The best evolutionary biology books

5 authors have picked their favorite books about evolutionary biology and why they recommend each book.

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Improbable Destinies

By Jonathan B. Losos,

Book cover of Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

On the surface, this fascinating story about the evolutionary journeys of diverse animal species ranging from lizards to porcupines to field mice may seem a strange choice to include in a list of books about cancer, but in fact, it holds many important lessons about how evolution works and how likely we are to get the same outcomes if we ran the tape of time again. In turn, this is vital information underpinning our new understanding of cancer as an evolutionary process within the body, which can potentially be steered through the application of clever treatment strategies to bring about long-term control or even cures.

Improbable Destinies

By Jonathan B. Losos,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Improbable Destinies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I’ve long been fascinated by how life unfolds from a single fertilized egg cell containing just one set of DNA, whether it’s a human, mouse, frog, worm, or anything else. While studying for my PhD in the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which combines brings together researchers working on development and cancer, and spending twelve years in science communication at Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest cancer research charity, I came to see cancer and development as two sides of the same coin: one process unfolding healthy life as egg becomes embryo, and the other ultimately bringing disease and death as a single cell grows into a deadly tumor. 


I wrote...

Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution, and the New Science of Life's Oldest Betrayal

By Kat Arney,

Book cover of Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution, and the New Science of Life's Oldest Betrayal

What is my book about?

Many of us think of cancer as a contemporary killer, a disease of our own making caused by our modern lifestyles. But that perception just isn’t true. Although it might be rare in many species, cancer is the enemy lurking within almost every living creature. Why? Because cancer is a bug in the system of life. And just like life, it keeps on evolving and evading our best attempts to beat it.

Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution and the Science of Life takes us from the dawn of life on planet earth right up to the present day to get to the heart of what cancer really is and how we can find better strategies for living with it or even one day driving it to extinction.

Our Family Tree

By Lisa Westberg Peters,

Book cover of Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story

I love the simple, evocative way this story is told through a visit to the beach and the sketching in the sand of creatures representing various stages in evolution, from the first cells to human beings, reminding us of what we share with these long-lost ancestors and what divides us from earlier life forms. This picture book for children aged 4 to 7 distills a complex subject with verve and imagination and deserves a place on your child’s bookshelf.

Our Family Tree

By Lisa Westberg Peters,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Our Family Tree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

Life really is stranger than fiction, and some of the stuff served up by evolution is outrageously bizarre. There are one-celled creatures that make rats want to cozy up to cats, a parasitic worm that turns snails into “disco zombies” and an ape that communicates across continents by pushing keys to create rows and columns of pixels. I’m fascinated by all of these creatures and love writing books for children about evolutionary biology, especially the evolution of intelligence. Besides authoring How to Build a Human, I’ve written about the evolution of intelligence in dolphins (The Dolphins of Shark Bay) and crows (Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird).


I wrote...

How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps

By Pamela S. Turner, John Gurche (illustrator),

Book cover of How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps

What is my book about?

How did we become who we are? In How to Build a Human, I break down human evolution into the seven most important steps leading to Homo sapiens. This fascinating and funny account of the evolutionary journey turns science into an irresistible story. Vetted by experts at the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, the book also features detailed portraits by celebrated paleo-artist John Gurche that bring our early ancestors to life.

The Story of Life

By Catherine Barr, Steve Williams, Amy Husband (illustrator)

Book cover of The Story of Life: A First Book about Evolution

The Story of Life is a good introduction to the history of life on Earth for younger readers. Introducing Earth from before life existed, it traces the changes in the planet as life begins to develop, then bloom, then flourish in every possible niche. There’s a thorough treatment of dinosaurs, which will be a favourite section for many readers. The illustrations are energetic, clever, and funny, with enough detail to let kids read and re-read as they catch every little interaction on each page. A handy time-tracker on the bottom left of each double-page spread keeps you oriented in time as you turn each page. Along with a glossary at the back, this book makes a great introduction to evolution for kids in the early primary years.  

The Story of Life

By Catherine Barr, Steve Williams, Amy Husband (illustrator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Story of Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This wonderful book introduces children to the story of life and how it all began. Using bitesize text and beautifully bright illustrations this is the perfect book for budding scientists and those eager to learn more about our amazing planet.

Are you ready for an exciting and dramatic story about how life began and developed on Planet Earth? Packed full of fascinating facts and funny illustrations, this is the perfect introduction to life on earth for even the youngest of readers.

