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Book Reviews

If someone asked you which popular book would be the best to read for evidence regarding evolution, which would you recommend? As 2009 was the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of "Origins",  several books were published from 2007 to 2009 that attempted to present the evidence for evolution in a form that would be understandable to the general public. Rogers published his book in 2011.

 

1. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence For Evolution.  (2009).  Richard Dawkins.

 

True to his form, Dawkins writes with a passion and literary style that makes this book, as with his previous ones, very readable.  However, he shows his distain and lack of respect for what he terms history deniers when it comes to those who reject evolutionary theory throughout the book while at the same time often not addressing why his explanations are better than the design argument.  For example, at the end of chapter 3 did he really convince anyone that the amazing orchid/bee or cleaner fish systems were naturally evolved versus the idea that they are too special and unique so they must have been designed by a creator?   I did not come away convinced that he would have swayed an antievolutionist.  Chapter 4 covers dating methods and in general is good; the picture on dendrochronology is excellent but there is no mention of ice core dating and no explanation of how molecular clocks work and why we can trust them until the end of chapter 10.  Other chapters cover microevolution, macroevolution and of course human evolution.  For an exposure to so many basic biological principles, this book is excellent.  However, Dawkins continually belittles those who reject evolution and his frustration and derragatory attitute towards antievolutionists would seem to make this book less than ideal as a overview of evolutionary evidence for the unconvinced.

470 pp. Hard cover.

 

 

2. Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul.  (2008). Kenneth Miller.

 

The central theme of this book is why Intelligent Design is not scientific, does not belong in the science classroom. and why it is just the latest reincarnation of creationism.  Overall Miller does an excellent job of exposing ID and dismantiling it.  His explanations of human chromosome 2 fusion and the vitamin C pseudogene are very understandable.  However, he misses an opportunity when discussing chromosome 2 fusion and how this argues against recent design when one considers the accumulation of mutations in the fused telomere region - and that is critical in countering the hypothesis from those who reject evolution and state that "God just made it that way".  Some of the more important discussions in this book occur in the first and last sections. His discussion of why Americans especially reject authority and science is spot on and all in science who wish to understand the mind of the believer antievolutionist should ponder his analysis.  Miller returns to this theme in a chapter near the end of his book, "Closing the American Scientific Mind", borrowing from Bloom's book, where he expands on the reasons why evolution is rejected in America despite the overwhelming evidence for it.  This would be an excellent book for someone who wanted to know the main evidences for evolution, but more importantly the philsophical reasons why it is often rejected, and the case against ID.  Unfortunately, there is little formal discussion of the fossil evidence for evolution. Also, his writing often takes on a personal tone due to his many public debates and court cases with creationists and ID persons that detracts somewhat from the presentation.

244 pp. Paperback.

 

 

3. Why Evolution is True. (2009). Jerry Coyne.

 

If there was only one book to read regarding why evolutionary theory is accepted by all mainstream scientists in different cultures around the world, this would be the one.  He simply presents most of the evidence for evolution from all the various scientific disciplines in a form that nearly everyone can understand.  There is a handy Glossary in the back and sections at the back of the book for Suggestions for Further Reading and References.  But a gold mine of further writing is found in the Notes section in the back; don't miss reading those pearles and unique expanded explanations. He is sensitive to those who think accepting evolution would mean the end of morals and culture as we know it and makes constructive suggestions to those struggling with those issues. Writing in his last chapter, "Evolution Redux" he discusses how no amount of evidence will convince some of the validity of evolutionary theory.  He shows his depth of knowlege of his opponents by including Nancy Pearcey in his coments, a person affiliated with the Discovery Institute (heavily ID) and that few other evolutionary writers seem knowledgeable of (Prothero also mentions her).  Of the four, this is the book you should read if you reject evolution or if you are someone who wishes to recommend one sourse to an antievolutionist.  However, many seeking believers will gain significantly also from Miller's books, "Only A Theory" and "Finding Darwin's God". 

282 pp. Paperback.

 

 

4. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. (2007).

Don Prothero.

