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The Gap [Hardcover]

Thomas Suddendorf
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

13 Feb 2014
A leading psychologist argues that a capacity for fiction is what separates man from beast. It seems obvious that there exists a tremendous gap between the capacities of human minds and those of animals. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while even our closest primate relatives remain confined to the borders of their dwindling forest habitats. But what is the nature of the gap? Is there really a difference between our minds and those of the great apes, or are we just blinded by the idea of human exceptionalism? In The Gap, psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides the first definitive account of what makes human minds different from those of other animals, and how this difference arose. He proposes that two innovations account for all of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children and human evolution, Suddendorf surveys the main areas cited as being uniquely human-language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind and "mental time travel" - and shows that these are merely manifestations of our larger imaginative and empathetic drives. He closes the book with the surprising suggestion that our unique status may be our own creation. Many species in the human family used to walk this Earth, and the gap is as wide as it is because all members of our immediate family either died out or were killed off by our human ancestors. In other words, we are the last humans. Moreover Suddendorf argues that this gap is widening. Not only are we are becoming smarter but we are also reducing the capacities of our closest living relatives-by driving them to extinction. A provocative argument for reconsidering our vaunted place in nature, The Gap is essential reading for anyone interested in our evolutionary origins and our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (13 Feb 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465030149
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465030149
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 263,661 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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A "PUBLISHERS WEEKLY" Top 10 Fall Science Title "A rewarding, thought-provoking journey.... Mr. Suddendorf cuts an entertaining swath through a thicket of research studies on primate cognition....The author's style is not only consistently interesting and informative but at times delightfully playful.... a welcome addition to the growing literature explaining science to the intelligent layperson."--"Wall Street Journal" --The Wall Street Journal

"Beautifully written, well researched and thought provoking, "The Gap" searches for key differences between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, and presents a balanced overview of the current status of our understanding of the mental abilities of animals. I found it fascinating and strongly recommend it to everyone who is curious as to how we have evolved to become the dominant species in the world today. Thank you, Thomas Suddendorf, for writing this book." ----Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE, Founder, The Jane Goodall Institute, and UN Messenger of Peace

"Fascinating reading... A fine example of science made accessible for general readers, combining history, personal anecdotes, clear accounts of research and a broad picture of human evolution." --Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Thomas Suddendorf is a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, whose research has been covered by the BBC, Discover, and the New York Times. He lives in Queensland, Australia.

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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is an absolute must-read for anybody with an interest in contemporary psychology and/or open questions concerning the complex relationship between Man and the other animals.

A few very strange reviews have been written about this book, taking some kind of moral stance and judging not the book, but our relationship to animals from some moral point of view! Thus, the book/the author get in part mediocre ratings as a sanction, in some way, for mankind’s attitude towards animals!! This is, obviously, completely besides the point (to say the least), and does little justice to a very remarkable scientific (and literary) achievement. The book is very interesting, strongly backed by indisputable scientific work and references, and a pleasure to read, as the author explains without ever lecturing, and even often manages to be quite entertaining.

This book is very 'konsequent' and essentially 'sachlich' (to use German adjectives with hardly any English equivalent), meaning it may come across, on the whole, as a bit dry. But this makes the demonstration and the contents all the more intelligible and stringent.
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2 of 71 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Mankind, A Far Second 12 Jan 2014
Mankind is impossibly predictable...

It burn a ruinous blood, ever violent...

The wild kingdom is harmonious, intuitive...

The great beasts do not wage organized war...

The egret does not commit suicide...

The Alaskan Grizzly does not have murder on its mind...

The Bengal Tiger does not engage in arson...

The condor does not strafe chemical agents on its fellows...

You're not going to see a monkey on Hollywood and Dead Vine Streets...

Nodding out in the gutter, a needle in his arm...

Man destroys mindlessly...

The beasts are far, far advanced of man...

Because beasts simply live...

Chris Roberts
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The gap between the minds of men and critters 17 Nov 2013
By Alan F. Sewell - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book seeks to answer the curious question of why human beings apparently have no close relatives on the evolutionary tree. After all, evolution is a painstaking slow process of incremental accumulation of genetic mutations that eventually differentiate the species. Most species have many close relations.

So WHY is there only one species of human beings extant, and no other species even comes close to what we’ve accomplished in the way of obtaining dominion over the Earth?

The traditional theoretical answers are:

1. (Religious) Man is a divine creation who was DESIGNED to be different from every other species.

2. There WERE until recently (a few tens of thousands of years ago) several species of hominids but homo sapiens eliminated them by:

A) Interbreeding with them.
B) Exterminating them
C) Gently outcompeting them so that over a period of hundreds of thousands of years we gradually became the dominant hominid
D) All of the above.

