Evolution for the humanist

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Over the past week I’ve been sampling chapters out of Mark Ridley’s Oxford Reader anthology, Evolution. I can’t recommend this book enough! It runs the gamut from historically oriented essays dating from the late 19th century all the way to cutting edge papers from the past 10 years. Ridley manages to balance accessibility to the general audience with rigor and relevance that would appeal to specialists. In my opinion general interest science books geared toward the lay audience are often too skewed toward biographical minutiae as opposed to the ideas which are the ends of science. Many popularizations of books on evolution don’t have any basic math which succinctly generalizes and summarizes the verbal concepts being exposited.1 By basic math, I mean some simple algebra, evolutionary biology isn’t particle physics, you don’t need to get into diffusion equations to model how alleles spread through a population at the most elementary and approximate level. In Evolution there is enough math to wet the appetite of those who wish to seek more technical treatments of the topics surveyed, instead of redigesting the science prior to presenting it for your consumption Ridley samples a small portion intact. I’m definitely going to check out the other Oxford Reader’s books out there in the hopes that the quality wasn’t just due to Ridley (I’ll start with the Classical Philosophy anthology since I know a bit about the topic and so can judge whether there is a quality drop off).

1 – Of course general audience books on “evolution” almost always skew toward macroevolution because it is a topic with more charisma than microevolutionary dynamics, which, being derived from population genetics means some math is a must for genuine internalization of the concepts. But even in macroevolution there are now mathematical models cropping up, see Evolutionary Dynamics.

2 Comments

  1. Ridley’s Evolution textbook is good too.

  2. yeah, i would recommend it, but only to people really interested in the topic. the book has a good website with a lot of terms that i reference.

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