The Absurd Imperialism of Darwinist Believers

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. In Forbes magazine in 2009, he wrote a vitriolic response to an earlier article written by a neurosurgeon who had the audacity to question what the Darwinist establishment insists we are to believe without question.

I found Professor Coyne’s reaction fascinating. We are told (by scientists!) that science is a truth-seeking enterprise where varying theories can be discussed. When we encounter Darwinists, however, we encounter an emotional, intolerant attitude that casts those who question the official story as enemies of science. Professor Coyne’s article is a good, short case study of this absurd imperialism.

My responses are indented following the professor’s comments.

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. For the sake of his patients, one must hope that he understands the brain’s anatomy better than its provenance. In an article on this site, “A Neurosurgeon, Not A Darwinist,” he claims that the theory of evolution is bogus.

After studying Darwinism, Egnor apparently discovered that “claims of evolutionary biologists go wildly beyond the evidence.” Indeed, he says, the only way complex biological systems such as biochemical pathways could have arisen is via direct divine intervention. Egnor concludes that “Darwinism itself is a religious creed that masquerades as science”–“atheism’s creation myth.”

While Egnor’s misguided attack on evolution tells us nothing about the truth of Darwinism, it does prove one thing: Doctors aren’t necessarily scientists. Some, like Egnor, seem completely unable to evaluate evidence. Why does he so readily dismiss a theory that has been universally accepted by scientists for over a century?

Baffling though it may be to Professor Coyne, there are nonetheless a number of scientists, many with advanced degrees, who question the central tenet of Darwinism that life is a result of a blind and purposeless natural process.

Apparently because a rather old book, Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, first published in 1985, convinced him that evolutionary theory was underlain by very weak evidence. If Egnor had bothered to look just a little into Denton’s book and its current standing, he would have learned that the arguments in it have long since been firmly refuted by scientists. Indeed, they were recanted by Denton himself in a later book more than 10 years ago.

Since Egnor is decades out of date and shows no sign of knowing anything at all about evolutionary biology in the 21st century, one wonders what could have inspired his declaration at this time.

  1. Darwin’s Origin of Species is also “rather old” (and more than just decades out of date), but no doubt Professor Coyne still finds its central arguments compelling.
  2. Dr. Denton’s later book, Nature’s Destiny, explains his view that life is a result of precise fine-tuning built into the universe’s initial conditions, and life cannot be explained by the cumulative effects of random mutation and selection. This is rather different, to put it mildly, than the Darwinist position which dogmatically insists that all appearance of design is illusory. (The linked reference seems to contradict the professor’s assertion that Dr. Denton “recanted” his earlier work.)

The tenets of evolutionary theory are simple: Life evolved, largely under the influence of natural selection; this evolution took a rather long time; and species alive and dead can be organized on the basis of shared similarities into a tree whose branching pattern implies that every pair of living species has a common ancestor.

Among genuine scientists, there is not the slightest doubt about the truth of these ideas. In contrast to Egnor’s claim, the evidence for all of them is not only strong but copious–so much so that evolution has graduated from a scientific theory to a scientific fact.

Of course, the controversial part of Darwinism is not that natural selection exists, that life development took a long time, or that there are similarities between living things, but rather that life developed entirely by an unguided and purposeless natural process.

My recent book, Why Evolution Is True, gives 230 pages of evidence for evolution–evidence from many areas of biology, including the fossil record, anatomy, biogeography and molecular biology. My main problem in writing the book was not deciding what to present, but what to leave out; I could easily have made it three times longer without even beginning to exhaust the data. There is so much evidence and so many kinds of evidence that one would have to be either willfully ignorant or blinded by faith to think otherwise. (I leave it to the reader to judge to which category Egnor belongs.)

The real question is whether the kind of evidence that Professor Coyne presents in his book actually proves (rather than assumes) the central tenet of Darwinism: That life is the result of a purposeless and unguided process. Assuming the point you are trying to prove is, of course, question-begging. Those who do not take Darwinist presuppositions for granted are unlikely to find his arguments compelling, frustrating though he obviously finds this to be.

Let’s examine Egnor’s main criticism of evolutionary theory. “The fossil record,” he writes, “shows sharp discontinuity between species, not the gradual transitions that Darwinism inherently predicts.”

This is sheer nonsense. As all biologists know, we have many examples not only of gradual change within species but also of “transitional forms” between very different kinds of species. These include fossil links between fish and amphibians, reptiles and birds, reptiles and mammals and, of course, the famous fossils linking apelike creatures with our own species, Homo sapiens. Does Egnor not know this, or is he simply trying to mislead the reader?

