Jerry A. Coyne – Why Evolution Is True

February 27, 2009

Jerry A. Coyne has been a professor at the University of Chicago in the department of ecology and evolution for twenty years. He specializes in evolutionary genetics and works predominantly on the origin of new species. He is a regular contributor to The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. His most recent book is Why Evolution Is True.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Jerry Coyne talks about extent and breadth of the evidence for evolution and how the reasons for believing in evolution are not as clearly argued in today’s textbooks as they were fifty years ago. He contends that professional evolutionists may take evolution on faith, or on the authority of their intellectual forerunners. He explains how evolution is both a theory and a fact. He details the various kinds of evidence for evolution, including evidence from the fossil record, molecular biology, embryology, the existence of vestigial organs, biogeography, and from bad design. He explores how Darwin discovered evolution by natural selection without the evidence from the fossil record. He explains how sexual reproduction is the key to evolution, and talks about sexual selection. He discusses the Intelligent Design movement and exactly how many scientists are actually proponents of ID. He lists some genuine controversies within evolution, and states that they are indeed taught in the schools. He discusses the relationship of belief in evolution to disbelief in God. And he explains why he feels the need, as a scientist, to publicly speak out in defense of Darwinism.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 27, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. I’m happy to have Jerry Coyne back on point of inquiry to talk about his new book, Why Evolution Is True. He’s been a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Ecology and Evolution for the past 20 years, where he specializes in evolutionary genetics and the origin of new species. He’s a regular contributor to The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement and NPR. Jerry Coyne, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Hi there. 

Jerry, we’ve talked about evolutionary theory a lot on the show, mostly in the context of science education, the culture wars, maybe sometimes about the threat that evolution may posed a fundamentalist religion. But we haven’t spent a whole lot of time in a 160 something episodes, maybe more on the facts of evolution. And that’s what your books all about, the facts of interaction. 

Yes, I noticed refroze teaching evolution over the years. There is a real lacuna and the you know, the facts of it. If you look at a textbook of evolution from the 1920s and 30s, you’ll see that they all began with this is the reason we accept evolution and they have long sections of the fossil record and very fact the sections have just disappeared as evolution has become more entrenched as a biological science. And now even professional evolutionists don’t seem to know what the supporting evidence is. They’ve just been able to take it on faith, that faith but the authority of their forerunners so. Well, yeah, and it’s so interesting. And also because its absence from the books may inspire, you know, creation issues. That’s why I felt it was time to publish it on one place. But it’s accessible for the layperson. 

So it’s for the general educated public. You just said something controversial. I think you said most people who are working in evolution don’t really know the evidence to support the claims. They kind of just buy it. 

And and it’s almost like it’s a chosen career. Doesn’t that fuel the challenge that certain cultural competitors pose to what, the evolution industry? 

You know, it’s just a doctrine. 

I may have overstated. I think that most evolutionary biologists aren’t aware of the extent and breadth of the evidence revolution. Certainly most of them can say, you know, the fossil record, we give an example like Archaeopteryx, the intermediate between birds and dinosaurs. But, you know, there’s a far greater reach of evidence and very few evolutionists are acquainted with that reach and the breadth of it. When you’re becoming evolutionist, you assume that the people who went before you suffocate and you don’t spend a lot of time learning it, just like people who say physics, chemistry, don’t be there. Education with a long disposition on how we learn the atoms for real. So, I mean, you have to sort of build on your forearm to some extent. 

I’m with you. I just use the phrase theory of evolution. Lots of people, when they hear that word theory, they think that it means, you know, something that’s not completely yet proven. But you argue that evolution has been undeniably proven. Should we therefore start calling it the fact of evolution, not the theory of evolution? 

Well, we could have theory and five Manzer, sort of general explanatory scheme to account for observations about the real world. The theory of evolution is just that evolution happened. It’s that it happened by natural selection, that there was splitting signal lineages branched and so many other lineages giving rise to the sort of wish of life. Therefore, their common ancestor is and that the whole process was gradual, wasn’t instantaneous or canor. One hundred years. It took millions of years. So that’s sort of the theory itself with a series of interconnected propositions that are meant to explain what we see. And it’s why this proposition has been vindicated. So I guess you could say, yes, the fact of evolution, it’s just that when you say the factor evolution layperson, that might be taken as well. Evolution occurred, whereas the theory is more of just that. If you get my drift and it’s a theory of statements about not only that it occurred, but why it occurred and how it occurred. 

You’ve said that there’s so much evidence and so many kinds of evidence, revolution, that you’d have to be either willfully ignorant or blinded by faith not to believe in it. So let’s get into some of that. Those lines of evidence. The facts of evolution. Sure. It doesn’t all go just to the fossil record. I mean, the fields of paleontology, geology, it’s it’s all what we dig up. 

