Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Buchanan Blathers About Evolution

I actually already had Pat Buchanan’s latest column on my screen to write a response to when a reader emailed me and referred to the column as “Brayton bait.” And that is indeed what it is, a column full of discredited nonsense by someone who knows nothing about evolution but is utterly unaware of their own ignorance.

I am always amused when general-topic writers take on this particular issue while knowing nothing about it and think that by reading a few creationist websites or pamphlets they know all they need to know about evolution. This column is a textbook example. It’s basically a cliff’s notes version of the creationist jokebook.

The first half of the column is dedicated to the silly claims about evolution being responsible for Hitler, Marx, Stalin and every other Big Bad Thing in the last 150 years. I’m not even going to bother refuting those claims for the millionth time for one simple reason: they don’t have anything at all to do with whether evolution is true or not. Evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive; it explains how life developed on earth. The only relevant question is whether that explanation is accurate or not, not whether it does or does not have some disturbing philosophical implications that we might not like. If it’s true, it’s true, no matter how much some might wish it wasn’t.

On the subject of the validity of evolution, Buchanan basically offers a series of tiny argument fragments, all cribbed from creationist propaganda and all uniformly false. But first, one historical lie:

And here Windchy does his best demolition work.

Darwin, he demonstrates, stole his theory from Alfred Wallace, who had sent him a “completed formal paper on evolution by natural selection.”

This is false. Darwin and Wallace came up with very similar theories entirely separate from one another. Darwin had begun developing his theory two decades before it was published and it was only at the very end, in 1858, that Wallace contacted Darwin and sent him a manuscript. By that time, Darwin’s ideas had already been sketched out in great detail but not made public. In the end, both men had their papers presented at the same meeting of the Linnean Society in London (coincidentally, 151 years ago today).

Windchy goes on to relate such scientific hoaxes as “Nebraska Man” – an anthropoid ape ancestor to man, whose tooth turned out to belong to a wild pig – and Piltdown Man, the missing link between monkey and man.

Discovered in England in 1912, Piltdown Man was a sensation until exposed by a 1950s investigator as the skull of a Medieval Englishman attached to the jaw of an Asian ape whose teeth had been filed down to look human and whose bones had been stained to look old.

Standard creationist nonsense. Nebraska Man was not a hoax it was a very tentative identification by a very good scientist that was only turned into a “missing link” by a popular publication in England. HF Osborn took a single weathered tooth, very tentatively said that it may be anthropoid in origin and then scheduled a search for more remains to find out for sure. When they found further remains and it turned out to be a peccary tooth that had been weathered to look more anthropoid, that tentative classification was withdrawn and that was the end of it. Far from being some embarrassing moment for science, this illustrates exactly how good science is done.

Piltdown Man, on the other hand, was actually a hoax. But it was suspected to be a hoax precisely because it did not fit at all with other hominid specimens and it was proven to be a hoax by scientists using new dating techniques that were not available at the time the hoax was pulled off. Again, this is a good example of how science works to correct such false claims.

Other myths are demolished. Bird feathers do not come from the scales of reptiles. There are no gills in human embryos.

But of course, no one claims that there are gills in human embryos. The truth, quite undemolished, is human embryos have pharyngeal arches just like fish do. In fish, those structures end up being fashioned into gills and other structures while in humans they end up being fashioned into the structures of our own bodies. But in the embryos, they are identical structures.

For 150 years, the fossil record has failed to validate Darwin.

This is the silliest claim of all. I would challenge Pat Buchanan, as I have challenged every other creationist, to explain the patterns found in the fossil record without invoking common descent. It cannot be done, not without invoking miracles and engaging in rampant special pleading to explain away all the logical problems with the alternative explanations.

The fossil record looks exactly how it must look if evolution by common descent is true. It could not possibly look any other way.


  1. #1 Glen Davidson
    July 1, 2009

    Oh, here’s a link for the Gould quote above.

    Glen D