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Why Evolution Is True Hardcover – Bargain Price, January 22, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. With great care, attention to the scientific evidence and a wonderfully accessible style, Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, presents an overwhelming case for evolution. Ranging from biogeography to geology, from anatomy to genetics, and from molecular biology to physiology, he demonstrates that evolutionary theory makes predictions that are consistently borne out by the data—basic requirements for a scientific theory to be valid. Additionally, although fully respectful of those who promote intelligent design and creationism, he uses the data at his disposal to demolish any thought that creationism is supported by the evidence while also explaining why those ideas fall outside the bounds of science. Coyne directly addresses the concept often advanced by religious fundamentalists that an acceptance of evolution must lead to immorality, concluding that evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go. Readers looking to understand the case for evolution and searching for a response to many of the most common creationist claims should find everything they need in this powerful book, which is clearer and more comprehensive than the many others on the subject. Illus. (Jan. 26)
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*Starred Review* Far more presentational than disputatious, Coyne’s demonstration that evolution has proven itself in lab and field is still a deliberate answer to anti-evolutionism, especially creationism or intelligent design (ID). At its most comprehensive, creationism/ID claims that each species is the product of a separate creative act; less universally, that at least humans were so created. Frequently throughout lucid, accessible chapters on the fossil record, vestigial features of modern bodies (e.g., the tail rarely seen but documented in newborns), biogeography, natural selection, sexual selection, speciation, and human evolution—the basic areas of evolutionary investigation—Coyne remarks that the material evidence confirms evolution, not creationism/ID. For the evidence shows complexities and imperfections that creationism/ID can’t explain or even allow, for that would necessitate positing a sloppy, imperfect creator or intelligence that couldn’t fashion creatures to ideally fit either their habitats or their bodies. Evolution, on the other hand, expects imperfection and jerry-rigging, and the physical findings, lately made much more precise by genetic analysis, just bolster confidence in it. In conclusion, Coyne wonders what it would take to convince the apparently reasonable people who still deny evolution. A new Milton, perhaps, to justify evolution’s ways in great poetry? Meanwhile, at a time—the Darwin bicentennial and Origin of Species sesquicentennial—when good evolution books are rife, Coyne has given general readers one of the best. --Ray Olson
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Top Customer Reviews
He wrote in the Preface to this 2009 book, "This book lays out the main lines of evidence for evolution. For those who oppose Darwinism purely as a matter of faith, no amount of evidence will do---theirs is a belief not based on reason. But for the many who find themselves uncertain, or who accept evolution but are not sure how to argue their case, this volume gives a succinct summary of why modern science recognizes evolution as true. I offer it in the hope that people everywhere may share my wonder at the sheer explanatory power of Darwinian evolution, and may face its implications without fear." (Pg. xiv)
He cautions, "it's clear that the fossil record MUST be incomplete. How incomplete? ... we can estimate that we have fossil evidence of only 0.1 percent to 1 percent of all species---hardly a good sample of the history of life! Many amazing creatures must have existed that are forever lost to us. Nevertheless, we have enough fossils to give us a good idea of how evolution proceeded, and to discern how major groups split off from one another." (Pg. 22) He adds, "We should also be able to see cases of evolutionary change within lineages: that is, one species or animal or plant changing into something different over time... Of course because the fossil record is incomplete, we can't expect to document EVERY transition between major forms of life. But we should at least find some." (Pg. 25)
He points out, "There are hundreds of other examples of evolutionary change in fossils---both gradual and punctuated---from species as diverse as mollusks, rodents, and primates. And there are also examples of species that barely change over time. (Remember that evolutionary theory does not state that ALL species must evolve!) But listing these cases wouldn't change my point: the fossil record gives no evidence for the creationist prediction that all species appear suddenly and then remain unchanged. Instead, forms of life appear in the record in evolutionary sequence, and then evolve and split." (Pg. 32) Later, he adds, "when we find transitional forms, they occur in the fossil record precisely where they should. The earliest birds appear after dinosaurs but before modern birds. We see ancestral whales spanning the gap between their own landlubber ancestors and fully modern whales. If evolution were not true, fossils would not appear in an order that makes evolutionary sense." (Pg. 53)
