Very Short Introductions to Evolution, Human Evolution and the History of Life, By Brian and Deborah Charlesworth (Evolution), Bernard Wood (Human Evolution) and Michael J Benton (The History of Life) Inspire article

How short is ‘very short’? Well, pretty short – between 120 and 150 pages. The pages are small, too, 175 mm x 110 mm, but then so is the type. ‘Introduction?’ …well, it depends what’s being introduced.

These are cleverly written books, compressing a great deal of material and a reasonable number of black and white illustrations into a small space. It would be a mistake to confuse brevity with accessibility, however. So – from the point of view of a schoolteacher considering purchases – what are we looking at here?

Evolution: A Very Short Introduction follows a path you would expect: the evolutionary processes, evidence for evolution, adaptation and natural selection, and the formation and divergence of species. Had the book been written today, the word ‘creationism’ would surely have been in the index, but the final chapter does not shirk what the authors have called “difficult problems” – complex adaptations, ageing, the evolution of sterile social castes, and the origin of living cells and of human consciousness. This is tough going – a solid read for an advanced teacher, but unlikely to engage many school students. It’s a book for the teacher’s shelf – perhaps to be dipped into as a refreshing summary of a key topic: the ‘evidence for evolution’ chapter would be a good brief source of reference.

Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction is by ‘a medically qualified palaeo-anthropologist’ – and it shows. It deals with the fossil record, early hominins, transitional hominins and early Homo before turning to the people who inhabit the globe today. There’s a chronology “of thought and science relevant to human origins and evolution”, which – though brief – is seriously academic. Individual sections of this book contain engaging narratives, and thorough explanations, but the sheer density of the writing must take it beyond school science and well into specialist reading at university level. Teachers will find the ‘points to watch’ sections at the end of each chapter very valuable, however. They provide caveats for teaching and some really good starting points for discussion and wider reading.

The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction would appear to have the toughest task of all: the origins of life, sex, skeletons, life on land, forests and flight, the biggest mass extinction, the origin of modern ecosystems and the origins of humans. Happily, however, the author manages to cover all this ground deftly – almost conversationally – and with considerable clarity. Of course, the depth of detail isn’t there and a few academic noses may be turned up at the lively personal style, but this book communicates with the non-specialist reader in a way that the others struggle to achieve. It is indeed an ‘introduction’, and many a school student will enjoy reading it. Try leaving it lying around in your lab for someone to pick up, or – in more traditional mode – make sure that it is on your students’ reading list.


Evolution: A Very Short Introduction

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication year: 2003
ISBN: 9780192802514

Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication year: 2005
ISBN: 9780192803603

The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication year: 2008
ISBN: 9780199226320


  • For a review of two other Very Short Introductions, see:




Download this article as a PDF