Bill Nye’s recent book gives a popular overview of evolution, taking snarky pot shots at creationism along the way. He does make some good cases against some of creationism’s weaker arguments, but since the book covers so many different aspects it spends more time saying what scientists currently believe than presenting the evidence that supports those beliefs.
Nye does give the layman a good feel for evolution’s general idea about how species split into others, how geographical separation enhances this, all under a “not perfect but good enough” selection construct. One of the strongest evidences he presents for evolution is the laryngeal nerve that detours down the neck and double backs around a heart artery in all mammals, even giraffes – where it would allegedly be more “intelligent” to “design” it with a direct connection only a few inches long instead of several feet. (Also discussed here on nautil.us.) It’s a good reverse application of the way creationists wonder at a complex well-suited design and say “Gee how could evolution come up with something that good?” Here the evolutionary scientist says “Gee how could an intelligent designer come up with something that bad?” The Case For A Creator presents a good defense of other alleged “bad designs,” but the giraffe nerve seems a pretty strong case (though ICR has a response here).
At the same time, when Nye marvels at evolution’s ability to produce those great outcomes – e.g. wing tips on owls remarkably similar to modern aircraft for extra efficiency – it almost feels to me as incongruent as the evolutionist’s view of the designer. Evolution is good enough to come up with specialized wing tips out of nothing but it never figured out how to reroute a detoured nerve through thousands of mammal species over millions of years? You know if it had happened they’d be saying “it made those creatures just a little bit more competitive…” Was that optimization just not a possible outcome of code edits? I can’t help going back to more fundamental questions… How can we spend so much time arguing about who wrote all this code without considering who wrote the compiler that decides what all these code edits are capable of doing, anyway?
At the risk of nitpick, one poor argument is Nye’s repeated claim (also in the Ham debate, I think) that to get to millions of modern species in 4,000 years from a few thousand “kinds” on Noah’s ark would require “11 new species a day.” But that’s only if you do the math linearly. Elsewhere in the book, Nye proves that evolution can create new species by appealing to mosquitoes that got stuck in London subways during World War II whose mutated descendants can no longer breed with their overland cousins. Intriguing, yes. But this proves too much – if new species can evolve within a century, and each could split into two more, exponential math easily provides enough doubling for millions of species in only two to three thousand years! Granted, the conditions required for that may be extremely infeasible, but it’s a good example of Nye trying too hard to dismiss creationists.
One surprise – I expected the GMO chapter to tow the consensus line that all is well because they let us feed the world and billions of people eat them with no widespread adverse effects. But Nye was actually largely skeptical, presenting reasonable concerns about biodiversity and effects on certain subgroups. Another reminder never to assume too much about people’s identities and associations.
Overall, I found the book to provide a decent entry-level popular explanation of a lot of aspects of evolution, with a few good points against some aspects of creationism, along with bad ones as well. If I wasn’t more open to various forms of old-earth these days I might have found it more threatening than I did. It’s probably mostly preaching to the choir, but even if you’re a hard line young-earther you might consider browsing it to keep up with the latest claims of those pesky scientists.