(Editor’s Note: the promised “The Moon Phase & the Gunship” has been nudged a week. Read on, and you’ll see why!)
In stores now… (Credit: Viking Press).
I vividly remember my first encounter with the concept of evolution.
When I was a kid, about 6 or 7 or so, I was thumbing through a set of glossy encyclopedias (remember, this was pre-Internet!) at a friend’s house, when we came across the now familiar illustration of a knuckle walking ape morphing into a modern man. My friend promptly slammed the book shut at looked straight at me. “First, I’ve got to ask you something,” He said in an ĎI’ve -got-a-secret’ way; “Do you believe in evolution?” I replied that I didn’t know what that was. “It’s the idea that we all came from apes,” he said matter-of-factly. He made it sound as if it was some strange alternate cult or something. “Not everybody believes in it.” It all sounded a bit odd to me. I immediately asked my Mom about it that night. “If that were true, why are there still apes?” she said. Doubtless, she probably wished we had just been caught smoking cigarettes or looking at dirty magazines like other boys our age. I took that answer at face value, never realizing that modern apes and man can still have a common ancestor. (You can have more than one cousin at a time, right?) I was totally ignorant of such ideas as speciation, mutation and natural selection. School didn’t help much in this regard. We studied the cell and the wonders of the paramecium but didn’t give much thought to where they came from. I didn’t encounter the concepts of evolution until I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a teenager. How simple and elegant it all seemed! The evolution of life simply boils down to death, time, and sex! It was too amazing to not be true!
And that brings us to this weeks review, Why Evolution is True† by Jerry A. Coyne. I don’t generally like to do two book reviews in a row, but this week is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species, the book that started it all. I’ll bend the rules a little bit for that!
Recently released by Viking Press, Why Evolution is True raises an oft neglected topic; just what evidence exists to make the idea of evolution so compelling? Even folks that can quote Darwin and know the basic mechanisms driving evolution are often at a loss in this area; Creationists exploit this misconception that no proof exists, stating that no one has ever seen a fish turn into a butterfly, or some such nonsense. The author explores geographic differentiation and speciation, and the over-reaching theme is thus; there is evidence for evolution in our inherently bad construct. Were we to have been intelligently designed, surely a creator could have eliminated such useless things as hernias or the small intestine. And why even bother with the mosquito? The analogy the author gives of a house under construction is an apt one. Evolution is like building a house by continuing to add patch work wings and outcroppings, all the while keeping the main structure habitable. Not the best way to work, any carpenter will tell you. Selection does not guarantee perfection!
Can you spot the vestigial Limbs? (Credit: Marc Mythos).
We learned a thing or two from this book, especially about speciation. Did you know, for instance, that genetic differentiation is accelerated by geographic separation, and that populations in close (i.e. breeding) contact invariably tend towards the genetic mean, sometimes with deleterious results? Or that whale skeletons display vestigial limbs? Or human babies are occasionally born with tails? †These proofs also demonstrate the reality of evolution.
Doonesbury on Natural Selection…(Credit: Universal Press Syndicate).
The author also has the guts to tackle the much maligned issue of race in regards to evolution. All too often, the concept of evolution has been perverted to promote racist ends. The author notes this along with the fact that fearful biologists may have swung too far in the opposite direction, stating that no meaningful differences between the races exist. To be sure, cultural differences by far outweigh the genetic ones; it’s hard to truly untangle the two. It’s interesting that although several competing species of hominids existed until the last 100,000 years or so, none survive today, the GIECO cavemen non-withstanding. (And their show got canceled!)
We Don’t Invite Them to the Diner Table Much Anymore…(Credit: American Museum of Natural History).
Just what is it that makes us so uncomfortable with the concept of evolution? The author ponders this in the closing chapter of the book. Certainly, those in power may tremble a bit at how it knocks mankind down a notch. Others may find this connection with nature comforting. Evolution also reveals an ugly side of ourselves that we may not want to recognize. Infanticide and selfishness may not be our most admirable traits; nor does an acceptance of evolution condone those traits. But isn’t it more dangerous to refuse to acknowledge that we’re all capable of these behaviors? After all, the Nazi prison guards had families, too. It always amuses me to see the very people that deny evolution exists still participate in a sort of social Darwinism. Of course, we always must be vigilant not to stretch the analogy too thin. Evolution does also offer us hope in such noble traits as altruism and generosity.
† I have one minor bone to pick with the book; the title. I think Why Evolution is True may turn off some people as too haughty. It also makes evolution sound as if it’s an ideological construct for philosophy class. Perhaps a better title would have been Why Evolution is Fact… still, the book goes a long way towards dispelling the popular myth that a theory can be easily dismissed.
A Classic Sagan Example of Selection.
So, why should astronomy enthusiasts care about the controversy surrounding evolution? Besides the fact that when we find alien life, it will have been subject to the same molding forces, a broader under current persists in the creationist movement. Some also seek to undermine Cosmology and the Big Bang theory under the guise of null physics and anthro-centrism. Can an overthrow on Newton and Copernicus be far behind? Don’t let this hard won knowledge be discarded by idiots!
Read Why Evolution is True to arm yourself with a key weapon; knowledge. As the gaps in the evidence get ever smaller, IDers will continue to peck away at the seams. Confronting them is a valuable (and non-profit, I might add!) service we can all contribute to!
(Final Note: for an awesome video of the latest school board confrontation on the teaching of evolution, check out this NOVA episode!)