“Moonstruck”: a contrarian review

June 15, 2021 • 12:45 pm

I hadn’t realized that you can see some full movies for free on YouTube, though the selection is limited. But there are a few highly rated films among them, one being the 1987 film Moonstruck, starring Olympia Dukakis, Cher, and Nicholas Cage. The first two people won Oscars for their performance as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, and the movie also got the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Here’s the movie if you want to watch it for free, and it’s legal to do so.

As I said, the movie was highly regarded, though, according to the Rotten Tomatoes summary below (click to read), better regarded by critics than by viewers—though the latter still liked it a lot.

Since I was able to watch this movie for free, and remember liking it when it first came out, I decided to watch it again. But this time I wasn’t so keen on it.

I won’t go into detail with a full review, and the plot is simple.  Italian widow Cher is engaged to be married, but falls in love with her fiancée’s wild younger brother (Nicholas Cage), who happens to have both a wooden hand (his brother is said to be responsible for the hand loss in a bakery accident) and a great love of opera. Cher gets smitten by Cage and even by opera, though her traditional family is appalled by her choosing the younger brother over her stolid and boring fiancée. In the end, everything’s hashed out over breakfast, and the fiancée doesn’t want to marry Cher after all because he harbors a superstition that marrying her will kill his ailing mother. Cher and Cage pledge their troths, and everything ends happily.

Why don’t I like the movie so much? Well, the highly touted acting isn’t as good as I remembered it, and the plot is pretty predictable once it gets going. Further, the attraction between Cher and Cage simply isn’t credible to me. They fall into bed immediately, suggesting it’s largely physical chemistry, but it’s clearly more than that. Yet we never understand what’s motivating them to contemplate marriage or what’s driving the relationship beyond sex. Cage seems to be a loose cannon, and Cher plays a woman with a good head on her shoulders. Their conjunction is hard to swallow.

In other words, this is a romantic comedy that I see as fluff. The screenplay is good, the acting credible, but I’m still baffled about why the film got nominated for those Oscars. Were the standards different 35 years ago? I don’t think so, for when I ponder When Harry Met Sally, one of my favorite “rom coms”, it was made only two years later. Yet it seems so much better, as if it were about real people rather than pawns manipulated to fulfill a predestined conclusion.

Well, that’s my say, and I expect many will disagree. Do you remember Moonstruck? If you do, or manage to watch it above, weigh in.

The title, by the way, comes from the superstition that when there’s a big full moon, people start acting crazy. I suppose that’s one explanation for the relationship between Cher and Cage.

Three brief movie reviews

December 27, 2020 • 2:15 pm

I mentioned the new 99-minute movie “Mighty Ira” the other day: it’s a documentary about former ACLU head Ira Glasser.  Here’s the trailer:

I quite liked it, and recommend it if you have any interest in civil liberties. It’s a montage of clips about a diversity of subjects, centered on Glasser’s work with the famous Skokie case of 1977, when the American Nazi party challenged the suburb of Skokie’s denial of their demand to march through the town (Skokie was largely Jewish). The ACLU, defending the Nazis, won, but the brownshirts didn’t march there, doing so in Chicago instead. The footage of these pathetic bigots is entertaining, especially when their Big March in Chicago is drowned out by shouting opponents exercising their right of counter-speech.

What’s worth noticing is that nearly everyone involved with the ACLU back then, including those who defended Nazis, were Jews. They had no love for National Socialism, but they loved civil liberties, and the articulation by Glasser and others of why they felt they had to defend the Nazis by itself makes the movie worth watching. Glasser and most of his ACLU colleagues were really in the organization to defend the civil liberties of blacks, and it’s sad to remember that the blacks and the Jews used to be friends.

But there’s a lot more. The intellectual clashes between William Buckley and Glasser are epic, especially when you realize that they liked each other (you can see Glasser taking the patrician Buckley on his first NYC subway ride).  Likewise, Glasser becomes pals with Ben Stern, a concentration-camp survivor who adamantly fought against the Nazis coming into Skokie. The final scene, in which Stern tells Glasser that he loves him anyway, is a weepy moment. There are bits about the recent trouble in Charlottesville, and a lot about baseball, for Glasser was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan—because of Jackie Robinson.  It wasn’t that Robinson was the first black man to play major-league ball, but simply because he was a world-class player who energized the team and made its fans go nuts. When they moved to Los Angeles, Glasser was bereft.

