Thursday, March 11, 2010
Atheistic Incoherency Redux
Like I said: Incoherent.
Needless to say, there are some atheists who take issue with this claim. One such objector was the blogger David B., with whom I enjoyed an intriguing exchange. I won’t reproduce the entire exchange here (if you’re interested, read the comments attached to my post “Mutual of Omaha and the Marlin Perkins Theodicy,”) but I think there are portions worth highlighting.
His first objection: “Loving fathers don’t starve their children to death if they can avoid it.” Applying this objection to God, we get: “A loving God doesn’t starve His creatures to death if He can avoid it.” Look familiar? It should. It’s the “God isn’t as nice as He should be” argument yet once again. This sort of argument pops up so frequently, you’d think this is the only weapon in the atheist’s arsenal. And, most likely, you’d be right.
What intrigues me all the more, though, is the atheist’s propensity for making unwarranted assumptions in order to support his assertions. Here there are at least three. Can you spot them? I’ll give you a moment.
[Theme from “Jeopardy” plays here.]
Finished? Good. Let’s compare notes.
The first is that when one of God’s creatures starves to death, God is the One causing the starvation. But we have to ask ourselves: Is it that He actively starves His creature to death or that He passively allows His creature to starve to death? Or is there any reason for supposing God should be involved at all? Perhaps starvation is merely a logical necessity, born from the fact that there is a practical limit to the availability of foodstuffs, and that this availability is not uniform.
And perhaps it is not God who is to blame for allowing someone to starve to death, but ourselves. As compelling as the image of a victim of starvation may be, the vast majority of us do absolutely nothing about it; we merely mutter “Oh, isn’t that a shame?” or some such platitude and go on our merry way. We see the ads on television virtually every day: Just thirty cents a day to save the life of a suffering child. Yet—and be honest—do you call the 800-number on the screen and send a donation? Do you even know anyone who does?
The second assumption is the qualifier: “If He can avoid it.” This begs the question: How do we know what God can and can’t avoid?
The answer that springs to mind is that if we define God as an omnipotent being, then there’s nothing he can’t do. But does it necessarily follow that because of God’s omnipotence that when one of His creatures starves to death this is something He could have avoided? To avoid is to take steps to eschew the results of a certain sequence of events. Inasmuch as taking the steps or not taking the steps is a matter of volition, the avoidance of the creature’s starvation is then simply a matter of God’s choice. Whatever reasons God may have to choose to avoid or not to avoid, these are not self-evident, and so are known only to Him. To know what reasons God has in mind to avoid or not to avoid the death-by-starvation of one of His creatures is therefore to know the mind of God, which—unless He actually tells us what is on His mind—is something no one can do, atheist or theist. The only way of knowing for certain what God had in mind when one of His creatures starves to death is if He descends from Heaven and says something like, “Yeah, I could have avoided the guy’s starvation, but I didn’t like him very much, so to heck with him.” This would satisfy David’s objection, but it would also kind of toss his whole “there’s no God” thing right out the window. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories!
Okay, so what’s the third assumption? That death by starvation is a bad thing (that is, an unloving one, and hence a bad one). This assumption is less obvious than the first two, but at its base it’s still an assumption because it’s a claim that is made without any effort expended to show how the claim is valid.
Is starving to death objectively bad? Unpleasant, doubtlessly, since having gone hungry a time or two myself, I have an idea what starvation is like (once, for instance, I fasted for forty days; a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I assure you); further, we need only look into the eyes of some emaciated, swollen-bellied victim of starvation to understand the experience is agonizing.
But are we to argue that what makes starvation bad is its unpleasantness? Surely not all things that are unpleasant are necessarily bad. Like pulling an abscessed tooth, or passing a kidney stone. Unpleasant, yes, but better to be rid of the tooth or the kidney stone. So if not all unpleasant things are necessarily bad, how are we so certain about starvation?
