Why Evolution is True: Examination of Coyne’s Book

Why Evolution is True: An Examination of Coyne’s Book

Science truly has unveiled many of the mysteries of the world, with many scientific discoveries provoking more questions than answers regarding the nature of our existence and life on this planet. Even so, evolution and the question of evolution continues to spark debate and intrigue. Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution Is True asserts that the evidence points repeatedly to evolution as a result of natural selection. The evidence that Coyne refers to is massive and originates from a wealth of data in an array of fields—from genetics to anatomy to virtually every sector of the sciences. Coyne makes compelling arguments that demonstrate why the subject of evolution is so fascinating even today, with all the strides in technology and the sciences that we have undergone. While Coyne firmly sees evolution as undebateable, anyone who possesses the faculties of critical thinking will be able to explore a more nuances argument or perspective on many of the things that he professes to be ironclad truths.

The first chapter, entitled What is evolution? involves Coyne explaining what evolution is in a succinct definition according to six tenets: “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 over time, throwing off many new diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection” (2010, 3). As Coyne explains, this definition breaks down to six pillars: evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change (2010). Coyne also makes meaningful points about scientific theory, asserting that scientific theory needs to be something that can be tested and make legitimate predictions that one can verify. One of the biggest arguments to this definition of evolution is that there’s no scientific evidence for this hypothetical “self-replicating molecule.” There’s literally no evidence for it that exists in science, only factors that suggest it may have existed 3.5 billion years ago. The ironclad evidence that Coyne constantly refers to is built on a definition that appears to contain pure speculation. As someone who was raised in a household with a primarily creationist worldview, this definition of life on this planet goes against everything I was taught. Evolution according to this theory really does depend on these slow, miniscule changes in all existing creatures. One could argue that if evolution were actually true, there would be thousands of times more evidence of transitional fossilized forms of these creatures than the complete ones. Much of what science refers to as transitional fossils or fossilized remains of transitional creatures are actually examples of creatures that have completely functional and fully formed parts.

The next chapter, “Written in the Rocks” is a discussion of Coyne’s belief that fossils offer lucid evidence for evolutionary transformations. Here in this chapter, Coyne discusses things like missing links, transitional forms and how birds originate, the colonization of land, originating from water, and the return to water by particular groups of mammals. Much of what Coyne discusses in this chapter appears to revolve around his argument that the fossil record shows clear evidence for evolution in that one can see species changing into more sophisticated versions of the origin species. “We should be able to see cases of evolutionary change within lineages: that is, one species of animal or plant changing into something different over time. Later species should have traits that make them look like the descendants of earlier ones. And since the history of life involves the splitting of species from common ancestors, we should able to see this splitting—and find evidence of those ancestors—in the fossil record” (2010, 27). The problem that I have with this notion is that it’s all interpretation. Everything that Coyne asserts as species transitioning in their development is still viewed through the perspective of human interpretation. The example he offers of 19th century anatomists who predicted that mammals evolved from ancient reptiles, and that fossilizations of reptiles should be uncovered that were becoming more mammal-like seems tenuous. From a creationist perspective, it doesn’t look like the change was gradual, as all the fossils uncovered are still fully formed. While one can’t expect the fossil record to answer all questions, one would expect that there would be fossils of reptiles who developed partially formed mammalian qualities and then died off or were “naturally selected” to become extinct, because their functions and body parts were only partially formed. Yet again, there have not been any findings of incomplete fossils during the millions of years of evolution to support this theory of gradual development.

The following chapter, entitled Remnants: Vestiges, Embryos and Bad Design discusses vestigial organs, atavisms, and genes that don’t work properly and demonstrate the concept of evolutionary design. In this chapter, Coyne defines what he refers to as a “vestigial trait: a feature of a species that was an adaptation in its ancestors, but that has either lost its usefulness completely or, as in the ostrich, has been co-opted for new uses” (2010, 57). Coyne goes on to explain that all flightless birds evolved from ancestors who flew, and that their wings now have a new function: the wings provide them with balance and help to scare off predators. This seems like one of the more logical aspects of evolution: if a species doesn’t use or rely on a trait or ability, it would make sense over time that this trait or ability would cease to manifest and the body would reflect that. A loose example of this would be how early humans used to climb trees more often (not recreationally as they do now) as a survival strategy and to escape from predators (Collins, 2012). It’s likely that their skin was more rugged and callous to act as a buffer and shield from the friction and elements it was in constant contact with. Since humans don’t require such a buffer or such limberness in athleticism, we’ve largely lost those traits. However, the problem with Coyne’s argument is that it reeks of an intelligent person attempting to mar the mysteries of science and of living existence in a manner that shows very neat and pat patterns. Coyne argues that vestigial characteristics have lost the ability for which they were evolved (ie-wings on flightless birds), but this demonstrates how scientists view wings as primarily for flight. Yes, that is a primary use for wings but the wings of both flightless and flying birds still provide a wealth of uses aside from flying, such as communication, scaring off predators, find food, find mates and others functions. It’s a very human and presumptuous assumption to argue that since a certain bird can’t fly in present day it must have evolved from one that could.