Well, that’s what the layperson would think about the fossils, of course, because that’s where you see evolution occurring over time. You can line them up like you could with human prominent skulls from seven million years ago to the present. And actually to change yourself. But the evidence comes from far more than it comes from molecular biology. That presence, for example, of. Genes in the genomes of species that were functional, their ancestors. It comes from embryology. The appearance and transitory form structures that don’t have any sense and less evolution occur. It comes from the existence of vestigial organs, like the nonfunctional wings of weightless birds that again make no sense of that evolution. It comes from the distribution of species on the surface of the planet, which we call biogeography distributions that make no sense unless evolution. And that comes from the existence of bad design, things like our prostate gland squeezing our urethra, which would not be there if there was a beneficent or desire that that created organisms. But it’s perfectly spread by evolution. So, I mean, the evidence pervades almost every area of biology. 

One area you didn’t just mention is genetics. And and maybe that’s kind of the hard science, the the area in the sciences that offers the most compelling evidence. 

Well, no, I don’t think so. I don’t like it about you have a high reputation because the conjures up visions of sterile laboratories, of DNA sequences and stuff. But it fell harder, I think, than the fossil record or biogeography. It’s just that, you know, when you have a DNA sequence written down, it tends to be more convincing to people. I mean, I think, you know, without the fossil evidence and just the DNA evidence alone, we’d have good enough evidence to show that evolution is true. But lacking any molecular evidence, we’d still have it over from the fossil record and embryology by geography that evolution was true. Remember, in Darwin’s time, most people accepted that evolution was true without any evidence at all. So it’s just sort of the icing on the cake, right? 

In fact, that’s to me like the biggest miracle in the history of science, how Darwin came up with all this stuff, the theory of evolution by natural selection without any of the fossil evidence, any of the molecular biology. This other stuff you mentioned. It wasn’t until decades after Darwin that some of this hard evidence that was discovered. So here’s a question for you. How in the world did Darwin come up with a theory without all that hard evidence? 

Well, he did have. I mean, granted, he had no fossil record, but he did have the evidence from biogeography, which has two chapters in The Origin of Species. He had the evidence from embryos and vestigial organs, which made no sense in which evolution had occurred. And he also had two kinds of evidence that are more inferential. One of them is simply the logical evidence. That is, if there are variations in nature and some of those variants leave more offspring than others, then it perforce follows logically that the variants that produce more offspring have the genes that make more copies of themselves. And Monoprice will propagate. I mean, that’s natural selection, sort of an electoral consequence of these observable facts about nature. And second of all is the artificial selection, which Darwin uses. An analogy is a natural selection because he didn’t have any good observable evidence or natural selection. 

Breeding was his big argument. The fact that people can breed animals suggests that other processes might select as well. 

Right. I mean, in fact, that’s where he starts the urge. And the very first chapter is not an evolution in the fossil record. This is. I mean, he saw very wisely that if people accepted the power and extent of artificial progression, which they had to because it happened in historical fact, then it wouldn’t be so much of a stretch for them to accept that nature could do much bigger over longer periods of time. 

Well, it is a stretch for a lot of people. It’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around. And I want to get to that later in our discussion. You know, the challenge that intelligent design may bring to evolutionary theory. But let’s get back to some of the lines of evidence. Some of the facts. So if if I’m new to the field of biology, what’s a single compelling factual statement about evolution? 

For me to tell my creationist neighbor that humans evolved from apelike ancestors and we know this because we have a fairly complete progression of fossil remains from as their black ancestors gradually changing until we get to wondering human nature. Hmm. I mean, you could do this for any number of species just for humans, because, you know, it’s the one that’s most sensitive. 

Right. Because we like our own species. We do. 

So tell me how evolution is all about sex when you get down to it. That sex really drives evolution. 

Evolution is based on differential reproduction. I mean, it’s commonly called survival of the fittest, but it’s more than that. It’s reproduction of the Fed or the fear of the fittest because there’s no perfection evolution. And so the genes that leave copies of themselves, that are the ones that come out on top. You can leave a copy through reproduction. So really, the key thing is reproduction and survival is only important in natural selection insofar as it affects reproduction. For example, that caused you to drop dead after a woman with a 60 would not be selected against because she’s already finished reproducing. And this may be, for example, one reason why we get all the fall pasture reproduction ceases. 

There’s just no payoff for genes to keep you alive after raises interesting questions about radical life extension and stuff, you know, rewiring the genetic code so we can live longer. Off topic, obviously, but. 

Right. Right. But I mean, it is interesting to ponder that, you know, getting old, maybe, you know, we’re selected. Even though it’s a very palatable or consoling conclusion. 

