she's encountered since high school (she's in her 50s now). Most of the books I've read on the subject are fairly high-level.

I have no interest in converting her, but I'd rather not frustrate her with something she can't understand. And while I'm fine with a book arguing for the reality of Evolution, I'd rather not recommend something to her that sneers at non-believers.

It would be great to find a book for beginners that clearly explains evolution and clears up some common misunderstandings, such as that it necessarily follows a path to sci-fi giant-brained bald humans and stuff like "If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?"

She specifically asked for a book, but my guess is she'd welcome something like a really good documentary, youtube video, etc.

Someone asked as similar question in 2005, so I apologize for the redundancy, but that was quite a few years ago, and there may be some better resources now.

Any recommendations?
posted by grumblebee to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It'd be helpful to have a bit more understanding of where your friend is now and what she wants out of this book. For example, does she actually not believe evolution happened, and if so, what does she think happened instead? Does she just question some parts of the narrative, and if so, what are the grounds of her objections? Does she not understand the process at all, and she wants a rundown of the mechanism?

Plenty of people actually believe in both "creation" and evolution (with evolution being the means by which God creates the world), but of course there are also literalist young-earth creationists who straight up deny that dinosaurs ever existed, so it's not clear from the question where you're hoping to enter the conversation.
posted by Bardolph at 7:34 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Richard Dawkins' 'The Blind Watchmaker' is a great introduction, though it might lose points with some people because of the author. Jerry Coyne's 'Why Evolution is True' is another good book on the topic.
posted by box at 7:39 AM on February 1

Bardolph, I really think she's just an open-minded, curious person who happens to be coming from a specific background. I don't think her goal is to be convinced that Evolution is true or false. Maybe that will come at some point. She just wants to understand the subject.

She is not at all a Bible literalist (she told me she believes Adam and Eve is a myth), and she's very open to a broad definition of Creationism. I floated one to her, not one I believe myself (I'm an atheist), but one I believe is compatible with some forms of theism:

God may have had no specific plans for humans, but, rather, a set of plans for any form of sentience able to comprehend Him. (This is sort of the "2001" scenario.) Humans just happened to evolve that capacity.

She was very open to that idea.

In general, the sense I get is that though she calls herself a Creationist, that's mostly the default of her upbringing. I don't think she's looking to shed it or keep it. She's a seeker. I can imagine her having a similar discussion with a priest, asking "Can you recommend a good book about creationism?"

This is why I'm trying to steer this thread away from "convincing." I don't think it's about debate for her. She just wants knowledge about a subject.

Does Coyne's book go back to total basics: "When you look at a whole lot of cats, even if they're from the same litter, each one is a little different..."? I think that's what she needs.
posted by grumblebee at 8:15 AM on February 1

I found Bill Bryson's A Brief History of Everything to be great for this. And by great for this, I mean great for me, who fundamentally does not believe that the Big Bang and Evolution are incompatible with a divine plan even if the divine plan is "Chaos, weeee!"

(I just find the idea of a universe without a creator to be very lonely.)
posted by DarlingBri at 8:24 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]

I haven't read any of these in a while, so my memory may be faulty, but:

Carl Zimmer wrote the companion book to the PBS series (Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea), which is outdated in places (from 2001), and maybe a bit wider-ranging than is desirable for this situation, but I don't think it's overly technical, and it's respectful of religious belief. (The last chapter, "What About God?", covers the Scopes trial, intelligent design, irreducible complexity, etc., and for my money is possibly too deferential to religious belief.) Very long (paperback is 528 pp., according to Amazon). Probably the one I'd recommend if you restricted me to one recommendation.

Seconding that The Blind Watchmaker is pretty solid, but I personally would go quite a ways out of my way to avoid giving Dawkins any money because he's terrible. Also I feel like I remember occasional digs at religious belief, though it's possible that the book is fine and I'm thinking of stuff he was doing and saying in the early aughts. (Watchmaker is from 1986.)

I haven't read it in quite a while, but The Beak of the Finch (Jonathan Weiner, 1994) is very readable, though it's more about a particular case study than about evolution in general. Possibly a better second book than first book.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 8:28 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Aye, I wouldn't recommend Dawkins; his earlier books were well written and pithy on the subject, but they're dated, and he just can't help himself from sniping at believers even when he's writing about the science.

Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish was enjoyable (and I see there's a PBS series too). Steve Jones' Almost Like a Whale is an attempt at updating Darwin's On the Origin of Species as if it had been written with access to all the modern supporting evidence for evolution. On that note, Origin itself, in addition to being convincingly argued, is a remarkable historical document, and I found it surprisingly readable.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 8:43 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]

National Academy of Sciences has Science, Evolution, and Creationism (free download, 88 pages), to "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.' ....Science, Evolution, and Creationism shows that science and religion should be viewed as different ways of understanding the world rather than as frameworks that are in conflict with each other and that the evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. For educators, students, teachers, community leaders, legislators, policy makers, and parents..."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:52 AM on February 1

Just about anything by Stephen Jay Gould. The thing is, he's not usually so much talking about evolution per se as a topic, but rather how evolutionary theory helps us understand the natural world. It's perhaps a more oblique approach, but will still convey lots of what evolution is to a casual reader. Also, many books are compiled from essays, and this makes it easier to sit down and read a chunk here and there, and also incorporates a more casual essayist style that may be more familiar to her.

