Jerry Coyne on human evolution

The noted biologist Edward O. Wilson has written, “For anyone who wishes a clear, well written explanation of evolution by one of the foremost scientists working on the subject, [Jerry Coyne’s] Why Evolution Is True should be your choice.” Following Wilson’s recommendation, last evening I jumped ahead and read, and discussed with a friend who shares my interest in the subject, the 30 page chapter on human evolution in Coyne’s book. It is indeed worth reading, as it puts together in an accessible and informative fashion the basic knowledge of the anatomical differences and similarities between apes and human beings, and the fascinating evolutionary story line leading from the former to the latter. However, given the book’s confident title and the glowing tributes from the leading lights in the field declaring that this is the book for the general reader that settles the question of Darwinism, Coyne’s discussion is remarkably weak.

To start with, he frequently uses inconsistent terminology. For example, he can’t decide whether humans are apes or not, initially saying that humans are apes, but then repeatedly distinguishing between “humans” and “apes.” Can’t a top specialist on evolution and a professor at the University of Chicago define his terms and use them consistently? More importantly, he says things like, “This is only a guess,” “This is just speculation,” dozens of times, tacitly conceding, despite his assured and formal claims to the contrary, that there is not enough knowledge to prove that human beings came into existence via Darwinian evolution. And he contradicts himself repeatedly.

For example, Coyne derides those people who while accepting Darwinian evolution generally, exempt humanity from it on the basis that humans are not animals like the others. He says that such critics are being narcissistic about our own species, claiming a special status for it that it does not deserve. But then, later in the chapter, he repeatedly underscores how radically different humans are from the great apes, all of which are far more similar to each other than we are to them, and he admits that there is no explanation for the evolution of the uniquely human traits that set man off from the apes. Well, if humans are so different from the great apes, then doubters of Darwin are correct to put the human race in a separate category from other animals, aren’t they?

In another stunning contradiction, Coyne shows that the 1.5 percent difference between the chimpanzee genome and the human genome is really far more significant than the figure suggests, and says that there is no explanation of how any particular genetic mutation has created the differences between humans and chimps; but a couple of pages later, in his discussion of race, he asserts that there is a 10 to 15 percent difference between the genes of the respective human races, and that this difference is of very little importance and doesn’t need to be explained. His treatment of race is one of the weakest points in the chapter. First, after some obligatory throat clearing, he acknowledges that there are IQ differences between the races. But then, by way of proving that these differences are caused by cultural rather than genetic factors, he says that children adopted from backward cultures into a more advanced culture can learn to live in the culture of their adoptive parents. But the fact that children from low IQ populations learn to live in the culture of their adoptive parents does not mean that such children equal their parents’ IQ, which in fact they don’t, as shown by the famous Scarr-Weinberg cross-racial adoption study (see note below). That is not just careless and contradictory, as Coyne often is; it is dishonest, since he makes it appear that his reference to cultural adaptation dispenses with the issue of racial IQ differences, which it does not do at all.

However, the most important thing about Coyne’s discussion of human evolution is not his carelessness and contradictions, nor his dishonest dismissal of the race and IQ question; it is his stunning honesty. Evidently without realizing how costly to the Darwinian side his concessions are, he forthrightly states, in a variety of ways, that there is no good explanation for the profound differences between humans and the other higher primates. He doesn’t even pretend to have an answer to how Darwinian evolution led to Homo sapiens’ large brain and upright posture. He tries out a couple of scenarios, then points out that they don’t work. For example, he gives the familiar explanation for the evolution of upright posture, that a period of draught made the forests recede, requiring our ape ancestors to move across long distances of grasslands, and that walking upright was a more efficient form of mobility and so was naturally selected. But then he tells us—and this was new to me—that the knuckle-walking of chimps and gorillas is as energy efficient as walking upright! Thus he knocks down the classic Darwinian “fairy tale” for the evolution of upright posture, and doesn’t even go through the motions of offering a substitute. In this regard, Coyne is more honest than Nicholas Wade, who in his valuable book Before the Dawn tosses off one implausible Darwinian scenario after another without admitting how inadequate it is.

