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Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne

Why Evolution Is True (original 2009; edition 2010)

by Jerry A. Coyne

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895249,862 (4.34)32
Title:Why Evolution Is True
Authors:Jerry A. Coyne
Info:Penguin Books (2010), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 304 pages
Collections:Your library, Read, Read but unowned, Non-fiction
Tags:American, English, Non-fiction

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Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne (2009)


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This is one the best books on evolution that I read and it certainly clarified a number of issues for me. Coyne writes well and provides full explanations in easy to understand language. He has an uncanny ability to anticipate questions: many a times I found myself reading a paragraph and forming questions like "...but what about...?" only to find this same question with its answer a few paragraphs below - sometimes it was unnerving!

Coyne is also an unbiased writer as he will tell you whether or not the evidence exist even for the things that he has developed a preference. For example, although he seems to favour the "good gene" model as an explanation of sexual selection (i.e., females select males who have, in their estimation, good genes) he also says that there are only two studies that support this theory, while many other studies do not.

The book covers the gamut of the evidence in support of evolution: genetic, laboratory studies, the fossil record, vestigial organs, embryology, mathematical models, accurate predictions of the theory, geographic distribution of species, replication of evolutionary outcomes by mixing species that were suspected to form the parents of the new species and finally bad design (i.e., evolutionary left-overs the are not optimal biologically and would not have been there if someone had created that species from scratch, e.g., the descenting human testicle). The evidence is not only overwhelming, but robust. Which raises the question "how could any sane person not accept the theory"? Or "how could there still be controversy as to whether or not it is true?"...more on this momentarily.

The only negative thing I have to say about this book is a statement that Coyne makes twice (probably an oversight). He says that "the theory of evolution" is a fact. But it is not "the theory" that is a fact but rather "evolution". The theory contains more than just facts that prove evolution . It contains explanations about how and why evolution happens and as he says there is still controversy about the relative importance of the mechanisms that bring about evolution.

I would also like to make a semantic point about the discussion on randomness versus non-randomness in evolution by selection. Coyne says that the genetic mutations (both incorrect copies of genes and gene drift) that are necessary to create a genetically variant population and hence enable evolution are random, but natural selection is not. Well, if a population is genetically variant and a random natural phenomenon happens (the example that Coyne provides is rise of the land bridge between north and south America), then which mutations are stuck on which side of the Panama canal is also random and hence their evolution happens because of two random events: a) the geological event and b) the location at which the species with the particular mutations found itself stuck by chance. So it is not clear to me what we mean here by "natural selection" being none-random. Yes, given a distribution of genetic variants and an environment, then natural selection will select the fitter genes. But both the location of the "fitter" genes (being on the east or the west side of the Panama canal) and the geological event are random events - natural selection has to work with what it has it cannot make up things! Furthermore, "fitter" is a relative concept, not an absolute concept. A gene is fitter given what else is in that environment. But what other species got isolated on the west side of Panama canal was also a random event and natural selection may have made a different selection if some of those species did not happen to get isolated by chance. In any case this is not an important issue.

I now come to the issue of Intelligent Design and the resistance to the evolutionary evidence by those who believe in ID. I would classify the ID supporters into two groups: the first group consists of snake-oil salesmen. They sell ID not because they believe in it, but because they profit from doing so. Although these guys are morally despicable and annoying, they are not the real problem since if the activity becomes unprofitable they will simply abandon it and move on to the next con-job. Then we have the second group who really believes in ID. Michael McGuire in his book Believing: The Neuroscience of Fantasies, Fears, and Convictions mentions the case of a woman patient of his who, although rational in other issues, believed that her parents were not her real parents. And she believed this despite of all the evidence provided to her by her parents, grandparents, the hospital and other friends and relatives who were around when she was born! According to McGuire, we form beliefs all the time about everything and the job of our brain is to reduce the distance between evidence and the belief. And if the evidence do not exist, our brain will make it up. But why should our brains make up evidence in support of ID? I would argue that this is so because of the costs and benefits involved. Some people's belief in God is tightly connected to their need to believe in afterlife. And this issue is much more important to them than the belief in evidence-based explanations of the origin of species. As such, these folks' brains will make up whatever they need to maintain their belief in God and hence afterlife.

So, are these folks a lost cause then, similar in nature to people who suffer from schizophrenia? I think so.

Is there a point in trying to argue with them rationally? Trying to convince them that, say, morality is not going to suffer if we believe in evolution and that people who believed in ID from 4,000 BC to about 1945 were severely more morally depraved and brutal to each other then today's atheists or liberal-minded people? I don't think so. It is just a waist of time and energy.

