I take a great interest in the intersection between science and religion and evolution is therefore something I often read about. Many of the critics of evolution like to poke "scientific" holes in evolution, perhaps the most common one being that there is simply "not enough" evidence. As someone trained in physics but not biology, I would like a book that is accessible and which summarises the evidence we have accumulated for the evolution of life on Earth. Ideally, I would like a book that remains strictly scientific, without any particular atheistic or religious agenda, and which evaluates each line of evidence rather than simply describing it.

Does anyone have a book recommendation?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think you can do much better than the original: Darwin's "Origin of Species", or failing that, any high school or college biology text. The "problem" from your point of view is that evolution has for a long time been accepted fact. Modern books would describe evolution rather than argue about it, since at this point trying to convince those who don't accept it is rather like trying to teach a pig to sing: it just wastes your time and annoys the pig :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ My own favourite, first published in 1958 but with a Canto edition in 1996, is The Theory of Evolution by John Maynard Smith. You can get a 'flavour' of the great man's work here. IMO his book is still one of the very best. $\endgroup$
    – user338907
    Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf You can obviously do a lot better. Darwin's work was seminal but even ignoring the dated language (his is clearer than most from the period but, nevertheless, language evolves), Darwin's understanding of evolution was simply extremely limited. It's hard to overstate just how much we've learned since then, and, in particular, a modern introduction to evolution is incomplete without discussing evidence from genetics. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ Have you tried Berkeley's understanding evolution it is a great supplement for anyone just getting started on the subject. evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/home.php $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 4:08
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    $\begingroup$ For the love of your own sanity don't read "On the Origin of Species" for a modern reading it is incredibly dry and covers many thing you already know, like that heredity exists, and uses examples you will have no experience with like pigeon breeding, which was very common at the time and nearly non-existent now. Three bloody chapters on pigeon breeding! $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 5:20

7 Answers 7


I like "The Darwinian Revolution" by Michael Ruse.

It's far more of a history book than a science book. It won't get into the nitty gritty of evidence from molecular biology and modern genetic analyses. What it does do is to chart out how exactly Darwin (and Wallace) came to understand the key features of biological evolution and how the scientific community reacted, both in converting skeptics overnight and hardening a few opponents.

Reading the book, you'll learn how Darwin was a geologist at heart and by training more so than a biologist, and how evolution fits as much into the history of geology as it does in biology. You'll learn how religious thinking was an element to all sorts of competing theories about natural history, with different thinkers taking different approaches and getting stuck in different holes.

You'll also see how Origin was both revolutionary and incremental: really all of the basic concepts were already out there at the time Darwin published, they just hadn't quite been synthesized into a whole.

I think it's a good book to set the table. When considering all the competing theories and evidence, Darwinian evolution comes naturally out of the bodies of evidence collected by others. It explains numerous puzzles that no one else could quite figure out. It emphasizes the places where adherence to faith put up barriers for some scholars in understanding what was otherwise right in front of them. I think it puts more modern opposition to evolution, like "intelligent design", into its own historical context, and after reading it's hard to argue against Dobzhansky: "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". It's not that there are particular pieces of evidence for or against evolution, it's that all of biology is the evidence for evolution, and modern biology takes it so much for granted as truth that we hardly notice.

There are reasonable religious arguments to make about the origins of life and the universe itself, but the descent of species from common ancestors and all the phenotypic and molecular connections that link us to all other organisms of life on Earth are unimpeachable.

Ruse wrote a review/afterword of his own book decades after publication, available in PNAS:

Ruse, Michael. "The Darwinian revolution: Rethinking its meaning and significance." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106.Supplement 1 (2009): 10040-10047.

and another a few years earlier:

Ruse, M. (2005). The Darwinian Revolution, as seen in 1979 and as seen Twenty-Five Years Later in 2004. Journal of the History of Biology, 38(1), 3-17.

if you want to start with something shorter than the original book:

Ruse, M. (1979). The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw.

My copy is of the 1999 second edition, and it looks like there is a newer 2019 version as well.


I can name a few

Your inner fish by Neil Shubin is probably the most inviting for a layman. Just be aware the first chapter is about Shubin personal story and the discovery of Tiktaalik. It is greater starter not because it covers every of lines of evidence but because is covers six or seven specific human centered bits of evidence in great detail. it makes a good starting book if that sounds like your level.

If you want to go into detail, the blind watchmaker by Dawkins is still some of the best in depth explanations of the evidence out there. It also goes into great detail about the part that gives people the most trouble how evolution gives rise to complexity. It also deals with the problems with the lay arguments against evolution. this is the best if you really want to sink your teeth into it and for getting an evaluation of evidence.

