Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Reviews: Evolution 101

Work under Review
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Evolution
Leslie Alan Horvitz
Indianapolis (IN): Alpha Books, 2002. 310 pages
Work under Review
Evolution: A Very Short Introduction
Brian and Deborah Charlesworth
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 135 pages.

As we travel around the country talking with people about evolution education, one question comes up over and over: “What would you suggest as a good way to get the basics of evolution so we know what we are talking about?” There ought to be an easy answer, but there are very few books available that are suitable for a general audience. There are, however, two books that we always carry to these public events: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Evolution and Evolution: A Very Short Introduction. Ideally, the book written for a general audience would combine the best aspects of these two … and eliminate the worst.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide is the more “user-friendly” because of its design and format. It is brightly colored and the cover has that distinct bright orange border that marks it as one of a series of Complete Idiot’s Guides, making it stand out among the books on the shelf. The text is accessible and broken up by a number of boxes, sidebars, highlights, and special features. One of the best of these is a bulleted list at the end of every chapter entitled “The Least You Need to Know”. This book is easy to read, and it is easy to pick up again after a few days without having to go back and re-read several pages or sections. The book is also strong on the historical and cultural contexts of both evolutionary thinking and of anti-evolutionism.

The main problem with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Evolution is that it is full of errors. Some of these are terms that are misused throughout. For example, Horvitz uses ”development” as a synonym for “evolution” — an error we keep trying to prevent people from making. He defines a mutation as “differences in offspring of an organism” (p 101) — something most biologists refer to as biological variation. On page 215, he asks which of two Australopithecines “truly represented early hominids?” The correct answer, of course, is “both”, but Horvitz seems to be more interested in which of these taxa is the direct ancestor of modern humans, in which case the correct answer is most likely “neither”. And on page 287, he conflates hybridization (“cross-breeding”) with selective breeding.

For every concept clearly described and explained, there seems to be one of these serious, fundamental errors. Because of these problems, it is difficult to recommend this book, despite its general ease of use and attractiveness to the general public. At least it should not be used without proper supervision.

Evolution: A Very Short Introduction is everything that The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Evolution is not. The contents are thorough, well-organized, and up-to-date. There are eight very succinct chapters with writing that is clear and to the point. The format is not user-friendly, however. The text is densely packed and there are few illustrations and other “diversions” from the text.

The writing is excellent, as one would expect from these authors, and the contents, of course, are accurate. The authors give a clear explanation of the current state of evolutionary theory and research, as well as exploring some unanswered questions and some disagreements among scientists regarding particular models or research issues.

For all that Evolution: A Very Short Introduction has to offer, it is not a book that would be picked up off the shelf at the local bookseller’s or library. We often recommend it to general audiences, but make it clear that it has to be read carefully, because there is so much “coverage” of important information in a very few words. The reading level is not difficult, but it does require that the reader be conscientious and attentive to the text. This is not for the casual reader.

In the end, the book we would like to see is one that combines the best aspects of these two: one that is accurate and up-to-date, but also “user friendly”. To be useful to a general readership, the many checkpoints, sidebars, marginalia, and end-of-chapter lists help to reinforce what can be complex content. On the other hand, these reference points for the reader can improve understanding of evolution only if they contain accurate information.

Even though neither one of these alone completely meets the need for a good, clear account of the basics of evolution, together they contain valuable resources. Neither, however, should be used as the sole source of information for a general audience.

By Andrew J Petto (Reviewer), University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.