Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True
© 2009 Jerry A. Coyne
282 pages

Evolution is actually one of my favorite science topics to read about. Back in high school, I was a young-earth creationist who wore Kent Hovind tapes out while shaking my head in self-righteous disbelief at the incompetent-when-not-evil Evolutionists. Obviously, things change. My defense of creationism was a defense of my then-identity as a fundamentalist Pentecostal, and when that identity vanished so did my fixed determination to defend Genesis. Once I began to accept the facts of evolution, I found a renewed joy in science: evolution seems to knit the world together("...beyond any untying"*), and it informs my approach to any field of study that involves humanity. It is an immensely enjoyable theory. This year may be called the "Year of Evolution" owing to it being the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Given that, I have read and will most likely read more in the field of evolution this year. (I've read Evolution for Everyone and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin so far).

What this is is a very straightforward accounting of why the theory of evolution is regarded as and used as fact by virtually every biologist save Liberty University's gardening staff. Coyne begins by explaining the six principles (which Coyne untactfully calls tenets: the word has an unfortunate religious or ideological connotation) of evolution, and then makes predictions based on those principles for what we should see in the natural world. The chapters that follow show that we do see these things: separate chapters cover the fossil record, the geographical distribution of life, and the existence of vestigial organs and what would otherwise be bad design. After setting out the evidence, he then spends a few chapters detailing how exactly evolution works, including a look at speciation. The last chapter of the book proper is an examination of human evolution. The book is finally completed with Coyne addressing the question of why evolution is so controversial. He comments that no one lies awake at night pondering the arguments for and against evolution: they like awake at night worrying about social problems. The reason people resist evolution, he says, is because they have some emotional attachment to it not being true. Acceptance of evolution will come not when the fossils and DNA have convinced people, but when they no longer fear it being true. He ends the book on the note of trying to address people's fears about morality and the value of human life and so forth.

This is a very tidy book: Coyne makes his case simply and does not bore the reader with page after page of arguments and examples. I think the ideal reader for this book is someone who doesn't know what the arguments for evolution. If you are looking for a book to serve as reliable ammunition against creationist, I would suggest looking at Eugenie Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism. Coyne's book, however readable and well-done, doesn't have the page after page of examples, arguments, and counter-arguments that thicker books have. The only attack he does make on creationism is the rather oblique look at examples of what would be "bad design" if it were deliberate design This is a definite recommendation to anyone who wants a refresher or introduction to evolution.

Related Reading:
* The quote is from the Star Trek episode "Who Mourns for Adonais", in which Captain Kirk convinces one of his crew to leave the Greek god Apollo and return to the ship. Full quotation:

Give me your hand ... your hand! Now feel that: Human flesh against human flesh. We're the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We're tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference, we're human. We couldn't escape from each other even if we wanted to. That's how you do it, Lieutenant. By remembering who and what you are: a bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. And the only thing that's truly yours is the rest of humanity. That's where our duty lies. Do you understand me?

1 comment:

  1. I picked this up a little while ago after reading a reviwe of it in New Scientist. It's on my 'must read soon' list....