The Frontal Cortex

Coulter, Quine and Evolution

PZ Myers dissects Ann Coulter’s ridiculous claim that “There is no physical evidence for evolution” with his usual panache and wit. Of course, he is entirely right: Darwinian evolution is a sacrosant biological fact. Without the theory of evolution, life makes no sense.

But I do think that Myers misinterprets Coulter’s claim. While Coulter says many foolish things, I’m sure she is well aware that thousands upon thousands of science papers have documented the abundance of evidence for evolution. (As Myers notes, PubMed currrently lists 150,000 peer-reviewed articles on evolution.) But Coulter’s claim is more specific: she insists that Darwin’s theory lacks physical evidence. What could this possibly mean?

Coulter’s mistake is an ancient one. She insists that because we can’t touch, taste or dissect evolution, then it can’t really exist. In other words, if something isn’t reducible into physical terms, then it’s just another abstraction, no more tenable than God. This is why Coulter equates “the ideology of evolutionary biologists” with “religious fundamentalism.” For Coulter, both beliefs are acts of faith.

The easiest way to dismantle Coulter’s claim is to refer her to gravity. (I doubt that even Coulter could deny gravity.) It has been four centuries since Newton discovered the force of gravity, and yet we still don’t know what gravity is made of. Like evolution, it can’t be weighed, poked or prodded. The point is not that Newtonian physics doesn’t exist, but rather that we believe in its existence because it helps us explain other things, things that we actually know exist. Gravity explains the orbits of planets, and natural selection elucidates the evolution of life. But if we didn’t have the planets, if we didn’t need to explain the suave motions of stars or the origin of species, then we would have no need to believe in the force of gravity or the logic natural selection.

So while evolution will never be a physical fact in Coulter’s sense, neither will gravity. And yet balls still fall to earth, and the beaks of finches still adjust to last year’s weather. This is one of the ironies of science: our most necessary scientific principles are often the least tangible. As the great philosopher W.V.O. Quine wrote, “The edge of the system [of science] must be kept squared with experience; the rest…has as its objective the simplicity of laws.” The truth of a scientific theory is not determined by how much it weighs, or whether we can see it with the naked eye. Scientific theories must explain stuff, and if they explain stuff – and evolution explains just about everything – then we learn to live with its intangibility. The problem with God is that God explains nothing. This is why religion requires faith, and evolution just requires a glance at the world around you.

Comments

  1. #1 Scott
    June 19, 2006

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
    – Arthur C. Clarke

    I’m afraid that even today’s level of technology is too “sufficiently advanced” for a large majority of people to distinguish it from magic.

  2. #2 Joe Shelby
    June 19, 2006

    I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Coulter doesn’t “deny” gravity because gravity as such doesn’t “deny” what she feels her target audience considers essential: their faith in God.

    But Coulter would never understand gravity and trying to say “do you deny it” isn’t going to work. She can “feel” being pulled to the earth and all of the evidences there, and she can even acknowledge that the moon “exerts” gravity on the tides.

    But to ask her to describe gravity, she would never begin to imagine that it is a mutual force. We pull on the earth with exactly the same force that it pulls on us. There is an aspect of the scientific definition of gravity, this mutual attraction, that there is no “physical” evidence for. The motions of the planets around the sun certainly reflect it, but only at a mathematical level that is beyond her (and beyond most). To the average person, the planets can move by the hand of God and it wouldn’t make any difference. The Law of Gravity is just a mathematical convenience, not a reality, in spite of the fact that without it we’d never have reached the moon or the planets.

    In this, it is to them no different from evolution being a collection of “just so stories” that seem to make sense to scientists but are obviously in complete violation to common sense (and the bible).

    Also if you read some of the other commentaries here at SB, Coulter is also clear that she doesn’t even consider biology a science in the first place, so even if you could get her to acknowledge Newton or Einstein’s mathematical definitions of gravity, she would call it an apples to oranges comparison to the “lies” told by evolutionists.

  3. #3 Joe Shelby
    June 19, 2006

    Ok, what I wrote is closer to what you wrote in your last two paragraphs (now that i’ve reread them) than I originally thought.

    I think my problem was your use of the word “believe” and “belief”. Science is not a belief, and to use the term to apply to any aspect of science (but rather that we believe in its existence because it helps us explain other things) is to give in to exactly what she and her sponsors want: to equate science with a religion so that science can be dismissed as being antithecal to the true Christian God.

    Better that the promoters of science avoid that word entirely, as it puts the debate back down on their base level and gives them an advantage they don’t need nor deserve.

  4. #4 Alejandro
    June 19, 2006

    Bringing up a philosopher as eminent as Quine to refute the utter rubish written by Ann Coulter? We have a saying for this sort of thing in Spanish: “Matar moscas a ca´┐Żonazos” (to kill flies with cannon shots).

  5. #5 Jonah
    June 19, 2006

    Thanks for all your comments, and I’m sure Quine is horrified that I used his holism to rebut Coulter. She reminds me of the old Yiddish aphorism: “A fool can throw a stone in the water that it takes ten wise men to retrieve.”
    But I do think that it’s important to understand Coulter’s mistakes – if only because her book is a best-seller – if we are to properly rebut them.

  6. #6 Robert P
    June 19, 2006

    On another note, what do you mean by no physical evidence of evolution?

  7. #7 steve
    June 20, 2006

    hmm.. couldnt the gravity argument be used just as easily to argue for the existance of G(g)od(s)?

  8. #8 Jess
    June 20, 2006

    The point is not that Newtonian physics doesn’t exist, but rather that we believe in its existence because it helps us explain other things, things that we actually know exist.

    And that we can see its effects. You don’t even have to understand how science works — as Coulter clearly doesn’t — to understand that.

    Coulter’s mistake is an ancient one. She insists that because we can’t touch, taste or dissect evolution, then it can’t really exist. In other words, if something isn’t reducible into physical terms, then it’s just another abstraction, no more tenable than God.

    And yet Dembski claims his kinship with her based on her hatred of materialism