Why Evolution is False Pt1

Editors Note: As promised on Beyond the Basics, we are beginning a series refuting Dr. Jerry Coyne’s 2009 book, Why Evolution is True. We begin today with the preface and introduction of the book. 

“I once wrote that anybody who didn’t believe in evolution must be stupid, insane or ignorant, and I was then careful to add that ignorance is no crime. I should now update my statement. Anybody who doesn’t believe in evolution is stupid, insane or hasn’t read Jerry Coyne.”  So reads part of the endorsement of Why Evolution is True on the dust jacket. The endorsement, written by no less an authority on evolution than Dr. Richard Dawkins, echoes the sentiment of the evolutionary community. When a layman is recommended a book on evolution, Why Evolution is True is almost inevitably one of the books on the list.  It’s author, Dr. Jerry Coyne, has built a reputation within the online atheist community as a vocal anti-theist, and expert on science.  As such, it seems appropriate to review this book as representative of much of the evolutionary community.

Dover

Coyne begins his book with a preface that references the infamous “Dover” case, in which a judge tossed any questioning of evolution from a public school.  In the Dover case, a school was taken to court by several parents in the school district. The parents objected to a statement which was read to a biology class that characterized evolution as less than a fact and offered intelligent design as an alternative.  The statement is fairly innocuous on its face. It does not say evolution is false, nor does it say that intelligent design is true. It simply informed students as to the alternatives[1].

Despite the statement being mild, several atheist parents in the school district objected and sued the school district. The case ended up before Judge John E. Jones of the United States District Court of Middle Pennsylvania.  Judge Jones wins praise from Coyne for his blistering opinion which shredded the intelligent design position as unscientific and merely creationism under another name. Coyne quotes from two places in the decision to make his point.

At first blush, it seems that Judge Jones has evaluated the legal problem placed before him and come to an unbiased decision. In fact, Coyne even tries to spin Jones as potentially being hostile to Darwin.  “But the case was not open and shut. Judge Jones was a George W. Bush appointee, a devoted churchgoer, and a conservative Republican─not exactly pro-Darwinian credentials[2].” In effect, Coyne is trying to present Jones as a potentially hostile witness who ruled in favor of the atheist parents purely based on facts and evidence, overruling his preconceived biases.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In his lengthy decision, Judge Jones committed a gross legal error. In his discussion of intelligent design in his decision, Judge Jones copied nearly 91% of it from a document submitted to him by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The copy and paste is so blatant that he retains a misquote of Dr. Michael Behe present in the ACLU document[3]. This is is far from the only instance of copying  Judge Jones exhibited in his opinion, nor is it the only time he was accused of plagiarism[4] [5].  Unfortunately, by copying so much of the plaintiff’s submission, Judge Jones showed that he did have a bias, but his bias was in favor of Coyne’s preferred outcome, not against.

Further, while Coyne attempts to paint Jones as opposed to Darwin because he is religious, this is also false. According to an interview that Judge Jones did with The Lutheran (which is no longer available on their website) Jones was (and presumably still is) a member of Trinity Lutheran Church of Pottsville, Pennsylvania[6]. According to the church’s website, it is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America denomination[7]. This denomination accepts theistic evolution, the concept that God used evolution to accomplish His ends[8].

While it is unclear if Trinity Lutheran, Judge Jones’ home church accepts these tenets, as it has no doctrinal statement at all, Jones himself has made it clear where he stands on the topic. In 2009 he was awarded the Geological Society of America’s President’s Medal, their highest award, for his “Dover” decision. In his acceptance speech, he said “We are over eighty years past the Great Tennessee Monkey Trial, an event that we’ll see re-enacted in a couple days. But the controversy surrounding Kitzmiller informs us that there is still an astonishing amount of work to do. That my trial was labeled “Scopes II” tells you everything you need to know, doesn’t it? Please keep up your spectacular work in making our world a better, smarter, and more ecologically sound place.[9]” The trial Jones referenced in his quote is the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” which took place in 1925.  Without getting into the twisted semantics of that trial, while it was a legal victory for creationists, it was a moral and public relations victory for evolutionists and is portrayed as such in popular culture. Jones clearly thinks that the Scopes trial did not move the needle far enough in terms of public opinion.

Coyne’s attempt to paint Jones as unfavorable to evolution is simply inaccurate and much of this information was available to Coyne when he published the book. However, this is far from the thrust of Coyne’s preface, and, as he rightly points out, truths in science are not determined in a court of law.  As he transitions away from Dover, Coyne refers to the Dover case as an attempt to “censor” evolution in the school system[10].  This choice of words is bitingly ironic given that the inverse is actually true. The “Dover Statement” did not keep the teachers from teaching evolution, nor did it tell the students evolution was untrue. It just encouraged them to keep their minds open.  Yet in Coyne’s mind, or perhaps more honestly, in the way he wants to frame the argument, even asking students to have an open mind is censorship.

“Evolution is a Fact”

Coyne concludes his preface with some very strong statements about the evolutionary dogma. “Evolution is a fact. And, far from casting doubt on Darwinism, the evidence gathered by scientists over the past century and a half supports it completely, showing that evolution happened, and that it happened largely as Darwin proposed, through the workings of natural selection[11].” While this makes a compelling statement for the scientific layman to read because it is both bold and confident, statements must be supported by more than a Ph.D. scientist’s word in order to be valid, something I’m sure Coyne would concede.  As we work through this book, which is meant to provide the very best evidence for evolution, we will find it provides very little in the way of clear, observable evidence that is not in the zone of overlap between evolution and creation.