Anyway, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this movie to everyone, as there are no chase scenes or superheroes, but if you’re into civil liberties and free speech, and want to meet an icon who promulgated those values for many years, watch “Mighty Ira”.

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“Mank” is the nickname of the protagonist, Herman Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who shared an Oscar with Orson Welles for the script of “Citizen Kane”. As the trailer below shows, it was filmed in black and white (we need more movies like that), and the cinematography and style hearken back to the Forties.

The topic is about Mank’s struggles to produce a script on short notice, and his battles with Welles for credit. But there’s a lot of narrative about the studio system in Hollywood, and so we also get to see Mank’s battles with Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer (like the movie above, most of the big players were Jewish), as well as his schmoozing (and falling out) with William Randolph Hearst, who of course was one of the inspirations for “Citizen Kane”.

There are two excellent performances here: Gary Oldman’s, who plays Mank (often drunk), and Amanda Seyfried’s, who plays Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress who was the hostess at San Simeon. It’s a testament to Oldman’s versatility that he can transform from Winston Churchill (he won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Winnie in “Darkest Hour”) to a sarcastic and alcoholic screenwriter, completely believable. Do see this movie, and if you don’t believe me, go look at the critics’ reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.

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I didn’t know that Sarah Silverman did a serious movie, and of course, being smitten with her, I had to see it. Sure enough, the movie, “I Smile Back“, is five years old, and I hadn’t heard of it. Perhaps that’s for a good reason, for while it was a watchable movie, it wasn’t a great one. It chronicles the degeneration of a seemingly perfect marriage between Silverman and her tolerant husband (they have two kids), with the degeneration due entirely to Silverman’s problems with alcohol, drugs, and depression.  Here’s the trailer:

While the plot is no great shakes, I have to say—and this isn’t because I love her—Silverman gives a really good performance. Perhaps it’s because The Divine Sarah has had her own lifelong struggles with depression, but her portrayal of the misery and malaise of the ailment is absolutely convincing.  If you’re a Silvermanophile like me, I’d recommend the movie, but don’t expect something Oscar-worthy.

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Of course all of this is also to induce you to list and say a few words of the movies you’ve seen lately. It’s been a tough year for film, and the last time I was in a theater was to see Ford V. Ferrari (also a good movie). If you’ve seen something good (or bad, and want to warn us off), please comment below.

Faith vs. Fact out in Polish, reviewed by my surrogate dad

July 5, 2020 • 11:30 am

There’s a gynormous post on Pinker coming up shortly, and I hope to post it today. Many of you, who have sent me the Official Call for Demonization, know what this is about, but you’ll have to be a bit patient.

In the meantime, I just received notice that Faith versus Fact has finally appeared in Polish (Title: Wiara vs Fakty; this is the eighth translation into non-English languages), and although I haven’t seen it in paper, I have just received not only a photo of the cover, but also a nice review by my surrogate father and friend, Andrzej Koraszewski at the website run by him and Malgorzata, Listy z naszego sadu (“Letters from our orchard”.)

The book was translated from English by another mutual friend, Monika Stogowska, a professional translator who lives in Warsaw; according to Malgorzata, the translation is so good that it sounds as if the book were written in Polish rather than English.  The screenshot below goes to the Polish review (Google will translate it to English if you wish), and also shows the cover. I love the chessboard with religion playing against reason and science:


Because there are several friends involved in this, the review could not possibly be completely objective, and Andrzej admits this at the outset (translations of his review by Malgorzata):

“I’ve just got a book written by my friend, translated into Polish by my friend and published in Polish by another friend, and dedicated to my wife, me and to our cat, Hili. For obvious reasons this will not be a critical review. . . .”

Yes, I did dedicate the book to Andrzej, Malgorzata, and Hili, as well as to my undergraduate mentor Bruce Grant. I did a lot of reading and note-taking when I stayed in Dobrzyn for a few weeks.

Andrzej ends his review this way:

“The book was partly written in Dobrzyń nad Wisłą so I enclose a picture of the Author who in the process of writing the book was catching facts by their tail”.

And the photo: Hili and I communing! This is the best way to write:

Książka po części pisana była w Dobrzyniu nad Wisłą więc załączam zdjęcie Autora jak w trakcie pisania łapie fakty za ogon.

 

Two new books to consider

January 19, 2013 • 9:15 am

The Sunday New York Times Book Review always appears online on Saturday, and this week’s issue has reviews or blurbs about two books of interest.

