“Why Evolution Is True” by Jerry Coyne

Introduction

Since ancient times, people who were close to nature and observed its phenomena with sheer curiosity have marveled at its abundance. Indeed, one may only be in awe at the vast number of species that existed or exist on Earth, each of which seems to boast a perfect design and adaptability to its living conditions. Author of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin was a revolutionary trailblazer in the scientific milieu of the 19th century.

However, even in this day and age, his theory has yet to be set in stone and universally accepted since many people oppose the very idea of evolution. Some people, on the other hand, generally agree but cannot argue their case due to the poor understanding. With his 2010 book Why Evolution Is True Jerry Coyne made a bold attempt to put together all essential facts about evolution and make the concept understandable for general audiences. In this essay, I will share my thoughts and insights into the said book as I reflect on the contents of each chapter.

What Is Evolution?

Coyne opens the first chapter by quoting Monod and highlighting the fact that despite its prevalence in modern schools, evolution stays a nebulous concept to many people, even to those who claim to understand it. Further, the author provides two very similar reflections on the nature of life – one by natural theologian Paley and another one by Charles Darwin. Both men are amazed at the perfection of every living creature that survives and thrives (Coyne, 2010, p. 20).

I should note that right from the start, Coyne goes about the topic of religion with caution and respect, emphasizing that both scientists and theologists sought to find answers to the same questions. Darwin’s two main concepts are given: evolution and natural selection with the latter often being overlooked even though these phenomena are interconnected.

What also stands out to me in this part of the book is how eloquently and concisely Coyne manages to describe evolution in one long sentence. This sentence contains six most essential concepts of the theory of evolution: evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and non-selective mechanisms of evolutionary change (Coyne, 2010, p. 22). Coyne explains in detail each of the enlisted concepts, gives examples, and thus, lays an excellent foundation for a deepened understanding of this complex topic. I would say that the first chapter may serve as a dictionary to which a reader can refer at all times.

Rocks and Fossils

The second chapter has the potential to be truly eye-opening for a reader since it deals with substantial evidence that makes a strong case for evolution. Coyne addresses fossil evidence for common descent and later demonstrates the general trend of simpler organisms preceding more complex ones. What a reader may find especially useful is Coyne’s comprehensive summary of the process of fossilization and radioisotope dating methods.

I am under the impression that many people find it hard to accept scientific facts because they lack the very understanding as to how these facts were established. For instance, religious people may agree that dinosaurs existed but will argue that their extinction was much more recent. However, with Coyne’s thoughtful introduction to relevant methods, the problem might be solved.

Suboptimal Design

For me, the third chapter was the one that raised the most doubts. It is true that the theory of intelligent design and the theory of evolution approach the issue of suboptimal design differently. For instance, the ways they interpret the full or partial loss of an animal trait’s function are dissimilar. The adherents of intelligent design often employ the “god-of-the-gaps” fallacy; in other words, if a phenomenon cannot be explained by evolution, then it must have been caused by God’s will.

Instead of avoiding this dubious logic, Coyne seems to be turning the argument upside down. He claims that if the theory of intelligent design cannot provide a feasible explanation for some seemingly useless trait, then it was meant to be evolutionary. On a larger scale, it says that the author makes the theory of intelligent design falsifiable whereas the majority of Darwinists oppose it on the premise that it is indeed unfalsifiable and thus, unscientific.

I found it especially crucial to pay attention to the examples provided, for Coyne might have as well saved his case. The first example the author gives is ostrich’s wings that are not used in the way other birds use their wings (Coyne, 2010, p. 91). I would argue that a gain of a function as opposed to a loss of a function would serve as a much better illustration of the theory. Furthermore, Coyne seems to be using the “viral” denominator “dead genes” very liberally, claiming that they are present in the DNA but are of no particular use. However, recent research revealed that some pseudogenes regulate the activity of other genes that code for proteins (Pink & Carter, 2013). Again, the examples are obvious, the logic is easy to follow, but they might as well tumble down if an inquisitive reader digs a little deeper.

The Geography of Life

The chapter on the geography of life is truly enthralling. Coyne starts its narration from Darwin’s journeys of discovery when the scientist observed the biodiversity and made a conclusion about the origins of species and their migration. Coyne claims that the argument of biogeography is so compelling that even most adamant creationists cannot refute it. Indeed, when discussing the geographical evidence of evolution, the author operates impeccable logic and manages to explain this complex topic. Common ancestry accounts for shared features; however, speciation makes them different and diverse. In turn, natural selection helps them adapt to environmental conditions (Coyne, 2010, p. 122). Lastly, all three phenomena working together constitute what is called convergent evolution.

