“Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne

I recently picked up a copy of Jerry Coyne’s new book, Why Evolution is True.  You can also visit Jerry Coyne’s blog of the same

cover image
cover image

name, Why Evolution is True.  This book review is being written as I make my way through the book – the first thing I need to point out is that I am a biologist, and like the vast majority of biologists I happen to consider that evolution is indeed true.  That being said, I’m also a little dismayed by the outpourings of religiously motivated twaddle-merchants who seek to place creationism on an equal footing.  It is these kind of anti-science arguments that the book is aimed at.

Coyne sets the scene in the preface: the ruling in the 2005 Harrisburg trial (Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District).  This was a resounding defeat for a group attempting to manoeuvre creationism into the science curriculum.  Despite this, similar shenanigans keeop cropping up across the USA.  And indeed, at least one UK state-funded school has gone down the same route (The Guardian – Top school’s creationists preach value of biblical story over evolution).  The brief introduction continues the theme of religious belief versus acceptance of evolutionary theory.

The first chapter proper is entitled “What is Evolution?”, and presents six “parts” or concepts that are important to evolutionary theory.  Firstly, the idea of evolution itself – that over time species undergo genetic change, and that this need not happen at the same rate (examples of horseshoe crabs and the ginkgo are given for slow-changing taxa).  The second part is that of gradualism – the notion that evolutionary change is slow, so slow that long periods of time are required.  In fact this can be one of the stumbling blocks for many people, for whom the short human lifespan doesn’t necessarily equip them to grasp deep time.  The third idea is of speciation – that lineages split to yield new species.  As Coyne observes, this is intimately tied to the fourth part, common ancestry, which can be seen at different levels, from molecular to anatomical.  The fifth part is the most significant element of Darwin’s theory – natural selection.  It does seem to me that this subsumes a number of concepts, including notions of variation and heritability, and so is the major Darwinian innovation here.  Finally, the sixth part is that of processes other than natural selection can cause evolutionary change – genetic drift for example.

Chapter one also deals with the issue of the word theory – possibly the most abused weapon of the creationists, who generally take the tack of using colloquial definitions of “theory” to suggest that supporting proof or evidence is lacking – as the book goes on to show, this is so far from the truth that the title of the book is most definitely not mistaken.  In fact, despite the study of evolution largely being a historical kind of science, evolutionary theory enables us to make predictions about what we might expect to see in the geological/palaeontological record or in the genomes of different species: these predictions are invariably confirmed.

The second chapter “Written in the Rocks” deals with the palaeontological record of past species.  It clarifies issues to do with the so-called “missing links” so beloved of creationists.  Documented examples of gradual change found in the fossil record include several invertebrates: transitional series demonstrating the evolution of birds, the evolution of amphibians and the transitions to the terrestrial habit and the evolution of whales are all given as examples where evolutionary theory has enabled scientists to make predictions of what the fossil record would show, predictions fully supported by later discoveries.  The ability of evolutionary theory to make testable (and disprovable) predictions is a recurrent theme in the book, and is really a good indicator of its superiority over creationist explanations.

Chapter 3, “Remnants: Vestiges, Embryos, and Bad Design” shows how evolution leaves its mark in occasional atavisms, in patterns of embryonic development and in the “molecular legacy” revealed by the large scale genome sequencing projects.  Interestingly, I can recall being taken to task at a conference in around 1989 by Richard Lewontin, Coyne’s PhD supervisor, over our then non-existent plans to sequence the Drosophila melanogaster genome (he was concerned by what would be chosen as the standard “wild type” genome).  Now we have the sequence of 12 different Drosophila species (see my post on the polytene chromosomes and genome sequences of the Drosophilids over at Flies & Bikes).  It’s also worth looking at my recent article on the Genome Sequence-based Tee of Life).

Biogeography is the subject of the fourth chapter, “The Geography of Life”, which shows how the evidence of both extant and fossil taxa across continents, continental islands and oceanic islands clearly argues against creation, and instead makes a logical fit to evolutionary theory.  Patterns of distrbution of animals and plants across the world were something that puzzled Victorian naturalists – ideas of plate tectonics had not been formulated.  Clearer perhaps were the explanations of diverse species on recent oceanic islands, such as Hawaii and the Galapagos.  The theme of testable predictions is raised again here, with the nice example of Glossopteris, a fossil tree found in the southern hemisphere, and which was predicted would be found in Antarctica.  It was, and indeed 30 odd pounds of Glossopteris fossils were carted back by Scott’s ill-fated polar expedition. Chapter 5, “The Engine of Evolution” includes a clear statement of why “Intelligent Design” fails as an explanation of the world around us: “Since ID itself makes no testable scientific claims, but offers only half-baked criticisms of Darwinism, its credibility slowly melts away with each advance in our understanding”.  Unfortunately, this is probably untrue of the religiously-blinkered.

