Pharyngula

Someone has taken the Coulter Challenge!

It only took five years. Remember, my Coulter Challenge was for someone to take any of Coulter’s paragraphs about evolution from her book Godless, and cogently defend its accuracy. It’s been surprising how few takers there have been: lots of wingnuts have praised the book and said it is wonderful, but no one has been willing to get specific and actually support any of its direct claims. Until now.

It takes that special combination of arrogance and ignorance to think anything Coulter said is defensible, so I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that our brave foolhardy contestant is Michael Egnor.

After professing his deep and entirely uncritical love of Ann Coulter and everything she has ever said, Egnor chooses the very first paragraph of the first chapter on evolution. He might as well, he thinks she’s “right about everything”.

Liberals’ creation myth is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is about one notch above Scientology in scientific rigor. It’s a make-believe story, based on a theory that is a tautology, with no proof in the scientist’s laboratory or the fossil record–and that’s after 150 years of very determined looking. We wouldn’t still be talking about it but for the fact that liberals think evolution disproves God.

One thing about my Coulter Challenge is that I specifically wanted just one paragraph, one idea, because the typical creationist tactic is to throw out a hundred cursory accusations in a confused mess, so that the poor scientist has to pick through a curdled puddle of logical vomit to find one addressable nugget…and then, of course, once that’s been shown to be fallacious, the creationist can stand over the incoherent crapola he’s spewed forth and demand that we clean everything up, or he’ll declare victory.

Egnor is no exception. He can’t possibly make a simple point lucidly, but has to throw out a lot of frenzied chum to distract and give him an escape hatch: so he babbles about evolution being a religion, atheists, obnoxious Darwinists, Scientology, falsifiability, yadda yadda yadda. It’s badly written, sloppy thinking, and I give him a D on form alone. Any other people taking the challenge, learn from this: try to write something coherent and on point. I’m asking for a scalpel, and when you yank out the kitchen silverware drawer and turn it upside down making a noisy clatter, you aren’t answering the request.

So I picked through the puke and found one chunk from Egnor that seems relevant to Coulter’s claim, so I’ll address that. I’m going to ignore the rest — it’s all a distraction, in which he wants to suck up my time writing an encyclopedia for him, which he will reject anyway.

The most difficult theoretical hurtle [sic] Darwinism has had to face is not, as some have asserted, the problem of building the New Synthesis from Mendelian genetics and Darwin’s (Lamarckian) theory. The most difficult theoretical hurtle [sic] Darwinists faced is disguising ‘stuff changes and survivors survive’ so that its utter banality isn’t obvious. Neologisms don’t just happen by themselves (unlike life). They need to be created. So Darwinists gave us natural selection, sexual selection, kin selection, group selection, reciprocal altruism, disruptive selection, diversifying selection, selective sweeps, background selection, adaptive radiation, punctuated equilibrium. All Darwinian ‘selections’ reduce to: ‘living things vary heritably and survivors survive’. Of course, ‘survivors survive’ is more precisely: ‘relatively more effective replicators relatively more effectively replicate’, but succinctness is a virtue. The great challenge for Darwinian theorists since the 1860′s has been to make Darwin’s banality/tautology (stuff changes and survivors survive) seem like a scientific theory. Slather on the lipstick. You gotta dress up the banality (and the contradictions) with science-sounding stuff.

Coulter and Egnor have dredged up a hoary old creationist argument, long disposed of, that the definition of natural selection is tautological. It’s not. I could just cite the excellent analyses from John Wilkins and Jason Rosenhouse, but I’ll give it a whirl myself — one thing I know about creationists is they don’t read citations, anyway.

First of all, it is a significant advance to recognize that species are not fixed and do change over time. There was a time when this hypothesis was flatly rejected, and it’s a sign of progress that even the creationists nowadays are forced to recognize evidence of patterns of change in species — they just usually try to impose artificial, unsupported claims of barriers that limit change. This is the fact of evolution: life has changed significantly over long ages, and we are all related to all other forms on earth.

Darwin did not come up with that, though. Darwin’s contribution was an explanation for how that change occurred through differential reproductive success of variants in populations. Egnor has distorted that principle through a fallacious reduction to “survivors survive”. That is not what scientists study. We do not go to a field area for a few years, notice that each generation of birds is the progeny of the living individuals of the previous generation, and declare victory; that would be a tautology. (The alternative, that the birds were spawned by the dead zombie corpses of the failed members of the previous generation, would be rather interesting though. Hasn’t happened yet.)

Let’s fix Egnor’s erroneous reduction. “living things vary heritably and survivors survive” doesn’t reduce to l“survivors survive”. More accurately, it should be “living things vary heritably and better adapted variants survive and increase their frequency in the next generation”. That is not a tautology. We can assess degrees of adaptation to local conditions independently of simple survival.

For example, look to the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant in the Galapagos (hey, look, we even have online exercises in which you can analyze the data!). They examined, for instance, the effects of a major drought on their study island; they did not simply say, “some birds will die, some will live, survivors will survive”, but instead made specific predictions that variants that were better able to exploit difficult or marginal resources in this time of starvation would be better able to survive. And that is what they saw: larger beaked birds that were able to crack the spiny, hard-shelled Tribulus seeds were better able to live through the drought, while the smaller beaked birds that couldn’t eat Tribulus seeds at all died off in large numbers. And in the next generation, what they saw was a genetic and morphological shift in that beaks were on average significantly larger.

“Survivors survive” may be tautological, but “large beaked birds survive” is not.

Neither Coulter nor Egnor seem to have the slightest clue about what evolutionary biologists actually do, and their proud ignorance invalidates what they claim to understand as the subject of study in evolution. Every study of evolution is built around specific hypotheses about mechanisms, not dumb blind counts of nothing but the living and the dead, but measures of differential reproductive success against some detailed parameter of their genetics. All those terms Egnor cluelessly throws around — “natural selection, sexual selection, kin selection, group selection, reciprocal altruism, disruptive selection, diversifying selection, selective sweeps, background selection, adaptive radiation, punctuated equilibrium” — have specific, different meanings, and do not reduce to merely “survival”.

As expected, the outcome of the first Coulter Challenge is that one fool, Coulter, is multiplied into two publicly exposed fools, Coulter and Egnor. I like this game, let’s play some more. Next?

(Also on FtB)