Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Jerry Coyne

I read several portions of Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True" dealing with sexual selection, human evolution, and the implications of adopting an evolutionary point of view.  While all aspects of evolution are interesting, these are especially fascinating to me.  In the last entry I included an excerpt from the preface I particularly liked, now I will turn to these other sections that also deserve special note. 

Coyne describes on page 167 an interesting study done in 1998 by Burley and Symanski in which they tried to manipulate sexual selection among finches by creating a new and entirely novel trait among males to see if females liked it (this is different than merely exaggerating a preexisting feature).  They glued a white feather pointing vertically on the heads of males.  As it turns out, the females liked it and preferred these artificially modified males!  Human body modifications also sometimes result in greater mate attraction.  Breast implants, tattoos, and hair styles are all well known examples. 

From pages 210 to 220 Coyne provided a very interesting description of the genetic differences between us and our nearest living relatives, and the genetic differences among humans today.  While the differences that separate us from chimps are actually substantial when one understands how to interpret the genetic information, the differences among human populations are comparatively nonexistent.  There is more variation within races than between them. 

Now to the more philosophical problems, which Coyne tackles in the final chapter.  While there is research suggesting that "evolution can favor genes that lead to cooperation, altruism, and even morality."  Coyne unequivocally states that it is impossible to derive meaning, purpose or ethics from evolution, "It can't tell us what to do, or how we should behave."  On pages 230-231 he writes:
The world still teems with selfishness, immorality, and injustice.  But look elsewhere and you'll find innumerable acts of kindness and altruism.  There may be elements of both behaviors that come from our evolutionary heritage, but these acts are largely matters of choice, not of genes...  Evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go.  And although evolution operates in a purposeless, materialistic way, that doesn't mean our lives have no purpose.  Whether through religious or secular thought, we make our own purposes, meaning, and morality.
That about says it.  Evolution gave us the raw materials, and we are active agents in the shaping of our future.  We choose which impulses to act on and which to suppress.  It is a process of continual growth and change.


  1. The creationist who came by yesterday asked me how I thought we could have purpose without God-given purpose. Telling him that we make our own purpose wasn't enough (I got a blank stare from him), so I made it a little more grandiose.

    I said that we are the only known lifeforms in the universe that are capable of even considering that question. Now that we know that, we can choose to act responsibly and make sure we stick around as long as possible. Isn't that enough of a foundation for our coming up with a "purpose"?

    I mean, life will go on whether it is sentient or not as long as evolution can continue on Earth. We know what we have is extremely rare if not unique. Why ignore that fact? Why toss it aside carelessly?

    This caused the creationist's eyes to widen and he was exhilirated. He felt like we had connected as if I was on the verge of acknowledging God's existence. Maybe he had thought about this before and it remains an important reason as to why he believes there is a god (aside from all the AIG brainwashing I detected in his assertions).

  2. Your creationist sees agency behind the "design" of the universe and our existence in it. Any facts you bring up will be used in support of the conclusion that only God could have made the universe as it is. However, without any need for invoking God, the probability that there is something rather than nothing at all has been calculated at over 60 percent, according to Victor Stenger.

    In his book "God: The Failed Hypothesis" (2007) Stenger writes "In short, the natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention - not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God."

    Now doesn't that turn the tables on your friend? We are at one and the same time special and mediocre, depending on how one chooses to view things. Special for our ability to view the cosmos and our potential for consciously choosing our future, and mediocre in that this is just as we should expect it to be. (And note to self - read the rest of Stenger's book.)

    If he needs a purpose and can't figure one out for himself, I suggest a bit of education and self-improvement.

  3. Indeed that does turn the tables, and the perfect corollary example is the parting of the Red Sea: creating a void in a sea from a site of dry land to the opposite shore requires supernatural intervention. (I should also mention that the creationist was not my friend, just some stranger I had never met before trying to bring in revenue for a young earth creationist church.)

    I actually did make that suggestion to him about continued education, too. He acted very distrusting of any knowledge outside of the Bible, but I suspect that is a ploy--more of a bad habit he has been trained in than the honest to God truth (pun intended).

  4. So a creationist learns that there is no evidence supporting their belief. But that's not enough for him. After presenting a scientific case for atheism, I think a comedian could make a more visceral appeal for atheism. That's why I love Ricky Gervais. It takes a lot of different approaches before a religious person seriously doubts their absolutist views. Evolution made us all vulnerable to superstition, once it takes a firm hold on the human brain it isn't easy to get rid of.