At first, nothing lived on Earth. It was a noisy, hot, scary place. Choking gas exploded from volcanoes and…


Who am I?

As a kid, I never stopped asking “But why?” Learning the answers always led me to new questions, and I’ve been on a life-long journey to understand the world, and how everything works. I wanted to give the joy of discovery, and the empowerment of understanding, to a new generation of readers. The amazing story of evolution seemed to be a great starting point. I wrote the book I wanted to read to my own daughter, full of adventures and grown-up science, told in a way kids can understand. 


I wrote...

Aunt Jodie's Guide to Evolution

By Jordan Bell,

Book cover of Aunt Jodie's Guide to Evolution

What is my book about?

Join Sophie and Matt as Aunt Jodie takes you on an imagination-expanding journey back in time. Learn about evolution in two different species, millions of years apart: the Plesiads, ancient lemur-like creatures from 55 million years ago, and colour-changing Peppered Moths from the 1800s. What happens to the Plesiads when a volcano erupts? How do the moths survive when their camouflage stops working? Discover the secrets that help all creatures transform and develop when big changes happen in the world around them. For anyone new to science, Aunt Jodie’s Guides also include an easy-to-read glossary, explaining the scientific terms used in the book, and how to pronounce them. 

This book is available on the author's website.

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?

Darwin on Trial

By Phillip E. Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Darwin on Trial as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Is evolution fact or fancy? Is natural selection an unsupported hypothesis or a confirmed mechanism of evolutionary change?
These were the courageous questions that professor of law Phillip Johnson originally took up in 1991. His relentless pursuit to follow the evidence wherever it leads remains as relevant today as then.
The facts and the logic of the arguments that purport to establish a theory of evolution based on Darwinian principles, says Johnson, continue to draw their strength from faith--faith in philosophical naturalism.
In this edition Johnson responds to critics of the first edition and maintains that scientists have put the…

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.

Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

By Stephen Jay Gould,

Book cover of Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History

Until his death in 2002, Gould, a Harvard paleontologist, was probably the best-known natural scientist in the United States. What was not always recognized was that virtually every line Gould penned proceeded along two tracks, the scientific and the political. A leftist who started his career as a Marxist and developed into a more orthodox liberal, Gould had a genius for combining scientific lessons with political disputation and presenting that combination in lucid, interesting prose. No single book summarizes all of his political/evolutionary views. This one, in which he discusses many fascinating aspects of natural history while demolishing the views of creationists, would be a good place to start reading.

Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

By Stephen Jay Gould,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over a century after Darwin published the Origin of Species, Darwinian theory is in a "vibrantly healthy state," writes Stephen Jay Gould, its most engaging and illuminating exponent. Exploring the "peculiar and mysterious particulars of nature," Gould introduces the reader to some of the many and wonderful manifestations of evolutionary biology.

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.

Humanity in a Creative Universe

By Stuart A. Kauffman,

Book cover of Humanity in a Creative Universe

This book was very inspiring to me, and reinforces the idea that each of us is a unique and integral part of an evolving universe. The future is not fixed, and as we awaken to our higher possibilities, what becomes possible for everything is augmented. We live in a purpose-driven universe, and not the one described for centuries as a clockwork universe. 

Humanity in a Creative Universe

By Stuart A. Kauffman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Humanity in a Creative Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the hard sciences, which can often feel out of grasp for many lay readers, there are "great thinkers" who go far beyond the equations, formulas, and research. Minds such as Stephen Hawking philosophize about the functions and nature of the universe, the implications of our existence, and other impossibly fascinating, yet difficult questions. Stuart A. Kauffman is one of those great thinkers. He has dedicated his lifetime to researching "complex systems" at
prestigious institutions and now writes his treatise on the most complex system of all: our universe.

A recent Scientific American article claims that "philosophy begins where physics…

Who am I?

I believe that spiritual awakening is a service to the universe, and not just for our own enlightenment. Spirituality generally has been viewed as a return to some other realm of consciousness, rather than a means to awakening what we think of as divinity in life. There can never be a “finish line” to spirituality, as there is no end to the possibilities which collective co-evolution can bring about. The only way that intractable problems of humanity will ever be resolved is if a large number of people awaken to higher states of consciousness, while firmly grounded in life.


I wrote...

