Posted: March 18th, 2023

Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True Overview

Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True

I understand it contradicts the account in the Bible and other holy texts, if one takes a literalist interpretive stance, but given that most texts have more significant internal conflicts, I did not see why this particular theory would cause people to have such visceral emotional responses. I understand, intellectually, that evolution is not the first scientific advance to be met with tremendous hostility; there was also significant opposition to the notion of a heliocentric universe and to the idea that the earth was not flat. However, because people understand that other scientific ideas that were intertwined with biblical teachings have been proven incorrect before without damaging religious belief, I imagine that I assumed that people would be more open-minded about “modern” scientific theories. On the contrary, because of the strong scientific support for the idea of evolution, the choice not to believe evolution seems to be an aggressively anti-scientific response, so much so that it seems to bleed over into other areas of scientific belief in those who oppose evolution.

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I believe that Coyne captures the essence of why people have such a strong opposition to evolution when he states that “Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years. Some find this deeply frightening, other ineffably thrilling” (Coyne, p.xv). Furthermore, evolution connects people to animals in a way that many find threatening, especially given the systemic use, mistreatment, and abuse of animals by people. Given that it was less than 200 years ago that many people in the United States adamantly opposed the idea that humans of different races were members of the same species, it should come as no surprise that the idea that humans and other apes evolved from common ancestors was such a controversial one. In many ways, I believe that this is tangled up in religious perspectives, which is a theme that Coyne explores throughout the book. The more fundamentalist the country, like Turkey or the United States, the more likely they are to be resistant to the idea of evolution. Moreover, in the United States, even people who believe in evolution may advocate for the teaching of creationism / intelligent design in science classrooms as an alternative theory, despite the lack of any evidence to support creationism and the overwhelming evidentiary support for evolution.

Coyne gives a comprehensive definition of evolution that explains the theory of evolution and the role that natural selection plays in the evolutionary process. He states that:

Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species — perhaps a self-replicating molecule- that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) evolutionary changes is natural selection (Coyne, p.3).

Of course, this is a modern definition of evolution, informed by scientific discoveries that have helped shape the understanding of the age of the earth in comparison to the ages of plant and animal species. When Darwin first proposed the theory of evolution, it did not begin with an understanding of the earth’s age and was not backed by as much evidence from the fossil record. Instead, he began with the premise that plant and animal species evolve. This evolution simply refers to a series of genetic changes over time. Moreover, these changes are generally going to improve function for a specific environment for the plant or animal.

One argument that people make against evolution is the notion that some plant and animal species have remained unchanged over significant periods of time. However, this argument ignores the theory underlying natural selection. Natural selection suggests that those members of a species that are best-suited for survival in a particular environment will be more likely to reproduce in that environment. As a result, those traits will, gradually, become more prominent in the population, which will change the species’ overall genetic makeup over the course of several generations. However, certain events can hasten natural selection, so that some species may evolve much more quickly than other species. Furthermore, if an environment remains relatively stable and a species is already highly functioning within that environment, one would expect to see few, if any, changes to that species over time.

Probably the biggest barrier to proving evolution is that it is, generally, not something that people can personally observe. Antibiotic resistance among bacteria is one example of evolution that can occur within the lifetime of an observer, but it is not something that the lay person will observe in their lifetimes. That is why the fossil record is an important element of the evolutionary argument. Fossils provide evidence of animal species that have previously lived in certain locations. However, the fossils themselves are relatively useless without accompanying ways to date those fossils. By being able to attach dates to certain fossils, scientists have been able to put together a fossil record. This fossil record shows evolution over time.

The fossil record, while providing some of the best supporting evidence for evolution, is also used by some anti-evolutionists as a way to attack evolutionary science. There are gaps in the fossil record. When one considers that a complete fossil record would require excavation of, literally, every location on this planet, which is literally impossible with modern technology, the expectation is that the fossil record would be incomplete. Furthermore, it is critical to understand that not all remains will become fossilized:

The formation of fossils is straightforward, but requires a very specific set of circumstances. First, the remains of an animal or plant must find their way into water, sink to the bottom, and get quickly covered by sediment so that they don’t decay or get scattered by scavengers…Once buried safely in the sediments, the hard parts of fossils become infiltrated or replaced by dissolved minerals. What remains is a cast of a living creatures that becomes compressed into rock by the pressure of the sediments piling on top (Coyne, pp.21-22).

What this process necessarily means is that fossils will develop from only a very small percentage of all plants and animals of each species, and that some species may not exist at all in the fossil record. Therefore, gaps in the fossil record are to be expected and do not detract from evolution.

