Pharyngula

I’ve now read all of the science-related (that’s applying the term “related” very generously) stuff in Ann Coulter’s awful, ghastly, ignorant book, Godless, and it’s a bit overwhelming. This far right-wing political pundit with no knowledge of science at all has written a lengthy tract that is wall-to-wall error: To cover it all would require a sentence-by-sentence dissection that would generate another book, ten times longer than Coulter’s, all merely to point out that her book is pure garbage. So I’m stumped. I’m not interested in writing such a lengthy rebuttal, and I’m sure this is exactly what Coulter is counting on—tell enough lazy lies, and no one in the world will have time enough to correct them conscientiously. She’s a shameless fraud.

What to do? Well, we can’t take apart the whole thing, but what we can do is focus on individual claims and show that Coulter is outrageously wrong—that she has written things that indicate an utter lack of knowledge of the subject. Some of us at the Panda’s Thumb are going to be doing just that—look there later for more—and what I’m going to do here is address one very broad claim that Coulter has made repeatedly, and that is also common to many creationists.

That claim is that there is no evidence for evolution. I know, to anybody who has even a passing acquaintance with biology, that sounds like a ridiculous statement, like declaring that people can live on nothing but air and sunlight, or that yeti are transdimensional UFO pilots. Yet Coulter baldly makes the absurd claim that “There’s no physical evidence for [evolution]”, and insists in chapter 8 of her new book that there is “no proof in the scientist’s laboratory or the fossil record.” This is like standing outside in a drenching rainstorm and declaring that there is no evidence that you are getting wet.

Let me introduce you to PubMed. This is a freely accessible online database of articles published in the biomedically related fields of the life sciences. It indexes over 4800 journals and contains about 12 million articles going back to 1966, and it’s growing constantly. It’s very good if you are interested in looking up literature in medicine, zoology, biochemistry, etc.; it’s rather incomplete if your interests run to botany, paleontology, or geology, other fields that are rich sources of research in evolution. (By the way, another incredibly useful adjunct is HubMed, an alternative interface to PubMed that lets you get search results as an automated RSS feed. I’ve got a whole stack of automatic HubMed searches in my newsreader; how do you think I find all these cool articles?)

Here’s a simple thing you can do: search PubMed for all articles that discuss evolution. It’s not a very practical search, because it returns too much; you’re also going to get some number of false positives, because “evolution” is a word used in other contexts than evolutionary biology, but at the same time remember that PubMed doesn’t address all fields that deal with evolution equally well, and many papers discuss the details and mechanisms of evolution without putting the word in a title or abstract. When I just did that search, it came back with 177,396 articles on the subject, 25,759 of which were review articles…which means that in the somewhat limited PubMed database, there are about 150,000 primary research articles on evolution.

150,000.

That’s a big number, representing a huge amount of work. To narrow the scope a little bit, you can limit the search to the last 30 days; when I did this just now, it returned a list of 697 current articles on evolution. I’d have to read over 20 articles a day just to keep up! I feel like I’ve been diligent if I read one or two articles in depth during a day, and skim through a handful more—these aren’t light reading, after all, but data-rich technical papers loaded with big words and acronyms and referencing tens to hundreds of other papers.

Here’s another source of information: the Library of Congress. Go ahead and search for books on evolution, or to be really specific, search for Library of Congress numbers QH35-QH425. You’ll be busy for a while. Again, to narrow it down to something more accessible, I searched the University of Minnesota library system to see what they had on hand. 4,445 books. Even restricting myself to just books acquired in the last year, it’s about 330 (again, with some false positives for books on stellar evolution, for instance, or evolution of economics). Discounting that number a bit, it still means that to just keep up with the books my library acquires on this one subject, I’d have to read one every other day…on top of the 20 research articles I’d have to be reading every day.

I’m feeling tired already.

My point here is that there is an incredible amount of evidence for evolution, far more than any one person can digest, and that it is a vital field, still growing and still producing new results. All those papers don’t get published unless they contain some new observation, a new experiment, a new test of the idea…and evolution has weathered them all.