So is there anything we could do? Yes, I think the solution is not to try to convince them of their erroneous beliefs by rational arguments and evidence, but rather to give them a way out so they can believe in ID and evolution at the same time! How is this possible? Well, evolution says nothing about the rise of the first cell organism. Where and How did it come about? So we could point them to a theory that says that God knew exactly what he was doing when he created the conditions that gave rise to the first single-cell organism. This was the "divine spark" that was needed to start evolution! And this is what the Bible means when it talks allegorically about Adam and Eve. The rest took care of itself and God did not really have to be involved in the minutia of evolution since he knew the outcome anyway (let's not forget that he omniscient). This way there is no contradiction between the theory of evolution and God's books, since evolution does not try to explain that part. But, one could argue, this will only push the inevitable conflict into some distant point in the future. It does not solve anything. True, but in the meantime we can go on teaching evolution at schools and not teaching ID...and who knows what will happen after several generations have been brought up in this model.

Finally, evolutionary biologists need to get a bit more critical of evolutionary psychologists who are spoiling the field for them. Coyne talks about them and their "Just so" stories, but we need more of that. These guys should not even be considered as scientists. And perhaps the language needs to improve a bit. Although Coyne explains the randomness and purposelessness of evolution, other than genetic propagation, sometimes he even sounds like natural selection or species adaptations have some kind of intentionality. Even the words "natural selection" imply that "nature" has some kind of purpose or intention. Maybe it is time to leave Darwin's words behind? ( )
  Alex1952 | Sep 8, 2015 |
Evolution is the most beautiful, astonishing and splendid thing to contemplate in all of creation. To me, it is more extraordinary than the workings of the cosmos or the details of the subatomic realm. I consider it a priviledge to have read enough on the topic to finally grasp it. Thanks to the crystal clarity and masterful giving-overness of this book, I feel I am now finally able to successfully debate this topic with anyone who has chosen the devil's advocate position. If challenged, I will keep Darwin's words in mind: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." A thoroughly enriching book.
  MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
WARNING: This book has the potential to make you start thinking like an Evolutionist.

I have read a couple other books on the same subject, but this one takes a deep-dive into the intricacies of various species. The entire book is very readable and there are quite a few 'WOW' moments I had while going through it.

Two chapters - How Sex Drives Evolution and What About Us, are what I found to be the most interesting ones.

3.6 million years ago Lucy stood on her legs and hence today I'm able to write this review. I've read about Lucy before, so it was nice recalling of her. ( )
  nmarun | Mar 11, 2014 |
Pretty good! Not super-condescending, and relatively free of jargon. Coyne has no issue with addressing the problems of evolution, which is something a lot mainstream evolutionists won't do. His thorough attack on evolutionary psychologists in chapter nine is pretty fantastic! ( )
  veranasi | Jan 17, 2014 |
This is a suggested book related to one of my current classes on Coursera, so I decided to pick it up. I already believe in evolution, so I can't judge on whether it's convincing -- I already know that evolution by natural selection is mathematically inevitable, and I know of a lot of the supporting evidence.

Still, this is the kind of book that produces all sorts of titbits that you didn't know before, and which lays things out so clearly it helps you understand how to explain it to other people (which, to my mind, means a deeper understanding of the theory -- if you can explain it, there are fewer grey areas).

Overall, it's clearly written, with lots of supporting diagrams and so on where it's useful, and a good set of footnotes and suggestions for further reading. I found it interesting, too; perhaps not for a person with a science background to begin with, but for me (humanities background, science interest) it was easy but not boringly so.

Interestingly, he also touches a little on why people find it hard to accept evolution, and answers some of those objections, too -- for example, why our behaviour isn't fully dictated by our genes, why morality and ethics aren't dismantled in any way by evolution. ( )
  shanaqui | Jan 10, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
If you see how the reasoning works you’ll understand this isn’t particularly a problem for someone already committed to evolution in its totality. Because we all share a common ancestor, at some point reproduction had to evolve into the sexual realm, and because that has clearly happened, it must offer some kind of genetic advantage even if we don’t know what it is. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like faith in the absence of evidence to me.
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Among the wonders that science has uncovered about the universe in which we dwell, no subject has caused more fascination and fury than evolution.
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Contents: What is evolution -- Written in the rocks -- Remnants: vestiges, embryos, and bad design -- The geography of life -- The engine of evolution -- How sex drives evolution -- The origin of species -- What about us? -- Evolution redux.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670020532, Hardcover)

Why evolution is more than just a theory: it is a fact

In all the current highly publicized debates about creationism and its descendant "intelligent design," there is an element of the controversy that is rarely mentioned-the evidence, the empirical truth of evolution by natural selection. Even Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, while extolling the beauty of evolution and examining case studies, have not focused on the evidence itself. Yet the proof is vast, varied, and magnificent, drawn from many different fields of science. Scientists are observing species splitting into two and are finding more and more fossils capturing change in the past-dinosaurs that have sprouted feathers, fish that have grown limbs.

Why Evolution Is True weaves together the many threads of modern work in genetics, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, and anatomy that demonstrate the "indelible stamp" of the processes first proposed by Darwin. In crisp, lucid prose accessible to a wide audience, Why Evolution Is True dispels common misunderstandings and fears about evolution and clearly confirms that this amazing process of change has been firmly established as a scientific truth.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:02 -0400)

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Presents the many threads of modern work in genetics, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, and anatomy that demonstrate the indelible stamp of the evolutionary processes first proposed by Darwin.

(summary from another edition)

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