sajad torkamani

The review

Jerry Coyne does a brilliant job of explaining evolution in a simple and accessible way so that even a layperson like me can understand the gist of it. He uses several examples to illustrate how natural selection - the engine of evolution - can produce gradual changes in organisms over a long period of time.

Like most evolutionists, he begins by clearing up the common misconception that evolution is "only a theory" by explaining how a scientific theory is completely different from the everyday meaning of theory. A scientific theory is a well-evidenced explanation of facts that, as the scientist Stephen Jay Gould put it, "is confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent". In short, evolution's status as a scientific theory offers a powerful testament to its credibility rather than undermining it.

Having explained how evolution works at a high-level, Coyne then dedicates the rest of the book to provide evidence for evolution by drawing on the fossil record, biogeography (distribution of animals and plants on Earth), comparative DNA, embryology, and comparative anatomy (comparing skeletal and other features of animals).

He points out that evolution, like any good scientific theory, makes many testable predictions that have been repeatedly validated (e.g., fossil record showing gradual evolution and speciation of species, the existence of transitional fossils linking related species, the existence of vestigial features, and the geographical distribution of species).

In addition, Coyne explains how evolution is easily falsifiable (vulnerable to disproof) but has remained unfalsified for over 150 years. For example, if someone found any mammal fossils from 500+ million years ago, this alone would suffice to dismantle the whole theory. As a side note, I cannot help but wonder why a benevolent deity wouldn't lend a helping hand to falsify an idea that evidently leads millions of reasonable people to withhold religious belief (see divine hiddenness).

Specialising in speciation himself, Coyne dedicates an entire chapter to show how a species can split into different lineages to form new species (e.g., how a reptile can gradually become a bird). Another chapter is dedicated to the fascinating topic of human evolution and where we fit in the evolutionary tree of life. Coyne presents several examples of famous transitional fossils that clearly show our common ancestry with the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, etc).

Aware of how religious belief presents the biggest obstacle to accepting an otherwise well-evidenced scientific theory, Coyne frequently points out how many observations in nature make sense only in the light of evolution, and not "intelligent design" (e.g., vestigial structures, atavisms, pseudogenes, and many examples of bad design). In the same vein, common objections to evolution are also discussed such as the lack of "missing links" or "irreducible complexity".

All in all, the book does an excellent job of introducing evolution to a layperson and providing a high-level overview of the main lines of evidence that lead scientists today to consider evolution as a fact.

Some thoughts

I first read this book many years ago - sometime around 2013. Around this time, I had started having some doubts about my religious beliefs and decided to pick up this book to see what evidence there was for evolution. I was raised as a Muslim so I used to believe in the Adam and Eve myth in the fully literal sense.

I think it’s a testament to the quality of the book that it lead me, a hitherto creationist who mocked the whole idea of evolution, to more or less accept it. I think I read the book in tandem with some extra research so perhaps it wasn’t the book alone that made me accept evolution, but it was certainly the main driving force. As any former deeply religious people will know, it takes a lot to leave your old beliefs behind, especially if they’ve been drilled into you since childhood(!).

I find evolution fascinating because it sheds so much light on how we came to exist in this absurd world. More than any religious myths or speculative philosophy, evolution helps me understand my existence just a little bit better.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that our best hope for finding answers to some of our deepest existential questions is by looking to science rather than to abstract and highly speculative philosophy. Whilst the scientific method is not infallible, it is our best defence against our common tendency for wishful thinking.

We may not have evolved to contemplate such things, but if we take a moment to think about it, what could be more fascinating than understanding how the hell we came to exist?

Next up on my reading list is Evolution: The Human Story. Should be good!

Tagged: Books