3. Perhaps we actually DO have closely related species (apes and orangutans) who look more different to us than they really are. An alien from another planet might consider them to be just another subspecies of hominid. Recent observations of apes in captivity and the wild have revealed cooperative behaviors all to similar to the “politicking” that goes on all the time in human societies.

These theories have been discussed so often in recent years that I was a bit reluctant to buy this book.

However after previewing it in Kindle, Author Thomas Suddendorf’s logic is so well stated and his writing is so entertainingly lucid that I could not resist purchasing the book and making time to read it at a leisurely pace so as to comprehend it fully. It turned out to be an enjoyable and informative read from cover to cover.

Suddendorf begins by pointing out the obvious --- that the “gap” between man and all other creatures is in the brain and the mind. He provides a good account of recent research that has identified the specific biological differences in the neuron structure of human brains vs. our mammalian cousins. He then explores the psychological differences between the way that human beings and the lower primates appear to think.

Suddendorf warns us not to jump to any quick conclusions about the “gap” between the thinking process in humans and animals. We barely understand how human beings cogitate (conscious vs. unconscious), so let’s not imagine that we can be certain how animals comprehend their world. With that caveat in mind he relates many experiments with the higher primates that APPEAR to show cognitive abilities in animals. He comes close to pinpointing the dimensions of the “gap” that exist between the more intelligent animals (horses, dogs, apes, and dolphins) and human beings.

The gap appears to be both smaller and larger than one may have suspected. In the social sense the gap appears small. Suddendorf points out that chimpanzees have developed highly politicized societies whereby individuals are preoccupied with their social standing. They appear able to "model the minds" of others in their group and thereby know how to advance their social standing by appeasing or deceiving them. Several individuals may cooperate together to advance their common interests, such as by conspiring to kill the dominant “alpha male" and replacing him with a new hierarchy.

Some societies of chimps act exactly like human gangs, terrorizing rivals with torture and murder who intrude on their turf. Other societies of chimps appear to be “hippies” who’d rather make love rather than war.

In their capacity to form social hierarchies the gap between these animals and us seems quite small. But in terms of abstract thinking --- the ability to theorize about how to improve on their environments through artificial constructs, the gap is large.

CONSIDER ONE OF THE MOST fundamental aspects of our human mind: we can imagine things other than what is available to the senses. We can picture past, future, and entirely fictional worlds and think about them. William James noted that it is the capacity to conceive of alternatives that allows us to question why things are the way they are. Humans ask big questions like: what are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? Most cultures have elaborate creation myths that children are told when they start raising these questions.

Questioning and finding meaning are essential to the human mind. (Why else are you reading this?) But what about animals? Do they ponder past, future, or fictional events? Do they search for the meaning of life? Can they conjure up worlds beyond what they can perceive here and now? Do they have even the most basic imagination? How could we find out?

The book accomplishes its goal of defining what the gap is between human and animal intelligence. It also provides a “101” education about the evolution of human intelligence during the past 10 million years. And it has some fun with projecting where evolution might take our intelligence in the future.

The writing style is perfect to enable a layperson to obtain a good general understanding of what’s current in science of human evolution and the SPECIFIC brain structures and cognitive differences that gives Man the dominion of the earth.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Gap: Between Two Legs and a Crotch 10 Jan 2014
By Andrew Smart - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There aren’t many questions bigger than: ‘What makes our minds so different to other animals? According to some pundits, more information has been produced in this century than has accrued in all the millennia before and it’s expected to go on exploding. So how do you make sense of the deluge? One way is to find people, who you trust to have the deepest, wisest, latest stuff worth weaving into your own big picture. Thomas Suddendorf brings established facts from a range of fields, such as palaeoanthropology, linguistics and genetics to his own fields of evolutionary psychology and child development to craft a powerfully persuasive argument for the evolutionary course of what he refers to as ‘The Gap’ – the mental gap between our closest relatives, the great apes, and us.

