The Fact of Evolution

  • Cameron M. Smith
  • Prometheus Books
  • 250 pp.

A scientist offers practical examples from the natural world to improve public understanding of evolution.

Reviewed by Josh Trapani 

A recent Ipsos-Reuters poll found that four in 10 Americans consider themselves “creationists,” with only 28 percent calling themselves “evolutionists.” We reap the benefits of Darwin’s insight every day (examples of evolution’s practical applications can be found here.) So how can it be, more than 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species, that evolution remains so controversial?

Cameron M. Smith, a professor of archaeology and human evolution, believes that evolution is often rejected because of misunderstanding. His earlier book, The Top Ten Myths About Evolution, aimed to dispel misconceptions. The Fact of Evolution focuses on building a better understanding of evolution. The title of the book is a nod to the disingenuous “evolution is just a theory” argument often advanced by creationists, who pretend that theories are somehow “less” than facts, and ignore that, in science, theories explain sets of facts or observations.

Evolution, Smith argues, is simply the consequence of three indisputable aspects of the natural world: 1) life forms have offspring (replication); 2) offspring are not identical (variation); and 3) some offspring pass more of their genes on to the next generation than others do (selection). Acceptance of these three, Smith claims, means acceptance of evolution. Before exploring why this will not convince skeptics, let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses of Smith’s presentation.

The Fact of Evolution is a thorough, well-referenced and generally well-organized book. Smith’s greatest feat, of service to laypeople and researchers alike, is in compiling a large number of examples of “evolution in action” from the natural world, thus making concrete what is too often a theoretical and abstract topic. The book’s thoroughness, unfortunately, leads it to read in parts like a textbook, with many sequential short sections introducing concepts and terms that never appear again. The book would have been clearer and more powerful had the examples been better integrated throughout the text; instead, most are grouped in a single chapter, away from the concepts and terms they are meant to exemplify.

Despite its flaws, the book is a good introduction for interested laypeople. However, for skeptics, this book will not address concerns. There are two main problems.

The first is the book’s framing. Creationists have long struggled with the ease of observing and documenting replication, variation and selection. Indeed, humans utilized these phenomena to create domesticated plants and animals through “artificial selection.” The rub is that creationists do not believe that these same processes lead to the evolution of different groups. They quote a verse from Genesis (Smith quotes the same verse, but does not make the connection explicit) that God created “kinds” of plants and animals. Many creationists allow for evolution within kinds (they often label this “microevolution”) via replication, variation and selection, but they discount evolution between kinds (“macroevolution”). An example of such reasoning is here. While kinds might intuitively be equated with species ― and Smith thoroughly tackles speciation (the evolution of new species) ― in practice, creationists do not use kinds as a specific taxonomic designation, and will adjust the definition to suit their purposes.

Scientists themselves argue over whether a simple extrapolation of replication, variation and selection is always enough to produce major evolutionary transitions, something Smith discusses in a later chapter about how new findings in molecular and evolutionary developmental biology are changing certain ideas about evolution. As Smith says, these discussions are “elaborations on evolution, not dismissals of its core.” Yet skeptical readers may be left with more questions than answers. I wish Smith had directly tackled potential issues with this framing.

The second problem is a larger one. Smith claims that “it is not up to biologists anymore to prove evolution to those who do not support evolution … in fact it is now up to the religious deniers of evolution to overturn the masses of evidence that repeatedly support evolution.” This statement reflects an all-too-common mistake, but one that many scientists make: treating the debate over evolution as scientific (and inviting more dishonest creationist tactics to discredit scientific work), when in fact the true controversy is religious. This gets to the limits of what more education and understanding of evolution can accomplish.

Consider another poll result, this one from the National Science Foundation’s 2008 Science & Engineering Indicators. On the question of whether “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” 74 percent of Americans answered “true” when the question was prefaced by “according to the theory of evolution”; without the preface, the figure was only 42 percent. Thus, the issue is less about understanding science and more about reconciliation of scientific understanding with religious beliefs. (These questions were removed from the most recent Indicators for just this reason, igniting even more controversy.)

To be fair to Smith, this is somewhat beyond the scope of his book. Yet in the foreword, he states that he justified yet another book explaining evolution to his publisher by arguing about the need for better understanding. No one can say, with a straight face, that the public’s understanding of evolution is satisfactory. Yet understanding and acceptance may not go hand in hand, and the latter requires breaking through actual or perceived religious implications of evolution.

The debate about whether evolution and religion can be reconciled is certainly beyond this book, but it is the crux of the issue. Until the focus moves to that, and away from well-established science, our society’s problems with evolution will remain, and no amount of explaining science will help.

Josh Trapani, the Independent’s senior managing editor, has a doctorate in paleontology and spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology. Now he works at the interface of science and policy.

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