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Book Review: Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne

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A parable, I think….I have a friend. A good friend. I love him like a brother; but sometimes I just do not understand what motivates him — at least I cannot connect with it on an emotional level. Intellectually, I get it. That’s because it bears out his weakness re: needing to have his intellectual ego stroked. Like me, he is not religious, and does not believe in God (the Christian God nor any others). But, while I am content to let others flail about and try to prove to me that there is such a thing as an all-powerful deity, my friend is not so secure in his reality.

Every time I talk with him on the phone, and ask him what he’s reading, inevitably he will tell me about some new book he’s reading that debunks the notion that Jesus Christ existed or was a divine entity. When I ask him why he wastes so much time doing so, and that this proves that he may not be as secure in his belief systems as he claims (he is a strong atheist, whereas I am an indifferent agnostic, who believes there’s no logical way to prove nor disprove a God concept), his usual reply is that he must brush up on any and all possible attacks on atheism.

I was reminded of my friend’s paranoia and obsession when I read a review copy of Jerry A. Coyne’s book, Why Evolution Is True. Believe me, I have no doubt that evolution is a fact, and not just a theory, as so many theists and religiots claim. Yet, in reading through the briskly paced 233-page book, I could not put aside the notion that, while being a solid book on the subject matter, it was, despite the usual over the top rapturous claims by its blurbists (the usual suspects of science and non-religious import, whose ‘praise’ is perfunctory and done as a show of solidarity), a wholly superfluous book.

Yes, it is a well researched book, but in reading through it, and as a well educated humanist and skeptic, I felt sort of snookered. I mean, there was not a single major idea that the book covered that I had not read of before. Yes, there were a few minor tidbits (mostly recent developments) that were new to my consciousness, but, basically, Coyne’s book is a rehash of ideas and evidence that I have seen in literally dozens of such books I’ve read since my youth.

I mean, is there not a point where such people as Coyne say, ‘Fuck the masses! Let them stew in their ignorance. I’m not gonna dumb down my book for the sake of trying to win over a troglodyte. Instead, I’m going to write a book on science that is not only one that pushes the edges of science and philosophy, but that makes the best use of language not only as a tool to communicate the basics of science, but as a tool to creatively use words to penetrate minds in deeper, subtler, more interesting ways.’

Damn, how I long for that book to be published, rather than solid, serviceable books like this, whose only purpose seems to be in milking the masses of more money for what is, essentially, a repeat. Of course, not all of this is Coyne’s fault. He’s trying to make a buck; that’s understandable. But at what cost to the environment (downed trees for paper) and to science (the sheer redundancy)?

Coyne is simply a very solid writer. In the whole book, there’s not a phrase that stuck with me, nor an event described (scientifically nor anecdotally) that I can recall. In short, he’s no Loren Eiseley. His prose will not seduce and mesmerize. He’s not even a Steven Pinker (who blurbed for him), nor Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Timothy Ferris, Mark Rowlands, etc.

Having stated that, let me list some of the book’s positives (redundant though they may be). It opens on a rather dubious note, with Coyne worrying over a recent Supreme Court decision re: a court case about evolution. Now, even anecdotally, this is the sort of trope that should lead to something of depth. Yet, all it does is sketch how little Coyne (and if he is to be believed, many of his colleagues) has going on in his own existence. But, after such fretting, the book talks about the silly Intelligent Design scam of recent years. He makes a good point about Intelligent Design’s whole premise being based upon perceived flaws in evolution, whereas its own edifice comes crashing down with the realization that any God-like figure would have to not be perfect if his ‘designs went extinct. Extinction, thus, is a great plug for evolution.

He also distinguishes the difference between evolution and natural selection as its motor. Often, these two concepts are conflated by the masses. This is certainly true. But, here’s the problem. Both the points on ID’s flaw and that on conflation of terms have been made before. In fact, both are almost de rigueur in books on evolution. Coyne then makes another good, if unoriginal, point: there is a difference between the definitions of a theory as scientific and non-scientific.

Coyne then launches into a number of proofs for evolution, citing the well-known cases of birds (and whether they gained flight by gliding from trees down or running and leaping), fishes' transition to amphibians, and that of whales from land back to sea animals, ants’ descent from wasps, and snakes’ loss of limbs. Ben there, done that. One then moves beyond the sense of déjà vu and into whether or not the book might have been better served (market-wise) as sort of a ‘best of’ primer for evolution. He then trods on the familiar ground of bad design, atavisms, and vestigial organs to further bolster evolution’s bona fides.