Darwin was possibly more troubled by peculiar (and on the face of it inexplicable) structures auch as the peacock’s tail than he was by the mechanisms by which eyes evolved.  He did of course invoke sexual selection as a mechanism, and the sixth chapter, “How Sex Drives Evolution” deals with this.  And convincingly.  I was particularly interested to see mention of an experiment that my colleague Tim Halliday and colleagues conducted using the peacocks at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire, which demonstrated the sexual selection pressure on peacock tails.  Interestingly this settled a matter that had been discussed by both Wallace and Darwin: an experimental demonstration of  sexual selection.

The Origin of Species is, perhaps surprisingly, not really covered at length by Darwin in On the Origin of Species – here, Coyne devotes an entire chapter to the subject, and covers the issue well.  Good examples are given, which clearly provide evidence of how speciation processes operate, including experimental recapitulation of a polyploidy-related speciation event in plants: that of Welsh groundsel, in which it’s origin as polyploid hybrid of two other species was confirmed by laboratory crosses between those two species in which the hybrid species was synthesised.   Human origins are covered in the eighth chapter, “What About Us?”, and the question of whether human races reflect a meaningful biological reality is dealt with.

Why Evolution is True is an excellent little book – it clearly states why the author, and indeed the vast majority of biologists, accept evolutionary theory as true.  It takes an excellent strategy of illustarting the deifference between the scientific and colloquial use of the word “theory”.  In particular I felt the running theme of how evolutionary theory makes testable predictions makes celar distinctions between this scientific explanation for the diverstiy of life over archaic supernatural explanations was particularly effective.  But of course in this reader, Coyne is preaching to someone with a pretty good grasp of the biology.  And while I was particularly interested in comparing the material covered in this book with the kind of arguments advanced by the creationist in The Big Question TV programme (see this recent article –The Big Question – The Bible and Evolution), what kind of impact is this going to have on the evolution vs creationism debate?  I worry that the creationist side is so undereducated in science, and unlikely to read beyond a cover (witness the recent furore over the dreadful “Darwin was Wrong” New Scientist cover – Darwin was right), and certainly aren’t going to be swayed from their religious “truth”.  Still, the book does offer clear arguments against many of the lies and misrepresentations proffered by the creationists.  And it’s an enjoyable read.

The Big Question – The Bible and Evolution

The other week I received an email enquiring whether I would be interested in appearing on the live Sunday morning programme “The Big Question” (it’s made by an independent TV station for BBC TV) debating whether a belief in the bible could be reconciled with a belief in evolution.  As someone with no experience in live TV, I declined.  Daniel Florien has posted  a link to a YouTube video on his excellent blog Unreasonable Faith (Is Evolution and the Bible Compatible?).  Oh I am so glad I declined the invitation!

I imagine from the title of the clip, that the segment on evolution has been split into two sections, this being part one.  The creationist guy is so wilfully ignorant it hurts.  The creationist arguments are the same tired old crap.

The bottom line for is that yes, it is possible to believe in the bible and evolution, because some people do.  Personally, I find it had to see how they can be reconciled, but some evidently do.

Creationism in Louisiana

One of the exciting things about American politics, it seems to me, is the grass-roots politics.  When visiting Detroit shortly before last year’s Presidential election, it was striking how many public offices are filled by election.  There is a down-side of this, as evidenced by repeated attempts of school boards to enforce teaching of creationism within the science curriculum – it is presumably relatively easy to “pack” school boards with politically and/or religiously motivated individuals.

In January, the State of Louisiana passed a bill to permit teachers to have freedom to teach non-scientific material in school science classes.  This was reported in the Science website on 15th January (Louisiana Creates: New Pro-Intelligent Design Rules for Teachers).  from that article:

Last year, Louisiana passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, a law that many scientists and educators said was a thinly veiled attempt to allow creationism and its variants into the science classroom. On Tuesday, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted a policy that sharpens those fears, giving teachers license to use materials outside of the regular curriculum to teach “controversial” scientific theories including evolution, origins of life, and global warming. Backers of the law, including the Louisiana Family Forum, say it is intended to foster critical thinking in students. Opponents insist its only purpose is to provide a loophole for creationists to attack the teaching of evolution.

