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From Jerry Coyne, More Table-Pounding, Hand-Waving

Stephen A. Batzer

I recently wrote here about Bayesian analysis, in the course of which I mentioned Jerry Coyne’s assertion that certain evidence should not be taken as a serious objection to evolution. Coyne has responded to me — or anyway, to a headline at Uncommon Descent commenting on my article — at Why Evolution Is True (“IDiots once again justify their name“).
His online tone is identical to that in his book, strident. This is unfortunate. In legal settings, you can argue the facts, argue the law, or pound on the table. Despite saturation with evolutionary thought through the public education system, some 90 percent of Americans are unconvinced by the creation myth preached by Dr. Coyne and like-minded advocates. He thus pounds the table, full off scorn and mockery, rather than reflecting upon why so many people, including many well-educated ones and others with no religious beliefs to speak of, reject his analysis.
Coyne is right that evolution, in at least one sense of that multivalent word, is a fact. Life’s forms did emerge progressively. Anyone with a pick and time can go dig and verify this. However, in the sense of having identified the principle mechanism behind that progression, is evolution true? No, and that’s for a lot of reasons. Biology is so complex that no single “grand unified theory” of evolution seems remotely workable other than the current Darwinian one, which itself is helpful in some ways but unhelpful in lots of others. Any theory that explains everything explains nothing. Today, evolutionary theory mainly conveys anti-knowledge, the illusion of understanding.
Here are a number of still unanswered questions that contribute to undermining faith in the overarching theory:
(1) What is the origin of chemical languages? Some evolutionists claim that DNA only appears to be a language. It is called a language metaphorically. Yet 90 percent of the public reject this analysis because they hold to the theory of ducks. If it walks, quacks, etc., like a duck, it’s a duck. How did DNA arise, chemically speaking? Biologists have no answer to this, but sweep their hands around and appeal to geologic time. In legal circles, what Darwinist’s are arguing for is specific causation, when general causation is a fact not in evidence. In the legal system you can’t say something is probable if it isn’t even shown to be possible.
(2) How do you determine what is real, and what is apparent? To me, if X appears to be Y, then barring convincing evidence, X is Y. To claim that X is not Y, when my intellect tells me that X is Y, is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. Further, many Darwinists agree that life has the appearance of being designed. Darwinists call this observation of their own past statements “quote mining,” but in a legal setting such statements would be called admissions against interest. These admissions are problematic, since Darwinists never follow-up with their general theory of “It appears to be…but isn’t.”
(3) What is your theory of design? This is commonly asked of ID proponents. I think that’s a fair question, and we have an answer. William Dembski described an explanatory filter. Coyne, Dawkins, Prothero & Co. use this same theory of design informally in everyday life, but then use special pleading to exempt biology. More table-pounding. Design simply means intentionality, or “Nature Doesn’t Work This Way.” Chemicals do not self-assemble into life.
(4) Just how did life begin? On this point, no experiment has yet been conducted that offers any positive explanation — no explanation for enzymes, DNA, or RNA. The enterprise has proved hopeless so far. There’s plenty of hand waving, but no plausible theories. Many Darwinists I meet think that Darwin critics, with their fixation on biogenesis, have fallen victim to a fundamental misunderstanding. “Biogenesis has nothing to do with evolution,” they claim. I find this position to be disingenuous and an instance of bad argumentation. Coyne and other Darwinists don’t get to choose what evidence is convincing to the court of public opinion. Darwinists argue relentlessly that an examination of life is an affirmative argument for atheism. So, if life is evidence worthy of consideration, why shouldn’t the origin of life be evidence worthy of consideration as well?
(5) What is the mechanism responsible for gross speciation? By this, I mean the big stuff like the horse sequence, not Kettlewell’s moths or polyploidy or hybridization or other things, which are fascinating, no argument there, but off topic. Coyne’s response on his blog indicates that it would take “gazillions” of generations to transmutate one mammal species into a close relative. “Gazillions” is another example of somewhat unspecific hand-waving, or table-pounding, if you prefer. The fact is, Coyne cannot say how many generations it would take, because there is no valid theory of genomic information creation, and the fossil record doesn’t show phyletic gradualism, but appearance, stasis, and then extinction. Sudden appearance is quite difficult to model via genetic drift. In Coyne’s book, he claims that:

More than 6 percent of genes found in humans simply aren’t found in any form in chimpanzees. There are over fourteen hundred novel genes expressed in humans but not in chimps.

This should give anyone pause. Think of how many copying errors that would take. Any realistic “back of the envelope” calculation would show genomic error catastrophe before success. Everyday folks understand this. Copying errors are just that, errors, like when the casino loses money. Casinos don’t like that, and don’t do it often.
Skeptics are convinced by the fossil record and agriculture that species, in fact, don’t change after founding. As Stephen Jay Gould said, “Repeat ten times before breakfast every day for a week, stasis is data; stasis is data…” Crustaceans in Chesapeake Bay are unchanged for tens of millions of years. Coelacanths are stable. Trilobites (as shown in Coyne’s book) were stable for millions of years, with minor changes in the average number of ribs. Ernst Mayr wrote of skunk cabbage in China and eastern North America that have been separated (allopatric) for 6-8 million years, yet they are morphologically indistinguishable and interfertile.
Educated adults, particularly engineers, whom I speak to a lot, assert that chickens can’t be bred into ducks. They’re right. They further think that the metaphor of a Blind Watchmaker is silly; mere wishful thinking. They’re free to say this because Coyne isn’t on their tenure committee, ready to do them professional violence as punishment for unclean thoughts.
This whole evolutionary enterprise currently rests on an ideological foundation, not a scientific one. Rather than pursue an unbiased search for the truth, complete with frank admissions of “we don’t know” when we don’t, advocates like Coyne insist upon answers that they can tolerate philosophically. However you just can’t speak coherently about biology without teleology. DNA contains information. DNA is repaired by the very proteins it helps create. Single-celled creatures demonstrate a will to live. Cells of plants and animals maintain allegiance to the organism of which they’re a part. Hemoglobin has purpose. Phenotypic characteristics emerge in the fossil record and grow in the sequential (not transitional) species before they can be useful and positively selected for.
Telelogy is data. And that should be repeated ten times before lunch, every day.

Stephen A. Batzer