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Jerry A. Coyne: Why Evolution Is True

Reading through the scientific culture-wars literature of the past three decades, it's hard to avoid wishing for an end to the debate format, where people throw charges and counter-charges at the other side. When evolutionary biologists stoop to answer the claims of creationists and intelligent-design advocates, the breathtaking sweep of evolution gets lost in minutiae—the death of a thousand cuts. Instead of patiently explaining why this or that fossil can be labeled a transitional form, or discoursing on the nonexistent difference between micro-evolution (which has been irrefutably observed in labs and in nature) and macro-evolution (in which dinosaurs become birds), wouldn't it be wonderful if knowledgeable experts just laid out the evidence for the theory that makes sense of all the life sciences? If that evidence is so overwhelming, why doesn't someone just say so, rather than dignifying the Big Lie by treating it as something to be refuted?

University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne didn't exactly write that book, but he comes as close as anyone since Stephen Jay Gould. Why Evolution Is True covers all the major avenues by which the puzzle of evolution gets put together—fossil evidence, embryology, vestigial organs, distribution of species, natural selection, sexual selection, and speciation. Along the way, he mentions the most recent discoveries (like Tiktaalik roseae, evidence of an intermediate form between lobe-finned fishes and amphibians) and innovative experiments (like Marion Petrie's verification of Darwin's instincts regarding the role of female mate choice in the evolution of dramatic male displays in the peacock). Over and over, he repeats how the evidence we find is exactly what we would expect given the neo-Darwinian synthesis—that when the theory makes a prediction, even given the vagaries of the fossil record, we find what was predicted where it was predicted. A theory is a powerful explanation, and by those standards, evolutionary theory is the Hercules of the sciences.


But Coyne's book isn't one for the ages. It's firmly rooted in our times, in ways that are often thrilling, but just as often depressing. Coyne begins with a description of his emotions on the day Judge Jones delivered the resoundingly anti-ID decision in Kitzmiller V. Dover, but also takes time out of his explanations to snipe at creationists and IDers. Too frequently, he interrupts the narrative to ask the unanswerable question, "Why would a creator work this way?" This tactic does little but solidify the impression among the religious that the scientific enterprise is rife with humanistic hubris. Why Evolution Is True is a great popular explanation of evolution, but it's still preaching to the choir.

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