Recommended Reading for Evolution?

by Sable1 min read15th Jul 201511 comments

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I'll make this short and sweet.

I've been reading Dawkin's The Selfish Gene, and it's been really helpful filling in some of the gaps I have in my understanding of how evolution actually works.

The last biology class I took was in high school, and I don't think the mechanics of evolution is covered particularly well in American high schools.

I'm looking for recommendations - has anyone read any books that accurately describe the process of evolution for someone without specialized knowledge of biology?  I've already checked LessWrong's recommended textbooks, and while it recommends some books on evolutionary psychology and on animal behavior from an evolutionary perspective, it doesn't appear to have anything that describes evolution itself in sufficient detail to model it.

I'm toying with the idea of trying to program an evolution simulator, and so I need a fairly detailed, accessible account.

Thanks for the help!

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John Maynard Smith's Evolutionary Genetics is a classic textbook. The second edition has simulation/programming exercises after every chapter. Have fun :)

I'm looking it up on Amazon now. Thanks.

I found Darwin's original Origin of Species interesting. Obviously, we've learned more since then, but it holds up better than I expected and doesn't require much technical knowledge. OTOH, it approaches the matter from the macro level of traits rather than the micro level of genes, which may not be what you want.

What do you actually want to know about evolution? How much genetics do you know?

I'll try to summarize:

1) I want to know enough about the low-level mechanics of gene transfer to be able to model it accurately enough (not necessarily for a scientific paper) with mathematics. This has to have been done before - links to how would be appreciated, or I could start from scratch.

2) I want to know enough about how it works on the macro level to simulate that too, perhaps with the lower level mechanics working behind the scenes.

3) I am very interested in how evolution started - Dawkins references a soup of chemicals, and then the creation of the first replicator mainly by chance over a very long period of time. Is that accurate?

How did evolution work in the beginning? Dawkins mentioned that there were other explanations than the one he gave - what are they? How do I find them?

My training is in engineering/programming, and my genetics knowledge doesn't much exceed anything taught at the high school level. I am, however, prepared to read college-level textbooks on the subject.

Thanks.

My training is in engineering/programming, and my genetics knowledge doesn't much exceed anything taught at the high school level. I am, however, prepared to read college-level textbooks on the subject.

We read this in med school, a bit too wordy for my taste but easy to understand.

I am very interested in how evolution started [...] How did evolution work in the beginning?

Nobody knows for sure. The primordial soup is just an educated guess based on the fact that complex molecules had to arise from simpler ones. This paper focuses on the evolution of multicellularity and briefly references other necessary milestones in early evolution.

3) I am very interested in how evolution started - Dawkins references a soup of chemicals, and then the creation of the first replicator mainly by chance over a very long period of time. Is that accurate?

You are not the only one. :)

Most of the current thinking around abiogenesis involves the so-called 'RNA world', after observations of messenger RNA molecules (a single strand of 'naked' genetic polymer floating around the cell, rather than the double DNA helix). Because complementary nucleotides attract one another to varying degrees, a given nucleotide sequence in mRNA will clump the molecule up in a predictable way. Also, an 'unraveled' mRNA molecule would tend to attract complementary nucleotides from outside the molecule and align them in to a similar polymer. In a nucleotide-rich environment, mRNA might be capable of reproduction. Therefore, within the scope of a single molecule, you have a genotype that is directly expressed with a phenotype, and that phenotype would affect the lifespan of the molecule and therefore its chances of reproduction- a plausible origin for natural selection.

My favorite treatment of this scenario (and its problems) is found in Major Transitions in Evolution, also by John Maynard Smith. There's also Origins of Order by Kauffman, although it's a much more theoretical treatment, and I'm not sure the returns on investment are all that good.

"The Ancestor's Tale", also by Dawkins. Might be what you're looking for. It is basically a history of life on Earth, told backwards in time, with in-depth discussion of how and why evolution came up with new branches in the tree of life. I think of it as the applied/illustrative companion volume to the theoretical Selfish Gene. It is longer, but easier reading, and has Dawkins' usual lucid, very well informed, smart and occasionally witty prose.

I assume that by evolution you mean biological evolution specifically, since the general mechanics of any evolution can be accurately described in a few sentences after reading The Selfish Gene. People here could probably write a program in a couple of lines of code that fits the bill.

If you want to simulate biological evolution, the simplest form of it would be in the realm of bacteria, and I'd search books about bacteriology and bacterial evolution. Any introductory text in cell biology will describe how genes are copied and expressed and how mutations work. I predict you'll be painfully surprised by the complexity of the specifics.

You'll notice that lots of other people are suggesting other Dawkins books. He has written lots of books on various facets of evolution, with most exploring a new, interesting portion of the subject. (I would recommend reading them in roughly chronological order; The Blind Watchmaker is a good follow-up to The Selfish Gene.) If you're going to stay at the popsci level, that's where I'd stay; if you're willing to read textbooks, that's probably a bit better use of your time.

Dawkins, The Greatest Show On Earth