Book review: Why Evolution is True, by Jerry Coyne

by alteleki

ImageThe book recounts the modern view of the evolutionary theory in its two flavours: the mechanisms for evolution, and the historical recounts of the diversity of light, that is the specific examples that show the relation between species, ranging from bacteria to humans. The book focuses in convincing the reader that the evidence for evolution is strong and non-ambiguous (point that in my opinion he achieves successfully). These examples are frequently contrasted with creationist and/or intelligent design (C/ID) claims that intend to disprove evolution. Dr. Coyne limits his arguments to concrete and down evidence and when a speciffic problem turns out to be of speculative nature he points it out explicitly, together with the possible solutions to the particular issue.

There is a marked emphasis in that although evolution deals with historical reconstruction, the theory give clear cut predictions that are and have been verified, and how these predictions would be easily “violated” if C/ID “hypotheses” were plausible. This is a very strong point, since as the author admits, his goal is to convince the reader that evolution is not “just a theory”. The text is full with recounts of prediction that were made, sometimes by Darwin himself, and how these were verified. Coyne uses this sensitive method to highlight the scientific status of the evolutionary theory. At the same time he shows -between lines- why if we were to consider C/ID as a hypothesis, then the observed patterns about the diversity of life and the relationships among species would be inconsistent with what we would expect following the dogma.

In this sense, as the context of the word “theory” is on purpose miss-interpreted by C/IDers, he intentionally abuses of the term in the tile: “evolution is true” (my emphasis). As Steven Pinker writes in the back-cover “Scientists don’t use the word ‘true’ lightly”. For which I add that if “evolution is just a theory”, then Coyne surely proves it true with this book.

The organization of the book is excellent. It builds up with plenty of exciting examples from the fossil record, then he moves to the relationships among species as indicated by traits. But he achieves two levels of information. Not only he provides this anecdotal information, but at same time he accustoms the reader with the methodological way of thinking that he uses in the rest of the book. Then he discusses and reviews evolutionary evidence from the geographical distribution of species and how the interdisciplinary science is at work, for example when he shows that the organization of the species actually “correlates” with geological processes. Then having convinced the reader with plenty of evidence about the veracity of the evolutionary process, he proceeds to the major task of explaining the actual mechanisms of evolutionary change. This is achieved in a surprisingly intuitive and entertaining way.

The last chapters become somewhat emotional to the reader when Coyne recounts the evolution of humans. This is presented in a very simple way, given that our current knowledge about the subject is somehow disorganized (which he also discusses). At this point, the writing is more anecdotal about the history of the human lineage, because actually little is known about the evolutionary causes. Nevertheless stressing out that although we do not know exactly what promoted an evolutionary change leading to humans, it is clear that it actually happend by gradual evolution. In this chapter, the C/ID is barely touched. But this is actually good, since at this point of the book, the reader should be quite well trained in the scientific logic that he has been using in the preceding chapters, and gives a sense of independence and maturity from the side of the reader which feels capable of understanding and even building the arguments by themselves.

Finally and the moral and ethical sides of having a conviction of evolution is discussed. This is an excellent ending, because it separates very well that evolution is a science and not a dogma, and that the fact that there are explanations about how we got here, has little to do with the fact that we have moral systems.

The reading flows very well, is amusing, and well documented. The figures are very entertaining and tender, although not always necessary or informative, and in that sense a bit inconsistent. For the unfamiliar readers, the book contains a glossary that might be of great use (although there is no hint which terms appear there, making it tedious to check it often). The book is well complemented with footnotes of varying informative content, from anecdotal to scientific, which also include web references to documents, images, and youtube videos that complement the reading with a more direct experience of the subjects being read about. The work cites key references for the curious reader, which are certainly of accurate scientific value, in two organizing tastes: further reading (books, articles an web addresses) intended for general reading of the distinct subjects covered in the book, and cited references (organized by chapter) to back up his claims and arguments.

The tone of the book, not because its recurrent references to C. Darwin’s Origin of Species, but rather the magniloquent praises to the seminal author, sometimes gives an uncomfortable prophetic feeling. Not that it is not founded, or that Darwin deserves less! But on the other hand, since these are scientific predictions, it balances the arrogant and omnipotent “predictions” of the C/ID thesis. Thus from this perspective, the exacerbated admiration can be an enjoyable curiosity. Nevertheless, it could confuse the general audience giving the taste that Darwinism is a dogma where the proponent is necessarily right. Although there are some examples where the author indeed states that in occasions Darwin has been mistaken or has made a wrong prediction, etc. alleviating any religious stress, which in the final discussion on morality and ethics this feeling is released, and left with a good “spiritual” feeling.

In general I would recommend this book for two main reasons. It achieves giving a very good comprehensive understanding of evolution (as history and as a process) which is great as both, an introduction for the general reader that knows little about evolution, and in outlining and clarifying the issues that the C/IDers raise against evolution This is achieved but without making any stringent or tiring debate on the subject. The last I consider the best strategy against the C/IDers theses, since it simply points out that it is wrong, without any emotional charge that might give it importance or scientific seriousness.

Check out the site of the book, and Jerry Coyne’s blog: