Atheism, Science

Why Evolution Is True: A Pragmatic Theist’s Response

Cover: Why Evolution Is True
In an earlier post, I claimed that the popular definition of the debate between advocates for creation and evolution is incorrect. The debate is not religion vs. science, but it is actually religion vs. religion. Both systems of origins have a faith-based worldview through which they interpret the world. Those on the naturalistic evolution side tend to use a more scientific vocabulary but nevertheless show passionate religious fervor in defense of their position.

Several readers posted thoughtful and challenging comments, including one by Brett who said I might be “unaware of huge swaths of data that might help [me] make a better informed conclusion.” He suggested I read Why Evolution Is True by Dr. Jerry Coyne. I am very grateful for Brett’s suggestion, as Dr. Coyne’s book really seems to encapsulate the case for naturalistic evolution in a comprehensive, yet approachable manner.

As I interact with Dr. Coyne’s book, all page references come from here: Coyne, Jerry A. (2009-01-22). Why Evolution Is True. Penguin Group, US. Kindle Edition.

For the purpose of this article, I will define “evolution” as Dr. Coyne does:

Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species—perhaps a self-replicating molecule—that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection. (p. 3)

The creation vs. evolution debate is a deep world of its own. As with almost any field of study, the deeper you go, the more you learn you don’t know. With so many brilliant scholars on both sides, it almost requires a PhD for admission. Even without a PhD, people like me can begin to understand the issues when explained clearly, as Dr. Coyne has done.

Praise For Dr. Coyne

I can see why evolutionists like Dr. Coyne would be frustrated with creationists who have no understanding of the immense amount of work that has gone into studying evolution from so many scientific disciplines. Decades of research by brilliant minds, millions of scholarly pages written, and rigorous attention to minutia are regularly disregarded and disrespected by clueless creationists. Evolutionary scientists are justified in dismissing most creationist input as uneducated, irrelevant blathering.

Dr. Coyne is an excellent researcher and communicator. I found his voice engaging, bold, and articulate. Kindle tells me I made 313 highlights and 251 notes. I found myself as a creationist debating with him, even while knowing that I am far outclassed in both my knowledge and experience. I’m a software developer, amateur theologian, and musician. Coyne is a prominent professor who researches fruit fly species on remote islands. What capacity do I have to engage in a debate at these levels?

None, to be sure. Nobody reading this response will be impressed by my credentials, experience, or eloquence. Black-belt evolutionists like Coyne have sparred with inferior creationists for decades, deftly ending matches using ninja-like techniques to brush off unintelligent ID proponents as quickly as Chuck Norris trounces an alley full of thugs.

Why This Matters

Even so, I must respond. Here’s the thing: one group is seriously wrong. The truth or error of either view of origins has serious implications upon human understanding of life and our place in it. Coyne tries to salve this concern in his final chapter, where he takes issue with “alarmist” claims that the theory of evolution causes a breakdown of morality or promotes other societal ills. He says that people fear evolution not because of the theory itself, but because of the fearful consequences of accepting a worldview that does not need a Creator.

Nevertheless, the stakes are very high, and both views cannot be true at the same time. Even reading through the amazon.com reviews of Coyne’s book, people say they used to be creationists, some raised in conservative Christian homes, who upon accepting the teachings in Coyne’s book rejected their faith and turned to atheism. Atheists like Richard Dawkins ascribe their lack of belief in God to their confidence in the theory of origins advocated by Coyne. It seems that theists may be justified in their concern about the widespread teaching of naturalistic evolution and the impact on other areas of thought and life.

Yet, if naturalistic evolution really is true, as Coyne and his colleagues assert, then the fear of those who disagree is irrelevant. The truth is the truth, and the consequences are not the fault of those who write what is true. Those who cling to a creation myth just because they don’t want to let go of familiar religious beliefs are on the wrong side of the debate, if naturalistic evolution is true.

