recent, Right of Reply

Right of Reply: Our Response to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne has offered a response in the pages of Quillette to David Gelernter’s provocative article, “Giving Up Darwin.” Gelernter rejected the standard model of neo-Darwinian evolution for a simple reason: he looked at three pieces of scientific evidence that appeared to be incompatible with that 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. “One simply can’t do good science,” Coyne wrote, “by spouting only one side of an argument and ignoring the claims of the other.” A certain measure of irony is conveyed by this unjustified remark. Had Coyne followed it more faithfully, he would have spared himself some embarrassment.

The Cambrian Explosion, Coyne argues, “is an explosion only in geological terms, and 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).”

This is wrong in its first assertion, it is wrong in its second assertion; and it is wrong all around. The Cambrian Explosion is an abrupt event in geological and biological terms. The average longevity of marine invertebrate species is 5-10 million years. This is standard evolutionary biology. Thus, the transition from an assumed worm-like ancestor to all of the Cambrian animal phyla took place during the lifespan of, at most, a few successive species. (The phyla represent the largest division of animal classification exemplifying the most significant differences in biological form, whereas species which represent the smallest divisions and exemplify much more minor differences). Yet neo-Darwinists envision the new body plans that characterize the animal phyla arising as the result of an accumulation of many, many species-level changes and transitions over long periods of time—indeed, far more time than the Cambrian paleontological record allows. Consequently, the Cambrian Explosion is called the Cambrian explosion for a very good reason: something dramatic happened in a very short period of time.

The whales? And in twelve million years? Not likely. The available window of time for the transition from the terrestrial pakicetids to fully marine basilosaurids (Pelagiceti) is only 4.5 million years. This corresponds to the lifespan of a single larger mammal species, as Donald Prothero correctly notes. Prothero is Coyne’s ideological ally. They should be better friends. Short time spans give rise to a generic waiting time problem—a much-discussed issue in mainstream population genetics. It is easy to see why. The time required for even a single pair of coordinated mutations to originate and spread in a population is, at least, an order of magnitude longer than the window of time established by the fossil record. Either the fossil record must go, or the waiting time must go, but they cannot go on together. The whales are the least of it. The emergence of a single pair of coordinated mutations in the human lineage required a waiting time of 216 million years. The separation of the chimpanzee and human lineages took place only six or seven million years ago. These figures are clearly in conflict. This is the standard view, the one held by mainstream evolutionary biologists.

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.

David Gelernter accepted the conclusion that there were no putative ancestors of the Cambrian phyla in the preceding Ediacaran strata. He is in good company. So do most paleontologists who specialize in this field. This conclusion is not controversial, and it is obviously at odds with Darwin’s theory. Coyne is unpersuaded, maintaining that, yes, we have found Ediacaran “animals that appear to be arthropods, muscle-clad cnidarians (the group that includes modern jellyfish and anemones), echinoderms, mollusks, and probable sponges.”

This is pure fantasy. Coyne is unacquainted with the facts. There are no Ediacaran arthropods. There are no Ediacaran echinoderms either. Akarua adami, it is true, was initially attributed to the echinoderms. But apart from pentaradial symmetry, Akarua adami lack all of the synapomorphic characteristics of the echinoderms. The Cambrian fossil record contains stem echinoderms in helicoplacoids and homalozoans (carpoids) after all; and we know from reconstructed phylogenetic trees that pentaradial symmetry does not belong to their ground plan. The mollusks to which Coyne confidently appeals as friends of the family? They belong to the Ediacaran fossil genus Kimberella. First described as a jellyfish, Kimberella was later indeed sometimes associated with early mollusks. This attribution remained controversial: several characteristics contradicted it. A comprehensive paper recently reviewed the “problem of Kimberella” and concluded that “the possibility that Kimberella is coelenterate grade should therefore not be excluded.” Although likely a metazoan, they went on to write, “its placement remains problematic; it may be on the bilaterian stem group rather than within the stem group of any particular phylum.”