Do you want to elaborate more on sex driving evolution? 

I have a chapter in the book on that. I mean, this is natural selection, which, you know, as I mentioned, is repression of fear or fear, if you will. There’s also a final question called sexual selection, which it’s not sort of the external environment that determines which genes leave more copies. But it’s the other fact that usually females. 

So how colorful the male of the species is at attracting the maid, et cetera. 

Right. I mean, this is this whole set of observations about nature to account for why males tend to be the bigger sex, the more highly ornamented sex, the more colorful sex, the sex that makes calls and displays as females. And, you know, this is a puzzle of Darwin. It’s not explained by creationists. I mean, there’s no reason why the creator should make male birds in brightly colored have one to tell them, you know, Streb and Darwin planted that. He didn’t deal with it in the Origin of Species. That was published in 1859. But 12 years later, and sexual selection did come up with a theory to explain that it’s a bit complicated for the listeners through the discussed in the book. But we do have a pretty good evolutionary understanding now of why it is that we see males and females looking so different and behaving so differently from one another. 

And you cover that a little in the book? 

Yes, it’s a subject of its own chapter. And just because it’s something that people don’t consider or think about very much. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Why Evolution is True through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dawg. Gerry, I want to switch gears here a bit and talk about intelligent design theory. Do you have any sympathy for the creationists? If you’re a creationist? Look, you look everywhere in nature. You see animals that even you admit seem perfectly designed to fit their environment. In your book, you give a great example of the woodpecker’s skull and how it seems to be designed to deflect the impact of the blow away from its brain. Is it pecks away at the tree? So what I’m getting at is actually, to me it seems way more common sense to read design and purpose into the universe, even if there in reality is no supernatural’s design or purpose. In other words, can you empathize with where they’re coming from? 

Well, I can empathize with all people before Darwin publishes Book 1859. There simply wasn’t an alternative theory for this perfection or near perfection of design of it that the creator did it after Darwin becomes Ohara because he had not only an explanatory theory, but evidence for that theory. And now, you know, the only people that really empathize with are people that haven’t had the opportunity to learn about evolution and the evidence for it, and maybe children who have been religiously inculcated to believe in divine creation. But I mean, to sympathize with that is, like you say, you’re going to sympathize with people who don’t believe that bacteria and viruses cause infectious disease. I mean, this is simply something that every educated person should know about. 

So you believe that if an idea reads your book, he’ll change his mind, that the arguments strong enough for no ethical question? 

It depends on why their ideas. I guess if their adherence to intelligent design, simply because they think that God made everything and their views are unchangeable, they’re not subject to reflection or doubt, then they’re can change their mind, period. I mean, that’s sort of a tautology. But there’s a lot of religious people that are committed to intelligent design purely because that biblical story. And that’s the story that gives them the most solace. You know that we have a designer and somebody looks out for us. 

So this book is not for them. 

I’d like them to read it if for no other reason than to recover some cognitive dissonance for, you know, adhering to the strong criticism. It’s really intended for people who are open to evidence. I mean, why write a book on the evidence and directed the people who are close minded? I mean, that would be a foolish thing to do. But, you know, I’m just convinced by the people that I’ve heard from in emails over the past couple of weeks that there are people out there who are creationists and who are open minded. And they write me, they engage me, they try to discuss things. You know, I think people change their minds. Overly optimistic in general. 

Jim Underdown jury were told by the intelligent design activists and the two other Christian activists mostly, that we should teach the controversy in the schools, which really suggests that there’s a number of scientists out there who actually are pro intelligent design, hence the controversy over teaching evolution. Here’s the question. Have you ever worked with any pro ideas scientists? Are there really provides scientists out there challenging evolutionary theory with good, intelligent design arguments? 

Just a very small handful and a few narrowed down finalists to include biologists, designers and most of the so-called scientists who were against evolution in favor of idea engineers. They’re chemists almost to a person. Isn’t one or a few biologists like we’ll be here at Lehigh University is one of them who are in search of intelligent design. But really, in my professional rounds, I have met almost no scientists, too, and certainly no biologist who inherits ideas. I mean, it’s almost an oxymoron to call yourself a scientist and say you believe everything except for those you design for which there is no. 

So it’s not that you’re such a tight knit, kind of closed club that you don’t let controversial views in the mix. You know, you’re not some coterie of people who believe in evolution who won’t let any doubters hang out. 

I mean, that’s just crazy because anybody who really had evidence against evolution would become extremely fat. I mean, you know, the way you gained fame and Firefox, along with the reigning paradigm, it’s the Internet. So if there really were evidence against them, believe me, it would have been brought up by scientists by far. The fact is there isn’t. That’s because evolution is true. 

