Sunday, June 26, 2011

FiveBooks Interview: Jerry Coyne on Evolution

The evolutionary biologist tells us why Darwin is still essential reading and sifts the vast amount of more recent writing on evolution for books that are both inspiring to scientists and accessible to general readers

I know you had a hard time narrowing your list down to just five books. In the end you chose books that are not only accessible but also your personal favourites.

Yes. There are books, like Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale or The Greatest Show on Earth, which give you evidence for evolution and are educational. But they weren’t inspirational to me in the way that these five books are. These are books that would be of benefit not only to the layperson but also to the working biologist.

I actually canvassed a lot of my colleagues, who are all evolutionary biologists, to get their ideas about what books to recommend. Most of them said they don’t read popular books on evolution, which I found kind of appalling. You can always learn stuff – nobody knows everything about evolution. Also, these books teach you how to write, how to promulgate your ideas and be a better educator. That’s part of our function as scientists, to communicate what we do.

I left aside more technical, textbook-type titles like The Selfish Gene by Dawkins and Adaptation and Natural Selection by George Williams, which is a bit of an arcane book. They’re inspirational to me as a scientist, but not so much as a scientist interested in communicating with the general public. It was a tough call. I had to leave out Carl Sagan. The good thing is that there is a plethora of books out there to educate the public about evolutionary biology. The bad thing is that the public doesn’t seem to be reading them, because 40% of Americans still reject evolution.


Related books:

On the Origin of Species


The Power of Place

The Blind Watchmaker

The Mismeasure of Man


Ever Since Darwin

Why Evolution is True

The Selfish Gene

Climbing Mount Improbable

The Extended Phenotype

Related link: Growing Up in the Universe