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David Gelernter is Wrong About Ditching Darwin

I’ve never been one to judge somebody’s arguments by their scholarly credentials. After all, two major contributors to my own field of evolutionary genetics, Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, were amateur naturalists and autodidacts trained more thoroughly in theology than in biology.

So when well-known Yale professor and computer scientist David Gelernter rejected Darwinian evolution in his recent essay, ‘Giving Up Darwin,’ we can’t dismiss him simply because he’s not a biologist. Nor can we ignore his arguments because the piece appeared in a conservative journal, the Claremont Review of Books. No, we must attack his arguments head on, especially because they’ve been widely parroted by the media, as well as by conservative, religious, and intelligent-design (ID) websites.

Sadly, his arguments are neither new nor correct. Gelernter’s claim—that evolution as envisioned by Darwin (and expanded into “neo-Darwinism” since the 1930s) cannot explain features of organisms and of the fossil record—depends heavily on the arguments of ID creationists. And every one of those arguments has been soundly rebutted over the past few decades. While Gelernter doesn’t fully embrace all the tenets of ID, like the existence of an Intelligent Designer, he’s bought into virtually all its criticisms of Darwinism.

And he’s culpable for this, as he seems to have gotten his education in evolution solely from books written by ID advocates like Stephen Meyer, David Berlinski, and William Dembski, ignoring the many critiques that have demolished their claims. You simply can’t do good science by spouting only one side of an argument and ignoring the claims of the other.

I’m not sure why Gelernter so thoroughly accepts the nonsense that is ID. But given his own religiosity, the religious tone of several bits of his essay, and his teleological view on how life might have changed over time, I suspect he, like all ID advocates, is susceptible to religious blandishments, immunizing him against the scientific truths that rebut faith. And so he asks us, “How cleanly and quickly can the field get over Darwin, and move on?” The answer, I suggest, is “We don’t need to.”

Rebutting such arguments is a perpetual and tiresome battle, useful only for those sporting open minds rather than religious blinkers. Nevertheless, I’ll try to show why Gelernter’s anti-Darwinian assertions hold no water.

One of his major claims is a staple of many brands of creationism: the view that all major groups of animals, the “phyla,” appeared suddenly in the “Cambrian explosion,” the appearance of diverse animals about 540 million years ago (Mya). This “sudden appearance,” said to defy the slow, gradual evolution inherent in Darwinism, is taken by IDers to reflect the intervention of an intelligent agent, jibing nicely with Biblical accounts of creation.

Unfortunately, Gelernter, like his mentor Stephen Meyer, severely distorts the fossil record to arrive at this claim.

Initially, the Cambrian “explosion” was seen as occupying a roughly 20-million-year period from about 541 Mya, when the Cambrian period began, to about 520 Mya. Even this is an “explosion” only in geological terms, and comfortably allows for a lot of biological evolution to take place (after all, modern whales evolved from small terrestrial deerlike organisms in just 12 million years). But as we have built up an increasingly detailed picture of early life by unearthing more fossils from the Precambrian, even the concept of an explosion is disappearing, with paleontologists increasingly speaking of a “Cambrian diversification.”

Contra Gelernter, who pretends that the animal groups appearing during the “explosion” had no likely ancestors, the more fossils we find, the clearer it becomes that there was a long story preceding the “explosion.” For instance, in the period before the Cambrian—the Ediacaran—we see animals that appear to be arthropods, muscle-clad cnidarians (the group that includes modern jellyfish and anemones), echinoderms, mollusks, and probable sponges, with the simplest animals dating back 20 million years before the Cambrian even began. And evidence for the advent of predators in the form of burrowing traces and formation of shells—an innovation that might have driven the Cambrian diversification—is seen beginning about 545 Mya. (For an overview of the antecedents to the “explosion,” see this new paper by Rachel Wood et al. )

In short, the “explosion” was hardly explosive, and Gelernter is wrong when he says “those predecessors of the Cambrian creatures are missing.” Even a brief survey of the paleontological literature would (or should) give the lie to this assertion.

