03/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Book Review: Why Evolution Is True

It's always a pleasure to tell people about a wonderful book, especially when the subject of the book is of universal and critical importance. Evolutionary geneticist Jerry A. Coyne has given us such a book (Why Evolution Is True. New York: Viking, 2009)

Many biologists (and I'm one of them), when they find themselves in the midst of a debate about the validity of evolution, feel as though they're on the Moon. The question that pounds in their heads is why are these people so obstinate about knowing the real world? Isn't it better to know the real world rather than some concocted fantasy about the world?

The answer, of course, is that when the fantasy has been an important part of your world-view since childhood, you don't dump it so easily no matter how many clamoring scientists surround you and chant: "Look! Look! Look!"

Yes, it's not easy. Even just looking at the evidence is not easy. It's not easy now, and it wasn't easy when Galileo held out his telescope and said, "Look!"

Galileo is the man whose very name has come to signify the perpetual battle between dogma and science, a battle in Galileo's time won by dogma, a defeat now recognized as a disaster for human society.

The story of the Church against Galileo has been repeated (and often distorted) over and over again in history and literature. But what was the crux of it? Some say that the officials of the Church of that time were aware of the truth of Galileo's assertions that the Earth revolved around the Sun, but were incapable of publicly admitting this because of fear of demolishing the philosophical structure upon which the Church rested -- the theological position, originating with the ancient Greeks, that a mechanistic interpretation of nature could never be more than a model, an intellectual artifact, since between theory and reality there would always be a gap that could not be bridged by human reason. The Church had received from the ancients a fundamental view of the Cosmos that the Church had preached since the beginning of Christianity, and that view could not be denied without demolishing the foundations of the religion itself. At least, according to this interpretation of the crux of the conflict, that was the view of Church officials of the 17th century. Of course, eventually, after two hundred years, the Church did accept the Galilean/Copernican view of the Solar System, and without destruction of its theological foundations. (Some may argue that if anything the foundations were strengthened.)

The other view of the crux of the matter is simpler and focuses on the elemental battle between dogma and reality, the refusal of the dogmatists to acknowledge reality, the stubborn efforts of the dogmatists to contrive and deny even when one is handed a telescope and told to look at the moons of Jupiter and see whether or not they are real. So goes the story of the Church and Jupiter's moons, although if officials of the Church refused to look, many academics, the so-called philosophers of Pisa, also refused to look.

Why not look? Because to look and see what Galileo (and others) said could be seen would demolish the foundations of one's reality. The dogma was that the Earth did not move. And even of those who accepted the Copernican idea that the planets (other than Earth) revolved around the Sun, many would not accept the idea that the Earth itself revolved around the Sun -- because they believed the Earth would then lose its moon. Thus, to see the moons of Jupiter was to understand that a planet could revolve around the Sun without losing its moons, and that the Earth could do this also.

So the story of Galileo is about looking, and similarly the story of the refusal to accept the biological evolution of humanity is about looking. It's all about looking at evidence.

Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in the year 1610. On 22 June 1633, he received the final sentence of the Church, with the following words read out to him:

"You have rendered yourself vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture."

Had the Church had the same absolute power everywhere in the Western world in the 19th century that it had in the 17th century, you can bet Charles Darwin would have faced the Church and the rack and possible execution by burning for his heresy of proposing the biological evolution of humanity by natural selection.

So it goes. When Harvard University was founded in the year 1636, the assembled university scholars did not accept Galileo's work and they remained firmly committed to the Ptolemaic theory of the Universe. Were they too busy to look at Jupiter's moons?

Galileo's major work on the Solar System, Dialogue On the Two Chief World Systems, was not removed from the Roman Catholic Index of prohibited books until 1835, two hundred years after the Church forced his recantation.

Dogma is not easily melted. People don't want to look at the real world when looking turns their personal world upside down.

Meanwhile Jerry Coyne's book on evolution should be read by any anti-evolution hold-out with even a glimmer of an open mind. It's a book that may change the way you look at things -- if you dare.

(I drew some of the paragraphs in this column from my book Junk Science.)