The Loom

i-fd2bd93b8ed5a7faa1a0b1dafdc29bfe-raccoon.jpgI just want to make one thing clear. When Ann Coulter talks about her Giant Raccoon Flatulence Theory, she’s talking about me. Don’t let anyone else tell you that they are a giant flatulent raccoon. They’re all just a bunch of wannabes. For I am the One True Giant Flatulent Raccoon.

Allow me to explain…

Coulter dedicates the last four chapers of her new book Godless to evolution. She claims that it is nothing more than the religion of liberalism (as opposed to the foundation of modern biology, as 92 national scientific academies and dozens of scientific societies attest.)

When I first heard about this bizarre news, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I certainly didn’t sit down to read the book, since I had more pressing matters to attend to, such as reading papers written by actual scientists about actual science. And as early reports on the treatment of evolution in Godless began emerge–documenting copious errors, illogical arguments, and other sorts of intellectual dreadfulness (see, for example, talkreason, Panda’s Thumb, and Pharyngula)–I decided I had made the right choice.

But then a friend told me that I, or at least one of my articles, was in the book. Now the bizarre had become the personal. I had to investigate. And when I did, I discovered that I had inspired the Giant Flatulent Raccoon Theory.

You see, last July my appendix nearly burst. I got to the hospital in time to have it safely removed, and as I recuperated I wondered why I had an appendix in the first place. After all, it had nearly killed me and now I was perfectly healthy without it. When I mentioned this to my editor, she said, Cool–sounds like an essay. I agreed. I started to read scientific studies of the appendix, and I spoke to some scientists who had written about its evolutionary origins. The question remains open, I discovered, in large part because scientists have a lot of work left to do to trace its history in mammals and to understand its function in us and in other special.species.

The existence of unanswered questions in science sometimes come as a shock to non-scientists, but there are plenty. How does the brain develop in a baby, for example? Scientists have identified some important genes, but they only have the vaguest idea of how those genes work together to create the cerebellum, the cerebral cortex, and all the other parts of the brain. That doesn’t make their work inconsequential or wrong. It just means they’ll be busy for a few more centuries.

I eventually wrote an essay (which you can read here or here) in which I explained what is and is not known of the appendix. I included a speculation from one of the scientists, Rebecca Fisher of Midwestern University, about why the appendix is still with us. She suggested that the appendix provided a net evolutionary benefit. It killed some people with appendicitis, but it also protected them by boosting the immune function in children. Testing this hypothesis is possible, although it will demand an analysis of a lot of medical records. But it is certainly plausible, since biologists have documented similar trade-offs.

This caused Coulter a great snit, which appears on page 214 of Godless:

So there it is: the theory of evolution is proved again. When the appendix’s use was a mystery, it proved evolution. When the appendix was thought to help humans resist childhood diseases–well, that proved evolution, too! Throw in enough words like imagine, perhaps, and might have–and you’ve got yourself a scientific theory! How about this: Imagine a giant raccoon passed gas and perhaps the resulting gas might have created the vast variety of life we see on Earth. And if you don’t accept the giant raccoon flatulence theory for the origin of life, you must be a fundamentalist Christian nut who believes the Earth is flat. That’s basically how the argument for evolution goes.

For some people, this outburst has come to epitomize Coulter’s empty rhetoric. A pretty good analysis of her scientific errors published Friday on the web site Media Matters is entitled, “Ann Coulter’s ‘Flatulent Raccoon Theory.'” The report has triggered the spread of the flatulent raccoon meme around here at scienceblogs, and elsewhere. It has even earned its own Wikipedia entry (although its survival is still up for grabs). [Update: The deliberations at Wikipedia are over: the giant raccoon theory is now a subsection of the Ann Coulter entry.]