Perhaps you aren’t a scientist yourself, and you really don’t want to wade through stacks of technical papers to find out what scientists say about evolution. There’s a shortcut, if you’re willing to accept the authority of professional organizations of scientists. Scientists often group themselves into societies for the purposes of organizing meetings and publications, and they have meetings and committees and elections in which they establish a representative consensus. In light of the politicization of evolutionary biology in the US, many have asked their members about the importance of evolution, and written formal statements summarizing their position on the subject. The NCSE has a list of statements from scientific societies, all in support of evolution. The vast majority of all biologists, people who have extensive training in the subject and use biology day by day, see that evolution is well supported by the evidence and is a solid foundation for research.

It’s not enough to ask people to simply trust scientists’ opinions, of course; we also have to make available to everyone the information used to come to those conclusions. Science is a transparent process, and in addition to the raw data in primary research papers being open to all, many organizations provide digests and summaries to help navigate the immensity of the subject. The
National Center for Science Education, for instance, has an excellent resources page with links to further information, as does the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Academies, and the Society for the Study of Evolution. There are no secrets in this business.

Maybe you’d just like to get a general overview of the concepts of evolution, and don’t really want to invest your whole life trying to get a handle on this huge subject. UC Berkeley has an excellent online tutorial, Understanding Evolution, and in conjunction with their series a few years ago, PBS has an evolution site that introduces you to the basics. For the natural historians among you, the Tree of Life project is a wonderful overview of systematics and the diversity of life on earth. The Talk.Origins Archive isn’t so much a tutorial as a place where you can ask questions and get replies to major criticisms of evolutionary theory. In particular, Douglas Theobald’s evidence for evolution page is indispensable—it’s a thorough overview of the many different lines of evidence that support the theory of evolution. I point all my introductory biology students to it. Another page that everyone ought to bookmark is the Index to Creationist Claims. It contains pithy rebuttals to the most common creationist canards, and it’s very easy to use. Coulter should have referred to it: when I looked at the first paragraph of her evolution chapter, her half dozen claims about evolution were all wrong, and were all answered in the Index. All I had to do was link to that page.

The world of blogs is full of information on evolution. In addition to The Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula, there are quite a few blogs out there that discuss the science of and evidence for evolution, and that are often written by highly qualified scientists themselves. Try browsing Aetiology, Afarensis, All-Too-Common Dissent, Ask The Scientician, The Daily Transcript, De Rerum Natura, Evolgen, Evolution 101, EvolutionBlog, Evolving Thoughts, Good Math, Bad Math, The Intersection, Living the Scientific Life, The Loom, Mike the Mad Biologist, The Questionable Authority, Recursivity, The Scientific Activist, Stranger Fruit, Thoughts from Kansas, and Thoughts in a Haystack, just to get you started. The advantage of weblogs is that you can engage the author and other readers, leaving comments and having a conversation about the subject.

If you don’t trust web sources, there are plenty of books to help you out. I’ve made a long list of evolution books suitable for kids and general readers.

Another effect of the rising sludge of creationist nonsense is that more and more people are getting motivated to become activists for science education. Citizens for Science groups are forming all over the country, and you can find organizations in many states, such as Alabama, Colorado, Washington DC, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota (we will soon have a new Minnesota citizen science organization—look for an announcement this fall), Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Follow the link for your state, and sign up: you’ll get announcements and news on the web or in your email, you’ll connect up with local, knowledgeable people, you’ll hear about free seminars and opportunities to meet and talk face to face with biologists.

Any journalists reading this? Go immediately to the Panda’s Thumb media advisors page and copy all of those contacts into your rolodex or PDA. This is a list of people ready and willing to talk to you about evolution and give you the scientific side of the story.

