Evolution book takes aim at “Intelligent Design”
Among the new crop of books with themes that would resonate with readers of this blog, one that caught my eye is Jerry A. Coyne’s recently published “Why Evolution is True”. I rushed out, bought it and read it.
The title says it all and is clearly aimed at an American audience. America’s reluctance to embrace evolution — which is the foundation of modern biology and stems from Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection — sets it apart from almost all other countries in the developed world. Polls generally show that only around 40 percent of Americans believe evolution is true while in most European countries the figure is closer to 80 percent.
A Harris poll in 2007 for example found that only 42 percent of Americans accepted evolution while 62 percent believed in the devil.
Most commentators attribute this to America’s high rates of religiosity. Evangelical Protestants in particular are suspicious of evolution with many accepting the biblical story of creation as they see it as the literal word of God.
There have been various high profile battles over whether or not to teach “alternatives” to evolution in the classroom. “Intelligent design” theory, which has scientific pretensions, is the latest attempt to bring a creationist alternative to evolution into the classroom. In a nutshell, it maintains that the complexity of life can only be explained by an “intelligent designer.”
(Photo: A primate’s skull is displayed in Charles Darwin’s former home Down House, in Kent, southern England February 12, 2009. REUTERS/Tal Cohen (BRITAIN)
Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago in the department of Ecology and Evolution, is having none of this and he confronts the intelligent design crowd loaded for bear.
Evolution is more than a theory, Coyne points out. It is a fact and is supported — contrary to the claims of proponents of intelligent design — by a wealth of overwhelming evidence. It also makes verifiable predictions. This is why virtually every serious scientist accepts it. (And there are no serious alternative theories to it in scientific circles, another claim made by some of evolution’s opponents. Coyne notes that this does not mean that data or evidence might some day emerge which show Darwinism to be wrong. The point to be made is that none has to date).
Coyne provides many examples to make his case. The fossil record is of course incomplete. But fossils that are found turn up where we would expect to find them (no Precambrian rabbits have been found ). A progression can clearly be seen in the fossil record from simpler to more complex forms of life. The first mammals appear 250 million years ago, arising from reptilian ancestors. This is followed by the first birds and so on. As Coyne notes: “No theory of special creation, or any theory other than evolution, can explain these patterns.”
Much of the discomfort with evolution stems from the fact that many people simply don’t like the idea that humans are related to apes. But the evidence that we are is overwhelming and wishful thinking cannot make it go away. Coyne points out that Darwin himself had conjectured that our species had arisen in Africa because our closest relatives the chimpanzee and the gorilla are found there. Subsequent fossil finds in Africa have indeed shown this to be the case, while DNA testing shows just how close our kinship is to these great apes.
In short, a prediction which was verified.
Critics of evolution also say that there is no “proof” as we have not seen species evolve before our eyes. But what about bacterial strains that evolve — repeat, evolve — to resist drugs? New strains of the tuberculosis bacteria have evolved resistance to all drugs that have been used against them. As Coyne notes, “this is natural selection, pure and simple.”
Biogeography provides some of the strongest evidence for evolution and Coyne notes that it is territory intelligent designers do not even venture into. It is one of the things that got Darwin thinking about evolution in the first place as he noticed that birds on neighboring islands were related but not precisely the same species — a scenario that fits neatly with the idea that they had evolved their different traits in isolation from one another.
Most oceanic islands for example show a similar pattern that evolution eloquently explains but does not make much sense if one is an intelligent designer: they often have an abundance of endemic birds, insects and plants but lack mammals, amphibians and perhaps most tellingly of all freshwater fish. The reasons are clear: such islands arose bereft of life from the sea floor and the animals and plants that made it to them would be mobile (birds and insects fly and the former often have plant seeds in their droppings). Evidence for evolution on them can be seen in the fact that many of the bird species which inhabit them are flightless (flying takes up energy and is not needed if there are no local predators). Freshwater fish don’t show up because they can’t swim in the ocean to get there.
This is just the tip of Coyne’s iceberg and his book has many more examples. (Why can some people still wiggle their ears? Because it seems to be a remnant from when our ancestors needed to move their ears around to help them localize sounds). It is one of many books that will appear this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” as well as his 200th birthday. It will certainly raise a few eyebrows in certain circles — and I wonder now if our ability to do so doesn’t have some unknown roots?