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On Darwin's Birthday, Examining Why Evolution Is True

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200 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born. And in November of this year, the theory of Darwinism and the evolution-creation debate that it fuels, will be 150 years-old. It has traversed myriad battlefields from science journals to school boards to the courtroom and now predominantly to books, blogs, and magazines directed towards average Americans. This seems to be both where it belongs and where it will stay.

When Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 it was soon thereafter accepted by most scientists worldwide. 150 years later, one must be obstinately delusional to reject it on academic grounds, and yet this tragically describes a massive segment of America. In fact, according to biologist Jerry Coyne in his new book Why Evolution Is True, it's 40 percent of the population (and a new Gallup poll this week confirms that alarming ratio). In this sense, we rank as the second most atavistic country in Western civilization, with the culturally Islamic, Ottoman vestige of Turkey occupying first place.

This explains why America's evolution-creation clash metastasizes into public school boards, which are comprised of scientific laypeople who are yet charged with deciding science curricula. Sometimes these school boards choose to favor majority-held belief over accepted scientific knowledge, and the "democratic" effect is what H.L. Mencken described as "the collective wisdom of individual ignorance." (The possibility of belief trumping knowledge in science classes was most recently averted in the case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in Pennsylvania in late 2005, wherein the court ruled that Intelligent Design is analogous to religious creationism.)

Coyne's prerogative in Why Evolution Is True is to point out that Darwinism is a scientific theory, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary is, "a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts." It is a theory in the same ways that gravity and relativity are theories--it is for all intents and purposes a verified and observable fact. This is perhaps the foremost misconception plaguing the matter.

And such is the premise for Why Evolution is True. Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago's department of ecology and evolution and co-author of the textbook, Speciation, has written his latest screed for scientific laypeople. And by framing the implications of countless breakthroughs in paleontology, embryology, genetics, molecular biology and various other fields, he seeks to render the last vestiges of Darwin's opposition categorically baseless.

After reading Coyne, one cannot help but judge rejecters of Darwinism as co-attendants to some intellectual school that still believe the world to be flat or that diseases result from inexorable divine caprice. The book is concise but thorough, laden with example after example of instances wherein an unyielding point becomes clear: that Darwinian evolution is the only explanation for countless biological phenomena found in nature.

Some of what Coyne gives us is but a refresher of points we have presumably heard before, notably the argument that makes light of the unintelligence in our "design". If we were intelligently created, why was it done so maladroitly? Why do humans have vestigial features--such as the appendix, which biologists have labeled a purely injurious organ--if we were divinely created rather than evolved? What about the prostate? As Coyne notes, "a smart designer wouldn't put a collapsible tube through an organ prone to infection and swelling."

The subject matter, needless to say, is not all new. However, much of the empirical evidence Coyne cites is, and it plays a vital role for updating the debate. As recently as 2004, for example, the paleontological discovery of the 375 million year-old Tiktaalik roseae--a truly transitional form between fish and amphibian--is appropriately described as "one of the greatest fulfilled predictions of evolutionary biology."

Coyne also reveals to his reader what he considers to be his favorite evidentiary example of all: the fetal lanugo, a coat of "fur" human fetuses develop at around 6 months that is later shed before birth. And, if this hirsute monkey-like stage of our development isn't revealing enough, he directs us to an even earlier stage: the human embryo, which at first glance is almost indistinguishable from that of a fish embryo. Incidentally, our individual development seems to follow a very similar path to the macro-evolutionary progression of our ancestors--from a fish-like stage to an amphibian-like stage to the mammalian stage.

In another chapter, Coyne stresses the importance of biogeography, that is, the peculiar arrangement of species on continents versus different island types. His primary example is the Juan Fernandez island chain, about 400 miles west of Chile. The islands have a disproportionate variety of birds, insects, and plants but not a single endemic species of amphibian, reptile, or mammal. As Coyne points out, this is an unsolvable puzzle for a strict creationist but actually quite predictable to an evolutionist when the inevitable movement of continents and the migratory capabilities of the native species' ancestors are taken into account.

Furthering this repletion of direct empirical evidence, Coyne also points out the fascinating phenomenon known as sexual selection, such as a male peacock's tail feathers or Central American male Tungara frogs' recognizable mating vocalizations. For these species, and many others, such attributes do nothing to aid survival, but are the sine qua non of mating to pass on one's genetic code. As Coyne notes, no benevolent creator would burden these species with such a proverbial target on their back.