Chapter four, entitled The Geography of Life discusses biogeography and how animals throughout the earth end up in certain places on the globe. Coyne uses these facts as proof that only evolution, and evolution alone can adequately explain the variety of creatures on the planet and how they were distributed. One aspect of this that Coyne meditated on is that Darwin had trouble explaining that if all flightless birds originated from one ancestor, why did so many of them end up on such different and distinct parts of the globe. Coyne explains that Darwin was not appropriately aware of continental drift and molecular taxonomy, and how now with information derived from DNA and protein sequences, we now have a much better idea of when creature diverged from a common ancestor (2010, 97). As Coyne argues, this creates a molecular clock that works with the movements of the continents and the creation of land bridges. The arguments that Coyne makes don’t really persuade compellingly enough to convince me that a common ancestor necessarily exists. While such an explanation might please scientists who want to answer the inherently problematic questions that evolution constantly raises, to me it just shows more gaps in the logistics of evolution. For example, 535 million years ago, The Cambrian explosion begins, with many new body layouts appearing on the scene – though the seeming rapidity of the appearance of new life forms may simply be an illusion caused by a lack of older fossils” (Marshall, 2009). Again, this clearly demonstrates one of the big gaps in the whole theory of evolution: it simply doesn’t account for the fact that all these new life forms just suddenly appeared within the geological blink of an eye: they didn’t exist and then all of a sudden they did. This distinctly contradicts the notion of gradualism that is inherent within evolutionary theory. Then later, 489 million years ago, “The Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event begins, leading to a great increase in diversity. Within each of the major groups of animals and plants, many new varieties appear” (Marshall, 2009). Again, this is another event that pokes holes into the foundations of evolutionary theory. It is unclear as to why this sudden biodiversity debuted and where it came from; however, it is clear that its existence exceeds the boundaries of evolution.

The fifth chapter, The Engine of Evolution discusses the notions of adaptation and natural selection as being main concepts within evolutionary theory and how these events are able to increase the fit between organisms and their surrounding environment. Some of the more interesting aspects of this chapter are how Coyne dispels the idea that everything is random or by chance and also dispels the misconception that evolutions occur for the good of the species. Coyne explains natural selection as the small changes that selection creates in our lifetime over millions of years, giving an example of the Grand Canyon: weak forces over years and years can develop massive and dramatic change (2010, 55). This chapter is interesting because Coyne explains that while genetic drift might be random, natural selection is never random, as it gets rid of harmful aspects of an organism and increases the useful ones. To me this strongly suggests evidence of an intelligent creator; even if science and scientists are loathe to ever acknowledge one. To assert that natural selection isn’t random suggests that there is an intelligent creator behind it, one that is working for the good of the species as a whole. As one author writes, “these considerations are also consistent with intelligent design. Here’s why: If there is a common designer, then it should be no surprise that we find a common ‘fingerprint’ over all nature. Since the evidence Coyne cites is consistent with BOTH Darwinian evolution and ID [intelligent design] it cannot be used as evidence solely for one” (McDowell, 2009).

The sixth chapter, How Sex Drives Evolution, offers another viewpoint on the significance of intercourse in nature and existence. Coyne also discusses something he refers to as sexual selection and sexual dimorphism. Sexual selection, Coyne explains is essentially male competition for the best mate, with bigger more dominant males leaving their genes to the next generation and smaller ones don’t. Sexual dimorphism of body size is in connection to this inherent competition between the species. Many of the points that Coyne makes, while compelling, are also significant of a very narrow human interpretation. Brilliant male plumage is to attract a mate only, when in reality the bright colors of male birds could have a variety of other functions, such as allowing them to hide themselves better within their environments, evading predators. Much of the scientific reasoning within this chapter appears to have a very narrow, very human-centered perspective to it. Consider the following: “Sometimes a male hangs around after mating, guarding his female against other suitors” (151). Everything in sexual selection is connected back to competition, which appears a bit shortsighted. The world is still a mysterious place and there might be other reasons as to why a male might stick so close to female after mating. There might be a connection or form of communication or necessity between them that science is unable to pick up on.

The following chapter, entitled Origin of the Species, focuses on speciation, and rightly so, as Coyne is the world’s authority on this subject. This chapter covers lots of ideas, such as the biological species concept, and also covers things like geographical, sympatric and polyploidy speciation. As Coyne writes, “Speciation is a splitting event, in which each ancestral branch splits into two twigs, which themselves split later, and so on as the tree of life ramifies” (195). He also compares speciation to the separation of oil and vinegar; something he says can’t occur if oil and vinegar are constantly being mixed together. This leads Coyne to his concept of geographic speciation, which describes how changes in geography of the planet over millions of years led to the separation of species and hence the creation of new ones. There are elements of this theory that I agree with, as they have emerged clearly within fossilization and indisputable geographical events that have occurred within the shifting of landmasses on earth. On the most superficial level, speciation does look like a shoddy explanation for mysterious events like the Cambrian explosion. It looks like science’s explanation for why we have such diversity of species, when in reality such creation is mysterious.

