Book Review – Why Evolution Is True

Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne

Reviewed by Stephen Brown

This is a fascinating book – for either a student of evolution or for anyone with only a passing interest in the subject.  But there is yet another category – those people who rail against the increase of creationism and have sought to counter superstition with reason but felt – as non-scientists – ill equipped to do so.

As a young child I remember asking my father – though I can’t recall what prompted the question – if animals were still evolving. His answer was “No”. This troubled me. Deep down I knew this to be wrong but not of major significance. As I thought then. I filed it away for decades til the thought resurfaced recently and spurned a whole new raft of enquiry which I have started to explore and this book provides an excellent summary of the evidence for evolution and makes it absolutely clear that evolution is a scientific fact. Some might argue the finer points of the mechanism of evolution but evolution itself is a fact. A fact no serious scientist doubts.

In the Preface to the book Coyne makes his motivation for the book clear giving a brief summary of and commenting on the importance of The Dover Court Case of 2005 because it is illustrative of the wider challenge to evolution and science as a whole by people with a creationist and anti-scientific agenda. The case pitted pro-evolutionist scientists vs creationists who were trying to force the teaching of intelligent design (ID) – a religious belief system packaged as an alternative scientific theory to evolution – into school class rooms. The case was a rout and in his judgement in favour of evolution Judge Jones accused those promoting creationism as a science of

“breathtaking inanity”

and stating that ID was nothing more than recycled creationism that:

“presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory”

Whilst the case was heavily one-sided Coyne is clear that it was symptomatic of an orchestrated attempt to undermine evolution as a science in favour of a faith based alternative. The battle lines have been drawn and in his book Coyne takes up this challenge with eloquence.

In the Introduction to his book Coyne quotes Michael Shermer and sets the scene for the opening gambit of the book:

“Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”

So the story of evolution has become almost as interesting as the theory of evolution itself. Coyne deftly covers both aspects of the story. He questions ‘why is evolution even a debate’? Why are books written presenting the evidence for it needed?  Do we question the existence of atoms? Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity? Of course not. Once again Coyne takes up the challenge and examines the psychology of why people find evolution threatening and provides a reasoned yet simple explanation.

“To many, evolution gnaws at their sense of self. If evolution offers a lesson, it seems to be that we’re not only related to other creatures, but, like them, also the product of blind and impersonal evolutionary forces. If humans are just one of many outcomes of natural selection, maybe we aren’t so special after all. You can understand why this doesn’t sit well with many people who think that we came into being in a different way from other species, as the special goal of a divine intention. Does our existence have any purpose or meaning that distinguishes us from other creatures? Evolution is also thought to erode morality.”

Coyne is absolute –  the facts are irrefutable and the theory of evolution matters because it encapsulates the wider war between rationality and superstition. But he is under no illusion as to the depth of superstition that he is confronting:

“For those who oppose Darwinism purely as a matter of faith, no amount of evidence will do—theirs is a belief not based on reason”.

He considers that the war must be won and says bluntly:

“Consider what is at stake – science itself and the benefits it brings to society”.

This book is fascinating. Not just because it sets out the evidence for evolution clearly, logically, succinctly and in an interesting and informative way but also because it is the modern equivalent of the Greek hoplite paean – calling the forces of reason and rationality to battle against those of superstition and dogma.