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THE intro book for the evolution-curious, but uninformed!
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.