‘Why Evolution is True’ (Book Review)
Throughout the history, scientists and thinkers made numerous attempts to resolve the mystery of the origin of life. Evidently, evolution has become a point of concern for many scientific and academic disciplines. At the same time, evolution can be viewed as a matter of ethics and philosophy. The following research is a critical reflection on a book by Jerry A. Coyne’s titled Why Evolution Is True.
The Book ‘Why Evolution Is True’ by Jerry A. Coyne
In the introduction to his book, Coyne admits that no other scientific problem “has caused more fascination and fury” than evolution (p. 14). On the one hand, uniqueness of the changes that occur to the species and distinctness of features peculiar to each single organism dwelling on Earth can be regarded as the main reasons of ambiguities and discrepancies the issue of evolution can cause (Coyne). On the other hand, the issue of evolution is fundamental in itself in a sense that hypothetically, it can give us an answer to eternal questions, such who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. In this regard, Jerry A. Coyne claims the following: “Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years. Some find this deeply frightening, others ineffably thrilling” (p. 14).
The research by Jerry A. Coyne gives a detailed insight to different approaches towards understanding the evolutionary processes. Therefore, critical consideration of the points made by the author of the research and rationalizing from the main ideas of the research can be viewed as a means of better understanding the process of evolution as such.
Speaking of evolution, the issue of how it is being treated by the communities across the world is important. Thus, the concept of evolutionism has evolved to denote a scientific tendency of being committed to the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin is referred to as the author of the theory of evolution. Darwin’s evolution theory views natural selection as one of the driving forces of evolution. The theory of evolution is opposed to the creationist theory. Creationism, in its turn, admits the fact that the origin of life and the diversity of species are merely the outcomes of some divine intervention. Coyne admits that evolution “is far more than a “theory”, let alone a theory in crisis” (p. 13). Developing this statement further, the researcher claims that “evolution is a fact” . Considering the idea of evolution as it is understood in the modern society, Coyne admits the subjectivity of human perception of the evolutionary processes in a sense that typically people tend to perceive the events, entities, and phenomena through the lens of their own vision, and evolution makes no exception in this particular case (p. 17). As far as the correlation between religion as such and creationism is concerned, the researcher asserts that creationism is only possible and makes sense merely within the framework of religion (Coyne). In this regard, Jerry A. Coyne claims that “enlightened religion has always found a way to accommodate the advances of science” (p. 19). At the same time, understanding the essence of the evolutionary processes may presumably broaden our recognition of the living world and the place human species takes in it. Thus, the conflict between the creationist theory and the theory of evolution is, in its turn, described as follows: “the battle is a part of wider war, a war between rationality and superstition” (p. 13). It is possible to assume that the author’s main idea is that reconsidering and exploring the key aspects of the theory of evolution, on the one hand, and creationism on the other, is one of the primary tasks of modern science, ethics, and philosophy.
In the first chapter of his book Why Evolution Is True, titled “What Is Evolution” Jerry A. Coyne is reflecting upon evolution as a scientific notion (p. 3). It is worth noting that the author admits both simplicity of the term ‘evolution’, and scientific sophistication that characterizes it. Specifically, Coyne gives the following explanation of the theory of evolution: 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 tie, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection (p. 3).
To put it simpler, the theory of evolution is based upon six key principles, namely, evolution as such (as the gradual and constant evolvement of biological species, including all the possible consequences of the process), “gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change” (Coyne). By evolution, in this case, a genetic change is also implied (Coyne). The idea of gradualism illustrates that evolutionary processes are long-running (Coyne). Diversity of species, including their distinctive features acquired in the course of evolution, and improbability of cross-species mutations have to do with the tenet of speciation (Coyne). The concept of common ancestry has to do merely with the idea of genetic reconstruction of the species already extinct for the purposes of disambiguating the diachronic interspecies relationships (Coyne). Natural selection, while being a purely materialistic process, is addressed as one of the driving forces of the evolutionary process. At the same time, natural selection is counted among Darwin’s greatest “intellectual achievements” within the framework of the theory of evolution, being acknowledged also as the process that “doesn’t require creation or guidance by supernatural forces” (Coyne).
Contemplating the essence of theory as such, Coyne arrives at the following conclusion: “For a theory to be considered scientific, it must be testable and make verifiable predictions”. Testifying the truthfulness of the theory of evolution, Jerry A. Coyne provides the following evidences. First of all, the presence of fossil remains of ancient life; the researcher asserts the need of speciation in the fossil record, as well as the exploration of link between the species that are likely to have common ancestry; studying the genetic variations of traits of biological species; account of imperfection as an attribute of evolutionary change; watching the ways processes of natural selection manifest themselves in the wild (Coyne). Taking each of these aspects into consideration, the author of the research notes that the theory of evolution is by all means truthful.
