Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Why Evolution is True

by Jerry A. Coyne

(Viking, 304 pages, $27.95, January 2009)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In book publishing, timing and controversy are everything. So it is no surprise to see University of Chicago professor and evolutionary geneticist Jerry A. Coyne's new book, Why Evolution is True, appearing just in time for Charles Darwin's 200th birthday.

He could not have chosen a simpler or more provocative title. He confronts Creationism and Intelligent Design head-on. They describe "Darwinism" as "only a theory," while he contends evolution is a fact.

The argument begins with different interpretations of the word "theory." Coyne puts it this way: "[A] theory is much more than just a speculation about how things are: it is a well-thought-out group of propositions meant to explain the facts about the real world.... [T]he theory of evolution is more than just the statement that 'evolution happened': it is an extensively documented set of principles...."

How extensive is the scientific documentation that underlies those principles? Coyne argues that it is at least as comprehensive as the evidence supporting any other widely accepted scientific theory. Chapter by chapter, he lays out an overwhelming case, drawing evidence from geology, biology, physics, and chemistry.

Darwin's original collection of observations, which formed the basis of his famous The Origin of Species, was sufficient to qualify his theory as robust 150 years ago. But so much additional evidence has accumulated since that book appeared (most notably DNA as the molecular basis of genetics and mutation), that Coyne is willing to go farther and declare that evolution is "true."

Some readers will dispute that word, arguing that science allows for falsification of a theory but not for a declaration of truth. Coyne's counter-argument is this: "A theory becomes a fact (or a 'truth') when so much evidence has accumulated in its favor--and there is no decisive evidence against it--that virtually all reasonable people will accept it. That does not mean that a 'true theory' will never be falsified. All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in light of new evidence."

Despite the massive body of evidence supporting the "truth" of evolution, or perhaps because of it, Coyne's book can produce a mixed reaction. At times, his certitude feels like overselling.

But in the end, most readers will discover a wealth of evidence that they had barely been aware of. And they will appreciate Coyne's oft-repeated question: Why would an intelligent designer use a convoluted, error-prone, and constrained process to create, destroy, and rebuild ecologies rather than going straight to the goal?

His answer is that evolution has no goal. Still, one remarkable truth about it is that it has produced a species that can ask that question.

In his most recent book for young readers, coverAstrobiology, Fred Bortz speculates that evolution is true on many worlds beyond this one.