Friday, May 28, 2010

Evolved Irony

As I looked through the local used bookstore yesterday, I found a copy of Jerry A. Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True ((2009). New York: Viking). The jacket flap contained praise from Edward O. Wilson, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, all assuring me that this book is extremely brilliant and devastating to those who would deny evolution. If you are familiar with the boasts of Darwinists, you’ll know how empty those promises are. But I figured it was only $9.98, so I might as well look at it.

While I have only just started it, the book has thus far been underwhelming. The introduction simply asserts repeatedly that evolution is true and only fundamentalists don’t believe it. For example (all italics mine):

What [Dover trial Judge] Jones had done was imply prevent an established truth from being muddled by biased and dogmatic opponents (xiii).

But evolution is far more than a “theory,” let alone a theory in crisis. Evolution is a fact (xiii).

…this volume gives a succinct summary of why modern science recognizes evolution as true (xiv).

Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years (xv).

But it is more than just a good theory, or even a beautiful one. It also happens to be true (xvi).

Indeed, if ever there was a time when Darwinism was “just a theory,” or was “in crisis,” it was the latter half of the nineteenth century, when evidence for the mechanism of evolution was not clear, and the means by which it worked—genetics—was still obscure. This was all sorted out in the first few decades of the twentieth century… (xvii).

True, evolution is as solidly established as any scientific fact (it is, as we will learn, more than “just a theory”), and scientists need no more convincing (xvii).

In 2006, for example, adults in thirty-two countries were asked to respond to the assertion “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” by answering whether they considered it true, false, or were unsure. Now, this statement is flatly true… (xviii).

Why teach a discredited, religiously based theory, even one widely believed, alongside a theory so obviously true? (xix).
My first through reading all that was: “The gentleman doth protest too much.” But the above isn’t why I wrote this post. Instead, I want to move on to one of Coyne’s analogies. Coyne writes:

Starting with the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1635, biologists began classifying animals and plants, discovering that they consistently fell into what was called a “natural” classification. Strikingly, different biologists came up with nearly identical groupings. This means that these groupings are not subjective artifacts of a human need to classify, but tell us something real and fundamental about nature. But nobody knew what that something was until Darwin came along and showed that the nested arrangement of life is precisely what evolution predicts. Creatures with recent common ancestors share many traits, while those whose common ancestors lay in the distant past are more dissimilar. The “natural” classification is itself strong evidence for evolution.

Why? Because we don’t see such a nested arrangement if we’re trying to arrange objects that haven’t arisen by an evolutionary process of splitting and descent. Take cardboard books of matches, which I used to collect. They don’t fall into a natural classification in the same way as living species. You could, for example, sort matchbooks hierarchically beginning with size, and then by country within size, color within country, and so on. Or you could start with the type of product advertised, sorting thereafter by color and then by date. There are many ways to order them, and everyone will do it differently. There is no sorting system that all collectors agree on. This is because rather than evolving, so that each matchbook gives rise to another that is only slightly different, each design was created from scratch by human whim.

Matchbooks resemble the kinds of creatures expected under a creationist explanation of life. In such a case, organisms would not have common ancestry, but would simply result from an instantaneous creation of forms designed de novo to fit their environments. Under this scenario, we wouldn’t expect to see species falling into a nested hierarchy of forms that is recognized by all biologists (pp. 9-10).
Of course, Coyne’s entire premise is false. First off, it is not at all surprising that biologists tend to classify animals similarly when you realize that they are classifying animals for similar reasons. After all, Coyne makes a big deal about how you can sort matchbooks by “size” or “color” seeming to forget that there’s nothing stopping biologists from arranging animals by size or color too. But biologists don’t do that. Why? Because when they begin their classification, they start with the assumption that the animals are related, and then sort based on those assumptions. They are not looking to classify by size; they are looking to classify by how organisms are related.

I daresay that if you hand several matchbooks to various random collectors and tell them, “These are all related to each other and we want to see if you can find out how” they will come up with many arrangements that are similar to each other. Similarity in organization does not, as Coyne claims, prove these classifications “are not subjective artifacts of a human need to classify.” That would only be true if each person came to classification without any prior concept of how they should be classified and still classified everything the same way. Furthermore, there are lots of dissimilarities in various classification schemes that are simply glossed over here by Coyne.