If you are just interested in animal evolution Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom by Carrol is you best bet. it is focused on how mutation can change animals by altering regulatory or developmental genes, which is the bulk of evolution in animals. It also delves in many of the modern experiments on such genes which lets you see modern examples of evidence. This is another good one for sinking your teeth into.

As someone trained in physics you may even find a undergraduate population genetics book worth looking into since it will be a more mathematical framework. Although I can't name one off the top of my head.

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Zimmer, is a good middle ground, if you just want a primer on evolution, this is an excellent one. It talks about the modern evolutionary synthesis, the history of evolution and the ideas it is founded on. It is also one of the most accessible books on the subject I have ever seen. If other books are giving you trouble read this first.

DON'T read On the origin of species, is is a dry, dull, long winded book for modern readers, there are three chapters on pigeon breeding for sanity's sake. Darwin was writing an exhaustive book for a different time and many of the chapter are devoted to demonstrating things most modern people already know without question, like that heredity exists.

this question may also be helpful for you. What are the major differences between good study habits for biology vs mathematics?

Also the stated clearly site has some excellent videos on evolution, some of the best out there. I recommend them to my students. It is amazing how much easier a simple animation can make a concept.


I think libraries have been filled on the topic of evolution - it is an immensely broad field of study and can be looked at from a geological time scale (millions of years) to a much smaller scale observable in a scientist's career, since evolution driven by geographical separation can happen over a few generations. Nonetheless I can add my 2 cents worth.

I love the book 'Dinosaurs - A concise natural history' from Fastovsky & Weishampel. Chapter three of this book on dinosaurs features 5 sections that feature many elements that you are after. The sections in this chapter are the following:

  • Phylogeny
  • Evolution
  • Phylogenetic systematics
  • Cladograms
  • Logic of science and hypothesis testing

As you can see the chapter builds up to the point where the theory of evolution is explained. It's still a theory, yet the evidence is so overwhelming it's principles are taken as a fact, yet the exact mechanisms behind it and the construction of the 'tree of life' is anything but a fact, but rather based on science, logics and hypothesis testing. The chapter has been really rewarding for me to read and I bet it can help you a lot too. Along the way you'll learn a lot of cool things about dinosaurs too (birds are technically dinosaurs, but flying dinosaurs were not the direct predecessors of birds and so on).

- Fastovsky & Weishampel. Dinosaurs - a concise natural history. Cambridge University Press. 2010


I've read a few on the topic, and what I would recommend would depend on your focus.

For a generally fun, smart, and accessible book on evolution, my favorite is Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, by Richard Fortey. It's an odd approach to talking about general evolution, but trilobites were around for so long, and they left such perfect fossils, that they teach us a lot about the whole process. Did you know that when geologists don't know how old a layer of rock is, they often look for which species of trilobite are stuck in it? Or that they had eyes made of crystal, and were so numerous that the oceans were black with them.

This book broke down evolution for me when I was looking for exactly the clarity that you describe in your question, and allowed me to converse with people in a much more intelligent way.

You might also consider as secondary reading Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, and others by him. It's more about evolutionary psychology, and is interesting is showing, as he put it, that "Man is not a fallen angel, but a risen ape." It's really interesting to see how many of our morals, thoughts, actions, cultures, and even gestures come built in from our ape ancestors. But, psychology is also always a more slippery field, so you may not like some of the assumptions.



A Short History of Humanity by Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe

Not pure evolution however Johannes Krause is the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology and this is a recent book (2021) in a very rapidly changing field of Archaeogenetics. Covers the extinct species of Neanderthal and modern DNA showing traces of Neanderthal interbreeding with modern humans.


If you are looking for something that gives a good overview of all evolutionary processes, I recommend Evolution Unraveled from Randall Harris. The book goes into the best explanation on how evolution could work as observed by science.

For example, as @CaptainSkyfish mentioned with the Trilobites, the book expands on some great questions like how did something with such a complex eye evolve so early?

A great book if you are into coming to heads with what science actually describes around evolution.


Being a physicist myself I would recommend the Gillespie's little book as a crash course on the basic genetic concepts. For the mathy stuff it is worthwhile googling "population genetics" - there are a few excellent sets of lecture notes walking around - such as several version of the Mathematical population genetics by Ewens. Theses might seem not exactly what the question asks about, but to a physicist this would give a rather good idea why genetic models being a lot more serious than most creationists with no math background can imagine.


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