This Book should not be Needed

The theory of evolution has huge explanatory and predictive powers and it is also, philosophically, a wonderful one to behold: it shows a unity of all living things and our human connection to them all; through the billions of years and millions of generations, from the first bacteria to the human beings capable of understanding the story of life as it unfolded on this planet, the story told by the evolution theory is an exhilarating one; possibly the greatest story ever told by science.

And yet, 150 years after Darwin, with a literal mountain of evidence for evolution by natural selection, 40% of Americans reject the theory of evolution outright and 20% are unsure and there are attempts to introduce creationism to schools as a valid, scientific, alternative theory.

This book is, clearly, necessary.

Why Evolution Is True summarises the main ideas of the Darwinian theory of evolution: life evolved gradually from common ancestors, new species developed and branched off from older ones, evolution works mostly, but not entirely via the mechanisms of natural selection.

We do not have a single observation that could disprove evolution by natural selection: and we have plenty of evidence that supports it. The main body of the book is remarkably free of ideology; it’s not even an argument with creationism, although many of the creationist arguments get dealt with in the course of the presentation. Most of Why Evolution Is True is devoted to thorough but concise presentation of various strands of evidence for evolution by natural selection.

Coyne covers fossils and their progression (there are no mammals in precambrian rocks), intermediate forms, vestigial features (humans born with the tail and similar) and remnants, embryonic development, geographical distribution including population genetics, evidence from ‘bad design’ (and all the convoluted ways bodies are built because evolution has to use what’s already there) and actual evolutionary adaptation observed in laboratory and real world. He devotes a lot of room to speciation, which is an important area as many proponents of Intelligent Design accept what is called ‘microevolution’ within a species while rejecting the emergence of new ones.

The main gist is in fact remarkably similar (if very much developed in detail) to the evidence of evolution I learned at school twenty-five years ago. What makes Why Evolution Is True an instant classic is Jerry Coyne’s supremely lucid, graceful presentation and the fluency of argument informed by the variety of sources form Darwin himself to the cutting edge of modern research.

Coyne’s delivery is elegant but by no means a dry lecture: passionate and erudite, he maintains just the right balance between academic and accessible. He never talks down to his readers, but explains clearly pretty much anything that goes beyond the very basics of biology.

The concluding chapter deals with the philosophical implications of the evolution theory and reasons for its fiercely contested status, unique among the theories of modern science: nobody has ever seen an electron, but there is no need to write books entitled Why Electrons Are Real.

Coyne makes it clear that there is no necessary progression from accepting evolution theory to atheism and even less so to amoral nihilism. Science is a human way to describe the material world the way it is, not the way it should be. In the words of the current Pope, then cardinal Ratzinger, We cannot say: creation or evolution, inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. […] the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. […] [It] does not invalidate the faith, nor does it corroborate it. But it does challenge the faith to understand itself more profoundly.

This book should not be needed, and yet it seems necessary. It will not persuade the hard-line creationists, because creationism, as Coyne repeatedly (and rightly) states, is a matter of belief, not science. For those who are uncertain, or for whom the support of evolution theory is more a question of general ‘it makes sense’ acceptance, for those looking for arguments to enlighten the unconvinced and argue with the opposition, Jerry Coyne’s book is indispensable.

Highly recommended for all.

Hardback 336 pages
Publisher: OUP January 2009