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1,129 of 1,174 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE intro book for the evolution-curious, but uninformed!, March 14, 2009
This review is from: Why Evolution Is True (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 217 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 15, 2009 5:23:07 AM PDT
Excellent review Esk. The problem with most fundamentalist young-earth Christians is that they positively refuse to open their minds enough to investigate the "other side". I even heard a song once on the radio that in essence was praising the fact that true believers always leave those godless "evolution" books on library shelves UNREAD. Now if that attitude is not one of complete ignorance and total closed-mindedness I don't know what would be. So sadly, no matter how much you or I or any other evolutionist may recommend a book on evolution they will most probably not read it. Of course to them it is we evolutionists who are the ignorant and closed-minded ones!

But still, some of the staunchist Biblical literalists somehow muster the courage to investigate the "other side". It's tough to do this because it often entails alienating family and friends in the process. I have fundamentalist Christian relatives who would probably think I had "gone bad" and was "going to Hell" for not believing in the literal truth of the Bible. I love them but I will not renounce my reason and common sense just to stay in their good graces. I admittedly tread lightly on the subject of evolution when around them but when they say something that obviously testifies to their complete ignorance of it, such as "We know we didn't come from apes, don't we Kenneth!", I don't hesitate to try and educate them.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 15, 2009 9:15:26 AM PDT
Esk says:
Yeah, Ken. You're right, of course. But, I can't completely lose hope because I myself am one of those who emerged from that world of misinformation, and I have some friends who have as well (including some who are just getting on their way).

Like you, I try not to be abrasive about it with them; but, I can't just be apathetic or silent about it either. (This is often because *they* won't let it go when they're around me, as it appears is the case for you, as well.) I still have plenty of creationist friends and family members, and they're people that I care about. But, they are abysmally uninformed/misinformed on the topic, and it can sometimes be very frustrating to get into discussions with them.

They sometimes flat-out admit that they've never learned anything about evolution (e.g. never read a single book on it, written by an evolutionary biologist), and refuse to do so, but still adamantly insist that they know what they're talking about. I think that sometimes that cognitive dissonance can be leveraged to get a person to begrudgingly consider reading something, though. So, perhaps now that I have such a great suggestion available, I can use it to prod some additional people into reading something on the topic. (And, of course, every once in awhile there is that person who's willing to read a little, anyway. And now I have a good book suggestion for her/him.)

Posted on Mar 16, 2009 5:08:12 PM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Mar 16, 2009 5:27:00 PM PDT
Vincent: "evolution hasn't yielded many practical or commercial benefits."

So, let me get this straight. Your gripe is not with the veracity of evolution, or its explanatory power with regard to speciation, but with the relative paucity of practical application that has been derived from it. Interesting tack. But how does this refute the claim that evolution explains it all (referring to all of the scientific observations)? Does all knowledge have to have practical application? If a fact does not have practical application, is it less of a fact?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 17, 2009 6:33:19 AM PDT
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Posted on Apr 2, 2009 10:47:34 AM PDT
Good review! I've just gotten this book and already love it!

Congrats on your escape from the stultifying oppressive misery that is the life long inner mental state of a fundie! Laboring under a childish delusion is no way to waste a life!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2009 6:51:30 PM PDT
Esk says:
First, your mangling of Dobzhansky's quote REVERSES the meaning of what he actually said: "Nothing in biology makes sense EXCEPT in the light of evolution." (You omitted "except", which is hardly unimportant.)

Second, tell me of what "practical or commercial benefits" have been the discovery of black holes, or plate tectonics, or Saturn's rings, or...

Is it of any practical or commercial benefit for you to know who all your second cousins are? Would such [lack of] "benefit" in any way influence who those people are, or the fact that they could be identified? (Now, expand this to all of life, instead of just your second cousins. And, place it into the enormously powerful context of the theory of evolution. By so doing, you gain understanding and predictions that can be tested---such as the fusion of chromosome 2, or the discovery of Tiktaalik, amongst many other things. And, yes, it also predicts some basically useful things about the modern world, not the least of which is drug resistance in diseases. (How can you write of that as if it's trivial and unimportant?!))

Third, your remark that Coyne has supposedly "inadvertently provided an opening for Intelligent Design Theory to make some headway among scientific circles striving to come up with their alternative" betrays an abysmal understanding of how science works, as well as an implicit acceptance of the standard Creationist false dichotomy. In other words, evolution could be proven false tomorrow, and it would not bolster ID one iota. ID must make its own _positive case_, and it has utterly failed to do so.