The Panda's thumb, The Flamingo's Smile, Bully for Brontosaurus, etc. All these have the subtitle "reflections in natural history" and that lens may be a good approach, but you know your friend better than us.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:55 AM on February 1 [8 favorites]

I don’t think Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True contains a lot of anti-believer stuff, but it’s been a while since I read it. At any rate, that’s what I would recommend.
posted by roosterboy at 9:10 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

I came to recommend Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True also.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:16 AM on February 1

This might not be exactly what you're looking for, but the Young Adult biography, Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman is exceptional -- I read it years ago, so I can't remember how deeply it goes into the theory of Evolution, but it captures really well how torn Darwin himself was about bringing it to the world, and in particular how it affected his relationship with his wife, who was a devout Christian. It humanizes the whole subject in a really nice way.
posted by tangosnail at 9:57 AM on February 1

I think most of Dawkins' books will be off putting for a few reasons (and actually Gould as well) but The Magic of Reality sounds like exactly what you're looking for. It starts with zero assumptions about the reader's prior knowledge and is written without judgement. It isn't trying to convince anyone of anything but is just trying to explain the science. It's very accessible and answers questions like the ones you've posed in a very easy to understand way without being dumbed down.
posted by Polychrome at 10:00 AM on February 1

I’m currently reading “Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. While it’s not evolution from the very beginning of matter, it’s a fascinating and entertaining read about humankind and our evolution from beginning ancestors.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:14 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett
posted by Daily Alice at 11:41 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest The Beak of the Finch or Your Inner Fish, seconding some people above, depending on what kind of narrative she likes.

Finch is a mild adventure story and an unusual family history, because the researchers have spent so much of their lives working so remotely while they brought up their kids. I remember Fish as a lot more gentle-lectures, so, it gets to the quizzable science facts more directly, but someone who doesn't mostly read science might not like lectures until she's already more curious.
posted by clew at 11:57 AM on February 1

Nobody's recommended Darwin's Origin of Species itself?

Don't be scared! It was written for a general readership, and he marshals so many facts that the inferences appear tiny by comparison and any sense of polemic is undetectable.

Srsly, it's a frikkin' masterpiece.

EDIT: I see rhamphorhynchus did, in fact, beat me to the punch.
posted by whuppy at 12:37 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Tiny counterargument, I think Origin is harder for the average modern reader than it was for its contemporaneous reader because we know SO much less about animals than we did then. On the other hand, Voyage of the Beagle is probably easier because understand world travel narratives a lot better, and its development of the very idea of geological timescales is gorgeous (and needed to `get' evolution, too).
posted by clew at 1:04 PM on February 1 [3 favorites]

I'd third the Origin of Species, or at least selected chunks of it. (Part of Darwin's brilliance was to present examples of change over time over and over in many different organisms/settings, so that one can hardly help thinking there's a pattern here... but perhaps your friend may want to stop after a few examples). I also found it surprisingly readable and since Darwin was making his argument to a creationist world, its argument is very, very tight and unlike many subsesquent texts, it doesn't have a tone of condescension or assume belief in evolution.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 1:16 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]

Seconding Gould's books of essay, because they are oblique, and natural selection is used to explain his general delight with the natural world. Also, he was personally religious (non-overlapping magisteria), which may be of intrigue to someone open-minded and of faith. For his longer-form work on evolution, Wonderful Life is wonderful. Some of the conclusions presented have be revised in the subsequent decades, as to be expected, which is a lesson in unto itself.
posted by bendybendy at 1:48 PM on February 1

Regarding interest in 'Origin of Species', the book 'Darwin's Ghost' by Steve Jones is an overview of the concepts in 'Origin of Species' with modern interpretations, in an accessible style.

Steve Jones also wrote: 'The Serpent's Promise' which is about the science of genetics interpreted through biblical metaphors. The biblical parts are mostly just jumping off points for various essays related to the field.
posted by ovvl at 6:32 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

Since your friend is a creationist (as per your description), I'd recommend the book Evolution vs Creationism by Genie Scott. It does a nice job of accurately describing creationism and evolution and explaining why creationism doesn't work. I found it respectful of religion and not dismissive, but also accurate to the science.

More on Dr. Scott here, and from the article:

"She is particularly distressed to hear people assert that belief in evolution is incompatible with religious faith. Though Dr. Scott described herself as a “humanist” who is not religious, she said, “there is not a dichotomous division between people of faith and science. There are many people of faith who accept evolution. This is something many people do not realize.”
posted by Toddles at 8:18 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin doesn't necessarily describe evolution to the layperson, but it does go into Darwin's process of figuring it all out in pretty intimate detail, including his religious qualms, and you do end up learning a lot about evolution!

Quammen writes a lot for National Geographic so he's a great blend of accessible and scientific.
posted by Grandysaur at 10:24 PM on February 1

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