Ann Coulter on Evolution: Part II
In her book Godless Ann Coulter has done nothing much other than establish that she is unfamiliar with the evidence, what the theory of evolution postulates are the processes that drive evolution, nor is she even able to maintain basic consistency. What is truly amazing is that she is able to maintain a high level of being wrong, ignorant, or even outright misleading paragraph after paragraph and in some cases from one sentence to the next.
Picking up in chapter 8, where we left off, we get this gem,
Step One: Unless You Are a Bacterium, Random Mutation Can’t Produce Much of Anything Worth Having
With a few exceptions, the higher organisms are not going to get anything good out of single mutation.[page 203]
At this point it is really tempting to write, “Well, duh!” After all, most mutations are neutral, that is they convey neither a benefit nor an adverse impact on the organism. Further, there isn’t just one type of mutation. There are at least 10 types of mutations. And here are three mutations that are beneficial. So, while Coulter managed to hedge herself against these kinds of studies it does indicate that she is wrong, mutations can be good, even some pretty simple ones. But that isn’t really the gist of what Coulter is trying to get at. She continues with,
Most of the time it takes more than one lousy mutation to create anything really useful, like an eye or poisonous fangs, or a tail. In order to get to the final product, each one of the hundreds of mutations needed to create a functional wing or ear would itself have to make the mutant animal more fit, otherwise it wouldn’t survive, according to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. To the contrary, the first mutations toward a nose would just make you look funy and now one would want o reproduce with you. The vast majority of mutations are deleterious to the organism.[page 203]
Lets stop right there. Sorry, but Ann Coulter is just simply wrong here. Most mutations are neither harmful nor helpful. From the Talk Origins link we get,
That’s the short answer. The long answer is that mutations can be neutral (neither helpful nor harmful), strictly harmful, strictly helpful, or (and this is important) whether they are harmful or helpful depends on the environment. Most mutations are either neutral or their effect depends on the environment. Let’s look at an example of a mutation which may be harmful or helpful, depending upon circumstances.
Whoops. Apparently Ann Coulter is not aware of the fact that google is your friend. Further, the first set of mutations that put one on the road to getting a nose do not necessarily have to leave one with some unsightly lump in the center of their face. This is again highlights Coulter’s complete and total ignorance of evolution. Before you can have a leg you have to have a useless stump, or a leg with no joints, or some other unsightly abomination. But consider this passage from Talk Origins.
Does the fact that we know many human detrimental mutations but essentially no clear beneficial ones mean that there are have been no beneficial mutations in human history? Not at all, since there is a clear bias in what medical scientists have studied. The human mutations we know most about are detrimental because medical scientists preferentially study illnesses that cause significant morbidity and mortality. Consider the theoretical possibility that a beneficial mutation has occurred in a particular human gene; even if this mutation were identified by a comparison of the mutated gene in a child versus the unmutated version of the same gene in both parents, there is no way that this mutation could ever be recognized as beneficial. If the mutation increased intelligence, strength, longevity or specific disease resistance, this would never be apparent without long-term breeding experiments that could obviously never be done on humans. Therefore, since such beneficial mutations in humans could never be recognized in humans, our ignorance of examples cannot be taken as evidence that they don’t exist.
In short, part of our ignorance stems from the ethical behavior of these atheistic liberal scientists. So unless Coulter is suggesting that scientists start breeding humans solely for the purpose of looking for beneficial mutations in humans this strikes me as a stupid argument (and if scientists did start such experiments to fill this gap in our knowledge I’m fairly certain she’d be Johnny on the Spot with the opprobrium for such unethical behavior). And why do scientists use things like fruit flies, bacteria, and so forth? Because they have short lives and generally it is seen as far more acceptable to raise 100s of generations of fruit flies and subject them to selection events (i.e. kill a great portion of each generation). And since humans and mice, and bacteria are all living things, they all have genes, and so forth, what happens in one organism leads to a reasonable inference that similar processes are at work in humans. Unless of course, Coulter is suggesting that humans are “special”. That we are not subject to the natural world around. Of course, since this has absolutely no scientific evidence for it, it is perfectly reasonable…using Coulter-Logic.
To Coulter this incorrect information allows her to conlcude that the first step in evolution (see the bottom of page 202), random mutation, is a non-secular miracle that evolutionary biologists invoke. She goes from the erroneous claim that most mutations are harmful to the idea that each mutation must make the organism “more fit” which is clearly impossible given the first (false) premise that mutations are generally harmful. Latter she also goes after natural selection as well, but that will have to wait for another post.
