Dispatches from the Creation Wars

After poking fun at Ellish Washington over his utter ignorance of evolution the other day, he sent me an email. I will reproduce it in full:

Just one question: How can you have such faith in the theory of evolution when Darwin himself said his theory was a ” mere rag of an hypothesis” and full of holes?

I’d be happy to debate you on this or on any subjects you feel comfortable debating any time, Mr. Brayton.

My reply:

I do not have “faith” in any theory. I judge all scientific theories in exactly the same manner, by their ability to explain the data and predict the nature of new data before it is found. The theory of evolution explains a vast range of data exceedingly well and has made thousands of successful predictions over the last 150 years. As for your quote from Darwin – standard issue creationist quote mining – you can’t even get the source right. It is from a letter to TH Huxley, not Asa Gray, a letter that was written shortly before On the Origins of Species was published. It is typical of Darwin to downplay the importance of his work, and it’s certainly true that he initially harbored doubts about the validity of the theory he had invented. But we now have 150 years of research that confirms the basic outline of this theory (varation plus natural selection = common descent), while negating other minor aspects of his theory.

One insecure letter written in 1859 does not define the validity of evolution, for crying out loud. Even if Darwin had never existed, we would still today have the same theory that we have now (Alfred Wallace came up with essentially the same theory working separately). If Darwin had not existed, we would today be referring to Wallacian evolution instead of Darwinian evolution. But the modern theory of evolution would be the same and the vast amount of data we have that can only be explained by common descent would also remain.

As for your challenge to debate, I will consider it – if you can give a coherent answer to the following question:

Can you provide a coherent, consistent explanation other than common descent for the patterns of appearance of endogenous retroviruses in vertebrate genomes? Francis Collins, the Christian geneticist who headed up the Human Genome Project, lays out much of the data on ERVs in his book The Language of God and argues, quite correctly, that it simply cannot be explained without common descent (which is, of course, the theory of evolution).

Good luck to you.