The first is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, reviewed by Michael Kinsley, editor at large at The New Republic.  You may remember Wright as the author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, which traces the roots of Islamic terrorism, and the 9/11 crashes, to the 1940s and the initial disaffection of one man with western mores considered heretical to Islam. (By the way, it’s a superb and engrossing book, showing clearly that what Al-Qaeda does now has its roots not in politics or territory, but in pure religion: the desire for Islamic hegemony.)

At any rate, Wright has now turned his sights on an equally dangerous topic: Scientology. (Remember that Scientology loves to harass and sue its critics.) I will surely be reading this book, for Scientology, officially classified by our government as a religion, enjoying all the tax benefits of, say Catholicism, is really a vicious cult with a “theology” so outré as to be laughable. (Of course all theologies are laughable when viewed through the lens of unfamiliarity.) Here’s some snippets of Kinsley’s review:

So what are poor thetans to do, where are they to go, when they find themselves between lives? Left to Venus or right to Mars? For sure, they can’t stay here. “The planet Earth, formerly called Teegeeack, was part of a confederation of planets under the leadership of a despot ruler named Xenu,” said Hubbard, who was a best-selling science fiction writer before he became the prophet of a new religion. To suppress a rebellion, Xenu tricked the confederations into coming in for fake income tax investigations. Billions of thetans were taken to Teegeeack (you remember: Earth), “where they were dropped into volcanoes and then blown up with hydrogen bombs.” Suffice it to say I’m not hanging around Earth next time I’m between lives.

Hubbard apparently could go on for hours — or pages — with this stuff. Wright informs us, as if it were just an oversight, that “Hubbard never really explained how he came by these revelations,” but elsewhere he says they came to him at the dentist’s office. Of the Borgia-like goings-on after Hubbard’s death in 1986, Wright says cheerfully, “Every new religion faces an existential crisis following the death of its charismatic founder.” He always refers to Scientology respectfully as “the church.”

But Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” makes clear that Scientology is like no church on Earth (or, in all probability, Venus or Mars either). The closest institutional parallel would be the Communist Party in its heyday: the ruthless struggles for power, the show trials and forced confessions (often false); the paranoia (often justified); the determination to control its members’ lives completely (the key difference, you will recall, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, according to the onetime American ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick); the maintenance of something close to prison camps where dissenters, would-be defectors and power-struggle rivals were incarcerated in deplorable conditions for years and punished if they tried to escape; what the book describes as mysterious deaths and disappearances; and so on.

. . . All this was going on under the nose of Tom Cruise, who, according to Wright, allowed Scientology’s leaders to pimp for him (no, no: all women), among other favors. Young women were told that they had been chosen for a “special program” that would require they drop their boyfriends. But the fish that got away, Scientologists believed, was Steven Spielberg. He told Haggis that Scientologists “seem like the nicest people,” and [director Paul] Haggis responded that “we keep all the evil ones in the closet,” which was close enough to being true that Haggis was in hot water with the Scientology powers-that-be. But he didn’t quit.

Kinsley picks out some flaws in Wright’s book, like his failure to explain Scientology terms when they come up, but concludes that “Going Clear is essential reading for thetans of all ­lifetimes.”

I’m fascinated with Scientology, for it shows us clearly what some people are looking for when they turn to “religion”—and it’s not always candles, songs, potted palms, the afterlife, or membership in community of people determined to good.

*****

Jared Diamond has also come out with a new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Lean from Traditional Societies?, which was given a mixed review by David Brooks in last week’s NYT Sunday book review. Today, in “By the Book,” Diamond is interviewed by an unnamed interlocutor about The World Until Yesterday and various booky topics. It’s quite revealing: Diamond talks about his favorite books as an adult and child, the book he’d recommend that President Obama read, and the last book that made him cry. I found the following Q&A intriguing, for I’ve read Primo Levi’s book and thought it stunningly good:

What was the last truly great book you read?

Primo Levi, “If This Is a Man” (original, “Se Questo È un Uomo,” 1947). At one level, Levi’s book is about how as a young Italian Jewish chemist joining the resistance during World War II, he was captured, sent to Auschwitz, and survived. At another level, the book is about our everyday life issues, magnified: the life-and-death consequences of chance, the problem of evil, the impossibility of separating one’s moral code from surrounding circumstances, and the difficulties of maintaining one’s sanity and humanness in the presence of injustice and bad people. Levi dealt with these issues and was lucky, with the result that he survived Auschwitz and went on to become one of the greatest authors (both of nonfiction and fiction) of postwar Italy. But he survived at a price. One of the prices, the loss of his religious beliefs, he summarized as follows: “I must say that the experience of Auschwitz for me was such as to sweep away any remnants of the religious education that I had had. . . . Auschwitz existed, therefore God cannot exist. I find no solution to that dilemma. I seek a solution, but I don’t find it.”

