Book Review: Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne

To date, I have reviewed five books on this blog. Of them all, this one is by far my favorite.

Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True is the first book I’ve read cover-to-cover (in this genre) that does not focus on religion, either with a basis of defending it or exposing its downfalls. As the title might convey, the book is all about evidence for evolution and a bit of explanation on how it works. I’ve tried once before, actually, to read another book on evolution—one that you may have heard of.

Well, past self, you tried. But the truth of the matter is you didn’t even make it through the first one hundred pages because you are scientifically illiterate. Remember when genetics was one of your absolute worst subjects in all four years of high school? Yeah… that’s what The Selfish Gene is about.

After giving up on The Selfish Gene, I took a very long detour that included Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (I do not recommend this), Letter to a Christian Nation, and Rapture Practice, all, of course, interspersed with readings of Emails to a Young Seeker.

But finally I was ready to give science-reading another go. The Selfish Gene, even at its metaphorically rich and scientifically simplified level, was too complex for me. It was the type of book where you have to re-read each sentence five times in order to comprehend what it might mean. I don’t enjoy when reading turns into hard work. Learning is fun but not when you have to work too hard for it, especially when it’s recreational and you’re not getting graded.

In this regard, Why Evolution is True absolutely blew me away. Barely at all did I have to linger on a sentence or paragraph, waiting for its full complexity was understood. Jerry Coyne laid out the evidence for evolution in an impressively comprehensible way.

The nine straightforward chapters include:

1. What Is Evolution? (evolution’s six components)
2. Written in the Rocks (fossil evidence)
3. Remnants: Vestiges, Embryos, and Bad Design (embryology evidence)
4. The Geography of Life (geographical evidence)
5. The Engine of Evolution (natural selection and genetics)
6. How Sex Drives Evolution (explaining sexual dimorphisms)
7. The Origin of Species (or the evolution of different species)
8. What About Us? (human evolution and races)
9. Evolution Redux (rebutting those who demonize evolution as the downfall of society)

Coyne begins the book by describing the six components of evolutionary theory: evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change. It is often said that those who disbelieve in evolution or who are against it, really do not understand it. Of course it would be easy to refute a theory that claims that there was a lizard that gave birth to a bird one day, especially if you think that “theory” means “wild guess”. To me, the best way to refute creationists like this is with a book like Coyne’s, which simply lays out the facts logically and explains what evolution is in an understandable way.

On the other hand, this brings me to the one point of contention I had with Why Evolution is True, and that is Coyne’s occasional attack on creationism throughout the book. He would propose a piece of evidence such as species that live only on oceanic islands (i.e. Hawaii) as opposed to continental islands (i.e. Britain) or continents, but he would then follow it by saying something along the lines of “Creationists cannot refute that this is evidence for evolution. It wouldn’t fit with the creation narrative because a god would have no reason for putting species only in specific places.”

I found these arguments to be particularly weak, because creationists usually have no problem fitting square pegs into round holes. Additionally, the mere information presented stuck me as enough evidence that literal biblical creationism is false: I didn’t need anti-creationism tidbits scattered through the masterful symphony that is the evidence of evolution.

Nevertheless, these short rants rarely lasted longer than a paragraph and didn’t detract too much from the book as a whole. Personally, my favorite chapters were those on fossils, geography, and human evolution. As Coyne admits, people tend to have an easier time visualizing an evolutionary tree using fossils and mockups of how animals may have looked than we can with the evidence from DNA, for example.

I was also engrossed in the chapter on the geography of life, not so much by the actual biological evolution of species across space and time, but there was a lot that I learned about continental drift. I would sit in my bed with the book in one hand and my phone in the other, reading about something that sounded absolutely fascinating and immediately Googling it (for example, the fact that there was a land bridge between Asia and Alaska, and that Pangaea was far from being the earliest supercontinent! Who knew?! Is this the kind of trivia I had missed through my 22 years of religious upbringing and schooling?)

A human myself, I couldn’t help but be most thoroughly enthralled by the chapter on our own evolution. The discoveries and evidence were themselves fascinating, of course, although they were nearly overshadowed by my entrancement with the term Australopithecus afarensis. (That was my first time spelling it right all by myself!) Once I learned how to pronounce it, I couldn’t stop. I probably had way too much fun with that, although the time spent on human evolution felt all too brief to me. That being said, the only book on human evolution that has yet crossed my radar is Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, although I’m certainly interested in hearing more recommendations!