Central to his quest is the identification of the building blocks of the mind, which he broadly defines as the ability to think of things which are beyond our immediate perception. To establish the base of the gap he applies tests developed by famed child psychologist Piaget to chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas and finds that they are able to meet the tasks of Piaget’s last object permanence task (called 6b!). ‘Like human two-year-olds, but unlike other primates, adult great apes have demonstrated that they can think about things they did not perceive.’ They pass the test of a mind by inferring a probable place for an object they can no longer perceive. Having gauged the lower limits of ‘The Gap’ he probes for the upper limits: ‘key uniquely human attributes that may have led to a profound shift in human behaviour’. He divides human behaviour into six domains: language, mental time travel, mind reading, intelligence, culture, and morality’

However, his exploration of the domains of ‘The Gap’ reveals another gap – a gap in the mental apparatus of humans that has diverged over the last eight million years or so. As the inner gap divided and widened in our ancestors, like two legs of a mental system evolving in tandem, it opened ‘The Gap’ between us and our nearest relatives. Along one leg there is an increasing complexity of scenarios which our ancestors could hold as ‘pretend perceptions’. Along the other leg there is a complimentary drive to influence the contents of the mind of others - most evidently in the evolution of language and its group phenomenon called culture. In between he stirs up a pot of intriguing quandaries…

Here are a couple of examples that stirred my thinking. ‘Great apes… have been shown to delay gratification’ and ‘for a reward forty times larger than the immediate reward option, chimpanzees may wait up to eight minutes.’ It seems that while most other animals use the past to influence the present – great apes also use the past to influence the future. So if a two year old child already has a mental mechanism similar in sophistication to an adult chimpanzee – yet has perhaps another thirty years to go, (a recent study he refers to indicates that some parts of our brains don’t complete development till mid-thirties) then have we the intelligence to unravel such an intricate development of intelligence? And, then, looking at the bigger picture, why were our ancestors so driven by nature to break completely the bonds of time and space – to imagine anything they wanted? He notes where this rapid selection has occurred in the brain: ‘For example, brain imaging studies have found that when participants are asked to recall past events and imagine future scenarios, the same areas of the brain … are involved.‘ How stable is such a recent realignment of cognitive abilities? How vulnerable is our new-fangled imagination apparatus to mass delusion and exploitation? Do we have the intelligence to untangle the truth of us?

In an example from the domain of morality Suddendorf notes that ‘evolution works only on how memory influences fitness, not for how accurately memory reflects the past per se.’ Later he quotes Darwin: ‘The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts.’ But Darwin was writing nearly 150 years ago, when knowledge was still mostly gained through experience and private reading. Hasn’t the nature of the source and hence the control of knowledge changed dramatically since then? Are we discussing the fitness of a morality made by individuals to a culture that is as naked as nature intended for over tens of millions of years? Or are we swept along in a ‘blue pill’ morality, our natures tailored, enculturated, deformed by institutions for the fitness of the modern state in its Darwinian struggle for political domination of this planet?

There are many other mind stretchers but the crux at the ‘crotch’ of Suddendorf’s ‘The Gap’ is: will it narrow, stay the same or widen? He goes for a wider gap – for two possible reasons – the extinction of our great ape relatives and so the gap extends to monkeys or/and we extend those legs and get to increase our intelligence. He cites the Flynn effect. But there is another prospect – ironically built on the baby like belief – out of mind, out of sight, the ‘unmentionable gap’, the forbidden thought -that humans have speciated since they began escaping Africa. At the end of this mindless gap is the final scenario - the spectre of the last man to know ‘The Gap’.

His Faustian spirit shines through his big picture (or is it meta scenario) with observations made with love, curiosity and a willingness to go wherever hard reality takes him. His research and his collaborations around the world – and his real life adventures – bring the frontier of neuroscience to the independent thinker. A few books are worth the extra time of a deep read. This is one of them. Because he takes our view of us and animals to the frontier; a frontier from where we might see far enough to change the fate of … ‘The Gap’.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very informative 22 Dec 2013
By Felipe Korzenny - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Interesting book. Well written and documented. Perhaps a little dry, but makes important points the similarities and differences between humans and their cousins.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Us vs. All of Them 20 Feb 2014
By Taylor McNeil - Published on
How special are we human beings—we homo sapiens? We take a look around at the other animals—first even recognizing that we are animals, in particular primates, is sometimes difficult—and say to ourselves that we are indeed pretty darn special, clearly many cuts above the rest of the animal kingdom. We speak, write, create art, build iPhones, and heck, are lords of all we see. On the other hand, how about other animals that seem pretty smart, like our cousins the great apes (orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees) and in whom we see some, well, familiar faces and traits. And aren’t dogs and cats pretty clever sometimes, not to mention some birds that have even been known to wield tool-like objects?

Thomas Suddendorf, a psychologist born in Germany and now teaching in Australia, systematically lays out the issues in his remarkable book, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals. To know what separates us, we have to know what’s special about us and what makes us tick. Suddendorf takes us on a fascinating tour of what it means to be human, and then systematically looks at attempts to find traces of those same traits in other animals.

