Your evolution book gift giving guide for Christmas

So you want to give a gift that keeps on speciating. There is nothing like waking up on Christmas morning, the scent of wassail and pine in the air from the Christmas tree (or artificial pine scent from the festivas pole), and finding a copy of Origin of Species wrapped up and left by Santa.

What if your giftee as already read Origin of Species and they want to learn something about modern evolutionary biology? No fear! There is a cornucopia of new books on evolution, so which do you choose? Which one should you start with? Now I’m going to make some daring assumptions. First, I’m assuming you want the science behind the discipline from the horse’s mouth—real evolutionary biologists presenting their best case. As I’ve said before, we ask our neighbors to learn about LDS Faith from us, rather than the evangelical literature. We really should apply that broadly and learn our evolution from evolutionary biologists. It’s only fair you know.

Now, there are a number of ways to tack into learning a little something about the science. Evolutionary biology touches so many biological disciplines and as a result are many ways to approach the subject. For example, say you are mad about fossils. You love the petrified little wonders. Then Donald R. Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters is the book for you. This book explores evolution from the story that unfolds from the Earth itself. Nicely illustrated this book will walk you through why fossils provide so much evidence for evolution. The chapters are long and detailed and while the reading is not light, it is deeply informative. After, however, you will (amusing your are fairly rationally inclined) forever have to abandon any attempt to explain fossils as a bunch of smashed together previous creations on other earths, so if that idea is dear to you, best not read this book.

What about DNA? Suppose fossils are just not your cup of herbal tea and you find them just so many rocks, but CSI has got you curious about DNA and its powerful brand of evidence. Well, fear not, LDS scientist Dan Fairbanks book, Relics of Eden will have you following the case with skill and clarity. Molecular biology has busted the door wide open and a cashe of stunning evidence for evolution by natural selection. Dan writes like an angel.

And speaking of Mormons, don’t miss Stephens and Meldrum’s wonderful and faithful look at LDS thought and Evolution: Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding. They look at the history of Mormonism and evolution and give a nice summary of evolution. And they are Mormon Scientists! Want the most complete and accurate compilation of all of the authoritative statements by the first presidency on evolution? Read Evenson (the author of the Evolution Article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism) and Jeffery’s: Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements.

But what if DNA stuff makes you yawn? What if what you really want to know is, “Why do I have tail bones?” and “Why do human embryos have gill slits and look so, well, fishy?” Then the book for you is Neil Subin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. He provides a wonderful look at evolution as expressed in our bodies with it’s leftover stuff from our fish days. This is a fun book. You’ll never look at your fins . . . I mean hands . . . the same way again.

Not in the mood for a long haul, but want to get at the facts quick? Then try the Oxford Short Introduction to Evolution by Brian and Deborah Charlesworth. It will have you up to speed in no time. The book is breathtakingly clear, informative, and its done in an economy of space. In addition, to Evolution there are Oxford Short Short Introductions to Human Evolution, Darwin, and Life on Earth, and they are all also brilliantly clear and highly recommended.

A longer version of an introduction that gives a very complete view of evolution is Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. This is nicely illustrated and well written. Coyne is one of the world’s premiere evolutionists (and is someone I’ve argued with about obscure points of evolutionary process in the academic journal Evolution—but no hard feelings, his book is great). But he brings you up to speed in almost all aspects of evolutionary biology (be warned he has pictures of humans with tails and this always weirds me out (with apologies to those of you with tails (I’d just rather not see them))).

Intelligent Design got you confused? Has their whirlygig of misinformation got you scratching your aching head? A whole spate of new books will help you clear your noggin. Three by philosophers of science give a blistering critique of ID and will help you see why mainstream biologists are still staring like a reindeer into a head lamp that anyone is taking this junk seriously. Phillip Kitcher’s book Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith is the shortest and most readable. It’s also the most well written. He demonstrates quite convincingly why ID is both bad science and bad Faith. Sarkar’s Doubting Darwin: Creation Designs on Evolution more carefully deconstructs the ID agenda by clearly showing what they are saying, why it’s not science, and how their arguments fail. These two are aimed at popular audiences and are written at the level of say a Scientific American article. The last of these three is a seriously philosophical tour de force that rigorously takes on the ID arguments. Philosopher Elliott Sober’s Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science carefully looks at how evolutionary arrangements are constructed, the evidence behind those arguments and the logic behind evolution’s claim to being a science. However, this is for the logically or mathematically trained and if things like Pr[W_i(P)|P]>Pr[W_i(P)|notP] don’t sound familiar then I would go to one of the other other two. However, this is possibly the best defense of evolution ever written. It formally and with great rigor dismantles the ID’s pseudo probability and fake-o mathematical arguments and places evolutionary arrangements on philosophical terra-firma. This is a hefty book weighing in at 400 pages, but for those who really want to get at the heart of evolution and remove any remaining sentiments that ID is even close to being a science, this is your best choice.