And, I predict it will never make the slightest bit of headway in doing so either, if for no other reason than that no one in the movement is involved with doing any actual science (focused on ID). Instead, they are in the business of manipulating the public through various media. For example, ID'ers have all-too-often complained that they're being oppressed, can't get funding, etc. This is pure nonsense. The Discovery Institute is backed by millions of dollars in funding, and in their 15 years of existence, they have not conducted a single scientific experiment to test anything about ID. In fact, there are no ID experiments being done anywhere in the world. There aren't even any *plans* to do any experiments! (Massimo Pigliucci has challenged some of the prominent ID'ers to what they would do with the money if he got them a grant of $3 million, and they simply stammered for a moment, and then fell silent, with nothing to say.) And, the *leaders* of the ID movement actually admit that ID isn't really a theory. (So, you're being disingenuous in calling it "Intelligent Design Theory".) The entire movement was directly founded upon "creation science" and a paper called the "Wedge Document". You would do well to read it. It has literally nothing to do with real science, and everything to do with covertly (read: dishonestly) insinuating ideology into everything, and destroying science from the inside.

Posted on Apr 23, 2009 2:05:24 PM PDT
Neil Johnson says:
I join with those who have commended you for writing an excellent review. I come here as a skeptic of the theory of evolution, and I am eager to read a book that truly explains why evolution is true. But I am suspicious that the book does not provide a direct answer to the question.

The problem for me is this. I have never understood how the traditional evidence for evolution, such as you cite in your review, can lead to any conclusion about the mechanism of evolution. The evidence for evolution is the result of whatever mechanism was responsible; it is not a demonstration of the mechanism itself. A claim about the nature of that mechanism has to come from somewhere else.

Does Dr. Coyne describe that "somewhere else"? If so, would you provide a brief summary of what he says?

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 25, 2009 8:26:45 PM PDT
Esk says:
Hi, Neil. Thank-you for the compliment, and sorry for the delay in responding. I haven't been checking back here every day.

I'm not precisely certain what you are getting at, but I think it's something to do with differentiating THAT we evolved from HOW we evolved. (The former is considered a scientific fact; the latter, a scientific theory.)

If so, then there is actually extremely extensive research (and documentation thereof) that has gone into the driving mechanisms of evolution over the past several decades. This includes everything from detailed mathematical models that verify evolution's soundness (including successful application in other disciplines, like engineering and computer science); to many different kinds of natural "forces", such as Motoo Kimura's "neutral theory" (which ties into the molecular clock and genetic drift), sexual selection, natural (and artificial) selection, genetic bottlenecks, and more; to almost everything in genetics, from the details of how genetic recombination works (e.g. insertion, deletion, translocation, inversion) to what's actually contained in different species' genomes.

All of this has been (and continues to be) hashed out in excruciating detail in many labs all over the world. Look-up stickleback fish or the teosinte/corn connection, amongst numerous other things. For example, watch some of the HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) lectures on evolution on YouTube:

Kenneth Miller also gives an excellent lecture on evolution vs intelligent design (more "watchable" than the HHMI lectures, which are drier):

And, a great (and relatively short) simulation of evolution in action on a very simple "digital organism" can be seen here, in real-time (the principles being applied are directly analogous to those for real organisms):
I think it gives a decent, fairly intuitive feel for how evolution works.

If you want to read about specific real examples, here are a few recommendations, all of which can be looked-up on wikipedia by the quoted portions: "nylonase" (which has even been repeated, and genetically sequenced), Richard Lenski's "E. coli long-term evolution experiment", "ring species", and the "Italian Wall Lizard". All of these (and other) examples exist right now, and are perfectly explained by well-understood genetic mechanisms, in conjunction with selection. (That's just a sampling of examples.)

And, when examples such as these are combined with the much more broadly analyzed evidence from other disciplines (geology, paleontology, stratigraphy, biogeography/biodiversity, cladistics, etc.), and they all agree with each other along completely different lines of reasoning, it becomes rather difficult to deny the underlying mechanisms driving the changes (all based upon genetic recombinations).

