"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book Review: Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne (2009, Viking)

Who actually understands it?

That’s the question I’ve often heard myself asking when I encounter the “debate” between evolution and creation. Whether you agree with evolution or not, first do this: Explain evolution’s core concepts—clearly and accurately. (Hint: natural selection better be one of the first things you address.)

I doubt most can (including me). So I wasn’t surprised when—in the pursuit of changing that situation for myself—I read this in Professor Jerry Coyne’s new book, Why Evolution is True: “most of my university students, who supposedly learned evolution in high school, come to my courses knowing almost nothing of this central organizing theory of biology.” And at the University of Chicago no less. Tsk-tsk.

Why Evolution is True, released 150 years after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, sets out to explain to the general reader the validity of evolution. Certainly not the first of its kind, the book emerges, as Coyne explains early on, from a sense of urgency. Coyne, who teaches in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, sees the battle for evolution as “part of a wider war, a war between rationality and superstition.” “What is at stake,” he writes, “is nothing less than science itself and all the benefits it offers society.”

Though it's true that the seemingly indefatigable and protean anti-evolution movement shows new life with its artful renaming of the beleaguered "creation science" phrase—it's now  called "intelligent design"—Coyne explains that the real blame for public ignorance of evolution is simply “a lack of information.” Public schools fail to teach the facts of evolution effectively; same goes for the popular media, who, as Coyne suggests, present “almost no background on why scientists accept evolution.” And Coyne goes so far as to admit this: “Even many of my fellow biologists are unacquainted with the many lines of evidence for evolution[.]” Huh?

In Why Evolution Is True, Coyne ambitiously fills 230 pages with cogent, accessible examples to demonstrate why Charles Darwin’s foundational theories of evolution a century and a half ago now securely rest in the realm of fact. Coyne describes evidence in disciplines as diverse as biogeography, population genetics, embryology, and paleontology. He also underscores how notions of conscious (i.e., "intelligent") design fail miserably when considering the evidence.

Take suboptimal design as evidenced in vestigial remnants like the wing nubs on the kiwi bird or eyes on the blind mole rat. Even more captivating are atavistic phenomena such as the occasional whale born with a leg or a baby born with a coccygeal projection, otherwise known as a tail—yes, a tail.

But to pick out isolated examples such as these is to be unfaithful to the spirit and strength of Coyne’s book. So I’ll stop. That’s why the body of evidence he explores ranges so widely in its scope—it’s the staggering nexus of corroborating facts that is so compelling. “Today,” Coyne writes, “scientists have as much confidence in Darwinism as they do in the existence of atoms, or in microorganisms as the cause of infectious disease.” But no one is writing a book called Why the Notion that Microorganisms Cause Infectious Disease is True. And why is that? Because no one is arguing against it. 

But for a misguided and sizable sector of the population, evolution isn't just invalid; the idea carries with it supposedly disturbing implications. But if we hold the pursuit of knowledge and truth as paramount, ostensibly threatening ramifications of accepting evolution should not, cannot thwart the sheer immensity of the facts.

We can, however, look to history to see when a powerful organization attempted to give science a thorough drubbing, and thankfully failed in the end.

Galileo, after years of calculations, study, and telescopic observation of heavenly bodies, concluded that, indeed, as the Polish astrononmer Copernicus had posited in the century prior, the earth revolves around the sun. Yet the Papacy in 1633, though unable to provide a rational argument against a heliocentric cosmos, ordered Galileo to stand trial for advocacy of this heretical idea. That the sun remained fixed while the earth revolved around it not only ran counter to the well-established Aristotelian notion of geocentrism (the earth is the center of the cosmos); it also was seen to differ with several passages from the Bible. In essence then, Galileo was subscribing to an idea that contradicted the foundational philosophical and theological ideas about the place of the earth—and humans—in the cosmos.

Luckily for Coyne, scientists do not have to live out their lives under house arrest as Galileo did. But for those like Coyne, who seek to bridge the perplexing chasm between scientific evidence and the way evolution is popularly (mis)understood, the Am-I-banging-my-head-against-a-wall? feeling must take its toll.

“Evolution,” Coyne concludes, “is neither moral nor immoral. It just is, and we make of it what we will.” And yet he writes with the sensitivity to acknowledge, “many people require more than just evidence before they’ll accept evolution. To these folks, evolution raises such profound questions of purpose, morality, and meaning that they just can’t accept it no matter how much evidence they see.” And he admits that if their concerns are not addressed, “we won’t progress in making evolution a universally acknowledged truth.”

Will a reading of Why Evolution is True render a better understanding of what could be called the single most important concept in the history of science? Absolutely. Will you emerge depraved and immoral or plagued with paralyzing ennui? Well, that's another question. Let me depart from the patience Coyne demonstrates in his book to suggest this: You already know the answer to that.


Ian said...

Babies with tails...I'm sold. It's going on the to-read list.

Hey - check this out - I thought of you, with the rural fiction -
I haven't read it yet, but looks promising.

Jay said...

Going a step further and reading Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth--also out this year on same topic.

Thanks. I'll check that out. Rural fiction? Makes me think of Minnesota writer Will Weaver's great collection: A Gravestone Made of Wheat and Other Stories.

Anonymous said...

Does Coyne refer to Gregor Mendal at all? He was a Catholic priest - who is credited with discovering genetics. His work (and a few others)combined with Darwin's forms our modern understanding or evolution.

Now I shall play the Indigo Girls "Galileo".

Did you know the Vactican (under JPII) gave Galileo a formal pardon?


J. Douglas said...

One quick note regarding Mendel. Darwin and Mendel were contemporaries, though Darwin never had Mendelian genetics as part of his intellectual world. Of course, as you're alluding to, the idea of a gene pool is central to the Neo-Darwinian notion of evolution.

Anonymous said...

That's great about the pardon. You can always count on the Vatican.

Larry said...

I believe in evolution and also God. The morning risings of the sun this week is proof enough for me.

Anonymous said...

Some you know might say YOU are proof enough, Larry.

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