Dispatches from the Creation Wars

As I mentioned the other day, about 1/3 of Ann Coulter’s new book is devoted to “Darwinism”. Since she has no background on the subject at all, she had to get some tutoring on the subject and she got it from none other than the Discovery Institute folks. She says in the book, “”I couldn’t have written about evolution without the generous tutoring of Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and William Dembski…”, while Dembski himself goes so far as to say, “I’m happy to report that I was in constant correspondence with Ann regarding her chapters on Darwinism – indeed, I take all responsibility for any errors in those chapters.” Okay, Mr. Dembski. We’ll be happy to hold you to such responsibility.

The Panda’s Thumb crew decided to take her 4 chapters on evolution and dissect them, picking out some of the more absurd claims and showing, in great detail, why she’s wrong about them. Suffice to say that there are enough claims that are not just weak but stunningly dishonest and wide of the mark that this could take weeks to complete. The first two posts in this regard are now available publicly. PZ Myers takes on her claim that there is no evidence for evolution, while Ian Musgrave takes on her credulous regurgitation of Wells’ highly distorted and laughable claims about the peppered moths as evidence for natural selection in action.

On the first claim, that there is no evidence for evolution, Myers correctly points to the scientific literature that contains hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of articles about various aspects of evolution. That represents the life’s work of tens of thousands of scientists, difficult and painstaking work that slowly and steadily adds to our understanding of evolution. Of course, Ann has it backwards. The issue is not whether there is evidence that supports evolution, but whether there is evidence that is explained by evolution. Theories, after all, are explanations for data.

And quite frankly, anyone who claims that there is no evidence explained by evolution can only fall into one of two categories – abominably ignorant or breathtakingly dishonest. Even the young earth creationist geologist Kurt Wise gave an address at the last International Conference on Creation where he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that it is foolish to claim that there is no evidence for evolution. Evolution, he fully agreed, is a very powerful theory that explains a vast range of evidence pretty darn well, which is why it is almost universally accepted among scientists in the relevant fields. The challenge for creationists, he said, was to develop a theory that explained the same evidence but also explained evidence that evolution could not explain. Only then would creationism be accepted as valid. But to claim that evolution does not explain the evidence at all, he argued, is merely to engage in peddling nonsense that makes you feel better about your position but has no basis in reality. It’s the equivalent, as PZ says, of someone sticking their fingers in their ear and shouting LA LA LA LA LA at the top of their lungs. No rational person could possibly take it seriously.

For anyone who really believes that there is no evidence that supports, or is explained by, evolution, I give you this challenge. It’s a challenge that I’ve laid out on my blog numerous times to creationists and never gotten a substantive response. I’ll give it here again. It details a compelling piece of evidence, the successional order of appearance in the fossil record, that can only be reasonably explained by evolution. Here’s the challenge:

To me, the most powerful line of evidence for evolution is what is called biostratigraphy – the order in which life forms appear in the fossil record. As you go up the geologic column, dated both relatively (in relation to younger strata above and older strata below) and absolutely (via hundreds of concordant radiometric dates using a variety of techniques), all over the world, you find the same successional order of appearance. At the lowest levels you find nothing but bacteria. Even among bacteria there is a specific order, divided into prokaryotes and eukaryotes. That is all there was on the earth for about a billion years. Then the first multicellular life appears in the form of stromatolites and, along with bacteria, are all that there was for over 2 billion years. Then the first metazoic life appears around 600 million years ago, all marine invertebrates. These marine invertebrates become more diversified – trilobites, mollusks, brachiopods, echinoderms, etc, and after 150 million years or so we find jawless fishes, the first vertebrates. Vertebrate fishes become more and more diversified, then the first amphibians appear. Amphibians become more diversified for about 70 million years and then the first reptiles appear. Reptiles become more diversified over the course of about 80 million years and then the first mammals appear in very limited niches. Then the first birds begin to appear after another 70 million years or so. Reptiles dominate throughout this period, especially dinosaurs, and then 65 million years ago they become extinct. After that, mammals suddenly begin to diversify and appear in greater numbers and greater variety. 10 million years later, the first primates appear. Then the first marine mammals.

This order of appearance is the same all over the world no matter where you look. And within each of these groups, you find an equally interesting order. The first amphibians to appear are nearly identical to the shallow marine fish they are thought to have evolved from and as you move forward in time they become increasingly less fish-like, more diversified and better adapted to terrestrial life. The first mammals to appear are virtually indistinguishable from therapsid reptiles and, again, as you more forward in time they spread out, become increasingly less reptile-like and more diversified and more like modern mammals. The first birds to appear are, quite literally, feathered dinosaurs and, once again, as new species appear they become more diversified, better adapted to avian lifestyles, they gradually lose many of the reptilian traits and look more and more like modern birds.

