Field of Science

Favorite Popular Science Book #2

Another great "popular" evolution book is Steve Jones' "retelling" of The Origin of Species, called Darwin's Ghost (in the UK it was called Almost Like a Whale). As with Dr. Tatiana, I have used this book with success for teaching in both undergraduate (introductory Evolution) and graduate (Molecular Evolution) courses. It's a highly engaging introdution to evolution--I found it to be particulary good for those students who are somewhat knowledgable in genetics and molecular biology, but who have little or no background in evolution (I would get some of these students in my ME course that I, sadly, no longer teach). The basic idea is that Jones keeps Darwin's chapters and topics intact, but he re-writes them to include up-to-date material that reflect today's science (or at least 1999's). I don't know if it's in the works, but perhaps a revision would be in order...


  1. As a former grad student at Iowa it's nice to stuble upon your blog (and by stumble I mean directed here by PZ Myers). Some good stuff here so far - I'll have to check out your book recommendations. Tell Debashish I say "Hi"!

  2. This is somewhat off-topic for the entry, but it deals with evolution education. One of the things I've noticed as a grad student is that many students (undergraduate as well as graduate) have heard of some of the classic papers in evolution (mentioned in texts and courses), but have never actually read them. I think there is some value in reading the primary sources, especially to get some insight into the thinking processes behind the work. The problem in getting the students to do that, however, is that some of these papers can require a level background knowledge (in genetics or mathematics) that is beyond them. To remedy that, I taught an informal seminar on evolution readings for graduate and undergraduates. I chose papers that illustrated basic themes in evolution well, and that were well-known, for the most part. For example, we looked at Kettlewell's Peppered Moth studies and Boag and Grant's work on Darwin's Finches as familiar examples of natural selection. The relaxed, seminar setting made some of the knottier papers (like Haldane's "The Cost of Natural Selection") less scary, and the discussion was primarily geared towards helping them get a feel for the thinking, not necessarily the detail, behind the work. It was very successful and everyone had fun as well.

  3. I agree with dave on these points: reading some of the classic papers, if chosen carefully, can be really empowering. But Darwin's Ghost first makes it just a bit easier for people without an evolutionary background to tackle the key issues with confidence. That's one of the things good popular science writing can do.

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