Beyond the Wonderful: Transforming the World with the Light of Your Being

By Don Weiner, Diane Weiner M.S.,

Book cover of Beyond the Wonderful: Transforming the World with the Light of Your Being

What is my book about?

We offer an approach to spirituality in which you will learn to develop your faculty of creative imagination, modulate your consciousness, and discover yourself as a multidimensional being.  Deepening the relationship between your manifest and transcendent aspects enables new possibilities to emerge which transform the world. What is gained from your life becomes part of a never-ending transmission of wisdom and a source of blessings to all of existence.

Beyond the wonderful is taking a quantum leap into the possibilities of the pull of the future. Life’s problems become portals to the sacred. Everything then speaks as Gabriel, the divine messenger. By fulfilling the deepest desire of your heart, you participate in the brilliant becoming of all that is enfolded in the Universe.

The Immense Journey

By Loren Eiseley,

Book cover of The Immense Journey

This book is a revelation! The author (1907-1977) was a scientist (a naturalist, anthropologist, and paleontologist), and, boy, could he write. The title refers to the arc of time on this planet. There are chapters that describe and ponder fossils, evolution, so-called missing links, “the great deeps,” and so forth in the most captivating, poetic language. But the chapter to read is “How Flowers Changed the World.” I consider it the most important and insightful essay ever written on the dramatic arrival of angiosperms (flowering plants)—because he takes into account all context, and because he marvels. As we should.

The Immense Journey

By Loren Eiseley,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Immense Journey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

Hiking in the flower-covered hillsides of Central California as a nature-loving kid, I couldn’t help but wonder about my companions. One of my first purchases (with babysitting money!) was a wildflower guide. I’ve moved around the country many times and every time I’ve had to start over, make new plant acquaintances and discoveries—always an orienting process. Of course, I’ve also studied plants formally, in college and in my career, and (honestly, best of all) via mentors and independent study. All this has shown me that flowers are more than just beautiful! They’re amazingly diverse, and full of fascinating behaviors and quirks. In fact, they are essential parts of the complex habitats we share.


I wrote...

Seeing Flowers: Discover the Hidden Life of Flowers

By Teri Dunn Chace, Robert Llewellyn (photographer),

Book cover of Seeing Flowers: Discover the Hidden Life of Flowers

What is my book about?

Seeing Flowers is a visual feast that gloriously highlights 343 popular gardens and wildflowers. My collaborator Robert Llewellyn’s photographs are undeniably magnificent, but my job was the words. So I strove to really “see” each flower. His daring and unique images gave me the will to try!

My broad approach to “seeing” is what makes this book unique. Yes, I included the botany (distinguishing characteristics), biology (a flower’s relationships with other creatures, insects and more), and useful gardening info—and I made sure to use clear language that anyone could follow and enjoy. 

But the reader will also encounter fascinating tidbits, tales, and lore. Every living thing including flowers has context, history and stories, which I believe are rightfully part of the wide net of exploration and learning.

Book cover of Why Elephants Have Big Ears : Understanding Patterns of Life on Earth

If you’re gonna draw any creatures, humans included, it’s important to understand all the factors that influence their size and their shape. The temperature of their environment, the altitude, the precipitation— even the gravity of the planet itself. The book gives gives an in-depth understanding as to why animals look they way they do, and why some weird structures are not only practical, but crucial for a species to survive.

Why Elephants Have Big Ears

By Chris Lavers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Elephants Have Big Ears as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why are all the big land animals on Earth mammals? Why are reptiles so small today when they were so huge in the Age of Dinosaurs? Why are rivers, lakes and swamps dominated by large cold-blooded reptiles and not by mammals? Why are there so many birds on Earth and why are they all so small? In this beautifully written and utterly compelling book Lavers scours the fields of biology, physiology, ecology and palaeontology to find answers to these global-scale questions. In the process he reveals a fundamentally new view of life on Earth, one that offers no room for…

Who am I?

I believe stories to be our species’ instinctual tool for discovering our best selves. Sometimes those stories are about real people in the past, sometimes they’re completely imagined people in the future — sometimes we even swap out the humans for animals or aliens, or sassy anthropomorphized objects. Whatever the case, for a story to work its wonders, its details must be believable, or we reject its premise. These books help make a story believable, and, if you get the alchemy just right, those details can even help tell the story themselves.


I wrote...

New in Town

By Kevin Cornell,

Book cover of New in Town

What is my book about?

