The best books on Darwinism

2 authors have picked their favorite books about Darwinism and why they recommend each book.

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The Storytelling Animal

By Jonathan Gottschall,

Book cover of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

This is the first book I always recommend to people wanting to see what literary Darwinism is about. Gottschall has a gift for charming readers, reaching out and speaking to them personally. The book is loaded with condensed research, but all that information is presented in a readily accessible, conversational style. The book is also loaded with fascinating anecdotes—stories. Gottschall makes a compelling case that the human mind naturally craves stories.


Who am I?

I’ve spent the past thirty years leading the movement to integrate the humanities, and especially literary study, with evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I got my PhD in comparative literature right about the time the academic literary world was being convulsed by the poststructuralist revolution (Derrida, Foucault, et co). I felt a profound antipathy to the sterile paradoxes and attenuated abstractions of that theory. I wanted a theory that could get close to the power literature had over my own imagination. The evolutionary human sciences have provided me with a basis for building a theory that answers my own need to make sense of literature.


I wrote...

Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

By Joseph Carroll,

Book cover of Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

What is my book about?

By integrating the evolutionary human sciences with literary theory, I provide a more complete understanding of human nature than the evolutionary human sciences have provided, and grounds literary theory in an established scientific paradigm. This book includes theoretical essays, commentaries on cultural history, examples of empirical literary analysis, and examples of Darwinian literary criticism: close readings of Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

The Early Evolutionary Imagination

By Emelie Jonsson,

Book cover of The Early Evolutionary Imagination: Literature and Human Nature

Jonsson argues that humans are suspended between a need to see reality and an urge to mythologize. Darwin’s theory is impersonal and mechanical, but authors in the later 19th and early 20th centuries still found ways to turn evolution into morally charged dramas. Jonsson convincingly demonstrates that those same myth-making impulses shape our imaginative experience today. The literary criticism in this book is superb, and Jonsson’s own rhetoric has classic power.


Who am I?

I’ve spent the past thirty years leading the movement to integrate the humanities, and especially literary study, with evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I got my PhD in comparative literature right about the time the academic literary world was being convulsed by the poststructuralist revolution (Derrida, Foucault, et co). I felt a profound antipathy to the sterile paradoxes and attenuated abstractions of that theory. I wanted a theory that could get close to the power literature had over my own imagination. The evolutionary human sciences have provided me with a basis for building a theory that answers my own need to make sense of literature.


I wrote...

Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

By Joseph Carroll,

Book cover of Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

What is my book about?

By integrating the evolutionary human sciences with literary theory, I provide a more complete understanding of human nature than the evolutionary human sciences have provided, and grounds literary theory in an established scientific paradigm. This book includes theoretical essays, commentaries on cultural history, examples of empirical literary analysis, and examples of Darwinian literary criticism: close readings of Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

Why Horror Seduces

By Mathias Clasen,

Book cover of Why Horror Seduces

If you love horror, or are even mildly interested in it, you will find this book a real treat. Clasen is one of the world’s leading scholars of horror. Like Gottschall, he has the knack for engaging, personable writing, with witty turns that will make you laugh, even while the hair is standing up on the back of your neck at the horror scenarios he relishes describing. Clasen is absolutely convincing about the ways in which horror taps into our inherited ancestral fears and disgusts.


Who am I?

I’ve spent the past thirty years leading the movement to integrate the humanities, and especially literary study, with evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I got my PhD in comparative literature right about the time the academic literary world was being convulsed by the poststructuralist revolution (Derrida, Foucault, et co). I felt a profound antipathy to the sterile paradoxes and attenuated abstractions of that theory. I wanted a theory that could get close to the power literature had over my own imagination. The evolutionary human sciences have provided me with a basis for building a theory that answers my own need to make sense of literature.


I wrote...

Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

By Joseph Carroll,

Book cover of Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

What is my book about?

