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Jerry Coyne Attacks Evolution-Skeptic With Namecalling in Nature

Casey Luskin

In a recent book review in Nature, Jerry Coyne had unkind words for a questioner who raised his hand after Coyne gave a talk against intelligent design at the Alaska Bar Association. Coyne wrote:

After lecturing this spring to the Alaska Bar Association on the debate over intelligent design and evolution, I was approached at the podium by a young lawyer. The tight-lipped smile, close-cropped hair and maniacal gleam in his eyes told me that he was probably a creationist out for blood. I was not wrong.

(Jerry Coyne, “Selling Darwin: Does it matter whether evolution has any commercial applications?,” reviewing The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life by David P. Mindell, in Nature, Vol 442:983-984 (August 31, 2006), emphasis added.)

The take-home message here seems to be Don’t ask hard questions about evolution of leading Darwinists, or you will get called mean-spirited names in major scientific journals.

Ignoring the fact that Coyne acknowledges a “debate over intelligent design and evolution,” I have some simple questions myself:

  • Does this unkind description of a “creationist” indicate a mean-spirited bias on the part of what Nature is willing to print about skeptics of evolution?
  • Would Nature have printed similar words describing an evolutionist?
  • Given that the questioner simply asked an honest, non-abrasive question (“I don’t agree with what you said about evolution, but even if it were true, how does it cash out? … Does it have any practical value?”), were Coyne’s words about this person (a) warranted, or (b) nice?
  • Coyne stated that the appearance of the person (“tight-lipped smile, close-cropped hair and maniacal gleam”) implied he was “probably a creationist out for blood.” Does this promote a stereotype?

    “Stereotypes are group concepts held by one social group about another. They are often used in a negative or prejudicial sense and are frequently used to justify certain discriminatory behaviors.” (Wikipedia)

    Finally, it’s notable that Jerry Coyne answers the question about evolution by arguing that its value lies in its explanatory power, not its commercial application:

    “….if truth be told, evolution hasn’t yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn’t evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of ‘like begets like’. Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties. Future advances will almost certainly come from transgenics, which is not based on evolution at all.” (pg. 984)

    Incidentally, one of the two commercial uses Coyne does find for evolution includes “the use of ‘directed evolution’ to produce commercial products (such as enzymes to protect crop plants from herbicides).” (pg. 984) “Directed evolution” is otherwise known as intelligent design.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Jerry Coyne