In the second chapter of the book Why Evolution Is True, titled “Written in the Rocks”, Jerry A. Coyne explores the role of the fossil record in the genetic reconstruction of species for the purposes of studying the diachronic interspecies relationships. It is worthy of note that the role of fossil record within the framework of genetic reconstruction of species for the purposes of studying the diachronic interspecies relationships is of great importance. However, the author of the research admits the incompleteness of fossil record (Coyne). In this regard, Coyne admits: “…the fossil record gives no evidence for the creationist prediction that all species appear suddenly and then remain unchanged. Instead, forms of life appear in the record in evolutionary sequence, and then evolve and split” (p. 34).
On the other hand, Jerry A. Coyne stresses upon the importance of studying the fossil record of the so-called transitional species, claiming that transitional species have spanned the gap between the organisms in the course of the evolutionary process (p. 36). Developing this statement further, the researcher states that the discovery of transitional forms between fish and amphibians in 2004 became a landmark within the framework of the evolutionary biology (Coyne). The link between birds and reptiles, as explored and asserted by Charles Darwin, has been underestimated for a long time. On the contrary, nowadays it is viewed as one of the key arguments in favor of the theory of evolution (Coyne). In the end of the chapter, Jerry A. Coyne resumes: “Darwinism predicts … that new species will be modified versions of older ones. The fossil record amply confirms this prediction”.
In chapter 3, “Remnants: Vestiges, Embryos, and Bad Design”, the author of the research explores the various anatomic manifestations of the evolutionary processes in the living organisms. The chapter opens with a beautiful metaphor, explaining the nature of evolution. A metaphor is a reference to palimpsests, recycled manuscripts written on parchment and vellum: an initial text was scraped off the page, and a new one was written (Coyne). In such a way, according to Coyne, the basic principles of evolution are working. Specifically, organisms are compared to the ancient texts and addressed in the research by Coyne as ‘the palimpsests of the evolutionary history’ (Coyne). In this particular case, the term ‘the palimpsest of the evolutionary history’ is synonymous to anatomic manifestations of the evolutionary processes in the living organisms. According to Stephen Jay Gould, “these biological palimpsests are the “senseless signs of history” (as cited in Coyne).
Vestiges, atavisms, dead genes, and so-called ‘bad designs’ are the main types of mutations, specifically, some specific changes that manifest themselves anatomically and/or physiologically in a living organism. Vestigial trait is commonly referred to as a specific feature that can be viewed as an adaptation that either has “lost its usefulness completely” or “has been co-opted for new uses” (Coyne). Wings of an ostrich can be viewed as an example of a vestige (Coyne). Atavism is closely connected with the concept of anomaly. The term vas derived from the Latin word ‘atavus’, meaning ‘an ancestor’ (Coyne). Unlike a vestige, an atavism occurs as in an organism individually. A fifth toe in a horse and “coccygeal projection” in humans can be viewed as the example of atavisms (Coyne). Dead genes are typically termed as the “genes that once were useful but are no longer intact or expressed” (Coyne). The concept of dead genes is closely related to the so-called “biogentic law”, formulated by Ernst Haeckel; “biogentic law” goes as follows: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (as cited in Coyne). Bad design proves that certain imperfection in a living organism are attributed to the evolutionary process. Laryngeal nerve of mammals, in this case, can be viewed as an example of “nature’s worst designs” (as cited in Coyne).
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In chapter 4, “The Geography of Life”, Coyne touches upon many aspects related to natural species. The author poses a question that makes everyone think of evolution from a different perspective: why some types of endemic species can be found over a certain territory, whereas others are not represented there at all. The distribution of species across the globe is for sure the matter of evolution. However, it cannot be always explained. It is a strange fact, but somehow similar climate and terrain cannot be appropriate for plants or animals that have much in common, but, none the less, are rather different. Darwin claimed that the distribution of species was caused not by the creation, but the evolution. Presumably, Darwin’s assumption is the most logical of all existing explanations, and, therefore, it is right. However, the theory does not provide the explanation for many questions such as a large distribution of some species and a very limited one of othera. The scientific achievements of the last century answer these questions. From a genetic and biological perspective no distribution could have been if there was no evolution (Coyne). The author of the book provides numerous examples that refute all theories made regarding the geographic distribution except evolution. Although life of one person is not enough to see the substantial changes, one can notice that almost every living organism tries to adjust to new conditions, and the strongest of them becomes prosperous. Adaptation should be regarded as an aspect of evolution. Therefore, evolving different species that came from the same ancestor managed to occupy diverse territories, adapting to new conditions and, consequently, becoming different from what they initially were. If to consider this approach as correct, the diversity of speeches can also be explained by evolution.
In chapter 5, “The Engine of Evolution”, Jerry A. Coyne addresses the concept of selection. In this regard, the author of the research admits: “Selection is not a mechanism imposed on a population from outside. Rather, it is a process, a description of how genes that produce better adaptations become more frequent over time” (Coyne). Variability, the presence of some genetic basis for change, and affecting the probability of living offspring are the three main aspects of natural selection. Animal and plant breeding, exploration of evolution at the molecular level in a laboratory setting, as well as observation of micro- and macroevolutionary changes in the wild, are the essential attributes of current studies.