Science By Another Name?

So, is evolution really true? Did Coyne make his case?

Before I answer that, I have a few more observations. First, I continue to be disturbed by atheistic scientists who claim they are objective while clearly being the opposite. These scientists use the vocabulary of the scientific method to appear unbiased, willing to follow truth wherever it leads. However, in reality they want naturalistic evolution to be true so desperately they are heavily biased in its direction. Coyne’s quote of Darwin’s own fears illuminate this point very well:

I remember well the time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of complaint and now trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick! (p. 145)

It’s not that the evolutionist is searching for validation of their theory out of a noble, altruistic, objective search for understanding, but because they passionately want to be right and are sick with fear over being wrong.

As an amateur theologian, I have read many apologetics books advocating doctrines of many religious faiths. I’ve seen arguments made from multiple sides of various issues. Each advocate of a view is typically passionate about their position. They see their way as right, their arguments as balanced and fair, and the claims of those who they disagree with as illogical, unfounded, and foolish.

In most denominations, there are doctrines that are considered “essential,” meaning that you must accept them to be considered a follower of God as they define it. If you don’t accept the teachings, you are outside orthodoxy, a heretic, and outside of the faith and fellowship.

Experience in this realm gives me the ability to see Coyne’s book as clearly apologetic in nature. This is an evangelistic book. Look at these quotes from his introduction, where he enumerates his frustrations with the “unscientific” American public:

You can find religions without creationism, but you never find creationism without religion. (intro)

Nearly two-thirds of Americans feel that if evolution is taught in the science classroom, creationism should be as well. (intro)

Perhaps the most frightening statistic is this: despite legal prohibitions, nearly one in eight American high school biology teachers admits to presenting creationism or intelligent design in the classroom as a valid scientific alternative to Darwinism. (intro, emphasis mine)

The claims he make are so “obvious” to an enlightened, “scientific” mind, that if you don’t accept them, you’re simply not a scientist. You are “religious,” and therefore, outside of the orthodoxy of the scientific establishment.

Today scientists have as much confidence in Darwinism as they do in the existence of atoms, or in microorganisms as the cause of infectious disease. (intro)

What about the scientists that don’t have this confidence in Darwinism? They aren’t scientists? What about the many physicians, biologists, geneticists, astrophysicists, paleontologists, archaeologists, physicists, chemists, and scholars from many other disciplines who don’t accept the dominant theory? Even though they passionately research, document, and teach using their vast education and knowledge, they aren’t scientists because they reach different conclusions?

One of Coyne’s most obviously biased statements is in his suggestions for further reading:

With the exception of some articles in Pennock (2001), I omit references to the writings of creationists and advocates of intelligent design (ID), for their arguments are based on religion rather than science. (p. 254)

Even if you are someone who agrees with Coyne, are you OK with him squashing dissent by marginalizing them? Ridiculing their education and intelligence? How does this make you more objective, scientific, and open-minded in your search for truth? If you were in the minority, would you want to be similarly disregarded?

Lessons From The Distant Past

For any student of the Protestant Reformation, the behavior of the evolutionist establishment is very familiar. From the time Luther’s 95 theses were nailed to the Wittenberg church’s door, powerful religious forces worked relentlessly to silence debate, marginalize critics of the status quo, and assure that only the official message would prevail. Fortunately for the world, the reformers were able to overcome years of persecution and bring needed changes. Unfortunately, some of these reformers used the same power-mongering tactics to silence “heretics” in later years. Many atheists look at these inexcusably awful periods of religious history and rightly decry the horrible injustices. Then, they fail to see that they are doing the same thing today to scientists that bring valid criticisms against to the evolutionary status quo. Coyne’s repeated assertions of near unanimity in the “scientific” community and regular jabs at “creationists” for their “foolish” ideas are examples of this line of thinking.