He states, "if you think a bit, it's not so hard to come up with intermediate stages in the evolution of flight, stages that might have been useful to their possessors. Gliding is the obvious first step. And gliding has evolved independently many times... [And] the even more remarkable ... colugo, of Southeast Asia... was seen gliding for a distance of 450 feet... while losing only forty feet in height! It's not hard to imagine the next evolutionary step: the flapping of colugolike limbs to produce true flight... But we no longer have to only imagine this step: we now have the fossils that clearly show how flying birds evolved." (Pg. 39) He continues, "the fossils show that the basic skeletal plan of birds, and those essential feathers, evolved BEFORE birds could fly... But if feathers didn't arise as adaptations for flying, what on earth were they for? Again, we don't know. They could have been used for ornamentation or display---perhaps to attract mates. It seems more likely, though, that they were used for insulation... feathers would have helped maintain body temperature. And what feathers evolved FROM is even more mysterious. The best guess is that they derive from the same cells that give rise to reptilian scales, but not everyone agrees." (Pg. 46)
He acknowledges, "The evolution of whales from land animals was remarkably fast... But why did some animals go back to the water at all? After all, millions of years earlier their ancestors had invaded the land. We're not sure why there was a reverse migration, but there are several ideas. One possibility involves the disappearance of the dinosaurs along with their fierce marine cousins, the fish-eating monosaurs, ichthyosaurs, and plesiosaurs. These creatures would not only have competed with aquatic mammals for food, but probably made a meal of them. With their reptilian competitors extinct, the ancestors of whales may have found an open niche, free from predators and loaded with food. The sea was ripe for invasion. All of its benefits were only a few mutations away." (Pg. 51-52)
Concerning homology, he asserts, "There is no reason why a celestial designer, fashioning organisms from scratch like an architect designs buildings, should make new species by remodeling the features of existing ones. Each species could be constructed from the ground up. But natural selection can act only by changing what already exists. It can't produce new traits out of thin air. Darwinism predicts, then, that new species will be modified versions of older ones. The fossil record amply confirms this prediction." (Pg. 54)
He comments on our appendix as a vestigial organ, "So why do we still have one? We don't yet know the answer. It may in fact have been on its way out, but surgery has almost eliminated natural selection against people with appendixes. Another possibility is that selection simply can't shrink the appendix without it becoming even MORE harmful: a smaller appendix may run an even higher risk of being blocked... Our bodies teem with other remains of primate ancestry. We have a vestigial tail: the coccyx... It still has a function (some useful muscles attach to it), but remember that its vestigiality is diagnosed ... because it no longer has the function for which it originally evolved. Tellingly, some humans have a rudimentary tail muscle... identical to the one that moves that tails of monkeys and other mammals." (Pg. 62) He adds, "Some tails are an inch long, others nearly a foot. And they...can have hair, muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. Some can even wiggle!... What could this mean, other than that we still carry a developmental program for making tails?" (Pg. 65-66)
He asks, "Why DOES development often occur in this way? Why doesn't natural selection eliminate the `fish embryo' stage of human development...? Why don't we simply begin development as tiny humans... and just get larger and larger until we're born?... The probable answer---and it's a good one---involves recognizing that as one species evolves into another, the descendant inherits the developmental program of its ancestor... And development is a very conservative process... If, for example, you try to tinker with [it]... you might produce all sorts of adverse side effects in the formation of other structures... it's usually easier to simply tack some less drastic changes onto what is already a robust and basic developmental plan." (Pg. 77-78)
In a section on `Bad Design,' he explains, "What I mean by `bad design' is the notion that if organisms were built from scratch by a designer... they would not have such imperfections. Perfect design would truly be the sign of a skilled and intelligent designer. IMPERFECT design is the mark of evolution: in fact, it's precisely what we EXPECT from evolution." (Pg. 81) He goes on, "A good example of bad design is the flounder... If you wanted to design a flatfish, you wouldn't do it this way. You'd produce a fish like the skate... not one that has to achieve flatness by lying on its side... Flatfish are poorly designed... One of nature's worst designs is ... the recurrent laryngeal nerve of mammals... it is much longer than it needs to be... [This] is not only poor design, but might even be maladaptive. That extra length makes it more prone to injury." (Pg. 82) He concludes, "the particular bad designs that we see make sense only if they evolved from features of earlier ancestors. If a designer did have discernable motives when creating species, one of them must surely have been to fool biologists by making organisms look as though they had evolved." (Pg. 85)
He contends, "Again one must ask: If animals were specially created, why would the creator produce on different continents fundamentally different animals that nevertheless look and act so much alike?... No creationist... has offered a credible explanation for why different types of animals have similar forms in different places. All they can do is invoke the inscrutable whims of the creator. But evolution DOES explain the pattern by invoking a well-known process called `convergent evolution.' ... Species that live in similar habitats will experience similar selection pressures from their environment, so they may evolve similar adaptations ... coming to look and behave very much alike even though they are unrelated." (Pg. 92-94)
