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Coyne, Bechly, Miller, Berlinski: Scientists Debate David Gelernter’s Darwin Apostasy

David Klinghoffer

This year when three scientists preemptively reviewed Michael Behe’s major book Darwin Devolves in the journal Science, Behe sought a chance to reply. The editor turned him down. So here’s some progress to report: Jerry Coyne “reviewed” Yale polymath David Gelernter’s recent knockout essay confessing the gravest doubts about Darwinian theory. Coyne wrote for the online magazine Quillette. When three Discovery Institute scientists sought an opportunity to reply and defend Gelernter, they were granted the opportunity!

A Challenge for any Biologist

Go ahead and check out the exchange for yourself. I challenge any biologist, or any thoughtful adult, to read Coyne and then the response from our colleagues, paleontologist Günter Bechly, physicist Brian Miller, and mathematician David Berlinski. Having read both articles, tell me honestly who you think comes out on top:

Imagine that: a “right of reply,” rather than simply being held down, gagged, and punched, which is the usual way. In this case, I would say that the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist and evangelizing atheist gets soundly and amusingly put in his place. Bechly and his co-authors summarize:

[Gelernter] looked at three pieces of scientific evidence that appeared to be incompatible with [the neo-Darwinian] model:

  • The sudden appearance of new body plans in the fossil record.
  • The extreme rarity of protein folds.
  • The absence of early-acting beneficial mutations, the kind that would be needed to generate new animal body plans.

In knowing where to look, Gelernter had help from Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, and David Berlinski’s The Deniable Darwin. These books both contain many references to the literature. Gelernter also highlighted the book Debating Darwin’s Doubt, which responded in detail to all notable critiques of the arguments that swayed him. For all that, Coyne faulted Gelernter for not examining counter-arguments to his own position.

An Explosion or a “Diversification”?

For Coyne, it gets worse from there. On the Cambrian explosion, he insists that the trend is toward classing it as a mere “diversification”:

If the Cambrian Explosion cannot be contained by a play on words, perhaps it may be constrained by a sleight of hand? The very concept of an explosion, Coyne argues, “is disappearing, with paleontologists increasingly speaking of a ‘Cambrian diversification’.” Are they? Are they really? A search on Google Scholar for academic publications between 2000 and 2019 yields 13,400 matches for the term ‘Cambrian Explosion’ but only 392 matches for ‘Cambrian Diversification.’ The Cambrian Explosion continues to explode: “Evidence is converging,” paleontologists have written recently, “towards picturing the Cambrian explosion as even swifter than what we thought.” This does not look like a disappearing concept at all. Some scholars should leave sleights of hand alone.

They ask: “Does anybody seriously believe that such an enormous transition within 13 million years is a piece of cake? Gelernter is right to be skeptical, and mainstream science supports his arguments.”

“Close to a Miracle”

On the protein enigma, the second issue that helped persuade Gelernter:

Recent work by Weizmann Institute protein scientist Dan Tawfik has reinforced [Stephen Meyer’s] conclusion. Tawfik’s work shows that as mutations to functional protein sequences accumulate, the folds of those proteins become progressively more thermodynamically and structurally unstable. Typically, 15 or fewer mutations will completely destroy the stability of known protein folds of average size. Yet, generating (or finding) a new protein fold requires far more amino acid sequence changes than that. Finally, calculations based on Tawfik’s work confirm and extend the applicability of Axe’s original measure of the rarity of protein folds. These calculations confirm that the measure of rarity that Axe determined for the protein he studied is actually representative of the rarity for large classes of other globular proteins. Not surprisingly, Dan Tawfik has described the origination of a truly novel protein or fold as “something like close to a miracle.” Tawfik is on Coyne’s side: He is mainstream.

The archipelago of functional proteins remains what it has always been: an isolated series of island-like points in a vast sea of possibilities.

On mutations occurring in early development, the third and final problem:

Can the genes that direct an organism’s early development and establish its basic architecture undergo selectable mutations? If on this point, Gelernter is skeptical, Coyne, for his part, is credulous. Some mutations do occur in some genes, he argues, and they occur early in development. All is well. This claim is true but trivial. These mutations do not drive any large-scale transformation. They are rarely noticeable. They are there for the ride.

The Company He Keeps

And again, on the good intellectual company that Gelernter keeps:

Throughout his essay Coyne suggests that David Gelernter came to his doubts by failing to recognize what he did not know. Did he? If so, he is in remarkably good company. Many distinguished theoretical biologists seem to have overlooked their own intellectual deficiencies. This became obvious during the conference ‘New Trends in Evolutionary Biology’ hosted by the Royal Society of London in November of 2016. In his keynote lecture, Gerd Müller listed several explanatory deficits of neo-Darwinism, among which he included phenotypic novelty, phenotypic complexity, and non-gradual forms of transition.

If Darwin’s theory is encumbered with these explanatory deficits, what good is it, and if it is not, where are the explanations it affords?

Müller’s voice is hardly alone. It is part of a choir. Consider the conference announcement from a meeting held in 2018 and entitled ‘Evolution — Genetic Novelty/Genomic Variations by RNA Networks and Viruses.’ “For more than half a century it has been accepted that new genetic information is mostly derived from random‚ error-based events. Now it is recognized that errors cannot explain genetic novelty and complexity.”

If random mutations cannot explain genetic novelty and complexity, just what can it explain? Not much, David Gelernter argues.

I’m going to stop quoting now to save you the pleasure of reading the exchange in full.

Oh, Jerry Coyne 

How can I conclude without addressing the man himself, who has won more than a little affection in ID circles? Professor Coyne is obsessed with the idea that we’re obsessed with him. Writers at Evolution Newsseem obsessed with me,” “Like several people there, [Mike Egnor is] obsessed with me,” “he’s obsessed with me,” “Klinghoffer is absolutely obsessed with me,” we “seem obsessed with going after” Coyne. 

Why would we be obsessed with Dr. Coyne? He says it’s because “they worry about my influence.” If anyone is worrying, it is Coyne and his fellow Darwinists, alarmed at the defection of a stellar intellect like Gelernter. Once someone like that peels away, others will follow him. I assure you, if we give too much attention to Coyne, and we probably do, it’s not because we’re worried about how influential he might be.

Instead, as Professor Egnor has observed, Coyne is the Id of the Darwinist community, unfiltered, unself-censored, heedlessly walking into fights where wiser heads would fear to go. That’s why we love him, sincerely. And it’s the case here with the exchange in Quillette.

By the way, if you missed the treat of watching Gelernter in conversation with Meyer, Berlinski and Peter Robinson, here it is:

Photo: David Gelernter, “Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson,” via Hoover Institution, Stanford University (screen shot).