Now look: I’ve been telling you all about how you, with negligible effort, can find buckets of evidence for evolution. I haven’t actually recited any of that evidence yet, and that’s because I and many other biologists have been telling everyone about that evidence for years: there comes a point where you have to recognize that the other side has simply put their hands over their ears and are shouting “LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA” at the top of their lungs. If you want evidence from the fossil record, here, go read about Tiktaalik, a fossil tetrapod that was predicted by evolutionary theory. If you prefer some of that laboratory evidence that Coulter says doesn’t exist, here’s a story about selection and evolution of a polyphenism in the laboratory. These are just two of many thousands of published pieces of evidence.

It takes minimal scholarship to discover that there is quite a lot of evidence for evolution. Coulter did not rise to even that level, and worse, she had this tripe vetted by some of the big names of Intelligent Design creationism: Behe, Dembski, and Berlinski. That is shameful. I am at a loss to say in words how abysmally awful this book is.

Like I said, I’m not going to take this trip apart sentence by sentence, even though I could, given enough time and interest. I will suggest instead that if anyone reading this thinks some particular paragraph anywhere in chapters 8-11 is at all competent or accurate in its description of science, send it to me. I couldn’t find one. That’s where the obligation lies: show me one supportable claim in Coulter’s farrago of lies and misleading statements and out-of-context quotes, and we’ll discuss it.

(crossposted to The American Street)

Comments

  1. #1 Sastra
    June 18, 2006

    For all too many members of the general public, “evidence” for evolution means direct evidence, evidence you can actually see happening right before your eyes — and given a cartoonish understanding of evolution, this translates into being able to watch a dog turn into a cat, or a bear into a whale.

    Presumably people like Dembski and even Coulter know better — but they seem to trade on this ignorance by their otherwise puzzling use of phrases like “no evidence whatsoever for evolution.” As you point out, the worst they ought to be able to say is that the evidence doesn’t fit the theory, not that there is “none” at all.

  2. #2 mss
    June 24, 2006

    Tumbler,

    I’m afraid without realizing it, you have been quite anti-science. I and many others have tried to considerately explain this to you, and I think we’ve been patient enough.

    1. You propounded, to a blog run by an evolutionary biologist, a summary of the evidence on evolution that is deeply flawed and non-sensical. The polite thing to do would be to admit that you were wrong, and that the evidence for evolution is stronger than you assumed. You might even consider how arrogant it must seem to tell an expert his business from a position of ignorance.* Instead, you seem to suggest scientific teaching should be a matter of “fair referendum”—a profoundly anti-science perspective.

    2. You defend a political pundit who slurs working scientists—saying that our teaching efforts are religious indoctrination, that our research is dictated by political aims, and that our interpretation of the evidence is flawed. Accusing professionals of fraud and misconduct is serious. Imagine what would happen if I posted a blog entry falsely accusing my physician of similar misconduct—I be hearing from lawyers pretty quickly. And I would deserve it.

    3. You show little understanding of how science actually works. It’s not a body of knowledge or wisdom passed down from the Greeks, or the Middle Ages (indeed, getting over the idea of knowledge as merely something to preserve from the past was instrumental in the birth of modern science). Nor is science a set of discoveries; you can’t claim to be a supporter of science just because you like its products. Science is a *process* for investigating the natural world. Your mode of argument (assertion without evidence; blindness to evidence against your claims) and your standard of proof (faith trumps evidence) are both antithetical to science.

    One last thing: you really should read the comments on this blog more carefully. For example, Skookum Planet’s post above is very nice, and says a lot. You summarized it as

    “Why didn’t you just post, ”I don’t care what you think, stupid–we love science. We believe in science,””

    which is not at all what Skookum said. He explained what science was—and you still don’t get it. He explained why people here can’t find any way to take your ideas about evolution seriously (we would if we could; there just isn’t any content to them). He treated you with more attention and respect than your past posts merit.

    I’ve been responding to you because you seem to want, at some level, to engage in a conversation with people you disagree with. That take some guts, especially when the people on the other side are experts. But it should be plain by now that you’re not ready for this debate. Go read some real science—Dawkins, or the TalkOrigins archive (http://www.talkorigins.org/), or even old posts on this blog. Come back when you have genuine *questions*, rather than arguments. Because you’re not going to be ready to have any sort of debate until you deeply understand the other side.

