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.