That leaves sponges and cnidarians. There is not much there, and it is of no interest. These groups branched off the metazoan tree long before the origin of bilaterian animals, and thus are irrelevant to the question of the abrupt appearance of the Cambrian animal phyla.

In passing, Coyne mentions a putative bilaterian segmented worm-like animal from the terminal Ediacaran period. The body plan of this worm is unlike the body plan of all known fossil or living animals. It is not ancestral to any of them. It’s confirmation as a worm among worms would, at best, establish the presence of a single phylum in the shape of the annelids at the very end of the Ediacaran. This would marginally extend the length of the Cambrian Explosion by a few million years.

What about the other Ediacaran trace fossils? All gone. A seminal study published in 2016 experimentally demonstrated that these Ediacaran trace fossils can be easily reproduced as artifacts of stirred up bacterial mats that covered the Ediacaran sea floors.

Careless in his facts, Coyne is also careless in his references. There is, for example, the recent study by Wood et al. (2019). It is there, Coyne assures himself, that all those Cambrian antecedents may be found. In fact, this paper contains no evidence for Ediacaran bilaterian animals. There are reasonable candidates for primitive metazoan lineages, like sponges, ctenophores, and cnidarians, but not a single putative ancestor for any of the 21 Cambrian bilaterian animal phyla. If this is unequivocal, the attribution of the very Ediacaran Dickinsonia to stem metazoan animals is dubious. Had Coyne done a more thorough survey of the paleontological literature himself, he would have discovered that the absence of Ediacaran predecessors to the Cambrian is an established fact of modern paleontology.

Wood’s more general conclusion is pertinent, convincing, and correct: “The Cambrian Explosion represents a radiation of crown-group bilaterians … one phase amongst several metazoan radiations.” That there were many such abrupt radiations is undisputed. There were, at least, 18! Why Coyne thinks this a point in his favor is mysterious. Those radiating facts comprise a fatal objection to Darwin’s theory. It was Richard Dawkins who observed that “evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual if it is to do any explanatory work.” If evolution must be gradual, or continuous, as a matter of fact and as a matter of theory, those 18 explosive events, which are neither gradual nor continuous, would seem to represent considerable conflicting evidence.

Some time ago, paleontologists tried to explain the absence of soft-bodied ancestors in pre-Cambrian sediments as artifacts of preservation. No longer. This hypothesis has been refuted by evidence from fossil sites of the Burgess Shale type in Mongolia and China. They yielded nothing but fossil algae.

This made the problem of the Cambrian Explosion even more acute: 550 million years ago there were no animals at all, and 537 million years ago there were already fully developed crown-group arthropods like trilobites with sophisticated compound eyes, exoskeletons, and articulated legs. 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.

The progression from micro to macro-evolution is a staple of Darwinian theory; and it is a staple to which Coyne gratefully repairs. Numerous fossil transitional series, he argues, provide “ample evidence from the fossil record for gradual but really substantial macroevolution.” There are the transitions from fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to mammals, dinosaurs to birds, terrestrial mammals to marine whales, and ape-like australopithecines to modern humans.

A thirsty man cannot be too scrupulous about what he is prepared to drink, but this argument is addressed to a position no one is challenging, least of all David Gelernter. If these transitional series provide evidence of anything, they provide evidence for common ancestry. The gravamen of Gelernter’s argument was not common ancestry but its explanation in terms of a Darwinian process. Transitional series do not, and cannot, provide evidence for such a process. Nor are these transitional series gradual in any meaningful way. They represent a succession of very distinct and different stages, often separated by many millions of years.

It is when he moves on to the details that Coyne decisively parts company with the facts. These transitional series, he argues, represent evidence for anagenetic speciation—gradual species transformation within an unbranched lineage. It is odd, and disappointing, to find such a blunder solemnly promoted by an evolutionary biologist—a specialist in speciation, no less (author of a textbook on speciation). Nearly all the fossil species in these transitional series exhibit autapomorphies, or uniquely derived characters; they thus belong to side branches of the stem line and cannot be part of an unbranched lineage. If they cannot be a part of an unbranched lineage, they cannot arise by anagenetic speciation. This is beyond dispute, and, apart from Coyne, unique in his isolation, no one considers this evidence for anagenetic speciation.