Gelernter displays further ignorance of biology when making the common but false claim that there may be Darwinian “microevolution” (small changes within species) but that we lack evidence that neo-Darwinian processes can produce the big changes seen as “macroevolution.” In his case, macroevolution means not just the emergence of drastically different forms of organisms, but “the emergence of new species”:

There’s no reason to doubt that Darwin successfully explained the small adjustments by which an organism adapts to local circumstances: changes to fur density or wing style or beak shape. Yet there are many reasons to doubt whether he can answer the hard questions and explain the big picture—not the fine-tuning of existing species but the emergence of new ones. The origin of species is exactly what Darwin cannot explain.

This claim is doubly wrong. First, we have ample evidence from the fossil record for gradual but really substantial macroevolution, however you define the term. We have transitional forms between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, and between reptiles and mammals on one hand, and reptiles and birds on the other. In fact, there are forms so intermediate between mammals and reptiles that we can’t slot them in one group or another: they’re called “mammal-like reptiles.” Likewise, we have bird-like dinosaurs—or dinosaur-like birds. The evolution of whales I mentioned above involved a gradual change from land organisms to amphibious organisms to fully-fledged whales, with almost every step of the process documented with fossils.

Further, we have the bête noire of creationists: the transitional series between early australopithecines with brains smaller than chimps to modern Homo sapiens. Yes, some of the details of our ancestry are unclear, but one thing is clear: modern humans didn’t spring into existence in a short time, but emerged over at least four million years from small-brained ancestors that lived in trees.

Second, Gelernter confuses true speciation—the branching of an ancestral species into two or more reproductively isolated descendants, a process called “cladogenesis”—with gradual changes in a single lineage, a process called “anagenesis.” He claims we have no evidence for either process. But I gave the evidence for anagenesis in the last two paragraphs, and it also rests in hundreds of big changes within lineages that I didn’t mention. As for splitting, I describe the evidence for that in my book Speciation with Allen Orr. It includes the observation of new lineages arising within human lifetimes, as well as of intermediate stages of groups splitting in nature, including some populations with reproductive barriers so intermediate that they can’t be classified as either members of the same species or of different species.

Now it is ironically true that despite the title of his great book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin failed to explain the origin of species in the cladogenetic sense, for he had no notion of species as populations that evolve reproductive independence from each other. But we’ve come a long way since then—the study of speciation really began in the 1930s—and now have a good understanding of how lineages split and produced the branching tree of life.

Gelernter then tells us not only that macroevolution wasn’t seen to happen, but is also theoretically impossible. These claims have also been discredited.

First, he argues that the chance that useful proteins could evolve is close to zero, asserting that “random mutation plus natural selection” are insufficient to create new protein shapes. That’s equivalent to the claim that these processes aren’t sufficient to explain new protein sequences.

The fallacy here is obvious. Gelernter assumes there is a useful, pre-specified target protein that must be reached from a “nonsense” sequence of amino acids. Then he multiplies together the small probabilities needed to convert each amino acid in the starting “gibberish protein” into the ones in the final target. The resulting probability is so minuscule that, he concludes, the Darwinian evolution of useful proteins is impossible.

This argument rests on several big errors. First, evolution doesn’t start with “gibberish proteins”; it continues with what it had before: useful proteins that evolved via natural selection from earlier sequences, but can still improve further. Second, evolution doesn’t drive proteins toward pre-specified target sequences. All that’s required for evolution to work is a mutation changing a gene (and its protein product) in such a way that the new gene leaves more copies than its antecedent. It’s an incremental form of improvement, not a narrowing-in on a specified target.

In fact, we have plenty of examples, in our species and others, in which a small change in an existing protein leads to a better protein. This has occurred, for instance, in proteins adapting human cultures to diving in water, enzymes for making fatty acids in populations that are largely vegetarian, in genes controlling armor plating that reduces predation on marine stickleback fish, and in proteins conferring an attraction to human odor in mosquitoes that invaded urban areas.

There are many similar examples, all showing that a small change in an already useful protein sequence can make it extra useful in new environments. This is the way evolution has worked from the very first Ur-protein.

And mutations don’t have to be changes in single proteins, either. There are many kinds of mutations, including the duplication of existing genes and their later divergence into multiple useful forms, the cobbling together of bits of different genes into new genes, and the co-option of DNA from invading microbes to make useful genes. This helped contribute to the evolution of the mammalian placenta.) The diversity of mutations that have produced adaptive changes in DNA are summarized in an influential paper by my colleague Manyuan Long and his collaborators.