Perhaps, then, it’s the severity of the unpleasantness that makes starvation bad. As agonizing as passing a kidney stone might be, surely the agony is nothing in comparison to that of a prolonged event such as starvation. But how much severity is too much? Is there an objective standard somewhere that determines how much severity of unpleasantness is required to make a thing bad, something on a scale of death-by-sex-with-Dallas-Cowboy-cheerleaders on the “not so bad” extreme and death-by-Sarlacc (the creature from Star Wars that digests its victims over a 1000-year period) on the “really bad” one? And where, exactly, would death-by-starvation fall on such a scale? Isn’t this a matter of opinion, then, rather than fact?
As much as we might wish to agree that death-by-starvation surely can’t be considered a good thing, we’re still stuck if there’s no proper rationale for determining what, if anything, makes it bad in its essence. Is it bad in an absolute sense, always bad in all times and in all places? Is it generally bad but maybe sometimes good, depending upon circumstances? Is it merely bad in a relativistic sense, that is, bad in one man’s opinion and good in another’s? Again, how do we know for certain?
Perhaps, though, it’s not the starvation that’s bad but the dying. Maybe it’s bad because death is bad. But this, too, is only an assumption—that death is the end, and when you’re gone, you’re gone. After all, the finality of death is a matter of some debate; just put an atheist and a theist into the same room and listen to them argue about it.
A fortiori, it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether the atheist is right that death is the end or the theist is right that death is only the beginning. If the atheist is right, death can only be bad if living mattered in the first place, but it’s hard to see how living matters if life is only the accidental offshoot of an accidental universe, which is the only means at our disposal for explaining our existence if there’s no Creator. A living being starves to death—so? Did he matter? Who says? And when the atheist retorts “I say he mattered!” this only begs the question: How do we know the atheist matters? He’s only an accident, too. Are we to assume that life matters, even if we can’t explain how it does? Another unwarranted assumption. Or, if the theist is right that death is only the end of our physical existence and not the end of our spiritual existence, then death might actually be a good thing, regardless of whatever horrors might enjoin to bring it about.
Mind you, I’m not arguing that death by starvation is okay. Maybe it isn’t. I’m just asking how for certain we know it’s not only not-okay, but genuinely bad. Additionally, I would ask how we know that because God is surely capable of intervening to prevent the death-by-starvation of one of His creatures, He should intervene to prevent it. Is God morally obliged to prevent the death-by-starvation, and if so, how do we know?
The logic underlying this assumption is flimsy, because, as assumptions go, it’s not particularly well-thought out, being a reaction on an emotional level rather than a rational one. There’s nothing wrong with emotion per se, but I find its presence here rather ironic, considering the argument comes from someone who thinks atheism is a rational enterprise. Perhaps it’s only an emotional one; that certainly seemed to be my state of mind in those days when I was telling myself I was an atheist.
Very possibly, there’s even a fourth assumption: Should we even concede that God is to blame for the starvation or that starvation/death is inarguably bad, there remains one further question: Does this demonstrate that God is unloving?
Consider, for instance, that in certain parts of the Muslim world, when a 14-year-old girl is attacked and raped, not only is her rapist executed for committing the rape, the 14-year-old girl is often executed as well, for the sin of fornication. Oftentimes the means of execution is death by stoning, and even sometimes one of the participants in hurling the stones at her is the girl’s own father.
Please understand that I am not defending this practice. Personally, I find it beyond outrageous—particularly from those who purport to worship a god who is wise, just, compassionate, and merciful. In my view, executing a girl whose only crime was her failure to fight off her attacker is the antithesis of wisdom and a bastardization of justice; it is neither compassionate nor merciful, and manifestly so. But I am not a Muslim. The ones hurling the stones, to say the least, see the matter differently.
But what of the father who participates in his daughter’s execution? In such a case, is he a loving father, or an unloving one? Perhaps he would argue that he indeed loves his daughter, but that he loves his religious faith more, and thus has a higher moral duty to participate in his daughter’s stoning rather than to prevent it. Perhaps, as he hurls the stone towards his child, he reassures himself that this is the right and proper thing to do; that his daughter’s death is the correct atonement for her sin of fornication; and that by participating in this way in his daughter’s death he is actually ushering her into Paradise. Does his heart, then, keen in joy for his child’s deliverance? If so, then, perhaps we should argue that loving fathers actually do allow their children to die, under certain circumstances. However visceral our reaction that this sort of thing simply does not happen, are we stating a fact, or only in our opinion?