(Also a brief mention for those coming from Continental philosophy who would like explore the implications of evolution, Darwinism and Philosophy edited by Vittorio Hösle and Christian Illiesis is a wonderful edited volume on why Darwin matters philosophically and how Natural Selection may have something to say to you.)

Religion and Evolution? I can’t praise anyone higher than Kenneth Miller. A Catholic biologist, he has spent a lot of time developing a faithful view of Evolution and Religion. He just came to BYU and spoke in the Joseph Smith Building to a packed house. He will introduce you to evolution in his book: Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution but will unapologeticly show how faithful responses that do not involve overt creationism or ID are possible. In his new book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, like Kitcher, he shows how ID is bad faith and poisons both science and faithful responses to the reality of evolution. The nice thing about Miller is that he is coming to these insights as a person of faith (Kitcher is not) which brings an authenticity to views of uniting faith and evolution.

Evangelical Christian and Physicist Karl W. Giberson also writes a wonderful book, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Again he argues that a fully faithful belief in evolution is possible and in fact mandated in a world where its truth has become rationally undeniable. He also shows how the perception that scientists are atheists is grounded in just a few popular writers like Dawkins, Hawking, Sagan, Wilson and others. Mainstream scientists span the space of religious belief with much greater diversity.

For serious theological work on Darwin’s revolution and faith, Catholic theologian John Haught’s books Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution and God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution are unparalleled in both their perspective that evolution must be taken seriously by theology, and that God cannot be absented from human knowledge. And in the spirit of the season, don’t forget Celia Deane-Drummond’s Christ and Evolution: Wonder and Wisdom! These are for those at least marginally familiar with current trends in theology.

There are also a couple books worth looking into. Forty Days and Forty Nights and Monkey Girl follow the Dover Trial in great detail and show what’s at stake with the evangelical attempt to get ID taught in the school. If you are concerned about education and the future of science teaching in the US, read one of these. Both cover the facts. I like Monkey Girl a little more, but either one will do the job.

So there are my recommendations to get you started on understanding arguably the most important scientific theory of the modern area. Really. No other theory has added more to your life. Including advances in medicine and agriculture and just about anything that has to do with life.

In closing I offer this:

D&C 107: 7

7 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith;

And From D&C 88:

78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—

We live in an an age when we’ve never known more about life and its processes. Join the conversation and see what we’ve learned. It will not threaten your faith. As I’ve argued time and time again in this blog If evolution is true, its true and part of the gospel. It’s exciting stuff. And it makes great Christmas gifts.

Bookmark Your evolution book gift giving guide for Christmas


  1. I’ve been reading Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and loving it – I’m surprised it didn’t make your list.

  2. Thanks for this. For this scientific neophyte, all the heady ‘nacle discussions about evolution and religion have left me hoping for just this kind of book list. I appreciate all these recommendations! Thanks.

  3. Oh, that, and any post that uses the words “whirlygig” and “noggin” has to be worth something!

  4. john willis says:

    All good suggestions. For a book that is not solely about evolution but discusses how a first rate L.D.S scientist dealt with these issues try the biography of Henry Eyring Sr., Mormon Scientist by his grandson Henry Eyring (who is the son of Henry Eyring Jr. of the First Presidency)

    Anyone who can tell Joseph Fielding Smith that he didn’t know what he was talking about when he discussed scientific issues is my kind of guy. (and get away with it)

  5. My favorite Henry Eyring book is “Reflections of a Scientist.” It seems to be out of print, but if you can get a copy, it’s excellent. And it’s not as watered-down as the more recent biography.

  6. May I also suggest “Darwinism Evolving” by Depew and Weber? If you’ve read it, I’d like to hear your reaction. The chapter called “Newton of a Blade of Grass” (I think?) is fantastic.

  7. Just a shout out for the “Relics of Eden” book cited above. It is terrific.

  8. Speaking of DNA, has anyone written a book on how Jewish DNA can evolve into Asian DNA?

  9. I recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory for those who have some exposure to the topic already (he’s an excellent writer, but the presentation ends up abstruse and academic sometimes nonetheless). It’s a great case of catastrophism vs. gradualism in evolution.

  10. From me to me to me
    From what I was to what I’ll be
    Forever changing, rearranging,
    From me to me to me!

  11. What about gift ideas for those who may be open minded and intellectually-inclined but will come over to evolution only kicking and screaming thanks to years of creationism poisoning? Which of these books would you recommend? Something interesting and/or compelling enough that they’ll read it even though they’re not interested in the topic per se or in being found on the wrong side of the fence. I’m thinking maybe the Henry Eyring biography—but the new one or the old one?

