Thursday, March 06, 2008

Reader comments: Learning about evolution

A question in the comments prompted me to give a response up here:
[I]s there anyway I could learn about evolution without having an upper level education in biology and whatnot, (I'm a senior in High School)?
Yes! The "catch" (if there is one) is that you will develop an upper level education in biology on the way. You just have to do a lot of reading. Thankfully, there are a number of good books out there that can introduce you to the topic. It is, however, a good idea to have a basic familiarity with biology, particularly genetics and a bit of molecular biology. But, to begin with, the material covered in a high school biology class (or equivalent level of textbook) is a good start. It's important to know, for instance, what an allele is, or the base-pairing of DNA. Also, it's important to understand the relationship between DNA and proteins.

The study of evolution is pretty varied. We can break it down into two major parts:

1) The study of the mechanisms and principles that cause evolutionary change
2) The history of life: the historical record and inferred pattern of changes/transformation

It's important to understand both of these things and they will come from different sources. For instance, basic texts on evolution are pretty weak on paleontology. But paleontology texts will be pretty weak on aspects of evolutionary mechanisms. They're needed to complement each other.

The most important thing, beyond anything, is to understand the evidence for any proposition about evolution. Always ask if the evidence is convincing. If so, why? If not, why not?

Some book recommendations:

A few lay-reader type of books that are really good:

Weiner, J. 1995. The Beak of the Finch. Vintage.

Carroll, S.B. 2005. Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Norton.

Zimmer, C. 1998. At the Water's Edge. Free Press.

Texts on biology and evolutionary biology are always a good and obvious place to start. But my preferred way to do things is to get some basic knowledge set up and start looking at evidence (that's how I learn). Books of any type, age, or scope on zoology, botany, anatomy, palaeontology, are very good because they're extremely visual and give you an understanding of the diversity of living form. If you're a very visual learning, as I am, then these can really be helpful. But they're also useful because a lot of texts on evolution or biology talk about things as though they're somewhat divorced from the actual organism to which they might be relevant. A good background in zoology, botany, as well as palaeontology will be extremely helpful.

The short answer is: yes, there are a lot of readily available resources for self-educating in evolutionary biology. Have fun!


Jerry D. Harris said...

Don Prothero's newest book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters isn't a bad introduction, either, particularly if you're looking to see how the evidence contradicts creationism and "intelligent design" nicely. Beyond that, though, don't be afraid to tackle textbooks, either, as reading material. They tend to be drier than other books, but they are written specifically to teach, and so might be useful. Here are a few.

Jonathan Brennecke said...

Then there's always the internet... blogs, online journals, research articles and the like. I'm working on an exhaustive list of such sites for my website but I've not finished it not out yet. Perhaps the readers here could suggest some sites to supplement my list? Thanks.

Rob Clack said...

I agree about Zimmer and Prothero's books. Both excellent.

Can I put in a plug for my wife's book? If you think that's an abuse of the comment facility, please delete this comment.
Jenny Clack's book Gaining Ground is tightly focused on the evolution of fish into land vertebrates and is generally regarded as being quite readable. I found the chapter on skull morphology rather hard work (well actually, I skipped it!), but you don't need to know that to understand evolution.

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Medic said...

Hey Mr. Brazeu. I couldn't find your email, I'll use the comment system. I was born and raised Southern Baptist. 14 years of it, with the idea that evolution and creationism were completely incompatable. After a Biology course though, I was able to understand how evolution couldn't just be "dis-proven", no matter the argument. There was so much evidence backing all we see in everyday life and what we utilize in science. My question for you though is, whenever someone questions me on why I strongly support evolution and offer questions from the multitudes of intelligent design books, I find myself unable to answer or even disagree with some of the questions. Is there a book(s), (Excluding Darwin's), that offers a wide and complete explanation of evolution in laymans terms?

SteveG said...

Martin, have you had a chance to read any of Neil Shubin's new book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2008)? If you have, I'd be interested in your impressions of the book, especially in the context of your post here that I'm responding to.

Matt horner said...

I got really interested in Evolutionary Biology about a year ago. After never really being taught it very well in highschool and earlier college biology classes. I thought to myself, I've been told this is true, but I don't really know anything about it. So I started reading a lot. So from a neophyte, I'd like to suggest, The Ancestor's Tale, by Richard Dawkins. Not too technical but was very informative for a lay person.

Aleks said...

DonExodus2 on youtube also has a great video series on Evolution.

Dragon, Reborn said...

Mr. Martin B.

I just got done Youtubing (something I only do once every 6 months) creation vs. evolution.

Thank you, THANK YOU, for putting Kent Hovind in his place. I watched video after video of his quick replies and recycled responses make fools out of people who simply stumped by his analogies. Analogies do not disprove anything.

But you came in and waxed him. It was from 2005, if I remember, but I'm sure you do. I'm an accountant in college, but I love the pursuit of truth, and thank you for attacking him with such ferocity.

I just wanted to say you have a friend in California. A fan, even. Maybe the couple beers helped. But at 3am, you're victory was quite the way to end the night.

By the way, I will gladly read the books you recommended this fellow.

Please respond, if you find the time.

Thanks again,
Sacramento, CA