By integrating the evolutionary human sciences with literary theory, I provide a more complete understanding of human nature than the evolutionary human sciences have provided, and grounds literary theory in an established scientific paradigm. This book includes theoretical essays, commentaries on cultural history, examples of empirical literary analysis, and examples of Darwinian literary criticism: close readings of Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

American Classics

By Judith P. Saunders,

Book cover of American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives

Saunders is an unusually acute and subtle literary critic. She is deeply immersed in the great works of American literature, and she brings those works vividly to life. She penetrates deep into the evolved motives that regulate even the most seemingly idiosyncratic works. She demonstrates that literature is profoundly shaped by our evolved human motives and emotions.


Who am I?

I’ve spent the past thirty years leading the movement to integrate the humanities, and especially literary study, with evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I got my PhD in comparative literature right about the time the academic literary world was being convulsed by the poststructuralist revolution (Derrida, Foucault, et co). I felt a profound antipathy to the sterile paradoxes and attenuated abstractions of that theory. I wanted a theory that could get close to the power literature had over my own imagination. The evolutionary human sciences have provided me with a basis for building a theory that answers my own need to make sense of literature.


I wrote...

Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

By Joseph Carroll,

Book cover of Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

What is my book about?

By integrating the evolutionary human sciences with literary theory, I provide a more complete understanding of human nature than the evolutionary human sciences have provided, and grounds literary theory in an established scientific paradigm. This book includes theoretical essays, commentaries on cultural history, examples of empirical literary analysis, and examples of Darwinian literary criticism: close readings of Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

On the Origin of Stories

By Brian Boyd,

Book cover of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

Boyd combines research on human evolution with cognitive psychology. He offers crisp and lucid summaries of the relevant research. His writing is like that of the best popular science. His marshaling of ideas from evolutionary and cognitive psychology offers an alternative to critical theories that have lost touch with science, and with much of reality.


Who am I?

I’ve spent the past thirty years leading the movement to integrate the humanities, and especially literary study, with evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I got my PhD in comparative literature right about the time the academic literary world was being convulsed by the poststructuralist revolution (Derrida, Foucault, et co). I felt a profound antipathy to the sterile paradoxes and attenuated abstractions of that theory. I wanted a theory that could get close to the power literature had over my own imagination. The evolutionary human sciences have provided me with a basis for building a theory that answers my own need to make sense of literature.


I wrote...

Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

By Joseph Carroll,

Book cover of Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

What is my book about?

By integrating the evolutionary human sciences with literary theory, I provide a more complete understanding of human nature than the evolutionary human sciences have provided, and grounds literary theory in an established scientific paradigm. This book includes theoretical essays, commentaries on cultural history, examples of empirical literary analysis, and examples of Darwinian literary criticism: close readings of Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

Not by Genes Alone

By Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd,

Book cover of Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution

This clearly written and well-researched book shows that human evolution is as much about culture as it is about genes. Both evolve. And both involve the Darwinian principles of variation, selection, and replication of key bits of information. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson are among the leading contributors to our understanding of how genes and culture co-evolve. The work rebuts exclusively gene-based accounts, and it shows how human evolution operates on multiple levels. Darwinian ideas remain paramount because they provide the over-arching framework in which both genetic and cultural evolution interact and guide human behavior. This book shows how a Darwinian evolutionary approach can rescue the theory of culture in social science from its many vagaries and past wrong turns.


Who am I?

I have always wondered why people choose and act in particular ways, from heroism and altruism to selfishness and greed. Human society is a kaleidoscope of changing actions and fortunes. Social science tries to explain why. But I was dissatisfied with its answers. Then I discovered writers who used evolutionary ideas to help explain social and economic change. I realized that evolution did not mean reducing everything to biology. I became fascinated by Darwin’s deeper and wider ideas about human society, cooperation, and motivation. I read widely and joined with others of similar mind. It is an exciting and rewarding intellectual landscape to explore. I strongly recommend a long visit.


I wrote...

Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

By Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Thorbjørn Knudsen,

Book cover of Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

What is my book about?