There are plenty of passages in Godless’s evolution chapters that are as wrong-headed as the Giant Flatulent Raccoon Theory. But having witnessed my own work go through Coulter’s mangling machine, I can’t help marvelling on just how wrong-headed it is. Coulter conveniently leaves out the fact that when I decribed Fisher’s trade-off hypothesis, I stated clearly that it was just that: a hypothesis. I even pointed out that it was one of several possible hypotheses that might be worth examining. (See, for example, this Scientific American article by George Williams and Randolph Nesse in which they propose that it can’t get any smaller without causing more infection). Again, that’s how science works: people come up with hypotheses that are consistent with the evidence, and then they think about ways to test those hypotheses with new evidence. Instead, Coulter portrays Fisher’s hypothesis as “the answer the Times gave” as to why the appendix has not disappeared–making it sound as if the Grey Lady was handing down absolute truth. She then goes one step further, and transforms a hypothesis-turned-answer into the indisputable proof of evolution. I wonder if Coulter actually read my essay–in which case she presumably knows she is misrepresenting it–or if someone just handed her a passage to quote and told her to make up a joke about farts. In any case, she manages to create a truly laughable straw man.

The theory of evolution is not a pile of imagines and might-haves. It has been tested by generations of scientists and found to be the best explanation science can provide for how the natural world has gotten to be the way it is. Naturally the theory has matured over the past 150 years, and naturally many aspects of it generate fierce debates. That is how science works. If Coulter can only wage her war against evolution by misrepresenting a speculative hypothesis in an essay by a science writer, she really ought to stop and think for a moment.

If she actually did, it might occur to her that she really doesn’t even understand what evolution is, or what evolutionary biologists are setting out to explain. I pointed out in my essay that the appendix does not seem to be intelligently designed. “If I understand the concept of the survival of the fittest,” she responds, “the appendix doesn’t do much for the theory of evolution either. How does a surival-of-the-fittest regime evolve an organ that kills the host organism? Why hasn’t evolution evolved the appendix away? (Another sign that your scientific theory is in trouble: When your argument against an opposing theory also disproves your own.)”

“If I understand…” If only. Here, as elsewhere, Coulter write about natural selection as if it were a process that can do no wrong. So she thinks that if she just points out flaws in nature she has disproven evolution. Just before Coulter contemplates my appendix, she writes,

But, you say, there must be some characteristics that are inherently desirable without regard to whether or not the organism survived, such as intelligence, strength, or–to take something really obvious–a tendency to avoid eating poison. In one experiment attempting to prove evolution (and those are the only evolution experiments allowed by law), fruit flies were bred to avoid eating poison. One would think that if we could settle on one characteristic that is a priori “fit,” it would be: “Avoid eating posion.” (p.213)

Coulter is then shocked to discover that fruit flies bred to avoid eating poison are outcompeted by ordinary flies. “Yes, it’s been observed for centuries that it’s the truly stupid who are the most successful, live the longest, are the happiest, the wealthiest, the most desirable, and so on,” she scoffs.

News flash: natural selection does not produce traits that are “inherently desirable.” It favors mutations that increase reproductive fitness under a particular set of ecological conditions. And the relationship between mutations and fitness is made even more complicated by trade-offs. Coulter may want to mock the fly research (which for some reason she failed to mention was published in that pseudoscientific rag, the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London), but the fact remains that the scientists found that flies bred for better learning did pay a cost in terms of how well they competed. That may not square with Coulter’s experience with smart people, but it wasn’t people the scientists were studying. Evolution is influenced by all sorts of trade offs, and scientists have done enormous amounts of research on them, in everything from viruses to swans. For heaven’s sake, does Coulter even know about the classic trade-off, sickle cell anemia? What Coulter portrays as the death-blow to the idea that the appendix is the product of evolution is nothing of the sort.

As others have observed, it would take many more pages to explain everything that Ann Coulter got wrong about evolution in Godless than she wrote herself. I will content myself with two pages of a book that now sits atop the bestseller list. And I hereby declare this blog the Original Home of the Giant Flatulent Raccoon!

[Note: The raccoon picture comes from a wonderful new children's book from my old friend Ian Schoenherr, Little Raccoon's Big Question.]

Update 11:30 am: Comments about Coulter’s physical appearance (and other personal details) are irrelevant and, in my view, mean-spirited. They will not be accepted here.

Comments

  1. #1 JW Tan
    July 10, 2006

    Classic!

    Can I suggest that you put a raccoon on your blog banner, if you’re contemplating one?

    I enjoy your writing and your blog very much. Excellent work.

  2. #2 dearkitty
    July 10, 2006

    More about Ann Coulter here.

  3. #3 jbruno
    July 10, 2006

    “Just before Coulter contemplates my appendix”

    Now that is funny.