Another reason Gelernter gives for the impossibility of big changes in animal evolution is that we have supposedly never seen useful mutations in genes involved in early development—changes he sees as required for the evolution of new body plans. In fact, he argues that “there are a total of no examples of mutations that affect early development and the body plan as a whole and are not fatal.” This assertion is based on a survey of genes affecting fly development in the fruit fly Drosophila. But that survey, which garnered a Nobel Prize for Eric Weischaus and Christine Nüsslein-Volhard, was designed to detect only mutations that were fatal, so Gelernter’s conclusion is trivial and misleading. Those experiments say nothing about whether genes involved in early development can be viable and can change by natural selection.

In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that they were and they did. First, there are tons of mutations affecting early development that are not lethal, refuting Gelernter’s claim for the inevitable fatality of such mutations. If you want examples of nonfatal mutations, go to the FlyBase site and look up the Drosophila mutations gt1, h2, enspt , kniri-1 (there are many others).

Further, there are examples of this kind of mutation that exist in multiple forms in fly populations in nature—forms that all produce not only viable adults, but fertile ones. (I dwell on flies because that’s the organism I work on, and hence know the literature.) This is the case, for example, for mutations affecting a gene involved in early-acting body segmentation.

We also know that there have not only been evolutionary changes between species in genes affecting early development, but also that those evolutionary changes were driven by natural selection. This can be demonstrated by either statistical analysis of DNA sequences of early-acting genes, or by actually making ancestral DNA, inserting it into organisms, and measuring its effect on fitness.

Although Gelernter says that “intelligent design might well be the ultimate answer,” he admits that ID has its own problems, like explaining frequent extinctions or why a Designer would intervene repeatedly over the course of evolution. Although he has no real alternative to either ID or the evolution he abhors, he does suggest that a teleological force drives evolution:

I’d expect complex biochemistry to be consistently biased in the direction that leads closer to consciousness, as gravitation biases motion towards massive objects. I have no evidence for this idea. It’s just the way biology seems to work.

Well, no, Dr. Gelernter, biology doesn’t seem to work that way. There’s nothing inherent in “complex biochemistry” or the nature of mutations to suggest such a bias, nor any evidence in the fossil record that evolution inexorably drives animals towards more and higher consciousness. Yes, that did happen in the hominin lineage and perhaps in some others like dolphins and octopuses. But remember that every living species has ancestors dating back as far as our own, yet hardly any of them are conscious in the way we are. Like us, jellyfish, sea anemones, sponges, and corals have lineages going back over a billion years, but they don’t even have brains—surely a prerequisite for consciousness. Indeed, the ancestors of echinoderms (the group that includes starfish and sea cucumbers) may have had brains but then lost them during evolution—a trend opposite to what Gelernter’s hypothesis predicts.

Ultimately, every criticism that Gelernter levels at neo-Darwinian evolution is wrong. I have pondered at length why a smart and accomplished computer scientist could engage in such a wrongheaded attempt to discredit evolutionary biology. Did he simply not bother to peruse the scientific literature? Was he credulous enough to accept the claims of ID advocates without checking them? Or does he really know better but was trying to serve a higher cause?

Although the falsity of Gelernter’s argument doesn’t depend on his motivations, there are several clues in his text. First, he derives from scripture the “factual” claim that “God created the universe, and put man there for a reason.” He notes that in arguments about evolution, “Biblical religion…forces its way into the discussion.” Well, that’s true only if you’re religious to begin with. If Gelernter’s views do indeed derive from his faith, then his god created in a very odd way.

The last lesson of Gelernter’s piece is that while we shouldn’t judge someone’s arguments by their credentials alone, neither should we give unwarranted credence to those who have impressive credentials, particularly when they pronounce on a field in which they lack expertise. Though he’s accomplished in his own area, in the end, Gelernter proves that he’s simply a garden-variety ID creationist.

 

Jerry A. Coyne is Professor of Ecology and Evolution, emeritus, is at the University of Chicago and is author of Why Evolution is True and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. You can follow him on Twitter @Evolutionistrue

 

Image courtesey of Tim Green.

Comments

  1. Macroevolution is not “big microevolution.”

    It is the opposite of microevolution.

    Microevolution can only “progress” to local extrema. To get past them, microevolution must “back up”, often substantially, which defeats the concept.