No doubt Darwinists sincerely want to believe the fossil record supports their view, but the real question is whether the fossil record actually supports Darwinism when evaluated independently of Darwinist expectations. For example, punctuated equilibrium (a term first coined by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge) attempts to explain why stasis (lack of change) is a pervasive feature of the fossil record. What’s pertinent about punctuated equilibria in terms of this discussion is the problem to which it draws attention: The fossil record is characterized by sudden appearance of new organisms, stasis, and extinction. Gould once famously remarked that “the extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology.” This fact is in stark contrast to Darwinist predictions, which assert that the fossil record should show an exhaustive record of continuous change.

Another specious claim is his assertion that “Darwin’s theory offers no coherent, evidence-based explanation for the evolution of even a single molecular pathway from primordial components.” Nonsense–even the complicated pathway of blood clotting (an example much favored by creationists) is the subject of coherent, evidenced-based explanations.

The article linked by Professor Coyne is technical in nature and carries the title “The evolution of vertebrate blood coagulation as viewed from a comparison of puffer fish and sea squirt genomes.” The article contains a number of sentences such as the following: “Because such a convoluted pathway could not have evolved in one fell swoop, it was long ago realized that a series of gene duplications must lie at the heart of the complex set of interactions observed in mammalian clotting.” Another: “It is thought that 50-100 million years separate the appearances of urochordates (which include the sea squirt) and vertebrates. During that time the machinery for thrombin-catalyzed fibrin formation had to be concocted by gene duplication and the shuffling about of key modular domains.” To the believing Darwinist, mere speculations apparently count as “evidence-based explanations,” but it should be obvious even to the layperson that simple speculations are not the same thing as actual scientific explanations.

Egnor also declares that “intricate biomolecules such as enzymes are so functionally complex that it’s difficult to see how they could arise by random mutations.” He is right here: such complex adaptations could not have arisen under the power of random mutation alone.

What he seems to have forgotten is the process of natural selection, which filters those mutations, preserving the good ones and eliminating the bad ones. It is the combination of mutation and the selection filter that produces the extraordinary instances of adaptation we can document in nature. Bacteria, for example, evolved brand-new enzymes to break down nylon–an artificial polymer that was never encountered by bacteria before 1930.

Processor Coyne uses a comparatively modest example of a bacterial adaptation (presumably produced by natural selection) to claim that therefore natural selection must somehow be able to create new genetic information and construct the amazingly complex biological features we see in nature. The question at issue is whether this claim is true, or whether it is an unwarranted and reckless extrapolation based on very meager evidence. Natural selection, to be sure, has some observable effects, but the belief that it has the amazing creative powers Darwinists want to attribute to it might not be true, no matter how strongly it appeals to the Darwinist’s common sense.

How does Egnor account for the natural world? He does not, in fact, offer a scientific theory. Rather, he subscribes to the creationist view that complex things, which are difficult to explain, are the domain of God. If we don’t understand something, there’s no point trying to understand it–we should just throw up our hands and say, “God did it.”

Imagine what would have happened if, over the history of science, we imputed to God’s hand everything we didn’t understand. We would never have cured the plague, which–like most diseases and disasters–was once thought to reflect God’s anger rather than bacteria-carrying fleas. “Barrenness” in women was thought to reflect divine displeasure; it is now treated effectively by scientific means, not by propitiating the gods.

This is obviously an absurd caricature of theistic rationality. Scientists who believe in a deity don’t throw up their hands in despair every time they don’t understand something and say “God did it.” Rather, they assume that the universe and science have order because they came from an orderly mind. (In contrast, Darwinists paradoxically insist that the order in the universe must have come from a undirected natural process!)

There are no observations in nature that refute Darwinism, but there are plenty that refute Egnor’s creationist alternative. How does he explain the persistence of “dead genes” in species (like our own broken one for making vitamin C)–genes that were functional in our ancestors? What explains those annoying hominin fossils that span the gap from early apelike creatures to modern humans? Why do human fetuses produce a coat of hair after six months in the womb, and then shed it before birth? Why didn’t the creator stock oceanic islands with mammals, reptiles and amphibians? Why did He give us vestigial ear muscles that have no function? Why do whales occasionally sprout hind legs? Did God design all creatures to fool us into thinking that they evolved?

Professor Coyne tries to use the “God wouldn’t have done it that way” argument to say that “creationists” have been refuted, but this is a basic error in logic. It simply does not follow that design imperfections prove life arose naturally via undirected mutation and selection. Engineering often involves numerous trade-offs in design, and there’s no good reason to suggest the same isn’t true in biology.

The good news is that Egnor is just one benighted physician. Far more disturbing is Forbes’ ham-handed policy of “balancing” the views of evolutionists by giving a say to Egnor and four other creationists. (Their articles, found here, are at least as misleading as Egnor’s.) Perhaps Forbes sees Darwinism as “controversial.” But it’s not, at least not in a scientific sense. Scientifically, evolution is a settled issue–a fact.