This exceptionless order is a fact that requires explanation. Evolutionary theory provides that explanation. It seems to me that anti-evolutionists have two possible alternative explanations for this. There is the YEC explanation, which is that all of these forms of life lived at the same time and were killed off in the flood, which sorted them into this order (the hydrological sorting position put forward by Morris, Gish, et al). This explanation is astonishingly ridiculous when you compare it to the evidence. There is no difference in the hydrodynamic properties of eukaryotic bacteria vs prokaryotic bacteria, yet the flood somehow managed to sort them perfectly into the same order all over the world? Raging flood waters managed to sort trilobites by the suture pattern on the insides of their shells or by the number of lenses in their eyes? Marine mammals somehow got sorted toward the top while marine fish got sorted toward the bottom? Not to mention that if all of the microscopic life whose bodies make up the vast chalk and limestone formations around the world lived at the same time the oceans would have been so thick with them that you wouldn’t have had to be Jesus to walk across it. Or that we find surface features at every level that could not have been formed in the middle of a flood (nesting sites, terrestrial sandstones, trackways, burrows, mudcracks, etc). How anyone with any knowledge of geology can take such an explanation seriously is beyond me.

The second explanation is that God created each of these life forms and did so in exactly the order that evolution would predict, putting them in exactly the right anatomical and temporal order so that it appears in an obvious pattern mimicking what one would predict if life evolved. Or perhaps that he was expirementing, creating new life forms trying to get to something novel and different until he got it right. Perhaps all of those hominid species that fall into the temporal and anatomical order evolution predicts to draw a line between the miocene primates and modern humans, with the signature human traits of brain size, dentition and bipedality gradually becoming more human-like over time, really represents a creator tinkering, making a series of almost-humans until he was happy with one of them and decided he had gotten it right. Needless to say, most anti-evolutionists can’t stomach the idea of a trickster God or a limited one trying to get it right.

Now, here’s what I find really fascinating about the typical ID response to this challenge. Most ID advocates, distinguishing themselves from traditional creationists, would say something like this, “Our objection is not to evolution or common descent, per se. Indeed, we can accept that common descent is true based in large part on the evidence that you refer to. But Darwinism requires more than that; Darwinism requires that such evolution be the result of a blind, unguided process, and there’s nothing in the evidence that you discuss that supports that conclusion.”

But notice that there is a disconnect here. If they really believed this, and could accept the theory of evolution as common descent, why then do they react the way they do whenever new evidence that helps fill out the evolutionary picture is found? Why, indeed, do they recycle so many old creationist anti-evolution canards such as this? If they have no problem with common descent but only regard it as having been guided or directed, why do they immediately respond to new finds of intermediate forms by saying that they don’t prove common descent? The answer, I think, is that their goal is not a coherent model of their own, it’s merely to sow some doubt – any doubt – about evolution. And the next example from Coulter makes that argument even stronger.

In the book, Coulter credulously repeats and even expands on Jonathan Wells’ highly distorted arguments concerning the peppered moths. There is hardly a word in Coulter’s section on the peppered moths that is true and Ian Musgrave does an excellent job of fisking it in great detail. But what I want to draw attention to is that all of the false arguments that they make about the peppered moths make sense only within an explicitly creationist, anti-evolutionary paradigm.

If one is taking the position that evolution may be true as long as it is guided and directed by some intelligence – if one actually believed that – then of what possible use is it to attack the peppered moths as an example of natural selection? Indeed, Behe and Dembski and Berlinski would surely all tell us that they do not deny the role of natural selection in the history of life. At the very least, they would not possibly reject the ability of natural selection to adjust the frequency of such a simple allele as the color of a moth in response to a changing environment. After all, as Coulter reminds us, this isn’t even evidence for a new species, just evidence for a change in the population genetics of an already existing species.

But of course, that’s entirely the point. No one has ever claimed that the peppered moths example proved evolution, much less unguided evolution. It is merely an example of how natural selection can select among existing traits in a population and make one trait more common than another because the first one helps avoid predation and the second does not. It’s an excellent example of natural selection operating in a short period of time in a single population, but it’s hardly a proof of evolution and it has never been presented as such.

So ask yourself this: if IDers really meant it when they said that they could accept evolution, speciation and even common descent occuring in the natural history of life on earth as long as it is guided by some intelligence, of what possible use is it to deny such a limited claim as the peppered moths as an example of natural selection? More importantly, why would they feel the need to so blatantly lie and distort both the substance and the meaning of the experiments in this regard, as Coulter, aided by our intrepid ID advocates, clearly does? Because, again, I think it serves their real and unstated goal – to do anything necessary to make people doubt evolution, even if it’s highly distorted and exaggerated.

