on March 14, 2009
I was raised in a very conservative Christian environment and taught Young-Earth Creationism (anti-evolution, anti-Big Bang, etc.). I bought into it for a long time. In college, I finally began to investigate some of the claims for myself---reading what was _really_ being said by "the other side", rather than what I was being told was being said.
The disparity I discovered can hardly be exaggerated: what I had been taught bore essentially zero resemblance to the real thing. Genuine evolutionary theory was virtually unrecognizable in the creationists' caricatures of it. I learned that I had been lied to---intentionally, or not, I do not know---and that the quantity, diversity, and quality of evidence in support of evolution was simply crushing. It wasn't just that it could not be ignored or dismissed as trivial; it was that it was so cohesive and mutually supportive and overwhelmingly convincing that it simply HAD to be accepted as true. (As Gould said, it would be "perverse to withhold provisional assent.")
This discovery sparked a long (and ongoing) journey of reading books on the topic of evolution---books by authors such as Stephen Jay Gould, Sean Carroll, Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, Neil Shubin, and others. I was enthralled with the elegant simplicity and beauty and shear explanatory power of the ideas I was learning. They not only made sense, but had tremendous evidentiary support in nature and the lab (as well as mathematical modeling, game theory, use in other disciplines, etc.).
But, as my journey progressed, and I continued to absorb ever more information and improve my understanding, I began to realize something. As I interfaced with many of those from my upbringing (i.e., those uninformed on evolution), it dawned on me that I hadn't yet found a truly excellent "introductory book" that clearly and accessibly discussed what evolution is (and is not) while relying heavily upon concrete evidentiary examples across many different disciplines. I had read many great books specializing in this or that discipline, or focusing more on the understanding of evolutionary concepts (but with looser reliance upon examples in nature), or whatever. But, I wanted a single, superb book to provide a solid overview of evolution that was inseparably intertwined with many diverse supporting evidentiary examples.
When a curious friend actually asked, voluntarily, for such a book suggestion, and I could not provide a single title (as opposed to a long list, which is too much to ask of the casually curious), I decided my desire for such a book had transformed into a bona fide need.
"Why Evolution Is True" is that book.
It covers so much in so few pages in such an accessible way that it is difficult to capture in only a few words. Dr. Coyne eloquently writes on:
* what evolution is, and is not (specific defining features, testability, etc.; chapter 1 is all about this)
* the fossil record (including specific examples and discussion of transitional forms and lineages (dinosaur feathers, whales, etc.), stratigraphy, and more; specific predictions and their fulfillments, such as Tiktaalik's discovery and marsupial fossils in Antarctica; etc.)
* vestigial and atavistic features (e.g. human tails and appendices, and whale pelvises and dolphin legs)
* "bad design" (e.g. flat fish skulls and eyes, and the route of the vagus nerve in humans, as well as problems with both genders' reproductive systems)
* developmental oddities (e.g. dolphin embryos beginning growth of hind legs that are later changed, human embryonic growth and subsequent absorption of tails, as well as the growth and loss of a full coat of hair)
* pseudogenes (e.g. bird pseudogenes for growing teeth, pseudo-GLO for (failed) vitamin C production in humans/fruit bats/guinea pigs, substantial presence of endogenous retroviruses in our genome (and chimpanzees, in the same places), extensive olfactory receptor pseudogenes in humans (and even more so in dolphins), mammalian pseudogenes for vitellogenin production (nutritious protein filling the yolk sac in birds/reptiles/monotremes) and our embryonic growth of a yolk sac)
* biogeography (including discussion of species distributions (duh!), continental drift, and continental and oceanic islands)
* specific examples of evolution in action, both in nature and in the lab (through natural selection (e.g. different bee species, mouse and lizard coloration, etc.), genetic drift (e.g. several genetically-bottle-necked human sub-populations), and artificial selection (e.g. domestic dogs, agriculture, etc.); he writes of lab experiments, bacterial drug resistance (and even more dramatic changes), beak-length changes, and much more)
* micro- vs macro-evolution (including differences, expectations, and evidence)
* selection building complexity (including discussion of ID's claims about the bacterial flagellum and the blood clot cascade, and the eye)
* sexual selection (what it is, how it works, advantages it offers, and many examples; parthenogenesis; etc.)
