Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True”: Intelligent Design in Checkmate?

I’ve finally gotten around to reading atheist biologist Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True (Viking, 2009), and if you follow this blog, you know that, as a religion-friendly agnostic, I’m not always sympatico with Coyne’s most strident and obnoxious atheist postings at his blog site. So you might be curious to know if I’m equally resistant to Coyne’s book. Well, here’s my response. Ready?

I like it!

But I’ll start off by saying something that I wasn’t thrilled with about the book. The Introduction is a tired rehearsal of the contemporary public evolution wars’ state of play. (Here’s the short version: various lay constituencies—most obviously American fundamentalists—are bewilderingly ignorant of science.) Likewise, chapter 1, in which Coyne defines and clarifies what evolution actually is, can be skipped without harm (assuming you have an intellectual pulse). The Introduction and the 1st chapter function as primers for those who, for whatever reason, haven’t really been paying attention at all.

But it’s in chapter two, when Coyne actually starts laying out the case for evolution, that the book shines. Chapters 2-4 set out the converging lines of evidence for evolution clearly and briskly, beginning with the fossil record (chapter 2), followed by vestigial clues, embryology, and bad design (all in chapter 3), and concluding with evolutionary bio-geography (chapter 4). This is Jerry Coyne as Colombo, laying out the “crime scene” for spectators and piecing the evidentiary puzzle together, building a compelling picture from the converging lines of evidence. Any reasonable and unbiased person, reading just chapters 2-4, ought to be able to say of life’s diversity, “Evolution did it.” Granted (as at any crime scene) there are pieces of the puzzle that are missing, but Coyne lays out admirably the puzzle pieces that we do have, and they bring us to a reasonable conclusion (the Earth is old and plants and animals have changed over time). Nebuchadnezzar, the writing is on the wall. And if chapters 2-4 don’t quite convince you, chapters 6-8 should seal the deal (in which sexual selection, speciation, and the origin of humans are well discussed).

But the fact that evolution has occurred is, in a sense, the easy part, because it’s pretty darn obvious when you stop and take a look. Even an Intelligent Design proponent like biologist Michael Behe doesn’t deny the basic outlines of life’s antique history and radiation from a common ancestor.

So for reasonable people, the question of evolution is really not so much concerning its occurence, but whether the basic mechanisms of evolution are sufficient to account, all by themselves—and without any guiding telos (design, end, purpose)—for the astonishing diversity and complexity that we actually do see. And there’s the rub, for this is where all the toxic energies between atheism, agnosticism, and theism gather into the oil pan of ultimate meaning: are the mechanisms of evolution unguided and contingent? Did life—and by extension, humans—emerge on Earth by blind forces, or are we here for some purpose? And this is where we come to what I regard as the most important (and interesting) chapter in Coyne’s book: chapter 5 (which Coyne titles “The Engine of Evolution”). This chapter, smack dab in the middle of the book, is pivotal because it’s at this point that we discover whether Coyne is able to muster a concise and robust defense of unguided natural selection as the chief engine for replacing God as the source for life as we find it. As Coyne puts it (115):

It is no surprise that early naturalists believed that animals were the product of celestial design, created by God to do their jobs.

Darwin dispelled this notion in the Origin.

Coyne’s curt posturing aside, does he, in chapter 5, reach his target? That is, does he make a compelling case for natural selection’s power? Here, I have to say that Coyne disappoints a bit. He makes a reasonable case, but not a wholly compelling one. In other words, I think that Coyne leaves room for a “God of the gaps.” To use the game of chess as a metaphor, in chapters 2-4 and 6-8 Coyne definitely achieves check on the telos crowd, but in chapter 5, where Coyne might have finished the game, he simply does not reach checkmate. It makes you wonder why. If natural selection is so compelling a mechanism for accounting for life’s astonishing complexity and diversity, why doesn’t Coyne make a stronger case for it?

I think that Coyne doesn’t make a stronger case precisely because the mechanism of natural selection is, indeed, the weakest link in the chain of the evolution thesis. Coyne’s qualifying language in the chapter seems to concede as much. He speaks, for example, of the impossibility of witnessing macroevolution in plants and animals (page 133), and therefore of the necessity for biologists to at least generate “plausible” scenarios for the emergence of new traits (see page 120). With regard to accounting for complexity by natural selection, Coyne endorses the use of the term “feasible” as an adequate bar for scientific explanation to cross (page 138). But a less charitable term for “plausible” and “feasible” explanations, absent evidence, is “just-so stories.” And Coyne, toward the end of his book, deploys just such a critique against evolutionary arguments that he does not like (page 228):

There is an increasing (and disturbing) tendency of psychologists, biologists, and philosophers to Darwinize every aspect of human behavior, turning its study into a scientific parlor game. But imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories. Stephen Jay Gould satirized them as “Just-So Stories,” after Kipling’s eponymous book that gave delightful but fanciful explanations for various traits of animals (“How the Leopard Got His Spots,” and so on).

