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Coyne's is an entertaining popular science book. The author is a famous biologist, well respected within the community. The aim of the book is to convince the rational person of the truth of evolution. In this sense the book is successful. However, Coyne has also a different and more ambitious agenda, namely to show that (neo)Darwinism is the only possible and sensible account of biological evolution: even though, argues Coyne, opponents of evolution are always adopting the same mantra (i.e. the theory of evolution is in crisis), what is true is that all the evidence gathered by biologists so far supports Darwinism completely. This bold claim is more contentious and problematic.
The book is publicized as the only one on the market dealing solely with the evidence for evolution. And Coyne successfully charters, in the first chapters, the different lines of evidence that should convince any rational person about the truth of evolution. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are the best of the book.
In chapter 2 Coyne clearly explains why the fossil record, despite being necessarily incomplete, gives full support to evolution and none to creationism. Creationists often resort to the missing link argument, arguing that the inexistence of transitional forms between groups of organisms poses a problem for evolutionary accounts of life's diversity. However, Coyne rebuts that transitional forms are continuously being found (the latest addition is the much heralded Ida, recently disclosed with much fanfare by the American Museum of Natural History in New York). These fossils give us an idea about the characteristics of the hypothesized missing links between different kinds of organisms. Coyne seasons the narrative by referring to various findings. For instance, fossils have been found supporting the hypothesis of the emergence of amphibians from fish ancestors, or the emergence of birds from dinosaurs.
Coyne also rebuts another traditional and often employed argument against Darwinism: natural selection cannot explain the emergence of biological innovations because such an explanation would require the demonstration of the adaptive advantage of all its intermediate stages. Coyne tries to make the Darwinian case by dealing with the often employed example of wings: how is 1%, 20% or half of a wing advantageous for an organism? Coyne provides a rather speculative but realistic scenario, corroborated by stunning (Chinese) fossil evidence concerning the emergence of flight and feathers that should convince the creationist that the argument against Darwinism is fallacious.
Chapters 3 unequivocally shows that many biological facts such as atavisms (e.g. the human tail), organs without apparent function (e.g. our appendix), instances of bad design (e.g. the gap between the human ovary and the Fallopian tube) only make sense in the light of evolution. They inevitably show evidence of common ancestry and tell an important tale about how evolution often works by refashioning old genetic and phenotypic features for different purposes (or for no function at all) by adding and deleting elements.
Chapter 4 deals with the evidence from biogeography. The distribution of life forms and the pattern of organismal diversity on the planet again show in the strongest possible terms that life evolves. Biological and geological evidence concord with each other, leading, in the blurred eyes of creationists, inevitably to a new conspiracy theory. But the evidence from biogeography is very strong. Consider that the earliest marsupial fossils have been found in North America. Why? Because this group of organisms probably originated there, migrated south, and jumped to Australia via Antarctica. How is that possible? Because South America and Australia were once part of the same continent, Gondwana, connected via Antarctica. And why aren't native species of freshwater fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals found in oceanic islands? Because they could not get there! Actually there is a further twist that testifies in favor of evolution: the only mammals that can be found on some of these islands are bats and aquatic seals. Why? Their ancestors could get there!
I think the book until this point is successful. Coyne is absolutely right in forcefully arguing that evolution is a fact. All the evidence gathered at least since Darwin unequivocally shows that life on our planet evolves and that all organisms are somehow related. It would indeed be irrational to believe that evolution is false, or that it does not affect the human species. However, and this is where Coyne's book deceives, evolutionism and Darwinism are not the same thing. Simply recall that Lamarck was an evolutionist too, well before Darwin. Also recall that Darwin was a partial Lamarckian, believing in the use and disuse of organs. There is growing dissatisfaction in the biological world with the orthodox Darwinism advocated by Coyne, and incarnated by famous Darwinian publicists like Dawkins, Pinker and Dennett. It is growingly acknowledged that a more pluralist account of evolution is needed. Even though in politics the expression is fortunately out of favor, a Third Way on evolution is emerging.