* speciation (discussion and examples; allopatric and sympatric speciation; autopolyploid and allopolyploid speciation; etc.)
* human evolution (fossil and genetic evidence, along with detailed discussion; "races"; "pastoralism" coinciding with "lactose tolerance"; malarial and HIV resistance, through genetic mutations; historical advantages that now are detriments; etc.)
* the 'moral/emotional' resistance to acceptance of evolution (noting and discussing that all the evidence in the universe is still not enough if a person is staunchly ideologically opposed)
* and much, much more
Clearly, the book covers a stunning array of material in its few pages. And, due to my particular reasons for wanting such a book, I was even more pleased to discover that Dr. Coyne does not shy away from periodically pointing-out (respectfully, but matter-of-factly) that creationism simply offers no good explanation for almost everything discussed---whereas evolution beautifully explains it all. Dr. Coyne remains focused on evolution, rather than dwelling upon creationism's failures; but, I felt that the little space he did devote to explicitly noting creationism's total inability to reasonably explain the evidence was worthwhile.
The book is not the be-all, end-all of evolutionary books, of course. It can't cover absolutely everything. To learn about evolution in its full depth and breadth requires the reading of many books (several of which Dr. Coyne suggests, and many more of which can be found in his book's bibliography). But, it nearly perfectly fulfilled my personal requirements for a "suggested single title for the curious" as an introductory book on evolution---one with heavy reliance upon numerous examples of interdisciplinary, mutually-supporting evidence that still communicates many of the important evolutionary concepts in a way easily accessible to the layman.
Indeed, the book covers so much so well that even though it is targeted to be a broad overview of the evidence, and even after my having read several other more topic-specific books on evolution, I still learned quite a bit from "Why Evolution Is True". Very highly recommended, whether you're new to evolution or not.
on May 6, 2009
This is the best book on the evidence for evolution I have read. I wish I would have read it years ago.
I went to a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) teaching high school and have attended very conservative, Genesis-is-literal churches my whole life. I attended required YEC conferences by Kent Hovind and another by Ken Ham in my High School science classes, and heard John Morris and Duane Gish speak several times in my church.
Several years ago I decided to read a book on evolution because I couldn't understand why anyone would believe it. So I read "Why Darwin Matters" by Michael Shermer (also a very good book) and then started reading all the books I could find on evolution. The subject is fascinating and I have a new love for science and nature as a result of understanding how evolution works. "Why Evolution is True" is the best book I have read and I will recommend it to any young or old earth creationist, or intelligent design proponent, I meet.
The explanation of the dating techniques of superposition, radiometric, and coral dating was very straightforward. Wells' experiment with radiometric dating and comparing the dates to the daily and yearly growth rings of coral was one of the best and most straightforward evidences I have read for an old earth.
The book looks at all the important fossils, especially tracing the development of whales, discussing Haikouella lanceolata being the earliest chordate, and explains Tiktaalik roseae well. The fossils in the human lineage are also explained in excellent detail.
The genetic portion of evolution books is always the most interesting evidence for evolution, in my opinion, and "Why Evolution is True" was no exception. Besides the normal explanations of pseudogenes, Coyne shows how dolphins have 80% of their olfactory receptor genes deactivated through mutation because they are no longer needed underwater. This obviously shows that dolphins evolved from an ancestor that walked on the ground. There isn't as much genetics as I might have liked, but interested readers might also want to check out Sean B. Carroll's "The Making of the Fittest" or Daniel Fairbanks' "Relics of Eden" for a lot more genetic evidence for evolution.
The section on biogeography is especially strong. The evidence presented makes no sense in light of creationist ideas, but all the sense in the world by evolutionary standards.
"Why Evolution is True" is especially strong at showing how evolution predicts the evidence. Coyne sets up several sections by explaining what evolution predicts in a certain area and then showing how the evidence fits. This rhetorical technique is especially strong if the reader has a good understanding of the scientific method. Because I am a biology major and the emphasis every class puts on the scientific method, it was great to see how strongly evolutionary theory fits into the prediction/test portion of the scientific method.
The religious and non-religious alike should find "Why Evolution is True" accessible. Coyne does not spend much time trying to bash the idea of god or the religious, just prove evolution true. Because of this I think this book is stronger than many of Dawkins', at least for introducing evolution to religious people. Unfortunately, many Christians don't want to read Dawkins' biology books because of the hints of atheism, but I don't think Christians will find that objection to Coyne's book.