But it’s not merely the unwarranted assumption that makes the atheistic world view untenable; there’s also the bad logic. And there’s plenty of it.
One such example comes from baptistmessenger.com, in which an atheist identifying himself as William offers up the following absurdity qua metaphysical claim: “Atheism IS the default position, my friend. Theism is the belief in a god or gods. Add the suffix ‘a’ to the root word and you’ve added ‘without’. So (a) theism means (without) belief in a god or gods. An infant doesn’t believe in a god or gods, so they are atheists.”
(And never mind that “a” is a prefix, not a suffix. Far be it from me to argue that bad grammar is bad logic.)
Honestly, though, I have to wonder: do atheists really think this sort of nonsense is reasonable, or do they just stop at the first bit of sophistry that comes their way and refuse to consider the matter any further? I suspect the latter. After all, atheism is incoherent because the arguments that support it are incoherent.
Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t grasping at straws to hold onto our belief systems can easily see what’s wrong with William’s argument: While it is certainly true that babies are born without the belief that God exists, they are also born without the belief that two and two make four, without the belief that wolverines make good house pets, and without the belief that Parkay has the taste of real butter. Babies don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Yahweh, Zeus, Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, you, me, William, or that natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation is all you need to change a cow into a whale. The reason why babies don’t believe in these things is because babies are born without any beliefs at all.
The problem for the all-babies-are-atheists argument, however, is that atheism is itself a belief, and so is one of the things babies don’t believe in. To say that one particular belief that babies don’t have should be our default position—over all the other beliefs that babies also don’t have—is an arbitrarily selective argument, and is thus absurd; there is simply no conceivable reason for choosing the one sort of belief over all the others. There is only the good excuse: William wants to claim that atheism should be our default position, and it doesn’t really matter to him what argument he chooses to warrant the claim. Perhaps God doesn’t exist because Parkay doesn’t have the taste of real butter, and if God were real, it would, and since babies don’t believe in the great buttery flavor of Parkay, maybe that is why all babies are atheists.
What is at fault here is a poor definition: atheism is not the lack of belief in the existence of God; it is the belief in the lack of a God. The atheist does not simply lack the belief that God is; he believes that God isn’t.
This, in turn, leads us back to my discussion with David, who apparently takes some issue with my definition of atheism. “We atheists,” he says at one point, “are almost never absolutist in our nonbelief in God. I do not claim certain knowledge that there's no God. Nor do most atheists.”
University of Texas philosopher J. Budziszewski comments in his essay “The Second Tablet Project” that the reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist is that he won’t even be honest with himself, let alone be honest in the philosophical underpinnings of his world view. David’s comment is a case in point: William’s definition of atheism notwithstanding, or David’s, any atheist who is not absolutist in his belief is not an atheist. Anyone who only thinks that God may not exist is not an atheist, and is only kidding himself by saying otherwise.
Our discussion on this point is worth repeating in some detail:
Yours Truly: And all atheists are absolutists, as are all theists. To the question: Is there a God? There are three possible answers: Yes, absolutely (the theist's position); No, absolutely not (the atheist's position); and I don't know (the agnostic's position). Any atheist who is not an absolutist is not an atheist, but an agnostic who only thinks he's an atheist.
David: Maybe that how YOU define atheism. But it’s certainly not how people who call themselves atheists generally use the term. But I'm not interested in arguing semantics with you. Feel free to think of me as an atheist-leaning agnostic or simply a non-theist if you like.
Yours Truly: I agree. By and large (and this seems to have been the case in my own flirtation with atheism), atheists do not generally use the word 'atheist' to mean someone who says unequivocally that there's no God, but only that there's probably no God. But that's agnosticism, not atheism. I suspect that most people who call themselves atheists are really only agnostics. There's nothing particularly wrong in doubting that God exists (other than that He does), but I do think there's something altogether wrong with calling oneself an atheist when the word does not apply.
This is one of the many reasons I finally decided atheism is wrong. It is a not particularly well-thought-out philosophy. So when guys like Richard Dawkins tell us that Darwin allowed him to become “an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” they're only kidding themselves—and us as well.
