Even in the age of information and scientific developments, the theory of evolution continues to separate people. This theory supports religious separation by disproving the concept of intelligent design, according to which the complexity of living organisms on the planet makes life unexplainable and suggests the presence of an infinitely intelligent designer. Jerry Coyne is a popular biologist whose research interests primarily relate to the formation of distinct species or speciation and the theory of evolution. In his famous book titled Why Evolution is True, the author explains and comments on the evidence in favor of evolution in nine separate chapters. In this paper, I will reflect on the ideas from his book and link them to my personal journey of discovery.
In the first chapter, Jerry Coyne introduces the complex topic of evolution and provides the definition of this process. To address common misunderstandings about Darwin’s theory, he effectively summarizes it to break it down into six critical components, including “evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and non-selective mechanisms of evolutionary change” (Coyne, 2009, p. 3). His definition says: “life on Earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species…that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; the mechanism for most of the evolutionary change is natural selection” (Coyne, 2009, p. 3). In this chapter, Coyne effectively orders Darwin’s propositions into a structure and does not offer any new or controversial ideas.
Regarding my personal journey of discovery, the chapter has encouraged me to single out common misconceptions about evolution that I have heard from deeply religious adults since childhood. For example, many simply ignore the notion of gradualism, according to which the appearance of new features critical for survival requires “hundreds or thousands – even millions – of generations” (Coyne, 2009, p. 4). Thanks to this misconception, the opposers of evolution regard the fact that humanity does not see itself and other species evolve and acquire noticeable new traits as a valid argument against the entire theory. Coyne’s explanation of common ancestry has also reminded me of another unbelievably common misunderstanding. According to it, humans are believed to have evolved directly from monkeys instead of simply having one common ancestor with other great primates, and I have seen entire multigenerational families sharing the same false idea. From a sociological perspective, similarly to genetic transmission, people sometimes “inherit” false ideas about theories that disprove their philosophical/religious values, such as the indisputability of intelligent design.
Written in the Rocks
In the second chapter titled “Written in the Rocks,” the author illustrates differences between well-substantiated theories and guesses by introducing the evidence for evolution that comes from the analysis of archaeological remains. From his perspective, similarly to old and torn history books, archaeological biofacts provide solid paleontological evidence for evolution (Coyne, 2009). The author cannot be faulted for extreme partiality and attempts to conceal the essential flaws of such evidence since he acknowledges the complexity of fossilization and a small chance of finding high-quality fossils to be studied. It cannot be denied that fossil records are incomplete – according to estimates, humanity has fossil evidence of less than one percent of all species (Coyne, 2009). However, what we have at the moment provides strong support for the theory of evolution since, based on fossil evidence, more ancient species turn out to share few similarities with currently existing species. Also, fossils that are found in widely separated layers are usually less similar compared to those found in adjacent layers.
The chapter has supported me in filling my knowledge gaps concerning how fossil evidence is collected and classified and also encouraged me to learn more about the transitional forms of life discovered relatively recently. For instance, Tiktaalik roseae discovered sixteen years ago has a combination of features of lobe-finned fish and vertebrates with four legs. The very existence of species that have the features of animals living far before and after them compromises the arguments of progressive creationists. Being faced with the inability to deny the fact that all animals could not appear simultaneously, liberal creationists have made a concession and developed a new belief, according to which God created new forms of life gradually and progressed from simple to more complex organisms. The existence of multiple transitional forms makes it unclear why the creator would need to create more modern species by making slight changes to specific features of already existing animals. An omnipotent and omniscient supernatural creature would obviously be able to create the most complex form of life possible at the first onset and would not need to practice with easier tasks.
The evidence for gradual evolution
In the third chapter, the author effectively explains the evidence for gradual evolution coming from the unclear purposes of some physical features of living organisms. Among such evidence is the presence of vestigial traits that were used by certain animals’ ancestors as an adaptation but have gradually lost their usefulness or “have been co-opted for new uses” (Coyne, 2009, p. 61). Atavisms or “throwback traits produced by the occasional reawakening of ancestral genes that have long been silenced” and profound similarities between the embryos of different animals are also used by him to support the point (Coyne, 2009, p. 60). Although some would raise objections and say that not all seemingly useless traits in animals have been studied thoroughly, the examples that the author mentions (atavistic human tails, blind mole rats’ reduced visual system, or vestigial wings in ostriches) are not regarded as understudied in the scientific community.
I have never denied evolution, but the materials in this chapter have broadened my perspective regarding multiple “imperfections” in how different animals’ bodies are designed. I am convinced that the evidence of these imperfections weakens the position of people who participate in the theological dispute about the origins of life and equate evolution to a philosophy-driven idea. It is because it is unclear why an omniscient creator would be unable to design perfect creatures with the best and the simplest possible organs to fly, walk, run, swim, and perceive the environment. For instance, there would be no sense in creating ostriches with anatomically complex wings, knowing that their uses would be limited by balance maintenance. However, the idea that God is an incognoscible creature and might have had motives that people can never understand is often used to prevent further disputes and undermine these rational objections to creationism.
