Ten books by Richard Dawkins

You don’t have to agree with everything professor Dawkins stands for to acknowledge that, since Carl Sagan, he has been one of the most prominent science popularizers lately. He has succeeded in putting his message across several times throughout his more-than-30-year-long career as a science writer. I decided to draw up a list of his books and give a short account of each, though I must admit I haven’t read them all myself.

The Selfish Gene (1976)
The one that made him famous and controversial overnight. In it he argues that natural selection acts on genes, not on the level of populations as previously held. This is where he invented the term meme as a unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene. This is still the book most people identify Dawkins with, although some of the ideas might seem outdated.

The Extended Phenotype (1982)
Here he elaborates on the ideas put forward in The Selfish Gene, but in a way that’s a tiny bit more technical, while retaining its readability. Dawkins regards this book as his most significant contribution to evolutionary biology. Subtitled The long reach of the gene, phenotypes are not necessarily limited to the organism itself, but can be manifestations extended beyond that. Think of the beaver’s dam.

The Blind Watchmaker (1986)
One of his most popular works, in it he takes on the task of explaining how evolution works, using the metaphor of a blind watchmaker, meaning that evolution has no purpose in creating endless forms. He wrote the book to, in his own words, “persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”

River Out of Eden (1995)
His shortest book, it basically contains summaries of topics mentioned in his previous books. He goes on to explain evolution through genes and human ancestry. He also contemplates how Darwinian evolution may take place outside our planet.  The title comes from Genesis. Illustrations by his wife, actress Lalla Ward, can also be found in here.

Climbing Mount Improbable (1996)
This work is a book-long rebuttal of the obnoxious creationist claim that the chances for complex organs, like the bacterial flagellum or the human eye, to evolve are so meagre that they surely must be the handiwork of an intelligent designer. At first glance it looks improbable, but evolution moves across the adaptive landscape gradually, and given enough time, it will certainly reach the peak of that metaphorical mountain.

Unweaving The Rainbow (1998)
The relationship of science and art is dissected here. John Keats once blamed Isaac Newton for destroying the rainbow by simply explaining it. He tries to persuade the reader that natural wonders like the rainbow do not necessarily lose aesthetic value once their mystery is solved. To the contrary, dissecting nature has the capacity of actually enhancing its beauty.

A Devil’s Chaplain (2003)
This is a collection of essays written over the years. The subtitle says it all: Reflections on hope, lies, science, and love. The topics are diverse, it contains a eulogy for his friend Douglas Adams, an essay that disrobes postmodernism, as well as an open letter to his then minor daughter, giving her advice on how to evaluate evidence and view things with a critical and open mind.

The Ancestor’s Tale (2004)
In the fashion of The Canterbury Tales, Dawkins takes a pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution starting from humans. Along the way he stops at every major cornerstone to relate the most interesting facts (tales), and what we need to know about that particular ancestor. Spanning billions of years he finally arrives at the origins of life. My personal favourite. It’s time for a re-read, I reckon.

The God Delusion (2006)
Sold over 2 million copies, this one virtually made him an international superstar and an iconic figure of atheism. It became one of the four great books of the so-called “new atheism”, the others being The End Of Faith by Sam Harris, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and Breaking The Spell by Daniel Dennett. Not the easiest read, but well worth the effort.

The Greatest Show On Earth (2009)
He had written books on evolution for decades, before he realized he never actually laid out the evidence for it. With the upsurge of the intelligent design movement and its dumbed down version creationism, he felt the need, alongside other notables like Jerry Coyne or Neil Shubin, to lamentably write this book. The evidence is clearly demonstrated here, to deny it, like all creationists do, would be an act of lunacy.

As revealed in recent interviews, Dawkins is currently working on a children’s book, in which he intends to explain evolution in a way that’s understandable even to the youngest of the inquirers.

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Why Evolution Is True

why-evolution-coyneJerry A. Coyne from the University of Chicago is a distinguished biologist of Speciation fame and a well-known figure in the intelligent design vs. evolution debate. He for some reason felt obliged to lay out the evidence for evolution, but unlike the one mentioned above, which is a highly technical textbook (co-authored with H. Allen Orr) and an embarrassingly difficult read even for professionals, Why Evolution Is True is a delightful book designed for the average reader.

Isn’t this so-called ID-evolution debate already settled? Apparently not. Not in America, at any rate. While it’s not really an issue in Europe, a great number of people in the United States flatly reject evolution and literally interpret the Bible as the ultimate truth.