'Why Evolution is True" is a fantastic book that I strongly encourage anyone who loves science or has questions about evolution to read. This is THE book I would start with when I was a young earth creationist, if I could go back in time.
on February 2, 2009
Jerry Coyne is a bit annoyed that it was necessary to write this book. I am glad he got annoyed enough to write it. In part he is writing against the intelligent design movement, and against creationism and he shows the flaws in these viewpoints not with rhetoric, but with well chosen evidence.
The book is a powerful and straightforward account of evolution showing the strength of the theory, its ability to make predictions, and giving many examples of the evidence on which evolution is based. After reading the book you have a good idea of what evolution is about, and what fields of study it applies in. Coyne is clear that evolution is a theory in biology of great explanatory power. The key idea is that of descent with modification.
He is also clear (in his final chapter evolution redux) of the limits to evolutionary thinking. Good scientists know what they know, and also have some idea where their knowledge stops. Coyne demonstrates this ability well. By doing this he becomes a far better advocate for evolution than Dawkins.
Evolution is not an ontological or moral theory. You can derive no moral lesson from evolution- it just is (p253). David Hume pointed out that deriving an ought from an is is usually to make a specious argument. The fact that the idea of evolution as progress has been misused by many is not an argument against evolution. It is an argument against the misuse of ideas.
Coyne (p248)describes that, "There is an increasing (and disturbing) tendency of psychologists, biologists and philosophers to Darwinize every aspect of human behaviour, turning its study into a scientific parlour game." He liberates us (p250)from some of the genetic determinism that sometimes accompanies evolution, "There is no reason, then, to see ourselves as marionettes dancing on the strings of evolution. Yes certain parts of our behaviour may be genetically encoded, instilled by natural selection in our savanna-dwelling ancestors. But genes aren't destiny...."genetic" does not mean "unchangeable.""
Coyne liberates evolution from its role as chief evidence for atheism.(pxix) "Nor must it promote atheism, for enlightened religion has always found a way to accommodate the advances of science. In fact, understanding evolution should surely deepen and enrich our appreciation of the living world and our place in it." Denis Alexander makes a similar point in his recent book,"Creation or Evolution:Do we have to choose."
This book does have one notable omission which arises because it sticks closely to the facts. There is no account of how the first cell ever got started, maybe because there is not yet any great evidence for how this happened. So far as I can understand evolution it describes the mechanisms of relationship between ancestors and descendants, but the tracing back of ancestors can only go back so far- to some original reproducing cell.
This book is timely this year. It's a great account of how evolution works from its 6 basic principles namely evolution (genetic change over time), gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and non selective mechanisms of evolutionary change. The basic principles have clear starting points and consequences which are observable or at least, inferable.
It puts evolution in a sensible context, and shows where, and to what, it sensibly applies. It is a welcome book this year and it puts the theory of evolution centre stage on its own merits, and not as a means to advocating for other ideas. Sensible, tolerant, encouraging and provoking further thought. Very scientific. Highly recommended.
"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". That classic quote from the great Russian-American evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky is replete with far more truth now than when he uttered it in 1973. Thousands of scientists around the globe are using the principles of evolution towards understanding phenomena as simple as bacterial population growth to those as complex as the origin and spread of such virulent diseases as malaria and HIV/AIDS, and the conservation of many endangered plant and animal species. There is no other scientific theory I know of that has withstood such rigorous, and repeated, testing as the modern synthetic theory of evolution. The overwhelming proof of biological evolution is so robust, that entire books have been written describing pertinent evidence from sciences that, at first glance, seem as dissimilar from each other as paleobiology, molecular biology and ecology. But alas this hasn't convinced many in the court of public opinion, especially here, in the United States, who remain skeptical of evolution as both a scientific fact and a scientific theory, and who are too often persuaded by those who insist that there are such compelling "weaknesses" in evolution, that instead of it, better, still "scientific", alternatives exist, most notably, Intelligent Design creationism. Distinguished evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True" is not just a timely book, but it is quite simply, the best, most succinct, summation I can think of on behalf of evolution's scientific validity.
