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About Evolutionary Theory

Organisms [...] are directed and limited by their past. They must remain imperfect in their form and function, and to that extent unpredictable since they are not optimal machines. We cannot know their future with certainty, if only because a myriad of quirky functional shifts lie within the capacity of any feature, however well adapted to a present role.

-- Stephen Jay Gould, "Quick Lives and Quirky Changes"

Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.

-- Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker

Having reached the rare age of 100 years, I find myself in a unique position: I'm the last survivor of the golden age of the Evolutionary Synthesis. That status encourages me to present a personal account of what I experienced in the years (1920s to the 1950s) that were so crucial in the history of evolutionary biology.

-- Ernst Mayr, "80 Years of Watching the Evolutionary Scenery"

There are a few authors in my evolution library whose work really rates a section of its own, because it's so far-ranging. Their books are listed here, one section for each author.

Stephen Jay Gould

For thirty years, Stephen Jay Gould wrote a regular monthly column for Natural History magazine. The subjects ranged all over the map, from Mickey Mouse to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941, but Gould always managed to somehow tie them to evolutionary theory. Most of these have since been collected and published as anthologies. Time has tarnished some of Gould's essays and his reputation, and some of what he said about anthropology should be taken with a grain of salt, but there are still some very fine pieces of work in his repertoire.

  • ONTOGENY AND PHYLOGENY
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1977
    Publisher: Belknap Press
    ISBN: 0-674-63941-3

  • EVER SINCE DARWIN
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1977
    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    ISBN: 0-393-00917-3
    Essays on science and nature
  • PANDA'S THUMB, THE
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1980
    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    ISBN: 0-393-30023-4
    Essays on science & nature
  • HEN'S TEETH AND HORSE'S TOES
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1983
    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    ISBN: 0-393-31103-1
    Gould's third book of collected essays from NATURAL HISTORY and other sources. Contains 'Evolution as Fact and Theory,' which is a critique of creationism.
  • FLAMINGO'S SMILE, THE
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1985
    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    ISBN: 0-393-30375-6
    Essays on science & nature
  • BULLY FOR BRONTOSAURUS
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1991
    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    ISBN: 0-393-30857-X
    Essays on science & nature
  • EIGHT LITTLE PIGGIES
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1993
    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    ISBN: 0-393-03416-X
    Essays on science and nature
  • DINOSAUR IN A HAYSTACK
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1995
    Publisher: Crown Trade
    ISBN: 0-517-88824-6
    Gould's seventh collection of essays from NATURAL HISTORY magazine. Includes 'Hooking Leviathan by its Past,' a superb essay on the evolution of cetaceans.
  • LEONARDO'S MOUNTAIN OF CLAMS AND THE DIET OF WORMS
    Author: Gould, Stephen Jay
    Copyright:1998
    Publisher: Three Rivers
    ISBN: 0-609-80475-8

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Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist who has written several very fine (if somewhat technical) books about evolutionary theory. His writing is sometimes hard to understand, and occasionally tainted by his politics, but (like Gould) he's still produced some very fine popular-science explanations of evolutionary theory.

  • BLIND WATCHMAKER, THE
    Author: Dawkins, Richard
    Copyright:1987
    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    ISBN: 0-393-30448-5
    Dawkins's first book on evolutionary theory. Title comes from the 'watch must require a watchmaker' argument.
  • RIVER OUT OF EDEN
    Author: Dawkins, Richard
    Copyright:1995
    Publisher: BasicBooks
    ISBN: 0-465-01606-5

  • CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE
    Author: Dawkins, Richard
    Copyright:1996
    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    ISBN: 0-393-31682-3

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Ernst Mayr

Ernst Mayr was one of the Grand Old Men of evolutionary biology. He studied it all his life, and was witness to most of the discoveries that turned it from merely a viable theory into the only viable theory for biology. Indeed, he made many of those discoveries himself, and was instrumental in the creation of what came to be known as the "neo-Darwinian synthesis" that merged Darwin's theory of evolution with the fast-rising science of genetics.

  • EVOLUTION AND THE DIVERSITY OF LIFE
    Author: Mayr, Ernst
    Copyright:1976
    Publisher: Hardvard University Press
    ISBN: 0-674-27104-1
    A collection of articles on evolutionary biology.
  • GROWTH OF BIOLOGICAL THOUGHT, THE
    Author: Mayr, Ernst
    Copyright:1982
    Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press
    ISBN: 0-674-36446-5
    Mayr's long, detailed, comprehensive history of biology. Very good and very thorough, but occasionally it's very slow slogging.
  • ONE LONG ARGUMENT
    Author: Mayr, Ernst
    Copyright:1991
    Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press
    ISBN: 0-674-63906-5
    An eloquent explanation and defense of Darwin's theory, by one of the grand old men of American biology.
  • THIS IS BIOLOGY: The Science of the Living World
    Author: Mayr, Ernst
    Copyright:1997
    Publisher: Belknap Press
    ISBN: 0-674-88469-8

  • TOWARD A NEW PHILOSOPHY OF BIOLOGY
    Author: Mayr, Ernst
    Copyright:1988
    Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press
    ISBN: 0-674-89666-1

  • WHAT EVOLUTION IS
    Author: Mayr, Ernst
    Copyright:2001
    Publisher: Basic Books, Inc.
    ISBN: 0-465-4425-5

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