    One of these days Coulter’s rhetoric will implode. Columnists like her don’t last forever; they build up a persona which they cannot possibly maintain.

  4. #4 snaxalotl
    July 10, 2006

    the point is, ANY description of any aspect of evolution is CLEARLY intended as the primary proof of evolution, and so quibbling with any statement by any evolutionist is a disproof of evolution in toto (survival of the fittest is a tautology! ha! I just disproved evolution!). and geniuses like Ann can frequently be seen single-handedly dismantling the ediface of evolution several times in a single page. you are spending too much time arguing the details – Ann has no interest in the details, otherwise she’d know something.

  5. #5 Dave
    July 10, 2006

    Carl

    The Wikipedia article has disappeared; clicking on that link gets you a redirect to the Wikipedia page for her book, with no mention of racoons, flatulence, or your appendix..

  6. #6 Carl Zimmer
    July 10, 2006

    Dave–

    Thanks for the heads up. The raccoon lives on, however, in the Coulter subsection on evolution. My appendix is nowhere to be found.

  7. #7 haliaeetus
    July 10, 2006

    The question remains open, I discovered, in large part because scientists have a lot of work left to do to trace its history in mammals and to understand its function in us and in other special.

    Is there something missing from the end of this sentence Carl?

  8. #8 Zeno
    July 10, 2006

    “other special”

    I think he meant to say “species”.

  9. #9 Left_Wing_Fox
    July 10, 2006

    Was your article unattributed, or did your appendix wind up in her appendix?

  10. #10 wamba
    July 10, 2006

    Raccoon vs. racoon: teach the controversy.

    We are all the giant flatulent raccoon.

  11. #11 ArtK
    July 10, 2006

    The appendix is clearly a disproof of evolution — because nature lacks a sense of humor. Like the platypus, the appendix is clear evidence of a whimsical designer. After all, wouldn’t you expect an omnipotent designer to get a good laugh out of appendicitis? Or perhaps it merely has a good sense of irony — an organ that both helps and hurts its owner would suit that just fine.

  12. #12 No One Of Conseq
    July 10, 2006

    I thought I read on one of the other science blogs recently that the appendix is required in plant eating mammals as part of the digestive process.

  13. #13 Steve
    July 10, 2006

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raccoon_%28disambiguation%29

    It needed to be done. If anyone would like to suggest any additional links that should be added to the disambiguation… :-)

  14. #14 Henry Barth
    July 10, 2006

    It may be helpful to remember that science believed the pineal gland was vestigial and of no use up until the early 60s.

    After all, even Coulter would agree that ?the maker? wouldn?t have provided an appendix without a reason.

  15. #15 Fred
    July 10, 2006

    Carl,

    Great article about the Flatulent Raccoon.Coulter’s writing is politics, not science. In an election year, the only evidence of intelligent design is her publishers getting “Godless” out right now to take advantage of the market. I agree with one of the above emailers, Coulter doesn’t care about the details. Afterall, she isn’t writing a treatise attacking evolution. What she is writing is a politics. As for the mythical Flatulent Raccoon, if he exists, maybe he should run for office; afterall, he’s got good press coverage now.

  16. #16 DAE
    July 10, 2006

    I’d like to take credit for the flatulence meme. Back in the 60s as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I used to scribble the following on whatever lavatory wall I had access to:

    “God laid a fart and that was the start”

    Obviously this little bit of scatological humor has entered into american folklore and is the ultimate source of Coulter’s reference.

  17. #17 Carl Zimmer
    July 10, 2006

    But where does the raccoon come from?

  18. #18 Robert S.
    July 10, 2006

    Nice try, Carl. It’s raccoons all the way down.

    Seriously though: Coulter’s metaphor could be used effectively against her. The idea that a Giant Flatulent Raccoon expelled the universe in a noxious cloud is no more ridiculous than six literal days of creation – and no less provable.

  19. #19 John Faughnan
    July 10, 2006

    Darn it! Some guys get all the luck. Carl gets a Coulter nickname and the rest of us remain nameless. Sister Fraley, (rest her soul, a lovely lady really) used to call me the ‘ape man'; maybe I can still stake a claim somehow.

    Oh mighty flatulent racoon, pray tell us how we can get some Coulter bile of our own!

