The best books on evolution

28 authors have picked their favorite books about evolution and why they recommend each book.

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The Emerald Planet

By David Beerling,

Book cover of The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History

All of us have a vision of what it means to be a vibrant, blue, and green “Earth-like planet,” but our home has fit that familiar description for only the past 400 million years or so—a mere 8 percent of its changeable history. Beerling’s revealing Emerald Planet tells the surprising tale of the rise of the terrestrial biosphere, as plants ever so gradually established their foothold on dry land and became a major geological force. Who would have thought that roots and leaves hold such drama, but our existence and survival are intimately tied to those transformative innovations.


Who am I?

Robert M. Hazen, Senior Staff Scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Earth and Planets Laboratory and the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University, received the B.S. and S.M. in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Ph.D. at Harvard University in Earth science. His most recent book is The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years from Stardust to Living Planet, which explores the intricate coevolution of the geosphere and biosphere.


I wrote...

The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

By Robert M. Hazen,

Book cover of The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

What is my book about?

Hailed by The New York Times for writing "with wonderful clarity about science . . . that effortlessly teaches as it zips along," nationally bestselling author Robert M. Hazen offers a radical new approach to Earth history in this intertwined tale of the planet's living and nonliving spheres. With an astrobiologist's imagination, a historian's perspective, and a naturalist's eye, Hazen calls upon twenty-first-century discoveries that have revolutionized geology and enabled scientists to envision Earth's many iterations in vivid detail--from the mile-high lava tides of its infancy to the early organisms responsible for more than two-thirds of the mineral varieties beneath our feet. Lucid, controversial, and on the cutting edge of its field, The Story of Earth is popular science of the highest order.

Evolution for Everyone

By David Sloan Wilson,

Book cover of Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives

We can’t understand ourselves, unless we understand our evolutionary history. In his book Evolution for Everyone, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson outlines the principles behind our biology, history, culture, and morality. In order to understand how these processes came to be, we must view evolution through a multi-level and multi-dimensional lense, which is not only central to our modern understanding of evolution, but provides an extended evolutionary synthesis that allows evidence-based psychotherapists to view themselves as applied evolution scientists. David Sloan Wilson describes these processes and more in an accessible and engaging manner – all inside this volume.


Who am I?

Steven C. Hayes is Nevada Foundation Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. An author of 47 books and nearly 675 scientific articles. He is the developer of Relational Frame Theory, and has guided its extension to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) a popular evidence-based form of psychotherapy that is now practiced by tens of thousands of clinicians all around the world.


I wrote...

A Liberated Mind: The essential guide to ACT

By Steven C. Hayes,

Book cover of A Liberated Mind: The essential guide to ACT

What is my book about?

Over the last 35 years, Steven C. Hayes and his colleagues have developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with many hundreds of studies supporting the impact of his approach on everything from chronic pain to weight loss to prejudice and bigotry.

A Liberated Mind is the summary of Steven's life's work which will teach readers how to live better, happier, and more fulfilled lives by applying the six key processes of ACT. Put together these processes teach us to pivot: to "defuse" rather than fuse with our thoughts; to see life from a new perspective; and to discover our chosen values, those qualities of being that fuel meaning. Steve shares fascinating research results like how ACT techniques decreased typing errors on a clerical test or showed that positive affirmations actually increase negative emotion. And he weaves them with stories of clients and colleagues as well as his own riveting story of healing himself of a severe panic disorder, which is how the idea of psychological flexibility was born.

The Big Picture

By Sean Carroll,

Book cover of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

A cosmologist and particle physicist, Carroll shows us how starting from physics, everything else—including everything that matters to people, emerge through a small number of natural processes. Having paid his dues in basic physical science, Carrol provides an accessible pathway from the fundamental level of reality all the way to human values. No mystery mongering, and a Darwinian finish of course! 


Who am I?

Even before I became a philosopher I was wondering about everything—life the universe and whatever else Douglas Adams thought was important when he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. As a philosopher, I’ve been able to spend my life scratching the itch of these questions. When I finally figured them out I wrote The Atheist’s Guide to Reality as an introduction to what science tells us besides that there is no god. In How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories I apply much of that to getting to the bottom of why it’s so hard for us, me included, to really absorb the nature of reality. 

I wrote...

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

By Alex Rosenberg,

Book cover of How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories

What is my book about?