The existing biogeographic evidence supporting the theory of evolution
The chapter reviews the existing biogeographic evidence supporting the theory of evolution. Having discussed tremendous similarities between Australian marsupials and placental animals found in the Americas, the author explains the idea of convergent evolution. According to it, species that have to survive in similar environments face almost the same selection pressures and evolve drastically similar adaptations to their environments despite being unrelated (Coyne, 2009). The author mainly treats convergent phenotypes as the result of adaptation to some similar environments. At the same time, today, there are other potential explanations for this phenomenon, including “genomic and developmental bias, similarities in phenotypic constraints and even mere chance” (Speed & Arbuckle, 2017, p. 816).
This chapter has supported me in learning more about species that may look alike and even behave similarly after developing independently from one another, the existence of which is regarded as a proof of evolution. In the case of marsupials, the scientific community sees Australia’s geographic isolation and the resulting uniqueness of its fauna as clearly related facts. Theists, however, do not offer clear counterarguments and, instead, seek to resolve the conflict between this new information and creationist views. For instance, they might view similar traits in different animals as a kind of the creator’s signature and evidence for the absence of infinite diversity.
The evolution of species by natural selection
In the fifth chapter of his book, the author explains the evolution of species by natural selection with special attention to the rationality and the indifference of nature. To some degree, there are species that seem to have been properly “designed” to fulfill certain roles in certain environments. He effectively criticizes this opinion by citing the evidence for the randomness of mutations – genetic mutations occur even if they would not be useful at all (Coyne, 2009). His main idea is that evolution is a “combination of randomness and lawfulness” and occurs when the process of natural selection orders these random mutations by keeping good ones (Coyne, 2009, p. 129).
Apart from new interesting facts about mutations that I have learned, the chapter has made me realize that radical creationists’ arguments against evolution often contain easily distinguishable logical fallacies classified by philosophers. The prevalence of ad hominem arguments in creationist texts is a well-recognized problem (Barnes et al., 2017). Also, cryptic coloration, mimicry, or incredible hunting strategies can amaze the proponents of intelligent design and cause objections that these creatures could not have appeared by chance. In this case, the random component of evolutionary processes is exaggerated, and the full explanation of evolution is replaced by the statement that every single change happens by chance, which is a distorted or a straw man argument. Additionally, sociology researchers are concerned about the fact that the misinterpretations of the process of natural selection when it comes to people lead to controversial clichés, such as “the survival of the fittest” (Schutt & Turner, 2019, p. 362). Extending the phrase to people is deeply incorrect since the original phrase referred to heritable attributes, not people. Thus, the distorted perceptions of the theory and its main components still cause some to regard the acceptance of evolution as immoral and wrong.
The role that relationships between males and females play
The sixth chapter is devoted to the role that relationships between males and females play in the process of evolution. Coyne (2009) explains well-known facts about sexual reproduction, including males’ competition for females, the purpose of sexual dimorphism, and two dissimilar forms of sexual selection, such as male-male competition and female choosiness. The author justly notes that the first form leads to the reproductive success of stronger and larger males, whereas the second one increases the passing of genes that produce male traits preferred by females.
These materials have supported me in learning more about the peculiarities of mating behaviors in different species, but the chapter is also interesting when it comes to its potential implications for human society. For instance, suggestions that “males should be promiscuous, females coy” and that it is much easier for females to find mates do not refer to humans in particular (Coyne, 2009, p. 171). These biological truths, however, are overused and even find reflection in some extreme tendencies in human society. For instance, they can be transformed into claims that women are too picky and enjoy an unfair advantage over men when it comes to choosing partners. This unnecessary biologization of relationships between women and men may contribute to the ideologies of misogynistic and extremist movements, such as involuntary celibates and similar hate groups. It is also possible that simple biological truths that living organisms should struggle to leave offspring negatively influence society’s attitudes towards people that remain childless by choice and their philosophies of life.
The process of speciation
The chapter covers the process of speciation and touches upon different barriers to studying species, such as misclassification due to sexually dimorphic traits and difficulties in identifying the point at which differences indicate the presence of two species. As Coyne (2009) explains, apart from DNA studies, scientists rely on certain morphological dissimilarities as an indicator of two animals’ different species. In this chapter, the author mostly focuses on providing a thorough review of the previously made discoveries related to speciation.
Apart from helping me to understand the details of the process of speciation, this chapter has encouraged me to reflect on the ways of how Darwinian ideas can be distorted to support radical creationist arguments and cause division in society. A common creationist objection to evolution is that speciation does not exist because we cannot observe the emergence of at least one new species. This statement is based on false assumptions about the speed of evolutionary change and completely ignores the concept of gradualism. The potential goal of distorting the entire theory like this is to play on people’s tendency to accept things that can be easily seen and graphically demonstrated in an experiment and underestimate other types of evidence.
