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:

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:

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:

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.

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You might be interested in a reasonably thorough evaluation of "Why Evolution is True-Coyne's Model For Discrediting Darwin's Hypothesis" at:
Thanks for sharing this. I had been telling myself that someone should write a book detailing all the nonsense of WEIT--looks like you've beaten me to it. As the Germans say, "Ganz cool!"
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