Bible edges out Darwin as ‘most valuable to humanity’ in survey of influential books

The Bible garnered 37% of public vote, while On the Origin of Species received 35%, followed by works by Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and George Orwell

One lays out how “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, the other saw Christianity shaken to its roots as Charles Darwin put forward his theory of natural selection. Together, the Bible and On the Origin of Species are the two most valuable books for humanity, according to a survey of the British public, with the religious text narrowly edging out one of the most important works in the history of science.

The Folio Society’s survey of 2,044 British adults, conducted by YouGov, asked members of the public to name the books of most significance for the modern world. The Bible took 37% of the vote, with Darwin’s masterwork coming in second, with 35%.

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (17%) crept ahead of Einstein’s seminal Relativity (15%) to take third place, with just two novels making the top 10 of the “books voted most valuable to humanity”: Nineteen Eighty-Four (14%) and To Kill a Mockingbird (10%). Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which Isaac Newton derives the laws of classical mechanics, took 12% of the vote, with the Qur’an (9%), Adam Smith’s foundation of modern economics The Wealth of Nations (7%) and James Watson’s account of the discovery of DNA, The Double Helix (6%), rounding out the top 10.

Respondents were given a list of 30 books from which they were asked to choose three titles. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women received 4% of the vote, as did Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Pride and Prejudice. The Communist Manifesto landed 5%, as did War and Peace and Hamlet. A few of the 30 titles received no votes: Cicero’s Orations, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

“The first question I had was whether the similar figure for Darwin and the Bible does show a continuing polarisation between the realms of science and religion, or whether in fact it reveals a more balanced approach to ideas for the modern reader,” said Tom Walker, editorial director at The Folio Society. “They are the two ideas which have clashed in the 20th century – this shows, I think, that we can take understanding from both of them.” The Qur’an, he added, is “probably relatively recent to many UK people’s top 10 because of the impact of global debates around Islam”.

The publisher also asked respondents why they plumped for their choices: the Bible was chosen largely because it “contains principles/guidelines to be a good person”, the publisher said, while On the Origin of Species was cited because it “answers fundamental questions of human existence”.

Breaking respondents down by sex, men put Darwin top (37%), followed by the Bible (36%), Hawking and George Orwell, while women went for the Bible (38%), followed by Darwin (33%), Hawking, Einstein and Harper Lee.

Walker said that the list perhaps revealed “which books are perceived as having influence or giving understanding, rather than those which we personally read in order to understand the world around us”, citing A Brief History of Time as “surely one of the most underread bestsellers ever written”, and adding that the readership for Newton’s Principia Mathematica is probably “pretty thin”. “There is an overtly political message to both of the fiction titles,” he pointed out, “but fiction generally doesn’t seem to be seen as so highly influential in how people judge ideas in society; Shakespeare and Tolstoy also have low percentages.”

“How different might the survey have looked 100, or even 30 years ago?” said Walker. “How might it look in another 30 years – will Darwin have taken over; will the worrying rise of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s relevance continue; might the Qur’an continue to rise in significance in the UK; or might advances in DNA technology mean that The Double Helix grows in stature?”

The 10 books voted most valuable to humanity

1) The Bible (37%)

2) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin (35%)

3) A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (17%)

4) Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein (15%)

5) Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell (14%)

6) Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton (12%)

7) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (10%)

8) The Qur’an (9%)

9) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (7%)

10) The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James Watson (6%)


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
King James Bible: 'Twas a work most modern | Stephen Tomkins
Stephen Tomkins: Later versions may lack its resonance, but it's time to let go of the King James Bible and the cod Jacobean it has bequeathed

Stephen Tomkins

01, Mar, 2011 @1:05 PM

Science book delayed when someone notices it's written by creationists | GrrlScientist

Once again, Evil Scientists have thwarted a plan by those vile Creationists to take over the world

Bob O'Hara

07, Mar, 2012 @6:06 PM

Article image
Richard Dawkins the arch-atheist backs Michael Gove's free Bible plan

Author of The God Delusion says providing free Bibles to state schools is justified by its impact on the English language

Robin McKie, science editor

19, May, 2012 @8:30 PM

Article image
Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible | Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins: The good book should be read as a great work of literature – but it is not a guide to morality, as the education secretary Michael Gove would have us believe

Richard Dawkins

19, May, 2012 @8:30 PM

Article image
Twenty books that changed the world. Which is the most important?
Charles Darwin is vying with Immanuel Kant and Plato in a poll to decide on the most influential scholarly book of all time

Alison Flood

14, Oct, 2015 @12:32 PM

Article image
Bible Hunters: the Search for Bible Truth; The Good Wife – TV review
Lucy Mangan: This tale of biblical mysteries, intrepid explorers and Scottish Presbyterian twin sisters was just wonderful

Lucy Mangan

14, Feb, 2014 @7:00 AM

Article image
The political Bible, part 7: nationhood | Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer: How to believe: From early efforts to unite warring tribes onwards, Britain's sense of shared identity has been shaped by the Bible

Nick Spencer

19, Sep, 2011 @9:30 AM

Article image
The political Bible, part 5: equality | Nick Spencer
Nick Spencer: How to believe: A passage from Genesis plays a big part in underpinning our contemporary commitment to equality

Nick Spencer

07, Sep, 2011 @4:00 PM

Article image
The political Bible, part 6: welfare | Nick Spencer
Nick Spencer: The Age of Atonement in the early 19th century featured a powerful Christian opposition to state-based welfare provision

Nick Spencer

12, Sep, 2011 @3:10 PM

Article image
The political Bible, part 4: toleration | Nick Spencer
Nick Spencer: How to believe: If the Bible has the logic of intolerance, through adiaphora – 'things indifferent' – it also bears the language of tolerance

Nick Spencer

29, Aug, 2011 @8:59 AM