Evidently, the meaning of natural selection is exceptional within the framework of evolutionary process. The purpose of evolution, according to Coyne is “to explain how every adaptation evolved, step by step, from traits that preceded it” (p. 130). Taking all aforementioned facts into consideration, the author of the research draws the following conclusion: natural selection results in the adaptive evolution (Coyne). At the same time, minor changes can potentially cause significant changes (Coyne).
In chapter 6, “How Sex Drives Evolution”, the author wants to imply that evolution is not just about adaptation (Coyne). Analyzing the condition of a peacock, Coyne states that the animal manages to live and survive despite all claims of Darwinism. Therefore, Darwin made some oversight in his theory. There is no doubt that evolution makes nature and every living organism change. However, evolution is related not only to bearing the features of the ancestors and developing characteristics that would help to survive. Sexual dimorphism proves to matter as well. The ‘peacock enigma’ is solved now. Although the long tail and bright colors at first sight seem to contradict the essence of evolution since these features involve wasting the energy and time and, therefore, reduce survival as make the males more noticeable for predators, the reality is different. These features brightly denote the essence of evolution as they are the way males adjusted to be differentiated from females so that those could pay attention to them. It makes one assume that sex and continuation of the family are needed for existence, and dimorphism became the evolution technique – two genders adapted to the fact that they need to be easily distinguished and deter the predators from the female and descendants. Evaluating the topic of sex, Coyne concludes that pathogenesis on its own would not have been that evolutionary. When species reproduce sexually, the genes of both male and female are intertwined in the offspring. The absolutely unique genes appear, making their possessor somehow different from the rest of representatives. It is a pure aspect of evolution. All organisms are different in some way, especially those that reproduce sexually. They are not clones, but a result of evolution.
In chapter 7, titled “The Origin of Species”, the author of the research emphasizes the importance of exploring the mechanism of both evolutionary changes and evolvement of new species. In this regard, the issue of understanding the nature of species as scientific notion is claimed to assert itself. Commenting on that particular matter Jerry A Coyne claims that evolution itself and speciation (as the process of disambiguating discrete groups of organisms/species) are of primary importance. Species, according Mayr, “a group of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups” can be termed as species (as cited in Coyne). At the same time, species is an autonomous, envolutionary, and reproductive community. Classifying the extinct species, in this case, constitutes one of the most challenging issues of modern naturalism and genetics. All in all, Jerry A. Coyne resumes that there is a great deal of resemblance between the biological speciation itself and ‘speciation’ of languages in a sense that “Like species, languages can diverge in isolated populations that once shared an ancestral tongue”.
In chapter 8, titled “What About Us?”, Jerry A. Coyne gives an insight into the origin of human species. To put it simpler, the author describes briefly, but thoroughly, each of the species from which that human species could possibly evolve. Roughly speaking, Jerry A. Coyne outlines the history of our kin. The author of the research admits that human evolution provokes a heated discussion between the proponents of both the theory of evolution and creationism (Coyne). Specifically, Coyne asserts that the vast majority of people are hardly exposed to accept the fact that our species descended from the apes.
In chapter 9, titled “Evolution Redux”, Jerry A. Coyne is contemplating the purposes of both evolutionary biology and theory of evolution (pp. 241-242). Thus, few statements of paramount importance are made. By asserting that evolution is true, one means that the main aspects, conceptions, and principles of Darwin’s theory of evolution are verified (Coyne). Discrepancies and controversies of the theory of evolution are regarded as the weak points and are criticized by the proponents of creationism. Coyne’s response on that matter is as follows: “A science without controversy is a science without progress” (Coyne). In my opinion, that is a rather fair observation. Finally, the author of the research admits that there is always a very huge possibility of gene instability.
Taking all the aforementioned facts into consideration, it is possible to make the following conclusions. First of all, Jerry A. Coyne, in his book Why Evolution Matters, positions himself as a strong proponent of the theory of evolution. Throughout the history of evolutionary biology, discoveries of the links between fish and amphibians, birds and reptiles have become truly pivotal.
The criticism of the theory of evolution on part of those, who adhere to creationist theory, consists merely in the fact that people tend to believe more in the origin of life as a Divine Providence, rather than a complicated and sustained biological process. Moreover, people tend to reject the idea of their biological ancestry as it is. Making attempts to justify the discrepancies and controversies of the theory of evolution, Coyne proves that controversies contribute to the development of science.
Contemplating the purpose of scientific research on the whole, Jerry A. Coyen proves that evolution is by all means a matter of science (naturalism and genetics in particular). However, by doing so the author does not diminish the ethical, philosophical, and religious aspects of the theory of evolution. All things considered, the book can be classified as an important and credible source while studying different elements of the theory of evolution.