Biology, Evolutionary Biology, Paleontology, and Geology

Biology, particularly evolutionary biology, is one of atheism’s touchstones. The publication of Darwin’s On The Origins of Species in 1859 opened the way for the adoption of scientific naturalism.  It has changed modern man’s worldview, exchanging the belief in a deity for an understanding that living things are the end result of chemical laws, natural selection and random variation.

Here are the basic tenets of evolution:

A species is a population of organisms that interbreeds and has fertile offspring.

Living organisms have descended with modifications from species that lived before them.

Natural selection explains how this evolution has happened:

More organisms are produced than can survive because of limited resources.

Organisms struggle for the necessities of life; there is competition for resources.

Individuals within a population vary in their traits; some of these traits are heritable- passed on to offspring.

Some variants are better adapted to survive and reproduce under local conditions than others.

Better-adapted individuals ( the “fit enough”) are more likely to survive and reproduce, thereby passing on copies of their genes to the next generation.

Species whose individuals are best adapted survive; others become extinct.[1]

Evolution has given atheists a basis for explaining how life exists without a creator god.  It is the only explanation of life’s origins that can be tested and replicated.  The theory omits the need for a god to be involved in the Universe. 

The mythologies of many centuries, which explained man’s origin and purpose, sustaining, yet imprisoning men’s minds, gave way to seeing life’s processes as wholly naturalistic, no longer dependent on divine or supernatural aid and  benevolence.  Evolutionary theory also made clear that there was no soul and no afterlife, freeing men’s minds from anticipation of reward or punishment beyond their natural life span.  They could concentrate on creating meaning, purpose and dignity in their lives and in their societies by their own efforts. They would ultimately use evolutionary theory and evolutionary biology to reshape their environments with dramatic breakthroughs in science, medicine, agriculture and many other fields. 

Although Darwin saw that random variations in living organisms furthered evolution, he was not able to say where they came from, nor how those traits could be passed on to subsequent generations.  Mendel’s crossbreeding experiments in the 1850’s and 1860’s were an important factor for knowledge of how heritable variants were passed on; and finally, about the time Origin of Species had its 100th anniversary, James D. Watson and Francis Crick had proposed a structure for the DNA molecule.  It is important to keep in mind that Evolution cannot be a final and absolute truth.  It is liable to further modification and change, as with any other scientific theory.  There are many exciting discoveries ahead foreEvolution.  Evolutionary biology is a necessary component to the newest fields of medicine, agriculture, biotechnology and law.

Here is a summary from a paper by J.J.Bull, professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Texas, Austin:

Evolutionary biology is central to the development of:

  • drug/chemical compounds for medical use
  • methods for tracking pathogens, i.e., infectious diseases
  • biochemicals for medicine and other industrial use
  • data that reveals relationships among organisms

Professor Bull goes on to point out:

  • Evolution underlies many improvements in agriculture (e.g., the artificial selection of crop strains and livestock breeds).
  • A less well-known fact is that evolutionary principles were used to produce many of our best vaccines and that evolution also causes problems with the use of some of those vaccines.
  • Some of the most promising areas for the future use of evolutionary biology lie in drug development and the biotechnology industry; patents worth vast amounts of money are based on ways of creating evolution (or avoiding evolution) in test tubes. [2]

There is a plethora of fine books about evolution and they are all necessary at this crucial time in history, when obscurantism from religious fundamentalists seeks to undermine the truths of man’s origins. Educators and scientists are continually forced to withstand threats to the science curriculum in schools.  Fundamentalists attempt to circumvent the truths of man’s relationship with his past and other organisms by proposing alternative theories of Intelligent Design and creationism.   Such erroneous theories have succeeded in gaining a certain amount of traction with the general public in many parts of the world, as well as in the United States.  (See Creationism, Intelligent Design.)

Recommended Books on Evolution

Nine Books and one magazine dedicated to evolution have been selected for their accessibility, fine style, and command of subject. There is a general consensus among science reviewers and writers concerning each volume’s usefulness to the student of evolutionary biology and to the atheist scholar.

Campbell, Neil A. and Jane B. Reece.  Biology, with Mastering Biology (with Web CT access Code Card—Generic.) 8th ed. San Francisco, CA: Benjamin Cummings, 2007.

Biology is the best selling biology textbook on the market.  So far, more than 6 million readers have either read it for a course or for their own intellectual enhancement.  The text is known for a student friendly narrative, and for its well rounded explanation of biological concepts.

Each new edition is up to date, according to readers.  Students have found that the genetics section and the embryology section are superior to many texts on these specific topics, and that systems biology and plant biology are especially well done.  According to students, the study boxes are easy to understand and so are the diagrams.  Professors, as well as students, find Biology an excellent text, and non professionals have praised it as well. It is strong on its information and championing of evolution. Highly recommended for those who want to extend their knowledge of biology.