    * I’m an academic scientist, but not a biologist. And I shudder at the thought of trying to “take on” someone like PZ Myers in his areas of expertise, because I would be made to look very stupid very fast. I have a PhD. I teach at a university. So this isn’t about “elitism” or degrees. It’s about respect for knowledge.

  3. #3 Zinger123
    June 29, 2006

    I’ll accept your telling me to shut up as an admission of defeat. But must we return to Egypt? Denial ain’t just a river. You will gain credibility if you will admit it when you have lost a round. Don’t waste our time with diversionary tactics or red herrings like Our Lady of the Taco.

    I wish you a comfortable chair where you can sit, relax, ponder all this, close your eyes and watch while your synapses reconfigure from DDDM (dreadful darwinian dawkins mode) to something more realistic.

    The teleology piece is absolutely essential for evaluating the validity of what Coulter and her ID allies are saying. If evolution is somehow guided or directed, then ID ultimately wins no matter how bad the examples put forth by its supporters. The drivel doesn’t matter; ID can lose all the battles and win the war. The teleology question can be directly addressed with examples from the fossil record and modern biota. So let’s have at it, unless you wish to concede defeat to ID at the outset.

    Regarding that painting, I never knew that sacrilege could be so tacky. But it does kind of reinforce my point.

  4. #4 Ichthyic
    February 22, 2007

    Name calling and listing thousands of resources of evolutionary propaganda are still not scientific evidence.

    see, now, that’s the problem. No matter what we show you, you will automatically dismiss it as propaganda.

    otherwise, you ALREADY could have simply done a search of google, or pubmed, or current contents, and found exactly what you say doesn’t exist quite easily.

    the real question is, why should anyone bother with the willfully blind?

    you should get that projection of yours checked out by a qualified mental health care professional.

  5. #5 Ichthyic
    February 22, 2007

    Would you please be so kind as to point my to some references that discuss and show these mutations that have been shown to add information as well as the common phenomena you mention. I’d like to read more on the topic.

    just go to google scholar and do a search on “gene duplication”.

    there have been dozens of interesting studies involving this over just the last few years, though there are literally hundreds of articles on the subject.

  6. #6 ichthyic
    February 22, 2007

    …in fact, if you look back a day or so, I think PZ even covered the topic of gene duplication in a different post.

  7. #7 Ichthyic
    February 22, 2007

    Advances in chemistry are unraveling the chemical structure of DNA and other complex biological molecules.

    uh, you’re a few dozen years behind the times.

    not surprising, given the content of your post.

  8. #8 Ichthyic
    February 22, 2007

    but the reality (which they invariably concede when pressed)

    oooh, gotta call you on that one.

    references, please?

    why do these idiots insist that the stuff they pull out of their ass is somehow “undeniable truth”?

    are they really all as messed up as this person?

  9. #9 Ichthyic
    February 22, 2007

    Your Science: A philosophy that assumes that all event are necessarily natural.

    no, that’s your PROJECTION of scientists, not science itself.

    and you wonder why people throw eggs at you.

  10. #10 airborneLt
    February 27, 2008

    What a bunch of narrow minded, intolerant, wretches you are. First of all evolution does not disprove God as much as you would like to think it does. Secondly, we can all see evidence of species evolving, but Darwin’s theory of evolution asserts that species sprang into being from random mutation and natural selection – how patently absurd. What is the mathematical possibility that our minds, hands, eyes, feet, organs et al evolved from bacteria? Randomly?

    That would take a MIRACLE!

    Hmmmmmm. What might produce something we could only explain as miraculous?

    I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

    I am not religious, though I do believe in God and I am certainly Christian. The last time I attended church was for a funeral. I left organized religion because of the rampant hypocrisy. I have a Master’s Degree in Information Systems and Engineer software for a living – so you cannot assume we who are open to competing theories are knuckle dragging, intellectually inferior, right-wing religious nuts.

    You simply have to be objective and intelligent enough to realize that human history is full of “facts” that mankind “knew” to be “true”, that turned out to be false. With this kind of track record, how arrogant is it for anyone to claim they have nailed it this time without empirical evidence.