In response to this insidious law, The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology has reversed plans to hold its 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans, and will now hold it in Salt Lake City, Utah (Chronicle of Higher Education blog: Biologists Won’t Meet in Louisiana Because of State Law on Teaching Evolution).  Here is a direct response to laws permitting the teaching of religion (in the shape of creationism and “Intelligent Design”) in science classes.  This seems inappropriate, no matter what one’s religious beliefs may or may not be, and presumably violates the consitutional separation of religion and state (though as a non-American, don’t quote me on that).

With that in mind, it is interesting to read the comments for young earth creationists following that article.  Spectacularly ignorant as these people always are, they focus exclusively on the evolution/atheism vs creationism/religious divide and not on the pedagogical issues, endlessly rehashing the tired old lies and misrepresentations.

So, business as usual in the good old God-fearing USA.  For my part, I’m not convinced that boycotts have much political effect, but it’s good that this action has raised the profile of this appalling law.

Mary Midgley on the limits of Darwinian explanations

Mary Midgley made a contribution to The Guardian’s Comment is Free section last week (February 9th, 2009), Selectionism can only take us so far -Darwin made it clear that he never meant to exalt selection into a kind of ‘universal acid‘. This is in the series concerning the limits of Darwinian explanations.

I have to confess that, having read her article, I cannot understand what it is she is trying convey, and in fact much of what she writes seems to betray a lack of understanding of evolutionary biology.

Natural selection can’t possibly account for everything in evolution any more than human selection can account for everything in a chihuahua.

I suppose my response would be that no-one in their right mind would make such an assertion in the first place.  The reasonable biologist would say that the first dogs were products of natural selection, but that human intervention by dog breeders is what has moulded their descendants into the myriad of forms we see today.

Selection only works where there is a given range of candidates. Selectionist theorists take this range for granted, treating the selectees as if they were indefinite, passive objects with no natural tendencies of their own. But (as helpful scientists have lately pointed out) at every stage, from the initial molecules to the most complex living organisms, these participants are themselves specific, active entities.

This is just a hopelessly incorrect understanding of evolutionary theory, I think.  I am uncertain what Midgley means by the first sentence of that quotation.  I don’t know what Midgley means by “Selectionist theorists”, nor do I know what she means by “helpful scientists”!

[…] a particularly enterprising mouse which suddenly decides to move into a new valley can defeat the best-laid plans of its former evolutionary pressures. And we can see that an alien observer might well suppose that it would be quite easy to turn a person into a kangaroo or a chihuahua into a slug. But in fact no amount of selection will achieve these feats. The moral is that the tendencies of the materials present are every bit as important in evolution as the selective forces.

Evolutionary pressures (presumably this means natural selection) don’t have “plans”, best-laid or otherwise.  And as a commenter at the Guardian page pointed out, an alien observer who had the scientific and technological wherewithal to reach our planet would probably have a better understanding of biology than Midgley.

But he made it clear that he was always unhappy about the apparent inadequacy of this cause to explain the whole range of actual effects. When he said that thinking about the problem of the peacock’s tail made him feel positively sick he was clearly expressing this deep uneasiness – this sense that the change was too large to be explained in such a way.

I have always understood his uneasiness was due to the fact that biological observation might not always be easy to explain, and indeed, they are often exploited by the ignorant as weapons to bring the evolutionary edifice down.  The “problem” of the peacock’s tail seems to me to not be a problem at all, and is explicable by sexual selection.

In the final two paragraphs, Midgley wanders off into odd territory, analogising the influences that lead to evolutionary change to the Hindu trinity of Shiva, the destroyer, Brahma the creator and Vishnu the preserver (she ascribes this to Lyell).  This I don’t get at all, and I think I need that to be explained.  My personal view is that in these closing paragraphs, Midgley merely reveals that she just doesn’t like the scientific explanation for how life got to be the way it is – the Wonderful Life that I see around me.  One final comment: isn’t it time the commentators who seem so keen to pick at evolutionary theory realised that evolutionary biology has moved on in the last 150 years?

Simon Conway Morris on “Darwin was right. Up to a point”

Well, what an odd day it’s been!  Lying in bed listening to Radio 4 this morning, feeling a little hazy from last night’s over-imbibation, I was interested to hear that the sermon on Sunday Worship was delivered by non other than one of my heroes of paleontology, Simon Conway Morris (one of the key players in understanding the Burgess Shale fauna).  A short while later, I was looking through the Guardian’s Comment is Free section, and came across his article entitled “Darwin was right. Up to a point“.