The Coulter chapters get much, much worse. As Ian Musgrave notes, she repeats practically every old creationist canard in existence, including the claim that there are no transitional fossils. Again, why would an ID advocate deny the existence of transitional fossils if ID is genuinely consistent with guided common descent? One would expect there to be transitional fossils if that is true, just as we would expect them to be there is unguided common descent is true. The answer seems obvious to me: because they really don’t mean it when they say that ID is okay with common descent, despite the monumental evidence for it. Folks like DaveScot may actually believe it, but his hero Mr. Dembski clearly does not. If he did, he would not be teaching such arguments to Coulter, arguments that only make sense in an anti-evolutionary, creationist context, not in an “ID as guided common descent” context.

Stay tuned for much, much more about Coulter’s terrible arguments about evolution and the DI fellows who taught them to her. We’ve only just begun.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeff Hebert
    June 19, 2006

    I saw an article recently that correctly calls Coulter what she is — a troll. Nothing more, nothing less, she’s identical in every way to those who troll internet forums saying the most obnoxious things they can think of to get a reaction. I’ve never known the right way to deal with trolls, but I found that an excellent insight to what she’s all about.

    Like David Duke, though, the gut-wrenching part of her schtick is that so many people buy it and take it literally. To them it’s not a joke, they really, honestly believe she’s right, and scariest of all — they vote that way.

  2. #2 K Klein
    June 19, 2006

    Has anyone tried to get Coulter to engage the criticisms of her work? Most respectable journalists have email addresses and Coulter has her own web forums.

  3. #3 Gretchen
    June 19, 2006

    Goodness, you mean people actually bought her book and read it, so that they could waste their time refuting this stuff? The woman is a joke, everything she says is bilge, end of story. If people do take her seriously they’re not going to be willing in the slightest to consider the mountains of evidence against her, even if you put it in front of them in the form of a pop-up book with lots of pretty colors.

    It’s the equivalent, as PZ says, of someone sticking their fingers in their ear and shouting LA LA LA LA LA at the top of their lungs. No rational person could possibly take it seriously.

    There you go. That’s all you need to say.

  4. #4 raj
    June 19, 2006

    No rational person could possibly take it seriously.

    The problem is that more than a few people are not rational. THey are rationalizing. They want “thus-and-so” and they will rationalize their way to get “thus-and-so” regardless of the fact that they are doing their rationalizing with things for which there is no evidence.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    June 19, 2006

    I think you guys are missing the point of this exercise. It’s certainly not going to convince the Coulter audience that she’s wrong, and it would be folly to try. It is to demonstrate, publicly and on the record, the kinds of ridiculous claims the major ID advocates gave her to say. We’re going to tie this crap around Dembski’s and Behe’s neck like an albatross. And if you don’t think that can prove handy later on, you weren’t paying attention during the Dover trial, where such public statements came back to haunt them over and over again.

  6. #6 Gretchen
    June 19, 2006

    What is to stop the ID advocates from just denying that they told her to say A, B, and C, or claiming they were misinterpreted?

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    June 19, 2006

    Gretchen-

    At least in Dembski’s case, the fact that he says he was so intimately involved in writing those sections that he takes full responsibility for any errors in them. And he certainly can’t now claim that she misinterpreted what he told her, after praising the book so effusively after it came out. I mean, they can say whatever they want, but as usual their previous statements aren’t going to go away because we won’t let them go away.

  8. #8 Julia
    June 19, 2006

    “If people do take her seriously they’re not going to be willing in the slightest to consider the mountains of evidence against her”

    Certainly you are right about devoted Coulter fans. But a book like hers reaches some people, by word of mouth if they haven’t actually read the book, who accept her statements because they haven’t heard an explanation of the facts she distorts. And, yes, despite all the sources of accurate information, there are many, many people who haven’t yet read or heard accurate information, at least not in a form concise and simple enough for them to follow.

    In addition to being important groundwork references for future situations like the Dover trial, articles like Ed’s post today are extremely helpful to me, and no doubt others like me with little or no school background in science, who need to have clear, simple answers for our friends and neighbors who say, “But what about ….?” and then repeat one of Coulter’s statements. Of course, one may take the position that people who don’t already know are either hopelessly stupid and/or deserve to be left ignorant. But I’m grateful for the kind of clarity of focus and explanation Ed provides, as it’s not likely I’d be successful at figuring all this out by myself though trying to read hundreds of professional articles on various evolutionary studies.

    Nonsense left unreplied to just gives the ID people the chance to claim that science is incapable of responding to Coulter’s claims.

