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.