The only “controversy” is social and political: Will Americans, in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, be allowed to impose a false, religiously based view of biology in the public schools? This “teach the controversy” approach, so popular among fundamentalists, ill suits a publication with the gravitas of Forbes.

Can we expect that it will balance stories on medicine with the competing views of shamans, Christian Scientists and spiritual healers? Will articles on the Holocaust be rebutted by the many Holocaust deniers? When the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing rolls around this July, will Forbes give a say to paranoids who think the landing was a fraud, staged on a movie lot?

This, in effect, is what Forbes has done by giving equal time to evolution-deniers. Journalists have an obligation to be fair, but this doesn’t mean that they must give charlatans a prestigious platform from which to broadcast their lies. By doing so, Forbes has debased both journalism and science.

The thrust of Professor Coyne’s rhetorical attack essentially amounts to this: You are required to believe everything “we” (the Darwinist scientific establishment) tell you about Darwinism, or “we” will attack you as an enemy of science. This absurd and imperious demand is designed to silence dissenters rather than to discuss questions of substance. When proponents of a purportedly scientific theory feel the need to resort to tactics like this, Darwinism must be on shaky ground indeed.

How to Ask Questions in a Technical Forum

Technical forums (such as web-based forums or Usenet newsgroups) are among the very best places to get specific technical questions answered because many of the people answering questions in technical forums are very knowledgeable about the specific topic and like sharing that knowledge.

Of course, without forum participants, there is no forum, so new forum participants are welcome. That said, there are a group of reasons why some forum participants do not get their questions answered (or not answered quickly or meaningfully). My purpose here is to educate technical forum participants on the best way to ask questions so that their questions will have a higher probability of being answered in a meaningful and timely way.

Acknowledgements: Raymond Chen (The Old New Thing), Eric Raymond (How to Ask Questions the Smart Way),  Eric Lippert (Fabulous Adventures in Coding), and Mike Pope.

For no particular reason, I’m calling the forum question-answerers Ted. (Ted might be a forum moderator or someone who is knowledgeable about a particular topic.)

1. Search before you ask

Don’t be helpless. For example, if you need to know how to list services in PowerShell, use a search engine. If you post a question that is easily answered by a quick search, Ted may give a response that is designed to help you help yourself. (Ted may also simply ignore the question because he might feel like you’re asking him to do your work for you. See #6.)

2. Ask in the appropriate forum

You should only ask questions that are relevant to the forum. For example, don’t ask a SQL server question in a scripting forum. If you’re not sure where you should post your question, try to find out (see #1). If you don’t do this, your question might be ignored, or you’ll probably be told you’re asking in the wrong place. This wastes both your time (because you’re not getting your question answered) and Ted’s time (either because he has to read your question before deciding to ignore it or because he has to type a “you’re not asking in the right place” response).

If you can’t find the relevant forum, give some indication that you’re not helpless. For example: “I’m looking for information about how to use the Get-Foo cmdlet’s -Bar parameter in PowerShell. I searched for ‘powershell get-foo bar’, but the results lack detail about the blob the parameter is expecting. Does anyone have any details about the -Bar parameter’s blob format?” In other words, try to illustrate that you’re not just asking Ted to do your work for you.

3. Use a meaningful subject line

Your subject line should be as specific as possible and summarize the question. Subject lines such as “please help” or “newbie question” are not helpful because you’re forcing Ted to open the question in order to read it. Ted will probably prioritize questions with meaningful subject lines ahead of questions with meaningless subject lines simply because they’re more interesting.

Subject lines such as “HELP REQUIRED QUICKLY” or “NEED URGENT HELP ASAP” contribute nothing of substance to your question and probably won’t get you a faster answer. Ted may even find this rude, because you’re implying that your question should have priority over everyone else’s.

4. Don’t make Ted guess

Remember that Ted can’t read your mind. If you don’t provide enough information, Ted ends up 1) guessing (if you’re lucky, he guesses right), 2) ignoring your question, or 3) asking for more information. Where applicable and when possible, make sure to include the exact error message.

Here’s an example of a “guessing game” question:

Subject: IE
Question: IE is hanging from my script. Is there any solution for it.

Here’s an example of how you should ask instead:

Subject: Internet Explorer hangs when I quim or flob in my script

Question: When I use the following code, Internet Explorer seems to become unresponsive. I tried both quimming and flobbing, but both of these approaches caused the error message ‘800a4005: The object has farbled’. I searched for that error code and error message but I didn’t find anything that relates to this specific situation. What am I doing wrong? [SHORT Code sample follows]

Corollary to the “guessing game” question: Don’t forget to ask your question.

5. If something didn’t work, you have to say how it didn’t work

There is not much to say here other than what Raymond Chen already said. Just saying “it didn’t work” conveys almost no useful information. Remember: We can’t see your screen.

