Why Evolution is True – by Jerry Coyne

Coyne’s book is a surprisingly honest and significant effort to support his viewpoint with good arguments. He still fails, but kudos for the effort and for not fighting straw men. Here are Coyne’s main arguments and the objections he will need to address:

Coyne complains that Evolution is just like Newton’s Laws and should not have to be defended, yet he feels compelled to write this book. The question is valid and should be explored in depth. Here are some hints as to why no one disagrees with Newton’s Laws: they are precisely defined, can be easily verified, and impact other scientific areas.

William Paley’s watchmaker argument – is not refuted as promised, and Coyne’s comment includes this gem: “Darwin looked beyond the obvious” …which makes the reader wonder: “why go beyond the obvious”? …and what about Occam’s razor, the choice argument of atheists? Furthermore, in archeology and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) we do look for design patterns. This argument also goes beyond the scientific method and into religion which is the true topic of this book. Coyne just assumes – without even discussing – the impossibility of Evolution being the mechanism of Creation.

Supposedly, “Selection explains apparent design in nature by a purely materialistic process that doesn’t require creation or guidance” – once again, why reject the obvious and go with a far fetched “explanation” that doesn’t explain anything? We’re told that helpful mutations result in “good” genes and “higher survival” of the “population more suited to environment” and “well adapted” but all we will ever observe is the existence of a population. Since we can never assess independently “helpful”, “good”, “adaptability” and “suitability”, it is clear that this is a non-explanation.

“Nested hierarchy” – as a human construct started by Linnaeus in 1735 and that can be equally applied to known human designs like transportation implements, this cannot be a valid argument.

Coyne’s philosophy includes pearls like “How would a designer do it?”, “Tinkerer, not master engineer”, “no absolute perfection”, “…evolution operates in a purposeless, materialistic way, that doesn’t mean that our lives have no purpose” – how is this possible? “Vestigial organs, atavism – why would a designer keep these?” – no, Coyne, you cannot possibly think like the Creator and apparently not even like a regular “master engineer”; you casually expect purpose to arise out of purposelessness contrary to all evidence. Furthermore, despite your complaints, you’re quite happy with the design of your body or else you would “improve” it surgically.

[more] Coyne’s philosophy also includes truths like: “Too easy to make up an evolutionary reason why…”, “Darwinize” – indeed, this goes to show that evolution is not objective, but a preconception that proponents apply arbitrary. “Stars evolution” as Coyne mentions and “evolution of everything” as others assert are not helping prove biological evolution – if evolution is everywhere, then is evolution in the proponents’ mind instead of out there in nature (like the models of the human brain that keep “evolving” with our technology)?

“Retrodictions” – the simple truth is that you see what you want to see (confirmation bias). Sometimes deductive reasoning is misinterpreted as Evolution-dependent prediction like in the case of Angraecum sesquipedale (Darwin’s orchid).

“Evolution is not directional” – is this because that would imply purpose and design? But what about the apparent progression: photosynthesis, eukaryotes, multicellular, jawed fish, terrestrial plants, tetrapods, reptiles, mammals, birds, humans? “No mammals in Precambrian”. But why not? Is evolution directional then? And what about directionality in “Evo-devo recapitulation of evolutionary development in the embryo” (your argument)? And what about “convergent evolution”? Doesn’t that mean that what must happen will happen? At a minimum, you need to be consistent with yourself.

What is Evolution? – Coyne quotes Dawkins: “non-random survival of random variants”, but this like all other definitions are vague and nonscientific. Is every live birth “Evolution”? If not, when EXACTLY does Evolution happen in an organism/population? Coyne’s (Dakwins’) definition is even messier as it is not clear how nonrandom can be “unguided and blind” – and more importantly – how would one positively identify something as “unguided and blind”.

