Friday, October 09, 2009

Coyne vs Dawkins

This year being Darwin's 200th birth anniversary, we have seen a flurry of books on evolution. Out of these two stand out for the authority of their writers and the core focus on the actual evidence for evolution that they provide; Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution is True" and Richard Dawkins's "The Greatest Show on Earth". I have read Coyne's book and it's definitely an excellent introduction to evolution. Yet I am about 300 pages into Dawkins and one cannot help but be sucked again into his trademark clarity and explanatory elegance. I will have detailed reviews of the two books later but for now here are the main differences I can think of:

1. Dawkins talks about more evidence than simply that from biology. He also has evidence from history, geology and astronomy.

2. Dawkins's clarity of exposition is of course highly commendable. You would not necessarily find the literary sophistication of the late Stephen Jay Gould here but for straight and simple clarity this is marvelous.

3. A minor but noteworthy difference is the inclusion of dozens of absorbing color plates in the Dawkins book which are missing in Coyne's.

4. Most importantly, Dawkins's examples for evolution on the whole are definitely more fascinating and diverse than Coyne's, although Coyne's are pretty good too. For instance Coyne dwells more on the remarkable evolution of the whale from land-dwelling animals (with the hippo being a close ancestral cousin). Also, Coyne's chapter on sexual selection and speciation are among the best such discussions I have come across.

Dawkins on the other hand has a fascinating account of Michigan State University bacteriologist Richard Lenski's amazing experiments with E. coli that have been running for over twenty years. They have provided a remarkable window into evolution in real time like nothing else. Also marvelously engaging are his descriptions of the immensely interesting history of the domestication of the dog. Probably the most striking example of evolution in real time from his book is his clear account of University of Exter biologist John Endler's fabulous experiments with guppies in which the fish evolved drastically before our very eyes in relatively few generations because of carefully regulated and modified selection pressure.

Overall then, Coyne's book does a great job of describing evolution but Dawkins does an even better job of explaining it. As usual Dawkins is also uniquely lyrical and poetic in parts with his sparkling command of the English language.

Thus I would think that Dawkins and Coyne (along with probably Carl Zimmer's "The Tangled Bank" due to be published on October 15) would provide the most comprehensive introduction to evolution you can get.

As Darwin said, "There is grandeur in this view of life". Both Coyne and Dawkins serve as ideal messengers to convey this grandeur to us and to illustrate the stunning diversity of life around us. Both are eminently readable.

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