  12. I’d give books by Sarah HRDY – fascinating and enlightening – books about the evolution of mothering and babies and how said evolution has shaped our species.

  13. Anony, start with Dan Fairbanks or Ken Miller’s first book.

    Cheryl–Totally agree. I’ve read both Mother Nature and am reading now Mothers and Others now. Wonderful! (but a little more intro to evolution might be necessary if you don’t know anything about it, they sort of assume you are on board with evolution already).

  14. Another recent book that I enjoyed is “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution” by biochemist Nick Lane.

  15. Anony,
    The old Eyring book (Reflections of a scientist), if their problem is that they believe the gospel and evolution are incompatible (and if they also have other creationist beliefs such as age of the earth, etc.)
    Eyring spends very little time on evolution, and just a chapter or so on the age of the earth, but it’s just enough to show, look, you can be a good member and accept good science.
    Once they’re to that point, then hit them with Fairbanks or Miller.

  16. The link for the Authoritative Statements is messed up.

    Thanks for all these recommendations! Added to my Amazon wishlist.


  17. Also, if someone remembers the post which directly addresses HighTower’s oblique reference (it may be here, or, perhaps, T&S), I’d appreciate it. I’d love a refresher.

  18. I fixed the link (16), thanks Silus for pointing that out.

  19. twitterpated says:

    Yep. The best books are those that spin a yarn too long to dangle in front of a cat’s face. That’s what we need for Christmas … the atheistic viewpoint on things.

    It’s so incumbent upon us to be up on evolutionary presuppositions. Evolution is a hypothesis masquerading as a theory pretending to be a fact (**gasp for air**) that life somehow came about through unspecified and unidentified nothing dressed up to be something — not that evolutionists know where it came from, of course, or what it was, or anything in particular about it. Theories on the origin of life are not actually part of evolution, an evolutionist will proudly say, but there is some thought that possibly a blob of cyanide activated by lightening got really frisky and spawned all life. But, be that as it may, it’s exciting to read about bears that crawled into the ocean to become whales in a crazed morass of DNA gone ape. And there’s always the added bonus of excusability of the crassness one’s near relations — well, he just hasn’t evolved yet.

    Yeah! And if you just can’t accept that random genomes danced their way into everything through a spinning vortex of nothing, just say God was fiddling his thumbs, watching it from the sofa, taking time out to pop some popcorn and channel surf a little. (After all, the process took MILLIONS of years … can someone say … BORING?) Oh sure, God is clueless and we have it all figured out, right in our little brains. God’s a dolt. He has to muck around with evolution because he doesn’t know any more effective method. That’s why DNA is such a complete and intricate pattern that codes for replication of specific forms of life, all in their proper order. It’s because God didn’t know what he was doing. Yep. Unlike a talented seamstress who knows just how to efficiently put together a dress, God had to throw some microorganisms around in a soup and dawdle around for MILLIONS of years, hoping it would turn out somehow. And it did! What luck! It couldn’t be that he knew what he was doing all along and made all things, each after their own kind, just as he said. Hey, God’s a liar and Dawkins is a pillar of truth, don’t ya know?

    Sure! Let’s sell out to the secular world, so that we, too, can pronounce the word “coccolithophorid” and mamba our way through the Jurassic Period.

    Oh, we can do that for Christmas. After all, the Lord won’t mind if we discount his word, throwing out the Bible for a bunch of nonsense some yahoos made up, and all on the day we remember Christ’s birth. Darwinism for Christmas is all the rage. Who could pass that up?

    Well, I for one could. Rather than read up on evolution for Christmas, I have a better idea. Instead of playing games with the evolutionists, trying to find out which one of us can memorize the most scientific names incapable of being pronounced, let’s give the gift of Christ this Christmas. Let’s give the gift of the gospel message and eternal life. Let’s rejoice in God our Savior, the Creator of all things. Let’s proclaim the truth for all to hear: Christ, the Lord, has has visited and redeemed his people, that we might serve him in holiness and righteousness without fear. And that includes without fear of what an evolutionist thinks when we believe God rather than men.

  20. #19 twitterpated,

    If I can read up on Mormonism to better understand my fellow human beings, it would not kill you to reciprocate, and for the very same reason.

    Although, judging by your tone (and granted, it is always perilous to judge others by their tone), perhaps it would kill you…

  21. P.S. Thanks for the link. Now I know what the words coccolithophore, biflagellated, chromatophore, and calcareous mean. In truth, I had a good guess what these last three were, but it’s nice to be sure!

  22. Wow, twitterpated, that comment ought to win some kind of award. Not the type you’d want to display on your mantle though, or show your grandkids.