Why Evolution is True delivers a detailed account and perspective on the debate over the evidence for evolution and intelligent design. This book is well written and can be used as a resource for students, educators, and evolution enthusiasts. For those who wish to understand the ongoing debate over why theologians should believe in evolution, just as they believe in gravity, this is the book to read. The content is academic and informative, and the organization also seems to evolve through the subsequent chapters. While there is an error in the balance of arguments, these incongruities are only a minor distraction. What seems to be missing is why theologians refuse to accept the evidence for evolution.
The author, Jerry A. Coyne, an American biologist and a Professor Emeritus in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, has published several papers expounding evolutionary theory. His specialization in ecology and evolution is illuminated in his writing, showcasing his high level of proficiency on the topic. In addition to acting as an evolutionary theorist, he is a recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award and is President of the Society for the Study of Evolution. His educational accomplishments include alma mater for the College of William and Mary and earning a doctoral degree from Harvard University. His background places him in a position to provide key aspects of evolutionary theory in his well assembled book.
Starting with the first chapter, the author defines evolution by focusing on Charles Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origen of Species by means of natural selection. He includes a thoughtful selection of several quotes that support his argument but also expounds on how far science has come since Darwin’s work. In addition, the author includes counterarguments from 19th century philosopher William Paley who concluded that the vast variety of species we see in the world must be the work of a master mechanic, and it is easily understood why so many find his argument convincing. However, the author makes it clear the theory of evolution is easy to grasp. He states,
“Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species—perhaps a self-replicating molecule—that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out overtime, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection” (Coyne 2009: 3).
He breaks down each section of this statement into six key components: evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change. These are the main points the author superfluously examines throughout the entirety of his book.
The organization of Why Evolution is True allows the reader to easily follow the evolution occurring through the subsequent chapters, as previously described in the introduction section of this review. This evolution in the reading is divided into nine chapters. Beginning with the fossil record which he artistically refers to as written in the rocks. The book then expands through molecular evolutionary theory, vestigial remnants of past ancestors, biogeography and biodiversity, continental drift and oceanic island laboratories, adaptation and natural selection, mutation and nonselective mechanisms, genetics, selective breeding and sexual selection, the Taungs child and Lucy, race and finally contemporary evolution. In the final chapter, Coyne includes an anecdote about a business man who approached him after a talk on evolution. This story sums up well why theologians do not believe in evolutionary theory. They simple deny the facts, written in the rocks, or right in front of us every day as antibiotic resistance continues to plague the world.
The appendices conclude with references, notes, glossary, and additional recommended readings. The references are a necessary addition because many of the arguments presented should be evaluated in more depth, but the author can only provide so much information in one book. It would be nearly impossible to explore all the arguments and evidence presented but the author synthesizes the information well. Most of the sources are up to date but the distracting error of including theologian voice and perspective are lacking. This would have aided in balance giving further opportunities to counterargue Intelligent design, creationism and young earth theories. It would be interesting to read the authors second book Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, however just by reading the title one can assume the bias in that work as well.
The illustrations were well crafted and helpful for bringing certain aspects of evolution into view. For example, the author explains a sediment core taken near New Zealand which has shown eight million years of evolution. A single marine protozoan had evolved from about “4.8 chambers per whorl at the beginning of the sequence and 3.3 at the end, a decrease of about 30 percent” (Coyne 2009: 30). This example of gradual evolution over a relatively long period of time is good, but what does that look like? This is where the illustrations come in hand. For the most part, a typical audience cannot picture the evolution of a marine protozoan. Examples like this are included throughout the book which was necessary for the audience to fully comprehend what the author was conveying. Without illustrations, it is understandable why someone who supports creationism would have a hard time believing in this as evidence for evolution because this example is so far removed from everyday life. There are numerous other examples just like the one mentioned above in the fossil record.
The tidiness of the book lends itself successfully to academia because it can flawlessly coincide with any biology class. For example, the course that requires this book review as part of the curriculum commences by examining what is evolution, then evolves from the molecular biology of genetics and anthropology to adaptation and contemporary issues surrounding evolution. This is very similar to the organization of Why Evolution is True. Connecting this book to academia is useful, especially in a biology course because a large portion of the information presented meshes well with the course. Then, the next section covers primatology which this book does not cover. It can be assumed that reading A Primate’s Memoir will also aid in learning just as Why Evolution is True has.
To conclude, some aspects of this book were slowly paced while others were more entertaining. One stand-out section that, in my own opinion, was horrifying and yet hilarious, was in chapter five. The author examines adaptation and natural selection by using a hornet as an example. Not just any hornet however, this hornet is approximately the size of one’s thumb (this is the horrifying part). Yet what was so hilarious is how the author chose to explain this species. The audience can truly appreciate this type of writing when the author paints a picture of a menacing and fearsome insect with a lethal stinger which raids, slashes, and decapitates bees one by one. I was bewildered to learn about a gigantic and deadly insect which is found in Japan, not just deadly to bees, but also to humans. It was mentioned that several dozen Asians are lethally attacked by these hornets. In contrast, a poorly paced segment was in the second chapter when the author begins talking about the tiktaalik roseae. This subject matter could be tough for the audience to maintain interest because these species are so far detached from contemporary ideas on what evolution is that it also deters one from reading the rest of the book.