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Resources on Evolution and the Relatedness of All Life on Earth

Last updated: 9/10/2011

If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve. Anonymous

Books

[Note: This list is not exhaustive. It just includes books I have read and enjoyed. Popular is not used below as a pejorative; it means accessible to the interested general reader.]

Benton, Michael J. 2003. When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time. London: Thames & Hudson. [Popular. Tells the story of the end-Permian extinction that wiped out 90-95% of all species on earth and investigates its causes. Includes a discussion of the history of geology, to explain why it took so long to accept the reality of mass extinctions with catastrophic causes, and a detailed examination of the best known mass extinction, the end-Cretaceous event that wiped out the dinosaurs, to illustrate how difficult it is to document mass extinctions and to determine their causes.]

Benton, Michael J. 2005. Vertebrate Palaeontology, 3rd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Scientific. [Semi-technical]

Brasier, Martin. 2009. Darwin’s Lost World: The Hidden History of Animal Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Popular. The search for pre-Cambrian life. Not the best book I’ve read on the subject, but not bad. While I applaud his attempt to write creatively, some of his metaphors, such as the Cambrian Explosion as a circus, I found tiresome.]

Briggs, Derek E.G., Douglas H. Erwin, and Frederick J. Collier. 1994. The Fossils of the Burgess Shale. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books. [Covers 85 of 125 genera known from the Burgess Shale, including photos of the fossils and line drawings of the species as they would have appeared in life. Nicely complements The Crucible of Creation, by Simon Conway Morris.)

Bryson, Bill. 2003. A Short History of Nearly Everything. NY: Broadway Books. [An entertaining, very readable popular book about the evolution of life, the universe and everything.]

Burnett, Nancy, and Brad Matsen. 2002. The Shape of Life. Monterey, CA: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seas Studios Foundation. (Based on the National Geographic Television/Sea Studios Foundation series.) [popular]

Carroll, Sean B. 2005. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. NY: Norton. [A very readable popular description of evolutionary developmental biology (“evo devo”), the science of the genes that control the development of organisms and how evolution works through them to create new species with new body forms.]

Chambers, Paul. 2002. Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals. London: John Murray. (This is a well-written, engaging account of the discovery of the earliest known fossil bird, Archaeopteryx, and how it was received by scientists and society. Where Pat Shipman's book, Taking Wing, emphasizes the scientific import of Archaeopteryx, and its implications for theories of the origin of flight, Chambers weaves a compelling tale of the politics of science and the personalities of the scientists and fossil collectors involved in the initial discovery of the species. My only criticism is that the second half of the book seems less well edited than the first half, with more typographic and grammatical errors. The most egregious error was the substitution of ‘astrology’ for ‘astronomy’ on page 195.)

Chatterjee, Sankar. 1997. The Rise of Birds: 225 Million Years of Evolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. [Technical] (This book is a mixture of somwhat dry technical discussions of the anatomy of fossil and living birds and their dinosaurian precursors, and very readable explanations of Chatterjee’s interpretation of what the evidence implies about the origin and evolution of birds. There is less than universal acceptance that Protoavis, a series of fossils discovered by Chatterjee that he interprets as the earliest known bird, is in fact a bird. He really should have indicated this in his extended discussion of the specimens.)

Clack, Jennifer A. 2002. Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (The story of how one group of fish, the lobe-fins, gave rise to all terrestrial vertebrates, including ourselves, roughly 350 million years ago.) [semi-technical; you have to be willing to absorb lots of detail about early vertebrate skulls and skeletons to follow fully Clack’s story. However, you can still read and enjoy the book without becoming an expert on the subject. If you’re not sure, read Carl Zimmer's At the Waters Edge first, then move on to Gaining Ground if you find you want to know more. Professor Clack’s research is featured in episode 8 of The Shape of Life video series, and episode 2 of PBS’s Evolution.]

Conway Morris, Simon. 1998. The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Describes the florescence of complex animal life known as the Cambrian explosion. A good companion to The Fossils of the Burgess Shale, by Briggs, Erwin, and Collier.]

Conway Morris, Simon. 2003. Lifes Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. NY: Cambridge University Press. (Argues, based on the wide occurrence of convergent evolution – the evolution of similar adaptations to similar environmental challenges in distantly related organisms – that advanced, human-like organisms are virtually inevitable anywhere in the universe that complex organisms can evolve. A response and challenge to Stephen Jay Gould’s argument, presented in Wonderful Life, that evolution is basically unpredictable – that if we could “rewind the tape of evolution” on earth, it would bear no resemblance to the observed course of evolution that did occur. Conway Morris thinks that it would follow a similar, though not identical, course.)