    Consider a legless organism in an environment where legs are desirable. How will legs come to be? Will a legless parent birth a child with fully-functional legs? Of course not - microevolution can’t work if massive changes happen in single generations. Every attempt at evolutionary modeling falls apart if too much randomness is allowed into the genetic reproduction process. So we need the first generation of children to have only the tiniest beginnings of legs, yet to still be more fit than those without such changes, so that the leg-developing strain of the species is the one most likely to reproduce.

    But this can’t be. Partial legs of any conceivable form make an organism less fit than a functional legless organism. They are useless appendages, like the extra fingers or toes on some unfortunately people, except probably much less useful than that since they are not extras of something that the being already has, but rather the beginning of something unprecedented. A fish swims less efficiently with limp protrusions from its belly; in the same way snake slithers less efficiently.

    No, microevolution would discard those beings with nonfunctional beginnings of legs.

    With no precedent for a limb with bone, muscle, ligaments, nerves, and the like all functioning in concert to achieve propulsion, it would take many, many generations of “survival of the less fit” before a legless organism evolved functional legs. But if so much anti-microevolution were a regular part of history, we could no longer believe that either microevolution or macroevolution could be reliably expected to drive progress.

    The Darwinians defeat themselves.

    Microevolution makes sense. Macroevolution does not. Life beginning for the first time, with DNA and reproduction in kind, also does not make sense; no science has approached beginning to explain this.

    People who hate ID can always be relied upon to shoot messengers, which is most of what this article spends its time on, but at the end of the day, it’s the only plausible theory in the world right now.

  2. “The no-design theory has to be able to explain how life originated.”

    No, it doesn’t. Life has been evolving on the earth for about 3.75 billion years. Setting aside “how life originated” there remains the question “How has it been changing while persisting these last 3.75 billion years?” Reproduction with variation subject to natural selection is the obvious answer, and one for which there exists so much evidence that no one Biologist can read and remember it all. Intelligent design is simply unnecessary as an explanation of that 3.75 billion year process, and inherently very unlikely.

  3. Just look at the titles of the author’s books… Why Evolution is True…and… Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

    And look at his Twitter handle! @Evolutionistrue

    It’s as if there were only two choices in the world. Darwinian Evolution. Or God (a.k.a “the bearded man in the sky,” because that’s all “God” means to the hyper-literal mind of the fundamentalist atheist).

    If you question the Darwinian account of evolution you are a God-freak, pure and simple. You believe in a bearded man who lives in the sky.

    The real question, who is more irritating? The fundamentalist Christian or the fundamentalist Atheist? I would say in recent times it is the fundamentalist Atheist…

  4. You mean like fins?

    Your argument shows that you do not understand evolutionary theory. Or the amazing diversity of life. There are things that can be done with little nubbins, like steering or providing traction. These do provide advantages for organisms. Also, limbs are amazingly useful, which is why they evolved so long ago.

    Snakes, btw, as do legless lizards, have vestigial limbs. Their ancestors had limbs. They actually lost theirs over centuries.

    In fact, limbs are so ancient that the genes that code for limb location in fruit flies have human analogs, as do so many genes.

    You are committing exactly the same errors pointed out in this article.

  5. Watchmaker hypothesis. Interesting, though largely debunked.

    You realize that the mechanisms that Darwin did not know, but was searching for, were in the archives of the royal society during his lifetime? He couldn’t read German, or he would have read the work of this obscure Austrian Monk named Gregor Mendel.

    Speaking of someone with an actual degree in the subject, it is very hard to understand evolution, and very easy to make bad arguments against it, if you don’t understand molecular biology. I have worked with organisms of all levels of complexity, from yeast, to Arabidopsis, to drosophila, to mice, and finally in humans. Not very much in humans, as they are a bit of a pain to work with. Present company excepted.

    When you can understand the mechanisms of Gene duplication, properly understand how proteins work, and how DNA works, and especially how DNA can be changed, it really helps you understand how Evolution works. Keep in mind that without evolutionary theory as a guide, none of our modern medical tools would be possible, because we develop them in non-humans. The theoretical framework which allows us to know that studying fruit flies will actually help us and has helped us understand human disease, depends utterly on evolution.

  6. Right back atcha. You ignored the words that were inconvenient to your desired response. You seem to think, for some reason unknown to me, that if a gene created a limb it would be this flaccid floppy thing off of an organism. That is a rather foolish idea and an example of a very weak straw man. You don’t evolve a limb, and then the muscles, and so on, in one go. It simply doesn’t work that way.