I love Levi’s writing, and was so sad when he died in 1987, perhaps by suicide.  Beside “If This is a Man,” I’d highly recommend “The Periodic Table” (Levi was a chemist as well as a writer), which was voted by the Royal Institution as the best science book ever written, ahead of even On the Origin of Species (I’d contest that!).

Just FYI, here is the list of the Royal Institution’s winners:

The shortlist

Primo Levi The Periodic Table
Konrad Lorenz King Solomon’s Ring
Tom Stoppard Arcadia
Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene

Other nominations

James Watson The Double Helix
Bertolt Brecht The Life of Galileo
Peter Medawar Pluto’s Republic
Charles Darwin Voyage of the Beagle
Stephen Pinker The Blank Slate
Oliver Sacks A Leg to Stand On

“Arcadia,” while a great play, is a bizarre choice, for it’s not really a science book. I’d put Darwin as #1, purely for its importance in transforming human thought.

Francisco Ayala on “Signature in the Cell”

January 7, 2010 • 4:42 pm

by Matthew Cobb

Jerry, on his way to the Galapagos, asked me to post this. Over at Biologos, “Science and the Sacred” has persuaded Francisco Ayala  to write a review of Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. Here it is. There’s a debate going on over there, too.

How should a person of faith respond to Signature of the Cell? I am an evolutionary scientist who would suggest the following considerations.

The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point? It is as if in a book about New York, the author would tell us that New York is not in Europe, and then dedicate most of the book to advancing evidence that, indeed, truly, New York is not in Europe.

Signature of the Cell offers Intelligent Design (ID) as the alternative explanation to chance in order to account for genetic information. This suggestion turns out to be no more convincing than a proposal by the author of the book about New York, who having exhausted all possible ways of telling us that New York is not in Europe, would now offer Peoria as the alternative city to visit. We would rather read about New York’s architecture, splendid avenues, and great parks; about the rich culture and ethnic diversity of the city; about its restaurants, concert venues, theatres, and wonderful sights in and around the city. But regarding natural selection, genetics, ecology, development, physiology, and behavior in the evolution of genetic information, there is nothing substantive in Signature of the Cell.

Christians and other people of faith should be troubled about Signature of the Cell for several reasons. One is that Meyer avoids consideration of the negative implications of ID as an explanation of the origin of genetic information, which is his main subject. According to Meyer, ID provides a more satisfactory explanation of the human genome than evolution does. ID’s explanations envision “discrete or discontinuous intelligent activity in the history of life” (p. 481). Scientists have now obtained the complete DNA sequence of the human genome. The genome has a length of about three billion nucleotides, the “letters” of the DNA alphabet. Scientists have also obtained the complete DNA sequence of the chimpanzee genome—also three billion letters long—and of several hundred other species of organisms. How can we envision the “discrete or discontinuous activity” of the Intelligent Designer? The human and chimpanzee genomes differ from each other in just a few percent of the DNA letters, less than two percent in the genes that code for proteins. Did the Designer tweak the chimpanzee genome to make the human genome? Or, perhaps more likely, did the Designer use a preexisting genome and tweak it a bit to make the human genome and tweak it a different way to make the chimpanzee genome? Did the Designer go on tweaking genomes a bit at a time to design the genome of the gorilla and other primates, and more and more tweaking for other animals, all the way down to mice, and even to fruitflies, with which we share a good fraction of the genome?

The human genome includes about twenty-five thousand genes and lots of other (mostly short) switch sequences, which turn on and off genes in different tissues and at different times and play other functional roles. There are also lots and lots of DNA sequences that are nonsensical. For example, there are about one million virtually identical Alu sequences that are each three-hundred letters (nucleotides) long and are spread throughout the human genome. Think about it: there are in the human genome about twenty-five thousand genes, but one million interspersed Alu sequences; forty times more Alu sequences than genes. It is as if the editor of Signature of the Cell would have inserted between every two pages of Meyer’s book, forty additional pages, each containing the same three hundred letters. Likely, Meyer would not think of his editor as being “intelligent.” Would a function ever be found for these one million nearly identical Alu sequences? It seems most unlikely. In fact, we know how these sequences come about: one new Alu sequence appears in the genome for every ten newborns, generation after generation. The Designer at work? Unlikely: many of these sequences damage the genome causing abortion of the fetus during the early weeks of life.

