Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jerry Coyne on "Why Evolution is True."

Forbes Magazine has an article by Jerry Coyne, an ecology and evolution professor at the University of Chicago, who recently wrote the book Why Evolution is True. He writes:

My recent book, Why Evolution Is True, gives 230 pages of evidence for evolution--evidence from many areas of biology, including the fossil record, anatomy, biogeography and molecular biology. My main problem in writing the book was not deciding what to present, but what to leave out; I could easily have made it three times longer without even beginning to exhaust the data. There is so much evidence and so many kinds of evidence that one would have to be either willfully ignorant or blinded by faith to think otherwise.

I have said as much. The article is, in large part, a rebuttal to an article written by a neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, who wrote an article for Forbes called "A Neurosurgeon, Not a Darwinist." In it, he recounts that the reading of Michael Denton's book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis as his principle inspiration. As Coyne notes:

If Egnor had bothered to look just a little into Denton's book and its current standing, he would have learned that the arguments in it have long since been firmly refuted by scientists. Indeed, they were recanted by Denton himself in a later book more than 10 years ago.

Egnor reportedly had a bad time of it:

I came to learn why evolutionary biologists are so fiercely devoted to Darwinism. I was vilified on the Internet. Calls came to my office demanding that I be fired.

And much of the venom was ideological. The vast majority of evolutionary biologists are atheists. I'm Catholic, and my religious faith was mocked by my fellow scientists. Many Darwinists openly express their hatred for Christianity--atheist biologist P.Z. Myers desecrated a Eucharistic host on his Web site.

In 1989, Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote in the New York Times book review section that people who don't accept evolution are "ignorant, stupid, insane … or wicked." He has described the religious upbringing of children as "child abuse."

The behavior of P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins is worthy of condemnation, and more than a few people have written scathing reviews of Dawkins' book The God Delusion. That doesn't make evolution untrue. It is also quite true that people of faith who accept evolution have been called "atheists who are going to Hell" by their fellow Christians. There is enough vitriol to go around.

It is telling that he is a neurosurgeon but not a "Darwinist." There are no evolutionary biologists who refer to themselves as "Darwinists." Instead, that is a word of choice by the ICR and the Discovery Institute, who's members use it pejoratively. It also suggests someone who has little understanding of evolution. Coyne rightly castigates him for it:

Let's examine Egnor's main criticism of evolutionary theory. "The fossil record," he writes, "shows sharp discontinuity between species, not the gradual transitions that Darwinism inherently predicts."

This is sheer nonsense. As all biologists know, we have many examples not only of gradual change within species but also of "transitional forms" between very different kinds of species. These include fossil links between fish and amphibians, reptiles and birds, reptiles and mammals and, of course, the famous fossils linking apelike creatures with our own species, Homo sapiens. Does Egnor not know this, or is he simply trying to mislead the reader?

I think the answer is that, yes, he does not know this. Especially if his only exposure to evolution is through Denton and Johnson. He claims, however, to have read Richard Dawkins and Tim Berra. Dawkins is, if nothing else, an excellent evolutionary biologist and I am curious (enough to write a letter) at what Dr. Egnor found unpersuasive in either of those two authors. Berra wrote an excellent book a few decades back called Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, which is a clear, concise rebuttal to creationism.

Hat tip to Little Green Footballs


  1. "The behavior of P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins is worthy of condemnation"

    Not sucking up to religious insanity is worthy of condemnation?

    By the way, evolutionary and creationist don't belong in the same sentence. We're sort of on the same side, but please don't contaminate my favorite branch of science, evolutionary biology, with religious words like creationist.

  2. I had this book in my cart for months last year but recently decided against it for several reasons
    1)the money tree I have been trying to cultivate in my backyard has not be flourishing and
    2)I think I have been over this evidence so many times I will learn nothing new here

    But then, I am always looking to find the magic book that does two things, presents the overwhelming evidence for common descent in a convincing way AND does so without making offensive remarks about religion or creationism. It seems ever good source I have read that satisfies number 1 fails on number 2 and therefor I can't present it to any of my Christian friends as they will be turned off by the latter. At first it appears that Coyne's book might fit this bill as it seemed to be a gentle introduction to all the various converging lines of evidence; however my expectations were lowered after reading some articles Coyne wrote where he seems to not be shy about asserting, ala Dawkins sytle, that present scientific knowledge rules out any such religious faith as we might have today.
    Who am I kidding, I can't keep myself from these books. I had 13 dollars left over on a gift certificate so I purchased it, hope to get it tomorrow. Of course, I was only 3 dollars away from super shipper saving on Amazon, so I had to buy another book... Now that it is on the way I am not pleased that Coyne had to shorten it (publisher demands?). I wish it was 3 times longer, indeed, I want a one stop source for as much evidence as I can. I find the nested hierarchy as such things as pseudogenes and ERVs conclusive yet when presented it is almost always one of the same one or two examples, vitamin C or the 7 ERV chart of the primates. Now this seems pretty conclusive in its own right to me but those with a really strong bias will find something do say about or the other, and whether it has any merit whatsoever, as long as they never see any other examples they will be safe in their own little world. I wish I could find a source with every pseudogene we know of, complete with the mutation pattern that must match the nested hierarchy of the history of the related species.

    Dawkins wrote a review of this book, praising it, and also mentioning he would be writing his own book concerning the evidence of evolution this coming year. I will probably be purchasing that as well, I assume since Dawkins has read this one he won't just present the exact same examples. But I can be pretty sure I won't be in a huge hurry to get my Christian friends a copy.

    P.S. I have read Miller, Collins, and Falk; all decent books in their own right, though I don't think they are the most clear and persuasive on the matter of the reality of common descent. I would say Falk does the best job in this regard.

  3. Tell me something Bobxxxx, why is it that most Christians I know, while not sympathetic to the atheistic viewpoint, are not hostile to them, while every time I get comments from atheists, they are filled with vitriol and condemnation for religion of any kind? That's not exactly tolerant, is it?