Even though the chapter is well-written and grounded in factual data, it appears to me that it might be of little to no use in opposing creationists. Coyne acknowledges their aspirations in explaining biodiversity and provides an example of the story of Noah’s Ark and the theory of “local creation.” The latter makes clear why different species often inhabit similar environments – God created species locally and not all at once, for it’s His will. The said argument may be applied to all the challenging occurrences that evolution explained or strives to explain. Thus, these strivings might be futile against the firm belief in the all-mighty God that indeed, according to the Bible, could create and distribute species in whichever way he liked.

The Engine of Evolution

In “The Engine of Evolution,” Coyne covers the part of Darwin’s theory that many people fail to interpret correctly. He deals with natural selection or how some put it, survival of the fittest where the organisms with the best capacities to adapt and overcome are left alive. The said idea itself seems if not simple then at least understandable. However, what boggles many people is that evolutionary biologists claim that this process includes “no will, no conscious striving” (Coyne, 2010, p. 146). The opponents would like to think that the perfection of each species can only be explained by intelligent design. Coyne shows how despite having nothing to do with purposeful creation, natural selection is not precisely chaotic but can be explained through three main concepts – variables, heritability, and mutations.

After reading this chapter, I seem to have made a meaningful conclusion. The presence of the “Grand Designer” behind everything in nature might be reasonably soothing. On the other hand, when dealing with semi-accidents which many mutations are, scientists and researchers face uncertainty. However, humans cannot truly investigate the mechanisms of intelligent design, for many religions claim that God has all the knowledge, not mere mortals. Nevertheless, with the scientific understanding of natural selection, it is possible to make predictions as to how particular traits may evolve. This information may be of great help when attempting to foresee natural disasters or prevent diseases.

Sex and Evolution

In the sixth chapter of his book, Coyne again endeavors to give an explanation to a phenomenon that is barely made intelligible within the theory of creationism or intelligent design. As years of research have shown, in many species, the males do not only look different but also possess traits that make them vulnerable for predators and decrease their survivability in general. Again, Coyne gives a very clear example – the male peacock that boasts a rich plumage as opposed to the plain-looking female (2010, p. 171).

I should note that the author never fails to choose examples that a reader can understand; it is something familiar at which they are encouraged to look through the lens of evolution. Indeed, through his narration, Coyne makes one marvel at the fact that male competitiveness as the foundation for sexual selection prevails over reason and viability.

Nevertheless, I would like to point out two potential issues in this chapter. At times, it appears to me as if when opposing creationists, Coyne resorts to employing the strawman fallacy. In other words, refuting an argument that has not been given by the proponent in the first place. For instance, the author ponders how Creator presumably would not let traits that are life-threatening but attractive for reproduction exist (Coyne, 2010, p. 177).

However, Coyne never refers to any statements made by creationists, nor does he mention any particular religion. Furthermore, to me, he is not convincing enough in shedding light on how sexual reproduction is a product of evolution. The chapter would probably be complete if he explained how sexual reproduction arose initially and proved superior to asexual reproduction.

The Origin of Species

In this chapter named after Charles Darwin’s famous work, Coyne debunks one of the most prevalent misconceptions about evolution. From my experience, I can attest that when talking about evolution, poorly informed people like to point out that if this phenomenon is true, why the existing species do not further evolve. In general, the biodiversity where a wide range of organisms from the simplest to the most complex are presented seems to be very confusing to them. I must admit, however, that not only people who are not related to evolutionary biology but also researchers in this field have often been taken aback by one seemingly intractable disparity. It is true that evolution is a continuous process; however, the existence of separate species compromises this continuity. In the seventh chapter, Coyne succeeds in overcoming this conundrum.

Coyne introduces the notions of divergent mutations and reproductive barriers. Indeed, one should not forget about such a component of the theory of evolution as natural selection. It explains greatly how one species becomes two and more through the mechanisms of adaptation to environmental conditions. As a result, their genes become incompatible and prevent the new species from interbreeding. What I find outstanding in Coyne’s reasoning about speciation is that he firmly states that the emergence of a new species is an evolutionary accident, be it due to geographical isolation or other factors (2010, p. 201).