Perhaps one could attribute the obnoxious presence of the Alu sequences to degenerative biological processes that are not the result of ID. But was the Designer incompetent or malevolent in not avoiding the eventuality of this degeneration? Come to think of it: why is it that most species become extinct? More than two million species of organisms now live on Earth. But the fossil record shows that more than ninety-nine percent of all species that ever lived became extinct. That is more than one billion extinct species. How come? Is this dreadful waste an outcome intended by the Designer? Or is extinction an outcome of degeneration of genetic information and biological processes? If so, was the Designer not intelligent enough or benevolent enough to avoid the enormity of this waste?

Meyer asserts that the theory of intelligent design has religious implications. “Those who believe in a transcendent God may, therefore, find support for their belief from the biological evidence that supports the theory of intelligent design” (p. 444). I do think that people of faith may find in the world many reasons that support their belief in God. But I don’t think that intelligent design is one of them. Quite the contrary. Indeed, there are good reasons to reject ID on religious grounds, in addition to scientific grounds. The biological information encased in the genome determines the traits that the developing organism will have, in humans as well as in other organisms. But humans are chock-full of design defects. We have a jaw that is not sufficiently large to accommodate all of our teeth, so that wisdom teeth have to be removed and other teeth straightened by an orthodontist. Our backbone is less than well designed for our bipedal gait, resulting in back pain and other problems in late life. The birth canal is too narrow for the head of the newborn to pass easily through it, so that millions of innocent babies—and their mothers—have died in childbirth throughout human history.

I could go on about human features that betray a design that certainly is not intelligent. I will add only one more consideration. More that twenty percent of all human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion during the first two months of pregnancy. That is because the human genome, the human reproductive system, is so poorly designed. Do I want to attribute this egregiously defective design to God, to the omnipotent and benevolent God of the Christian faith? No, I don’t. It would not do to say that God designed intelligently the human genome and that it then decayed owing to natural processes. If God would have designed the human genome, surely He would have done it so that this enormous misfortune would not happen. Think of it: twenty percent of all human pregnancies amount to twenty million abortions every year. I shudder at the thought of this calamity being attributed to God’s specific design of the human genome. To me, this attribution would amount to blasphemy.

Before the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the like were attributed to direct action by God, so that the tsunami that five years ago killed two hundred fifty thousand Sumatrans might have been interpreted as God’s punishment. Now we know that these catastrophes are the result of natural processes. Similarly, people of faith would do better to attribute the mishaps caused by defective genomes to the vagaries of natural selection and other processes of biological evolution, rather than to God’s design.

h/t: Darrel Falk

YouTube review of WEIT

May 9, 2009 • 7:34 am

An alert viewer called this YouTube video review of WEIT to my attention.  I didn’t realize that books were reviewed on that site. Anyway, I swear that I don’t know this guy and that I didn’t pay him off!!  And thanks, agman, whoever you are.

Oh, and buy more copies — I’m behind Inner Fish again!

Dick Lewontin reviews Brown, Gibson, Darwin, and Coyne in the NYRB

May 8, 2009 • 11:00 am

Richard Lewontin (who, I confess, was my Ph.D. advisor at Harvard) reviewed WEIT and three other books in the latest New York Review of Books (Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography, James Costa’s The Annotated Origin,  Greg Gibson’s  It Takes a Genome: How a Clash between Our Genes and Modern Life is Making Us Sick.)

As usual, Dick’s intellectual energy (and immense knowledge) takes him far beyond the bounds of the books under review. He traces Darwin and Wallace’s theory back to the socioeconomic climate of Victorian England, explores the hagiography of Darwin, and takes on the hegeomony of selection (this harkens back to his and Steve Gould’s famous –and explicitly antiselectionist — paper, The Spandrels of San Marco).  He does disagree somewhat with how I dealt with selection in WEIT:

The scientific community has the definite sense of being embattled and one of its responses is to use the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of its apostle of truth about the material basis of evolution and the 150th anniversary of the appearance of his gospel to carry on the struggle against obscurantism. Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True is intended as a weapon in that struggle.

