A Brief Review of Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne June 15, 2009

A Brief Review of Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne

When I heard of Jerry Coyne‘s book Why Evolution Is True, I had to pick it up. Then it sat on my shelf while I failed some students. Now, I’m done with it.


It’s a good, thorough analysis of the evidence behind evolution. Easy to read and easy to understand, for sure.

Is it as good as Richard DawkinsThe Ancestor’s Tale? No. Dawkins’ gift is that he can be humorous, personable, and educational at the same time. Coyne’s book is much more dry and detached. Still, I was pleasantly overwhelmed with the information.

Often, Coyne makes an argument that something make complete sense in the eyes of evolution, but it doesn’t hold up under Creationism:

Now try to think of a theory that explains the patterns we’ve discussed by invoking the special creation of species on oceanic islands and continents. Why would a creator happen to leave amphibians, mammals, fish, and reptiles off oceanic islands, but not continental ones?… There are no good answers — unless, of course, you presume that the goal of a creator was to make species look as though they evolved on islands…

While I understand the need to point out how absurd Creationist beliefs are, it’s just unnecessary here. I imagine Creationists who accept the locations of the species would just say God wanted it that way. With this much information, pandering to Creationist readers is unnecessary. If they’re not swayed by the mountains of evidence, trying to explain why God wouldn’t act this way seems useless.

Still, for the person interested in Biology who wants a crash course in evolution, this is a great start. You get a decent overview of the fossil record, sexual selection, examples of poor design, speciation, etc.

If you don’t finish the book wanting to learn more about evolution, you didn’t read it correctly.

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  • Realizing first this is entirely beside the point, it is unfortunate Coyne chose that particular cover design (or perhaps not since many authors don’t have a say in such matters).

    Discovery Raises New Doubts About Dinosaur-bird Links


    That said I’ve read the book and can attest to how good it is, though I enjoy “dry” writing as long as it stays below 500 pages or so.

  • I too have read this book. I found it informative and the dry style never made it feel too long. On the contrary, this dry style is essential for hammering home the point of just how much evidence there is.

    While we may not know the precise mechanism which caused each individual feature of every animal on the planet, evolution still provides the best answer. I doubt even Coyne was pandering to the creationists and actually commenting on just how absurd it would be for a creator to do this without a mechanism such as evolution.

    Still amazes me how Creationists think there are 6 forms of evolution.

  • TXatheist

    Can anyone else recommend some good introductory books on evolution? I’ve read Darwin and several others but right after Darwin I wanted to read a book that was good for the layman and others may want that input too.

  • keddaw

    Why do we (or, more accurately, they) assume god is perfect?

    Why must he have be all-knowing and all-powerful? What if god was more human than we know? Run with this…

    God makes the universe messes with the chemicals and creates life, then alters it to see what happens. Over millions of years of blindly mucking around to see what happens he notices some are better at various things than others.

    Intrigued by this diversity and the different shapes and forms he keeps messing around trying to create more bizarre and more complicated creatures noticing how the environment is being altered by these creatures and also how they react to the altered environment, usually by dying.

    One day, while his attention was elsewhere (the universe is big you know) a meteorite almost destroyed his little project, destroying almost all of the complexity he had spent ages creating. This angered him and he worked hard creating all kinds of new creatures based on what he had already learned, this would explain the Cambrian explosion.

    Eventually his tinkering led to the creation of humans and within them he saw a creature that could grow without his constant tampering. He stopped his tinkering and waited for humans to reach a point where he could actually have a relationship with these creatures, perhaps like pets, perhaps more.

    This version of events would appear to cover most of the problems creationists run into while allowing god to be a central part of human existence.

    However if you replace god with evolution it works just as well.

  • Danielle


    I think an imperfect god would cause more creationist brain explosions than the fossil record. An imperfect god doesn’t really have any business telling us what minority groups to hate and keeping tabs on our sex life, now does it?

  • keddaw:

    Your consideration runs to the fundamental nature of God. Could he be imperfect? Only as much as the next omnipotent entity – or to put it plainly, “No.”

    Or for some of us God is as imperfect as his human creators.

  • being a business major and, regrettably, not having learned much about evolution in school, i thoroughly enjoyed this book and felt that it was very accessible for a person like me. like you said, i finished it wanting to learn more.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Ethos: “Discovery Raises New Doubts About Dinosaur-bird Links

    The researchers interviewed in that article sound pretty stupid.

    “We aren’t suggesting that dinosaurs and birds may not have had a common ancestor somewhere in the distant past,” Quick said. “That’s quite possible and is routinely found in evolution.

    Doh! Of course birds and theropods had a common ancestor. The question is how far back one has to look to find that common ancestry.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Can anyone else recommend some good introductory books on evolution?

    For another good introductory book that covers the basics, try Carl Zimmer’s Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea.

    For a more advanced book covering a good deal of evolutionary population biology, try What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr.