    Evolution works stepwise, such that the initial protrusion will serve some purpose. You can think of this similarly to the denticles on the ventral surface of the larvae of drosophila. They are useful for traction, and don’t really require intrinsic musculature to be used. You should also remember that these limbs evolved in an aquatic environment. A little knob or bump is actually useful for a number of things in such an environment, such as helping steer. It is not as much use as a fully developed fin, but that is what evolves later.

    I have spent my life using Evolution as a practical tool in my research as a biologist. What you are doing is akin to trying to make me disbelieve in a hammer, when I use it everyday. Evolutionary theory is a theory because it performs several functions. One, it is explanatory. We can and have used evolutionary theory to explain a huge number of phenomena that we have encountered in the biological world that we have not been able to explain in any other way other than hand waving a creator that we cannot prove. You got proof? Lay it on me. However, if we can demonstrate that evolution is able to do this without a creator, then your argument has to be amazingly strong to deal with that. The second thing that evolutionary theory does is that it is predictive. It allows us to predict that certain things will happen reliably. This is in fact exactly what we use it for. We look at things, we make predictions, and evolutionary theory allows us to make fairly accurate predictions and explanations for things we are seeing. Intelligent design does so only by invoking something that is unprovable, where is evolution is a very strong explanation that relies on things that are totally knowable. We know how mutation works, we know molecular biology and how DNA works, we know how proteins work and chromosomes work, and so on. We don’t need an external source.

  7. This is unsound. Your argument does not prove agency. Sharing a common “language” merely proves the parts can all be traced back to an earliest ancestor.

    As far as the actual term “intelligent design” is concerned, this is controversial. From https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_design

    “Intelligent design avoids identifying or naming the intelligent designer—it merely states that one (or more) must exist—but leaders of the movement have said the designer is the Christian God.[29][n 4][n 5] Whether this lack of specificity about the designer’s identity in public discussions is a genuine feature of the concept, or just a posture taken to avoid alienating those who would separate religion from the teaching of science, has been a matter of great debate between supporters and critics of intelligent design. The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court ruling held the latter to be the case.”

    I don’t disagree with this. However, this is a red herring. Nowhere was any atheist argument made. In fact, the article made no theological claims whatsoever.

    You’ve done what you are annoyed by others doing. You mention others wrongfully confine intelligent design to religion when you have wrongfully confined evolutionary theory to atheism. The founders of evolutionary theory were not atheists, nor was it meant to be an atheist theory.

    ‘Darwin replied that “a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist”, citing Charles Kingsley and Asa Gray as examples, and for himself, "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.”’ (from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Charles_Darwin)

    Gregor Mendel was a friar.

    No one could possible show you every creature half-way between any two creatures on demand. The bar you’ve set is so high it could never be achieved. It’s like saying “the only way I’ll believe in gravity is if I see every object fall”. It’s neither reasonable nor feasible to see every single modification to every single gene and the effect it has.

    Empirical evidence need not be exhaustive - it almost never is. The minimum for rational sufficiency is very far from exhaustion. Almost nothing you believe to be empirically true is based on exhaustive evidence. That is what makes this attitude intellectually dishonest.

    A lot. @Tj2mag could write pages about it.

    Moreover, huge amounts of money have been poured into genetic research and direct genetic manipulation of fruit flies (and rats, monkeys, etc.) Why do you think that is?

    Genes are the carriers of evolution. You can’t really make much sense of genes as we understand them without making sense of evolution.

  8. How about…

    Let’s see, we have used them to discuss and discover how diseases of development work, how the body is structured and arranged and why, learned about a whole bunch of things involving cell suicide and cancer… All things that were applicable to humans very closely.

    The chromosome was discovered and studied in flies, helping prove that DNA could be complex in structure enough to be the genetic code that we all knew was there…

    This seems insane, no? They’re FLIES! Yes, but so many fly genes have human homologues that it’s kinda nuts. The genes that specify THEIR body segments, specify YOUR body segments. They are all laid out in order on a single chromosome in you and the fly. This helps us understand things like some miscarriages and fetal malformation.

    If I took the gene eyeless from you and expressed it in place of the gene that specifies where their eyes grow, it would work in exactly the same way and eyes would grow. We have used that to discover the reason behind things like hereditary lack of eye formation.

