Earlier this year, as I was browsing the science section of a local library that I regularly frequent, I came across a book called Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne, who I now know, after doing some research online, is an American biologist who’s known for his work on speciation and his commentary on intelligent design. The book is no longer hot off the press, but it’s certainly still relevant.
Personally, I obviously don’t need convincing that evolution is a reality, as opposed to something fictitious or hypothetical that was conceived on a whim; nor am I in the dark about the science of evolution. I decided to rent the book nonetheless though, as I thought it might prove to be an enjoyable read. As I got into the material, I realised that it was pretty good and something I could sincerely recommend to others, in particular people who are either on the fence about the whole evolution thing or who have come to reject the concept altogether.
Is a defense of Darwinian evolutionary theory really still needed?
Darwin‘s big idea not only comes across as sensible, logical, and intuitively appealing, but it’s also supported by a wealth of scientific data, ranging from fossil findings to genetic research to morphological analyses and comparisons. This is not to say that we know everything there is to know about the particulars of evolution or that our present idea of the evolutionary process is set in stone, fixed forevermore regardless of what new information may come to light; however, certain things have been firmly established as a result of decades-long intensive and comprehensive research.
It’s those things that Jerry A. Coyne brings up in his book, which doesn’t hide what it is. You don’t have to read more than a few sentences to understand that Coyne is a champion of Darwinian evolutionary theory and that the book is intended as a defense of such theory. To the convinced Darwinian, such a defense may come across as being redundant; however, as one ventures into the public sphere, it quickly becomes clear that it’s still needed.
Even now, more than a century and a half since it was first presented to the world in On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s theory is still subject to attack. The vast majority of scientists have by now embraced the fundamental tenets of Darwinism; however, among the general public, a different picture presents itself, particularly in areas of the world that are heavy on religious dogma. In such places, a lot of people don’t see eye to eye with Charles Darwin – or other evolutionary thinkers for that matter.
As Coyne notes, this is a large part of the reason why he feels a book such as his one is called for. You don’t have to be a creationist or in the dark about evolutionary phenomena to get something out of the book though. Even if you’re fairly well-versed in evolutionary science, you may still find the book intriguing, and perhaps learn a thing or two. At the very least, it’ll brush up your knowledge.
A selection of quotes that embody the main message the book is intended to deliver
I don’t fully endorse the way Coyne presents every single matter he touches on in the book; however, I think he’s spot on most of the time, and I very much support the main message that he’s trying to get across. As I was reading the book, I took note of certain statements that stood out to me, some of which I’ve recited below, so as to give you an idea of what this literary work is about and what the author is trying to convey…
Early on, Coyne underscores the scientific credence of Darwinism with the following statement:
While biologists have revealed many phenomena that Darwin never imagined—how to discern evolutionary relationships from DNA sequences, for one thing—the theory presented in The Origin of Species has, in the main, held up steadfastly. Today scientists have as much confidence in Darwinism as they do in the existence of atoms, or in microorganisms as the cause of infectious disease.
Clarifying what he means when he uses the term “Darwinism”, Coyne notes the following…
The modern theory of evolution is still called “Darwinism,” despite having gone well beyond what Darwin first proposed (he knew nothing, for example, about DNA or mutations). This kind of eponymy is unusual in science: we don’t call classical physics “Newtonism” or relativity “Einsteinism.” Yet Darwin was so correct, and accomplished so much in The Origin, that for many people evolutionary biology has become synonymous with his name.
Moving on further into chapter 1, Coyne points out that natural selection is forced to operate on what it’s already got, as opposed to creating something from scratch, and that it’s such a constrained MO that would yield the organismal structures that we see in nature, not the one that would be expected of an intelligent designer. In other words, he argues that the nature of nature speaks to Darwinian, not intelligent, design.