Chutzpah

Let’s now consider whether Coyne demonstrated Why Evolution Is True. If I had a one-word summary of the entire book, I’d choose “chutzpah.” Incredibly bold and demonstrably false claims, apparently borne from deep frustration from having to defend what he sees as so obvious, regularly assume near unanimous support of Darwinism and universal distain for the possibility of intelligent design. Here’s one of many such claims:

The biogeographic evidence for evolution is now so powerful that I have never seen a creationist book, article, or lecture that has tried to refute it. Creationists simply pretend that the evidence doesn’t exist. (p. 88)

The reader who is really open to following evidence wherever it leads must take care not to be swayed by Coyne’s authoritative and persuasive statements like this. It only took me a short time to find several articles that challenge his biogeographic arguments, including this, this, and this. I’m not sure who is pretending or avoiding the subject, but I wasn’t able to find evidence for that.

Coyne regularly uses phrases that claim naturalistic evolution is an “indisputable fact.” Here is a summary argument that exemplifies this tendency:

These mysteries about how we evolved should not distract us from the indisputable fact that we did evolve. Even without fossils, we have evidence of human evolution from comparative anatomy, embryology, our vestigial traits, and even biogeography. We’ve learned of our fishlike embryos, our dead genes, our transitory fetal coat of hair, and our poor design, all testifying to our origins. The fossil record is really the icing on the cake.(pp. 209-210, emphasis mine)

His evidence is only “indisputable fact” if you start with the presupposition that naturalistic evolution is true. If you are open to other logical and more probable explanations, you can see very valid alternative explanations for each of the claims listed above.

Reasonable Dispute?

Other much more well-educated and capable people have devoted their lives to studying these things, earning PhDs in scientific disciplines that qualify them to address these point-by-point. One of the best responses is “Why Darwinism Is False” by Dr. Jonathan Wells, PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley.

Here are some challenges to Coyne’s “indisputable facts.” Estimated fossil timeframes are in constant flux, and not nearly as fixed and unchangeable as Coyne suggests. Comparative anatomy only proves common ancestry if evolution is your starting point; if you start with design, it is just as easy to see common design traits. Embryology is extremely controversial despite Coyne’s bold claims to the contrary. Vestigial traits and dead genes are regularly shown as neither vestigial nor dead by new research that reveals previously unknown purposes. The transitory fetal coat of hair (lanugo) is actually critical for the baby’s development of healthy skin. Arguments for “poor design” are purely religious conjecture based on a straw-man idea of Coyne’s caricature of a deity’s design intentions.

Despite the repeated claims of indisputable evidence, a core requirement for evolution, speciation, has never been observed. Coyne attempts to prove speciation by describing a bacterial experiment that supposedly showed new species emerging over time. However, the definition of species is specious, and becomes narrow or broad depending on the context. Coyne makes a devastating admission about species definition in Chapter 5. After describing the diversity of all the different breeds of domestic dogs who presumably share a common ancestor in the Eurasian grey wolf, Coyne says:

Think of the diversity you’d see if all these dogs were lined up together! If somehow the recognized breeds existed only as fossils, paleontologists would consider them not one species but many—certainly more than the thirty-six species of wild dogs that live in nature today. (p. 126)

This statement alone should call claims of “indisputable fact” into question. How can we interpret sparse fossilized remains with such certainty when if we found the equivalent Chihuahua and St. Bernard remains in prehistoric layers we’d be completely confused about their origins?

Human Evolution Indisputable?

Consider the boldness of Coyne’s description of human evolution:

We are apes descended from other apes, and our closest cousin is the chimpanzee, whose ancestors diverged from our own several million years ago in Africa. These are indisputable facts. (p. 192, emphasis mine).

