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The “Coyne” of the Realm: Gresham’s Law in Action

Michael Flannery

In  Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne, the evolutionary geneticist who purveys a blog by the same presumptuous name and  darling of the Darwinian lobby, invokes biogeography in support of his misleading title. This article will explain why Coyne’s argument is erroneous, his apologetic odd, and the entire effort altogether unfortunate.

It should be stated at the outset that what Coyne really means by “evolution” in his title is Darwinism. That cleared up, Coyne predictably goes to the man himself: “he [Darwin] realized that evolution was necessary to explain not just the origins and forms of plants and animals but also their distribution across the globe. These distributions raise a lot of questions . . . .” (p. 95) Darwin, he goes on to say, pondered these questions and devoted two chapters to the subject in Origin (chapters XI and XII to be precise). “These chapters are often considered the founding document of the field of biogeography–the study of the distribution of species on Earth. . . . The biogeographical evidence for evolution is now so powerful that I have never seen a creationist book, article, or lecture that has tried to refute it. Creationists simply pretend that the evidence doesn’t exist.” (p. 95)

Really? Everything about this argument is erroneous. First of all, Darwin did do some preliminary work in biogeography but his work was suggestive, tentative, and incomplete. Coyne barely references the co-discoverer of natural selection and acknowledged founder of modern biogeography Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1910), for whom the prestigious biennial award bestowed by the International Biogeography Society (IBS) is named. For all Coyne’s familiarity with Darwin’s two chapters, he seems completely ignorant of Wallace’s pathbreaking two-volume work The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876) and references only a fairly inconsequential and irrelevant magazine article published by Wallace in 1892. The seminal contribution of this book is hard to overestimate. Immediately recognized for its significance, it became the standard text on the subject for the next 80 years. Martin Fichman rightly calls it “one of the masterpieces of Victorian biology.” (An Elusive Victorian, p. 48) In the words of IBS editor Brett R. Riddle, “Alfred Russel Wallace is properly regarded as the father of modern biogeography.” (J. Biogeogr. 32, 2005: 1507-1508) Wallace is also responsible for the Wallace Line (a biogeographical line of demarcation running through the Strait of Lombok separating Asian and Australian ecozones) that according to Penny van Oosterzee is “the most famous and most discussed biogeographic boundary in the world.” (See her Where Worlds Collide.)

Now from the erroneous to the odd. Biogeography becomes an odd apologetic for Darwinian evolution because the leading founder of the field rejected Darwin’s reliance upon blind processes for the diversity and complexity of life. Wallace believed that Homo sapiens, sentience in animals, and the origin of life were all due to the creative acts of an “Overruling Intelligence” (see Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life and Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism). As Wallace developed his ideas of intelligence and design in the earth and the universe, he would ultimately expand his analysis in 1910 to his grand evolutionary synthesis whose subtitle says it all, The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind, and Ultimate Purpose.

So Coyne’s claim that “creationists” ignore the evidence is belied by Wallace the very father of the field he holds up as definitve evidence for Darwinism. Although to Coyne a “creationist” is by definition a biblical literalist, Wallace was neither a Christian nor interested in biblical proofs for his teleological evolution. “My contribution is made as a man of science,” Wallace once said in an interview, “as a naturalist, as a man who studies his surroundings to see where he is. And the conclusion I reach in my book [The World of Life] is this: That everywhere, not here and there, but everywhere, and in the very smallest operations of nature to which human observation has penetrated, there is purpose and a continual Guidance and Control.” It should be pointed out too that Wallace published The Geographical Distribution of Animals seven years AFTER his break with Darwin in 1869 over the invocation of an “Overruling Intelligence” for the special attributes of human beings. For Wallace, natural selection and teleology were NOT mutually exclusive propositions and creative acts needn’t require divine interventions. Consider this from his World of Life:

“If then, as I am endeavouring to show, all life development–all organic forces–are due to mind-action, we must postulate not only forces, but guidance; not only such self-acting agencies as are involved in natural selection and adaptation through survival of the fittest, but that far higher mentality which foresees all possible results of the constitution of our cosmos. That constitution, in all its complexity of structure and of duly co-ordinated forces acting continuously through eons of time, has culminated in the foreseen result. No other view yet suggested affords any adequate explanation . . . .” (p. 197)

Neither Coyne nor any other neo-Darwinist has yet refuted Wallace. Another lesson here is that biogeography exposes the ridiculousness of the “science stopper” claim. If Wallace abandoned Darwin’s methodological naturalism in 1869, then how could he develop the theory of biogeography years later? The “science stopper” claim should have rendered Wallace incapable of such scientific endeavor. Answer: there’s a difference between methodological naturalism as a dogma of faith and using natural phenomena to explain certain aspects of the natural world. Darwin, high priest of methodological naturalism, knew the difference. Despite their differences, he considered Wallace’s Island Life (1880), in part a summary and application of biogeography to island ecosystems, his best work. Based upon Wallace’s extensive contributions Darwin even petitioned Gladstone for a government pension on his behalf. Imagine a neo-Darwinian doing that for an ID proponent today! In many ways we’ve regressed to levels of intolerance unknown to Darwin himself.

On another level, however, Coyne’s effort is all rather unfortunate. If Darwinists are so concerned about quality science education then we should at least expect leading spokesmen like Coyne to get the history right. But not only does he get it terribly wrong, he doesn’t even ask the right question. Instead of making the presumptuous declarative statement, “why evolution is true,” a real question should be asked, namely, is evolution blind? As we’ve seen, Wallace, who helped invent both modern evolutionary theory and biogeography, obviously thought evolution “true” but by no means blind.

Those who recall their economics 101 class will find a deeper level on consternation in all of this. Sir Thomas Gresham (1519?-1579), founder of the Royal Exchange and financier extraordinaire, pointed out that bad, cheap and overvalued currency will drive out the good currency. This is Gresham’s Law. If ideas can be regarded as a form of intellectual capital then Darwinism inflated to the level of all-explanatory paradigm has the capacity to drive out the good. Coyne’s poor scholarship is aided and abetted by the very beneficiaries of this overvalued currency: e.g., E. O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Christopher Hitchins, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Their inane comments reflect ideological dogma not fair assessment. Typical of that dogma is Coyne’s insistence that “The message of evolution, and all science, is one of naturalistic materialism.” (p. 244) If this is the “Coyne” of the realm then surely Gresham’s Law is in action. Quality education of any kind–science or otherwise–cannot rest upon the self-serving concoctions of Coyne or his squad of cheer leaders.  Such intellectual inflation is the Darwinist’s illusion of wealth and prosperity.

How can the inflationary spiral be countered? We don’t even need science, history itself is sufficient.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.