Eisley, Loren. 1961. Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. (Darwin didn’t originate the idea that life evolves, and perhaps not even the notion of natural selection. He did, however, put it all together into a grand synthesis. This book outlines the intellectual precursors of Darwin’s and its aftermath in the 19th century.)

Erwin, Douglas H. 2006. Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. [Popular. Tells the story of the end-Permian extinction that wiped out 90-95% of all species on earth and investigates its causes. Covers essentially the same material as Michael Benton’s When Life Nearly Died, but spends less time on the ancillary material on the history of geology than Benton does. I have a slight preference for Benton’s book, because I think it is a little more coherently organized, but both are worth reading.]

Everhart, Michael J. 2005. Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [Semi-technical: presumes some basic knowledge of geology, particularly stratigraphy and the geological time scale. You may want to have a geological time chart at hand while you read the book. Tells of a time during the Cretaceous period when an ocean teeming with giant predatory fish, marine reptiles, and birds with teeth, covered much of the middle of North America.]

Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [Technical] (The 90 page first chapter, where Gould demonstrates his erudition to all, is pretty insufferable. Once he gets into his subject, however, the book is quite interesting. At over 1300 pages, it is not for the faint-hearted. As an added bonus, witness Gould pluck the wings off the fly of English prose with sentences such as, Second, gradualism as insensible intermediacy of transitional forms specifies the Goldlockean ‘middle position’ required by the mechanism of natural selection to refute the possibility that saltational variation might engender creative change all at once, thus relegating selection to a negative role of removing the unfit.(p. 60). His editor must have been out sick that day.)

Grimaldi, David, and Michael S. Engle. 2005. Evolution of the Insects. NY: Cambridge University Press. [Technical but very readable. With 650 pages of text, it helps to be really interested in insects if you plan to read it all. Numerous photographs and illustrations of fossil insects complement the text.]

Henig, Robin Marantz. 2000. The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Founder of Genetics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Howland, John L. 2000. The Surprising Archaea: Discovering Another Domain of Life. NY: Oxford University Press. [popular]

Kirschner, Marc W., and John C. Gerhart. 2005. The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma. New Haven: Yale University Press. [semi-technical]. Based in evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”), argues that the generation of non-lethal variability, a basis of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, is much easier than previously thought, because organisms at all levels of complexity use sophisticated, multi-function molecules whose behavior can be modified by relatively simple regulator molecules in localized compartments in the developing organism. Compartmentalization and regulation implies that the action of mutated genes or molecules can be limited to areas where they are beneficial, with other compartments being insulated from possible deleterious side-effects.

Long, John A. 1996. The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. [Semi-popular; well-illustrated with photos of fossils and reconstructions of the living organisms.]

Margulis, Lynn, and Karlene V. Schwartz. 1998. Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, 3rd ed. NY: W.H. Freeman.

Nielsen, Claus. 2001. Animal Evolution: Interrelationships of the Living Phyla, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [technical]

Pfeiffer, John E. 1976. The Emergence of Humankind, 4th ed. NY: Harper & Row. A masterful synthesis of information from fields as disparate as paleontology, primatology, human development, living prehistory, and archaeology, pertaining to human evolution. This is quite remarkable in a readable book aimed at a general audience.

Poinar, George, Jr., and Roberta Poinar. 2008. What Bugged the Dinosaurs?: Insects, Disease, and Death in the Cretaceous. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. [Fascinating discussion of insects known from Cretaceous amber and how they may have interacted with dinosaurs.]

Prothero, Donald R. 2006. After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [Popular treatment of the efflorescence of mammals following the demise of the dinosaurs. Includes illustrations of many bizarre species no longer with us, plus attractive color plates showing the habitats and mammal faunas of different time periods. I would have liked a prefatory chapter describing the origin and evolution of mammals before and during the age of dinosaurs, but you can get some of that from other sources. The author’s detailed descriptions of how climate changed during the Cenozoic Era, which accounts for much of the turnover of animal forms over time, is excellent.]

Raff, Rudolf A. 1996. The Shape of Life: Genes, Development, and the Evolution of Animal Form. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [technical]

Ruse, Michael. 1982. Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. (This clear explication of evolutionary theory and refutation of “Scientific Creationism” is still timely, given the current debate over teaching “Intelligent Design Theory” in public schools in the United States. It predates the Intelligent Design movement; since ID is just thinly disguised creationism, Ruse’s refutations apply.)