This is a crucial point, so it’s worth repeating. An atheist does not say that God probably doesn’t exist, any more than a theist says that God probably does. The theist says “God is”; the atheist replies “No, he isn’t.” These are absolutist positions. The probably-does/probably-doesn’t positions fall under the domain of agnosticism. To borrow William’s strategy of pointing out the meanings of words one root at a time, “agnostic” is derived from the Greek a “without” and gnosis “knowledge.” Therefore, an agnostic is someone who lacks the knowledge to answer the question definitively, hence his use of words like “probably.”
To repeat, atheism’s principle weakness is that its philosophical underpinnings are incoherent. I’ll end this post with a lengthier quote from the Budziszewski essay:
[Both theist and atheist assume] that the universe is causally and rationally patterned: this causes that, that explains this, such-and-such is a reasonable explanation of so-and-so. But what right has the atheist to this assumption? Why should there be any patterns whatsoever? If the universe just is, then why shouldn’t the things in it just happen? There is no reason to expect them to yield to reasoning, no explanation of why they should even have an explanation. Moreover, we are not out of the woods even if we do find patterns in the universe, for if these patterns too just are, then there is no warrant for assuming that they are more than local, accidental, superficial, inconsistent, and ephemeral. The sun may not rise tomorrow morning. Fire may not burn this afternoon. Two plus two may equal now four, now six, now one. For me, conception may not be caused by sexual intercourse (that seems to be how some teenagers think). Even if today I am myself, next week I may be someone else (that is how postmodernists think). So why should the natural law have even the force of prudence, much less oughtness? Why should there even be logic? Why should I “watch out” for anything? How could I?
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Evolution of a Simpler Sort: Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True
Given all the carping I’ve encountered on the Dembski/O’Leary webpage Uncommon Descent concerning Jerry Coyne, I decided it was high time for me to stop reading about Coyne and to start reading Coyne himself, so when a friend offered to loan me a copy of Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, I accepted. After all, secondary sources are fine and dandy, but the only true way to examine a man’s ideas is to hear from the man himself. To get it straight from the horse’s mouth, as the saying goes. Or, if not horse, then from some other form of braying pack-animal.
My takeaway: the carping is well justified. If you already believe in evolution and your object is simply to reinforce your preexisting world view, if you’re already a member of the choir to which Coyne is preaching, then by all means, have a read. If, on the other hand, you simply wonder whether evolution is true and are curious if there might be a rational means of answering in the affirmative, supported by keen observation and empirical evidence—to wit, supported by science—keep looking. I’m highly doubtful that such a thing even exists, but if it does, I’m positive Coyne hasn’t written it.
Why Evolution is True is about as misnamed a tome as one might expect, given that with such a title one might expect Jerry to get around to a discussion as to why evolution is an objective fact rather than an allegedly scientific opinion. This, of course, is something he never does. He offers little more than an object lesson in, to paraphrase Jerry Fodor, the problems inherent in attributing to adaptationism all the creative power of an intentionalist system such as a mind. In Coyne’s case, the creator-god is our well-known friend natural selection, who can do absolutely anything if given sufficient time, opportunity, and resources. Evolutionary Mythmaking for Fun and Annoyance would have been a far better title, provided that by “fun” we mean Jerry’s and by “annoyance” we mean mine.
Albert Einstein once stated that any viable theory should be one that is as simple as possible, but not simpler. By that he meant that the best theories were those that explained a system without being overcomplicated or oversimplified. State the bare minimum of what is required to formulate the theory—but make sure not to leave out anything that’s required, either.
Coyne’s view of the theory of evolution, however, is clearly of the oversimplified sort; it is the simpler variety of evolutionary theory. In his mindset, there are two and only two camps: those who believe in evolution, and creationists. Those who believe in evolution have logic and reason on their side; those who are creationists have only fear and superstition on theirs. And every one of us, from rich to poor, old to young, mighty and weak, falls into one camp or the other—and never into both. That someone might believe in evolution and creation is not even within the realm of possibility, and is never discussed in any of his book’s 300 pages. Nor is there any discussion of the very real possibility that our current formulation of evolutionary theory, aka the neo-Darwinian synthesis, is in real need of some serious re-thinking. No, Coyne’s position is that evolution is settled science, being “as solidly established as any scientific fact,” and that “scientists need no more convincing” (p. xvi).