Later, however, this certainty seems to wane:

But first a few caveats. We don’t (and can’t expect to) have a continuous fossil record of human ancestry. Instead, we see a tangled bush of many different species. (p. 196)

Like theology, paleoanthropology is a field in which the students far outnumber the objects of study. There are lively—and sometimes acrimonious—debates about whether a given fossil is really something new, or merely a variant of an already named species. (p. 197)

The problem is that there are simply too few specimens, spread out over too large a geographic area, to make these decisions with any confidence. New finds and revisions of old conclusions occur constantly. (p. 197)

But then there is a two-million-year gap with no substantive hominin fossils. This is where, one day, we’ll find crucial information about when we began to walk upright.(p. 199)

That last quote is clear evidence of unshakable faith in the theory: “one day,” all of the gaps will be filled in.
Coyne’s confidence returns in reference to “Lucy”, the famous “transitional form”:

One could not ask for a better transitional form between humans and ancient apes than Lucy. From the neck up, she’s apelike; in the middle, she’s a mixture; and from the waist down, she’s almost a modern human. (p. 202)

Yet even evolutionists aren’t so convinced of Lucy’s “indisputable” utility. Consider this quote from the abstract of the Journal of Human Evolution, where Dr. M. Maurice Abitbol says:

The conclusion is that Lucy’s erect posture is unlike that seen in modern humans and is still a mystery. Not enough fossil data are yet available to make a final judgement on the nature of her erect posture.

Conclusion: Confirmation Bias

Overall, I think Coyne’s book is clear and convincing proof that confirmation bias is amazingly powerful. People find what they seek. Starting with a purely materialistic view of the world and a powerful passion to prove that evolution is true, the observations of the real world can be filtered and put into a story that makes sense from that point of view. It is still a faith-based view, with a hope against hope that men will eventually find materialistic answers to questions like the origin of life itself, the origin of the 1GB of DNA data, and the millions of transitional forms missing from the fossil record.

Ultimately, it is up to each person to discern their real motives for studying any subject, whether scientific or theological. Do you really want to follow the evidence wherever it leads, or just validate your worldview? Do you filter out certain evidence or distort things to avoid having to consider bigger questions?

Do you share Darwin’s “sickness” when you consider something like the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly, that transforms from a caterpillar to a cocoon to one of the most beautiful flying creatures, then migrates thousands of miles to the same trees its great-grandparent chose? If so, why?

If you are led away from faith in God because of reading books like Coyne’s, your faith was not grounded in reality. Evidence for a Creator is much stronger than Coyne and his friends relentlessly claim. While they mock intelligent design advocates and creationists (equating debates with them to “playing chess with pigeons”) they are actually exercising extreme faith-based tunnel-vision dressed in scientific language. Don’t reject the Creator based on their confident, peer-reviewed, yet flawed reasoning. Faith in the Creator is actually much more reasonable than faith in no Creator.

I don’t go so far as to ask that atheists change their minds today, but simply to recognize their biases, religious views, and the unproductive way they dismiss valid arguments from those with whom they disagree.

If you are open to considering other interpretations of the facts of nature, consider the following books:

By Design, by Dr. Jonathan Safarti
Darwin’s Doubt, by Dr. Steven Meyer
The Mysterious Epigenome, by Dr. Thomas Woodward
The Design Revolution, by Dr. William Dembski

6 thoughts on “Why Evolution Is True: A Pragmatic Theist’s Response

  1. When dealing with palaeoanthropological research its always worth remembering that the field has advanced very rapidly in the past decade or so. This is partly because of many important new discoveries, but also because of the growing use and power of computers. This opens up a whole new range of possibilities, from simulating muscle attachments to in-depth statistical analyses to genetics. So when you bring up a paper from 1995 it might not seem that old, but is almost stone age (if you’ll pardon the pun) and so should be taken with a pinch of salt.

    In this case you need a mountain of salt. That paper revolves around the claim that Australopithecus afarensis had a lumbar lordosis of around 70 degrees, compared to the ~50 seen in humans. Yet more recent work has found cases of normal modern humans having up to 67 degrees of lordosis. Not only that, but the curvature of Au. afarensis‘ pelvis was such that it would’ve compensated for a funky lordosis; meaning it could still have walked with a human-like gait.

