History of Evolutionary Theory: Top Ten Books to Read

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Evolutionary science has become a contentious topic in recent years – it's been vilified as a contributing factor to immortality, and conversely, it’s been hailed as the most important biological discovery of our time. This scientific theory has become a demarcating political bastion -- a line in the sand that divides liberal and conservative, religious believer and non-believer, young and old, educated and uneducated.

When theories of evolution first became well known among “scientists” and laymen in the late 18th-century, they were met with a similar blend of condemnation and fascination. Most notably, Christianity and evolution were seen by most as simply irreconcilable – if God had made each species and created man in his own image, how could evolution be correct?

The answer to this question is far from simple, and as we can see, it is still very relevant, even almost 200 years later. What follows is a list of books that will help us better understand the place of evolutionary theory during its infancy, and thereby give us a better understanding of why it remains so controversial in modern times.

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1. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James A. Secord (University of Chicago Press, 2003.)

This groundbreaking work deals with the publication of a work entitled The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844 by a geologist named Robert Chambers. Many don’t know this, but Chambers’ treatise was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1859.

2. Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1 – Voyaging & Vol. 2 – The Power of Place by Janet Browne (Princeton University Press, 2005.)

Most historians of science view Browne’s two-part biography of Charles Darwin as the most thorough and engaging work on Darwin’s life and the creation of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Browne draws on countless sources, including Darwin's personal letters and journals to give her reader a crystal-clear picture of Darwin’s frame of mind before publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859.

3. The Politics of Evolution:: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London by Adrian Desmond (University of Chicago Press, 2011.)

This work, as its name suggests, deals with how ideas about evolution were taken up by disenfranchised, politically agitated, and reform-minded peoples in Britain, Europe, and America to further populist agendas.

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4. Evolution: The History of an Idea by Peter J. Bowler (University of California Press, 2009.)

This is a great work for those who are looking for a primer on the history of evolutionary thought both before and after Charles Darwin. Bowler's work offers a wealth of references for those who wish to further pursue the topic.

5. Huxley: From Devil’s Disciple to Evolutions High Priest by Adrian Desmond (Helix Books, 1999.)

Thomas Henry Huxley was known as “Darwin’s bulldog”. Huxley is perhaps most well known for coining the term “agnostic” in 1869. While Darwin adhered to a more genteel version of his theory of evolution, Huxley debated anyone he could as to the theory's truths.

6. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott (Spiegel & Grau, 2013)

This far-reaching work explores evolutionary ideas that preceded Victorian evolutionary concepts by many centuries. Stott gives credence to the bravery of evolutionary theorists, from Aristotle to Darwin, for their willingness to defy societal norms.

7. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (University of Chicago Press, 2011)

This relatively new work examines Darwin’s views on evolution as a product of his passionate hatred of slavery. The authors posit that Darwin’s abolitionist passion ultimately compelled him to publish his theory on evolution, despite his findings being extremely controversial at the time, especially for a gentleman of Darwin's social standing.

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8. Evolutionary Theory & Victorian Culture by Martin Fichman (Humanity Books, 2002)

This book is an excellent primer for those looking to learn more about how evolutionary theory was perceived among different facets of Victorian society.

9. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (W.W. Norton & Company, 1994)

Before Janet Browne’s two-part biography of Darwin was published, this was the go-to book for those seeking to learn more about Charles Darwin and the world in which he lived.

10. Victorian Science in Context by Bernard Lightman (The University of Chicago Press, 1997)

While this book is not solely about evolutionary theory, it is, arguably, one of the best works on Victorian science and society ever published. It contains a collection of essays which masterfully illustrate the climate in which evolutionary theory was received.

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