In fact, the meagre fossil evidence for anagenetic and/or gradualistic speciation has proven to be no evidence at all. The Steinheim freshwater snails?—an ecophenotypic variation; the marine foraminifers of the genus Globorotalia?an abrupt speciation. There remains the transition from Australopithecus anamensis to A. afarensis. The last has long been considered by paleontologists as “one of the strongest cases for anagenesis in the fossil record.” Unfortunately, it has just been overturned by the discovery of a new hominin skull that documents the temporal overlap of both species.

Coyne alludes briefly to evidence for the origin of new lineages within human lifetimes. The allusion is brief because the evidence is likewise scanty. The possible examples are, in any case, well-known: polyploid plants, stickleback fish, East African cichlids, Pacific salmons, Madeiran house mice, London underground mosquitoes, and the Hawaiian banana-feeding Omiodes (Hedylepta) moths. Some of these examples are just intra-specific changes (sticklebacks, salmons, underground mosquitoes), while others are highly controversial (the banana-feeding moths). Even if a new cichlid fish species can arise from another cichlid species within a relatively short time, this does nothing to explain the origin of complex new organs or new protein folds. No one doubts that different species of Darwin finches could originate by neo-Darwinian microevolution from a single founder species. The claim that microevolution can be extended to macroevolution is the very contention challenged by Darwin’s critics.

If Jerry Coyne is wrong about paleontology, he is wrong, as well, about protein evolution. David Gelernter observed that amino acid sequences that correspond to functional proteins are remarkably rare among the “space” of all possible combinations of amino acid sequences of a given length. Protein scientists call this set of all possible amino acid sequences or combinations “amino acid sequence space” or “combinatorial sequence space.” Gelernter made reference to this concept in his review of Meyer and Berlinski’s books. He also referenced the careful experimental work by Douglas Axe who used a technique known as site-directed mutagenesis to assess the rarity of protein folds in sequence space while he was working at Cambridge University from 1990-2003. Axe showed that the ratio of sequences in sequence space that will produce protein folds to sequences that won’t is prohibitively and vanishingly small. Indeed, in an authoritative paper published in the Journal of Molecular Biology Axe estimated that ratio at 1 in 1074. From that information about the rarity of protein folds in sequence space, Gelernter—like Axe, Meyer and Berlinski—has drawn the rational conclusion: finding a novel protein fold by a random search is implausible in the extreme.

Not so, Coyne argued. Proteins do not evolve from random sequences. They evolve by means of gene duplication. By starting from an established protein structure, protein evolution had a head start.

This is not an irrational position, but it is anachronistic.

Indeed, Harvard mathematical biologist Martin Nowak has shown that random searches in sequence space that start from known functional sequences are no more likely to enter regions in sequence space with new protein folds than searches that start from random sequences. The reason for this is clear: random searches are overwhelmingly more likely to go off into a non-folding, non-functional abyss than they are to find a novel protein fold. Why? Because such novel folds are so extraordinarily rare in sequence space. Moreover, as Meyer explained in Darwin’s Doubt, as mutations accumulate in functional sequences, they will inevitably destroy function long before they stumble across a new protein fold. Again, this follows from the extreme rarity (as well as the isolation) of protein folds in sequence space.

Recent work by Weizmann Institute protein scientist Dan Tawfik has reinforced this 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.

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 mutations that substantially alter early development are usually fatal. The genetic networks that control an organism’s early development cannot be changed without catastrophic results. It is precisely for this reason that developmental biologists working with paleontologists have appealed to the idea that ancestral species possessed far more flexible genetic networks than species today. There is no evidence in favor of this ad hoc claim, and beyond the fact that it is untestable, no reason to entertain it.

Prof. Gerd Müller at the Royal Society in London 2016 (image courtesy of Bechly)

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 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.