It is also in chapter 5 that Coyne, uncharacteristic of the rest of the book, briefly drops his appeals to positive evidence for evolution and instead devotes a couple of pages to hectoring ID for its inadequacy. Put, as it is, right in the middle of his chapter on the positive case for natural selection, it comes across (ironically) as blue pipe smoke blown into the room for the purpose of clouding the judgment concerning natural selection’s efficacy. He also indulges in some special pleading (as on page 136):

What’s the alternative theory? We know of no other natural process that can build a complex adaptation.

It is here, at this part in his book, that Coyne displays a hint of impatience and frustration (and sounds more like the Coyne of his blog). Natural selection is “plausible” and “feasible” enough for Coyne, and if it’s not enough for you, what’s your alternative? Put up or shut up. And here’s how Coyne concludes the fifth chapter:

So where are we? We know that a process very like natural selection—animal and plant breeding—has taken the genetic variation present in wild species and from it created huge ‘evolutionary’ transformations. We know that these transformations can be much larger, and faster, than real evolutionary change that took place in the past. We’ve seen that selection operates in the laboratory, in microorganisms that cause disease, and in the wild. We know of no adaptations that absolutely could not have been molded by natural selection, and in many cases we can plausibly infer how selection did mold them. And mathematical models show that natural selection can produce complex features easily and quickly. The obvious conclusion: we can provisionally assume that natural selection is the cause of all adaptive evolution—though not of every feature of evolution, since genetic drift can also play a role.

True, breeders haven’t turned a cat into a dog, and laboratory studies haven’t turned a bacterium into an amoeba (although, as we’ve seen, new bacterial species have arisen in the lab). But it is foolish to think that these are serious objections to natural selection. Big transformations take time—huge spans of it. To really see the power of selection, we must extrapolate the small changes that selection creates in our lifetime over the millions of years that it has really had to work in nature. We can’t see the Grand Canyon getting deeper, either, but gazing into that great abyss, with the Colorado River carving away insensibly below, you learn the most important lesson of Darwinism: weak forces operating over long periods of time create large and dramatic change.

No doubt this is true, and a good story. But is it the whole story? Why, for example, doesn’t Coyne illustrate the power of the idea of incremental natural selection in an intellectual take-down of punctuated equilibrium, or the theses of Jerry Fodor, or by putting forth plausible or feasible explanations for the Cambrian explosion and the human mind? And how about the beginnings of life itself? Or refuting the ideas of Simon Conway Morris? You won’t find much of anything, not even in passing, on any of these subjects in Coyne’s book. Perhaps he felt (reasonably) that these might take him too far afield and make the book too long. Perhaps he didn’t want to lose focus. But by not dealing with them he really has failed to hit up against the hardest questions that the title of his book would seem to be in need of addressing if, indeed, we are to know why undirected evolution is true.

Coyne’s book is good, but checkmate it is not.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True”: Intelligent Design in Checkmate?

  1. Well! You’ve finally got round to a book on evolution written by someone who actually understands it! Amazing.

    So for reasonable people, the question of evolution is really not so much concerning its occurence, but whether the basic mechanisms of evolution are sufficient to account, all by themselves—and without any guiding telos (design, end, purpose)—for the astonishing diversity and complexity that we actually do see. And there’s the rub, for this is where all the toxic energies between atheism, agnosticism, and theism gather into the oil pan of ultimate meaning: are the mechanisms of evolution unguided and contingent?

    Yes. Why? Because there is not a shred of evidence otherwise, nor is guidance at all necessary. Unless you believe as Simon Conway Morris and Ken Miller do that we are some sort of evolutionary goal. That’s garbage. An opinion based on nothing. That’s why Coyne ignores it. There’s simply nothing to refute.

    I wrote a blog once on homeopathy for the local skeptics’ society. I had a response saying that I couldn’t prove that homeopathy didn’t work.

    Putting aside that we actually have shown it doesn’t work, this response is similar to yours. Can’t prove Morris is wrong, maybe it has merit. NONSENSE! We look at the evidence in support, and Morris has none. Thus it is safely ignored. He can come back when he has some. Same for ID. It is devoid of any substance. We do not need to go round to every crackpot idea and deconstruct it.

  2. Human Ape says:

    “a religion-friendly agnostic”

    Translation: “a bullshit-friendly moron”

  3. santitafarella says:


    You said: “We do not need to go round to every crackpot idea and deconstruct it.”

    But that’s, implicitly, what Coyne’s book title promises. If you’re going to tell me “why evolution is true” you will, presumably—in addition to making the positive case—also offer sensible counterarguments to the serious people who point out problems, right?

