Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001. ISBN 0-465-04426-3 (paperback). 318 pages. Zimmer, Carl. Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. New York: HarperCollins Books, 2001. 364 pages.

I read these two books in succession, starting with Ernst Mayr’s and finishing with Zimmer’s. Unless you are already well versed in the subject, you should probably try the reverse order.

Mayr’s book is one of those rare books that I would call exceptional. For me, it was tough reading, even though the book is intended for non-biologists. Mayr even says it is for everyone who simply wants to know more about evolution. I have a pretty good vocabulary, however, and I found myself reading with a dictionary at hand, and occasionally looking things up in my Webster’s IIIrd International. In addition, regular references to species as examples of various processes without any indication other than the name as to how it might fit in had me looking regularly in the encyclopedia. I did not, however, regret the effort.

Mayr has no intention of engaging in a debate with creationists. His plan is simply to lay out the nature of evolutionary theory and the evidences for it. He sticks to biology and to discussing the problems and the triumphs. He is never shy to indicate that a problem has not yet been solved. He lists a number of these. He does, however, consider the evidence for evolution so overwhelming that for all practical purposes it is fact, not mere theory, in the popular use of those terms.

Appendices about criticisms of evolutionary theory and frequently asked questions about evolution round out the book, though I thought the topics in the appendices had been quite well handled in the presentation. I would regard this as a must-read for anyone interested in regular debating of creation and evolution issues. If you want to know the current state of the science, this is a good place to look.

Zimmer, on the other hand is strictly popular. If you don’t have the patience for Mayr’s book, or even if you want to relax after a grueling scrap with one of his chapters, pick up Zimmer. Designed as a companion to the PBS series of the same name, “Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea” is rich with stories and illustrations, many of them in gorgeous color. The focus is on history, but it is history which presents the arguments in favor of the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory.

I found it much more engaging in style, but not nearly as informative as Mayr’s book. The focus is very different, of course, with one emphasizing the story and the process; the other stating the current state of the science.

I strongly recommend “What Evolution Is” and also commend to you “Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea.”