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.
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.