Coyne is an evolutionary biologist who, like his former student H. Allen Orr, has been a leader in our understanding of the genetic changes that occur when species are formed. His primary object in writing this book is to present the incontrovertible evidence that evolution is a physical fact of the history of life on earth. In referring to the theory of evolution he makes it clear that we do not mean the weak sense of “theory,” an ingenious tentative mental construct that might or might not be objectively true, but the strong sense of a coherent set of true assertions about physical reality. In this he is entirely successful.

Where he is less successful, as all other commentators have been, is in his insistence that the evidence for natural selection as the driving force of evolution is of the same inferential strength as the evidence that evolution has occurred. So, for example, he gives the game away by writing that when we examine a sequence of changes in the fossil record, we can “determine whether the sequences of changes at least conform to a step-by-step adaptive process. And in every case, we can find at least a feasible Darwinian explanation.”But to say that some example is not falsification of a theory because we can always “find” (invent) a feasible explanation says more about the flexibility of the theory and the ingenuity of its supporters than it says about physical nature. Indeed in his later discussion of theories of behavioral evolution he becomes appropriately skeptical when he writes that “imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories.”  While this is a perfectly good argument against those who claim that there are things that are so complex that evolutionary biology cannot explain them, it allows evolutionary “theory” to fall back into the category of being reasonable but not an incontrovertible material fact.

There is, of course, nothing that Coyne can do about the situation. There are different modes of “knowing,” and we “know” that evolution has, in fact, occurred in a stronger sense than we “know” that some sequence of evolutionary change has been the result of natural selection. Despite these misgivings, it is the case that Coyne’s book is the best general explication of evolution that I know of and deserves its success as a best seller.

I have to say that Dick has indeed hit on a tricky issue in compiling the evidence for evolution.  While natural selection is the only reasonable explanation for the evolution of adaptations, we cannot in most cases do more than adduce its plausibility.  Direct demonstrations are rare (note to creationists: this is only because they’re HARD TO DO, so don’t take this out of context), and demonstrations in the past nearly impossible.  And I should have talked more about this in WEIT (although we have discussed it on this website).  But I can’t help but sense Dick’s own anti-selectionist views here:  views that may stem from seeing others support preconceived biases by invoking soft adaptationism , and views that were of course instrumental in Lewontin and Gould’s battle against sociobiology in the 1970s.   When I was at Harvard with Dick and Steve, it was almost as though selection was a forbidden topic — just once I would have liked either of them to have admitted openly, “Yes, of course selection is the only plausible explanation for adaptations.”  In their fight against unthinking adaptationism, they nearly threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Nevertheless, Dick has a point.  But I’m glad he that he seems to have liked the book.  As one friend wrote me today:

An interesting piece.  Lewontin certainly can’t be accused of lobbing his old student a batting-practice pitch!  Even so, I see that he was careful to supply a line that would serve perfectly in an ad: “Coyne’s book is the best general explication of evolution that I know of and deserves its success as a best seller.”

Oh, and for those who didn’t see this before, Dick turned 80 this year.

WEIT reviewed in American Scientist

April 24, 2009 • 9:12 am

One of my old Harvard co-students, Rob Dorit at Smith College, has reviewed WEIT in American Scientist.  A very nice (and long) review, with a few grouses, which is fair enough.  He’s probably right that I should have written more about the real controversies in evolutionary biology versus the phony ones that creationists talk about; after all, I did write an article with Richard Dawkins on this very point.  Dorit notes:

But is all evolutionary change really adaptive? The bar should be set high for any claim that a particular feature of organisms is an adaptation. I wish Coyne had discussed more thoroughly the factors that constrain adaptation. Many forces other than selection (chance, or the role of speciation and extinction, for example) can propel traits to dominance and can account for the patterns in the fossil record.

To my surprise, Coyne barely mentions the many insights flowing from the comparative study of development at the molecular level. I wish he had given more attention to active controversies in our field: Whether adaptation is ubiquitous, whether evolutionary change is necessarily gradual and imperceptible, how to evaluate the relative roles of chance and selection in molding the world as we see it. Advocates of intelligent design seek in vain to portray any disagreement among evolutionists as evidence of a “theory in crisis” or “the end of Darwinism.” They do not understand that ferment and debate are the very heartbeat of science. Scientists are not discussing the reality of evolution; they are discovering its underpinnings and implications.