This, for instance, fully explains that little debacle in Kansas you may have read about, and concerning which Coyne opines: “Some religious members of the [Dover] school board, unhappy with the current text’s adherence to Darwinian evolution, suggested alternative books that included the biblical theory of creationism” (p. ix). He sums up the matter with: “For those who oppose Darwinism purely as a matter of faith, no amount of evidence will do—theirs is a belief not based on reason” (p. xii).
The statement readily encapsulates Coyne’s oversimplified rationale:
- Religion is the reason why some school board members object to Darwinism.
- The only alternative to Darwinian evolution is biblical creationism.
- The objection to Darwinism is purely a matter of faith.
- Darwinism is based on reason.
- Religion is based on faith.
Simple. Or, rather, simpler. Mind you, this nonsense is to be found in the book’s preface. Coyne begins his book with these thoughts in mind. I have to wonder—if his premises are so bad, what good are his conclusions?
More to the point, he couldn’t possibly be more wrong:
- Perhaps one of the reasons why some school board members object to Darwinism is because our schools teach it as settled science, when, in fact, it’s not. Coyne’s principle objection to the Dover resolution is not that it would have encouraged the discussion of creationism in science classes, but that it would have suggested that students might question the very science Coyne has convinced himself is settled. Hence, the wording from the offensive resolution which the Dover school board wanted its students to read: “As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.” Horrors!
- It’s possible for evolution to be true without being Darwinian.
- The objections to Darwinism have been what they’ve always been—if science is supposedly based on reason, then there’s no reason to believe in something there’s no evidence for. As Stephen J. Gould, himself no Bible-thumping creationist, once put it: “[T]o preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study” (“Evolution’s erratic pace,” Natural History (1977), 86:14).
- Darwinists routinely refer to natural selection or random genetic mutation as the causal mechanism underlying new speciation, without a shred of evidence to underpin their claims. And what do we call “the evidence of things not seen”?
- “Come, let us reason together, saith the Lord.”
Incidentally, Coyne devotes considerable space to Dover v. Kitzmiller, in rapt glee at Judge Jones’s decision to bar the Dover school board from allowing intelligent design to be discussed in its classrooms, under the patently mistaken assumption that the courts never, EVER err in their adjudications (as President Obama will surely confirm), and then broadsides himself with this glaring contradiction: “But scientific truth is decided by scientists, not by judges” (p. xi).
Apart from the obvious objection—if judges don’t decide these things, why involve a judge at all, or, for that matter, devote pages and pages of text praising him for making the right call?—there’s a more basic observation. Truth isn’t “decided” by anyone, let alone scientists. A thing is either true or it’s not. Scientists routinely identify this notion as scientific realism—that truth is objective, that all truths are universal, and that a scientist’s job is to identify whatever truths he can. That’s “identify,” not “decide.” If gravity holds, it’s not because a bunch of scientists got together and decided it should.
But never mind all that, says Coyne. We’re at war here, and so all’s fair, even when one resorts to glaring contradictions and circular reasoning to support one’s assertions. “The battle,” he says, “is part of a wider war, a war between rationality and superstition. What is at stake is nothing less than science itself and all the benefits it offers to society” (p. xi).
That is, science as Coyne defines it, but not as Stephen C. Meyer defines it or as Hugh Ross defines it or as Michael Behe defines it or even as Frances Collins defines it. And absolutely not as Newton, Keppler, Copernicus or Galileo defined it, either. In Coyne’s oversimplified dichotomy, science = rationality, religion = superstition; the separate definitions are absolute in their application, and there’s no overlap whatsoever between the two. To phrase it another way, “Four legs rational; two legs superstitious.” Now bleat and re-bleat until the creationists give in, says Coyne.
