Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne (2009)

I don't know about you, but I learned very little in my high school science classes. I think we were taught the very basics about evolution and natural selection but although I believe it's true I couldn't tell you at all why (and this goes for many principles in science). Not long ago I read of this book somewhere - I wish I could remember where - and thinking it was a brand new book on the topic, put it on the top of my reading list. Turns out it's a few years old so I don't know how it ended up on my radar, but it's a great guide to understanding the basics of evolution.

As Coyne explains in the introduction, only 40% of Americans believe that humans evolved from earlier species of animals (compared to over 80% of Scandinavians, for example) and nearly two-thirds think that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the classroom. For those of us who like our science based on facts and not fairy-tales, this is alarming. It became clear to Coyne that a response to evolution as "just a theory" was needed, both to educate those who don't believe and to provide facts to arm those of us who need them to support our positions.

The evidence is presented clearly in chapters about the fossil record, embryology, biogeography, speciation, and other topics. A lay audience is assumed so even basic principles are thankfully explained (plus there's a glossary at the end!). But nothing is overexplained or delved into too deeply and the book, not including notes and references, is a manageable 233 pages. Out of that, there was probably a total of 2-3 pages that I somewhat skimmed because it was incomprehensible to me. Specifically, anything about genetics does not compute in my liberal arts brain. (I just requested a graphic novel about DNA and genetics from the library - I'm determined to understand these things.)

Every subject covered was new and interesting to me, but I was most fascinated by the chapter about biogeography, the study of the way organisms are distributed across the planet. There is a group of islands I had never even heard of before - part of the Juan Fernandez archipelago - upon which reside a staggering number of species of birds, plants, and insects that exist nowhere else in the world. (One of these islands was also home for several years to a castaway named Alexander Selkirk, the supposed inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.) The relationships between species in such isolated areas, and the ways some species have been able to travel widely, provide important clues about evolution and, in fact, only make sense in the context of evolution as opposed to intelligent design. And that is just a tiny taste of one chapter.

As someone who appreciates the outdoors a great deal, I feel a bit silly because of how little I know about the the natural world. I've made feeble attempts in the past to understand various bits of science and thought it was beyond me, but now I realize I just need the right tools to help me understand. Surely there are other books that are as simple and accessible as Why Evolution is True, I just need to find them. For now, I'm looking forward to a couple of other books on evolution that have been published in the last few months. The first is Last Ape Standing by Chip Walter, which focuses exclusively on human evolution and why we are the only human species to have survived. I'm also very interested in Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel, the story of a 19th century explorer who emerged from the African wilderness with important zoological specimens and found himself in the center of the evolution controversy. I will, of course, report back and tell you all about them!

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