The best books on human evolution and the human story

Who am I?

Our discovery that we are modified monkeys rather than modified mud is a human achievement on a par with a Mozart opera or a Vermeer painting. As a historian and philosopher of science, my lifelong mission has been to see how this knowledge transcends earlier myths about divine creation and opens the way to a far richer and more optimistic vision of human nature, our achievements, and our future possibilities. New knowledge can be terrifying. It can also be exciting and liberating. It is an obligation, a privilege, and a joy to be able to express our full humanity. The authors I shall introduce exemplify this so very much.


I wrote...

A Philosopher Looks at Human Beings

By Michael Ruse,

Book cover of A Philosopher Looks at Human Beings

What is my book about?

Why do humans think they are superior to warthogs? Is this belief a legacy of religion? Created in the image of God? Or is the secular alternative, evolution, the answer? We are at the top of the tree of life? Monad to man.

I find both these alternatives wanting. I doubt seriously ancient mid-Eastern fables about beginnings. I am far from certain that evolution guarantees our top status. Just simply as an evolutionary success, the covid virus seems all too successful. I opt for “Darwinian existentialism.” We are evolved beings; but, our superiority, our moral sensitivities, and our actions come from within. “Condemned to freedom!” Intentions held by us and choices made by us as shaped by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Descent Of Man

By Charles Darwin,

Book cover of The Descent Of Man

Why this book?

This is the seminal book on human evolution, published by Charles Darwin twelve years after his On the Origin of Species. Don’t be put off by its length. You can skip a lot, including the huge digression on sexual selection. Focus on the early chapters, first where Darwin gives his reasons to think that human beings, Homo sapiens, are the end result of an evolutionary process, fueled by natural selection, as are all other organisms. We are descended from monkeys. Second, Darwin argues that crude Social Darwinism, life is a brutal struggle for existence, hence “might is right,” is simply mistaken. We are social beings and doing good is helping our fellow humans.


Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind

By Donald Johanson, Maitland Edey,

Book cover of Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind

Why this book?

If you can read only one book on human evolution, this is it. “Lucy,” a fossil Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, is the proverbial “missing link.” About three million years old, she had a chimpanzee-size brain, about 400cc (as opposed to modern humans, about 1200cc), and yet walked upright. Told by Don Johanson, one of the team who discovered her, and science writer Martin Edey, the book is informative, serious, and yet at the same time written with a light touch that makes the tale akin to a thriller like Stephen King. It is a thriller. Our great great grandma was not Eve, eating illicit apples, but a modified monkey roaming the plains of Africa.


Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

By David Reich,

Book cover of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

Why this book?

Karl Popper once assured me that we could not possibly be related to the Neanderthals. Well, to quote one of his favorite aphorisms: “We learn by our mistakes.” It turns out that our ancestors could not keep their hands (and other bodily parts) off those hairy monsters. We are 2% Neanderthal! We know this and many other truly amazing facts about our evolution thanks to the new field of “ancient DNA,” where molecular biologists have developed techniques for extracting and examining genetic evidence from long ago. The most pertinent and provocative finding is how our ancestors moved and moved again, hybridizing with strangers over and over. Claims about races or types or whatever of humans are simply bad science. We are all in this together.


War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views

By Douglas P. Fry,

Book cover of War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views

Why this book?

From anthropology and archeology, Douglas Fry and his co-contributors tell us that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, in small bands, on a five-million-year camping trip around the globe. We had to have adaptations for harmonious communal living. Wary of strangers, we would realize that wanting to fight them was stupid. Man the “killer ape” is fiction. Then, 10,000 years ago, came agriculture, with a population explosion producing abundant goods that others would covet. The consequence was war and prejudice and other vile beliefs and behaviors. Ex-Quaker as I am, I have written a book, Why We Hate: The Roots of Human Conflict, appearing in Spring 2021, arguing that, by making the appropriate cultural moves, we can again attain our natural state of cooperation and peaceful living.


The Time Machine

By H.G. Wells,

Book cover of The Time Machine

Why this book?

If evolution is not necessarily progressive, then might our children’s children be degenerates? In his much-loved science-fictional classic, H. G. Wells supposes that we evolve into two species, the above-ground Eloi, beautiful but aimless, and the below-ground Morlocks, hardworking cannibals. We have the power and the knowledge to prevent so awful a fate. The question is whether we have the will. Not to the exclusion of more immediate concerns. Our inability to tackle global warming for a start. And for a second, the frightening but very real possibility that some wayward state or group of fanatics might let off the Bomb and end it all. As always, there is tension as our often-shaky social nature attempts to direct the results of our intellect towards safe and worthwhile ends.


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