Apart from the manifest falsehood inherent in the notion that science and religion are at war with one another (this is an idea that has only been around since the nineteenth century, conceived principally by the anti-religious nitwits John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White), it is profoundly paranoid. You see, Coyne says, people who doubt Darwin not only want to shove their pathetically irrational religious superstitions down your throat, they want to rob you off all the benefits of science. Which surely must mean: they want to take away your shiny iPods and MP3 players and GPS navigators and all the other do-dads we use to make life more convenient. Just why religious folk are motivated to do all this, Coyne doesn’t say; nevertheless, the warning is clear: Doubt ye not the True Faith as Our Lord Darwin Proclaimed It, or within weeks we’ll be living in caves and all our women will be wearing burqas! Such are the inherent dangers of telling students to keep an open mind.
And, once again, notice the oversimplification: the benefits of science, as if science has no downside. Never mind that science and technology can be (and have been) used for any variety of purposes, beneficial or otherwise. Consider, then, this short list of some of the other “benefits” of science (from David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion): “Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, it was not the Vatican.”
Further, “benefit” is not a statement of fact but rather a matter of opinion—what some view as beneficial others view as detrimental. Consider for example the internal combustion engine. While I see it as largely beneficial, there those who hold it as mankind’s bane, spewing copious amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and poisoning our planet. So, who’s right? Actually, both are (though not to the same extent, the potential benefit of the internal combustion engine considerably outweighing its potential downside)—something that Coyne’s oversimplified analysis is fully unprepared to consider.
By far, however, the most glaring oversimplification is in Coyne’s use of “evolution,” the very focus of his inquiry. Time and again, he uses the word first one way, then another, with no apparent understanding of any inconsistency or equivocation on his part.
There are any number of ways to use the word, though there are three basic types. These are:
- Evolution as change over time. This is the least controversial definition. It is a simple expression of the everyday observation that as time proceeds, things change. We should note that not even the most adamant biblical literalist, who views the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis as an account of actual historical events, disagrees with this notion. After all, whether Adam and Eve were both white, or black, or whatever hue of the human spectrum (or even presuming that Adam and Eve were of different races), our Earth is presently populated by over six billion people of multiple races and ethnicities. So, things change. Call this E1 evolution.
- Evolution as new speciation emerging from parent species. This is a slightly more controversial claim than the E1 sort. Under this claim, not only do things change over time, but one of the changes that can occur is that the offspring of one sort of species can become differentiated from their parent species in such a way that a unique species appears. Further, this new species crosses some sort of genetic boundary so that the members of the new species are no longer able to interbreed with the species that produced it. Call this E2 evolution.
- Evolution as new speciation caused by natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation. This is the definition of evolution as used in most biology textbooks, and is by far the most controversial of the three. Call this E3 evolution. When Coyne tells us that evolution is “as solidly established as any scientific fact” (p. xvi), he means evolution of the E3 sort.
Note that each definition of evolution can be considered a proper subset of the definition that follows it: E1 evolution is change over time; E2 evolution is E1 evolution incorporating new speciation derived from parent species; E3 evolution is E2 evolution incorporating natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation. (For the purpose of brevity, from now on I’ll call the natural selection/genetic mutation criterion NS+RM.) So, E1, E2, and E3 evolution all adhere to the notion of change over time; and E2 and E3 adhere to the notion of new speciation; but only E3 entails the NS+RM criterion.
It is for this reason that E3 evolution is the most controversial of the three definitions. While Coyne is adamant that evolution is undeniable, and despite all the imprecations he is prepared to hurl at anyone who dares disagree with him, there are nonetheless those who steadfastly deny it. As just one example, there can be no greater contrast than this comment from David Berlinski: “I say it’s controversial, because I think it’s false. Not only do I think it’s false, I think it’s overwhelmingly false” (from the DVD "The Incorrigible David Berlinski"). The question, then, is: is the NS+RM criterion sufficient to make E3 evolution viable, and, if so, is there evidence to support it?
Needless to say, Coyne answers in the affirmative. His problem—and the great failure of his book—is that in trying to support his claim that E3 evolution is true, he can only cite evidence for the E1 or E2 sort. The efficacy of NS+RM has to be imagined into the picture.
Consider, for example, his discussion of the emergence of the wooly mammoth: “Mutations in the ancestral species led to some individual mammoths… to be hairier than others… This enriched the population in genes for hairiness. In the next generation, the average mammoth would be a bit hairier than before. Let this process continue over some thousands of generations, and your smooth mammoth gets replaced by a shaggy one” (p. 10).