If not old-fashioned Darwinism, then, perhaps, new-fashioned Darwinism—the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, or the Third Way of Evolution? Anything is better than nothing, but Coyne, at least, is on record as a supporter of neo-Darwinism. He is skeptical of the need for an Extended Synthesis and so remains committed to the view that nothing is better than anything.

For a very good reason. No part of the Extended Synthesis—niche construction, phenotypic plasticity, evolvability, epigenetics, hybridogenesis, natural genetic engineering—addresses the explanatory deficits of neo-Darwinism. In accommodating phenotypic plasticity or evolvability, it is neo-Darwinism that presumptively did the original construction work. These views thus embody the better aspects of nothing and anything.

The Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection is the only suggestion ever forged by human ingenuity to explain things from the bottom-up. Daniel Dennett called Darwin‘s Dangerous Idea a universal acid, and Richard Dawkins admitted that only “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” How a universal acid might promote intellectual fulfillment without eating into all that fulfillment, he did not say. If the theory fails the acid test of explaining what it was designed to explain, the need for a change in biology cannot be dismissed in such a nonchalant manner as Coyne does.

A straightforward reading of the data from paleontology, protein studies, research on developmental mutations, and many other fields, uniformly support Gelernter’s thesis that Darwinism’s time has now passed. Gelernter, who is a top-ranked intellectual, carefully studied the arguments from both sides and was not afraid to follow the evidence wherever it led, even if it meant giving up on a beautiful theory. The atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel came to the same conclusion that “the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” The first author of this article has been a staunch Darwinian evolutionary biologist and paleontologist for decades. No longer staunch, he changed his mind, based on the evidence and arguments presented by Darwin’s critics. Still strong in his staunchness, Coyne might eventually change his mind, too.

Anything is possible.


Dr. Günter Bechly is a German paleontologist, Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, and senior research scientist at Biologic Institute in Redmond, USA.

Dr. Brian Miller is Research Coordinator for the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute in Seattle.

Dr. David Berlinski is currently a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He lives in Paris.


  1. I think it’s great that scientist are finally finding the nerve to question macro-evolution. I remember reading Coyne’s Why Evolution is True in 2010 and being struck by the inconsistency noted in this article.

    Having lunch with a friend and discussing the book, I told him that I felt macro-evolution was going to be radically overturned within the next 50 years. He scoffed and told me the science was settled. My concern after reading Coyne’s book is that there is a sleight of hand going on that even a numbskull like myself can plainly see. It is a follows:

    Statement: Macro-evolution happens very, very slowly. It takes millions of small genetic changes spanning millions of years.
    Critique: If this is true, we should have a plethora of transitional fossils. But we don’t.
    Rebuttal: That is because we’re pretty sure Macro-evolution happens rapidly, in things we call “explosions.”
    Critique: Which is it? Very, very slowly? Or, rapidly?

    I told my friend, the revulsion directed at the Intelligent Design community has created an unhealthy atmosphere across the whole field. It’s created an environment where anyone that honestly questions the Darwinian answers is blackballed and run out of the department. Eventually, a ballsy scientist that doesn’t care about being blackballed will stumble across a better theory. We’ll find that the solution was right there all along, but we were too religiously beholden to Darwin to see it. Whoever he is, he will be the Galileo-Newton-Darwin of our era.

    You’d think more scientists would be hungry for this kind of discovery; to be the next rockstar… but questioning Darwin is career suicide. Until that changes, we’re stuck with “nothing is better than anything.”

  2. Creationism has poisoned the well, so to speak, precisely because they aren’t honest questions. They are agenda driven questions. Their goal is not to solve problems in the theory of evolution but to overturn it in favor of a religious explanation. This is activism not science.

    If there are problems with macro-evolution timescales therefore what? Did God intervene and kick things into high gear? The authors don’t say. How about they lay out the evidence for that?

    That being said I do agree with strong criticism. If there are problems in the theory they should be pointed out. Even disingenuous critiques such as in this article can still be valuable.