There is a 9th Edition, from 2010, Campbell Biology, with Jane B. Reese now listed as the lead author, due to the recent death of Neil A. Campbell.  There does not seem to be much difference between the two editions.

Coyne, Jerry A.  Why Evolution Is True. NY: Viking, 2009.

Coyne’s work is frequently cited by science writers as one of the best books on evolution in the last decade.  He puts forth the facts of evolution in an accessible and concise manner, with a matter of fact style.  Coyne covers what evolution is, the fossil record, “bad design,” evolution in action today, and a variety of other topics important to the current understanding of evolution.

Coyne has a second purpose.  He sets out to refute creationism with the weight of scientific evidence.

His conclusions concerning current theories that morality and moral tenets might be by-products of natural selection are illuminating.  Coyne believes that such theories are untested and might be never be testable speculations.  He speaks for those who question evolutionary psychology, by stating that there is no reason for us to see ourselves as marionettes dancing on the strings of evolution. 

Many reviewers are of the opinion that this is the best book to begin the study of evolution.

Darwin, Charles.  On The Origin of Species.1859. Rep Anniversary Ed.  NY: Signet,2003.

This is the book that revolutionized the natural sciences and the cultural, philosophical and religious concepts that followed.  Daniel Dennett compares Darwin’s theory to the mythic universal acid that has eaten through nearly every paradigm, leaving in its wake a revalidation of world science. 

Caveat: Ray Comfort published a copy of the “Anniversary Edition” at about the same time On the Origin of Species was reissued.  It has a red cover and contains about 50 Pages of creationist propaganda. Some of Darwin’s work has also been abridged in this edition.

Dawkins, Richard. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.  NY: Free Press, 2009.

Richard Dawkins is a consummate stylist, a brilliant biologist, and a great crusader for atheism. In TGSOE he summarizes the vast amount of evidence supporting evolution.  It has been noted that he covers some of the same ground as in his earlier volume, The Blind Watchmaker (1996.) Many critics, as well as readers, recommend his Ancestor’s Tale (New Titled Ed. 2004,) rather than Greatest Show.  No one writes more elegantly than Dawkins, or is more able to explain difficult concepts in an understandable manner.  The atheist reader may take a pick of any one of the three books mentioned above, or better yet, all three of them, along with Dawkins’ many other volumes.

Certain critics, such as Richard Fortey, have noted that there are problems with some of Dawkins’ oversights in TGSOE. Fortey states that there is a whole new science built around computerized correlation of rocks based on first and last appearance of species, which Dawkins either does not seem to know about, or simply omits from his book. Fortey points out other difficulties and his review of TGSOE is worth reading.[3]

Atheists who like Dawkin’s take no prisoners attacks on creationists will have an enjoyable read in TGSOE.  Dawkins, to his credit, attempts to dialogue with convinced creationists concerning evidence of evolution.  His searing arguments fail to convince them, but will undoubtedly be bracing for the atheist reader.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life.  London: Penguin, 1996.

Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a very well known but somewhat problematic book.  The text attempts to integrate a diverse range of evidence into a popular defense of Darwin, or rather, neo-Darwinism. The dangerous idea is that all revolutionary changes to organisms are the products of mindless processes and do not require intelligent supervision.

Dennett is a champion of adaptationism, believing that evolutionary biologists are in the business of constructing explanations (adaptive ones) about why organisms are the way they are.  Unfortunately, he spends a great deal of the reader’s time excoriating those who question aspects of adaptationism, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote a cautionary paper on the topic. [4] He views those who question adaptationism as attempting to sneak in a “skyhook,” which he describes as a miraculous process in lieu of god to explain design.[5]

Dennett tends to ignore genetic drift, championed by Motoo Kimura, the random replacement of one gene by another equivalent gene.  Genetic drift is a serious area of evolutionary biology today. 

Dennett is a fine stylist, and shares many brilliant insights with readers.  But the atheist reader might keep in mind that Dennett’s convincing arguments are more controversial than he admits.

Mayr, Ernest.  What Evolution Is.  NY: Basic Books, 2001.

Mayr, who recently passed away at over 100 years old, states that he has written his book for three kinds of readers: those who want to know more about evolution, those who accept evolution but are not sure if the Darwinian explanation is the correct one, and for those “creationists who want to know more about the current paradigm of evolutionary science, if for no reason that to be able to argue about it.”[6]

Mayr presents the reader with a clear explanation of evolution and its workings.  He is to be thanked for seeing evolution as a paradigm, because evolutionary theory is not static, but ever changing and open to new discoveries. He rejects essentialism, creationism, and teleology.  His book covers macroevolution very thoroughly.  After some seventy years in the field, Mayr believes that calling evolution a theory is somewhat foolish, that the weight of evidence has declared it a fact.

Prothero, Donald R.  Evolution: What The Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Carl Buell, Illus. NY: Columbia University Press. 2007.