And once again, the fabled Darwinian anecdote rears its ugly head, the kind of speculative narrative that Stephen J. Gould once derided as a “Just-So” story a la Kipling; instead of a preposterous tale of how the giraffe got its long neck or how the camel got its hump, the reader is treated to a children’s fable of how the mammoth got its wooly coat. And provided that Coyne’s reader is only a child, he can sidestep the flurry of questions that immediately pop up following his mythmaking: How is it that we know that the mammoth’s shagginess is the result of a fortuitous mutation of its hairiness gene? And which gene was that precisely? Did paleontologists unearthing a frozen mammoth carcass in the arctic examine the dead mammoth’s genetic code, whereupon they suddenly exclaimed “Hey! Look at the gene for hairiness—it’s different from the hairiness gene of the precursor species!!” And how many lucky mutations are we talking about here over those thousands of generations? Have any of these mutations been identified by examining the mammoth’s genetic code? Did a fortuitous mutation to hairiness lead to a more fortuitous mutation to greater hairiness which lead to an even more fortuitous mutation to shagginess? And, given the fact that genetic mutations do actually occur but that every mutation ever identified has been determined to be either completely deleterious to the organism or to have absolutely no effect, while no beneficial mutation has ever been observed in the wild or the laboratory, doesn’t this undermine the notion that any given genetic mutation could ever be beneficial? Why claim as true something there’s no evidence for? Isn’t a beneficial mutation just another way of appealing to miracles and magic?
Never mind that, says Coyne, here’s more proof. And so he proceeds with citing example after example of the same sort of evidence, the kind which demonstrates—at best—E2 evolution and leaves the E3 sort completely unaddressed. Clearly, his strategy is quantity over quality. Citing one source which he claims “documents over 150 cases of observed evolution,” he decrees: “We see fruit flies adapting to extreme temperatures, honeybees adapting to competitors, and guppies becoming less colorful to escape the notice of predators. How many more examples do we need?”
But more is not the issue. We can examine all the instances of microevolution we want. What we need is one demonstrated instance of macroevolution, other than some evolutionary fairy tale underpinned by the erroneous assumption that macroevolution is just microevolution extrapolated over time. I’m not asking for a demonstration of a microbe turning into a blue whale, just one demonstrated instance of a uniquely new species being derived from a progenitor species in which NS+RM has been clearly and unassailably identified as the causal mechanism differentiating the two. If that sounds like a lot to ask (and it is), then it suggests there is something patently wrong in the assertion that the theory of evolution—by which we mean E3 evolution—has been vindicated over and over again. It hasn’t, and highlighting examples of E1 and E2 evolution repeatedly will never accomplish that.
Neither will citing examples of evolutionary adaptations which undercut rather than support the notion of Darwinian gradualism. One such example, which Coyne cites as “one of the cleverest devices” is the “penis scoop” of some damselflies: “When a male mates with an already mated female, he uses backward-pointing spines on his penis to scoop out the sperm of earlier-mating males. Only after she’s despermed does he transfer his own sperm” (p. 165). Naturally, Coyne offers not one word of speculation as to the likely evolutionary pathways in which such a device might come about on its own. We’re only to marvel that mysterious are the ways of evolution, its wonders to perform. This is no real surprise, considering that in order to hail the penis scoop as an example of E3 evolution, two separate processes have to be clearly explained: the evolution of the backward-pointing penis spines (a morphological development) and the evolution of the behavior (a phenotype development) for scooping out rival sperm; and in both cases the causal factor NS+RM has to be outlined, else it’s not E3 evolution. Darwin argued that complex structures arose as the result of “numerous, successive slight modifications.” It is difficult, to say the least, to identify the convoluted process that must have taken place if the penis scoop (both in its morphology as well as its functional behavior) is to be described in terms of slight modifications, let alone to speak of the disbelief which must be suspended if we are to argue that such a process categorically did not have the penis scoop in mind as an end product. And as Coyne himself demonstrates, it is next to impossible even to cite the penis scoop as evidence of E3 evolution without appealing to the phraseology of the design theorist: “clever,” “device.”