To understand something, you need to know its history. Right? Wrong. Narrative history is always, always wrong, not just incomplete or inaccurate but deeply wrong. Our attachment to history as a vehicle for understanding has a long Darwinian pedigree and a genetic basis. Our love of stories is hard-wired. Human evolution improved primate “mind-reading”—the ability to anticipate and explain the behavior of others, whether predators, prey, or cooperators—to get us to the top of the African food chain. It was a useful enough tool in its time, but neuroscience reveals that human culture shaped hard-wired mind-reading from a tool useful for survival into a defective theory of human nature. As science has revealed, we'll only understand history if we don't make it into a story with a plot.

Ever Since Darwin

By Stephen Jay Gould,

Book cover of Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History

Ever Since Darwin is described as a collection of essays on natural history. But it is much more than that. Ever Since Darwin is an album of captivating, perspicacious, funny, and delightfully crafted stories that explain evolution and the curiosities of the natural world by a writer with a genius for description. From the “spandrels of San Marco” to the “bushes” that natural selection prunes, Stephen Jay Gould deftly uses metaphor to deconstruct the fossil record and illuminate the exquisite complexities of evolution. All of Stephen Jay Gould’s books are brilliant, but Ever Since Darwin is my first love.


Who am I?

I’m a neuroscientist, author, educator, TEDx speaker, and leading expert on the psychological science of smell. I am captivated by stories and the “why” and “how” science of the world around us. The books I’ve chosen spoke to me during periods when I was seeking answers and blooming intellectually and creatively. They provided inspiration from the skill with which words were crafted and revelation from the ideas they conveyed. I owe these books a debt of gratitude and hope that my writing may offer to others a smidge of the illumination and motivation that these works gave to me.

I wrote...

Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food

By Rachel Herz,

Book cover of Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food

What is my book about?

How is personality correlated with preference for sweet or bitter foods? What genres of music best enhance the taste of red wine? With clear and compelling explanations of the latest research, Rachel Herz explores these questions and more in this lively book. Why You Eat What You Eat presents our relationship to food as a complicated recipe whose ingredients—our senses, personality, emotions and surroundings—combine to make eating a potent and pleasurable event. Skillfully weaving curious findings and compelling facts into an engaging narrative that tackles important questions, Why You Eat What You Eat revealhow psychology, neurology and physiology shape our relationship with food, how food alters the relationship we have with ourselves and each other-- and ultimately how to explore a happier and healthier eating experience.

Monarchs of the Sea

By Danna Staaf,

Book cover of Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods

Evolution, extinction, evo-devo, a “vampire squid from hell”—what more could a paleo-curious reader ask for? Staaf keeps it interesting and breezy as she takes a deep dive into the mysteries of that most ancient and fascinating group, the cephalopods. The fossil record for this extraordinary, important, and long-surviving class (which includes ammonoids and nautiloids as well as the shell-free squids and octopuses) goes back 500 million years. The book is full of “wows,” like a 20-foot-long fossil shell, and the fact that ink has been reconstituted from fossil belemnites and used for illustration. Just wow.


Who am I?

When I was young, I worked on fishing boats in Alaska and developed an affection for weird sea creatures. All manner of unusual marine life would come up on the line, like wild-looking sea stars, pointy-nosed skates, and alien-looking ratfish. Later, I graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a degree in Communications. One of my early jobs was with the Washington Department of Wildlife public information department, writing about fish, as well as other wildlife-related topics. When I moved to Bozeman, Montana, I had the opportunity to create content for a museum exhibit on early life forms. That hooked me on all things paleo. It is a joy to write about and share the things I love—like oddball creatures from deep time.


I wrote...

Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

By Susan Ewing,

Book cover of Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

What is my book about?

In 1993, Alaskan artist and paleo-fish freak Ray Troll stumbled upon the weirdest fossil he had ever seen: a platter-sized spiral of tightly wound shark teeth. This chance encounter in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sparked Troll's obsession with Helicoprion, a mysterious monster shark from deep time. In 2010, tattooed amateur strongman and returning Iraq War veteran Jesse Pruitt was also severely smitten by a Helicoprionfossil in a museum basement in Idaho. These two bizarre-shark disciples found each other, and an unconventional band of collaborators grew serendipitously around them, determined to solve the puzzle of the tooth whorl once and for all.

In this groundbreaking book, Susan Ewing reveals these revolutionary insights into what Helicoprion looked like and how the tooth whorl functioned, pushing this dazzling and awe-inspiring beast into the spotlight of modern science.