No other modern evolutionary biologist has attempted to convey, with such excitement, and enthusiasm, a comprehensive, quite compelling, proof of biological evolution, unless you consider the notable literary careers of Coyne's graduate school mentors; Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould. Coyne's achievement is especially noteworthy for covering virtually every major evolutionary aspect of biology in a treatment that barely exceeds two hundred and thirty pages. In essence, "Why Evolution is True" can be viewed as an updated, modern rendition of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species", but encompassing those biological sciences, such as population genetics, molecular systematics, evolutionary developmental biology - better known as "evo - devo" - and, indeed, even paleobiology, which were unknown to Darwin; to put it bluntly, this is "one long argument" on behalf of evolutionary biology, told via Coyne's respectable, occasionally lyrical, prose and compelling logic.
Coyne asserts that there are six principles of evolution in the book's first chapter (having been preceded by two brief prefaces devoted to the nature of science and the ongoing intellectual threat posed by Intelligent Design creationism); evolution - which he defines as a species undergoing genetic change through time - gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change. These are indeed the very principles recognizable to anyone who has taken an undergraduate course in evolution, the key features of the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution; in other words, modern evolutionary theory. And they are principles recognizable to those evolutionary biologists who concur with Gould's observation that current evolutionary theory is incomplete in explaining the origin, composition and history of our planet's biodiversity; scientifically testable principles unlike those alleged to exist for Intelligent Design and other flavors of "scientific" creationism. In the book's remaining nine chapters, Coyne offers persuasive evidence on behalf of these principles from the fossil record, from the biogeography of plants and animals, from molecular genomic data, and other aspects of biology, discusses the importance of sex in driving evolutionary change, and the process of speciation itself.
There is much worthy of praise in Coyne's elegantly terse tome in defense of biological evolution. His fossil record chapter (Chapter Two) compellingly recounts the evolution of primitive tetrapods from bony fishes in the late Devonian, the mid Mesozoic evolution and early radiation of birds from their feathered theropod dinosaur ancestors, and the early Cenozoic evolution of whales from primitive ungulates distantly related to rhinos and tapirs. He demonstrates persuasively (Chapter Three) how humans and other animals are so poorly "designed", that their "designs" bear ample witness against the existence of an Intelligent Designer. His superb treatment of biogeography (Chapter Four) echoes the literary elegance of Darwin's prose, and reminds us of the stark differences between so-called Intelligent Design "theory" and evolution in making testable, verifiable, predictions regarding both present-day and fossil distributions of plants and animals. In the book's finest chapter (Chapter Seven), devoted to speciation, Coyne - who is among our foremost authorities on speciation - offers a surprisingly comprehensive account that discusses not only the mechanisms of speciation, but also, of equal importance to biologists, how species are recognized and defined as distinct populations separated from others in space and time. But readers may find most moving, his poignant treatment of humanity as a biological species (Chapter Eight), and how evolution may still be driving the course of human evolution.
There is so much worthy of praise in Coyne's book, that it seems almost an afterthought to mention errors, omissions, and potential disagreements. The most glaring of these may be his insistence of gradualism as an important principle of evolution, since others, like his Stony Brook University colleague Douglas Futuyma, have recognized the importance of morphological stasis (Though he might contend vigorously and persuasively that to do so would be to recast the argument as one of evolutionary tempo, instead of mode.). But I am especially surprised by his omission of the significant role of mass extinctions in reshaping the composition and complexity of Earth's biosphere, not just once, but approximately seven times in the last five hundred-odd million years, which has garnered ample attention from past and current University of Chicago colleagues; paleobiologists David Raup, J. John Sepkoski, and David Jablonski, among others. By themselves, mass extinctions are the key episodes in the history of life on Earth still ignored by leading Intelligent Design creationists such as mathematician and philosopher William Dembski and biochemist Michael Behe; their very existence strongly refutes the inane assertion that life has been "intelligently designed".