Above all what sets us physically apart are our brains. Suddendorf has a chart that shows graphically the average excess amount of brains in weight over and above what would be expected based on body size for a number of species. The one outlier? Humans. Far behind are the great apes, and several steps below them are various monkeys—just as they are steps away from us on the evolutionary tree.

Suddendorf lays out the arguments using different qualities that seem to set us apart from all other animals. As Suddendorf writes: “Consider one of the most fundamental aspects of our human mind: we can imagine things other than what is available to our senses. We can picture past, future, and entirely fictional worlds and think about them.” He notes that there is little evidence, despite attempts to produce it, that any other animals have this quality, especially by experiments using “out of sight, out of mind” as the test. Children at a young age are able to keep an object in mind after it is hidden, but other animals rarely have this ability. Mirror recognition, too, is rare, though some of the great apes recognize themselves in mirrors, though monkeys cannot.

Language is another line of demarcation. “The most fundamental feature of language is that it allows us to exchange thoughts,” he writes. There are also many different languages—more than 6,000—and types, such as sign language and Braille. Human language is breathtakingly diverse and rich; our use of metaphor is one example of the ways it can be stretched willy-nilly. Experiments teaching language to great apes have yielded some comprehension, but nothing like the complexity of human language ability. Suddendorf gives masterful explanations of these issues involving language, just as he does with all these topics—his writing is clear and cogent, and conveys complex information with ease.

Planning for the future is another of the attributes that humans seem to have a monopoly on. As Suddendorf quotes Richard Dawkins, “Long-term planning … is something utterly new on the planet, even alien. It exists only in human brains. The future is a new invention of evolution.”

Suddendorf explains research done on very young children, and compares it with similar work done with great apes like chimpanzees. Our primate cousins seem to perform at the level of about two-year-old children—but never progress beyond that. And that is Suddendorf’s main point: an odd species here and there might show some level of understanding and communication skills, but none rises beyond a low level that humans quickly surpass.

Is there more to learn about other animals’ cognitive abilities? Certainly, and Suddendorf is careful to point out repeatedly what he’s detailing is the level of knowledge we have now about other animals’ cognitive abilities. But he’s also pretty confident—and convincing—when he says there is a gap, and that the gap is growing—not because we’re getting smarter; we’re simply eliminating our near relatives through extinction.

In fact, the gap is wider than it might otherwise have been, for the simple reason that our closest relatives are now extinct: the Neanderthals, the Denisovans (another hominid group found in Siberia)—and possibly even others that have eluded our attention, but whose genetic fingerprints we may soon find. The Neanderthals and the Denisovans left Africa before our ancestors did, setting north and creating their own paths. They even mingled with us—some 1-3 percent of our genes come from Neanderthals—except for current-day Africans, who have none of the genetic mixing.

The Neanderthals became extinct some 30,000 years ago, but if they were still around, the odds are the gap between them and us would be much smaller than between us and the great apes. What led to the Neanderthals’ collapse isn’t known.

But what will lead to the extinction of gorillas—another close relative—is clear: us. Through habitat destruction and simple predation, we will destroy them. Later generations of humans will perhaps marvel that the gap between humans and monkeys—distinctly more distant cousins of ours than the great apes, with much lesser cognitive abilities—is so large. Would that we perhaps weren’t quite as smart—and thus effectively destructive—as we are.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocative and Fun to Read 11 May 2014
By Book Shark - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf

The Gap is an excellent book about what separates human minds from non-human minds, and hence the gap. Psychologist Thomas Suddendorf has provided readers with interesting perspectives on human evolution. His balanced approach and great use of current scientific research leads to compelling arguments and a satisfying reading experience. This fascinating 370-page book includes the following twelve chapters: 1. The Last Humans, 2. Remaining Relatives, 3. Minds Comparing Minds, 4. Talking Apes, 5. Time Travelers, 6. Mind Readers, 7. Smarter Apes, 8. A New Heritage, 9. Right and Wrong, 10. Mind the Gap, 11. The Real Middle Earth, and 12. Quo Vadis?.