The Rise of Fishes

By John A. Long,

Book cover of The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution

From the time the first primitive vertebrates arose in the Cambrian to the appearance of early amphibians around the late Devonian, fishes were by far the dominant life form on the planet. Follow the journey in the highly readable, generously illustrated Rise of Fishes. This fascinating immersion into the diversification of early fishes was written by esteemed Australian paleontologist John Long. Long is also the author of The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, and Swimming in Stone: The Amazing Gogo Fossils of the Kimberley, both of which could also go on your list.


Who am I?

When I was young, I worked on fishing boats in Alaska and developed an affection for weird sea creatures. All manner of unusual marine life would come up on the line, like wild-looking sea stars, pointy-nosed skates, and alien-looking ratfish. Later, I graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a degree in Communications. One of my early jobs was with the Washington Department of Wildlife public information department, writing about fish, as well as other wildlife-related topics. When I moved to Bozeman, Montana, I had the opportunity to create content for a museum exhibit on early life forms. That hooked me on all things paleo. It is a joy to write about and share the things I love—like oddball creatures from deep time.


I wrote...

Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

By Susan Ewing,

Book cover of Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

What is my book about?

In 1993, Alaskan artist and paleo-fish freak Ray Troll stumbled upon the weirdest fossil he had ever seen: a platter-sized spiral of tightly wound shark teeth. This chance encounter in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sparked Troll's obsession with Helicoprion, a mysterious monster shark from deep time. In 2010, tattooed amateur strongman and returning Iraq War veteran Jesse Pruitt was also severely smitten by a Helicoprionfossil in a museum basement in Idaho. These two bizarre-shark disciples found each other, and an unconventional band of collaborators grew serendipitously around them, determined to solve the puzzle of the tooth whorl once and for all.

In this groundbreaking book, Susan Ewing reveals these revolutionary insights into what Helicoprion looked like and how the tooth whorl functioned, pushing this dazzling and awe-inspiring beast into the spotlight of modern science.

The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History

By Fred H. Previc,

Book cover of The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History

If you’re reading my book recommendations, it’s almost certainly because you read the book Dan Lieberman and I wrote about dopamine. In that case, you’ll want to read the book that inspired us to write our book, Fred Previc’s seminal explanation of the technical aspects of dopamine and psychology. If you were hoping for a deeper diver on certain points, Previc’s text is the only way to go – and we remain grateful to him for his groundbreaking work.

Who am I?

I’m interested in everything – which is a problem, because there’s not time for everything. So how do you find the best of the world and your own place in it? Understanding your motivations is a good place to start, hence The Molecule of More. The rest comes from exploring as much as you can, and that begins with understanding the scope of what’s out there: ideas, attitudes, and cultures. The greatest joy in my life comes from the jaw-dropping realization that the world is so full of potential and wonder. These books are a guide to some of the best of it, and some of the breadth of it.


I wrote...

The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race

By Daniel Z. Lieberman, Michael E. Long,

Book cover of The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race

What is my book about?

The brain chemical dopamine ensured the survival of early man by setting our focus on getting things we don’t have, which were most often the requirements for staying alive. The modern world is a different place, but dopamine still drives us toward “more.” It is now what makes an ambitious professional sacrifice everything in pursuit of success, or a satisfied spouse risk it all for the thrill of someone new. It is why we seek and succeed; it is also why we gamble and squander. Our book explains the process and points toward a solution.

Locked in Time

By Dean R. Lomax, Robert Nicholls,

Book cover of Locked in Time: Animal Behavior Unearthed in 50 Extraordinary Fossils

This is about dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts, but it’s unique and unusual. Author Dean Lomax has run to ground some of the most extraordinary fossils ever found, and artist Bob Nicholls turns them into stunning reconstructions. Here you can read about a beetle within a lizard within a snake, a giant beaver that made huge corkscrew burrows 3 meters deep, the mammal that ate dinosaurs, insects caught in the act of mating, and dinosaurs with cancer. What I like is that, weird and wonderful as each story may be, each is based strictly on the fossils and reasonable interpretations of those fossils. Dinosaurs may spark the imagination, but as scientists, it’s important to show people how we come to our conclusions, and that needs evidence and reason in a discussion.


Who am I?

I’ve been mad about dinosaurs and ancient life since I was seven. I have been amazingly lucky to be able to develop a career as a professional palaeontologist and to be able to research and talk about the subject. We were first to show the original colours of dinosaur feathers, and this discovery provides a perfect way to open the discussion about how palaeontologists know what they say they know. In my books, I seek to amaze, amuse and inform. I have written many books, including pop science, textbooks, technical-scientific works, and books for children, and every year brings new discoveries to be transmitted to the world.