All of which raises an interesting question: is Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago to Darwinism what Mark Weber of the Institute of Historical Review is to Holocaust denial—a leading member of an establishment who is undermining the orthodoxy from within by his weak arguments and his subtly implied confessions of his own doubts?

Or, alternatively, is Coyne so convinced that his position is correct that he feels he can afford to be broad minded?

In any case, the Darwinian establishment is clueless as to the weakness of Coyne’s case for Darwinian human evolution.

At the beginning of this article, I quoted E.O. Wilson’s blurb on the back cover of Why Evolution is True. Here is another blurb, by Richard Dawkins:

I once wrote that anybody who didn’t believe in evolution must be stupid, insane, or ignorant, and I was then careful to add that ignorance is no crime. I should now update my statement. Anybody who doesn’t believe in evolution is stupid, insane, or hasn’t read Jerry Coyne. I defy any reasonable person to read this marvelous book and still take seriously the breathtaking inanity that is intelligent design “theory” or its country cousin, young earth creationism.

Well, I’ve read Coyne’s chapter on human evolution, and I can say with assurance that anyone who believes in human evolution by Darwinian processes has not read Jerry Coyne attentively.


Note: See Michael Levin, “A Different View: Comments on Prof. Lynn’s interpretation of the adoption study,” American Renaissance, March 1994.

- end of initial entry -

OI writes:

“1.5 percent difference between the chimpanzee genome and the human genome”

“10 to 15 percent difference between the genes of the respective human races”

What is your source for these numbers? How was the measurement made?

I have some difficulty accepting that they are measuring the same thing, given that the different human races very clearly have more in common with each other than with chimpanzees, and given that genes are, as best we can tell, the hardware blueprint (so to speak) for any particular organism.

LA replies:

I can’t explain it. That’s what he said. See the chapter, “What about us?” in Coyne’s book, pp. 190-220.

John B. writes:

To address your correspondent’s question:

Is it possible Coyne meant 10 to 15 percent of the 1.5 percent?

LA replies:

I’m sure that’s not what Coyne said. But I don’t have the book with me at the moment and can’t quote the book.

LA writes:

I looked for a Google online version of Coyne’s book and there is none.

But compare my critical discussion of the human evolution chapter in Coyne’s book with Google’s review (note: as there is no byline or source for this capsule review, and it’s repeated at many book selling sites, perhaps it was originally a publisher’s review at

Why evolution is more than just a theory: it is a fact

In all the current highly publicized debates about creationism and its descendant intelligent design, there is an element of the controversy that is rarely mentioned—the evidence, the empirical truth of evolution by natural selection. Even Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, while extolling the beauty of evolution and examining case studies, have not focused on the evidence itself. Yet the proof is vast, varied, and magnificent, drawn from many different fields of science. Scientists are observing species splitting into two and are finding more and more fossils capturing change in the pastdinosaurs that have sprouted feathers, fish that have grown limbs. Why Evolution Is True weaves together the many threads of modern work in genetics, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, and anatomy that demonstrate the indelible stamp of the processes first proposed by Darwin. In crisp, lucid prose accessible to a wide audience, Why Evolution Is True dispels common misunderstandings and fears about evolution and clearly confirms that this amazing process of change has been firmly established as a scientific truth.

“… the proof is vast, varied, and magnificent …” This is hype, hype, hype. Yes, Coyne informatively shows the increasing human-like, less ape-like features in the progression from the unknown ape-like common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, to Austrolopithecus afarensus, to Homo habilus, to Homo erectus, to Homo sapiens. But this progression is well known. The fact that there is a progression of forms culminating in the human is well known. The question is, HOW did this progression occur? And Coyne has not demonstrated, any better than anyone else has done, that this progression occurred through random genetic mutations and natural selection. To the contrary, his discussion of the profound differences between humans and the great apes, and his lack of any plausible explanation for them, or even of any implausible explanation, adds up to a persuasive case that this evolution did not occur by Darwinian processes.