Evolution is like an architect who cannot design a building from scratch, but must build every new structure by adapting a preexisting building, keeping the structure habitable all the while, This leads to some compromises. We men, for example, would be better off if our testes formed directly outside the body, where the cooler temperature is better for sperm.The testes, however, begin development in the abdomen. When the fetus is six or seven months old, they migrate down into the scrotum through two channels called the inguinal canals, removing them from the damaging heat of the rest of the body. Those canals leave weak spots in the body wall that make men prone to inguinal hernias. These hernias are bad: they can obstruct the intestine, and sometimes caused death in the years before surgery. No intelligent designer would have given us this tortuous testicular journey. We’re stuck with it because we inherited our developmental program for making testes from fishlike ancestors, whose gonads developed, and remained, completely within the abdomen. We begin development with fishlike internal testes, and our testicular descent evolved later, as a clumsy add-on.
Much later on, he continues to rebut the idea that nature was created in its present form by an all-powerful deity by drawing attention to the non-scientific nature of such a concept:
Since ID [Intelligent Design] itself makes no testable scientific claims, but offers only half-baked criticisms of Darwinism, its credibility slowly melts away with each advance in our understanding. Further, ID’s own explanation for complex features—the whim of a supernatural designer—can explain any conceivable observation about nature. It may even have been the creator’s whim to make life look as though it evolved (apparently many creationists believe this, though few admit it). But if you can’t think of an observation that could disprove a theory, that theory simply isn’t scientific.
As we get closer to the end of the book, Coyne repeatedly emphasises that it’s a fact, not a guess or hypothesis, that we are descended from other creatures, and that such a view is enthralling, not grim or demeaning. The following two paragraphs nicely embody this concept…
Since Dart’s time, paleoanthropologists, geneticists, and molecular biologists have used fossils and DNA sequences to establish our place in the tree of evolution. We are apes descended from other apes, and our closest cousin is the chimpanzee, whose ancestors diverged from our own several million years ago in Africa. These are indisputable facts. And rather than diminishing our humanity, they should produce satisfaction and wonder, for they connect us to all organisms, the living and the dead.
Every fossil that we find, every DNA molecule that we sequence, every organ system that we dissect supports the idea that species evolved from common ancestors. Despite innumerable possible observations that could prove evolution untrue, we don’t have a single one. We don’t find mammals in Precambrian rocks, humans in the same layers as dinosaurs, or any other fossils out of evolutionary order. DNA sequencing supports the evolutionary relationships of species originally deduced from the fossil record. And, as natural selection predicts, we find no species with adaptations that benefit only a different species. We do find dead genes and vestigial organs, incomprehensible under the idea of special creation. Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right. That is as close as we can get to a scientific truth.
Finally, before wrapping up, Coyne clarifies what he means when he says that “evolution is true” and also talks a bit about the state and splendor of science…
Now, when we say that “evolution is true,” what we mean is that the major tenets of Darwinism have been verified. Organisms evolved, they did so gradually, lineages split into different species from common ancestors, 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.
There is no dissent among serious biologists about the major claims of evolutionary theory—only about the details of how evolution occurred, and about the relative roles of various evolutionary mechanisms. 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.
Now, science cannot completely exclude the possibility of supernatural explanation. It is possible— though very unlikely—that our whole world is controlled by elves. But supernatural explanations like these are simply never needed: we manage to understand the natural world just fine using reason and materialism. Furthermore, supernatural explanations always mean the end of inquiry: that’s the way God wants it, end of story. Science, on the other hand, is never satisfied: our studies of the universe will continue until humans go extinct.
The major tenets of Darwinism have yet to be accepted and embraced by a large part of the human population, despite being logically and scientifically entrancing. One of the main reasons why this is the case is that a lot of people have never been beholden to the beauty, coherence, and scientific conformity of Darwinian evolutionary theory. In Why Evolution Is True, biologist Jerry A. Coyne does a good job of drawing attention to these impressive features of Darwinism. It’s well worth a read, particularly if you’re on the fence about the whole evolution thing.