  3. It’s not enough to stumble across a different theory: to be acceptable it needs to better explain everything known to date and, if possible, make predictions about what might be discovered in the archaeological record in the future. By introducing “intelligent design” you are simply reintroducing the concept of a powerful being or “god” which puts an end to further discussion

  4. It’s worth noting that only a tiny fraction of potential fossil-bearing rock layers across the globe is available for study, and that much of the geological material of appropriate age has been destroyed by subsequent plate tectonics or volcanic activity:

    Bias in the fossil record | Dave Hone

    'There are a whole series of biases in the fossil record that affect which organisms were preserved and how, and thus affects how we as palaeontologists can investigate the life of these ancient worlds. The key of course is to understand and recognise these biases and account for them and how they affect things, and to make allowances as far as possible for their effects.

    To become a fossil, the remains of an organism must not decay away to nothing, but instead be buried in some medium (mud, sand, ash) which generally (but not always) happens in water. This must lie undisturbed for long enough and under enough pressure from additional sediments for the material to become mineralised and turn into a fossil…

    Environments such as rainforests teeming with life and in a hot and moist climate are also poor places for fossils to form as a carcass can decay quickly and not have time to be buried. Similarly a rocky mountaintop is a poor place for fossils to form with no fine sediments being laid down. A nice floodplain or stagnant lake or a coastal lagoon is great, however – not too much decay and lots of mud or sand swirling around in the water – and deserts too can be good.

    The organisms themselves will have an effect too, and not just in terms of their anatomy or where they lived. Those with large populations that ranged far and wide would have many more individuals which could be buried and preserved, but a small group restricted to a small area less so. Similarly, those species that lasted for millions of years stand a better chance of hanging around for us to find compared to those that came and went in the blink of a geological eye.

    Time can also play a different role in making fossils unavailable. Earth’s geological processes are mostly slow, but the tectonic plates do move over time and will eventually shift to the point that what is currently on the surface will be covered or destroyed. That means the older a fossil is (and we are talking about hundreds of millions of years), the more likely it is to have been shunted deep underground or lost forever and thus older fossils tend to be more rare.

    Finding things have biases too. We can’t dig for fossils where no rocks of the right age are exposed, so while Montana and Mongolia are great, the rainforests of the Congo or the volcanic beds of Japan are useless (there’s a reason pretty much every image of a palaeontologist in the field is in a desert or badlands – it’s where the rocks are exposed)…

    In short, a group or species that was represented by huge numbers of individuals that lived for a long time, died out only recently, and hung around in deserts or near water, and was quite large and had lots of hard parts, we’re likely to know well. A small, soft bodied animal from the deep ocean or middle of a rainforest and was alive only very briefly many hundreds of millions of years ago, we may never know about.…’ [emphasis added]

  5. You’ve got it backwards. As Richard Lewontin once said:

    '…what I tried to say about Steve Gould is that scientists are always looking to find some theory or idea that they can push as something that nobody else ever thought of because that’s the way they get their prestige. . . .they have an idea which will overturn our whole view of evolution because otherwise they’re just workers in the factory, so to speak. And the factory was designed by Charles Darwin…

    In other words, most scientists are just working stiffs looking forward to getting their next paycheck. But every generation a determined few are looking forward to getting a Nobel Prize for being the next Darwin. Unfortunately, none of the current competitors for the crown has a legitimate claim on that title. But just wait until the next generation arrives!

    I’m just a [retired] journeyman scientist, but I encourage interested readers to follow some of the links in the ‘Right of Reply.’ You’ll discover that they aren’t as ‘devastating’ as the authors make out. Take the paper by Chatterjee, Pavlogiannis, Adlam and Nowak.They start by generating sequences that are k mutational steps away from a functional target sequence 0 [this is their Figure 4]:

    They then simulate protein evolution by allowing the starting sequences to experience random walks under mutation, selection and genetic drift. Importantly, “….individual mutations are introduced and evaluated by natural selection and random drift one at a time…” This is a critical assumption that the authors don’t really discuss much. There is no evidence that the predominant mode of sequence evolution in the real world is by point mutation. Other factors like gene conversion, non-homologous recombination, mobile genetic element insertion and horizontal gene transfer can be important in some instances and their effects can’t be captured by this simplistic model. The authors do consider recombination, but as far as I can tell it is simply homologous recombination among sequences that are connected by common descent or tokogenesis. There is also no role for epistatic selection in their model.

