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!