Given the many contributions Coyne’s lab has made to our understanding of speciation, it is not surprising that this book is at its strongest when discussing the mechanisms that underlie the diversity of life. Darwin knew that accounting for the variety of life forms populating our planet was at least as important as accounting for the apparent fit between organisms and their environments. In the absence of a theory of inheritance, however, there was little hope in his day for a comprehensive theory of diversification. More than 90 years later, Darwin’s theory of organic change was merged with Mendel’s theory of genetic transmission in the aptly named Modern Synthesis. Since that time, as Coyne details, we have come to understand the conditions that initiate the process of speciation, the forces that confirm it, and the consequences that follow from the reproductive isolation of gene pools.

Although Dorit doesn’t see incompatibility between religion and evolution (at least religion as an “organizing principle for personal behavior,” which doesn’t seem much like theism), he ends on a nice note.

I remain convinced that a commitment to evolution as the explanation for life on Earth is not incompatible with an equally strong commitment to religious belief as an organizing principle for personal behavior. But the insights from evolution, cosmology, physics, statistics, geology and more do require us to swallow hard. For modern science brings us face to face with the fact that our presence on Earth may, after all, be no more than an immense accident. Nevertheless, we have been endowed, however accidentally, with self-awareness and the power to understand our own origins. As this book makes clear, there is grandeur in that power.

WEIT reviewed on Bad Astronomy

April 17, 2009 • 8:25 am

The Discover Magazine blog Bad Astronomy has reviewed WEIT in its latest posting.  Some kind words:

As an astronomer, my familiarity with the details of biological evolution are about on par with that of an interested layman (though being trained scientifically helps with that understanding, adding insight to the process of the scientific endeavor). I’m familiar with the concepts of descent with modification, genetic mutations, natural pressures for adaptations, and the like. I’m less familiar with other aspects, like allele frequencies, how specifically pressures can change adaptations, and what transitional fossils are in the record, but I can probably hold my own against your run-of-the-mill creationist.That’s why I loved the book Why Evolution is True by biologist Jerry Coyne. This is a clear, easy-to-understand work that shows you — with no compromising and no backing down — that evolution has occurred, the evidence is overwhelming, and that no other explanation for what we see around us makes sense.  . . .

Creationists love to try to pick apart evolution, looking at minor details in isolation and saying it doesn’t make sense. But they’re wrong: evolution is a beautiful tapestry, a complex fabric of countless threads woven together into a grand picture of life on Earth. And it all holds together.I strongly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in evolution, or the manufactured controversy of creationism. Coyne’s work is complete and convincing, slamming the door firmly closed on young-Earth creationism. If you have to deal with creationists in your life, this book is something you should keep very handy.

Some interesting discussion in the comments, of which there are surprisingly many.  The Discover blogs must get a good readership!

WEIT in TREE

April 9, 2009 • 11:29 am

by Matthew Cobb

This review by Douglas J Futuyma is about to appear in the academic journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (aka TREE).

What everyone needs to know about evolution

Douglas J. Futuyma, Department of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794, USA

In 1980, when I set out to write a defense of evolution against creationism [1], I discovered that there existed no book for general readers that described the evidence for, and nature of, evolution. The closest approximation was George Gaylord Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution [2], which was really, as its subtitle stated, ‘a study of the history of life and its significance for man.’ In any case, it was then 31 years old and substantially out of date. Since then, the creationist movement, including its recent manifestation as so-called intelligent design (ID), has come to be recognized as a serious threat not only to evolution education, but also to science in general [3]. Yet although it sometimes seems that almost every evolutionary biologist is writing for a wide, nonprofessional audience on themes ranging from the fossil record to practical applications of evolutionary biology and the evolutionary dimensions of psychology, culture and the religious impulse, there still has not been a single book devoted to the simple task of showing readers the evidence for evolution and how it happens. We are fortunate that Jerry Coyne has exactly satisfied this need, with one of the very best and most important books on evolution for broad audiences in at least 50 years.

Although most of the themes of Coyne’s book will be familiar to evolutionary biologists, most instructors will learn some new examples or facets of familiar ones, or new ways of addressing questions. Moreover, Coyne carefully structures the evidence and theory, makes all the crucial points and presents the subject clearly, with allusions to human experience, sympathy for the uncertain or hesitant, and a scholarly yet almost conversational style that should make it easy for most people to read. The 254 pages of actual text are small in format, so the entirety can be read quickly. They are followed by notes, a glossary, an outstanding and valuable list of book and web resources, and a formal bibliography arranged by chapter. I might also note that Coyne, Drosophila geneticist although he be, delights in marshalling evidence from classical anatomy, embryology, systematics and the biogeography of diverse organisms, as well as contemporary molecular and developmental studies.