    Bottom Line: this computational approach is interesting, but doesn’t really say much except that under very simplistic conditions, protein evolution is hard.

  6. “The answer is probably conservative politics”

    Which matters not at all. They say that Galileo’s motive in developing the telescope was to make a killing selling them to navies. But the telescope works irrespective of his motives. Newton wanted to prove that the universe was a clock wound up by God. But he founded modern science and calculus still works. Einstein was a lousy husband. Herr Diesel was almost a rotten commie, but his engine works just the same. Attacking the man is a diversion from addressing the argument.

    “[none of the four people in the video is a scientist]”

    No? A brief check of the bios of the Three Horsemen would seem to show that they are all scientists – tho some will say that any heretic is automatically cast out irrespective of his PhD and his professorship.

    “evolutionary theory is a partisan political issue”

    That’s for sure, but it is true both ways. Most of the people attacking evolution are probably motivated by their dislike of the correct/SJ/woke agenda, and most of the people trying to burn the heretics are doing so because they associate heresy with the right wing – as you have demonstrated just now. And it becomes a self-fulfilling thing. But science should not care about any of this.

    “But mathematical knowledge doesn’t necessarily equal knowledge of biological evolution.”

    But mathematics is the foundation of all science. To dismiss mathematics is to retreat into pure obscurantist religion. As we see, and as Gelernter points out, evolution has become a religion. And it the the religion of Progressives thus every heretic must be a right-winger, yes?

  7. Ok, never mind the PhD’s and the professorships. Not scientists. But can their arguments be refuted?

    “Excuse me if this sounds snobbish or elitist, but why should I listen to someone with these flabby credentials tell me what’s wrong with evolution theory?”

    Because maybe there is something wrong with it. You won’t hear it from the orthodox naturally and the orthodox are careful to make sure that the heterodox are not permitted to gain credentials. Thus, if the criterion for good credentials is orthodoxy, if follows that no heretic can possibly have good credentials, which excuses you from having your beliefs challenged.

    “a stable of cranks”

    Again, if you presuppose that heretics must be cranks, then your religion is protected from challenge. All three gentlemen seem to me to be highly intelligent and informed. Their arguments hold water. I couldn’t care less if their interviewer used to write speeches for The Gipper, it is entirely irrelevant.

    “Did you not understand that?”

    Of course, but improved understanding will still be mathematical and a mathematical challenge must still be met – it was demonstrated why Lord K’s calculation was invalid. If Mayer’s calculations are invalid, we await demonstration of that. Meanwhile he says that (IIRC) 10^40 organisms have lived on Earth. But it takes 10^78 ‘tries’ to find a beneficial mutation in a protein. Thus if every organism that had ever lived had had a random mutation so as to be a candidate for finding that beneficial mutation, we’d still have only a one in 10^38 chance of having yet found a beneficial mutation. Even one. This is surely a difficulty? Challenges such as this must be met, not dismissed as coming from cranks, therefore safe to ignore. Theological thinking.

    “And I never claimed that every evolution-denier is a right-winger.”

    But you did suppose that:

    “Why would a former speechwriter to Ronald Reagan be interested in evolution? The answer is probably conservative politics, not science”

    You presume that heretics must be motivated by right wing views. It’s ad hominem Jack, and you shouldn’t do it.

  8. I wasn’t speculating. This is the explicit goal of the institute one of the authors belongs to. Still, as a general rule I agree with you that one should address the arguments rather than speculate on motives. In this case there is a pattern of behavior that provides evidence for my point about motives.

    Well, back in the day people didn’t criticize religious explanations at all for fear of punishment. In theory all critiques should be answered but in practice there is only so much time, hence we have to decide which merit a response. For this I tend to follow Jonathan Swift:

    Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired

    Which is more commonly quoted as “You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.”