One fine morning, the people of Puddletrunk wake up to find their bridge has collapsed. They are not surprised. After all, termites have destroyed the last 200 or so bridges. Luckily, the people of Puddletrunk have a bridge-building expert in their town: the fabulous Mortimer Gulch, who will gladly rebuild their bridge for a pretty penny. But when a newcomer to Puddletrunk does not want to pay for the repairs, Mortimer is displeased. To make matters worse, this unusual foreigner has some innovative ideas that threaten to upend Mortimer Gulch's entire business.

Here is a whimsical yet timely picture book allegory about what new people with new ideas can bring to communities.

Ten Million Aliens

By Simon Barnes,

Book cover of Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom

This book is probably my favorite among natural history reading I’ve come across. A chance encounter at the library, I ended up buying a copy for myself as well as gifting it to several friends. Barnes weaves together short vignettes about science, observation, and personal encounters with nature organized from the tiniest life forms to some of the largest. Biologist JBS Haldane once said, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.” This book proves it with memorable anecdotes and a wonderful sense of kinship and compassion for life both like us and completely unlike us.

Ten Million Aliens

By Simon Barnes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ten Million Aliens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Life on Planet Earth is not weirder than we imagine. It's weirder than we are capable of imagining. Ten Million Aliens opens your eyes to the real marvels of the planet we live on.

Who am I?

I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York and spent many weekends hiking, camping, and fishing with my parents. Identifying and understanding the plants and animals around me was always interesting, and this love of nature has stayed with me as an adult. I now live near Lake Michigan and am an avid hiker, birdwatcher, and an Indiana Master Naturalist. I take endless inspiration from the natural world in my illustration work and believe that co-existing with, respecting, and preserving the natural world is central not just to the integrity of our planet, but to our very humanity.


I wrote...

Draw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insects: Step-By-Step Realistic Line Drawing - A Sourcebook for Aspiring Artists and Designers

By Melissa Washburn,

Book cover of Draw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insects: Step-By-Step Realistic Line Drawing - A Sourcebook for Aspiring Artists and Designers

What is my book about?

Featuring more than 600 sketches depicting a vast array of beautiful winged forms, Draw Like an Artist: 100 Birds, Butterflies, and Other Insects is a visual reference for students and aspiring artists, or anyone else seeking to improve their realistic drawing skills.

This step-by-step guidebook demonstrates fundamental art concepts like proportion, anatomy, and spatial relationships as you learn to draw a full range of winged creatures, all shown from a variety of perspectives. Each set of illustrations takes you from beginning sketch lines to a finished drawing.

Life on Earth

By Steve Jenkins,

Book cover of Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution

A step more sophisticated than the picture books above, Life on Earth is targeted to children ages 9 to 12. The eye-catching format and succinct text cover the diversity of life on Earth, major evolutionary transitions, and nicely illustrates the process of natural selection through a succession of illustrations of frogs as the fittest individuals are selected by their environment. Engaging and packed with information.

Life on Earth

By Steve Jenkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life on Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There are millions of different kinds of plants and animals living on the earth, and millions more have lived here in the past. Where did they all come from? Why have some become extinct and others lived on?

What lived on Earth before us, who is still with us, and what prompts evolutionary change? In this remarkable picture book, Steve Jenkins uses his signature eye-popping art to answer these questions and explore the fascinating history of life on earth and the awe-inspiring story of evolution.

Who am I?

Life really is stranger than fiction, and some of the stuff served up by evolution is outrageously bizarre. There are one-celled creatures that make rats want to cozy up to cats, a parasitic worm that turns snails into “disco zombies” and an ape that communicates across continents by pushing keys to create rows and columns of pixels. I’m fascinated by all of these creatures and love writing books for children about evolutionary biology, especially the evolution of intelligence. Besides authoring How to Build a Human, I’ve written about the evolution of intelligence in dolphins (The Dolphins of Shark Bay) and crows (Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird).


I wrote...

How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps

By Pamela S. Turner, John Gurche (illustrator),

Book cover of How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps

What is my book about?

How did we become who we are? In How to Build a Human, I break down human evolution into the seven most important steps leading to Homo sapiens. This fascinating and funny account of the evolutionary journey turns science into an irresistible story. Vetted by experts at the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, the book also features detailed portraits by celebrated paleo-artist John Gurche that bring our early ancestors to life.

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