Have you read Why Evolution is True? What did you think of it? And what are some of your other favorite books on evolution? Let me know in the comments!

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne

  • I can relate to re-reading sentences and paragraphs in books like The Selfish Gene. Although I am a Theist, I feel much the same way about Dr. Stephen Meyer’s books. Good review on the book.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Now that you have a general understanding of evolution.

    I would suggest you could look at a bit more specific evolution like evolution of any organ or organism that comes to mind. You have shown interest in human evolution. That can be a start

    Liked by 1 person

  • Great Review!
    In defense of Dawkins, he has said he is always surprised that The Selfish Gene became such a bestseller, since he wrote it for the scientifically-literate and not with the general reader in mind. I have read it, and liked it (there is a review of it somewhere on my blog), I do have a science degree, not in a biological science, and I needed to take my time with it too. But he is an excellent writer of complex ideas for the general reader when he tries to be, as he does in some of his other books.
    Which brings me to a recommendation for what to read next on the subject. By far the most enjoyable of the three Dawkins books I have read is The Ancestor’s Tale. It imagines humans as pilgrims travelling back through time, to the point that each other major species branched off from our family line. At each branching point he stops to share what we have in common with our ‘co-ancestor’ where they lived and what the world was like at the time, while also teaching about evolutionary processes along the way. It is a long but fascinating read! I have not read his Greatest Show on Earth which I think has the same intention as Why Evolution is True.
    Interestingly, Coyne does not recommend reading the original Origin of the Species as he thinks the 19th century language is inhibitive. You can see what he does recommend over at Five Books:

    Liked by 3 people

  • Oh my gosh this stuff is so interesting! I feel like I have to read Why Evolution is True now! I consider myself a believer of science, but I know so little about evolution that this sounds crazy and so exciting to learn about!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Hi CA,
    I have read The Selfish Gene (but cannot remember much of it), so I cannot really comment on it, or Coyne’s book which I have never read, but I thought I would like to remind you and your readers that no book on evolution can tell the whole story of life on Earth. The fossils we are lucky enough to have found are only photographs of moments in time, with billions or millions of years in between those photographs. The closer to our present time the more photogrsphs there are, but even still more pages are missing than seen. But even with these photographs, while we cannot see the little changes that occurred, we can see the big changes IF WE KNOW HOW TO READ THEM. And that is the key, knowing how to read the photographs. Not everyone can do that.
    Nor does everyone even have all the photographs, though the internet helps with that. Still, even one missing photograph, or one misread photograph, can add bad information to the mix. Remember the story of the “brontosaurus” so the same mistake is not made all over again. Read the broad story of the fossils, but remember you are missing more than you know, literally.

    Liked by 2 people

  • On human evolution, the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari jas been repeatedly recommended to me as one of the best. I have it but haven’t read it yet. Another one on my shelf is Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan.

    Liked by 3 people

  • thank you for the excellent review! I have the book but haven’t yet read it. Now I will. I, too, am challenged when it comes to evolution and shudder when I remember all the horrors of those Xs and Ys and bizarre diagrams on the black board that my biology teacher seemed to revel in. At any rate, I’m definitely going to give Coyne’s book a go.


  • I actually won an advance copy of the book from Goodreads! I agree with your review. Jerry’s book is good, but it would be improved by taking out all the jabs at creationism. Understanding this topic should stand alone, and mentioning creationism just validates the creationists feeling that their ideas are important.

    I’m still looking for the perfect book on evolution to be able to recommend. It should not be longer than 200 pages, and written on about an 8th grade level but not talking down to the audience, and should not mention religion in any way. There should be clear explanations, with nothing over technical. It should have color photos, and most importantly, should not be written by Dawkins or one of the other well-known atheists. Since I haven’t found that book yet, Jerry’s is about the best one available.

    “Your Inner Fish” is a good one to read, now that you have the basics from Jerry. And don’t give up on “The Selfish Gene”, once you have some other reading on evolution under your belt, that one may not be as difficult. I’ve actually read “Origin of Species” but that’s quite a long book to get through. My daughter has a graphic adaptation of Origin of Species, that’s easier and pretty fun.

    And I’d like to recommend a completely silly animated film short from 1971 called “Evolution”. Now that you’ve read Jerry’s book, you can catch what they got right and what they didn’t.

    Liked by 4 people

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