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It’s time for a book review: Jerry Coyne’s “Why evolution is true”. My review will be in three parts, the first of which will give me the chance to display my ignorance of biology. Such ignorance should not be underestimated – many of the questions I ask below are not rhetorical. I just don’t know enough to answer them. Regardless, I tried to read the book critically.

Firstly, the book was an enjoyable read and I learned a lot. Coyne writes quite well – one reviewer complained that he doesn’t have Dawkins’ flair, but who does? He has the occasional inspired metaphor or turn of phrase …

“The story of life on Earth is written in the rocks. True, this is a story book torn and twisted, with remnants of pages scattered about, but it is there, and significant portions of it are still legible.” (pg 21)

Explanations are clear and logically laid out, and his biological and historical examples (especially the story of Robert Scott) are mostly well selected. A good example of Coyne’s clarity is in explaining to the oft-heard claim that chimps and humans are 98.5% alike:

“… recent work shows that our genetic resemblance to our evolutionary cousins [chimps] is not quite as close as we thought … to consider an analogy, if you change only one percent of the letters of this page, you will alter far more than 1 percent of the sentences … more than 80% of all the proteins shared by the two species differ by at least one amino acid.” (pg 230)

I have a few gripes, however.

Gripe 1: On page 67, he shows a photo of a human baby with a small, tail-like protrusion, while two pages later he informs us:

“… some species of whales retail vestigial pelvises and rear leg bones, but one whale in 500 is actually born with a rear leg that protrudes outside the body wall. These limbs show all degrees of refinement, with many of them clearly containing the major leg bones of terrestrial mammals – the femur, tibia, and fibula. Some even have feet and toes!” (pg 69)

What?! There are whales with legs, feet and toes?! Why not show us a photo of that?! Why hasn’t a suitable skeleton been mounted in a large truck and parked outside the creation museum? That’s the stuff I want to see. (more…)

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It’s been about two weeks now since the story of Michael Reiss, Royal Society’s director of education, broke in the UK’s national media. Our tale begins with a speech made by Prof. Reiss at the Liverpool Festival of Science on Sept 9. The full text of the speech is available here, so I’ll just quote some of the main points below:

about 40% of adults in the USA and perhaps over 10% in the UK believe that the Earth is only some 10,000 years old, that it came into existence as described in the early parts of the Bible or the Qur’an and that the most that evolution has done is to change species into closely related species.

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