There are, of course, libraries of books on evolution, which is the organizing principle of biology. There are also political culture wars occurring, and many books are less than objective. The notion that mental capacities in microbes, plants and animals might have played a role in evolution is currently controversial. The notion that behavior and social activity influenced evolution is now mainstream, as is the concept of cultural evolution in human beings. Increasingly, cooperation, rather than just competition, is being considered as a driving force in all of evolution.

The enormous complexity of the genetic apparatus in cells is just now unfolding and new discoveries are being obtained daily. In this rapid expanding field books are inherently slightly out of date. Hopefully, the following are books are objective, but also open to the question of where mental capacity might play a role in evolution.

The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution

The Tangled Bank is an excellent introductory book on evolution by a well-known author who has written extensively about microbes. It has both clear writing and good illustrations.

Principles of Social Evolution (Oxford Series in Ecology and Evolution)

This book is a technical analysis of Hamilton’s kin selection theory, where natural selection favors groups. The research described is based upon the mathematical formulations of inclusive fitness theory. This view posits selection for success in reproduction for relatives in a group, which might sacrifice individuals, leading to a theory incorporating altruism. Sociobiology has been largely based upon this theory.


by C. David Allis, Thomas Jenuwein, Danny Reinberg and Marie-Laure Caparros

The book Epigenetics is an early attempt to describe the details of epigenetic hereditary mechanisms, that is, mechanisms that are not changes of DNA. Epigenetic changes may only affect the next generation but can involve many more. Most of the currently known mechanisms of epigenetics are described in this book, although much has been learned in the past four years. The addition of a methyl group to a part of the DNA is one major mechanism. This methylation, which is passed to the next generation, can block sections of DNA from producing proteins, and therefore influences evolution. More recently, it has been shown that these methylation changes can be altered multiple times, which implies a much more active process than previously thought. Another mechanism involves influencing histones, which are large proteins protecting the DNA, by adding a chemical to the histone called acetyl.  The histones need to unravel in order for the DNA to be used and binding of different molecules to the histones can determine whether a particular stretch of DNA can be used.  When the fetus develops from the fertilized egg, material from the egg cell can be passed into the new generation of cells influencing the next generation. Diet, behavior, environmental chemicals, medications, and anything that affects the fetus can alter epigenetic mechanisms.  This is an important emerging field and I look forward to an updated version of this book.

Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)

In this book a current leading evolutionary biologist describes the complexity of evolution. This book is very well written and gives many detailed examples to explain a complex subject and make it understandable. She details four major ways that evolution can be influenced. Since some of the material is provocative, at the end of each chapter there is an imagined conversation with a critic of the material presented. The first two mechanisms are the well known genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. The chapters on the other two ways that evolution can be affected, behavior and symbolic communication, are very enlightening. It is unfortunate that more people haven’t read this book.

Why Evolution Is True

by Jerry A. Coyne

This book is an excellent, clear and concise summary of scientific data that show the overwhelming facts of evolution.

The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture

This is a short, complex and very significant book. It demonstrates that current dialogue about nature and nurture, even in the finest scientific journals, is confused. The author is a noted philosopher who gives a convincing argument that in current science what we think of as environmental influences and pure genetic mechanisms cannot be separated. Taking her discussion into account would change biology for the better, but make conclusions less certain because of the increased complexity.

SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

Professor Nowak is a leading figure in mathematical descriptions of evolution. He has pioneered the idea that cooperation is a major mechanism of natural selection throughout the history of evolution.  His analysis starts as early as the hypothetical era before DNA, a period where RNA molecules cooperate to help start life as we know it.  He does not agree with Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory, which has prompted intense criticism of his theory.  The book elaborates on the many different ways that organisms have cooperated including chess like games, reciprocity, group selection among tribes, and even kin selection among close relatives.  This book is very well written, possibly because the co-writer is an editor of New Scientist.

Mutation: The History of an Idea from Darwin to Genomics

Current theory suggests that all of the variety in nature appears through random mutations in the DNA. Mutations change the function, structure and behavior of an organism, which is then selected to survive if it is more successful than other organisms without the mutation. As genetics has become more complex and the word “mutation” is used more frequently in society the definition of mutation has evolved. This is a technical, but important subject.

Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century

This is a grand wide-ranging book about the entire history of life with brilliant insights ranging from the cooperation and communication of microbes and insects, to the forces that have affected human civilization.  It has a lot of good science as well as a message for the future.  Global Brain is written in the tradition of all-inclusive books such as The Seven Mysteries of Life by Guy Murchie.

Math Books by Keith Devlin

These are two interesting books by a prolific writer about mathematics. The Math Instinct has information about animals’ mathematical abilities. The Math Gene tackles the question of human mathematical abilities and how they might relate to language and evolution.

Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press Science)

In this book, a brilliant leading molecular biologist describes a very detailed new synthesis of the mechanisms of evolution. Professor Shapiro is a pioneer in genetic molecular biology having discovered replicative transposition in microbes, and one of the first to discover complex behavior in microbes. He incorporates the most recent research into an elaborate broad new synthesis of evolutionary theory. He bases his theory, in part, upon the recent findings of complicated editing and splicing of DNA, as well as very complex error correction in the copying of DNA sequences.  He also notes the importance of an understanding of jumping genes, lateral transfers of DNA, epigenetics, and inter species hybridization in refiguring DNA sequences and creating variation. This book is provocative in that he describes “natural genetic engineering” as a form of primitive sentience in cells. It is highly technical, with many footnotes available online.  But, even reading between the difficult to understand technicalities is very rewarding.