For example, look-up endogenous retroviruses, as well as pseudogenes, and try to explain the patterns they form in where they appear within different species' genomes. Read about cladistics, which basically seeks to accomplish precisely this task. (Again, all of these can be looked-up on wikipedia.) It turns out that genes form EXACTLY the patterns predicted by common ancestry, resulting in identical ancestral trees from independent gene comparisons between species' genomes. (Look-up HIV on wikipedia, and look at section 7, "Genetic Variability". You'll see a cladogram of HIV/SIV, all the branching of which has occurred in recent history, and which has been carefully tracked.)


To get an idea of how unlikely a common ancestry pattern in genomes is by pure chance, let's consider what we'd expect to find if common ancestry were false. Every organism has parent(s), so we must test the hypothesis that at various points in the past, those parental lineages converge to fewer and fewer sets of ancestral parents, eventually resulting in some "latest common ancestor" for the particular set of species we chose (no matter what set we choose). The "shape" of the ancestral lineages is in the form of a tree (in the sense defined by graph theory). If this hypothetical relationship is true, we should expect to see VERY specific patterns exhibited in the genomes of the species with which we are dealing. If it is NOT true, then we should NOT see those patterns. (For example, if the species are unrelated, then we should not be able to make much sense of their relationships, no matter how hard we try.)

Without getting into the nitty gritty mathematics of it, suffice it to say that if we select only 10 different species' genomes to compare, then even if the common ancestry hypothesis is true, there are roughly 34.5 MILLION different ways in which the species could potentially be related through such an ancestral tree structure. (That's how many different cladograms we can draw to represent their potential relationships. And, the number goes up superexponentially with increasing numbers of species comparisons.) Therefore, not only does the common ancestry hypothesis demand an exacting tree-branching genomic pattern, but it also demands conformance to a single SPECIFIC tree within the set of all possible ancestral trees (since the hypothesis proposes that some single ancestral branching pattern actually occurred).

How do we arrive at such relational trees? By comparing individual genes within the different genomes. If the common ancestry hypothesis is true, then we should expect more closely related species to have fewer differences. Long story, short: this is what some complicated computer algorithms do to generate relational trees between the species. But, what's very important to understand is that EXACTLY THE SAME tree gets generated when different, independent genes within the genomes are analyzed. There is no reason whatsoever that this should be true if common ancestry were false, so this constitutes extremely powerful evidence for it. And, what's more, this holds true for the patterns seen in endogenous retroviruses and pseudogenes within those genomes, too! It also holds for genetic error patterns.

I have heard the "common design, common designer" argument used to try to excuse this away from common ancestry. I find it to be astoundingly unconvincing and feeble. First, it does not adequately explain the superlatively exacting nature of the observed patterns. And second, it simply makes no sense in the case of endogenous retroviruses (or genetic errors), which are not even a proper part of a species' genetic encoding, and which do not serve a purpose for it either. Of course, pseudogenes don't serve a purpose for the organism anymore either, but they're still there, and they, too, conform to the same branching patterns---dead genes for growing teeth in birds, legs and smelling in dolphins, tails and vitamin C synthesis in humans, and innumerable other examples. WHY, if not for common ancestry and ancestral usage of them (now defunct)? Why should we share tail-growing genes with monkeys and apes, or vitamin C synthesis genes with other mammals, or egg yolk genes with reptiles, none of which are used by us, and all of which precisely conform to the predicted common ancestry branching patterns?

Dr. Coyne does touch on some of this stuff in "Why Evolution Is True", but only superficially, because he is covering an enormous amount of evidential ground.

I have not read it myself, but I have heard that a superb book on the genetic evidence for evolution is "Relics of Eden", by Daniel Fairbanks (who is, incidentally, a theist). I believe this is also true of Francis Collins' (also a theist) book "The Language of God". (Another is Sean Carroll's "The Making of the Fittest".)

Why am I harping on the genetics aspect, in particular? Because of your original question regarding mechanisms---all this stuff stems from our understanding of genetics. THAT is the mechanism that provides for individual variability; reproduction supplies the geometric growth rate, which inevitably leads to competition for finite resources; and, "natural selection" is what (probabilistically) determines who wins the competitions.

Posted on Apr 26, 2009 2:09:09 PM PDT
Joseph Izzo says:
Excellent review. I too was a creationist. I had the exact same experience as you. When I finally looked at the ACTUAL evidence for evolution, it bared no resemblance to the BS that creationists were peddling. Great review. I'm definitley buying this book.
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