    Look up the gene Shh, or Sonic hedgehog. Responsible for a great number of pediatric cancers as well as cyclopia in humans, sheep… First discovered in the fly as the gene hedgehog. In fact, all sorts of developmental genes in the fly have human homologs.

    Also, flies themselves have evolved while studying them. This is where we get the p element.

    And Ray, having worked with all sorts of lab strains, they are invariably weaker than the wild type organism. This is because we are studying how things break, in order to discover how they work. As a result, we’re generally doing things like breaking genes and the flies, mice, used, Etc have various broken genes which we are studying. It almost invariably weakens things like the immune system. We don’t want a Super Fly or super Mouse, we want an organism that can help us understand why humans get sick and help fix it.

    And yes, this is a brief skim through the fly field. They have helped us understand so much…

  9. A human being is not a car, it’s so much more complex that it’s ridiculous. It’s not like you have a right to repair in cars, so you have a right to understand evolution in humans.

    Also, it took more than high school biology to help me really understand it. I skipped College bio due to AP classes, and the meat of it started to really become clear during the more advanced college classes. Genetics, biochemistry, Immunology, all sorts of other classes. What becomes clear very quickly is how much we depend on evolutionary theory, because we don’t do most of those experiments in humans. If not for evolutionary theory, which makes experiments and other organisms relevant to experiments in humans, we would not be able to do medical research at all. If you’re working on yeast, fruit flies, plants … what is there that makes any of that relevant to humans? The fact that we are all related evolutionarily and that processes are conserved across species.

    If not for evolution, you would not be able to take vitamin C. Those experiments were done in guinea pigs, and we would not know that guinea pigs we’re related to humans and therefore we could take results from guinea pig experiments and apply them to humans. The same thing for all sorts of drug trials and surgical trials, we would have needed to trial them on humans primarily and and not test them in other organisms first. Can you say mortality rate?

    Of course, I’m also the son of a geneticist who let me read anything on the shelves that was not a first edition by around age 6. I had figured out a chunk of this stuff pretty early. Most people don’t and can’t, I get that. Why do you think I went into teaching? When someone asks if mice lay eggs, or stares at you in shock having been told that outer space is real, both things that have happened to me personally. Or, and this is my most annoying one, ask me if it’s true that the Pharma companies have the cure to cancer, but aren’t releasing it because they would lose money. This is nonsense in so many ways I can’t even begin to start, including the fact that they did not understand high school biology well enough to understand what the heck cancer is in the first place.

    I really question the education of the average Layman. How should they understand evolution? They think things like THAT!

  10. That’s because critics of evolution usually are coming from a religious perspective. It’s not entirely fair but not unjustified either. The critique is often, there is some philosophical problem with the theory therefore evolution is false. This is not persuasive. A reasonable critique would point out technical problem areas with the goal of improving the overall theory. Like all scientific fields, the theory of evolution can of course be improved.

  11. From the author’s blog:

    Note that “breathnumber” ignores the fact that my critique of Gelernter is about 90% discussion of the evidence, with a small bit of speculation of how someone as smart as Gelernter could jump the shark. This, I suspect, is how the Discovery Institute will dismiss my article: as a critique of religious motivations rather than of an argument. (They’ll also reiterate Meyer’s flawed arguments.) ID isn’t religious, they’ll say! But of course it is. Every creationist I’ve ever met (and I include IDers in that mix) has been motivated by religion, or at least is religious, with the possible exception of biker David Berlinski.

    I am certainly not qualified to wade into the technicalities of the debate, and that is why I did not do so. But it is pretty apparant to any observer not emotionally invested in either “side” that neo-Darwinism has hardened into an intolerant orthodoxy. This is most evident by the habit of its defenders to constantly suggest that all criticism of official doctrine must be religiously motivated, and therefore need not be taken seriously. For them, it simply comes down to “faith” versus scientific “fact”, a simplistic binary embraced by their fundamentalist-minded followers.

    And yet are all those who advocate for a neo-Lamarckian view of evolution, for example, religiously motivated? Are they all secret “creationists” and “IDers”? I doubt it. And does a neo-Lamarckian view of evolution necessarily imply the existence of a spiritual reality? I don’t think so.