Darwin hinted at the possibility of applying his ideas to other complex systems, including language and the evolution of human society. Previous authors have tried to do this. Recent developments in social science, philosophy, and elsewhere have empowered renewed efforts to generalize Darwinian ideas to social and economic evolution. A central problem is to generalize Darwin’s core explanatory principles of variation, selection, and replication so they apply to socio-economic as well as biological phenomena. What are the social units of evolutionary selection? How do they replicate? How and why do they change? The approach outlined in this book does not provide all the answers, but it sets up a framework to enable further and deeper enquiry. Darwinism becomes a meta-theory that guides and inspires research. 

Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection

By Peter Godfrey-Smith,

Book cover of Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection

This short, clearly written book offers a penetrating analysis of the foundations of evolutionary biology. Godfrey-Smith develops a novel conceptual framework for understanding evolution based on the concept of a “Darwinian population,” which refers to any collection of entities capable of evolving by natural selection, and a “Darwinian individual,” which is a member of such a population. He uses this framework to shed light on topics including reproduction, symbiosis, culture, and transitions between levels of organization. The book is a perfect illustration of why science sometimes needs philosophy.


Who am I?

I am Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Bristol. I am interested in most areas of contemporary philosophy, in particular the interplay between philosophy and the natural and social sciences. Much of my recent work has focused on evolutionary biology, a science that is replete with implications for traditional philosophical debates about human nature, knowledge, and our place in the world.


I wrote...

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

By Samir Okasha,

Book cover of Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

Throughout most of the 20th century, philosophy of science was a rather physics-centric pursuit. This began to change in the 1970s when philosophy of biology emerged as a distinct sub-field in its own right. My book offers a synoptic overview of this flourishing branch of philosophy, written in a way that presumes no specialist knowledge. The book’s aim is to highlight how pervasive philosophical issues are in the life sciences, and to show how philosophical analysis can be of use to the practicing scientist. Topics discussed included teleology and purpose in nature, altruism and human behaviour, the nature of species, and the concept of the gene.

Unto Others

By Elliot Sober, David Sloan Wilson,

Book cover of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

In his bestselling book on The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins saw genes as the key drivers of evolution. Dawkins rejected the idea that groups were objects of selection in human evolution. Instead, his focus was on the “selfish” struggle of the gene to survive and replicate. Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson show clearly and convincingly where Dawkins went wrong. In human societies, evolutionary selection operates on multiple levels, including groups and individuals. Human groups are adaptive units. Individuals depend on themselves and on others to survive. Consequently, group adaptations such as altruism, morality, and cooperation can bestow survival advantages for a group, and hence for its individual members, as Darwin himself pointed out. This breakthrough book has stimulated a huge amount of productive research in this area.


Who am I?

I have always wondered why people choose and act in particular ways, from heroism and altruism to selfishness and greed. Human society is a kaleidoscope of changing actions and fortunes. Social science tries to explain why. But I was dissatisfied with its answers. Then I discovered writers who used evolutionary ideas to help explain social and economic change. I realized that evolution did not mean reducing everything to biology. I became fascinated by Darwin’s deeper and wider ideas about human society, cooperation, and motivation. I read widely and joined with others of similar mind. It is an exciting and rewarding intellectual landscape to explore. I strongly recommend a long visit.


I wrote...

Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

By Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Thorbjørn Knudsen,

Book cover of Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

What is my book about?

Darwin hinted at the possibility of applying his ideas to other complex systems, including language and the evolution of human society. Previous authors have tried to do this. Recent developments in social science, philosophy, and elsewhere have empowered renewed efforts to generalize Darwinian ideas to social and economic evolution. A central problem is to generalize Darwin’s core explanatory principles of variation, selection, and replication so they apply to socio-economic as well as biological phenomena. What are the social units of evolutionary selection? How do they replicate? How and why do they change? The approach outlined in this book does not provide all the answers, but it sets up a framework to enable further and deeper enquiry. Darwinism becomes a meta-theory that guides and inspires research. 

Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge

By Henry Plotkin,

Book cover of Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge

Plotkin’s brilliant book is about the nature and evolution of human knowledge. How do people gain and develop useful knowledge in a complex, uncertain, and changing world? Behaviorist theories of stimulus and response are inadequate. The mind must be primed to deal with complexity and uncertainty. Models from behaviorist psychology are unable to account for the acquisition of knowledge in such circumstances. Darwinian evolutionary theory helps to explain how the mind uses inherited instincts and culturally acquired habits to guide and enhance intelligence. As with the earlier work of the Darwinian psychologist and pragmatist, William James, instinct and habit are the enablers of intelligence, not its impediments. Knowledge is an evolutionary adaptation. This great book reveals more explosive implications of Darwinism for social science.


Who am I?

I have always wondered why people choose and act in particular ways, from heroism and altruism to selfishness and greed. Human society is a kaleidoscope of changing actions and fortunes. Social science tries to explain why. But I was dissatisfied with its answers. Then I discovered writers who used evolutionary ideas to help explain social and economic change. I realized that evolution did not mean reducing everything to biology. I became fascinated by Darwin’s deeper and wider ideas about human society, cooperation, and motivation. I read widely and joined with others of similar mind. It is an exciting and rewarding intellectual landscape to explore. I strongly recommend a long visit.


I wrote...

Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

By Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Thorbjørn Knudsen,

Book cover of Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

What is my book about?

Darwin hinted at the possibility of applying his ideas to other complex systems, including language and the evolution of human society. Previous authors have tried to do this. Recent developments in social science, philosophy, and elsewhere have empowered renewed efforts to generalize Darwinian ideas to social and economic evolution. A central problem is to generalize Darwin’s core explanatory principles of variation, selection, and replication so they apply to socio-economic as well as biological phenomena. What are the social units of evolutionary selection? How do they replicate? How and why do they change? The approach outlined in this book does not provide all the answers, but it sets up a framework to enable further and deeper enquiry. Darwinism becomes a meta-theory that guides and inspires research. 

Darwin on Trial

By Phillip E. Johnson,

Book cover of Darwin on Trial

The clearest and most comprehensive creationist critique of evolutionary biology. Johnson, a retired law professor, marshals every possible argument like a prosecuting attorney, employing reasoning and evidence that is either masterful and convincing, or deceitful and outrageous, depending upon your point of view. To Johnson, the biologists who work in the tradition of Darwin are not scientists, but propagandists in a political movement, using fake data and spurious arguments to bamboozle the public. His purpose is to clear the way for readers to be convinced that a huge, invisible, omnipotent, supernatural designer (no, don't call him God) authored the millions of organisms that have existed on Earth for 3.8 billion years. Is this a scientific critique or a political polemic?


Who am I?

While growing up as a budding intellectual, two of my passions were social science (in other words, politics), and natural science, particularly biology. For decades, I thought of those as two unconnected fields of knowledge. I studied politics in my professional capacity as a government professor, and I read nature and wildlife studies as a hobby. Then, one day in 2000, I picked up a copy of a book by Stephen J. Gould, a Harvard paleontologist. It struck me that in every sentence he was combining science and politics. It was an on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. Since then, I have studied and written about the politics of evolution.  


I wrote...

Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

By David F. Prindle,

Book cover of Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

What is my book about?

Because of his lucid, accessible writing style, until his death in 2002 Gould was probably the best-known scientist in the country. But he was not only a scientist; he was a passionately committed Leftist activist who infused his scientific writings with political advocacy. I examine and evaluate the way Gould fought the "evolution wars" within the scientific community, while at the same time crusading against the creationist resurgence in American politics. I examine the way his magnetic writing style gave energy to his views, and how he managed to suggest that good science was good politics, and vice-versa. I also evaluate the evidence underlying his scientific claims, in order to decide whether his criticisms of orthodox Darwinism were convincing.

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