Prothero is a geologist but he is included here as an important author on evolution.  His Evolution has a two-fold purpose.  The first is to cover the wide variety of transitional fossil forms of the past twenty years.  He does this with verve and honesty, not afraid to discuss controversial lines of evidence nor afraid to say “I don’t know.”  This volume is an excellent summary of the current fossil record.

His second purpose is to refute creationism and his gloves-off approach will delight atheist readers.  He reviews the formation of the Grand Canyon, piling up scientific evidence while pouring very cold water on creationist claims.

Scientific AmericanThe Evolution of Evolution: How Darwin’s Theory Survives, Thrives and Reshapes The World.  Special Issue on the Most Powerful Idea in Science. Jan. 2009.

Some Article Headings:  Darwin’s Living Legacy; Testing Natural Selection; From Atoms to Traits;  Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology; The Latest Face of Creationism.

The authors of the articles in this Special Evolution article are some of the best science writers of recent years:  H. Allen Orr, Neil H. Shubin, Eugenie C. Scott, among others.  The articles are very timely, interesting, accessible, and well illustrated with pictures and graphs.  Each article contains a box summarizing the key concepts covered, a brief biography of every author, with his/her credentials, and a section at the end with a short list of titles or articles if the reader wishes to explore the topic discussed at greater length. This issue is a key reference work.

Shubin, Neil H. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body.

Shubin begins his book with the search that culminated in the discovery of Tiktaalik, the 375-million-year old fossil fish whose flat skull and limbs and finger, toe, ankle, and wrist bones demonstrated a link between fish and the earliest land dwelling creatures.  Shubin’s book shows the connection between current human anatomy and senses, such as smell and vision, with creatures millennia ago. Your Inner Fish also deals with the important role played by DNA in evolution.  The book ties all the various aspects of evidence of evolution- geological, anatomical, developmental, and genetic- together. He is considered such an interesting writer that some readers complain the book is too short.

Zimmer, Carl.  The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution.  Greenwood Village, Colorado: Roberts and Company Publishers, 2010.

There are many science reviewers who consider Carl Zimmer one of science’s top writers.  The Tangled Bank is a textbook for general readers, published for the 150th Anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. The narrative is instructive, and the volume contains superior color photos and graphics.  Zimmer’s references are frequently peer reviewed or on books reporting on multiple peer reviewed articles.  Each chapter has a summary of points covered in the course of the chapter.  The Tangled Bank is considered one of the best books with which to begin learning about evolution.

There are many books on evolution for the atheist reader who wishes to pursue the topic more fully.  E.O.Wilson’s Consilience(1998;) Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002;) Jay Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch (1994;)  Brian and Deborah Charlesworth’s Evolution: A Very Short Introduction (2003;)  Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr’s Speciation (2004.) and so on.  (Many of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s books are a delight to read.  However, some atheists object strongly to his idea of non-overlapping magisteria, known as NOMA.  He was attempting to create a space in the heated dialogue between science and religion and thought that he could do so by suggesting that science deal with empirical research concerning the universe, and that religion deal with morality and the meaning of life. His proposal is not considered cogent by many atheists. There is a problem with his Mismeasure of Man (1981)recently, with some charges that he did not measure the skulls discussed in his volume.  The issue has yet to be resolved.)

The Teaching Company offers courses on a variety of topics, including science.  The courses are divided into a series of lectures, approximately a half hour each, in Audio or DVD format. Some of the courses listed under Biology are: Biology: The Science of Life; Origins of Life; Darwinian Revolution; The Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy; Major Transitions in Evolution at

Jerry Coyne.    Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America.                                                WEIT blog. 24 May 2012. Pre-published in the journal “Evolution” on May 17, 2012.

 “American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the United States, which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and supposed implications of evolution.”

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Evolution Courses for Teachers, Session 2, Summary. Web.

2 Bull, Jim J. Excerpts from a conference presentation.  Evolutionary Biology: Technology for the   21st Century. n.p.,n.p., August 2000. Web.

3 Fortey, Richard. “The Greatest Show On Earth, by Richard Dawkins.” The Guardian.  6 Sept.   2009. Web.

4 Gould, Stephen Jay. Darwinian Fundamentalism.  The New York Review of Books. 12 June 1997. Web.

5 Orr, H. Allen. Dennett’s Dangerous Idea. Boston Review. Summer 1997. Web.

6 Mayr, Ernest. What Evolution Is. NY: Basic Books, 2001. XIII.


Bull, Jim J. Excerpts from a conference presentation.  Evolutionary Biology: Technology for the 21st Century. n.p.,n.p., August 2000. Web.

Evolution Courses for Teachers, Session 2, Summary. Web.

Fortey, Richard. “The Greatest Show On Earth, by Richard Dawkins.” The Guardian.  6 Sept. 2009. Web.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Darwinian Fundamentalism.”  The New York Review of Books. 12 June 1997. Web.

Mayr, Ernest. What Evolution Is. NY: Basic Books, 2001.

Orr, H. Allen. “Dennett’s Dangerous Idea.” Boston Review. Summer 1997. Web.