The Rough Guide to Evolution: Darwin's big idea that changed the world

by Mark Pallen.

A handy guide to all things evolutionary.

The Rough Guide to Evolution

Book Cover of the Year Award 2009, if there is such a beast, must surely go to the pensive chimp gracing Mark Pallen FCD's handy guide to all things evolutionary. Even my dad commented on what a great cover it is.

Fortunately, the old saw about not judging books by their covers turns out to be ill-founded in this particular case: Pallen, Professor of Microbial Genomics at the University of Birmingham (UK), has written an excellent, succinct, but un-dumbed-down layman's guide to Charles Darwin and his great theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection.

The book is split into four main sections, describing in turn: the history of and evidence for evolutionary theory; a brief history of life on Earth; Darwin's impact on other (non-biological) disciplines; and a description of resources available to people wishing to dig deeper into the subjects of Darwin and evolution. It was nice to see the Beagle Project getting a mention in the final section.

I have to say, I initially found the format of the book a bit odd. Based on the successful series of travel guides, the general narrative of the book is interspersed with information boxes giving more details about particular subjects mentioned in the main text. But, after I got used to these interruptions, I started to enjoy them: they certainly make the book a less daunting read, and ideal for dipping into. One to keep by the loo, perhaps.

I did have a couple of minor gripes about the book:

Gripe One: Pallen, like many other authors in this field, dedicates a small but significant section of his book to the subject of religion. I would have preferred it if he had used these 30+ pages to write more about the subject in hand, rather than getting side-tracked into areas which have absolutely nothing to do with science. As Pallen himself states: "in a Rough Guide to Evolution, there is precious little space for a detailed rebuttal of every point ever raised by creationists". Quite. But why give those losers any page-space at all?

Gripe Two: Anyone who choses Amy Winehouse's version of Monkey Man for their ultimate evolutionary playlist over Toots and the Maytals' original (and who misses out Chris Smither's 'Origin of Species' altogether) will have to step outside.

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