Given the sensitivity of the issue, it needs to be stressed that nobody within the biological community doubts that the idea of natural selection is central to biology. Selection happens all the time, inevitably and ineluctably. In biology a paradigm shift like that experienced by physics at the turn of the 20th century is not possible, because Darwinism is substantially true. The crucial point is rather that selection does not work alone, and certainly not in the way neo-Darwinians claim. The main problem of the book is epitomized by chapter 5, where the usual neo-Darwinian rhetoric concerning natural selection "building" traits and producing adaptive responses is adopted. Evolution is nothing more than the process resulting from the slow replacement of one gene by another conferring a tiny reproductive advantage. The process of genetic mutation (i.e. point mutations consisting in errors in replication of DNA sequences) is apportioned the sole role of creator of variation, and selection builds on such basis. This picture of the evolutionary process is oversimplified and increasingly rejected and criticized from within the biological camp. The question is not that people doubt that selection can build complexity, but that a sole and unique emphasis on the building and creative role of selection won't explain everything in all cases. To put it euphemistically, there might exist yet undiscovered, unstudied or neglected molecular mechanisms of genomic, developmental and phenotypic change which contribute to understand how evolution occurs. For instance, it has been proposed, by very serious scientists, that the lack of fossil record concerning turtles might have to do with the sudden appearance of the carapace. This picture of abrupt and sudden change is quite different from that proselytized by Coyne under the banner of gradualism at all costs. In this case transitional forms are missing because there are none!
The defense of neo-Darwinian orthodoxy continues for the rest of the book. Coyne's frankness hit me at one point (p. 166), when he admitted that it is rather weird that researchers stick to strict Darwinian explanations of patterns of mate preference despite the existence of only two studies (sic!) confirming (along many disconfirming) the so-called "good genes model". But perhaps this tells a story merely about the status of ethology as a science. Also the chapter on speciation struck me for some lurking inconsistencies. As it turned out, Coyne was arguing in favour of the all importance of an account of speciation based on the biological species concept (BSC) and on allopatric speciation, even though it is eventually admitted that the BSC is not even aiming at being a universal concept (it doesn't apply to bacteria and archea, which arguably means the vast majority of species), while two forms of sympatric speciation based on polyploidy are ultimately admitted to be of high relevance.
To conclude, the major problem of the book is that Coyne fails to separate the question of the truth of evolution from the question of the processes governing evolution. The reason seems to be that it is useless to deal with unnecessary complications to fight irrational creationists: all you need is just genetic mutation and selection. Coyne depicts the evolution wars as a clash between rationality and superstition, where of course only neo-Darwinians are on the former side. But this is a gross misinterpretation and oversimplification of the position of the critics of neo-Darwinism. And this oversimplification comes at a high cost.
First, Coyne pays a disservice to science. The book is dedicated to Richard Lewontin, one of the most influential geneticists and evolutionary biologists of the last 50 years, apart from a seriously unconventional thinker. So you would expect a similar degree of unconventionality and unorthodoxy from someone who was trained by Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould. Instead, Coyne delivers a pretty conventional and orthodox defense of neo-Darwinism that will not satisfy that increasing contingent of serious biologists who thinks that the time is finally ripe for a new kind of evolutionary biology.
Secondly, and most importantly in light of the book's goal, Coyne's equation of Darwinism and evolutionism is detrimental in the fight against creationists, as it will likely not convert many people. The time is ripe to draw from the richness of biological research to tackle the evils of irrationality and insanity, instead of sticking to the neo-Darwinian jingle. Even though Coyne is certainly in a good position to deliver a book detailing such richness, he unfortunately declines, producing a book that does not add much to what Dawkins has already proficiently, but ultimately unsuccessfully, argued for some time.
© 2009 Davide Vecchi
Davide Vecchi did his Ph.D. in philosophy of science at the London School of Economics. He has been Research Fellow at the KLI for Evolution and Cognition Research. His main research interests lie at the interface between biology and philosophy.