And, if the case for natural selection is not compelling enough, Coyne has another ‘ace’ to pull out of his sleeve. And, if you are about to utter the words ‘sexual selection,’ well, you’ve clearly been paying attention to this review’s theme. To his credit, Coyne is the first evolutionary author to give primacy to sexually selected traits in terms of things like human racial characteristics. After all, wasn’t the idea that the epicanthic folds of Mongoloids arose to act as ‘visors’ for sun glare in the Gobi, or some of the other claims proffered, just silly? But, again, sexual selection has always been the poor cousin to natural selection in the evolutionary arms race. Natural selection means a beast is around and can outsurvive most mortal threats. Sexual selection means that the beast’s DNA can outsurvive most reproductive threats.

Coyne then takes on the straw man that a belief in evolution somehow leads to a lack of morality. Of course, he easily disposes of this as, of course, have all prior writers and books that have tackled the subject.

On a sour note, just as all the prior books whiffed on the unfortunate use of the externally religiously inspired term morality, instead of the internally generated term ethics, so does Coyne. Not once does he, as example, broach why intelligence may have developed vs. any perceived need for that by an Intelligent Designer, nor the subsequent derivation of an ethos from selective pressures (sexual or natural).

The book ends on a good note, pointing out that humans are the only species to have ever figured out their origins. Of course, that we still often deny it is what the book’s raison d’etre is, and my overview does leave out sections on plate tectonics, biogeography, and a few other major tropes. But, as with the others, Coyne is not their virgin champion.

But, none of the book’s blurbists ever mentioned these points. Here’s a sample of the predictable tropes:

Evolution is the foundation of modern biology, and in Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne masterfully explains why. From the vast trove of evidence of evolution scientists have gathered, Coyne has carefully selected some of the most striking examples and explained them with equal parts grace and authority.
  -Carl Zimmer, author of Microcosm: E. Coli And The New Science of Life

That his examples are, as shown, the same ones every evolutionist uses seems not to matter, for Coyne is ‘one of us.’

Its ignorant opponents like to say that the process of evolution by natural selection is "only a theory." (That's how they prove their ignorance.) Jerry Coyne shows with elegance and rigor that it is a hypothesis that meets and withstands all tests, and strengthens itself as a theory thereby. One could almost say that it had the distinct merit of being true.
  -Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great

Not exactly a good blurb, as its solipsism makes one’s head spin. Even worse is this blurb:

I once wrote that anybody who didn't believe in evolution must be stupid, insane or ignorant, and I was then careful to add that ignorance is no crime. I should now update my statement. Anybody who doesn't believe in evolution is stupid, insane, or hasn't read Jerry Coyne. I defy any reasonable person to read this marvellous book and still take seriously the "breathtaking inanity" that is intelligent design "theory" or its country cousin, young earth creationism.

Tell me you are not shocked to know that its byline reads: Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.

Yes, the book’s predictability is thorough, from its interior through its exterior, literally. Again, this is not to say that this is a bad book, and if you’ve never been subjected to the rank idiocy of the Creationists’ fervor, this is as good a book as the dozens (or hundreds) penned the last few decades. But, I just wish that there had been an editor at Penguin, Coyne’s publisher, that would have asked what the point of this book was, since all it contains has been done before, and better. Surely there are claims and theories by scientists in more provocative fields? Surely there are young science writers more in qualitative line with Loren Eiseley than Jerry Coyne?

The problem with publishing today is illustrated by a book like this — a safe, predictable work that adds nothing to the body of science, just as novels published today are safe and predictable, and add nothing to the body of literature. Could not Coyne be doing something, anything, more productive than writing this book? And could not Hitchens and Dawkins, et al. also being do more productive things? I guess not.

So, too, I guess that, just as there will always be people like my pal who will be insecure enough to snap up any book that disproves the historicity of Jesus Christ, there will be fools willing to drop their dough on books that re-prove (not reprove) evolution, in well re-packaged formulae.

Ah, capitalism. Now, wait, there’s an idea for a book or two (thousand).

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