Coyne is also in error when he says “we don’t see such a nested arrangement if we’re trying to arrange objects that haven’t arisen by an evolutionary process of splitting and descent.” Has Coyne never seen a fractal, used a computer, or examined the management of a corporation? We see hierarchical sorting and nested arrangement all the time in intelligently created processes and objects.

Consider computer programs in more detail. With the advent of object oriented programming, the structure of all but the simplest of programs must be hierarchical. It is the most efficient means of writing complex programs across multiple platforms by hundreds of different programmers.

Furthermore, computer programs will often use the exact same libraries. Not because one program evolved from another, but because someone designed a bit of code that performed a specific function useful in many different applications, so the code snippet gets put in a library for other programmers to use. Entire modules can be created in the same way, and various different programs assembled from these modules. If someone was not aware that the programs were designed that way, it would be quite facile for someone to imagine the programs came about by descent with modification instead of being tailor made from bits of previously designed code. The evidence would seem compelling, but only because one starts off with the assumption that intelligence is not involved.

Coyne also has the following endnote that damages his matchbook analogy:
Unlike matchbooks, human languages do fall into a nested hierarchy, with some (like English and German) resembling each other far more than they do others (e.g., Chinese). You can, in fact, construct an evolutionary tree of languages based on the similarity of words and grammar. The reason languages can be so arranged is because they underwent their own form of evolution, changing gradually through time and diverging as people moved to new regions and lost contact with one another. Like species, languages have speciation and common ancestry. It was Darwin who first noticed this analogy (endnote 2, p. 235).
That’s right, after telling us that the nested arrangement proves that species were not created, Coyne shows a nested hierarchy of language. Yes, language. One of the indicators of intelligence. Talk about evolved irony!

Even if we agree with Coyne that language shows a “form of evolution” that form of evolution is most certainly NOT Darwinist. There are no random mutations followed by survival of the fittest; there is instead intelligent agents tinkering with their language. To the extent that language is an analogy of evolution, it is an analogy of theistic evolution, not Darwinism.

Thus far, Coyne’s arguments are far from persuasive. Indeed, Coyne seems to operate from a very simplistic viewpoint. He seems to believe that anything that indicates evolution must be proof of Darwinism, when in fact Darwinism is not the only theory of evolution (indeed, no one believes in Darwin’s Darwinism these days). Furthermore, Coyne seems to think that anything that looks like evolution cannot be equally explained by intelligent design either. Both of these flaws render his arguments considerably less than sound.

Perhaps he will improve as I get further in the book. But given past experience reading all the other “definitive” books on Darwinism, I won’t be holding my breath.


  1. "I found a copy of Jerry A. Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True ((2009). New York: Viking). The jacket flap contained praise from Edward O. Wilson, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, all assuring me that this book is extremely brilliant and devastating to those who would deny evolution."

    If I'm not mistaken, Coyne is a Catholic. But for all intents and purposes, there are many Protestant theistic evolutionists who are like Coyne too.

    And what has irked me particularly with regards to these theistic evolutionists, moreso the Protestant ones who happily receive the endorsements of atheists, is that they prefer to side with the enemies of God than to side with the followers of God!

    What is up with that???!!!?

    How can these theistic evolutionists dump on their brethren like that, unless they really don't like their brethren?

    I, on the other hand, heavily critique theistic evolutionists, but I don't seek the approval of atheists to rebuke these erring, professing followers of Christ.

    I almost think that some of these theistic evolutionists are traitors, wolves in sheep's clothing, and the enemy within.

  2. I suspect this guy's an atheist. Not sure, since it doesn't mention anything. Here's his wiki article, for what that's worth.

  3. Oh, and he's also attributed as saying: "Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works." Since he is an evolutionist, this appears to be an explicit rejection of God, which would be unusual even for a Catholic :-)

  4. My bad. I made a mistake by mixing up Professor Jerry Coyne with George Coyne, former Director of the Vatican Observatory.

    Here's a short video about George Coyne and theistic evolution: "Is Evolution Making a Monkey Out of the Catholic Church."

  5. Thanks for your post, Peter! :-)

    BTW, Jerry Coyne is definitely an atheist.

  6. For example, see what Coyne says here, here, here, and here.

    Also, see what others like Ken Miller say here.

