Understanding Evolution: Book Review

Book cover

This book is entitled Understanding Evolution, but it is perhaps as much about the understanding of evolution and why some people do not understand it or refuse to understand it. In this essay, I concentrate on “the understanding of,” or what I might call the meta-evolution parts of the book.

This is the second edition of the book; John Wilkins reviewed the first on PT in 2014. It is a short book, well under 200 pages and 8 chapters, counting the unnumbered Concluding Remarks. The book is generally easy to read, with one exception that I shall note below. The early chapters especially have a lot of useful figures, mostly well annotated and well captioned. Many of them suffer from being in black and white, and look like they were originally prepared in color but never seriously adapted to black and white. The book ends with a useful summary of common misconceptions about evolution.

It is hard to categorize this book. The first three chapters concern the public acceptance of evolution, religious resistance to accepting evolution, and conceptual obstacles to understanding evolution. The fourth chapter gives a detailed example of Darwin’s “conceptual change,” in order to provide a description of someone gradually coming to accept evolution, as Darwin progressed from natural theology to natural selection. I was relieved that he showed a picture of Darwin more or less in his prime, rather than the somewhat conventional picture of an elderly man with a big white beard. I worry, though, that he may give too much attention to Darwin; creationists can mislead people into thinking that Darwin is our messiah and that evolutionary biology is a religion that has not shown any progress since 1859. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth.

The next two chapters describe common ancestry and evolutionary processes. Though neither chapter is particularly difficult, they were in some ways written for biologists or biology students; this layperson could easily keep track of homologies and homoplasies, but began to slow down on apomorphies, plesiomorphies, synapomorphies, and symplesiomorphies. On the other hand, simple examples, such as the evolution of the name Nathan or the gradual transmutation of a pizza shop into a cookie shop, suggest that the book was written for laypersons, or at least for scientists in other disciplines.

The final (numbered) chapter concerns the nature of science and includes a certain amount of philosophy of science, some of which was familiar, some not. The chapter demonstrates what Dr. Kampourakis calls the virtues of evolutionary theory, which include not only internal consistency, but also consistency with other theories such as physics and chemistry.

The book says a great deal about creationism and the reasons people resist evolution. In chapter 1, after critiquing the way the Gallup and Pew polls asked their questions, Dr. Kampourakis turns to religious resistance to evolution. In particular, after informing us of the truism that not all religious people are creationists, he plots a graph (Figure 1.9) showing that people who are unsure about evolution are more or less equally distributed among countries that are “more religious” and “less religious.” This conclusion is partly in contrast to the conventional wisdom that acceptance of evolution correlates negatively with religious belief (Figure 1.7). Here, despite an earlier, broader definition of creationism, and for the purpose of this discussion, Dr. Kampourakis limits “creationist” to mean anyone who thinks that humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years (page 10); doing so may classify some Biblical literalists (Gerald Schroeder comes to mind) among theistic evolutionists, and may skew some of his results in one direction or the other.

In the second chapter, Dr. Kampourakis engages in a little epistemology. He makes a clear distinction between what you believe and what you know; I would add to that what you feel. He writes,

What matters for science is to have strong empirical grounding for our beliefs. Beyond this, one should believe what one wants.…

This is in my view where the problem of religious resistance to the acceptance of evolution lies, at least in part. People do not easily distinguish between what they know and what they believe.

Clearly many people confuse knowledge with belief, but I cannot agree that you should or even may believe whatever you want. I think, rather, that it is appropriate to think scientifically, so to speak, about even your nonrational beliefs. In particular, we do not know there is a god. We can adduce some evidence in favor of a god, but none of it, to my mind, is dispositive. When we say we believe in God, therefore, we really mean we think there is a god (seemingly inconsistent capitalization deliberate). Whether God interfered in any way with evolution is even more problematic.

Dr. Kampourakis concludes that people’s skepticism or uncertainty about evolution is not directly related to their religion or lack of religion. Rather, he says that we are bound by our intuitions and, among other things, conflate living organisms with human artifacts. Especially, we think that parts of organisms, if not organisms themselves, must have been provided for a purpose (wings are for flying). We thus see teleology where none exists. (That, of course, depends on how good your intuition is.) For this reason, Dr. Kampourakis warns against using the metaphor of design in biology.

Additionally, Dr. Kampourakis argues that we tend toward essentialism or, more precisely, psychological essentialism (as opposed to philosophical). In other words, we perceive that

[c]ertain categories are real rather than human constructions, and they possess an underlying essence, which is responsible for why category members are the way they are and share so many properties.

Or, as a creationist might put it, “It is still a monkey!” Such thinking makes us resist the idea that one species can transmute into another, because the presumably fixed essences would have to change. In addition, essentialism may make us unaware of the very significant variation within a single species; this variation is often what drives evolution.

As a person who has occasionally been accused of scientism (a red herring if ever there was one!), I greatly appreciated the final chapter on the nature of science. In addition to a good introduction to the philosophy of science, Dr. Kampourakis introduces us to the limits of scientific thinking and concludes that some topics, such as the existence or nonexistence of God, are beyond the reach of science. I am inclined to agree with him, but I think that we can apply scientific thinking to the question, as discussed above. A discussion of theodicy may or may not have been appropriate here; the word appears only once, in the chapter on religious resistance, and is defined incorrectly.

I read the book on a Kindle Paperwhite. The figures were extremely difficult, and I had to view many of them on a computer. I thought surely that the figures in the print edition would be in color, but the Look Inside feature on Amazon showed only black and white. The graphs were intelligible, though mostly the font was too small. Many were bar graphs with two or more data sets. Some, in particular, Figure 1.9, mentioned above, may have been better as conventional line graphs, showing data points connected by line segments. Figures such as Figure 6.1, adaptation vs. exaptation, or 6.3, selection against vs. selection for, while excellent figures, simply do not work well in black and white, especially with gray backgrounds. Those, among others, should have been revised so as to display better contrast.

I have only briefly touched upon some of the contents of this fine book. For more, I am afraid that you will have to acquire the book for yourselves.

Deanna Young and Glenn Branch read this review and made a very significant number of helpful comments.