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The Story of the Evidence for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

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According to polling data, most Americans doubt that evolution is true, and many biology courses and textbooks dwell on the mechanisms of evolution—natural selection, genetic drift, and gene flow—but see no reason to repeat the evidence for. How do we know that species change?

In a slim volume, The Evidence for Evolution, University of Chicago (2011), University of Utah anthropologist, Alan R Rogers, fills in pieces that were missing from Darwin’s argument. He aims to answer persistent and inaccurate arguments against evolution with scientific evidence that was not available in Charles Darwin’s day.

Rogers points out that Darwin didn’t know about genetics, continental drift or the age of the Earth. He had never seen a species change. He had no idea whether it was even possible for a species to divide into two. He knew of no transitional fossils and of almost no human fossils. Rogers says:

[Later] evidence might have gone the other way. It might have refuted Darwin’s theory, but instead we have 150 years of evidence all of which supports his theory. My book tells the story of these discoveries.

Rogers has been teaching courses on evolution since the 1980s. Mostly, he didn’t say much about the evidence that evolution actually happens, feeling the issue was settled scientifically more than a century ago, and anyone interested could read the original books like The Origin of Species. The emphasis for today’s students was on what was still not properly known and what had been newly discovered. Classes and textbooks emphasize the aspects of evolution that are being actively researched. Rogers changed his approach in 2006 after he read a poll reporting that only about half of Americans believe humans evolved:

It occurred to me after reading this poll that it didn’t make much sense to teach students about the intricacies of evolution if they don’t believe that evolution happens in the first place. So, I decided that my introductory classes henceforth were going to have a week or two on the evidence for evolution, and I started looking for a text.

Rogers determined to write an “easy to read” book that gave modern support for evolution, without it being either too advanced or taking too much for granted:

I’m trying to convince skeptics that evolution really happened. If they’re skeptics, then as soon as I get to the point where I say, “trust me”, they’re going to say “no. The reason I’m skeptical is because I don’t trust you”.

Rogers hopes The Evidence for Evolution will encourage readers to think critically. He thinks it will be valuable to evolution skeptics as well as those already convinced. Evolutionists should be prepared to offer evidence when challenged, and even people familiar with biology will have something to learn. Despite spending 30 years studying evolution, Rogers still found material that was new to him.

All scientists are skeptics if they’re any good, but they’re not stubborn about it. In science, you have to be able to change your mind when confronted with evidence. It seems to me that learning that skill is important, not only for scientists, but for everybody. It makes us better citizens.

With The Evidence for Evolution, Alan R Rogers provides a straightforward text that gives the evidence for evolution. He gives the creationists’ arguments and offers the best evidence to counter them. He covers changes within species, which are much easier to see and believe, to much larger ones, such as from fish to amphibians, or from land mammals to whales. For each case, he explains evidence illustrating the changes, including fossils, DNA, and radioactive isotopes. His comprehensive treatment stresses recent advances in knowledge but also shows how we can be sure.

Alan Rogers addresses the political controversy over the theory of evolution—there’s no longer any scientific controversy—in the best scientific spirit—with evidence and logic. For anyone with an open mind, a curiosity about the natural world, and a desire to see controversies settled with evidence rather than rhetoric, this is an invaluable contribution and a fascinating read.

Steven Pinker, Harvard University

Written by mikemagee

8 June, 2011 at 10:33 pm

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