"Why Evolution is True" belongs on the bookshelves of anyone interested in science. However, those who are skeptical of evolution's scientific validity, remain its intended audience. Any of them possessing an objective, open mind, should be persuaded by Coyne's terse prose and compelling logic. The evidence for biological evolution is quite overwhelmingly true; Coyne's slender book is a magnificent presentation of this proof.
on August 18, 2009
Strictly speaking there is a distinction to be made between Creationism and Intelligent Design, but for the purposes of Jerry Coyne's exegesis it is scarcely a distinction worth making. Both have to do with a cosy reductionism that devalues intellectual inquiry with its prioritizing of myth over science, and in his introduction he quotes statistics to show how widely the ignorance extends. Only 40% of Americans believe that evolution is true, while in Muslim Turkey no more than 25% of the population remain resistant to the religious propaganda. That's the way God planned it, in the words of a `60s hit, and ours is not to probe the how, why or wherefore. To be fair to the ID/Creationist viewpoint it does have among its defenders some acknowledged and eminent scholars in the evolutionary field. Indeed, no less distinguished an authority than the late Ronald Reagan once solemnly declared that evolution `is a scientific theory only' which is `not yet (sic) believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed'. A scientific theory only. In other words we should not take it too seriously but regard it with scepticism, or at least caution.
`Why Evolution Is True' deftly takes apart the misconceptions and brazen fatuities that continue to accumulate around the subject. A scientific theory is not mere idle speculation. It is rather, according to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, `a statement of what are held to be equal laws, principles or causes of something known or observed'. Thus, it makes assertions and predictions that must be validated by rigorous testing, and only when tested over and over again is the theory accepted as true. This is elementary, of course, but however many times the point is made it seems to remain outside the comprehension of anti-evolutionists. The facts speak for themselves, of which there are many, and like Charles Darwin before him Coyne assembles a mountain of evidence in support of his case. He covers the research undertaken since Darwin's day in all relevant areas and shows how evolution continues to stand up under proper scientific scrutiny, confirming the truth of the theory first propounded 150 years ago in the `Origin of the Species' to a disbelieving world.
A species undergoes genetic change, `evolves', over many generations, and in the process speciation occurs, the splitting off from an early ancestor. To establish common ancestry the genes of organisms are examined, and evolutionary relationships of species can be reconstructed via DNA sequencing. The `good' genes enable an organism's better survival and reproduction, or natural selection. In his early remarks on what exactly evolution is Coyne includes genetic drift as an example of processes other than natural selection that can account for evolutionary change. Thus the essential points are established for later elaboration. It may be wondered how birds could possibly have evolved from dinosaurs, but the explanation that will be given is plausible and actually quite simple. In fact it is now known that 99% of the millions of species that have ever lived have gone the way of the dinosaur, and inevitably the same fate will befall the existing species that have replaced the extinct ones. What, then, could the reasoning or motivation of an Intelligent Designer be behind that, Coyne asks? The question is rhetorical, of course, but ID-obsessives might answer that it is for His personal, literal re-creation, in which case several aeons hence when the novelty wears off the human race will literally die of boredom. The Creator's, that is, not our own.
The fossil record plays a vital part in reconstructing the earth's evolutionary history, and it will be clear from the description of how fossils come to be formed, and subsequently revealed, that the record is bound to be incomplete. Covered by sediment, they need to be exposed by wind or rain erosion and they provide no indication of species appearing suddenly and remaining unchanged. The question of `missing links' is discussed, those transitional life forms that span the gap between two different types of living organism. For example, the `Tiktaalik rosae' fossil species, found in strata 375 million years old, is a transitional form between fish and amphibians, a minute and careful analysis of its fin-limbs and bone structure suggesting how it finally ventured out of the water, and similar evidence is adduced to show how whales descended from land animals related to cows. Also, the reptile-bird transition `Archaeopteryx lithographica', distinguished by its dinosaur-like skeleton and feather remnants, is an example of a land-dweller developing the ability to fly. It was discovered in 1860 in rocks between 70 and 200 million years old. These vast stretches of geological time will jar somewhat with the conviction held by some that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old, but they are an integral part of the evolution story and explain much, including the similarities between some African and South American plants. Both continents once formed part of a supercontinent, Gondwanaland, which began to drift apart around 170 million years ago and also comprised the land masses that are now Antarctica, India and Madagascar.