  9. #9 Gretchen
    June 19, 2006

    Nonsense left unreplied to just gives the ID people the chance to claim that science is incapable of responding to Coulter’s claims.

    I don’t actually believe that. It takes far less energy, thought, and time to produce nonsense than sense, so the population of the former will always vastly outnumber the latter. If scientists tried to refute all of the nonsense, they would have time for nothing else, and would still not be able to deal with all of it. And besides that, it really doesn’t flatter the integrity of a scientist to bother bickering back and forth with such people at Coulter. “Pick your battles” is a well-advised maxim here (and one I wish Dawkins, for example, would take to heart).

    But if it’s a matter of tying the names of the (supposedly) respectable ID advocates to the ridiculous claims that Coulter makes for the purpose of pointing out the obviousness of their agenda later on down the line, as Ed says, I would say that’s a worthy cause.

  10. #10 MillieNeon
    June 19, 2006

    The old Nazi propaganda book says just keep shouting lies louder and louder and they become people’s truths. This is what people like Ann Coulter do, so I think it IS important to keep responding to her publically. I would like to see people respond to the editors of publications whenever she shows up in one.

    Has anyone considered the possiblity that Coulter and people who think like her may actually be a different species? Because I just can’t fathom how their brains are wired.

    And, speaking of ID, here’s a joke I made up:
    Q: What would you call it if Bush voluntarily stepped down from office?

    A: Intelligent Resign

  11. #11 cleek
    June 19, 2006

    there are conservatives who don’t doubt evolution, and who understand the science, and who like Coulter’s politics. but now it’s possible to utterly discredit Coulter, even in the eyes of those who might like her for approach to partisan politics. and maybe takedowns like this will allow her fans to see her for what she really is. maybe this will turn some of those fans into former fans…

  12. #12 Big C
    June 19, 2006

    Gretchen wrote:

    I don’t actually believe that. It takes far less energy, thought, and time to produce nonsense than sense, so the population of the former will always vastly outnumber the latter. If scientists tried to refute all of the nonsense, they would have time for nothing else, and would still not be able to deal with all of it.

    It’s pretty much a catch-22 “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If scientists are silent, they can’t answer the criticisms. If they speak out, they’re being petty and lending legitimacy to their opponents by wasting time responding to demagogues who spout nonsense.

    But the big problem, as I see it, is that Coulter and her ilk don’t get called on their outrageous statements anywhere else in the media. Her book becomes a best seller, and she is invited to be a guest and interviewed by the “liberal media” talk shows. No one actually points out that her book , from cover to cover, is a pack of lies, half-truths, distortions, and hate mongering. Sure, you can read a detailed dissection of her lies in the blogosphere, but will the fact that she is blatantly spewing lies and distortions ever be reported on Fox News (HA!), CNN, NBC, ABC, or CBS? Not even Bill Maher calls her on this when he interviews her on his show!

    Coulter and other demagogues and hate-mongers should be marginalized the same way white supremicists and anti-semites are marginalized. People should give them as much consideration as they give Fred Phelps and his nutjobs. They should not have their crap become best-selling books read and swallowed uncritically by the media and the general public. This is a clear indication that rational public discourse is in grave danger, if not already dead.

    I can’t fault Coulter (or Fred Phelps for that matter) for exercising her right to free speech. As much as I detest the content of that speech, she has the right to spew hateful nonsense indefinitely. The challenge, in my opinion, is to get the majority of the public to exercise their right to ignore her speech. How do we convince people to ignore her? By pointing out, calmly, rationally, efficiently, and with lots of documentation, how all of her work is crap, and how much she distorts and lies about the people she demonizes.

  13. #13 Sexy Sadie
    June 19, 2006

    We’ve only just begun.

    I can’t wait for more.

  14. #14 Gretchen
    June 19, 2006

    But the big problem, as I see it, is that Coulter and her ilk don’t get called on their outrageous statements anywhere else in the media. Her book becomes a best seller, and she is invited to be a guest and interviewed by the “liberal media” talk shows. No one actually points out that her book , from cover to cover, is a pack of lies, half-truths, distortions, and hate mongering. Sure, you can read a detailed dissection of her lies in the blogosphere, but will the fact that she is blatantly spewing lies and distortions ever be reported on Fox News (HA!), CNN, NBC, ABC, or CBS? Not even Bill Maher calls her on this when he interviews her on his show!

    Oh, I agree wholeheartedly with that. There is absolutely no reason for them to give her the air time– the best solution, I think, would be for the media to just ignore her altogether…and, failing that, to point out clearly just what an idiot she is.

  15. #15 SkookumPlanet
    June 19, 2006

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    Ed and gang
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