Coyne opens his Introduction by pointing out that evolution has caused more arguments and human interest than any other area of science.  He speculates, probably correctly, that the reason evolution is so controversial is that it has implications about who we are.  In Coyne’s view, we are all related to the animals and ultimately all evolved from a single common ancestor hundreds of millions or billions of years ago.  He quote’s Darwin’s seminal book, Origin of Species several times, to explain the “simplicity and beauty” of evolution. He then goes on to claim that evolution was a “theory in crisis” only in the latter part of the 1800s when genetics was not well understood. However. Coyne goes on to make a very bold claim. “This was all sorted out in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and, since then the evidence for both evolution and natural selection has continued to mount, crushing scientific opposition to Darwinism[12].” Again his wording echoes both confidence and contempt for any opposition to what he presents as scientific fact.

In making such a sweeping statement, he ignores the proposals of evolution by punctuated equilibrium, as well as other proposals about how evolution works that are widely different than what Darwin proposed[13]. While Coyne may not accept punctuated equilibrium as true, claiming that all the kinks have been worked out of evolution by the 1940s and 50s simply is not true. However, Coyne is not using this book to tell the truth. He is using it to build a narrative. The narrative is as follows: evolution is true, beyond any doubt and we scientists have the major details figured out. Anyone who questions this must be anti-science. This narrative dominates the book and may well convince the scientific layman unless they dig through the narrative and attempt to search for the facts.

Why An Evolution Book?

Coyne then goes on to talk about why he chose to write a book about the evidence for evolution. He argues that there is no difference between evolution and the remainder of the scientific disciplines that no one disputes, except in public perception.  Yet in so saying, he ignores the difference between evolution, historical science, and something like gravity which is empirical. This distinction has been known in the literature for decades[14]. Yet Coyne chooses to ignore it, most likely because it does not suit the narrative he is building.

Instead of dealing with the problem of empirical and historical science, Coyne launches into an invective against religion, particularly what he terms “fundamentalist” religions. His definition of fundamentalist is quite broad, applying to nominal Muslims in Turkey, mainstream Evangelicals, hardline Muslim militants, various cultic offshoots of Christianity, and more traditional Christian denominations. Many of these groups would object to being termed “fundamentalists” but, again, Coyne is narrative building and “fundamentalist” is a term even Evangelicals use to mock traditionalists so his use of the word is understandable.

Coyne’s narrative building extends to the words he chooses to use to describe Americans’ resistance to what he terms, again, the “fact” of evolution. He uses the word “depressing” to describe the poll results which show Americans as being unaccepting of evolution.  He then commits a remarkable leap of logic. Commenting on a poll which revealed that America ranked next to last in acceptance of evolution, he wrote: “Imagine if America ranked next to last among countries accepting the existence of atoms! People would immediately go to work improving education in the physical sciences.” His ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, of the difference between historical and empirical science, is what results in this statement. No one doubts the existence of atoms because we can interact with them in the lab. Evolution is a concept, a process that happened in the past. The best we can do is make inferences from the present about that process.

In the same false comparison vein, Coyne compares teaching creation in schools to teaching shamanism in medical school. The comparison is false, again, because of the historical science, empirical science split which Coyne ignores. This difference between the two types of science is a running theme in the book and will return again throughout this review.

Coyne closes his introduction by bemoaning the lack of understanding of evolution both among his undergraduate students and his scientific colleagues. It is his goal in the book to rectify that problem.  While to an evolutionist this book may seem to be something of a Holy Grail, as we have seen in this opening part of the review, it is not what it is portrayed, despite its audacious title.

 

 

[1] If the reader wishes to read the complete statement that was read to students in the Dover School District, it may be found on the website of the Discovery Institute, the primary ID advocacy group. Coyne leaves a part of the statement out but his omission appears to be for space and relevance, rather than any partisan bias. See https://www.discovery.org/a/25091/

[2] Jerry A. Coyne Why Evolution is True (Viking Press: New York, 2009), xii.

[3] John G. West and David K. DeWolf A Comparison of Judge Jones’ Opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover with Plaintiffs’ Proposed “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law”” Discovery Institute, 2006, https://www.discovery.org/m/2019/07/Comparing_Jones_and_ACLU.pdf

See the decision, as well as the ACLU submission if you wish to verify the claims of the above.

https://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=1184

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2426499-kitzmiller-v-dover-%20decision.html

[4] Technically in legal circles, while frowned upon, directly copying from plantiff’s submissions as Judge Jones unquestionably did is not plagiarism.

[5] Robert Crowther ” Did Judge Jones Plagiarize Scholar’s Book in Dickinson College Commencement Speech?” Evolution News, December 14, 2006, https://evolutionnews.org/2006/12/did_judge_jones_plagiarize_sch/.

[6] “Judge Jones Interviewed by the Lutheran” National Center for Science Education October 11, 2006, https://ncse.ngo/judge-jones-interviewed-lutheran.

[7] “Trinity Lutheran Church” https://trinitypottsville.com/.

[8] George L. Murphy “Science and Theology: A Coherent Approach” ELCA—Lutheran, 2005, https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Handiwork_Science_Theology.pdf.

[9] Geological Society of America “2009 GSA President’s Medal” https://www.geosociety.org/awards/09speeches/presMedal.htm.

[10] Coyne, 2009, xiii.

[11] Ibid, xiii-xiv

[12] Ibid, xvii

[13] Stephen Jay Gould and Nils Eldredge “Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered” Paleobiology 3, no. 2 (1977), 115-151, https://websites.pmc.ucsc.edu/~pkoch/EART_206/09-0120/Supplemental/Gould%20&%20Eldredge%2077%20Paleobio.pdf.

[14] Oliver Mayo Natural Selection and its Constraints (London: Academic Press Inc. Ltd, 1983) 1.

 

 

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