In addition to the fossil record, living plant and animal species provide evidence of evolution. Many species have vestigial organs, which serve no function, but still exist. The fact that they have these features is suggestive of evolution. In addition, as animals grown from the embryonic stage, they go through many stages that seem very distinct from the final human form. Finally, some parts on animals seem ill-adapted for their environments. Coyne describes the wings in the flightless ostrich as vestigial organs that the animals cannot use for their original intended purpose, flight, but the animals have evolved uses for them (p.57). Despite the fact that these organs may have uses, they are still vestigial organs, because they are not used for their evolutionary purpose. In humans, the most obvious example of a vestigial organ is the appendix, whose removal not only does not create problems for a person, but actually seems to reduce the incidence of disease. However, the appendix serves a purpose in animals that subsist mainly on plants, which is how the vestigial organ provides evidence of evolution.

The genetic record also provides evidence for evolution, specifically through atavisms and dead genes. The fact that some species have atavisms, which are sporadic appearances of organs that would have been useful in an ancestor species, such as the appearance of a tail in a human, provide proof of a genetic history outside of what is known as a modern human characteristic. Humans have 2,000 dead or pseudo genes, which serve no function in humans (Coyne, p.67). However, how these pseudo genes prove evolution is that they have uses in related species, but no use in other species.

One of the more interesting aspects of evolution is that evolution is tied to geography. In fact, it was through a geographical journey that Darwin was first able to note evidence of isolation-driven evolution by observing how different animal species evolved in relative isolation on islands. However, more puzzling than the presence of very different animal species living on isolated islands is the idea that similar species have developed in different areas. This can be explained by the idea of convergent evolution. Convergent evolution suggests that species living in similar habitats will evolve in similar ways because they will experience the same environmental pressures (Coyne, p.94). What this means is that species that are not related may actually look alike because they evolve the same adaptations.

Coyne describes the process of evolution. Evolution cannot occur without three basic elements: variation in the starting population, the variation can be inherited, and the mutations impact reproductive likelihood. Evolution combines random variability with a lawful process of natural selection, which occurs because those variations are better suited for survival and reproduction in the surrounding environment. Natural selection can be a difficult process to define because it has to explain how each adaptation has evolved from prior adaptations. Moreover, natural selection demonstrates how animals have become better suited for their environments; there is no devolution, because adaptations will only be naturally selected if they improve the reproductive opportunities of animals with those mutations (Coyne, p.120).

One of the things about natural selection that many people do not understand is that natural selection does not increase the odds of survival for a species, but merely for individuals in that species. This makes sense when one considers human beings. Human beings live in social cultures, where, in many instances, the overall odds of survival of a group could be improved by the selection of certain traits that do not improve an individual’s odds of survival. According to Coyne, one never sees the type of adaptations that benefit the group to the detriment of an individual (p.122).

However, I am not certain whether or not I agree with Coyne’s conclusion about this. I cannot recall the source material, but two things that I have previously read about evolution suggest to me that there may be adaptations that are negative to the individual, but good for group survival, that survive in modern humans. Both of these adaptations are behavioral adaptations, rather than biological ones, but the evidence supports the idea that there is a genetic component to these behaviors. The first is the so-called altruism gene, and its attendant suggestion that human beings will help others even when there is no reward for so doing. While the process is not fully understood, the desire to help others does not make sense if considered solely from the perspective of individual survival. Instead, in many cases, helping others places a person in a position of vulnerability, which would seem to reduce one’s chances to survive, and thus, reduce one’s chances to leave offspring. However, the knowledge that people are social animals seems to encourage altruism in modern humans, because of an understanding that increasing the odds for group survival increases the odds for individual survival, or at least for the survival of descendants.

More troubling, to me, is the idea of rape as a behavior based in evolution. The theory I read suggested that rape is a way for males with less desirable characteristics in a mate to reproduce, ensuring the survival of their offspring, so that a “pro-rape” gene exists in at least a portion of all humans. Theoretically, this would benefit society, as a whole, by ensuring greater genetic diversity. However, I see a major flaw in that argument. Even though women have been seen as property for most of known human history, the practice of rape has always provided some degree of risk to the rapist, mainly because of the danger of retribution from a victim’s family. It seems very likely that those males genetically predisposed to be rapists would be more likely, not less likely, to experience premature deaths linked to violence than non-rapist males. However, the question is not so much whether the individual organism dies early, but how many offspring the individual organism is likely to have created during his lifetime.

While not specifically addressing rape, Coyne does discuss the relationship between sex and evolution. He makes it clear that it is not survival that drives evolution, but reproduction. In some animal species, being capable of living to sexual maturity and, then, being able to mate and produce multiple offspring are more likely to be represented in the gene pool, regardless of whether the parent lives for any substantial period after reproduction. In other animal species where young are dependent upon parents for extended periods of time, it is important that the parents, or at least one parent, survive until the offspring are self-sufficient. All of these factors help explain sexual selection. Females produce fewer but larger gametes (eggs), while males produce more but smaller gametes (sperm) (Coyne, p.156). This arrangement has led to a scenario where, throughout the animal kingdom, females choose mates while males compete with other males for the right to mate because females have a higher investment in each individual egg than males have in each individual sperm. Therefore, while some traits in males that are preferred by females may seem arbitrary, the reality is that they probably evolved from traits that helped increase the chance of survival.