It all makes sense if the evidence is properly weighed and considered, and some instances are mentioned of what is decidedly `unintelligent' design if it is held that a Creator is to blame rather than evolution. There is no conceivable point to `dead' genes or the functionless remains of our ancestors which we still carry. The flatfish is a ludicrous, cartoon-like conception whose strange makeup is better explained by environmental effects than a Designer with nothing better to do, and another example of bad `design' is the left recurrent laryngeal nerve in humans, evidence of our descent from a fish-like ancestor. Nor does the `God of the gaps' argument escape the author's easy trouncing of creationist drivel. It is sometimes used to dismiss the incomplete fossil record, and the fact that the bacterial flagellum, a complex molecular motor used by some bacteria to propel themselves, is not fully understood is scarcely evidence for supernatural creation. Likewise, our inability to observe a new species evolving does not mean that speciation does not occur. In fact one experiment is described in which, under laboratory conditions, we may actually observe evolutionary change over thousands of generations, in real time, in the form of bacteria dividing.
All in all, the book is an excellent `evolution for beginners' manual. Professor Coyne is an engaging teacher and readers of a non-scientific bent, including this reviewer, are well served by his elucidation of terms like `allele' and `allopolyploid speciation'. Less recondite terms such as variation, mutation, sexual selection and adaptation signify important aspects of evolution and are all given proper elaboration. Furthermore, the text is augmented by various tables and illustrations which serve as welcome aide-memoires enabling us to appreciate at a glance, for example, the various phases of the whale's evolution from its land-dwelling ancestor of 48 million years ago, or what the `Tiktaalik roseae' looked like as it began to leave its piscine past behind and develop amphibian characteristics. Figure 24 shows how closely related we are to apelike ancestors, this being the subject of a late chapter `What About Us?' In fact this is something that Darwin, owing to a lack of hard contemporary evidence, had little to say about so it is fitting that the research undertaken since his day and the discoveries made be given due focus.
In `The Descent of Man' (1871) Darwin speculated that because our closest relatives, gorillas and chimps, are found in Africa our species probably originated there. There was no fossil or other evidence to back this up until the discovery in 1924 of the skull and bone fragments that would be labelled `Australopithecus Africanus' (`Southern Apeman'). The find was significant because an aperture at the base of the skull, just above the spinal column, indicated that its owner would have adopted a human-like posture. Emphasis is laid on the fact that the Australopithecus is an evolutionary cousin rather than the `missing link', or ancestor that gave rise to modern humans on the one hand and chimps on the other. However, we share 98.5% of our DNA sequence with chimps having diverged from our joint common ancestor about 7 million years ago. As it happened, the discovery of the `Southern Apeman' would be followed just one year later by Tennessee's infamous `Monkey Trial' and it is against that sort of buffoon mentality that Coyne finally makes bold to assert, for those of us who are still with him, that `evolution is more than a scientific theory; it is a scientific fact'.
Finally, the one thing on which creationists and evolutionists are agreed is that evolution does not tell us how to lead our lives. However, those of the former who have somehow vaguely heard of Richard Dawkins' `selfish gene' make a false connection between it and `the beast within' that will supposedly run amok if not held in check by traditional morality and scriptural caveat. To illustrate the point one of Ann Coulter's witless inanities is quoted, taken from a best-seller and thereby pointing up the all-too-familiar correlation between base imbecility and popular appeal. Actually, those inclined to adopt a paranoid and apocalyptic view might take comfort from Professor Coyne's mentioning of recent scientific literature on how evolution can favour genes that lead to altruism and co-operation. Art, culture and civilization in general have `evolved' over several millennia so that, to give but two examples, Roman gladiatorial circuses and human sacrifices are no longer tolerated. It has not always been religion that has opened our eyes to these and other horrors - this is surely the final irony - and even today pockets of fundamentalist resistance to scientific inquiry remind us of the hostile environment in which Charles Darwin flourished. In any event, what science does not do is give up on hitherto unsolved mysteries and put our ignorance down to the whim of a Creator. As Darwin himself put it;
`Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science'.
Coulter et al, and their impressionable fan base, would do well to take note.
on February 1, 2009
This makes a fine addition to one's library! It's well-written, erudite, and it presents a very strong case for evolution if you're willing to look at facts and evidence (which is much too big an "if" for way too many people). The book is aimed at an average person--you will not be overwhelmed with formulae or long DNA sequences or lots of difficult biological terms. There's a mixture of field work, lab work and analysis, history, and common sense. The principal of Occam's razor is applicable here: the most straightforward explanations usually need to be countered with arguments to the effect that God created humans and natural life with DNA and anatomical structures so that He could fool athiest disbelievers 6000 years later.