  9. Look, I agree with you, but that basically means that everyone has their own [possibly idiosyncratic] religion as a personal belief system. Could be atheism, Buddhism, spiritualism, etc

    Here, religion = belief or assumption accepted without empirical evidence. I never challenge religious believers on their beliefs [‘God is real’], only on their empirical or historical claims.

    But there are 2 problems with calling science or evolution a ‘religion’, one of which may be peculiar to the USA:

    • The idea that Marxism, materialism, nihilism, stoicism, etc. are all ‘religions’ tends to offend the traditionally religious. As one fundamentalist said, ‘Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s the TRUTH!’
    • In the USA, separation of church and state means that religion can’t be taught in public schools AS religion [but maybe as history or literature]. If science is a religion, then science can’t be taught in schools in the USA, without equal time for various pseudo-sciences.

    OK, Robinson went to Italy to interview 3 contrarian non-biologists. I get it. But he’s at Stanford/Hoover much of the time, and that university has some world-class evolutionary biologists with a heavy emphasis on bioinformatics and computation, including Marcus Feldman, Stephen Palumbi, Jonathan Pritchard, and Noah Rosenberg. Why not walk across campus and interview one of them?

    Life is too short to waste time debating cranks. As a young professor, I was invited to participate in an ‘evolution v. creation debate’ at a university in a neighboring state, sponsored by that university’s philosophy dept. I explained to them that I could never explain to my dean why I was spending time on THAT versus writing manuscripts, grant proposals, lecture notes, etc. I have actually dipped into the anti-evolution literature from time to time, just to see if any new arguments have emerged over the past 40+ years [spoiler alert: nothing new]. It was sort of a ‘guilty pleasure’, but I gradually gave that up out of boredom.

    Bottom Line: Many books have been written that rebut the heretics. There are also lots of blog posts, like these:




    Disclosure: I haven’t read this blog series in its entirety–I only have one life!

    Bonus bottom line!! Philosophy teaches people HOW to think [as in spotting logical fallacies], but not WHAT to think. Every person [and especially every scientist] should take at least one college course in philosophy–it’s definitely an eye-opener! But science as a process of knowledge discovery is a lot messier and haphazard than philosophers would like.

  10. Oh but that isn’t the end of further discussion, it’s the start of a brand new one. If a god is involved in evolution, then the question becomes, which one? Jupiter perhaps? Or Brahma? Jehovah? I’d go with Loki because evolution is fundamentally based on error. We have complex life because of a copy error. Not some grand expression of ideal perfection, not some metaphysical eternal essence but simple error. Plato would not have been amused. This has all the appearance of Loki trolling the philosophers.

    On the other hand one could make a good case for Mars. Evolution involves competition and a fight for survival. The winners pass along their genes and the losers pass into extinction. It’s hard to imagine a more martial system than evolution. That nature, with all its beauty, exists on a foundation of unrestrained, Hobbesian conflict is a paradox I’m sure Mars would find entertaining.

  11. I think a better prospect would be a more feral aspect of Venus, or even Hera. Sexual selection is the primary focus of evolution in humans, even if that selection by females is mostly based on the observation of winners versus losers, in the status competition between males. I have to say that recent observations of chimpanzee behaviour paint a far less bleak picture for humans. The fact that male chimpanzees often work together to rip apart brutal alphas might not seem like cause for optimism- until one considers that this mechanism ensures reciprocity in leaders for primates, and shows that tyrants in human affairs face very grim biological prospects.

  12. Very good! I hadn’t thought about the sexual selection aspect. The darker themes associated with Venus are indeed a good fit.

  13. I was thinking more along these lines:

    I don’t believe that evolution explains everything and suspect that most biologists don’t believe that either. Do you know any academic biologists–those who teach and do research for a living? I’ve known hundreds, and they have an incredible diversity of ideas on all sorts of topics, scientific and non-scientific alike. My campus held a celebration of Darwin Day a while back, and I was surprised at the number of evolutionary biologists who got up to say how important religion was in their lives. As I’ve said before, prominent scientists [those with blogs or who write books or who get interviewed in the NY Times] are not representative of science as a whole. Some science bloggers are on an ego trip. If you’ve seen one evolutionary biologist, you’ve seen one evolutionary biologist. I don’t claim to speak for my field or for anyone else.