The evolution of new traits in a single species only reveals part of the story of evolution; evolution has to explain how differentiation gets to the point that, rather than distinct looking members of the same species, the animals are sufficiently different to be considered different species. Speciation is accidental, not to fill voids in ecosystems, as was once believed, and depends, in part, on isolation. The line between species is not distinct, and there have been numerous reclassifications of species in recent time after analysis of genetic similarities and differences. A well-accepted definition of species is an interbreeding natural population that is reproductively isolated from other such groups (Coyne, p.172). However, the reproductive isolation does not mean that they cannot breed with genetically similar species. For example, wolves and coyotes are known to interbreed in the wild, so much so that Eastern coyotes are genetically different from Western coyotes because Eastern coyotes have interbred with wolves. Whether this would have occurred in a natural scenario without the intervention of humans that have driven many animals from their natural communities is unknown, but the fact that two animals can breed and create fertile offspring is not enough to say that they are in the same species, although the ability to interbreed is one hallmark of a species.

Perhaps the most controversial evolutionary claim is that humans are apes, descended from a common ancestor as other living primates, and most closely related to the chimpanzee. However, Coyne makes it clear that this genetic link between man and ape is not, itself controversial. Instead, the link is well-established by scientific fact. Not only does genetic evidence support the relationship between humans and other primates, but the fossil record clearly establishes the evolution of the modern human from its ancestors.

The link between humans and the great apes seems clear to a casual observer; I recall a visit to a zoo where a mother chimpanzee was occupied in an activity and her baby kept coming to her for attention. She would look over it to ensure it was okay, and then resume her activity. The baby then grabbed its blanket and went to the top of its play structure, where it began to dangle itself in front of its harried mother. The movements were so human that they could have been observed at a playground, rather than at the zoo. However, what so many people seem to find insulting is the idea that humans evolved from monkeys. On the contrary, evolution has not claimed that humans evolved from monkeys. Instead, it examines the notion that humans and apes, particularly chimpanzees, had a common ancestor. Humans and chimpanzees diverged sometime around seven million years ago, some place in Africa (Coyne, p.207). The ancestors that eventually became humans developed both bipedal walking, rather than walking on all fours or moving by brachiation or by quadripedal locomotion. These differences were significant. While humans may be more genetically similar to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to some of the other great apes, the differences between the two species are significant. I once read a book that characterized humans as the third chimpanzee, but I think that characterization minimizes the differences between humans and chimpanzees. Humans have a different number of genes than chimpanzees, significantly different anatomy, differences in physiology, differences in behavior, and difference brain structures from chimpanzees and other primates (Coyne, p.211). Therefore, even while evolution points out the common ancestry, evolution does not reduce humans to the same status as other animals, which seems to be the main concern of those who oppose evolution as an idea. Even more interesting is recent evidence that early humans may have interbred with other branches of hominids that did not survive, most notably Neanderthal. Neanderthals were once considered an ancestor of modern humans, then considered a co-developing species that did not survive, and now recognized as a co-developing species that interbred with humans.

One thing that people must consider when examining evolution and the seemingly obvious physical differences is the idea of race as a means of determining species in humans. The idea of race has significant cultural implications that make any scientific inquiry into genetic differentiation between races a difficult ethical conundrum. When one considers that African-Americans have been systemically treated as sub-human, the ethics surrounding this issue become even clearer. However, what the science seems to suggest is that there is far more in-group diversity in different racial groups than diversity between groups. That being said, there is some between-group diversity. Taken together, this suggest that race appears to be more of a social and cultural construct than a genetic construct, but that there may be some valid scientific genetic claims to racial differentiation. In some scenarios, knowing those differences can be valuable. For example, Ashkenazi Jews are at a higher risk of some genetic disorders, so that knowing someone is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent can lead to different treatment and screening protocols than for members of other ethnic groups. However, it seems clear that these genetic differences are not enough to suggest that humans are members of different species.

Coyne concludes his book by revealing that, even when faced with overwhelming evidence of evolution, many people refuse to believe in it. They are overwhelmed by the emotional consequences of acknowledging a common ancestry, not only with apes, but, truly, with all organisms on earth. I understand why this could cause people ethical difficulties. Humans have a history of dominion over other animals that includes significant cruelty. Therefore, I think that people who are anti-evolution may not be as opposed of the idea of humans as animals as they are to the idea that animals may share traits with humans. It leads one to the inevitable questioning about the morality of man’s assumed domination in the world. It also leads one to wonder if, through further evolution, another animal will evolve to a point of domination over humans. I think that this fear that humans will no longer be the world’s dominant species drives much of the concern about evolution as a science, even though the slow scale of evolution means that, if that occurs, it will be thousands, maybe millions, of years in the future.

Works Cited

Coyne, Jerry. Why Evolution is True. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

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