 

     As the title implies, this book approaches the evolution debate from the view of a paleontologist. It is divided into two parts. Part I consistes of five chapters that discuss what science is, creationism, how fossils form and are dated, evolution, and classification. Part II has chapters that detail the major groups and transitions in the fossil record. Thus, one can turn to a specific chapter to learn about the fossil record for the origin of life, fish, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals, and humans to name many.  The book is written both as a defense of evolution but also Prothero continuously attacks and challenges young earth creationism.  Shermer has called this book, "The best damn book on evolution - period".  Prothero is a friend of religion, but not young earth creationists whom he's debated.  In the Acknowlegments section he writes:

 

"I am grateful to my brilliant pastor, the late Rev. Dr. Bruce Thielemann, who showed me that you could be religious and intellectual at the same time. I thank Dr. Don Polhemus for urging me to take Hebrew in high school and for keeping me on my toes with my 'alephs' and 'gimels', and Dr. Anastasius Bandy for teaching me to read the New Testament in it's original Greek. I thank my former professors in philosophy, classics, anthropology, and religion at UC Riverside, who helped me understand not only the Bible but also religions and the anthropology and sociology of religion."

 

     It's unfortunate that young earth creationists will probably not read this book and others will perhaps be perplexed at the great lengths the author goes to continually comment and refute creationist arguments.  But Prothero has been in the debate trenches with creationists for many years and he knows how pervasive the movment is in America, how it has affected the country, and the dangers it poses. In the last chapter, "Why Does It Matter?", he discusses seven points under 'why we should care'.  

     The book has no footnotes or glossary, but does have an extensive index and bibliography at the end. Chapters end with suggestions for further reading. In general, I found it tedious to try and read straight through. Especially, Part II can serve as an excellent reference for looking up various topics when the need arises.  In contast, in the first part more general and foundational topics are covered.  For example, in Chapter 3 he spends almost the entire chapter dismanteling Noah's Flood and speaking in depth on the Grand Canyon - two geological issues that creationists discuss at length, and of course represents an Achilles heel for them if they are wrong.  The book would have been more useful if he had broadened his comments to include other variations of creationism such as Hugh Ross's progressive creationism where God is imagined to create the fossil record through various successive creative acts and mass extinctions in preparation for the arrival of humans. In this way, the book is also narrow in it's appeal.  But what he tries to do - explain how the fossil record supports macroevolution and refutes young earth creationism - he does very well. You will not waste your time reading this, nor owning it as a reference on fossils.

381 pp. HB.

 

5. The Evidence For Evolution. (2011).  Alan Rogers. 

 

At only 102 pages in the main text, this book gets one's attention. What did he decide to include and what got left out? How does this book compare to other writers who attempt to explain the evidence for evolution to the public with their recently published works - for example Dawkins, Miller and Coyne?

There are 10 short chapters,  so the book is an easy read. Chapter 2 describes microevolution, although he never uses the term that I recall. Chapter 3 will be a favorite of readers since it discusses evidence for macroevolution; he covers whale fossils and then combines the fossil evidence with whale transposon data to show how genetics and fossils come together to conclusively demonstrate macroevolution, confirming each other with a very nice touch.  Chapter 5 is unique as it discusses adaptive peaks and valleys and how species can cross them. His garden hose analogy is wonderfully applied to the recurrent laryngeal nerve and vas deferens anatomy. Other topics discussed include island biogeography in Chapter 6 with Rogers returning to the cladogram as evidence for evolution, and repeating the format used in the transposon discussion. Everyone should read his discussion of isochrons in Chapter 7 and how we know the ancient age of our earth and fossils. As he did with the whales, Rogers combines the fossil record for human evolution with the newer genetic data showing how transposons confirm the human fossil record in Chapter 8. There is an Index and Bibliography. I don't recall much if any mention of ERVs, Human Chromosome 2 fusion, nor atavisms which are important to consider in the context of the transposon data he presents.

If you're short on time, read this one. If you can, read both Rogers and Coyne (Why Evolution Is True).

120 pp. Paperback

 

Other Books to Consider

 

"The Making of The Fittest: DNA and the ultimate forensic evidence of evolution" (2006).  Sean Carroll.

 

"Your Inner Fish: a Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body"

(2008).  Neil Shubin.

 

"Science, Evolution, and Creationism." (2008). Only 54 pages of text. National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. A distinguished panel of scientists worked on this including Tyson, Ayala, Pennock, Dalrymple and many others. It is a short publication with many visuals. Three main chapters: Evolution/science, Evidence for evolution, and Creationist "perspectives". It takes the accommodationalist view of the conflict, adopting Gould's NOMA. It probably is a good starting place and overview of evolution but may not be satisfactory for either side in the debate over origins. I do not agree that evolution and religion in the end can be compatible and so do not endorse one of the foundational views of the book

 

Biomed