    But here is how Coyne begins his dismissal of neo-Larmarckian evolutionary theories:

    While the environment can play a role in sorting out those genes that their carriers leave more offspring, there’s no good way for environmental information to somehow become directly encoded in the genome. For that would require a kind of reversal of the “central dogma” of biology…

    There’s no “good” way for Lamarckian-type evolution to work, Coyne says, because that would mean that the “central dogma of biology” as professed by Crick is incorrect or incomplete. But doesn’t it strike one as rather strange that a scientific discipline professes “dogmas” beyond the bounds of which no good scientist ought to venture? For would not widespread adherence to such a “dogma” serve to discourage scientists from exploring avenues of research that may contradict it?

    I don’t want to lay all of the blame at the feet of the defenders of what seems to be an increasingly outmoded orthodoxy. It is probably true that any admission of a problem in orthodox neo-darwinian evolutionary doctrine will be hailed by fundamentalist religionists as proof that the entire theory of evolution is wrong and biblical creationism correct after all. I simply object to the absolutism on display by both sides here, as well as to the habit of reducing the debate to one merely between two sides. Scientists like Coyne act as if the slightest adjustment to the current scientific doctrine will reveal the fallibility of science, discredit the enterprise as a whole, and return us to the dark ages. But when exactly did science become infallible? When exactly did scientific truths become eternal truths? If that is what science is supposed to be, aren’t we talking about something other than science? How can scientific understanding advance when any advancement is considered tacit admission that scientific truths aren’t True, with a capital T?

  12. Sigh… There are at least seven fossil genera that are intermediate in appearance between dinosaurs and modern birds .

    Evolution skeptics don’t talk much any more about the ‘lack’ of transitional fossils in the dinosaur-to-bird lineage, or if they do, they demand proof that the fossil species are in the direct line of descent leading to modern birds [another impossible demand, without ancient DNA evidence].

    No, many theories make difficult-to-impossible predictions or claims. Gravitational radiation [predicted by Einstein in 1916] was thought for decades to be impossible to detect, until enough money was spent to develop the appropriate technology.

    Some theories on the origin of life don’t require the spontaneous formation of proteins. You criticized my list of books, but you really need to get up to speed with the relevant literature, before throwing off your idiosyncratic reasons why the abiotic origin of life is impossible.

    Look, science progresses in part through the discoveries made by contrarians:

    • Copernicus overthrowing geocentric astronomy
    • Galileo and Newton overthrowing Aristotelian physics
    • Darwin overthrowing the argument from design
    • Wegener on continental drift
    • Einstein overthrowing Newtonian physics

    But these contrarian scientists eventually recruited supporters who completed the intellectual revolutions that these contrarians started. If there was any testable science to be found in the ID literature, you can be sure that some ambitious graduate student or young professor would be out there even now, doing those experiments and making an immortal name for herself as the person who overthrew Darwin. That’s how science works. But in the long run, most contrarians never make a name for themselves, because they were just flat-out wrong.

  13. If you use it everyday, Evolution makes a huge amount of sense. Right now, @RayAndrews seems to be trying to get me to disbelieve in my hammer, despite the fact that I hammer nails with it everyday. Make sense? It’s a tool that I use constantly, I know it’s reliable, I know it works extremely well, and I don’t have to believe in it. Belief is for those who don’t know that it works.

  14. Well, if it helps, you’re a mutant.

    Basically, supposing that I made you copy, from one sheet of paper to another, several million A’s G’s, T’s, and C’s in a random sequence with no spaces. Then I compared the two papers to each other. It’s safe to say there would be some typos. That is basically what a mutation is, a copying error when an organism is trying to copy its DNA. This can occur when a cell divides during growth or healing or when you’re trying to make gametes like the sperm and the egg. Cells are surprisingly good at copying, much better than we are under similar circumstances, and so they try to keep errors to a minimum. Errors in DNA copying can lead to a cell becoming cancerous and suchlike. However, when you’re making sperm and eggs, there are going to be errors in the copy. If those errors do not significantly screw up the sperm or the Egg such that it cannot do its job or when fertilized cannot develop, then congratulations, you have passed on a mutation to your offspring.

    On average, humans have 2 mutations compared to their parents DNA. This is actually another form of selection, as mutations which cause a lack of viability or growth are a very quick selection that happens prenatally. This can cause a failed implantation or a miscarriage.

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