1. Enjoyable, provocative, well-written science book suited for the masses.
2. The fascinating topic of human evolution in the capable hands of Thomas Suddendorf.
3. Suddendorf's balanced and reasonable approach won me over. He always seems in control of his topic and never chews more than he can bite. He is fair and shares the best of our current knowledge while making clear what we do know versus what we don't know. He is focused throughout the book on that gap that exists between human and animal minds.
4. Great use of charts and illustrations to complement the excellent narrative.
5. An excellent comparison between our brains and our remaining animal relatives. "Our brain comprises about 2 percent of our body mass but consumes some 25 percent of our energy."
6. A great job of sharing scientific consensus. Once again, Suddendorf is very careful in sharing the strength and/or weakness of said scientific consensus. "One way to achieve an unbiased result is to have the experimenter unaware ("blind") of what the desired response of the animal is."
7. How species achieve similarities. "In general, species may share similar traits for two distinct reasons: convergent evolution (leading to analogous structures) and common descent (leading to homologous structures)."
8. Excellent descriptions of what makes our minds unique. Suddendorf focuses on six domains: language, foresight, mind reading, intelligence, culture, and morality.
9. A look at language and how we differ from our relatives. "On current evidence, it is fair to say neither in their natural communications, nor in our attempts at teaching them human linguistic systems, have animals provided evidence for a full-fledged language."
10. A look at memory systems. "To imagine new events you need an open-ended system capable of combining old information into new scenarios. If mental time travel evolved for this purpose, then the price of this flexibility is that we may at times reconstruct past events creatively rather than faithfully--which explains some of the typical errors of episodic memory."
11. I enjoyed a lot of the tidbits shared. "IF YOU LOOK STRAIGHT AT a rhesus monkey you might well be attacked. For primates, staring into another's eyes is typically a threatening gesture. Therefore, primates largely avoid eye contact, and face-to-face interactions are surprisingly unusual."
12. Excellent look at IQ testing. "A basic consensus in the IQ testing community is that intelligence involves the capacity to learn from experience, to adapt to the surrounding environment, and to reflect on one's own performance." Bonus, "On current evidence, then, reasoning by exclusion is not a uniquely human trait. Still, the difficulties most apes have with these simplest of inferences highlights substantial differences between humans and our closest relatives. It remains unclear what exactly the nature of their capacities are."
13. Great quotes that capture the essence of some topics. "The primary difference between our species and all others is our reliance on cultural transmission of information and hence on cultural evolution. --DANIEL DENNETT"
14. I really enjoyed the chapter on morality. "A key factor facilitating the standardization of moral rules within and across groups in human history has been religion. In most societies, fundamental cooperative rules are absolute and unquestionable by virtue of being presented as divine commands. God, religions promise, will reward adherers and punish transgressors. In a sense this is the ultimate form of indirect reciprocity. Religion reduces the need for policing because believers are to some extent policing themselves through their conscience--to avoid divine, rather than secular, punishment. Of course, people can derive and follow a moral code without, or in spite of, these threats and promises."
15. The two major features that set us apart. "In all six domains we repeatedly find two major features that set us apart: our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our deep-seated drive to link our scenario-building minds together. It seems to be primarily these two attributes that carried our ancestors across the gap, turning animal communication into open-ended human language, memory into mental time travel, social cognition into theory of mind, problem solving into abstract reasoning, social traditions into cumulative culture, and empathy into morality."
16. A look at our ancestors' extraordinary journey.
17. Great use of converging science to make compelling arguments. "I HAVE REVIEWED HERE CURRENT evidence on the nature and origin of what makes us human. The data led me to propose that the peculiarity of the human mind primarily stands on two legs: our open-ended capacity to create nested mental scenarios and our deep-seated drive to connect to other scenario-building minds. These traits have had dramatic consequences for the way we communicate, our access to past and future, our understanding of and cooperation with others, and our intelligence, culture, and morality. We have managed to create a fast and efficient cultural inheritance system through which human groups have accumulated novel powers that ultimately allowed us to dominate much of the planet."
18. The future of the gap. "It is time we established a more balanced view that acknowledges both the similarities and the differences between animals and humans. This may require letting go of some long-cherished notions of self-importance, but it should in no way diminish our sense of wonder about our peculiar existence. Know thyself."
19. Excellent notes and references.

1. I would have included a more comprehensive table that summarized all our known evolutionary links and most noteworthy traits.
2. A timeline would have added value.
3. A tad repetitive.

In summary, what an enjoyable and accessible book on human evolution this was. I commend Suddendorf for his wonderful approach and for illuminating readers on such a fascinating topic. He covers many topics with great command and succeeds to satisfaction in explaining the gap that exists between animal and human minds. Get this, I highly recommend it!

Further suggestions: "Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil" by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, "Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived" by Chip Walter, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution" by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker, "Guns, Germs And Steel" by Jared Diamond, "Human" by Michael S. Gazzaniga,"Why Evolution Is True" by Jerry Coyne, "Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body" by Neil Shubin, "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters" by Donald R. Prothero, "The Making of the Fittest" by Sean B. Carroll, "What Evolution Is" by Ernst Mayr, "Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution" by Nick Lane, "Relics of Eden" by Daniel J. Fairbanks, and "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution" by Richard Dawkins
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