jerry coyne

Jerry Coyne has an article in The New Republic. It’s notionally a review of new books by two Christians who defend evolution against creationism, whether it be traditional young Earth creationism, or creationism’s more recent adaption to a major predator (the US court system), intelligent design. One of the Christians is the biologist Kenneth Miller, who testified against the IDists in the Dover School District trial; the other is Karl Giberson, a physicist.

Coyne argues that, while there are Christians who are accept evolution, this does not mean that these things are compatible (“It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers”). Having dismissed IDists’ attempt to have the definition of science extended to religion, and the God of the liberal theologians, a god who almost nobody actually believes in, Coyne moves on to address Miller and Giberson’s attempts to harmonise science and religion. He does so with civility and directness:

<lj-cut text=”Good bits”> (Note: The links below are to places where we’ve discussed similar ideas before; they do not form part of Coyne’s text)

[According to Miller] God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature.

In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that “if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God’s name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics.” Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky.

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

He concludes that:

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

Coyne does, I think, over-commit himself to one particular answer to the Fine Tuning Argument (just as Dawkins does), and he mis-states what the Strong Anthropic Principle is, but overall the article is excellent, and you should all read it.

There is a difference between creationisms (like YEC and ID) which contradict well established scientific theories, and Miller and Giberson’s efforts to argue that God did it but carefully hid his tracks (or that God set things up so that intelligent life would arise on Earth, though Coyne argues that this argument is contradicted by science to some extent). With YEC and ID, we’ve good reasons not to believe them. With a God who carefully hides his tracks, we must instead ask how we’d know if we were wrong (we might also ponder the arguments from God’s silence). The problem with Miller and Gibson is not facts but method.

If we accept a proposition merely because we can’t show it’s wrong, we might believe all sorts of things, so why credit the Christian God rather than my particular favourite deities? It seems that Miller and Giberson’s theories start from the conviction that God did it and work backwards to an explanation which is not directly contradicted by current science. As we saw when talking about biblical inerrancy, there’s always a logical way to make that sort of thing work; yet to do it is unskillful, the opposite of the fourth and seventh virtues in the Noble Twelvefold Path. In science “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Mattghg posted something about how Scott Adams, the Dilbert artist, doesn’t believe in evolution. I responded:

Scott Adams also thinks that gravity is caused by the fact that everything is expanding, and that if you write down something you want to happen several times a day, it will come to pass. While this doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong about evolution, I think he’s a contrarian who likes to throw out wild ideas about how the scientists are wrong. To deny evolution is on a par with the expansion=gravity idea: it’s only Americans who think there is a controversy, because of the wedge strategy of the creationists (now known as intelligent design advocates).

Matt has made another post about my last sentence, taking issue with my assertion that there is no controversy. He links to Jerry Fodor’s recent article in the LRB as an example of a someone who says that there is a controversy. He also objects to me lumping the Intelligent Design (ID) crowd in with the Young Earth Creationists.

I have at least two PhD biologists on my friends’ list. They know much more about this stuff than me, so I hope they’ll point out my errors in what follows. That said, I thought I’d have a go anyway. So:

I probably should have said that by “controversy” I mean the specific idea that ID-ers want taught in schools, namely that there’s some serious disagreement among biologists about whether an intelligent designer is required to explain some biological structures. I’m not saying all biologists agree on every detail of how evolution works.

That said, Fodor’s article is, I’d guess, a typical example of someone from outside the field misunderstanding the details of debates within it (hence my hope that my biologist friends will correct me where I’m wrong). He talks about the constraints of embryology and existing forms as if this were breaking news to people like Dawkins. As it happens, I’m reading Climbing Mount Improbable as the moment, where Dawkins, writing back in 1996, talks about the evolution of the eye. He tells us that “Once a good eye has started to evolve with its retina back-to-front, the only way to ascend [the fitness landscape] is to improve the present design of the eye… the vertebrate retina faces the way it does because of the way it develops in the embryo, and this certainly goes back to its distant ancestors”. A recent entry by davegodfrey, a paleobiologist, addresses some of the other oddities in Fodor’s essay.

But biologists do disagree. ID-ers like to see this disagreement, because it allows them to tell the biologists that the resolution is right in front of their noses: God did it! (if you doubt that the ID-ers’ intelligent designer is God, read their own strategy document, which lays out the aims of the movement). This is just the sort of “me too Daddy” helpfulness that you get from New Agers about quantum physics. Unfortunately it loses its charm when grown-ups do it (and it’s not made any more convincing by the fact that some very distinguished scientists go along with it: there’s no idea so silly that you can’t find a PhD, or even a Nobel prizewinner, who’ll agree with it). No wonder the biologists are annoyed by this sort of thing.

ID-ers assume that if there is a disagreement among biologists, evolutionary theory is in crisis, and that the solution must be ID. As the ID-er linked to by Matt said “Of course, one of those alternatives, not mentioned by Fodor, is ID.” There’s a reason by Fodor didn’t mention that alternative. As Dawkins and Coyne said in their Guardian article: “The other side is never required to produce one iota of evidence, but is deemed to have won automatically, the moment the first side encounters a difficulty – the sort of difficulty that all sciences encounter every day, and go to work to solve, with relish.”

On the point of what “creationism” means, it’s clear from the Discovery Institute’s own documentation that their aim is to provide a stepping stone to creationism while sneaking around the American restrictions on the establishment of religion, specifically on the teaching of creationism in schools. This is so well known that I suspect ID will need to reinvent itself soon in its continual game of cat-and-mouse with the US court system. Wikipedia links to Panda’s Thumb, which claims that “critical analysis of evolution” is the new buzz phrase. We’ll have to see how that one works out for them, I suppose.