By stating this, he beautifully shatters the very foundation of intelligent design, for the definition of design is purposeful creation. Designing a creature must respond to a specific need in nature; however, nature itself does not need any more diversity – it is self-sufficient and self-reliant. On the contrary, new species arise out of the need to survive on the planet Earth.

Evolution and Us

The origins of the humankind have puzzled many great minds in the history of science. It is now established that humans descended from apes, and the chimpanzee is a human’s closest “relatives.” This idea is still stirring a great deal of debate like it used to back in the 18th and 19th centuries when great minds like Linnaeus and Darwin laid the foundation for the theory of evolution. I find that the part of the theory that deals with the humankind is the most difficult to digest for those who believe in alternative theories or are undecided.

This reluctance is understandable: whereas it is relatively easy to imagine how amphibians originated from fish and birds from reptiles, one may resist the idea that humans are not special in this regard. Be it because of the human ego or religious convictions, many people would like to be God’s best creation put above the animal world. After all, the Bible states that animals serve the human whereas as it was already discussed, nature creates no such need.

Coyne’s approach to the “unattractiveness” of such an idea is very thoughtful and level-headed. The theory of evolution should not diminish the complexity of human beings, for such differences between the human and other apes as a larger and much more greatly developed brain are hard to dismiss. Coyne claims that the origins of the humankind should bring one to thinking about the interconnectivity of everything in nature (2010, p. 220). If anything, one may only marvel at the grandeur of the evolutionary process and not feel denigrated by it.

Further, Coyne also gives a clear explanation to one of the conundrums that may hinder some people from embracing the concept of evolution. It is known that there might be a “missing link” between the humans and their closest relatives among apes. The opponents of the theory of evolution may exploit this gap to chime in and argue that humans were created separately. However, as I covered previously in this essay, evolution is not exactly a continuous process, and looking for one single less sophisticated but extremely closely related ancestor might be pointless. Humans existed at the same time with many other similar species, and there might even be a possibility that at some point, Homo Sapiens’ more developed relative was present since evolution does not take only one, straightforward direction.

Evolution Redux

In the last chapter, Coyne discusses why the opponents of the theory of evolution are so adamant in their disbelief and what ulterior motives might be hidden behind their behavior. Once again, I must confess that I am amazed by the fact that Coyne does not bash those who oppose the theory (or rather, a fact) that he defends with such passion. On the contrary, he has a light touch and a mind that strives to see the meaning behind hatred and ignorance.

After years of discussions and observations, he makes a conclusion with which I wholeheartedly agree. Coyne claims that the theory of evolution gives rise to deep existential fear (2010, p. 254). To some, the pure materialist, biological explanation for the fascinating biodiversity and the no less fascinating emergence of the humankind negates morality and the higher purpose. If the human is nothing more than another animal although remarkably evolved, the question arises as to how one should behave and treat others. However, the question of morality is beyond the scope of evolutionary biology, and the latter does not denigrate humans to animals obedient to their instincts in the slightest.

I would like to add another reason to those that are already mentioned by Coyne. It seems to me that as much as religious convictions and fears predispose people to prefer the theory of intelligent design, what solidifies their beliefs is the environment they are in. One study on the rejection of the theory of evolution showed that social networks moderate individual views (Hill, 2014). By this logic, if a person with religious leanings finds themselves in a congenial milieu, the latter will contribute greatly to belief formation.

Conclusion

Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True boasts logic and clarity, and for me, reading this book was an equally pleasant and enriching experience. Even though throughout this essay, I have made some critical remarks, what I thought was missing in the first chapters appeared later in the book. Now I am convinced that Coyne makes an unassailable case, and Why Evolution Is True deserves to be a handbook of every person who is interested in evolutionary biology and modern science in general. The book has an outstanding structure and concisely covers the material that would be enough for an entire book series.

Coyne has a clear understanding as to which parts of the theory of evolution may appear the most confusing or polarizing and explains them thoughtfully, with understandable examples. Another inarguable advantage is his peaceful attitude towards his opponents. Coyne abstains from calling them names or directly exposing the inconsistencies in their convictions. As it turns out the author does not only have a deep understanding of evolution but a deep understanding of humans and their hopes and fears as well.

References

Coyne, J. (2010). Why evolution is true. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Hill, J. P. (2014). Rejecting evolution: The role of religion, education, and social networks. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 54(3), 575-594.

Pink, R. C., & Carter, D. R. F. (2013). Pseudogenes as regulators of biological function. Essays in Biochemistry, 54, 103-112.