The eighth chapter, What About Us? focuses on human evolution, and how early humans evolved with some of the more important aspects of that evolution, such as bipedal walking, increase in brain size, and the creation of tools. Coyne offers what he believes is indisputable evidence that humans evolved from apes. Coyne discusses at length various finds of the remains of early humans and explains how without a doubt scientists can conclude that these early humans walked on two legs. Coyne explains how being bipedal was one of the first evolutionary innovations to distinguish us from other apes (199). Also notably, “After Sahelanthropus, we have a few six million year old fragments from another species, Orrorin tugenensis, including a single leg bone that has been interpreted as evidence of bipedality. But then there is a two-million year gap with no substantive hominin fossils. This is where, one day, we’ll find crucial information about when we began to walk upright” (199). This small detail demonstrates that much of this theory is an interpretation based on assumption. I think that it would be difficult and incorrect to say that humans, apes and chimpanzees are not close relatives, because they very much are, and the DNA evidence is there to prove this without a doubt. “While the genetic difference between individual humans today is minuscule – about 0.1%, on average – study of the same aspects of the chimpanzee genome indicates a difference of about 1.2%” (si.org, 2018). However, to argue that humans evolved directly from apes over millions of years, is just a matter of interpretation. There are enough gaps in the artifacts, fossils and remains over millions of years to also suggest alternative hypotheses, such as a hominoid explosion that can’t be completely explained by science. Coyne shows an overwhelming amount of evidence to strongly suggest a connection between apes and humans, but the leap he makes that we evolved directly from them is more tenuous.

The final chapter, chapter nine, entitled Evolution Redux, Coyne argues that the most fundamental pillars of evolution have been verified by a host of scientific experiments and observations. He also asserts that there is nothing about evolution that should been seen to rob humans of meaning and purpose, and that there can be an immense amount of satisfaction derived from contemplating the vastness of the universe. Essentially in this chapter, Coyne summarizes how evolution cannot be viewed as a theory, but as a fact. Coyne reviews how the fossil record, biogeography, embryology, vestigial structures, suboptimal design through microevolutionary changes and that one can even witness natural selection in action. Coyne asserts that one of the strengths of microevolutionary biology is directly connected to testable predictions, giving for example the fact that they predicted that they would find fossils of marsupials in Antarctica and they did. While Coyne has exhibited a wealth of evidence, and much of it is compelling, there is again a tremendous amount of evolutionary biology that is built on assumption and interpretation. I would go so far as to assert that much of the evidence that he asserts is factual is actually something that suggests a connection between two species, but not necessarily an evolution from one species to the other. Much of what it seems like these scientists sort of gloss over are the millions of years between verifiable changes in the fossils. During all that time a host of other factors could be responsible for what they interpret as evolution.

In conclusion, while Coyne offers compelling evidence, there’s still a lack of evidence as a whole: what he presents is not enough to endorse evolution from a theory to a fact. In fact, Coyne even argue that evolutionary biologists aren’t under any obligation to give precise explanations of the evolution of biological traits—rather they just needs to offer a feasible explanation (138). This is very troubling, particularly when Coyne blatantly criticizes evolutionary psychology for their lack of specific explanations. The fact that Coyne repeatedly gives evolutionary biology this great freedom to not have to offer detailed explanations about how one species transformed into another strikes one as very pompous. Furthermore, the lack of explanation only creates a gap for the theory of intelligent design to emerge. The proof that Coyne provides for common descent is not necessarily proof for evolution according to Darwin. Many people who gravitate towards a more creationist view of life on this planet also believe in common descent, but they take issue with Darwin’s overwhelming thesis of natural selection in conjunction with chaotic mutation as it strikes so many as an insufficient way of explaining the enormous variety and intricacy within the living world. As one critic writes, “Coyne needs to show that a blind material process can generate all the biological information that pervades the natural world. The only evidence he offers is finch-beak variation and bacterial resistance, which demonstrate minor genetic shuffling rather than the generation of novel information and structures” (McDowell, 2009).
























Collins, N. (2012, October 25). Early humans ‘still climbed trees 3m years ago’. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/evolution/9632929/Early-humans-still-climbed-trees-3m-years-ago.html

Coyne, J. A. (2010). Why evolution is true. Oxford University Press.

Marshall, M. (2009, July 14). Timeline: The evolution of life. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17453-timeline-the-evolution-of-life/

McDowell, S. (2009, May 20). Why Evolution Is True Book Review. Retrieved from http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/why-evolution-is-true-book-review

Si.org. (2018, January 4). Genetics. Retrieved from http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics






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