    Ummm… I think @Stephanie called me a ‘creepy old man,’ which didn’t bother me, because she doesn’t know me. Why should I care what she thinks? People think all kinds of things. I’m not trying to change other people’s minds, just trying to clarify my own thoughts by writing them down.

    Just as there is the concept of legal standing or locus standi in the law [not everyone is entitled to file or join a lawsuit], so in science not everyone is entitled to have their ideas appear in textbooks, etc. Does that mean that some good ideas are excluded? In a few cases, yes, and the blog series I linked to earlier [A Response to David Gelernter’s Attack on Evolution] has an example of that from physics. Intelligent design [ID} as a theory lacks standing in science because:

    • ID is a return to the 19th C idea of an intelligence or plan behind the diversification of animal and plant forms. Science usually doesn’t move backward, it moves forward as more data are collected.
    • IDers typically don’t participate in ‘mainstream’ science journals, societies and professional meetings. Instead they prefer to create their own ‘parallel universe’ of ID journals, etc. Despite what you might think, joining a scientific society or attending their annual meetings is open to anyone who pays the fees–there’s no blacklist!
    • Science is usually a world-wide activity, where scientists from, say, the USA and Japan can debate the issues despite the language barrier. But ID seems restricted to those parts of the scientific world where fundamentalist religions have influence: the Islamic world, much of the English-speaking world, and a few other places. The implication is obvious.
    • Around the world, science is generally supported with public funds, although there are exceptions like the private HHMI foundation in the US. IDers generally avoid participating in conventional grants competition and instead seek out unconventional funding. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, private funding avoids the rigors of peer-review, which is the main mechanism for quality control in science. Ditto for journals, and it is notable that David Berlinski’s review journal Inference is NOT peer-reviewed. An extract of Berlinski’s book The Deniable Darwin was published in1996 in Commentary Magazine, again not a peer reviewed journal. Lack of peer review is a big red flag for mainstream scientists, and that–plus the unconventional funding–are factors that lead them to not take IDers totally seriously.

    Finally, perhaps I should go back and replace the word ‘crank’ with ‘contrarian,’ which is less pejorative. But I use ‘crank’ to denote an extreme contrarian, a science-conspiracy theorist [e.g., HIV/AIDS denier ] or a radical skeptic. See here for more discussion:

    Addendum, 1 hour later:

    Yes, but the examples of gadfly-like theorizing that I am thinking of, like Wegener’s continental drift theory and Shechtman’s quasicrystals , although revolutionary, were offered within the normal peer-reviewed avenues of science, not from outside. That is what I mean by contrarian. Crank-ish theorizing is different.

  14. "There is not enough time’ Not enough? For who? For what?

    And how should it be measured?

    In the ever increasing size of human generations? Where are they now, 30 years? Or in the size of the generations of the simplest monocellular animals–who can live centuries in a hour?

    “There are not enough transitional fossils.” Really? But, were you correct, there would be none. And we have quite a few examples of such. But not enough, eh?

  15. Mushrooms. No I’m serious- mushrooms! Life on Earth is likely to have occurred from panspermia. The distinction is that there might have been two separate panspermic events, given that normal life and fungal forms are effectively ‘alien’ to each other. Perhaps the introduction of a second life system in the Earth’s primitive ecosystem, provided the stimulus for more complex life to evolve. Maybe the solution to the Fermi paradox is that complex life requires two competing ecosystems to reach an equilibrium that is incredibly rare, with the far more likely scenario that one overwhelms the other.

    I will caveat this by stating for the record that my knowledge is on very shaky ground in this subject area- I don’t have the depth of knowledge, or the science discipline, to be able to vet my ideas thoroughly on this subject. But I will risk the ridicule, given that I have occasionally been praised in the past, for savant-like insights (on other subjects).

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