Darwin Day

Today was Darwin Day, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years after his On the Origin of Species. Remarkably, even now only about a quarter of Americans accept the theory of natural selection. 63% believe that life has always existed in its current form or was created through a process of guided evolution. So in Darwin’s honor, a recommended reading list of books investigating and extending his ideas, some of which I haven’t read in years but that remain among my favorites:

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) — This is one of the most stunning books of non-fiction I’ve ever read, the sort that made me see the world in a whole new light. Dawkins describes natural selection from the gene’s perspective, offering a new and unique way of understanding evolution. This is also where the fertile concept of memes is first presented.

Unto Others (Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson) — Dawkins’ perspective is illuminating. It’s also limiting, in the sense that selection only at the gene level limits the kinds of altruism that can evolve. In this book the authors argue that selection for groups of organisms is also possible and can lead to more robust forms of altruism. The first half is a fascinating inquiry into that idea. The second is about the psychology of altruism and is in my view less interesting, but still worth reading.

The Song of the Dodo (David Quammen) — Quammen is an amazingly talented nature writer. In this book he discusses how the study of life on isolated islands reveals insights into evolution, extinction, and the effects of carving up natural habitat. Along the way it delves into the work of Alfred Wallace, whose independent work on evolution finally jolted Darwin into publishing his ideas.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Daniel Dennett) — An introduction to Darwinian ideas, with provocative extensions to culture, morality, and technology.

Bones of Contention (Paul Chambers) — As scientists, intellectuals, and theologians debated the merits of Darwin’s theory, the fossils of Archaeopteryx, a dinosaur with feathers, burst onto the scene. Whereas most pop science books take a grand view of evolution, this one looks in detail at one particular incident to illuminate warring perspectives. Unique, esoteric, and informative.

Consilience (Edward O. Wilson) — The opposite of esoteric. Here the father of sociology argues for a unified view of knowledge grounded in physics and evolution.