    Conway-Morris is not a crackpot, nor is Jerry Fodor. They’re both serious people. Gould was also a serious person. Nor is it unreasonable to expect Coyne to address (and not ignore) the surprising appearance of so diverse a range of phyla as the Cambrian explosion represents, the origin of life, and the origin of mind. It’s kind of begging the question concerning a completely blind mechanism for evolution if you can’t at least posit some probable and feasible scenarios for these things as well.


    • TomH says:

      Shameless has shown me the way! Just ignore darwinism, materialism, scientism, naturalism and it’ll all go away. “We do not need to go round to every crackpot idea and deconstruct it.”

      Brilliant! Now all we YECs have to do is claim that there’s not a shred of evidence for common ancestry and it’ll all go away. (Argumentation is such a bother.)

      • Except that there IS overwhelming evindence for common ancestry, as well as overwhelming evindence against YECs.
        We don’t need to keep disproving YE as we don’t need to disprove Earth’s flatness anymore.

    • Santi

      Nor is it unreasonable to expect Coyne to address (and not ignore) the surprising appearance of so diverse a range of phyla as the Cambrian explosion represents, the origin of life, and the origin of mind.

      This is pointless. The Theory of Evolution is not about the origin of life, it’s about the origin of species, as well as the Theory of Gravity is not Quantum Mechanics.
      Coynes writed a book on evidence for Evolution, it’s not a book on Cambrian “explosion”, nor it is on the origin of life, or the origin of mind. Those would be issues for complete different books.
      No, he needn’t to argue and refute every other proposal that fancys you, that would be another book also.
      For a book that deals specificaly with the power of selective processes to create complexity you should try The Blind Watchmaker by Dawkins. Hs last The Greatest Show on Earth is promisin to, but as far as I saw, no it didn’t deal with the origin of life or mind either

    • BTW people don’t need to be crackpots to endorse crackpot ideas. That’s one of funny things about humans.

  4. santitafarella says:


    Coyne’s purpose (in the “engine of evolution” chapter of his book) is to demonstrate the power of natural selection to account for all of life’s properties without resort to telos. That means some accounting for the mind must be done, and it means that, if Coyne believes that natural selection functioned at the RNA level, that he should discuss that as well. And if there are prominant intellectuals questioning natural selection, he should address their objections. Otherwise he has not made the full case for why undirected evolution is true.


    • Santi

      I’m sorry but I don’t think Coyne have to adress “prominant intelectuals” questioning natural selection more than a cardilogist have to deal with a rocket scientist questioning the role of fat in heart diseases. Unless the rocket scientist is a experienced cardiologist himself of course.
      ‘Mind’ doesn’t seems to be a common property of ALL life forms, it doesn’t seems necessary for life to exist either, so I don’t think Coyne had to have adressed it either. You are talking nonsense.
      BTW I think that you and others like you who believe mind don’t have natural origins are the ones who must provide some evidence for it.
      As you said IF Coyne believes that natural selection functioned at the RNA level…blah-blah-blah. Well it’s a huge IF don’t you think pal? Besides, I have to keep saing this ever and ever as you seems didn’t get it: TOE is not about the Origin of Life, TOE works no matter what the OOL was. Is it so hard to understand?
      But, well IF Coyne believes blah-blah-blah should he discuss that?
      I’m not sure. WEIT doesn’t look to be a book about what Coyne believes but a book about what have been settled by science. As RNA World is an hypothesis, so it’s not settled as Evolution is, and the OOL is not Coyne’s area of expertise, I don’t think he would include it in the book even if he endorsed it. I may be wrong but Coyne desn’t seems to be the kind of guy who talks as authority about what is not in his expertise area. If he was a cardilogist I don’t see him doing brain surgery. Unlike those “prominant intellectuals” who fancies you so much.

  5. TomH says:

    I went back and forth on the point about OOL. First, it _is_ a separate problem from common ancestry as far as biology is concerned, so I sided with Gato on that point. However, common ancestry _should_ entail a theory about OOL. Coyne makes a claim that evolution is true; therefore, a lack of entailment counts against Coyne’s claim and is very much relevant, so back I went to Santi’s side. Otoh, we should read Coyne charitably, and allow that he may mean to make the weaker claim that the evidence for common ancestry is compelling, rather than the stronger claim that common ancestry is true. Something may be compelling under one epistemology, but not under another. So, while Gato may find the evidence for common ancestry to be compelling, I do not, but find it actually to be quite weak. I think that at some point we must begin to discuss epistemology, especially epistemology of phenomena. You can find a post about my epistemology of phenomena on .

    Regarding entailment–if common ancestry lacks OOL entailment, then it is weaker than if it had the entailment; I think that this is uncontroversial.

  6. Pingback: Why Evolution Isn’t True? With Tetrapod Tracks Predating Tiktaalik, the Origin of Land Animals Just Got More Perplexing « Prometheus Unbound

  7. Pingback: A Pretty Darn Good Reason to Think that Evolution is True (if you have any doubts) « Prometheus Unbound

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