He observes, "Everywhere we look in nature, we see animals that SEEM beautifully designed to fit their environment... It is no surprise that early naturalists believed that animals were the product of celestial design, created by God to do their jobs. Darwin dispelled this notion in `The Origin.' ... he completely replaced centuries of certainty about divine design with the notion of a mindless, materialistic process---natural selection---that could accomplish the same result. It is hard to overestimate the effect that this insight had ... on people's worldview. Many have not yet recovered from the shock..." (Pg. 115)
He explains, "This brings up what is surely the most widespread misunderstanding about Darwinism: the idea that, in evolution, `everything happens by chance'... No evolutionist... ever argued that natural selection is based on chance. Quite the opposite. Could a completely random process alone make the hammering woodpecker, the tricky bee orchid, or camouflaged katydids and beach mice? Of course not. If suddenly evolution was forced to depend on random mutations alone, species would quickly degenerate and go extinct. Chance alone cannot explain the marvelous fit between individuals and their environment... True, the raw materials for evolution---the variations between individuals---are indeed produced by chance mutations. These mutations occur willy-nilly, regardless of whether they are good or bad for the individual. But it is the filtering of that variation by natural selection that produces adaptations, and natural selection is manifestly NOT random. It is a powerful molding force..." (Pg. 118-119)
He argues, "we must ask: What's the alternative theory? We know of no other natural process that can build a complex adaptation. The most commonly suggested alternative takes us into the realm of the supernatural. This, of course, is creationism, [also] known ... as `intelligent design.' ... In the main, ID is unscientific, for it consists largely of untestable claims. How, for example, can we determine whether mutations were mere accidents in DNA replication or were willed into being by a creator? But we can still ask if there are adaptations that could not have been built by selection, and therefore require us to think of another mechanism... this is commonly called the `God of the gaps' argument, and it is an argument from ignorance. What it really says is that if we don't understand EVERYTHING about how natural selection built a trait, that lack of understanding itself is evidence for supernatural creation... the onus is not on evolutionary biologists to sketch out a precise step-by-step scenario documenting exactly how a complex character evolved. That would require knowing everything about what happened when we were not around---an impossibility..." (Pg. 136-138)
About fossil human ancestors, he says, "Remember that the `missing link' is the SINGLE ANCESTRAL SPECIES that gave rise to modern humans... and chimpanzees. It's not reasonable to expect the discovery of that critical single species... Except for a few marine microorganisms, such complete fossil sequences don't exist. And our early human ancestors... inhabited a small part of Africa under dry conditions not conducive to fossilization... Given all this, we can't expect to find the single particular species that represents the `missing link' between humans and other apes. We can hope only to find its evolutionary cousins." (Pg. 195)
Interestingly, he states, "recent work shows that our genetic resemblance to our evolutionary cousins is not quite a close as we thought. Consider this. A 1.5 percent difference in protein sequence means that when we line up the same protein ... of humans and chimps, on average we'll see a difference of just one out of every hundred amino acids. But proteins are typically composed of several hundred amino acids. So a 1.5 percent difference in a protein three hundred amino acids long translated into about four differences in the total protein sequence... That oft-quoted 1.5 percent difference between ourselves and chimps, then, is really larger than it looks: a lot more than 1.5 percent of our proteins will differ by at least one amino acid from the sequence in chimps." (Pg. 210)
He concludes, "the major tenets of Darwinism have been verified. Organisms evolved, they did so gradually... and natural selection is the major engine of adaptation. No serious biologist doubts these propositions. But this doesn't mean that Darwinism is scientifically exhausted, with nothing left to understand. Far from it. Evolutionary biology is teeming with questions and controversies. How exactly does sexual selection work? Do females select males with good genes? ... Which fossil hominins are on the direct line to Homo sapiens? What caused the Cambrian `explosion' of life, in which many new types of animals appeared within only a few million years?... Far from discrediting evolution, the `controversies' are in fact the sign of a vibrant, thriving field. What moves science forward is ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments. A science without controversy is a science without progress." (Pg. 223)
This is one of the best current books on evolutionary theory and the evidence for it. One might supplement it with Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters and Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, to get "up-to-date" on modern evolutionary theory.
These two books together make for great companion pieces. Dawkins book is thicker and he tends to try and spend a bit more time explaining things and going into detail, whereas this book is much more succinct and Coyne moves quickly from evidence to evidence.
He's a really great writer with an immense vocabulary. The skill with which it was written is as enjoyable an experience to read and take in as the topic itself is interesting.
Language might be a bit difficult for younger readers, but still a very important book to own. After reading these two books, you walk out feeling like an expert on evolutionary biology yourself. EX. there are professional terms used occasionally and explained (such as dimorphism). Check it out!
P.S. Question to those who own the re-issue: It says it has over 300 pages, my copy has about 270 including references. What kind of extra material is in the rest of it? Is it worth re-buying?