Just back on this controversial point, then. There’s no real controversy over evolution, you’re saying? But there is controversy within evolution. It’s it’s like what went on maybe between Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould over different mechanisms of evolution. Is it just natural selection or is it also punctuated equilibria or whatever? Today? It’s it’s kind of the argument. Is it natural selection? Can that completely explain diversity of all the species or if other natural processes are at work? 

But the fact that there are these controversies within biology, within evolutionary theory, doesn’t mean that it’s on a weak foundation or that it’s not true. 

When we say evolution is controversial, we mean that the major tenets of Darwinism that he’s laid out is that evolution has occurred. The natural selection is a main process and that change. But that lineage is divided. There’s common ancestry and the process is gradual. All of those types of Darwinism are not controversial, but there is pederasty within the field, as you said, about how strong is natural selection versus other revolutionary forces. How does sexual 4chan work? What exactly are people looking for when they choose the male? Which lineage of human fossils is the one that gave rise to modern humans as opposed to the ones that went extinct? I mean, there’s lots of controversy, evolution, and those controversies are taught how they are taught. I mean, I just thought human evolution a couple of weeks ago and I covered the whole you know, we don’t know which of the invasion. The one that gave rise to humans is different people, different things. So, yeah, a genuine debate. I mean, nobody censors both questions. What makes the feel exciting? And I feel a dead one. So it’s just the major tenets of evolution are very accepted, just like matter is made of atoms and viruses and bacteria cause disease. And that’s not controversial. 

Getting back to our discussion of religion in the context of evolution. Theodosius Dobzhansky, the evolutionary biologist who said the line everybody quotes nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. You quoted him in your book. I’m bringing him up because he was a religious man and also an evolutionary biologist. He believed in God in some sense. Do you think that if you’re persuaded by the facts of evolution as you’re talking about them, does it make it harder to believe in God and religion or just in the kind of God or the kind of religion? You know, the more fundamentalist stripe? 

That’s a complex question. I think the answer in general is yes. I mean, there’s lots of evidence that the more scientifically educated you become, less likely you are to believe in God. There’s a survey across 34 countries of the extent of their belief in God, in their acceptance and Darwinism. And there’s a pretty good negative correlation that is categories that are highly religious, such as Turkey and the United States. And they have low acceptance of evolution. And countries like Iceland or France or Sweden, where religion has a very loose grip on the populace, tend to have high acceptance and Darwinism. And there’s the correlation shown in the United States that education has less likely are to. Believe in God, the more likely you are to believe in or accept own. And within five biologist’s her less religious and our biologists and within biologists, those Filippo voters to have high achieving winter in the National Academy tend to have almost no belief in God whatsoever. I mean, there’s no doubt, I think that that acceptance of one of those realms sort of displaces acceptance of the other. And there’s a lot of evidence that people have learned about evolution, have become less religious because of it. 

This coming November is the 150 fifth anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. So it’s only been, what, 150 years in our species, long history of evolving on this planet that we’ve actually wrap their heads around our origins very short amount of time, about one tenth of the species. 

If he were alive today, do you think he would be involved in the kinds of projects you were involved in? Do you think he’d be a diehard secularist, an activist fighting against the religious right today, say, like Dawkins’s, or would he just be, you know, quietly doing his science away from the public eye? 

I think there’s real doubt about the fact that it would be the latter. Darwin was a sort of retiring man. He had no taste for public controversy. He always had other people do it for him, like Thomas Henry Huxley, who was known as Darwin’s Bulldog. Darwin ever engaged in public debate and took an active interest that he would encourage other people to go to bat for him. But he wanted to have this quiet, retiring life. And he also didn’t want to upset his wife, Emma, who is quite religious. So he would soft-pedal the religion stuff. He would definitely be loved was somebody who might denounce creationism in his writings, but would never go and get on a stage and debate it. Creationists or question religion in public. 

And increasingly, we’re seeing people who are both of those at the same time. Your an example here. You do the lab work, but you also speak out. 

Yeah, we’re sort some loyalists feel like we’re forced to do it because we teach evolution. I mean, this happened to me the other day. The delivery man was coming up in the elevator with packages and in the elevator he said to me, you know, they teach evolution stuff. I said, yes. He’s very telling me how that was all a load of bull. And, you know, I mean, when you’re surrounded by this kind of ideas and you’re teaching kids the opposite stuff in classrooms, you know, I was compelled to get out there and try to tell people, you know, the theory of evolution, not only because you know it’s true, but because it’s just a marvelous story. Richard Dawkins movement has conveyed the sort of wonder of evolution more than anybody else. It’s just an amazing process. I think that this blind unguided replication of molecules could lead to things as complex as humans, for example. 

Thank you very much for our discussion, Jerry Coyne. Sure. My pleasure. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.