Coyne describes many fascinating examples whereby predictions were made and later independently verified by other means. For instance, radiometric dating placed some corals at 380MYA. Creationists argue that such dating isn't accurate--pressure, etc, can throw this way off. but these fossil corals, like trees, have annual growth rings, and unlike rings, they also have daily growth rings, and so it was shown that when those corals lived, years had 400 days of about 21.9 hours each. With the rotation of the Earth slowing through tidal action, the rotational slowing predicts that 380 MYA years had 396 days of 22 hours each. When radically different methods yield the same result--that's hard to refute(at least hard to refute honestly). There is also the story of a time of drought in the Galopagos: one one island the finch that ate small seeds was forced to turn to larger harder seeds as well due to shorter supplies of smaller seeds. Larger tougher seeds meant that stronger and larger beaks were helpful, and within a generation of the finches, beak size had increased 10%. Human genes that help prevent HIV infection, the author notes, will probably, like the sickle-cell gene, become more prevalent in the population.
There are excellent sections on DNA. Dolphins, for instance, have lots of inactive DNA for the sense of smell--these are for airborne smell and not underwater chemicals and sensing. Coyne asks why God would create dolphins with such useless remnant genes. By the same token, humans have many vestiges of bygone eras--larynx nerves which loop unnecessarily, as do the sperm ducts. The latter are unquestionably a bad design: they are certainly functional but leave weak spots and are understandable through evolutionary processes. As a "designed" feature by a major company there would have been a recall, and designed by God would lead you to conclude that the Designer could have done a whole lot better. So--a wonderful book, eminently readable, and suffering only from not being twice as long!
on February 1, 2009
Darwin's 200th birthday is in Feb 2009 and this book lays out the overwhelming evidence for the brilliant idea he first described in the Origin of the Species 150 years ago. Of course there has been an enormous amount of work done by biologists since Darwin's time and we are now confident that evolution through natural selection is responsible for the amazing diversity of life on earth today and in the past. Coyne lucidly explains the evidence for this from many fields of science and biology including paleontology, geology, embryology, and genetics and shows how it all fits together supporting Darwin's essential thesis. Coyne rebuts the creationist critique that evolution is not a scientific theory because it cannot be observed and tested. He shows how evolution does in fact make many testable predictions and the theory is always supported by the evidence. Importantly he also lays out possible evidence that would prove evolution wrong (e.g. finding large mammal and dinosaur fossils in the same age rocks). While Coyne does make many criticisms of the methods and insincerity of creationists this is primarily a positive argument for the existence of evolution and not an anti-religious tirade like you get with a Richard Dawkins book. I enjoy reading Dawkins (the Ancestor's Tale is great) but I think he alienates many potential converts with the negative tone and barely disguised disgust he feels for people suspicious of evolution. This book gets the tone right for anybody seriously looking for learn more about the subject and also good for helping people sharpen their arguments for use out in the real world where this debate never seems to end.
Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. This is the main theme running through this book. What Coyne's book is not, is a directed rebuttal of ID creationism. What Coyne's book IS, is a very well- and clearly-written survey of the various evidences for evolution. Coyne's point is similar to Dobzansky's: all of this varied evidence can only be made sense of via the model of evolution. The fossil record, genetic evidence, etc, would simply be nonsensical under a theory like ID (unless the designer designed everything to look like it had evolved).
As a science teacher, I wish this were a book I could give both to my kids and to other science educators. Coyne gives very engaging and crystalline summaries of concepts like speciation, genetic drift, the significance of vestigial structures, and the falsifiability of evolutionary theory. For my fellow science educators, this book provides some great ideas on how to explain these and similar concepts, and also provides fascinating examples of evolution in action (I had no idea, for instance, that several sea-dwelling creatures have vestigial and all-but-functionless eyes!)
Two things that particularly struck me about this book: first, one of the most common ID objections is that we have never directly observed macroevolution/speciation in action. While Coyne incorrectly fails to correct this misimpression - any doubters, look it up - he deal well with his reply (which will still doubtless be disappointing to ID supporters). Coyne rightly notes that macroevolution takes place generally over many, many thousands of years, and that its glacial pace makes it appear as if it is not taking place. (Long and short: the best way to see the slow process of macroevolution at work is via the fossil record, and we have done that in spades.) The only reason I bring this up is that this is considered by IE supporters to be a very "live" and concerted objection, and Coyne's response, by contrast, is very, very subtle and indirect. This indirect response could be seen as a weakness by evolution's handful of critics.)