    Take the theory of global warming. Some claim they “know” the earth is warming up and it’s caused by man. In the last three days, the weather forecast for Sunday has changed three times. Snow. No snow. 50 degrees and rain, 38 degrees and sleet, 41 degrees and dry. These idiots can’t nail down the forecast for this Sunday, but they want me to believe we will all be underwater in 2050 if I don’t sell my SUV and ride a bike to work.

    Give me a break.

    Believe what you want, I couldn’t care less. But stop shoving your crap down my throat and the throats of my children in order to advance your political/social agenda. We prefer to be a little more open minded and tolerant of diverse points of view in my family.

  11. #11 negentropyeater
    February 27, 2008

    airborneLt,

    1. when you say “how patently absurd”, what makes you say this ?
    2. when you talk of mathematical impossibility, have you really calculated it, studied it in details, or are you just repeating things you have heard ?

    You are right to say that the theory of Evolution doesn’t disprove the existence of God, so why do you feel the need to attack it with such unfounded arguments. Open up your mind, take the time to study, and then you’ll see for yourself if what you say is granted or not.

  12. #12 mattmc
    February 27, 2008

    Damn man, thanks for stopping by on a long dead thread to exhibit your ignorance. I can only respond to the steaming pile of stupid that you just typed by repeating your own words (after picking up the pieces of my irony detector which exploded upon my reading of what follows):

    “Believe what you want, I couldn’t care less. But stop shoving your crap down my throat and the throats of my children in order to advance your political/social agenda. We prefer to be a little more open minded and tolerant of diverse points of view in my family.”

  13. #13 negentropyeater
    February 27, 2008

    BTW, airborneLt, if you can provide a link, to the mathematical calculations you are refering to, that would be great. Maybe that would serve as basis for a discussion. Or are you at all interested in a discussion ? Or just making rethorical statements ?

  14. #14 True Bob
    February 27, 2008

    Odds of humans evolving the features they have: 1:1

    My irony meter exploded at
    “You simply have to be objective and intelligent enough to realize that human history is full of “facts” that mankind “knew” to be “true”, that turned out to be false. With this kind of track record, how arrogant is it for anyone to claim they have nailed it this time without empirical evidence.”

  15. #15 negentropyeater
    February 27, 2008

    still looking for that calculation, airborneLt ? Take your time, and take your time to try and understand what scientists have to say. Because when you start the process, you will be surprised, to see that your preconceptions were illfounded…
    No harm done !

  16. #16 Ido
    April 28, 2008

    Thank you so much!
    I was listening to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and your name, PZ, came up. Immediately I stopped listening, hoping that here I will find a long-desired info about evolution and a piece of evidence that evolution did happen to present to my Rabbi. Thank you so much!

  17. #17 Mark
    June 10, 2008

    This is tremendous. I’ve often thought about writing something along these lines but you’ve far exceeded what I would have done.

    Thank you!

  18. #18 Shala
    March 24, 2010

    That seems like a good Anne Coulter impression already, CG Rogers.

    Or at least I assume you were being overly sarcastic.

  19. #19 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    March 24, 2010

    a fiction invented by godless liberals

    Tell that to Frances Collins and Ken Miller…

  20. #20 Caine, Fleur du mal
    March 24, 2010

    Shala, you did note CG Rogers’ post was made in ’09, right? I doubt he/she will be back. ;)

  21. #21 Shala
    March 24, 2010

    Shala, you did note CG Rogers’ post was made in ’09, right? I doubt he/she will be back. ;)

    I just noticed. I mixed up this thread and the current one on Ann Coulter.

    Now I feel silly.

  22. #22 Caine, Fleur du mal
    March 24, 2010

    Oh, don’t feel silly! If anyone should, it’s CG the Drive-by, who didn’t happen to notice PZ wrote the post in ’06. :D Drive-by’s happen often here, usually when someone is searching something and a Pharyngula post pops up.

