Two very different books about evolution crossed my desk recently. The first, by Richard Dawkins, is titled The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Free Press). The second, by Daniel Loxton, is Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be (Kids Can Press).
The fact that either of these authors felt the need to write their respective books is, in a way, somewhat bizarre and sad. Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species in 1859; the world has had 150 years to digest and understand evolution, and evidence for Darwin’s theory has grown more robust with each passing year. In an ideal world, Dawkins and Loxton would be chided for wasting their time and effort pointing out the patently self-evident. What’s next, a book explaining to the public that the sun shines upon them every day?
And yet polls and surveys show that a significant number of people (around 40 percent, but depending on the exact poll question) have doubts about evolution. Some of them are creationists, but many others simply have never had evolution explained to them correctly.
Evolution by natural selection is not necessarily clear or intuitive. Evolution is not inherently obvious; it is a slow, complex process with many nuances. Whether stunted by a poor educational system or religious fundamentalists, it is a minor tragedy that one of the greatest scientific ideas in history remains the subject of dispute.
That is why books like The Greatest Show on Earth and Evolution are important. The former is meant for educated adults who want complete, well-rounded information on the evidence for evolution; the latter is aimed at children and teens who want a solid understanding of evolution’s fundamentals. Each is very appropriate for its audience, and paired together both books make a complete evolution literacy package (along with On the Origin of Species, which remains very readable). To be honest, I’ve not had a chance to more than skim Dawkins’s 460-page tome, though I expect it’s excellent. Loxton’s book, with only fifty-five pages and enticing full-color art on every page, is more accessible, and I’ll focus on that.
Loxton has a lot of ground to cover, and he begins by noting that different fossils are found in different geological strata—a fact that suggested to early researchers that many now-extinct animals had once roamed the planet (and much longer ago than most people could imagine). Evolution goes on to touch on a wide variety of subjects related to evolution, from DNA to the alleged “living dinosaur” mokele-mbembe. Along the way, new concepts such as species and mutation are introduced, often in the form of posed questions. Charles Darwin’s experiments are briefly described, including his research into avian inbreeding and the variations in beaks in isolated populations of Galapagos island finches. The elements of evolution are explained in terms that are neither dumbed-down nor too complex for its target audience.
Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic, also shows off his considerable illustration skills. The book is clearly written for children, and eye-catching graphics are of course a necessity. Every page has one or more enticing, full-color images illustrating everything from dinosaurs to the bird-dinosaur Archaeopteryx to cute, flirty little zebra-like things called Zooks. This helps reinforce the important concept that evolution is not a stale, dry theory dusted off from irrelevant history or science books but instead a real, active process occurring all around us at this very moment. It’s rare to find such an accessible, dynamic treatment of the subject of evolution.
Evolution also wisely anticipates and addresses some of the most common anti-evolution fallacies (such as that the eye is too complex to have evolved naturally). This feature alone makes the book better than other simplified descriptions of evolution because it inoculates readers against bogus creationist arguments they may hear but would be otherwise unable to answer.
While the content of the book is very good, a few elements could have used better organization. For example, there are about a dozen sections that begin with a question. This is a useful way to present information, but the questions appear next to illustrated oval portraits of people whose relevance to the book is unclear. The questions themselves are fine, but I found the associations with anonymous portraits confusing at first. It might have been more effective if the book had begun with two or three recurring characters who would be asking questions on behalf of the reader throughout the book, instead of introducing a different, apparently random face each time. The book also needed a references or further reading section. Though Richard Dawkins is quoted several times in the text, for example, none of his books or articles are mentioned or referenced. Overall, however, these minor issues don’t detract from the book’s presentation and message.
I hope that 150 years from now books on evolution, such as those by Dawkins and Loxton, will be considered obsolete, a redundant parroting of basic facts that every schoolchild knows.
Until then, the world is sorely in need of high-quality, accessible science and skeptical books for teens and children, and Loxton’s book is an excellent and long-overdue introduction to evolution.