Review of “Why Evolution is True”

As I said here, I recently ordered “Why Evolution is True”, and I just finished reading it. As expected, I didn’t really disagree with a lot of it; it was fairly standard, boilerplate evolution stuff. But the big thing I wanted to look at was if it really was as easy for the average person to get the evidence for evolution simply by reading it. After reading it, I do kinda say that that’s true … but I still don’t think I can recommend it to anyone to actually read. This isn’t because the writing is bad or confusing or anything — it isn’t — but that I just can’t think of an audience that would find this book enlightening over the alternatives that are out there.

Let me break it down a bit. For audiences that don’t care much about the evolution versus creationism/ID debate, what they’d be looking for in this book is a nice, simple description of the evidence for evolution. This is the audience that I was essentially in; despite finding some potential ID theories more plausible than naturalists find them (mostly because I’m not a naturalist), I don’t deny evolution as a whole and don’t really care about the debate. What I found, personally, is that the book focused far too much on the creationism/ID debate for my liking. It didn’t go after them at length anywhere, but instead spent a lot of its time pointing out evolution’s predictive successes and then firing off a shot saying that a designer wouldn’t be expected to have done things that way, or that creationism doesn’t have an answer for a certain problem, or whatever. As someone who wasn’t that interested in the debate, the asides — sometimes a bit snarky — were uninteresting and annoying. I didn’t feel that it served the case for evolution much to keep opposing it with creationism. This only got worse when comments were made that I wasn’t certain were fair charges against design, or worked all that well. In fact, the asides only got me — and this might be just a personality/occupational hazard issue with me — constantly thinking about whether creationism or design really did have a problem with what Coyne was saying that they had a problem with, which led me to questioning whether creationism might have a point, which carried over into the cases where Coyne points out thinks evolution can’t yet explain, which somewhat weakens the effect. So the book just doesn’t deliver what someone who wants a biological/scientific presentation of evolution would want.

But I don’t think it will — or, at least, it shouldn’t — work that well against theists/creationists either, because it doesn’t really go after creationism in detail. Again, most of the counters are asides. Any creationist that has read anything from other creationists will know the standard responses to those sorts of asides, and so not only won’t be impressed, but will also be annoyed at what would look like a shallow attack on creationism backed up by, well, a bit of snark. A more detailed and thorough destruction of creationism would seem best for these people — knowing that Coyne wants people to give up creationism and adopt Darwinism — which would require more focus on it. For creationists who know anything about the debate, this book might be a nice, light snack, but it’s not a strong attack on their beliefs.

That leaves atheists and people who are Darwinists who are looking for talking points against creationists or intelligent design. The problem is that the actual talking points against creationism are, again, relatively shallow and undeveloped. Which isn’t a bad thing, but isn’t going to help them against creationists who, again, know the standard replies and are simply going to toss them at the atheists.

So, it doesn’t seem to fit any of the people who might actually want to read it. Again, that doesn’t make it a bad book, but there have to be better books for each of these purposes than this one.

Additionally, it takes a rather strange approach to the topic, where I’d say it treats creationism like a failed scientific theory. All of the asides are essentially talking about predictions that evolution makes and that creationism at least ought to make, and pointing out that evolution’s predictions came out true and creationism’s didn’t. Which is a fair approach to take when arguing against a competing scientific theory. But my understanding of the debate — as related in the stories of the various trials around intelligent design — is that Darwinists don’t consider creationism/ID to be a scientific theory at all. So they don’t treat it as a scientific theory that happened to be wrong, but as a proposal that isn’t scientific at all. And if that’s the case, treating it as one by comparing predictions seems to undermine that actual argument. Which also drives home one of my problems with Gnu Atheism: the seeming inability to distinguish between being a valid but wrong theory and being an invalid or lying theory. Honestly, saying that creationism/ID could be a scientific theory but that it’s gotten everything wrong seems to be a stronger way to go then trying to claim that it couldn’t be a scientific theory at all … and then treating it like one to refute it.

Also, in reading it I was reminded of the work of Fodor and Piatelli-Palarmini, and others that challenge the supremacy of natural selection in evolution. Coyne does indeed recognize other mechanisms than natural selection in evolution, but still does focus on natural selection and in coming up with appeals to benefit for most of the features, including the ones where it is difficult to see what advantage it had. But this is where Fodor et al seem to have a point: maybe it’s hard to imagine because it’s simply association with other factors that benefit that drove that change, explaining some of the inefficiencies. So despite Coyne railing that they just didn’t get evolution, after reading his book I see that at least the basic questions I talked about here still are valid.

This is almost certainly a book I will never read again, and I don’t think I’ll recommend it to anyone. It’s not a terrible book, and I don’t consider it an utter waste of my money, but it just doesn’t provide enough in and of itself to gain a spot on my recommended list.

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One Response to “Review of “Why Evolution is True””

  1. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    Maybe it’s intended to serve as a basic field guide to support lay new atheists in their everyday argumentation with regular people.

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