But all Coyne can really do is cite his examples and hope the True Believer will take him at his word. When forced to offer a viable explanation to a serious question, all he is ever able to produce is a half-hearted evasion or an admission of ignorance. Concerning experiments on the African long-tailed widowbird, for example, he muses: “This raises a question. If males with 30-inch tails won more females [when widowbirds in the wild do not normally grow tails of such length], why haven’t widowbirds evolved tails that long in the first place? We don’t know the answer, but it’s likely that having tails that long would reduce a male’s longevity more than they would increase his ability to get mates” (p. 167). This is why evolution is true? Because having a long tail “likely” reduces longevity?
And again: “Why hasn’t the cost of sex led to its replacement by parthenogenesis? Clearly, sex must have some huge evolutionary advantage that outweighs its cost. Although we haven’t figured out exactly what that advantage is, there’s no shortage of theories” (p. 169). Yes, and all of them true, no doubt.
Thus, in order for evolution to be true, Coyne must paint all those who might disagree with him with as broad a brush as possible (to wit, “the creationist”) in order to parade his opposition as even dumber than himself. “Creationists often claim,” he pronounces “that if we can’t see a new species evolve during our lifetime, then speciation doesn’t occur. But this argument is fatuous: it’s like saying that because we haven’t seen a single star go through its complete life cycle, stars don’t evolve, or because we haven’t seen a new language arise, languages don’t evolve” (p. 199). Actually, what’s fatuous is Coyne’s comparison of novel speciation with a star going through its complete life cycle or with the emergence of a new language. For starters, stars don’t evolve, not in the E3 sense that Coyne is trying to defend, but only the E1 sense he oversimplistically conflates with all evolution. At best we can see the telltale signs that new stars are being born from the projected waste of old stars, but no astronomer yet has ever identified a new star in some point of space where just days or months or years earlier only the collected flotsam and jetsam of space had been there. This is not to say that new stars aren’t born in this way, but only that such an event has yet to be empirically observed. Just like speciation. Or evolution.
Ditto for languages, which, like stars, only “evolve” in the E1 sense. Sure, an Englishman says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth” when his Anglo ancestors a thousand years ago would have said “An angenom gesceop God heofanan and eorthan.” But to argue this fact as something comparable to the idea that human beings are the descendants of apelike forebears is absurd in the extreme. If human beings evolved in this way, it is because the DNA of the ape-men slowly changed into the DNA of modern men. Languages, last time I checked, don’t have DNA.
And surely even Coyne can fathom that language is the by-product of intelligence? A fortiori, whatever processes occur to create new languages out of old ones, surely even he can understand that absolutely none of those processes can be identified as our old friend NS+RM? (And, at the risk of making a nebulous point, we have seen new languages being created, and within our lifetimes. They’re called Swahili, Esperanto, Fortran, ASCII—and there are hosts of others.)
Besides all that, no one so far as I know (other than Coyne’s straw man creationist, the product of his feeble imagination) argues that speciation doesn’t occur. The argument, rather, is that if you can’t identify NS+RM as the creative causal factor responsible for new speciation, then you can’t say unequivocally that it is the creative factor, nor do you have any basis whatsoever for saying that science has now settled the matter, that evolution is true beyond all reasonable doubt, and that all creationists (whereby you mean doubters of the True Faith) should now shut up or you’ll set Judge Jones on their sorry behinds. This is by no means a way to establish the truth quotient of evolutionary theory.
But it’s the best Coyne is able to deliver. Evolution is true because it’s true. Creationism is bad because it’s bad. Science is right because science is right. Religion is wrong because it’s wrong. And we know this because Jerry Coyne tells us so, and so it must be true, else he would be talking out of both sides of his mouth. So when he tells us that “supernatural explanations always mean the end of inquiry: that’s the way God wants it, end of story” (p. 245), we should accept his asseverations as gospel. There’s simply no need to pause and reflect: “Always? Without exception? And supernatural explanations do this, when naturalistic explanations don’t? If that’s so, why did Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin once say ‘The Darwinian theory has become an all-purpose obstacle to thought rather than an enabler of scientific advance’?” Don’t wrack your brain over it; just keep reminding yourself that evolution is true.
Or, in other words, keep the faith, baby.