  23. #23 Shala
    March 24, 2010

    I honestly couldn’t tell if he was just being sarcastic or not. Poe’s Law, I believe it’s called?

    Thanks for the support. :D

  24. #24 Caine, Fleur du mal
    March 24, 2010

    Generally speaking, Poe’s can be called here, simply because of the sheer amount of true believers aka chew toys which show up. Poe’s can still be difficult to discern though.

    The amount of chew toys has slowed down a great deal, due to registration requirements these days. There has been a chew toy fest going on in http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/03/sins_of_omission.php#c2376194, with one Daniel Smith being the chew toy. Start around post #450, even though Daniel spouts off before that. That one is still going strong. :)

  25. #25 Shala
    March 24, 2010

    Thanks, I’ll be sure to have a look. :)

  26. #26 https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawnaisDIP9w_k_IN1QTEU0WlEWMsteGY0DM
    April 28, 2010

    I tend to agree with AirborneLT who posted above.
    The Darwinists are starting to look more and more like the religious ones in this field, with their absolute refusal to consider any alternatives to their dogma.
    Foremost in this is the universal ridicule of Michael Behe by ‘scientists’, who as far as I’m concerned is winning the argument with his irreducible complexity theory.
    Darwinists are slaves to a paradox: a specie suddenly sprouting an organ which will eventually be a useful complex system, after millions of mutations, but is currently missing most of the parts to that system, would not be in a better survival position than it’s kin without this new crippled partial system.
    You need the whole damn wing, and you need 2 of ‘em , they have to be in the right place on your body and they have to work! During those millions of lousy intervening mutations, all you have is an appendage that is weighing you down, making you less likely to survive.
    Tell me where I went wrong.

  27. #27 blf
    April 28, 2010

    Tell me where I went wrong.

    Everywhere.

  28. #28 Gyeong Hwa Pak, Scholar of Shen Zhou
    April 28, 2010

    The Darwinists are starting to look more and more like the religious ones in this field, with their absolute refusal to consider any alternatives to their dogma.

    They are not alternatives. They only way they can be alternatives if they meet rigorous scientific standards. But they most certianly do not.

    I’m concerned is winning the argument with his irreducible complexity theory.
    Darwinists are slaves to a paradox: a specie suddenly sprouting an organ which will eventually be a useful complex system, after millions of mutations, but is currently missing most of the parts to that system, would not be in a better survival position than it’s kin without this new crippled partial system.

    Stupid. Evolution doesn?t fucking just sprouts. It’s not Pokemon. It’s a bunch of little small changes that result in bigger changes. The little small changes are neutral or advantages and then accumulate. Overtime, these can become functional organs. Look up the evolution of the eye.

    You need the whole damn wing, and you need 2 of ‘em , they have to be in the right place on your body and they have to work! During those millions of lousy intervening mutations, all you have is an appendage that is weighing you down, making you less likely to survive.

    You got everything wrong. Most mutations are neutral and lingers in a population. They can, over time, accumulate to something beneficial.

    But since you want to advocate “alternatives” why do hang on to your Christian creationist Dogma? I have just as much evidence that Izanagi and Izanami created us.

  29. #29 Gyeong Hwa Pak, Scholar of Shen Zhou
    April 28, 2010

    The part form “I’m concerned… crippled partial system” is not me. That’s a blockquote fail.

  30. #30 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    April 28, 2010

    Darwinists

    Ignorance is shown with that word. We don’t worship Darwin. He was a brilliant scientist, and a typical man. Trying to trash Darwin does nothing to the science of evolution, or the million or so papers in the peer reviewed scientific literature that provide the evidence for evolution, both directly and indirectly. Trying to pretend science is a cult is a fallacious argument from word one.

    ridicule of Michael Behe

    He isn’t a scientist any more. Anyone who can declare in open court, that books on the immune system and evolution haven’t been written, and the lawyer examining him provides a dozen or so books as physical evidence, making Behe look like a true nitwit. A quick search of Amazon would have cause him not to lie.

    Tell me where I went wrong.

    Believing in imaginary deities, mythical holy books, and idjit preachers.

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