But here’s the thing: the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It’s there for all to see. Paleontology, geology, plate tectonics, biogeography, comparative anatomy, genetics, molecular biology – all these disciplines have their share to add to the ever-growing pile of evidence. You have to be blind or just plain stupid to deny it.

At any rate, Dr. Coyne makes his attempt to impart this intelligence to the lay people. After explaining in the first chapter what evolution is, in the following chapters he makes his case clearly with numerous examples from the above disciplines. Chapter 2 deals with fossils, how paleontologists work, radioactive dating methods, prominent transitional fossils like Tiktaalik (fish to amphibian), Archaeopteryx (reptile to bird), Indohyus (an artiodactyl ancestor of whales). This is really just an excerpt. There are a lot more.

Chapter 3 happens to contain my favourite example, one from ontogenesis. Not the easiest to understand, but I hadn’t known about it before. I recommend medical students pop this to their anatomy teacher: why the heck does our left recurrent pharyngeal nerve go all the way down to the heart and come back only to innervate the larynx?

The answer lies in ontogenesis and common ancestry:

One of nature’s worst designs is shown by the recurrent laryngeal nerve of mammals. Running from the brain to the larynx, this nerve helps us speak and swallow. The curious thing is that it is much longer than it needs to be. Rather than taking a direct route from the brain to the larynx, a distance of about a foot in humans, the nerve runs down into our chest, loops around the aorta and a ligament derived from an artery, and then travels back up to connect to the larynx. It winds up being three feet long. In giraffes the nerve takes a similar path, but one that runs all the way down that long neck and back up again: a distance fifteen feet longer than the direct route! When I first heard about this strange nerve, I had trouble believing it. Wanting to see for myself, I mustered up my courage to make a trip to the human anatomy lab and inspect my first corpse. An obliging professor showed me the nerve, tracing its course with a pencil down the torso and back up to the throat.
This circuitous path of the recurrent laryngeal nerve is not only poor design, but might even be maladaptive. That extra length makes it more prone to injury. It can, for example, be damaged by a blow to the chest, making it hard to talk or swallow. But the pathway makes sense when we understand how the recurrent laryngeal nerve evolved. Like the mammalian aorta itself, it descends from those branchial arches of our fishlike ancestors. In the early fishlike embryos of all vertebrates, the nerve runs from top to bottom alongside the blood vessel of the sixth branchial arch; it is a branch of the larger vagus nerve that travels along the back from the brain. And in adult fish, the nerve remains in that position, connecting the brain to the gills and helping them pump water.
During our evolution, the blood vessel from the fifth arch disappeared, and the vessels from the fourth and sixth arches moved downward into the future torso so that they could become the aorta and a ligament connecting the aorta to the pulmonary artery. But the laryngeal nerve, still behind the sixth arch, had to remain connected to the embryonic structures that become the larynx, structures that remained near the brain. As the future aorta evolved backward toward the heart, the laryngeal nerve was forced to evolve backward along with it. It would have been more efficient for the nerve to detour around the aorta, breaking and then re-forming itself on a more direct course, but natural selection couldn’t manage that, for severing and rejoining a nerve is a step that reduces fitness. To keep up with the backward evolution of the aorta, the laryngeal nerve had to become long and recurrent. And that evolutionary path is recapitulated during development, since as embryos we begin with the ancestral fishlike pattern of nerves and blood vessels. In the end, we’re left with bad design.

The following chapters deal with the geography of life, how animals came to live in the separate continents, island biogeography, bees killing giant hornets by heating them up to 80 degrees centigrade, evolution in the test tube, drug resistance, a whole chapter on sexual selection, speciation (the process of distinct species formation), population genetics, human evolution (including Homo floresiensis, the hobbit), etc.

All in all, a profoundly satisfying read, a rare gem in the market of popular science books. Last words:

We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. And we should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

This little book reports the discovery of one of the most spectacular transitional fossils of recent years, that of Tiktaalik. It’s a fish that crawled ashore 375 million years ago with limbs and a skull that are more similar to those of terrestrial vertebrates.

The author is a paleontologist who also happens to teach anatomy in a medical school. He claims that it would be far easier for students to comprehend seemingly illogical anatomical structures, if they looked into their actual phylogenetic past. Have you ever wondered, for example, what the three minute bones in your middle ear are doing? How did they get there? They used to be parts of the jaw of fish. The book is loaded with tons of plausible facts one wouldn’t find in anatomy textbooks.

Highly recommended, especially to blockheaded medical students and practising physicians who don’t know the first thing about evolution through natural selection.

Not incidentally, it is shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, the winner (out of six) of which is to be announced in September