Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne

WhyEvolutionIsTrueI picked up this book from my local library at the suggestion of one of my Facebook friends.  I was skeptical about her beliefs, and she about mine.  So we agreed to swap book recommendations.  I would read Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne, and she would read Evolution Impossible by Dr. John F. Ashton.

My approach to this book would be a skeptical one.  After all, if something is unquestionably “true” then the evidence should stand up to the harshest critique.

In his introduction, Coyne laments the sad truth that the rejection of the theory of evolution is spreading worldwide.  He quotes statistics and demonstrates the awful predicament we are in that such an established truth is being rejected by so many.  Instead of preparing me to be convinced, this actually strengthened my skepticism.  If so many worldwide are rejecting this theory (and the number is growing), how could he claim to have undeniable evidence of its truth?  No matter, surely we would get to that part as we continued through the book.

Chapter 1 promised to answer the question, “What is evolution?”  It proved to be a very thorough narrative which demonstrated Coyne’s storytelling ability, engaging and interesting. However, it essentially consisted of assertion after assertion, statement after statement made with no real evidence to support them.  [I believe this would have been an appropriate place for Coyne to insert his statement made merely 6 pages before the end of his book on page 228: “But imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories.”]

It appears Chapter 1 was written as an attempt to distract readers with the fantastic in hopes they do not posses the critical thinking abilities to put two and two together.  On page 3 he obliges us with an easy to grasp summary of the modern 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. . . . By page 12 he seems to expect us to have forgotten his definition as he proceeds to tell us that evolution works only through changes in traits that already exist.  It is “like an architect who cannot design a building from scratch, but must build every new structure by adapting a preexisting building, keeping the structure habitable all the while.”

There were only 2 pieces of evidence presented in Chapter 1 to support the idea that evolution is true.  The first was the fact that all living species have biochemical pathways used to produce energy, a 4-letter DNA code and the way the code is read and translated into proteins.  After this bit of evidence, he asserts this tells us every species goes back to a single common ancestor. I admit this made me do a double take.  The conclusion seemed unrelated to the facts and speculative at best.  Surely this was not the “hard evidence” he possessed to prove all of life evolved from the same single molecule?  The second was the fact that different biologists came up with nearly identical groupings to classify living things.  He asserts that if we did not evolve, this could never happen, so we must have evolved.  Okay . . . not winning me over here.

Just before we get through the first chapter, he makes a totally erroneous claim about creationists in what appears to be an attempt to make them look foolish.  For his intended reader, the unsuspecting evolution enthusiast, he may have gotten by with it.  However, as a skeptic who is well informed about the creation model, I concluded he must either be dishonest or ignorant when it came to creationists. Maybe Chapter 2 would be better.

Bingo! Chapter 2 turns up the first piece of really compelling evidence.  In the midst of a short discussion about radiometric dating establishing the earth to be 4.6 billion years old (after smoothly dismissing any inaccuracy claimed), he informs us that there are other ways to confirm the accuracy of radiometric dating.  John Wells, of Cornell University, did a study in which he discovered that corals develop daily and yearly growth rings, and when counted, they confirmed the radiometric dating.  Well, this certainly sounded like a piece of solid, collaborative evidence that could pose a real problem to those who reject the theory of evolution; so naturally, I looked up the study by John Wells.  Lo and behold, I discovered the following phrases:

“[T]hey [radiometric dating methods] rest on a series of assumptions, any one of which may be upset at any time.”

“To accept these figures is an act of faith. . . .”

“After the first, a second act of faith is easy. . . .”

“Is it possible . . . ? I would like to think so.”

“[T]here is . . . very little [empirical information] on the factors governing growth.”

“We must now make an act of faith and assume that . . . ”

“I submit that . . . there is some slender evidence in this direction.”

“Here, as is usually the case, hypothesis is easier than practice.” AND FINALLY,

“It is not claimed that coral growth proves that either is right [passage of time postulated by astronomers or isotopic dates of geophysicists].”

If Coyne was hoping to build any trust with this reader, he was quickly striking out.  Continuing on throughout the book, there was much of the same. He continued to make outrageous and erroneous statements regarding the creation model of origins (in the suggestions for further reading at the end of the book, he even admits that he purposely didn’t cite any sources for his information on creation) and relentlessly asserted “facts” for which he was unable to establish any true validity.  I will admit, the majority of the time he appeared to be honestly conveying the evidence with phrases such as “might have,” “probably did,” “could have,” “if,” “maybe,” etc.  However, after many such statements he would make an assertion that this absolutely establishes the theory of evolution as fact.

In Chapter 6 we arrive at the problem of gender.  Apparently no one can figure out why natural selection would evolve two genders.  One would be much more efficient and quite quickly replace the need for two.  And on that note, Coyne points out that we really don’t know why there aren’t MORE than two genders.  However, he advises us that the “messy theoretical issue” of the number of sexes should not detain us.  We can simply rest assured that the theory of evolution is true.

Eventually Coyne addresses the burning question of “us.”  What about humans?  He spends an enlightening chapter explaining how we evolved from the same ancestor from which the modern chimpanzee evolved.  Then he spends several pages addressing the problems of the vast differences between humans and chimpanzees . . . mysteries that cannot be reconciled.  However, he assures us, “These mysteries about how we evolved should not distract us from the indisputable fact that we did evolve.”

All in all, the book was an interesting read and well written, albeit unfortunately fraught with dishonest or uninformed representations.  I believe it to be an accurate explanation of the modern theory of evolution.

I recommend anyone who is truly seeking to establish what they believe about origins to read this book as well as “Evolution Impossible” by Dr. John F. Ashton.  I think they both give a fairly good picture of the two models of origins.  If you have strong critical thinking/logic problem solving skills you will be able to pick apart the weaknesses of both arguments and make a much more informed decision for yourself.

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