Secondly, Coyne goes through all of the lines of evidence for evolution in some detail EXCEPT the genetic evidence. As many have noted, one could ver well throw out all the fossil evidence and still have enough evidence, via genetics, of evolution. The chapters on paleontological, embryological, and zoological, and geographic evidences for evolution are very powerful. But I really missed, and hoped for, a good chapter on what many feel to be the strongest evidence for evolution: the genetic code. (Good books have been written entirely on this evidence, including Daniel J. Fairbanks's "Relics of Eden," and Sean Carroll's "Making of the Fittest." Both are highly reccomended.
Despite these points, this book is exactly what the lay-public needs. As statistics confirm that the general populace lacks good education and understanding of how evolution works (and why evolution is a sound theory), Jerry Coyne has written a patient, clear, and interesting book marshal ling the various evidences for evolution (and, by converse, against ID). As mentioned, Coyne's book is not devoted to direct confrontation with ID "theorists" like Behe and Demski. (See Miller's "Only a Theory" and Pennock's "Tower of Babel," just to mention two of hundreds.) Rather, Coyne does a great job arguing the positive case that, as Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. If only everyone would read this.
on April 17, 2013
In Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne does his best to convince the reader that the Theory of Evolution has the best explanatory power and makes the most sense of the evidence. Though arguing for evolution, and therefore against creationism, Coyne's tone is not polemical but, rather, educational and informative. Not only does Coyne make a great case for evolution but, also, enlightens the reader along the way. Moreover, Coyne's book is very reader friendly and no layperson should have difficulty reading it.
It's difficult to imagine how any individual striving for objectivity could walk away from this book not persuaded of the validity of evolution. That being said, I highly recommend this book to anyone who (1) desires to survey the evidence for the Theory of Evolution or (2) wants to learn more about science in light of evolution.
Coyne is a professor at the University of Chicago whose specialty is evolutionary genetics and the origin of new species. On the evidence of this book he is also a master of succinct argument and clear, supple prose. Coyne believes strongly that evolution is a proven fact, that it has been operating for billions of years through natural selection (in the vast majority of cases), that there is ample evidence to support the truth of evolution and that no countervailing scientific evidence has been shown. He has written a brief arguing the case for evolution with ample reference to evidence in support of his argument. He also points to what he sees as the logical flaws in the arguments of evolution's opponents and to the flaws in their proffered evidence. Coyne is an able advocate and his points are strong and powerfully put.
The book begins with a brief discussion of the nature of science, proceeds to establish that evolution meets the criteria for being a science (including the key criteria of offering factually verifiable predictions and of being falsifiable in principle) and explains what the term "theory" means to a scientist. Coyne then gets down to factual business, leading the reader through the main areas of inquiry that one might reasonably expect would yield evidence for or against evolution. These include things such as the fossil record (including examples of transitional forms), biogeography, observed changes in modern populations of both plants and animals, instances of poor design, vestigial "ancestral" structures in modern animals, embryonic development, genetic research and more. All of these areas, argues Coyne, have produced unambiguous evidence in support of evolution and for natural selection as by far its most important mechanism.
Evolution is an entirely naturalistic and materialistic theory. Coyne recognizes that many fear this, believing that the absence of God from the process will ultimately mean the extinction of ethics and morality in society. At the end of the book Coyne argues that this is by no means a necessary outcome. This section, to me, fit poorly with the rest of the book simply because the arguments do not lend themselves to objective and rational proof.
Coyne paints with a broad brush. He did not write a comprehensive survey of all evolutionary theory and the evidence to support it. He wrote an argument with supporting evidence intended to convince the undecided of the truth of evolution and to be understandable and succinct to laypersons in doing so. Coyne knows that to be over detailed or too technical is to be ineffective. The book is only 233 pages long. There is room only for the essential. He does provide suggestions for further reading as well as copious references organized by chapter.
One further word: Civility of discourse is not a uniform hallmark of works addressing the evolution vs. creationism/ID debate. This book is entirely civil and rational in its approach. No invective. No rants. Readers of any perspective can read and profit from this book; some as food for thought, some as an outline of established truth and the evidence for it, some as a guide to the arguments and errors of the other side. This is a good book.