  20. #20 Bruce Thompson
    July 10, 2006

    The idea that a Giant Flatulent Raccoon expelled the universe in a noxious cloud is no more ridiculous than six literal days of creation – and no less provable.

    I disagree. This is a testable hypothesis. Hypothesis: If the Giant Flatulent Raccoon (GFR) was the source of the initial materials for the universe, then a comparison of raccoon gas composition with elements in the early universe should be similar.

    First we need a group of raccoons, a gas chromatograph and some long rubber hoses. Since the GFR gas composition may have varied with diet, a dietitian should design a series of diets that would produce varied gas compositions.

    It’s underlying assumptions are that current raccoons are accurate reflections of the GFR, our analysis of the composition of the early universe is accurate, and we can recreate the diet of the GFR.

    While this hypothesis may not be deserving of a NSF grant it is possible to construct a hypothesis and an experiment.

    The underlying assumption concerning the nature of raccoons and their relationship to the GFR falls outside of the ability of science to explore. Any positive results could only be interpreted as raccoon gas, and not the GFR gas, being consistent with the composition of elements in the early universe.

  21. #21 Zorpheous
    July 10, 2006

    Where does the raccoon come from? Hardly an important question, more importantly, how did the raccoon get a case of gas? Since he is the creator he should not be required to eat and should therefore never suffer anal vapour discharge.
    It is obvious that the Farting Raccoon is false god.

    All hail the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, my his saucy goodness fill you and drive away the pains of hunger.

  22. #22 Robert S.
    July 10, 2006

    Good point Bruce: GFR is more easily testable than six-day creation. Makes you wonder how Ken Hamm and his ilk manage to make so much money and keep their businesses alive.

    Oh yeah, it’s that faith thingie. It ain’t testable either. And it’s something Islam, Christianity, Scientology, and the Raelians all have in common.

  23. #23 Ann Homily
    July 10, 2006

    “…And if you don’t accept the giant raccoon flatulence theory for the origin of life, you must be a fundamentalist Christian nut who believes the Earth is flat.”

    Well, not exactly. We generally tend to assume that any non-believer of the GFRT must be a fundamentalist Pastafarian, and it is our mission to put a lid on all such religious nonsense. In fact, we’ve asked the ACLU to investigate several instances of public school cafeteria pastaletyzing.

  24. #24 Bruce Thompson
    July 10, 2006

    We generally tend to assume that any non-believer of the GFRT must be a fundamentalist Pastafarian , and it is our mission to put a lid on all such religious nonsense.

    While plain pasta may not alter gas production, various sauces can have startling and dramatic effects so I don?t see any conflict.

    ID makes the same errors as my GFR hypothesis. Just as I assumed earthly raccoons were accurate representations of the GFR, ID assumes that our ability to detect human design in human artifacts extends to detecting design in biological systems. I was bold enough to propose an experiment based on my hypothesis, but as yet we have not seen any experiments from the ID camp. Any ID experiments would be subject to the same criticisms as mine.

  25. #25 John
    July 10, 2006

    Carl,

    Evolution favors reproduction, favors change. Organisms bred for increased life-spans have low fecundity. So, increased intelligence is not the only trait that lowers reproductive rates. A friend explained to me one time, “Don’t confuse that person with facts. His mind’s already made up.” Chances are Coulter is the same way, or she’s cynically writing to a limited audience who don’t believe evolution either. Trying to educate an audience with reason seems to be more and more difficult these days, especially in politics where people appeal to people’s outrage and other emotions, rather than reason and intellect. Thanks for the illumination.

    Sincerely,
    John Moore, Ph.D. Molecular and Cell Biology

  26. #26 CanuckRob
    July 10, 2006

    Bruce, you need to be able to determine the evolutionary history of todays raccoon gas. And is necessary to confirm how raccoons, which only started evolving ~3.5 billion years ago, were actually influenced by the primoridal Raccoon Gas which apparently was created ~13.5 billion years ago. Or did the Raccoon create raccoons as a seperate act of creation and hide them away for about 10 billion years?

  27. #27 Bruce Thompson
    July 10, 2006

    Bruce, you need to be able to determine the evolutionary history of todays raccoon gas.