I already knew of Conway Morris’ theist tendencies, but was a bit unprepared for the content of the Guardian piece.  He begins by putting thoughts and words into the mind of Darwin and Huxley, the moves on to some strange statements, such as the following.

[…] understanding a process, in this case natural selection and adaptation, doesn’t automatically mean that you also possess predictive powers as to what might (or even must) evolve. Nor is it logical to assume that simply because we are a product of evolution, as patently we are, that explains our capacity to understand the world. Rather the reverse.

This seems to me to be rather specious argument.  I would have thought that an ability to predict evolutionary outcome would be most unlikely.  And the bit about our capacity to understand the world just baffles me.

Did you know eyes can detect single photons and our noses single molecules? Evolution has reached the limits of what is possible on planet Earth.  In particular our doors of perception can only be extended by scientific instrument, enabling a panorama from the big bang to DNA.

Yet how the former led to the latter, how it was that complexity emerged and is sustained even in that near-miracle of a chemical factory we call the cell is still largely enigmatic. Self-organisation is certainly involved, but one of the puzzles of evolution is the sheer versatility of many molecules, being employed in a myriad of different capacities.

Now really, it seems to me that even restricting one’s discussion to eyes, the claim that evolution has reached its limits is both wrong and misleading – is this just an unfortunate wording?   In the second paragraph there, we get to the crux of the argument – that of “argument from disbelief”.  My response to the enigma of life’s origin is not to retreat to theist supernatural origins.

At the end of the day, my position remains that in the absence of any evidence for supernatural entities, that the best position to take is that there is none.  To use our present lack of understanding of aspects of the origins of life as an argument for the existence of a god seems to me to be rather a cop out: it’s not evidence, and it’s not an explanation.

Other blog reactions

Lambda-Delta – Tony Sidaway’s Blog –Simon Conway Morris still thinks “God did it” is a scientific statement
Sandwalk – Can You Guess Who Wrote This?
P Z Myers has responded at his Pharyngula blog –Convergence, schmonvergence

A shameful misrepresentation

In his article Questions Darwinism cannot answer, published online at The Sydney Morning Herald web page, Tom Frame, Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University makes the following outrageous claim:

A dedicated Darwinian would welcome imperialism, genocide, mass deportation, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilisations and infanticide.

This is such a horrible, deceitful and breathtakingly ignorant statement, that I’m not keen to dignify it with a response (and it gets worse: Frame implies these are actions advocated privately by Richard Dawkins).  I will leave it to Ian Musgrave at Astroblog, and PZMyers over at Pharyngula, with their merry band of commenters.  Suffice it to say that historically it would appear that most of those character traits have followed or resulted with religious motives.  The rest of the article does not make me keen to read the book from which it is exerpted.

Theos Think Tank: Rescuing Darwin – God and evolution in Britain today

The Theos think tank’s report Rescuing Darwin – God and evolution in Britain today is the first of a series of components of a body of work conducted by Theos, presumably prompted by the Darwin 200 anniversaries. The second component is “an independent qualitative research project conducted by ESRO (see footnote), an independent qualitative research consultancy which aims to bring academic thought and rigour into the world of applied research”.  (I’d be offended if I thought these guys reckoned that applied research lacks rigour!)   A third component is the public survey commissioned by Theos and conducted by ComRes, which I’ve already blogged about – the press releases have generated some column inches, but the data won’t be available until March.  These are rounded off by a couple of events – one is a public discussion meeting, the other being the publication of Neil Spencer’s book Darwin and God on February 12th.  There is also an interview with Mary Midgley, though it’s not clear to me where that fits into the scheme. Continue reading “Theos Think Tank: Rescuing Darwin – God and evolution in Britain today”

Theos, Nick Spencer and Darwinism

Nick Spencer of the Theos think tank seems to have had a busy weekend.  Fresh from looking at the results of a survey into the  public acceptance of evolution, he’s written a commentary on the Theos website, a comment article at the Guardian, and seen the regurgitation of the Theos report/press release across the broadsheets (interestingly all those articles are from religious affairs correspondents – The Guardian’s Riazat Butt, and The Telegraph’s Jonathan Wynne-Jones).