[more] What is Evolution? – Coyne goes on with anthropic “explanations” like “genetic variants, both good and bad”, “advantages”, “benefits”, “raise the fitness”, “better adaptations”, “higher chance of leaving offsprings”, “preservation of favorable and rejection of injurious”, etc. This is once again inconsistent with the view that life is nothing more than matter like planets and rocks. There is no better, good, bad, improvement, etc. for an inanimate rock like, say, Saturn.

Coyne offers several well known examples as Evidence for Evolution: “breeding/domestication… dogs sculpted”, “beak of the finch”, “antibiotic resistance”, “Richard Lenski 1988 E. Coli grow 70% faster and started digesting citrate”, “Barry Hall at U. Rochester removed genes for enzyme to digest lactose in E.Coli, but other enzyme took over”, “Paul Rainey at Oxford on Pseudomas fuorescens obtained wrinkly spreader on top and fuzzy spreader on bottom from all smooth in the middle”, etc. – these are all fine adaptations, but do they represent Evolution? The dog is still a wolf and we have not successfully “sculpted” the cow yet, let alone the fact that breeding is design. If E. Coli is growing larger and diversifying their diet is Evolution, then can we say that humans (Japanese and others) “evolved” since WWII given they also grew larger and diversified their diet? Without a biological baseline, and a clear definition of what EXACTLY constitutes Evolution as opposed to mere Adaptation, the claimed evidence is invalid. Coyne admits this much: “true, breeders haven’t turned a cat into a dog and … bacterium into amoeba”. They actually MUST do that before linking these organisms into a – so far tentative – tree of life.

Other blurred topics include: “microevolution and macroevolution” – how could we know these when we have no idea what evolution is?  “Sexual dimorphism” – the anthropic concepts of “females choosing” and “esthetics” strike again? “Genetic drift” – is that evolution if “not dependent on natural selection” and “cannot build a wing or an eye”? “Sexual reproduction” – unclear if it leads to “faster evolution” and as compared to what? “Camouflaged mice really survived better than the others” – of course, but is that Evolution, and wouldn’t poisonous and instant camouflaging mice survive even better?

Debating the mainstream ID: “There has been enough time for evolution” – then why not enough time for bacterium into amoeba in the lab? “Step by step theoretical formation of the eye” – can’t we all build theoretical constructs as long as we don’t have to test? “ID irreducible complexity is God of the gaps …onus is on ID which is not science as it cannot be falsified” – how is the theory of Evolution falsifiable and how is it not “Evolution of the gaps” since we cannot actually duplicate fish-to-reptile (or any other)? “Polyploid speciation” – indeed produces different phenotypes, but their relatives are none other than the original organism and this difference is comparable to those observed in sexual dimorphism taking us back to the question: when EXACTLY does Evolution happen?

Good questions left unanswered: “How a continuous process produces distinct species (sympatric speciation)? …it’s complicated”, “languages are like speciation” (?), “can’t know what caused the larger [human] brain”, “Climate caused walking erect”? “Humanness is 1.5 % of DNA but no specific genes tell the story” (?) And could it possibly be enough information stored in 1.5% of our DNA? “Darwinism not necessarily tied to explaining abiogenesis” – can the picture ever be complete without knowing how the first biologic species evolved? “There is no going downhill in evolution … Everything must be a permanent improvement” – if so, evolutionary paths are constrained and probabilistic estimates reduced as pointed out by many critics whose concerns are not properly addressed by this book.

Human evolution: The same old and familiar story is reiterated by Coyne, but what makes humans so different from all other is not adequately addressed. In evolutionary terms, the human story would be survival of the fittest on a rampage and raises major unanswered questions since humans don’t just better “the competition” but obliterate it. Pretending that humans are just another boring ape/mammal/vertebrate/…  and only a little better due to some minor “favorable circumstances” is the equivalent of sweeping the most important existential questions under the rug.

In conclusion, Coyne’s book is a decent yet unconvincing summary of the latest atheistic/materialistic argument which doesn’t settle the debate.

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