  7. Someone over at Evolution News and Views did a multi-part review of Coyne's book.

  8. Actually, Linnaeus, the "father of modern taxonomy", was a Lutheran who at first believed in the fixity of species, later in micro-evolution (the development of new varieties from within existing species), but never in macro-evolution (the development of all living things and life itself through random natural processes). His system of plant and animal classification did not assume common descent, but rather was based on minute observation of common physical characteristics. The most controversial aspect of his research at the time was that he started with comparison of sexual organs. Later on, evolutionists would use the idea of common descent as an explanation for the similarities that Linnaeus discovered.

    This on-line biography (
    puts it this way:

    "Was Linnaeus an evolutionist? It is true that he abandoned his earlier belief in the fixity of species, and it is true that hybridization has produced new species of plants, and in some cases of animals. Yet to Linnaeus, the process of generating new species was not open-ended and unlimited. Whatever new species might have arisen from the primae speciei, the original species in the Garden of Eden, were still part of God's plan for creation, for they had always potentially been present. Linnaeus noticed the struggle for survival -- he once called Nature a "butcher's block" and a "war of all against all". However, he considered struggle and competition necessary to maintain the balance of nature, part of the Divine Order. The concept of open-ended evolution, not necessarily governed by a Divine Plan and with no predetermined goal, never occurred to Linnaeus; the idea would have shocked him."

  9. Warren Lotter said:

    In discussing naturalism and morailty/ethics with a secular friend I used a Richard Hawkins quote I found on Triablogue...

    As much as I'm in awe of 17th century explorers sailing across the deep, wide seas in search of adventure, I think you must mean Richard Dawkins, yeah?

  10. Someone over at Evolution News and Views did a multi-part review of Coyne's book

    It was Jonathan Wells IIRC.
    And pretty decent.

    I read the book all the way thru (borrowed from the library). It was pretty poor. The biggest thing I remember is him constantly saying "Creationists have no answer for this" and me thinking "Um, it took ME 2 seconds to think of an answer" in all but one case, in which it took 2 minutes.

  11. Hitchens, Dawkins, Hawkins. 2nd try with edits...

    In discussing naturalism and morailty/ethics with a secular friend I used a Richard Dawkins quote I found on Triablogue:

    Let’s all stop beating Basil's car

    Ask people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve retribution. There may be passing mention of deterrence or rehabilitation, but the surrounding rhetoric gives the game away. People want to kill a criminal as payback for the horrible things he did. Or they want to give "satisfaction' to the victims of the crime or their relatives. An especially warped and disgusting application of the flawed concept of retribution is Christian crucifixion as "atonement' for "sin'.

    Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.

    What I find odd is that Dawkins here uses a man-made computer (are there any other kinds?) as an example thereby undermining his own argument. A computer is DESIGNED and 'problem' here has connotations of 'not working as designed'. The logical naturalistic conclusion for Dawkins would be that we should remove this concept of "problem" from our thinking altogether.

  12. Rhology said:
    It was pretty poor.

    Well, consider what they had to work with :-D That's part of why I read these types of books. They're "the best" they've got, and you quickly realize that's nothing.

    I may or may not continue critiquing it as I read more, depending on if others are interested in it and if it doesn't bore me to do so :-D

  13. Warren quoted Dawkins:
    Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour.

    Morality is incompatible with science. That's why most atheists admit it and don't try to say science can teach you how to live your life.

    Just for fun, Coyne claims: "Accepting evolution needn't turn you into a despairing nihilist or rob your life of purpose and meaning. It won't make you immoral, or give you the sentiments of a Stalin or Hitler" (p. xx).

    And of this book, Dawkins said: "I once wrote that anybody who didn't believe in evolution must be stupid, insane, or ignorant... I should now update my statement. Anybody who doesn't believe in evolution is stupid, insane, or hasn't read Jerry Coyne" (jacket cover).

    Therefore, Dawkins supports Coyne's denial of Dawkins' claim that evolution leads to moral nihilism.

    Since science cannot make moral claims (it can never say what ought to be done), and since Dawkins claims the basis of man's moral views is unscientific, then I see no conclusion other than that Dawkins refutes himself and is too stupid, insane, and ignorant to know it.