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The weather has been absolutely beautiful in Calgary lately. Even good enough to get the charcoal barbecue going last night. Today we’re supposed to hit +16°C, almost good enough to remove jackets outside. It won’t last, of course. The bottom falls out Thursday and we’re back to frigid temperatures. 

I’m a barbecue nut, having both propane and charcoal models. Nothing beats charcoal for smoking steaks. And this weekend I finally found a reliable source for smoked paprika (if you want to sound like a gourmand, use the term ‘pimentón de la vera’). I highly recommend using it in meat recipes calling for sweet paprika, though it is expensive.

Anyhow, the last few years has seen a spate of excellent books on evolution targeted at lay-audiences. Some are a bit more technical than others, but most people familiar with the lingo don’t want it too dumbed down. Researchers in the field realize that communication of what they do and why we understand evolution to be a fact has been lacking.

Recent books that I highly recommend include:

The only prolific writer on the subject for the longest time was Richard Dawkins, beginning with his The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. These are classics in the field to be sure. He has a new one coming out in September entitled The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The product description from the UK Amazon site is as follows:

150 years ago the momentous findings in Charles Darwin’s masterpiece, “On the Origin of Species”, shook the scientific and religious world to its core. Perhaps more astonishing, the Creation-Evolution debate sparked by his seminal work of 1859 continues unabated in the 21st century. Now, Richard Dawkins, world renowned evolutionary biologist and famous atheist, takes on the Creationists with a brilliant and uncompromising look at the incontrovertible evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution. The mass of data that proves the theory is vast, with scientific fingerprints numerous and varied. The logic Dawkins employs to explain it is the same throughout the book: the evidence that we see is exactly what we should expect to see if evolution had happened. He examines the facts from the point of view of flora and fauna, from cabbages to Great Danes. Anatomy yields a raft of clues whether from mice or fish, and the structure of molecules underscores the message even more convincingly. With answers to a miscellany of common questions, and detailed descriptions of what our ancestors would have looked like at various landmark dates, Dawkins leaves us with little room for doubt. “The Greatest Show on Earth” comes at a critical time; systematic opposition to the truth of evolution is now flourishing as never before in America, while in Britain pockets of ‘Intelligent Design’ are entering our schooling system at an alarming pace. Following the storm upon publication of “The God Delusion”, Dawkins continues the heated debate about science and religion whilst furthering the public education that he feels passionately is his responsibility. His new book is at once a thrilling tribute to science, the wonders of nature and his ultimate hero, Charles Darwin. 

He may be scooped by Jerry Coyne’s new book Why Evolution is True, however:

With great care, attention to the scientific evidence and a wonderfully accessible style, Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, presents an overwhelming case for evolution. Ranging from biogeography to geology, from anatomy to genetics, and from molecular biology to physiology, he demonstrates that evolutionary theory makes predictions that are consistently borne out by the data—basic requirements for a scientific theory to be valid. Additionally, although fully respectful of those who promote intelligent design and creationism, he uses the data at his disposal to demolish any thought that creationism is supported by the evidence while also explaining why those ideas fall outside the bounds of science. Coyne directly addresses the concept often advanced by religious fundamentalists that an acceptance of evolution must lead to immorality, concluding that evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go. Readers looking to understand the case for evolution and searching for a response to many of the most common creationist claims should find everything they need in this powerful book, which is clearer and more comprehensive than the many others on the subject.

I absolutely abhor that asinine argument that evolution (and by association, atheism, as if there are no religious evolutionary biologists) leads to immorality. It’s a personal insult and then these deluded morons wonder why I get so uppity when they make that argument.

After reading an advance copy of Why Evolution is True, PZ Myers, author of the science/atheism blog Pharyngula, gave it a two-thumbs-up rating last year. I hope it isn’t aimed at too low a technical competency, as it may be for those who understand evolution. I’ll let you know. Look for Coyne’s book in bookstores (hopefully) by the end of this week (January 22).

In February, publishers will release Sean Carroll ‘s latest tomb, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species. I love stories on remarkable adaptation and how they arise. Nature provides a seemingly endless supply of such tales, like the icefish of the Antarctic that have no hemoglobin in their blood (but have the vestiges of globin genes). Infinitely better than the banal just-so stories fundamentalists spout.

An award-wining biologist takes us on the dramatic expeditions that unearthed the history of life on our planet.

Just 150 years ago,most of our world was an unexplored wilderness.Our sense of how old it was? Vague and vastly off the mark. And our sense of our own species’ history? A set of fantastic myths and fairy tales. Fossils had been known for millennia, but they were seen as the bones of dragons and other imagined creatures.

In the tradition of The Microbe Hunters and Gods, Graves, and Scholars, Sean Carroll’s Remarkable Creatures celebrates the pioneers who replaced our fancies with the even more amazing true story of how our world evolved.

Carroll recounts the most important discoveries in two centuries of national history — from Darwin’s trip around the world to CharlesWalcott’s discovery of pre-Cambrian life in the Grand Canyon; from Louis and Mary Leakey’s investigation of our deepest past in East Africa to the trailblazers in modern laboratories who have located a time clock in our DNA. Join him in a rousing voyage of discovery, from the epic journeys of pioneering naturalists to the breakthroughs making headlines today.

I think they meant ‘natural history’, not ‘national history’. Well, they’re publishers, not rocket scientists. 

While off topic, I also eagerly await Vic Stenger’s new opus (out April 29), Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness:

Does quantum mechanics show a connection between the human mind and the cosmos? Are our brains tuned into a “cosmic consciousness” that pervades the universe enabling us to make our own reality? Do quantum mechanics and chaos theory provide a place for God to act in the world without violating natural laws? 
Many popular books make such claims and argue that key developments in twentieth-century physics, such as the uncertainty principle and the butterfly effect, support the notion that God or a universal mind acts upon material reality.

Physicist Victor J. Stenger examines these contentions in this carefully reasoned and incisive analysis of popular theories that seek to link spirituality to physics. Throughout the book Stenger alternates his discussions of popular spirituality with a survey of what the findings of twentieth-century physics actually mean. Thus he offers the reader a useful synopsis of contemporary religious ideas as well as basic but sophisticated physics presented in layperson’s terms (without equations).

Of particular interest in this book is Stenger’s discussion of a new kind of deism, which proposes a God who creates a universe with many possible pathways determined by chance, but otherwise does not interfere with the physical world or the lives of humans. Although it is possible, says Stenger, to conceive of such a God who plays dice with the universe and leaves no trace of his role as prime mover, such a God is a far cry from traditional religious ideas of God and, in effect, may as well not exist.

Like his bestselling book, God, The Failed Hypothesis, this new work presents a rigorously argued challenge to many popular notions of God and spirituality. 

I’ve had more than enough of Paul Davies trotting out how he can’t believe that the universe could be fine-tuned for life (as if it really is – as Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out, the only place we know life has arisen is this little insignificant rock circling an insignificant star in and insignificant galaxy… Try breathing on the moon.), or, as I like to call it, the ‘I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter’ defense. Personal incredulity is not a reason to believe or disbelieve anything. Evidence, and good quality stuff at that – that’s the only determining factor. Until we have it, the only position which is reasonable to maintain is that we don’t know. Anything else is baseless supposition. Till we have that, we can still marvel at the wonders of nature, and we can do it without the premature curiosity satisfaction and all the rest of that spiritual crap.

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