Jerry A. Coyne is left utterly incredulous whenever he hears the term “theory of evolution.” As a point of fact, he suggests, the phrasing is an inaccurate and unfortunate pairing, though the word in question is not the one synonymous with pioneering British naturalist Charles Darwin.
In Why Evolution is True, his new book, the University of Chicago professor expresses sharp disdain for the modern portrayal of evolution as mere speculation and biological conjecture.
“The battle for evolution seems never-ending,” he writes. “And the battle is part of a wider war, a war between rationality and superstition. What is at stake is nothing less than science itself and all the benefits it offers to society.”
Nearly a century has passed since the “Scopes Monkey Trial” pitted celebrity attorneys Williams Jennings Bryant, a self-described Christian, against Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, in a Tennessee courtroom. Famously, they squared off over the legality of teaching evolution in a Bible Belt public school.
Although the Scopes case ultimately helped establish evolution as a bedrock element of public science education in America, the clash between Darwinism and religious creationists rages on.
Coyne says the proponents of intelligent design often leave out a critical detail in their challenges to evolution: the ever-growing body of empirical evidence, which he insists is irrefutable, that moves evolution squarely from theory to scientific fact.
He opens his provocative narrative by visiting a 21st-century version of the Scopes trial. The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania, involves members of a local school board mandating that intelligent design be treated as evolution’s equal in explaining the origin of species on Earth.
Coyne methodically lays out the complete trail of evidence supporting evolution, ranging from the fossil record of dinosaur bones to sophisticated DNA analysis, and many decades of rigorous peer-reviewed scrutiny in between.
In this 200th anniversary year of Darwin’s birth, “Why Evolution Is True” ranks among the best of new titles flooding bookstores.
For those who may embrace Darwin’s hypothesis but have a difficult time defending it, Coyne, a university professor of evolution and ecology, supplies readers with more ammunition than they ever will need.
He makes the case for evolution in a way that is eminently understandable, colorfully articulated, and relevant to our time.
Mentioned are politicians and pundits, including former Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas and conservative fireball commentator Ann Coulter, both of whom he finds guilty of gratuitously pitting evolution against organized religion.
“Critics of evolution seize upon [the controversies], arguing that they show that something is wrong with the theory of evolution itself. But this is specious,” Coyne writes. “Far from discrediting evolution, the controversies are in fact the sign of a vibrant, thriving field. What moves science forward is ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments.”
He notes: “A science without controversy is a science without progress.”
Coyne celebrates the amazing wonder of a world that is not eviscerated by scientific inquiry but further illuminated. The special ways that life adapts and perpetuates itself is a marvel to behold, he writes.
It is apparent, he notes, in the shapes and behavior of species, differences between sexes, and special relationships such as the one between faunal pollinators (bees, butterflies, bats,
and birds) and blossoming flowers that yield not only food but also beauty. Even the book’s cover illustrates the descent of birds from dinosaurs millions of years ago.
In the end, Coyne does not find science and those who practice it to exist in exclusion from those who seek spirituality in either nature or a church sanctuary.
He quotes Albert Einstein, who once remarked: “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.... [I]t was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion.”
Todd Wilkinson is a freelance writer who lives in Bozeman, Mont.