The Theos and Guardian articles have been well answered in the comments (particularly Greywizard’s comment on the Theos site).  What I would like to take issue with is this statement:

Popular opinion encounters Darwinism not so much as a well-testified and supremely elegant scientific theory, but as a quasi-metaphysical one, an outlook on life that has become inextricably linked, through the purple prose of its most eloquent modern advocates, with reductionism, nihilism, atheism, and amorality.
This Darwinism is one in which morality (in as far as we can still talk about it) becomes calculating and fundamentally self-interested, ethical systems arbitrary, agency an illusion, and human beings completely irrelevant and accidental. Love, charity, compassion, and altruism are “tendencies… grounded in underlying selfishness. The human mind is “an artefact created when memes restructure a human brain so as to make it a better habitat for memes.” The universe is reduced to “blind forces and physical replication” with “no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” [emphasis mine]

I very much doubt that popular opinion encounters Darwinism as a quasi-metaphysical theory (I don’t think I would be confident in explaining what quasi-metaphysical means anyway, and I doubt the general public would be much better).  I am really angry at the suggestion that it represents an outlook inextricably linked with reductionism, nihilism, atheism, and amorality. Why does Spencer not attribute the quotations (I suspect Dennett and Dawkins)?  I suggest the failure of the British public to accept evolution comes down to two factors: scientific illiteracy and religious belief.

Greywizard, in his comment on Spencer’s Theos article says in response to the paragraph quoted above:

Where did this come from? It sounds a lot like typical religious bigotry to me. The most amazing thing is that if you said something like this about an ethnic or religious group, Muslims, or Chechens, or Georgians, or Greeks, you’d find yourself charged with nothing short of bigotry, if not outright racism, and perhaps find yourself up before a magistrate for promoting race hatred. But for the religious to characterise the nonreligious in this way is apparently all right. Why? Why does Nick Spencer think it is okay to malign nonbelievers in a way that he would never dream of maligning members of a religious or ethnic group? It simply boggles my mind.

Which is a fair criticism, I think.

The world is a wonderful place. In my view the natural explanations for the diversity of life are infinitely more satisfying than any of the patched up old mythologies that abound.  It is up to humans to drive their own purpose, to push their own moral framework.  There is no credible evidence for a supernatural presence overseeing our activity on the planet, giving us a moral sense or a purpose: all these are generated by the human mind.  Why then should atheists or agnostics not be able to assemble a moral framework for society?

As a final note, I’ve downloaded the Theos report entitled Rescuing Darwin (it’s a big document at 72 pages).  A quick scan of its contents suggest it’s a bit more thoughtful than most of the news coverage.  I’ll present a review when I’ve had time to read it.  The full dataset of the public survey won’t be released until March.

Survey suggests a third of the UK population believes a god created the earth within the last 10,000 years

The Daily Telegraph reports high levels of public doubt about evolution.  In Poll reveals public doubts over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution religious affairs correspondent discusses an opinion poll that reveals unsuspected high levels of creationist belief in Britain.  Richard Dawkins

[…] expressed dismay at the findings of the ComRes survey, of 2,060 adults, which he claimed were confirmation that much of the population is “pig-ignorant” about science.

The survey was conducted by ComRes for a religious think-tank called Theos – according to the Telegraph article, the survey was due to be released today by Theos, but so far there’s no sign at their website.  From the Telegraph article it would seem that:

  • more than half the public believe that the theory of evolution cannot explain the full complexity of life on Earth, and a “designer” must have lent a hand
  • one in three believe that God created the world within the past 10,000 years
  • 51% agreed  that “evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages”, while 40% disagreed with that statement.

If this was a truly representative survey, one must despair at the ignorance of the general population.  However, in keeping with many surveys, one notes that it does support a more theological stance, as might have been desired by Theos.  I wouldn’t be too hasty to interpret without knowing how many were surveyed, how they were surveyed, and what the questions were.

A more pertinant question is why the Telegraph article wasn’t written by a biologist.  I’ll update this post when Theos’ statement is published.  The article also claims

A recent poll of science teachers found that one in three believe creationism should be taught in science classes alongside evolution and the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.

No, it damned well shouldn’t – Big Bang theory and evolution are science.  Creationism is medieval superstition supported only by religious bosh and has no place in the science classroom. Period.

Update: I find a press release from the Evangelical Alliance that this isn’t the first time that Theos have used ComRes: they did so for a survey on UK attitudes to the resurrection last Easter.  For that survey,

ComRes interviewed 1107 GB adults online between 22 and 24 February 2008. Data were weighted to be representative demographically of all GB adults.

I’m never to happy to see polls conducted online or by telephone, as this can (often unintentionally) skew the data.  The same page notes “ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules”, so there shouldn’t be an issue there. Here’s a blog response at A Thinking Man.