Books by Lynn Margulis

Professor Margulis, who is very recently deceased, was a brilliant and provocative innovator in biology for many years. She pioneered the concept that small cells became symbiotically part of larger cells during evolution to form our eukaryote cells with indwelling smaller mitochondrion. The concept that mitochondrion and other organelles were once free-living microbes was not accepted for many years, but it is now considered well established. She continued to be provocative and pioneered the concept that simple mutation is only a minor mechanism of evolution which has made her very unpopular. She describes the major mechanism of evolution as wide spread symbiotic sharing of DNA among microbes and all other species. Dramatic new discoveries about the huge amount of microbes and viruses in and around all organisms, and the promiscuous lateral transfer of DNA among microbes and viruses, make her theories more possible. There are also increasing examples of symbiosis found throughout nature.

Her views remain controversial and provocative and are frequently attacked by other scientists. But, her books on the life of the microbe and the many examples of symbiosis are brilliant. Her latest book Chimeras and Consciousness: Evolution of the Sensory Self is an edited collection about symbiosis and consciousness throughout life. It is interesting to note that Ernst Mayr, one of the fathers of the Darwinian interpretation of modern evolutionary data, wrote the forward to her book Acquiring Genomes. In the forward he notes “The authors show convincingly that an unexpectedly large proportion of evolutionary lineages had their origins in symbiogenesis.” He goes on to say, however, “There is no indication that any of the 10,000 species of birds, or the 4,500 species of mammals originated by symbiogenesis.”

The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins, Third Edition

This is an excellent book of the evolution of hominids over the past six million years including biological, geological and cultural issues. Given that there are many gaps in the information, all controversies are discussed.

Books on the evolution of the human brain

Many books attempt to explain how and why the human brain developed.  One group of books explains the latest science including the neuro-anatomy and fetal development.  Some of these books detail interspecies comparisons with other highly developed creatures like primates, whales, dolphins, and elephants. Other books propose a theory as to why the human brain has developed as it has. In truth, we don’t know exactly how or why the human brain grew from previous types of brains while dramatically improving its capacities.

The book by Lieberman, The Evolution of the Human Head, has great detail about the structure and development of the brain; in addition, it describes the evolution of the surrounding sensory organs and skull. It is an excellent summary of all the scientific data available. The book by the neuropsychologist Dr. Stiles, Fundamentals of Brain Development, gives an excellent description of how the human brain develops from the fetus.  It also tackles questions of how nurture versus genes could affect various aspects of the development.  The Allen book, The Lives of the Human Brain goes into detail about possible effects of feeding, language and other possible factors in the rapid evolution of the brain.  The book by Lynch and Granger, Big Brain, has wide ranging views from allied fields as well as very good descriptions of the anatomical evolution.  It covers many controversies such as about the importance, or lack of importance, of big brains. Their preferred theory is that the size was determined by the development of walking allowing a bigger pelvis and bigger babies brains.

The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans

by G. J. Sawyer, Viktor Deak, Esteban Sarmiento and Richard Milner

This is an informative picture book of extinct hominids.

Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction

by Kevin W. Plaxco and Michael Gross

Astrobiology is the new field of evolution that tackles the big questions of how the universe, the earth and life began. With the new controversial discovery of microbes on earth in the period of 3.7 billion years ago, the field of astrobiology has become more important.  The timeframe for the development of complex microbes 3.7 million years ago is not consistent with a theory of gradual evolution entirely accomplished on earth. This is a wide-ranging book with excellent scientific summaries of all the relevant areas. Very recently, after the publication of this book, it was found that in space there are somehow even more complex organic molecules such as a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components. These findings will invigorate this field.

Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion

This is a complex, but enjoyable, book, which discusses the evolution of Stuart Kauffman’s theories about evolution. He has pioneered a view of inherent self-replicating entities with emergent properties. He is a complexity theorist who finds that reductionist tendencies in biology cannot really describe the intricacy of the evolution process.  While it is not totally clear what the alternative is, he gives a broad synthesis of philosophy, biology, physics, and neuroscience.


by Frank Ryan

Dr. Ryan is a physician and an evolutionary biologist who is expert in viruses. He uses the function of retro viruses as a basis for a theory of evolution where viruses play a prominent role in transferring information between organisms and in producing variety in nature.  Viruses are just now on the radar screen of major investigations, and they do play a much greater role in the function of microbes than previously realized. They are increasingly being seen as the change agents at all levels of biology. His insight is in the tradition of the role of symbiosis in evolution pioneered by Lynn Margulis discussed below.

Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature

This book, written by a philosopher, is a scathing critique of current evolutionary psychology. He describes what he believes are critical flaws in the foundational research in the field as well as the exaggerated claims in the science and media.  Needless to say, this book has been highly criticized.

What Darwin Got Wrong

by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini

This is a very controversial book among biologists. Dr. Fodor is a well-known cognitive scientist and philosopher and Dr Piatteli-Palmarini is a cognitive scientist. They have written a dense, complex book with the thesis that natural selection cannot be the major mechanism of evolution.

The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma

by Dr. Marc W. Kirschner, John C. Gerhart and John Norton

One of the most confusing aspects of evolution is the fact that the each animal undergoes dramatic change when it develops from an embryo into an adult as well as the dramatic changes occurring in evolution. There are, therefore, not one, but two moving targets. The new field of study combining evolution and development is called Evo-Devo, short for evolution and development. This subtle book describes a new mechanism, facilitated variation, which involves changes in the signals of development that can change evolution. Continue reading

The New Foundations of Evolution: On the Tree of Life

Dr. Sapp, an expert in microbes, details the struggles involved in the discovery of Archaea, the now accepted third branch of the tree of life. He outlines data about the first several billion years of life on earth that show a greater complexity in evolution than is commonly accepted.