A. Zarkov writes:

You write: “But then he tells us—and this was new to me—that the knuckle-walking of chimps and gorillas is as energy efficient as walking upright!” That’s new to me too, and I don’t that’s correct.

Humans are the most efficient walking machines. The require less energy expenditure per unit distance per unit mass than any other land animal. I can’t recall the exact issue, but about ten years ago Scientific American had an article on this very subject. I would be extremely surprised if the knuckle dragging apes matched humans in this regard.

John B. writes:

Sometimes I wonder not only whether racial differences preceded Homo sapiens [see this and this] but whether liberalism did. When, as we are given to understand, a first fish dared go up into the hostile environment of land, were there other fish deploring his NASA-like expenditure of evolutionary energy? “Really—we should be concentrating on solving problems right here in the ocean.”

That’s jokey, I admit—but I’m not sure I’m joking.

LA replies:

That’s funny. Readers who have missed it should be sure to see our discussion about such a bold, NASA-like fish: “A Darwinian transition to a new species, photographed on an American highway!”

BTW, Coyne mentions the multi-regional hypothesis, but doesn’t go into it, except to say that it makes people uncomfortable because it would mean that racial differences within humanity are a million years old and so much deeper and more important than we want to believe. “Deep” is a key Darwinian concept, because the Darwinians need “deepness” in the past to explain things, and the deeper they are the more important they are. That’s why Ida, the 47 million year old lemur-like fossil, is transcendently great for them, and why they’ve hyped her way beyond her admittedly remarkable qualities, because she’s so stunningly deep in the past.

LA continues:

The true point of your joke is that evolution to a new form of life is wildly AGAINST everything we ordinarly see about life. The overwhelming tendency in life, as actually observed, is for species to continue exactly as they are and to maintain their behavior and their existence unchanged. Any evolutionary theory that ignores this basic, overwhelming fact about living things cannot be taken seriously.

A change to a wholly new form is not part of the normal, material course of biological species. Therefore some other dimension of reality—whether we describe it as intelligence, or a purposive drive within life to realize inborn potentialities, or God’s plan—is needed.

Ben W. writes:

Given the promissory notes Darwinian defenders keep giving us on the way to absolute proof, one has to wonder at the cause of this immense effort to keep the evolutionary ideology going.

Should the Darwinists give up, people would then have to take the God route in delineating origins. This has immense implications for all the other intellectual disciplines.

However, as long as there exists some alternative to God, even if unproved, then the God thing is just one possibility among others. And since God, if God exists, is an absolute, if he remains an alternative, a possibility, he is then not God. In this respect, Darwinism has been quite successful. It has rendered the absoluteness of God as just another hypothesis amongst others.

Darwinism in and of itself DOES NOT HAVE TO BE TRUE. As long as it stays a socially sustainable myth (through our education system), it relativizes God. God has become an alternative explanation for human origins. He has become a possibility (“there may be a god who may have created us”).

The first commandment, as agreed to in both the Old and New Testaments is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with ALL thy mind…” Darwinism softens that requirement because man’s mind now has alternatives to explain one’s being. Darwinism doesn’t have to be true—all it has to do is be there for people. As such it has done its work much more effectively than Marxism!

And people will keep building on this myth for as long as they want to avoid encountering the God question intellectually and spiritually.

LA replies:

I disagree with Ben’s point, which I also feel is a bit too intricate. The Darwinist-atheist campaign is not about merely relativizing an otherwise dominant religious belief. It is about marginalizing and ostracizing religious belief and gaining complete control over society.