Coyne begins by describing the contemporary problem of opposition to evolution despite its importance and its status as ‘a theory that is also a fact’, and makes the usual and indispensable points about the nature of science, the testability of scientific hypotheses, and how hypotheses gain support from the correspondence between observation and predictions from a hypothesis. This is an important theme that he emphasizes throughout the book. The next three chapters, on the fossil record, ‘remnants’ (vestiges, embryos and bad design) and biogeography, present massive, well-chosen evidence for common descent and modification. Coyne emphasizes that fossils tell us of gradual change and of forms such as Tiktaalikthat demonstrate intermediacy, expected time of occurrence and evolution of new characters from ancestral ones. Vestiges, embryos and bad design include the multitude of morphological and molecular features that are inconsistent with any concept of ID but fully explicable from, and predicted by, evolution. And ‘the biogeographical evidence for evolution is now so powerful that I have never seen a creationist book, article, or lecture that has tried to refute it. Creationists simply pretend that the evidence doesn’t exist’ (p. 95). There follow three process-oriented chapters, on natural selection, sexual selection and speciation (Coyne’s special area of expertise), which all provide clear expositions of theory and evidence, and devastating points against ID. (For example, blood clotting, far from being ‘irreducibly complex,’ is based partly on the evolution of fibrinogen from a protein with a different function that was predicted, and then found, in sea cucumbers.) Chapter 8, ‘What about us?’, treats paleontological and genetic evidence on human evolution and briefly but clearly touches on patterns of genetic variation within and among human populations, and on gene–culture coevolution.

In the final chapter, Coyne acknowledges that evidence for evolution often cannot prevail against ‘the emotional consequences of facing [the] fact’ that we evolved from apes. He makes a good case that we need not fear ‘the beast within,’ the oft-imagined genetically determined selfishness and immorality that are thought to be inherent in ‘Darwinism,’ for the empirical evidence shows that we have immense capacities, unmatched by any other species, for empathy, kindness, and self-sacrifice. As Coyne notes, human sacrifice has disappeared, and ‘[i]n Roman times, some of the most sophisticated minds that ever existed found it an excellent afternoon’s entertainment to sit down and watch humans literally fighting for their lives against each other, or against wild animals. There is now no culture on the planet that would not think this barbaric’ (p. 251). Coyne admits that he cannot replace the comfort that so many find in conventional religion, but that he ‘can at least try to dispel the misconceptions that frighten people away from evolution and from the amazing derivation of life’s staggering diversity from a single naked replicating molecule’ (p. 253).

I can think of few changes that I would make beyond correcting a few proofreading lapses (Linnaeus’s great work was exactly a century after the date given) and minor errors. (Male stag beetles have sexually selected mandibles, not horns, and when will we ever stop hearing about the ‘peacock’s tail’? The historical contingency of evolution is exemplified by the variety of elongated display feathers among birds, which do include tail feathers in many other species, but also the flank feathers ofParadisaea birds of paradise, the secondary wing feathers of the great argus pheasant, head feathers in sage grouse and herons – and the back feathers, i.e. the train, of peacocks.) Coyne is clearly skeptical of most of evolutionary psychology while granting that some human universal characters might well be ancestral evolved traits, but I think one might make more allowance for the possible validity of hypotheses in this field (some of which do seem to make testable, and sometimes supported, predictions). Reassurances that evolutionary interpretations of human behavior are dubious will not allay fears of ‘the beast within’ if these interpretations prove to be well supported – and the empirical evidence Coyne presents, that we are not condemned by our genes to be unethical or immoral, should make such cautions unnecessary.

Why Evolution is True succeeds in being fully accessible to any reader who has even a vague idea of what DNA is. The publisher should issue an inexpensive paperback edition as soon as possible that should be stocked in every bookstore, sent to friends and relatives, and assigned as supplementary reading in introductory biology courses at both the high-school and university levels. It should also be widely translated. It is a book that needed to be written and needs to be read.

References

1 D.J. Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution, Pantheon (1982).

2 G.G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, Yale University Press (1949).

3 National Academy of Sciences, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, The National Academies Press (2008).
Original version here (needs subscription).