The Evidence for Evolution


September 30, 2009

Two new books examine the evidence for evolution, each author approaching this timely and controversial subject from a slightly different perspective but each finding the evidence solid and irrefutable. Reviewer Laurence D. Hurst in Nature this week compares two seasoned authors' strategies for explaining the difference between evolution fact and fantasy — Richard Dawkins's thunder and Carl Zimmer's poise.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins; Free Press/Bantam Press: 2009. 480 pp/406 pp. $30/£20

The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer; Roberts: 2009. 394 pp. $59.95/£29.99

"The Greatest Show on Earth is Dawkins on top form: unambiguous, beautifully argued, with prose flowing like quicksilver. He starts, as Charles Darwin did in On the Origin of Species, by coaxing the reader down a logical path, from artificial selection and domestication, through the ubiquity of the heritability of traits, to the inevitability of evolution by natural selection. Unlike many of his previous books, the logic of evolution plays second fiddle to the evidence for it and how that evidence is obtained. He explains what we have learnt from studying the relatedness between species (phylogenetics) and the way organisms develop (embryology), from the fossil record (palaeontology) and from the geographical distribution of species (biogeography). He is especially good on the unintelligent design of organisms.  As Dawkins makes clear, evolution is testable and has survived every test."

"Carl Zimmer's approach to explaining evolution in The Tangled Bank is rather different. In a non-confrontational way, he lays out the evidence for all to see. His prose, while authoritative and easy to read, is poised rather than animated. Dense with facts, the book is billed as the first textbook on evolution for the general reader, and in that framework it excels. Zimmer doesn't counterpoint the facts of evolution with creationist assertions but biblical literalism stalks the pages like the elephant in the room."

Read the full review in Nature.