So let’s consider the issue again. Why does the atheist-Darwinian movement, having become unprecedentedly dominant in the West, demonize Darwin doubters and in particular the bogeyman “fundamentalists,” as though the latter—who are not exactly in charge of America, and who seem practically non-existent in Britain and Europe—posed a threat to the left-liberal order in general and the ascendant materialism in particular? Why is it that the stronger the materialist-atheists become, the more threatened, paranoid, and totalitarian they behave? (We’ve often discussed an analogous phenomenon in the homosexual rights movement, in which the more powerful the homosexualists become, the more paranoid and aggressive they become and act as though the slightest remnant of criticism of them anywhere is an intolerable threat.)

I suggest this answer. In the mid 20th century, a moderate liberalism was the rule, particularly in America, marked by a non-ideological, commonsensical, mutual tolerance. Believers didn’t get in the face of non-believers, and vice versa. There was a fair amount of unbelief (much more, of course, in Europe and particularly Britain, which used to be known as the cradle of liberty and now is better known as the cradle of atheism), but for the most part it was not explicit and open. The public culture expected a minimal measure of diffidence toward religion, or at least not open hostility towards it. At the same time, the dominant culture was not aggressively religious, but had a minimal, even token, religious content. America had school prayer in public schools up to 1962, but no one was required to believe in or affirm anything. This hazy, mid-20th century liberalism corresponds to Eugene Rose’s Liberalism, the first stage of his four stages of Nihilism, in which the substantive content of truth is rejected, but the abstract names of truth are still used and treated with respect.

But nothing stays the same, and secularism kept advancing, until it has now reached the point where, having morphed into full-blown materialist atheism, it has cast off any remnant of its diffident or tolerant attitude toward religion and revealed its naked self, red in tooth and claw, claiming to be the only truth and the only legitimate basis for society, and unremittingly hostile to anything that smacks of Christianity, belief in God, belief in the transcendent. This energized materialist atheism holds that in the area of religious/philosophical belief, only a non-theistic perspective can be true. In the area of evolution, the atheists have dropped the amiable front that Darwinism is compatible with religion, and now state openly that atheist Darwinism must be maintained at all costs, because if atheist Darwinism is not true, then a theistic perspective is true. The materialist atheists now see any condition short of the total acceptance and ascendancy of Darwinism as an affirmation and reempowerment of theism, and thus as a threat to their ascendancy, or, as they would put it, as a threat to freedom, truth, decency, and civilization itself.

In Rose’s terms, the Liberal stage of Nihilism has given way to the Realist (material reductionist) stage. Unlike Liberalism which is hazy about truth, Realism asserts that materialist truth is the only truth, and, moreover, in its current incarnation, it makes this assertion in an aggressively activist mode aimed at cultural and political power. Materialist atheism now demands consent to or at least silent acquiescence to its metaphysical propositions about the nature of reality, and subjugation to its growing cultural dominance.

Jeff Williams. writes:

Dawkins’ attack on Darwin skeptics in his book blurb (“that breathtaking inanity that is intelligent design ‘theory’ or its country cousin, young earth creationism”) strikes me as being very tribal in tone. What I mean is that it the voice of a leader of a conquering tribe addressing a subject people, e.g., “We will no longer tolerate the barbarous practice of suttee.” What’s more, speaking as a Christian, a Darwin denier, and a Scotch-Irish American with ancestral roots in the rural heartland, I feel that he is directing these remarks at me.

It is common practice for a conquering tribe to force a subject people to do or say humiliating things. This breaks their spirit and forces rebels out into the open where they can be punished or killed. As others have observed, the purpose of political correctness is to inflict this kind of humiliation.

There are four points I would like to make to Mr. Dawkins:

1) We are not yet a conquered people;

2) We have never been slaves;

3) His tribe and his minority-group allies may not be in such great shape when their funny money runs out; and

4) We are heavily armed.

I would advise him not to push the ritual humiliation thing too hard.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 22, 2009 12:33 PM | Send

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