Schopf, J. William. 1999. Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earths Earliest Fossils. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. [popular]

Shubin, Neil. 2008. Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-billion-year History of the Human Body. NY: Pantheon. [Popular] (Explores the continuities between humans and our amphibian, fish, sponge, and microbial ancestors. Learn why we hiccup, suffer from sleep apnea, and are prone to choking on food.)

Simpson, George Gaylord. 1980. Splendid Isolation: The Curious History of South American Mammals. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stow, Dorrik. 2010. Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Nontechnical. How the breakup of Pangaea led to the growth and death of the Tethys Ocean, and how this affected the world’s climate, the fate of the dinosaurs, and the evolution of whales.]

Tasch, Paul. 1980. Paleobiology of the Invertebrates: Data Retrieval from the Fossil Record, 2nd ed. NY: Wiley, 1980. (Very detailed upper division/graduate level textbook.)

Unwin, David M. 2006. The Pterosaurs from Deep Time. NY: Pi Press. [Popular] (Well-written popular account of the variety and evolution of flying reptiles of the Mesozoic era, by the curator of fossil reptiles and birds at the Natural History Museum of Humboldt University in Berlin. Includes vivid paintings by Todd Marshall reconstructing the possible life appearance and world of the pterosaurs.)

Valentine, James W. 2004. On the Origin of Phyla. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Technical] (Written by a paleontologist, it includes evidence from fossils, comparative anatomy and development, and molecular biology. Includes a good discussion of the relationship between, and limitations of, anatomical and molecular phylogenetic reconstructions.)

Wallace, David Rains. 2004. Beasts of Eden: Walking Whales, Dawn Horses, and Other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution. (Another popular book on the evolution of mammals after the dinosaurs died. Nice treatment of the colorful personalities of the paleontologists who made mammal evolution their battleground. Not as well illustrated as Prothero’s After the Dinosaurs, but still worth reading.]

Walker, Gabrielle. 2003. Snowball Earth: The Story Of The Great Global Catastrophe That Spawned Life As We Know It. NY: Crown. [Popular] (An engaging explanation of the theory that there have been one or more periods when the entire earth was covered by glaciers, and how the idea developed. Her portrayal of the scientists’ personalities and how these affected the scientific debate was as compelling as the intellectual adventure itself.)

Ward, Peter D., and Donald W. Brownlee. 2000. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe. NY: Copernicus (Springer-Verlag). [Popular] (Argues that the geological and astronomical conditions that led to the evolution of complex life on earth are so stringent that complex life is probably rare in the universe. They suspect that simple life is probably widespread, however. Very readable.)

Willmer, Pat. 1990. Invertebrate Relationships: Patterns in Animal Evolution. NY: Cambridge University Press. [technical] (Although Claus Nielsen questions some of Willmer's conclusions, this book is worth reading before or in conjunction with Nielsen 2001, because it explains many features of animal structure, function, and development that are referred to but not detailed in Nielsen's book.)

Willis, K.J., and J.C. McElwain. 2002. The Evolution of Plants. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Semi-technical] (A very readable textbook on plant evolution.)

Wills, Christopher, and Jeffrey Bada. 2000. The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing. (Summarizes what we think we understand about the origin of life on earth, and what remains to be demonstrated. They argue that life, including complex life, should be widespread in the universe. Contrast this with Rare Earth, by Ward and Brownlee, described above.)

Zimmer, Carl. 1998. At the Waters Edge: Macroevolution and the Transformation of Life. NY: The Free Press. [popular]

Zimmer, Carl. 2001. Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. NY: Harper Collins. (Companion to the PBS series Evolution: A Journey into Where Were From and Where Were Going. Detailed and well-written.)

Videos

Clear Blue Sky Productions. 2001. Evolution: A Journey Into Where Were From and Where Were Going. Boston: WGBH Productions.

Sea Studios Foundation. 2001. The Shape of Life: Animal Life as Youve Never Seen it Before. Monterey, CA: Sea Studios Foundation. [Explores the evolution of body plans of the major phyla (groups) of living animals and the adaptations that make them successful, which they, in part, passed on to us.]

Websites

The Shape of Life (Companion to the PBS The Shape of Life video series.)

Evolution: A Journey Into Where We’re From and Where We’re Going (Companion to the PBS Evolution video series.)

National Center for Science Education – “Defending the Teaching of Evolution in the Public Schools”

Talk.Origins Macroevolution FAQ

29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, by Douglas L. Theobald, Ph.D., Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Colorado at Boulder.

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