I wrote...

Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World

By Michael J. Benton, Bob Nicholls (illustrator),

Book cover of Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World

What is my book about?

Dinosaurs are not what you thought they were - or at least, they didn't look like you thought they did. This is a new visual guide to the world of the dinosaurs, showing how rapid advances in technology and amazing new fossil finds have changed the way we see dinosaurs forever. Stunning new illustrations from paleoartist Bob Nicholls display the latest and most exciting scientific discoveries in vibrant colour.

For the first time, we can claim that each illustration shows dinosaurs as they really were, each aspect of their skin or feathers, colours and patterns based on fossil evidence interpreted with the latest technology. Only 25 years ago, in 1996, the first dinosaur with feathers, Sinosauropteryx, was reported from China. Since then, thousands of amazing new specimens have come to light, and laboratory methods have improved enormously. Who says palaeontology is a dead, old discipline!

Parasite Rex

By Carl Zimmer,

Book cover of Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

This is my favorite book on parasites, which I have recommended hundreds of times in international school and university classrooms worldwide. Zimmer is a science writer with a gift for making a horrific subject fascinating and memorable. Zimmer introduced me to a hidden, parallel universe where parasites control their hosts, manipulate their evolution, hide behind their host’s own bodily chemicals, and on occasion turn them into the living dead.


Who am I?

We're all in this together: public health for all people, no matter their status or wealth, is one of humanity's great achievements. Favoring reason over faith, science over anecdote, and the group over the individual, has led to lowered infant mortality, improved health, and longer human lifespans. During pandemics, however, evidence and reason are often discarded, as people panic and try to save themselves. The odd human behavior we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic has multiple precedents in the past. Quack cures, snake-oil sales, conspiracy theories, suspicion of authority, the emergence of cults with eccentric, bizarre, and inexplicable beliefs: again and again, this has been the human response to the unknown.

I wrote...

Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History

By Bryn Barnard,

Book cover of Outbreak! Plagues That Changed History

What is my book about?

Did the Black Death destroy the feudal system? Did cholera pave the way for modern Manhattan? Did yellow fever help end the slave trade? Remarkably, the answer to all of these questions is yes. Time and again, diseases have impacted the course of human history in surprisingly powerful ways. From influenza to smallpox, from tuberculosis to yellow fever, Bryn Barnard describes the symptoms and paths of the world’s worst diseases–and how the epidemics they spawned have changed history forever.

Highlighted with vivid and meticulously researched illustrations, Outbreak is a fascinating look at the hidden world of microbes–and how this world shapes human destiny every day.

Life's Engines

By Paul G. Falkowski,

Book cover of Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable

For me, the most enthralling revelation of recent biology has been that living cells really do contain engines: protein structures more complex than a petrol engine, with moving parts. One is even a nano electric motor with a rotor. This is known in exquisite detail thanks to the miracles of modern imaging and gene and protein sequencing. This nano machinery developed billions of years ago in bacteria and is little changed today in all living cells. Falkowski updates Margulis’s work from 20 years earlier with these modern marvels. These nano engines run photosynthesis in bacteria and plants and give all living things their energy.

The relevance of the bacterial nano engines for the environment rests in their role in modulating the great cycles of the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a few others as they pass through the soil and rocks, the oceans, living things, and the air. Life’s Engines…


Who am I?

I studied chemistry at university but nature and biology are lifelong passions. I’ve researched and written about biology over three decades and published many articles and reviews, as well as the three books: The Gecko's Foot; Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage; and Nanoscience: Giants of the Infinitesimal, co-written with the sculptor Tom Grimsey. We are at a tipping point with climate change and the books I’ve chosen show how the convergence of chemistry, biology, and geology have provided the most dramatic revelations about life on earth and are the best guides to understanding and mitigating our current environmental predicament. 


I wrote...

The Gecko's Foot: How Scientists Are Taking a Leaf from Nature's Book

By Peter Forbes,

Book cover of The Gecko's Foot: How Scientists Are Taking a Leaf from Nature's Book

What is my book about?

The Gecko’s Foot is a pioneering book on bio-inspiration: taking some of nature’s most ingenious techniques – the nano bristles on the feet of geckos that enable them to walk on a glass ceiling; the self-cleaning lotus leaf that has spawned a new wave of water repellent materials, including self-cleaning glass; the holy grail of spider silk which is stronger than steel – as the starting point for new human technologies.

The most prescient chapter is one on engineering proteins from microbes, now a major growth point in devising carbon-neutral energy and materials production.

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