    I’m not going to say the debate over Lucy’s gait as been completely resolved, but it almost has. In recent years these new techniques have built up a great big pile of evidence in support of a relatively modern gait. They may have been a bit slower and less efficient than modern humans, but quantitatively speaking there would’ve been little difference. With this accumulation of evidence there’s been a shift in perspective, and now the majority of researcher accept a human-like gait for Lucy.

    Interesting article though.

    1. Adam, thank you for taking the time to read my article and provide such thoughtful input. You’re right, things are changing very rapidly in many fields as we apply new technologies to our understanding of these old fossils.

      I’m actually not concerned as much about whether Lucy ends up walking on her knuckles or upright like we do. The assumptions, the biases, and the predetermined outcomes that go into interpreting everything are what trouble me. Only one question is asked: how do these bones support Darwinism? Not whether or not Darwinism is true, that is already “indisputable fact.” Simulations are written with the outcome in mind, and both genes and fossils are studied presuming common ancestry. Darwinism is assumed to be true, so we’ll just put these bones in the tree where we want them to fit and show the pictures in “proof” of what we “know”.

      Design, coupled with observed micro-evolution within species, is also a valid interpretation of the data. Common characteristics show common design strategies, not necessarily common ancestry. As the mainstream scientific establishment shuts out this valid worldview, much value is lost, probably more than we can measure. What answers are not found because we don’t ask the right questions?

      1. Lucy provides good evidence for human evolution because she possesses a “mosaic” of human and ape characteristics, matching evolutionary predictions. Testing hypotheses against new data is the cornerstone of science. However, whilst your alternative of common design is a possible interpretation it is a post-diction made after the fact. Nobody from a design perspective was predicting the discovery of Lucy before it happened.

        Until such a predictive test is undertaken your interpretation isn’t a viable alternative, even though it remains a possibility. Such a test must come with a null hypothesis, the prediction of what features we should find on a fossil if your idea is wrong. In other words, it should be falsifiable.

      2. Adam, thank you for your clear response. You articulate the predictive argument very well.

        The problem with naturalistic evolutionary predictions is that they are so broad that nearly anything fits the story. The common ancestry idea simply looks for common characteristics and sorts the bones so they fit, adjusting up and down in timeframe as needed to keep up the story. It would be just as valid to simply predict that there are some animals that are more similar to others. Similarity doesn’t require common ancestry, and the presence of Lucy doesn’t prove that at all.

        It is just as valid to predict that every fossil we find with certain DNA data will show similar external characteristics. This would be an argument for design: all information we know of comes from intelligent sources, and behaves in predictable ways. Falsifiable evidence against design might be a case where DNA data doesn’t cause a predictable external outcome (once DNA is completely understood), breaking the cause and effect relationship. Or, if we observed a case where 1GB of data (equivalent to ~2,000 different full length books) is created by purely natural, undirected processes, that might falsify design.

        I am not an expert in these these things. From what I see though, the desire to prove naturalistic evolution is so strong, and the bias against design so obvious in books like Coyne’s, that advocates for Darwinian evolution jump to claims like you make without serious consideration of the design alternative. The holes in Darwinism are too great to be so dismissive of alternatives at this stage of our “evolution”. 🙂

  2. Great review, Doug.

    Like you, I take no issue with debate or truth claims, provided they’re backed up with evidence; simply labeling something an indisputable fact doesn’t make it so, and I would think the scientifically-minded, of all people, would be the last to label something as indisputable.

    Also great job citing sources and providing external references. I’ll be sure to read some of the articles you linked.

    1. Ty, thank you for your generous feedback. Your point is well made on both sides: everyone must take care about what they label as “indisputable.”

      I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about the sources I have referenced. If you have any other ideas, please feel free to share.

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