The only explanation is that these pronounced attributes are effective enough to allow the most conspicuous members of the species to reproduce before they are picked off. The ironic result is that those with more outlandish features end up passing on their DNA while their more camouflaged competition falls by the evolutionary wayside. This not only verifies a reasonable prediction of Darwinism, it also undermines the Intelligent Design claim that evolution is guided. As with all of his examples, Coyne notes that sexual selection can only be explained either by evolution or by a designer who is no more than a prankster.

This is telling, however, in that it reveals the book to be inextricably oriented around countering Intelligent Design--a moniker and argument first attributed to author-scientist Michael Behe--rather than being a purely insulated book about biology. The books on evolution published by Coyne and his colleagues (Dawkins, Miller, et al.), as well as Behe and his colleagues (Dembski, Wells, et al.) on the other side of the aisle, are ostensibly directed towards a wider audience of laypeople. And one cannot help but notice that they follow up every point made with a careful explanation for why it is important in specifically debunking the others' claims. It is, as it were, an academic "cage match" to be watched by all those interested.

Coyne's approach is not that of a dispassionate, robotic lecturer, but rather a belabored, embattled centurion of science. Evident as he expounds on each of his examples is trenchant frustration with what he considers to be scientific skullduggery by the opposition--currently known as the school of Intelligent Design, but formerly known as Creation Science, which itself was formerly known just as Creationism (and so forth).

In a microcosm of the larger feud, Coyne himself has sedulously rebuked in speeches, blogs, and other publications the ongoing claims made by his foils on the other side of the debate (especially Behe). In an excoriating review for The New Republic of Behe's newest book, The Edge of Evolution (2007), Coyne attacks the full extent of Behe's resume. Among other points, he describes Of Pandas and People, the Intelligent Design textbook Behe helped write, as "a Trojan horse poised before the public schools: a seemingly secular vessel ready to inject its religious message into the science curriculum."

Permitting an indulgence in analogy, one cannot help but notice that the arguments for Darwinism versus creationism have themselves evolved. With Coyne's side sharing a common ancestry in Darwin and Behe's side in Thomas Aquinas (via William Paley), both have now developed their argument in the laboratory but eventually must convince a mostly non-academic jury. The ironic effect is that two experts are vying for validation from laypeople. (It should be noted that Behe does actually accept the age of the earth to be 5 billion plus years and that species share common ancestry. His differences arise more out of his belief that genetic mutations are guided, rather than being random occurrences.)

To the average American, Coyne and Behe's crucial disagreement may be viewed as nothing more than academic pedantry. However, it is important all the same because their point of contention is precisely the point where, for many, secular science and religious belief clash. Behe's primary arguments--irreducible complexity and non-random mutation--are the vehicles for his conclusion that there is a designer. Though a majority of biologists have refuted these arguments from a scientific standpoint, what matters to rejecters of Darwinism is not that it is bad science, but that it gets away with adopting the appellation of "science" at all--they require no further confirmation to be satisfied. It is for this reason that Coyne's book may have little effect on those who hold such concrete beliefs.

Tragically, this is even admitted in his Preface, when Coyne writes that, "for those who oppose Darwinism purely as a matter of faith, no amount of evidence will do--theirs is a belief that is not based on reason." And while Coyne and his colleagues have been forced to address Intelligent Design's scientific claims head on, they are also obliged to offer commensurate psychological/spiritual rewards for accepting Darwinism over creationism.

This is undoubtedly their most daunting challenge. Belief in a designer has all the appeal to mystery and security and lazy axiomatic explanation that gave rise to religion in the first place. Darwinism offers the beauty of nature and the pursuit of knowledge. But in the fight for many peoples' visceral convictions, it is abjectly outgunned. Naturalists can attempt to substitute for their inherent metaphysical bankruptcy until they turn blue, it surely will not satisfy the truly faithful.

Nevertheless, Coyne concludes with a plea to his reader to not give in to the misconception that "accepting evolution will somehow sunder our society, wreck our morality, impel us to behave like beasts, and spawn a new generation of Hitlers and Stalins." This may be demonstrably true on a broad societal basis, but it is difficult to see how most individual believers, who just aren't satisfied by the beauty of nature alone, will ever embrace Darwinism entirely--even if it is an indisputable fact. This is unfortunate, but it is certainly no fault of Coyne's.

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