Five best books on evolutionary biology
Tom Chivers picks his favourite five books from a scientific field, this time evolutionary biology, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.
It’s pretty much obligatory nowadays to prefix Stephen Jay Gould’s name with the term “late, great”, but it is easy to forget how controversial he was in his lifetime. His most famous contribution to evolutionary biology was the idea of “punctuated equilibrium” – claiming that evolution was not steady, gradual progression, but long periods of stasis interspersed with periods of rapid change. It was hailed in some quarters as a threat to Darwin’s theories. But Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, among others, dismissed them as a storm in a teacup. Dennett was particularly harsh, calling Gould’s work a “self-styled revolution” and sparking an entertaining ding-dong battle between the two in The New York Review of Books.
But Gould, fairly or otherwise, will probably be best remembered for his popular works. A splendid writer (as Dennett acknowledged), he was able to make complex ideas, of genetics and biochemistry and probability, accessible to lay readers.