Emergence of modern humans
In the eighth chapter, the author approaches the subtopic that is probably the most responsible for the discontent and social discomfort surrounding the problem of the origins of life – the emergence of modern humans. The chapter is mainly based on accepted facts about the evolution of humans, for instance, the existence of chimpanzee-human common ancestors, famous fossil discoveries, such as Lucy, or similarities between the skulls of humans and our supposed ancestors (Coyne, 2009). Due to the author’s discussion of the origins of modern people, I have improved my knowledge about the development of bipedality and the emergence of the ability to use tools for various purposes. It is also interesting that the proponents of more liberal branches of creationism (for instance, scientific creationism) may even agree to accept the idea that different species, even humans, have evolved. However, they accept the scientific evidence of close links between different species only if it is held that the entire process was started and monitored by an omniscient creator.
Although the evolution of humans attracts much attention, there are multiple ethical barriers to studying the biology of different races because the improper use of such findings will be extremely costly for society. In terms of the concept of racial groups and differences between them, our society seems to be trapped between the hammer and the anvil, which finds reflection in some extreme ideas about race. On the one hand, there is a long history of misinterpreting any existing interracial differences to justify the idea that some racial and ethnic groups are innately less intelligent and, therefore, less worthy of living. On the other hand, fearing the dangers of studying race, some representatives of the scientific community go to another extreme and pretend that interracial differences do not exist (Coyne, 2009). Paradoxically, the failure to study ethnic groups comparatively can only increase discrimination. For instance, predisposition to disease may be predicted by one’s race, which has to be considered in healthcare and national disease prevention strategies.
The chapter being discussed contains interesting ideas about how fashion, which is a cultural phenomenon, can potentially contribute to the emergence of the most prevalent physical traits, thus changing society. The so-called “gene-culture coevolution” occurs when, because of fashion and changing aesthetic preferences, people with specific traits become undesirable as partners and, therefore, have fewer chance to pass on their genes (Coyne, 2009, p. 235). Today, due to the advancements of aesthetic medicine and plastic surgery, people become able to conform to the craziest standards of beauty. It can be understood as an adaptation in a cultural sense. Using different means, individuals can imitate the presence of physical characteristics that are considered desirable. All else being equal, attractiveness increases the chances of being hired (Galarza & Yamada, 2017). In a certain way, people that struggle to conform to standards become “fitter” for “survival” in society and increase the number of potential partners.
Evidence and Reasons
In the last chapter of the book, the researcher summarizes all evidence for evolution and explores the unobvious reasons why some people voice objections to it and claim the evidence to be insufficient. Regarding my personal journey of discovery, this chapter has improved my knowledge concerning the reasons why the theory of evolution is still seen as a threat to living a spiritual life. To the author, “the message of evolution … is that of naturalistic materialism,” and it causes the belief that the acceptance of this theory will destroy morality and promote the law of the jungle (Coyne, 2009, p. 244).
As for me, the suggestion cited above accurately describes the main fear behind the denial of evolution. It is the fear of losing one’s moral compass and having to accept the idea that all values have been made up by people. Regardless of my personal philosophical beliefs about materialism and idealism, I am convinced that Darwin’s theory does not deny the values of compassion, modesty, and selflessness in humans. Whoever or whatever has created the values and social norms that both religious people and atheists understand, it is essential that such rules are actually effective in preventing our society from chaos and total lawlessness.
To sum up, Jerry Coyne’s book has given me a lot of food for thought since it touches upon modern society’s varying responses to Darwin’s theory apart from simply reviewing the available evidence for evolution. The book contains multiple strong rebuttals to objections from radical creationists, thus dispelling common myths about evolution, such as the lack of evidence and misconceptions about gradualism and the notion of common ancestry. Also, Jerry Coyne’s work provides some context for certain social issues, such as the misuse of Darwin’s theory, scientific racism, and the ongoing conflict of religion and evolution.
Barnes, R. M., Church, R. A., & Draznin-Nagy, S. (2017). The nature of the arguments for creationism, intelligent design, and evolution. Science & Education, 26(1-2), 27-47.
Coyne, J. A. (2009). Why evolution is true. Oxford University Press.
Galarza, F. B., & Yamada, G. (2017). Triple penalty in employment access: The role of beauty, race, and sex. Journal of Applied Economics, 20(1), 29–47.
Schutt, R. K., & Turner, J. H. (2019). Biology and American sociology, part I: The rise of evolutionary thinking, its rejection, and potential resurrection. The American Sociologist, 50(3), 356-377.
Speed, M. P., & Arbuckle, K. (2017). Quantification provides a conceptual basis for convergent evolution. Biological Reviews, 92(2), 815-829.