Regarding error messages: The last sentence of the previous paragraph says it all. Please copy and paste the text of the error message. (Avoid screen shots unless Ted asks for one.)

6. Ted is not your personal consultant

Ted is often a volunteer and answers questions in his free time; he is not your personal consultant. Ted likes to help and appreciates thoughtful questions, but remember that he’s not obligated to do your work for you.

For example, consider the following request: “I need a script that quims the flobs.” Possible response: “OK; go ahead and write it, then.” Why should you avoid this kind of request? First, the request is not a question (see #4). Second, you’re explicitly asking Ted to do your work for you. Third, we all understand the importance of quick solutions, but if Ted is feeling generous and gives you a script that quims the flobs, you’re not really learning anything. Numerous times I’ve seen Ted post a generous response such as this, only to have the original poster continue to request ongoing technical support for the script and/or ongoing requests to add features to it. After experiencing this a few times, Ted will probably start to feel less generous.

7. Describe the goal, not the attempted solution

Sometimes, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. For example: “We have a script to add a domain group to the local Administrators groups on our computers but it doesn’t work on Windows Vista and later. How can we get this script to work?” The underlying question is how to manage the members of the local Administrators groups on domain computers. (One answer: Use the Restricted Groups feature in Group Policy.) Here’s another example of this principle.

8. Have appropriate expectations

Remember that there’s no guarantee that 1) you will get an answer to your question, 2) you will like the answer you get, and 3) what you want to do is even possible. A technical forum does not come with a service-level agreement. (Preemptive response: Yes, I know Raymond is talking about e-mail, but the principle applies.)

9. If your question is answered, don’t forgot to follow up

If your question has been answered (or you have at least been pointed in the right direction), don’t forget to post a follow-up message that your question has been answered. Thanking Ted for his time and expertise is also appropriate.

Disabling the Command Prompt Does NOT Increase Security

There is a configuration setting in the Windows operating system called “Disable the command prompt.” It “prevents users from running the interactive command prompt, cmd.exe. This policy also determines whether batch files (.cmd and .bat) can run on the computer. If you enable this policy and the user tries to open a command window, the system displays a message explaining that a policy prevents the action” (description copied and pasted from the Microsoft documentation). I’ve seen instances where administrators enable this setting in a Group Policy Object (GPO) under the mistaken impression that this improves security somehow.

This setting is a holdover from Windows 95/98 (which had no security), but it is completely pointless on Windows NT/2000/XP/Server 2003/Vista/Server 2008/7/Server 2008 R2/8/Server 2012/8.1/Server 2012 R2/10/Server 2016 and later. I can’t think of a single good reason to disable the command prompt. Why? Because cmd.exe is a program. It is not a security boundary.

In the Windows operating system, a security boundary prevents a program from doing something, or prevents data from going somewhere, without authorization. If a user opens a command prompt (i.e., starts the cmd.exe program), the cmd.exe program is running as that user, just like any other program the user runs. The cmd.exe program does not somehow give the user the ability to do things they can’t do otherwise. The user’s account is the security boundary, not the command prompt.

I have seen many requests for technical help in various forums, and sometimes the answer to a problem involves typing commands at a command prompt. Occasionally, I will see a reply like: “That won’t work, because we have disabled the command prompt.” My suspicion is that some administrators think that disabling the command prompt somehow increases security, but because this is wrong, the only thing it accomplishes in cases like this is slowing down problem solving processes (thus increasing costs).

PowerShell’s Execution Policy

PowerShell’s execution policy is an administrator safety feature; it’s not a security feature.

Its purpose is to prevent you from accidentally running scripts. It does not stop you from running scripts if you really want to.

All you have to to is start the PowerShell executable with the -ExecutionPolicy parameter set to Bypass (or RemoteSigned, etc.), and your PowerShell process is running with the specified execution policy. Ergo: not a security feature. (If the execution policy was really a security feature, then it wouldn’t be so easy to bypass, would it?)

Even if someone sets the execution policy to Restricted or AllSigned in a Group Policy Object (GPO), this can still be bypassed on the client side by rewriting the registry value (if the user is a member of Administrators) or by running the following function:

function Disable-ExecutionPolicy {
  ($context = $ExecutionContext.GetType().GetField(
  $context,(New-Object Management.Automation.AuthorizationManager “Microsoft.PowerShell”))

So — if you’re under the impression that a restrictive execution policy will prevent users from running scripts, that’s simply incorrect.

Trying to prevent users from running scripts is a strange thing to want to do anyway. Running scripts doesn’t grant users extra permissions. Another way to say this: PowerShell is a program, not a security boundary. Any program a user starts (including a script, which is run by a program, obviously) runs as that user.

The execution policy can be useful where you want to allow only signed scripts to run automatically by default. But it won’t prevent the user from changing the policy on their own and running scripts.