    For essays covering various aspects and examples of evolution, try almost anything by Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould.

    And, for a good laugh, check out The Lie: Evolution by Ken Ham.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Jerry Coyne has a blog, Why Evolution is True on which he discusses science and religion in addition to evolution. Also, cats.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Jerry Coyne wrote what I consider to be the best short treatment (10-15 pages) laying out the evidence for evolution and against intelligent design creationism. It’s available online at The Edge:

    The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name

    by Jerry Coyne

  • I read the first few pages from the Coyne link and it looks very good.

    There is also a nice summer reading list at the bottom of the Coyne link.

  • Plainfieldrob

    If you liked WEIT by Coyne – you will love Your Inner Fish by Niel Shubin. Coyne talks about Shubin’s exploits early on in his book – but Shubin is a gifted writer himself and much more entertaining – I couldn’t more highly recommend a book.

    I read Shubin’s tome in a few days – Coyne took me quite a while longer – Hemant is right – he is dry but man would I love to have lunch with the guy – he is really getting on center stage with Dawkins et al in the world of evo-devo / anti-intelligent design. Coyne is a great voice to have in this debate. Coyne’s blog is good too (Shubin doesn’t have one, yet)…plus being a Chicagoland’er I love claiming Coyne/Shubin as hometown guys..

    I like Michael Shermer’s writing too – he is an easy read. Try Why Darwin Matters…

  • Hemant,

    How would you rank The Ancestor’s Tale compared to The Blind Watchmaker?

  • Hemant,

    How would you rank The Ancestor’s Tale compared to The Blind Watchmaker?

    The Ancestor’s Tale >>> The Blind Watchmaker 🙂

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Plainfieldrob: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin.

    An excellent read! It’s really not a general introduction though, it concentrates on Shubin’s own work a) teaching human anatomy b) discovering early fish/amphibian fossils. I think the personal touch is what makes it so great.

    For something about fossils, there’s
    Evolution: what the fossils say and why it matters by Donal Prothero.

  • Stephen P

    @TXatheist: for a layman’s book on evolution, I’d recommend Steve Jones’ book “Almost like a whale” (unfortunately given the stupid name “Darwin’s Ghost” by its American publisher).

    For specific topics, “The beak of the finch” by Jonathan Weiner and “The Neandertal Enigma” by James Shreeve are also good reads.

    For slightly meatier books, but still aimed at the layman, I can recommend Dawkins’ “The Ancestor’s Tale” and Sean Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”.

  • Earl Newton

    Hey Hemant –

    Have been enjoying your blog quite a bit. 😀

    Just logged onto this post, however, and I noticed there was an ad above it for Dianetics. I’m assuming this is some kind of auto-Google ad, and I wanted to let you know ASAP. Dianetics is a bit of a sticky business.

    Keep up the great work!

  • atomjack

    Good recommendations on evolution books, I’ll have to check some of them out…but I ain’t droppin’ a dime on anything an evolution denier publishes. What little I remember from my Bio class from 40+ years ago doesn’t support that kind of tripe, and I sure am not dropping money on it.

    Hemant, surely you aren’t taking the blame for some of your students failing one of your classes (“failing my students”), are you? You teach in the real world, right, no god stuff in the classroom?

    Some kids just want to fail, like they think it sends some sort of message other than “I’m a geode!” (geodes are basically hollow rocks). Getting an “F” in a class, where I come from, is harder than getting an “A”.

  • zoo

    I ain’t droppin’ a dime on anything an evolution denier publishes.

    Not to worry atomjack, your local public library most likely has everything you need in that specialty. Some of it will be with religion, some of it will be with science, some of it apparently in writing instruction (haven’t figured that one out yet), and I think I’ve found it in other sections, so definitely make use of the computer catalog.

  • AxeGrrl

    zoo, in response to atomjack’s comment “I ain’t droppin’ a dime on anything an evolution denier publishes.” wrote:

    Not to worry atomjack, your local public library most likely has everything you need in that specialty.

    I know this is a rather tangential issue, but a friend of mine who works for the public library mentioned that authors get some amount of ‘monetary compensation’ every time one of their books is taken out/lended from a library.

    So, I guess if you really don’t want to even ‘drop a dime’ on such works, you might want to search for some _torrents_ online 🙂

  • I know this is a rather tangential issue, but a friend of mine who works for the public library mentioned that authors get some amount of ‘monetary compensation’ every time one of their books is taken out/lended from a library.

    I’ve never heard that before… I can tell you when I get book sales/royalty info from my publishers, there’s no line for “library compensation” or anything like that 🙂

  • Richard Wade

    My wife works for the library. In a public free lending library, there is no monetary compensation to anyone for checking out books. The book is purchased by the library, and the author gets a percentage from that purchase only. Libraries are not like radio stations paying royalties for playing an artist’s record.

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