Arvind Balasundaram's Reviews > Why Evolution Is True

Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne
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Jul 06, 2012

it was amazing
Read from June 29 to July 06, 2012

In this deeply passionate account of evolution, scientist Jerry Coyne provides a wonderful and lucid argument for why a spate of mounting evidence, both confirmatory and predictive, lay claims for major tenets of evolution to be no longer tossed around as a "theory" but to be considered as "fact". Coyne begins with outlining the six fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory:
(1) the idea of evolution - a species undergoes genetic change over time
(2)gradualism - substantial evolutionary change takes many generations to produce
(3) speciation - splitting occurs in evolving chains that creates multiple species
(4) common ancestry - we can always look back in time and find descendants joining at their ancestors
(5) the idea of natural selection - the nonrandom, differential reproduction of alleles (particular forms of mutated genes) from one generation to the next, and
(6) processes other than natural selection that can cause evolutionary change, like genetic drift in populations
He then provides evidence from multiple domains - the fossil record, biogeography, embryology, vestigial structures (a feature of a species that was an adaptation in its ancestors, but has lost its usefulness now or been co-opted for some unrelated use, like ostrich wings), atavisms (anomalies that look like the appearance of an ancestral trait, like some babies born with a tail), dead genes (the GLO pseudogene for Vitamin C production completely inactive in the human genome)and poor design (the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for example). All this evidence, argues Coyne, shows conclusively that organisms have evolved.

Throughout this book, the author provides examples of predictions that scientists made about the likely course evolution would take, only to have evidence uncovered many years later that proved them right - notable examples include the discovery of the early land fish Tiktaalik and the discovery of marsupials in Antartica.
The main takeaway here is that the main tenets of Darwinism are continuously being verified with scientific advances in related fields like genetics, molecular embryology, etc. Why then, Coyne asks, is there continued ambiguity about these tenets, though the very same folks accept the existence of electrons and black holes, although these notions are also removed from everyday experience? He makes the argument, rather convincingly, that this is because the "naturalism" of evolution gets erroneously extended to the domain of ethics and morality...that somehow the "selfishness" of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene provided a legitimacy to all selfish behaviors, which is misplaced. In the last chapter, Coyne makes his case of why it is important to separate the purposeless, materialistic way in which evolution operates from the notion that our lives have no purpose. Religious or secular thought, he argues, can assist in framing our purposes, meaning and morality.

This book is a must-read. Most importantly, it reinvigorates in the reader the wonder of the universe and its myriad processes, and provides a brilliant and systematic account of how the scientific endeavor has helped us make empirical sense of it..
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