    One of my underlying assumptions was that modern raccoons were an accurate reflection of the GFR, so evolution has no role in my hypothesis. I never mentioned creation or time, so these are not direct issues. I asked a very specific question about gas composition. By sidestepping these issues I’ve created my own big tent where everyone’s raccoon based belief is welcome.

  28. #28 gmm
    July 11, 2006

    “Yes, it’s been observed for centuries that it’s the truly stupid who are the most successful, live the longest, are the happiest, the wealthiest, the most desirable, and so on,” she scoffs. ”

    So….does this one quote not have a MILLION possibilities for someone like you or PZ to go with…..

    She may scoff, but if religion seems to confer health, social and monetary benefits,(National Geographic and the 7th Day Adventists article in 2005 comes to mind) welllllll……………

    I have another question—

    Do certain people (families) have more problems with their immune systm than others? Has anyone ever studied if people with appendix or tonsil problems when they are kids have immune system problems later? Or vice versa?

  29. #29 Elliot Kennel
    July 12, 2006

    I find Ms. Coulter’s rhetoric disturbing, but can appreciate its effectiveness. If I understand the technique properly, anytime an advocate of a particular theory (i.e. Carl and evolution) mentions the word evolution, one can claim that it is an attempt to prove the infallibiiity of the theory. By then showing that the mention of the word did not in fact prove the theory, the conclusion is that the advocate is guilty of flawed reasoning.
    In other words, you misstate your opponents position and then point out the flaws in that misstated position.
    I think you can use this technique to attack anyone you want, or to support just about any argument, no matter how absurd.

  30. #30 Stephen Uitti
    July 12, 2006

    If GFR is a straw man science hypothesis, then certainly, Last Thursdayism is a straw man theology argument. LT states that God created the entire Universe, uhm, Last Thursday.

    Why would God do such a thing? Well, it might be easier. For one thing, only stuff out to a light week needs to be created. This is oh so much smaller than the Universe we know about. Anything further out can have no consequence, since, Next Thursday, everything will be new again. So, yes, all those photons have to be started in just the right directions… and yes, the devil is in the details.

    So God created the Hubble Space Telescope, presumably so that we could learn about the cleverly aimed photons.

  31. #31 Bruce Thompson
    July 12, 2006

    Who said the GFR was a strawman scientific hypothesis? Carl Zimmer claims to be the GFR. I have seen pictures of Carl Zimmer, read articles by Carl Zimmer, publishers give him money, and other people have actually seen Carl Zimmer. I can now modify the GFR hypothesis to include Carl Zimmer and ask what gaseous characteristics does Carl
    Zimmer and the GFR share in common. Now where are the rubber hoses and gas chromatograph.

  32. #32 wamba
    July 16, 2006

    John M. Lynch over at Stranger Fruit sez Ann Coulter is worthless.

  33. #33 Petec
    July 28, 2006

    I love it “God laid a fart and that was the start”.

    John Moore; I’m sure not too many people (have time to) read books so the fact Coulter’s book was #1 on NYT best seller list isn’t apolectic.

    Carl; “evolutionary tradeoffs” are design flaws (sickle-cell), defects of the “intelligent designer”. If intelligent design replaces evolution in the courts think of all the lawsuits against god and his purveyors for telling us he is perfect while hypeing his flawed design.

    petec

  34. #34 DON CAMERON
    December 22, 2006

    YOU SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ON THE APPENDIX WHICH WAS SORT OF A JOKE THING. WHAT ABOUT HOYLE AND WICKAMASINGHE, WHO PROBABILY HAVE MORE MEDALS THAN YOU, STATING THAT DARWIN’S THEORY IS PREPOSTEROUS.

  35. #35 _Arthur
    December 25, 2006

    Hoyle and Wickramasinghe suggested the Panspermia theory for the apparition of Life on Earth. That theory is an alternative to abiogenesis, and can be verified or falsified.
    It doesn’t challenge the Theory of Evolution, which is separate from Abiogenesis.

    A couple of years ago, Professor Wickramasinghe suggested that the SARS virus could be of extraterrestrial origin. He didn’t provide any element to corroborate his speculation.

    Cameron, can you provide the reference, in which Creationist pamphlet did you found that Hoyle & Wic(k)ramasinghe consider Darwin’s theory as “preposterous” ?

    Did Ann Coulter credits Hoyle & W as the origin of the racoon’s fart ??

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