Next Coulter demonstrates her complete lack of any understanding of basic reasoning skills.
Darwin had set forth this extremely self-serving standard for himself: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would abosolutely break down.”
This is a fantastic formulation that I intend to remember in case I ever need to defend one of my own crackpot theories. On one hand, Darwin makes what appears to be a sweeping concession that his theory might “absolutley break down.” But in the same breath, he says will happen only if an impossible test is met: If it is demonstrated tahat his theory “could not possibly form” a complex organ. Would the Darwin believers take that standard as a scientific test for God? If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed that could not possibly have been formed by God, my God theory would absolutely break down.–italics in the original [page 204]
Let me see…we have a being that is omnipotent. There is nothing God can’t do. Hence this applies not only to just biology, but every single scientific endeavor. Prove that God is not really behind gravity. Prove that God isn’t behind any and all chemical reactions. Prove that God is not behind the orbit of the planets. You can’t? Oh well, guess we can dispense with teaching physics, chemistry as well as biology. We wont need to teach that stuff anymore since there is no point in studying it since we already know what the answer is to anything and everything: God. The stock market went up today? God. That light turned red right as you got to the intersection? God. You woke up with a hang-over? God.
And what is really amusing with all of this, is that it is basically a set up for Michael Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity. See, Coulter doesn’t like Darwin’s suggestion as to what would falsify his theory, but despite this Impossible Standard Michael Behe rises to the challenge and comes up with…well nothing.
Coulter doesn’t understand biology and things like blood clotting cascades, flagella, and immune systems, so she grabs onto Behe’s more easily understood example of Irreducible Complexity (IC) the mousetrap. She points out that the mousetrap is comprised of a few parts, but if any of them are missing the mousetrap wont work. Of course, one person noted that one could remove the base board of the mouse trap and construct the trap on the floor directly. Granted it is less useful, but you could still catch mice with it. So our mousetrap “evolving” a base has a definite selective advantage. John McDonald have even argued that we can dispense with many of the other parts as well. So the mousetrap is old news and has already been shown wanting as the simple example of IC. What about Behe’s other examples such as the flagellum? Well, that isn’t doing too good either. Blood clotting? Nope, gone too as an example of an IC system. And even if there is a genuine IC system it is possible that evolution can produce such a system as well.
So when Coulter writes,
Nevertheless, Behe disproved evolution–unless evolution is simply nondisprovable psuedoscience, like astrology. [page 204]
Coulter is not simply wrong, she is about a five years out of date. And what is amusing is how credulous Coulter is at this point. So far she has been haranguing the reader about how evolution first has to give you stupid results (i.e. half a nose, or part of a leg), but when it comes to Behe’s notion of detecting design: stupid therefore designed. Why that is just peachy. How are these IC systems stupid? They are brittle, any change in one component indicates that the system fails. From an engineering stand point it is a bad, even stupid, design. Yet, when we come across something that screams, “Stupid!” why it is a sign of God’s perfection.
In all of this Coulter always falls back to her usual position: Scientists don’t know or Scientists don’t have the whole story yet. For example on page 206 we find this,
Coyne simply asserted that it was possible for irreducibly complex mechanisms to have arisen by natural selection. “We have realized for decades that natural selection can indeed produce systems that, over time, become integrated to the point where they appear to be irreducibly complex.” If it can, there is no evidence that it can.
But that is precisely what scientists are looking at with the flagellum and the Type Three Secretory System. Let us suppose that Behe is right that the flagellum is IC, but scientists also point to a reasonable path for the evolution of the flagellum.
Coulter then goes on and on about the eye as well. The following captures the basic gist of what she argues about the eye,
Darwin catapulted over the whole problem to be solved by begining his thought experiment at a point after the major characteristic to be solved–light sensitive cells–already existed. For light sensitive cells to work, the cells would have to have the capacity to initiate an electric signal, a nerve capable of carrying the electric signal to a brain, and a brain capable of processing that signal and using it to emit other electric signals.
However, Darwin follows that statement with a three-and-a-half-page proposal of intermediate stages through which eyes might have evolved via gradual steps (Darwin 1872).
- photosensitive cell
- aggregates of pigment cells without a nerve
- an optic nerve surrounded by pigment cells and covered by translucent skin
- pigment cells forming a small depression
- pigment cells forming a deeper depression
- the skin over the depression taking a lens shape
- muscles allowing the lens to adjust
All of these steps are known to be viable because all exist in animals living today. The increments between these steps are slight and may be broken down into even smaller increments. Natural selection should, under many circumstances, favor the increments. Since eyes do not fossilize well, we do not know that the development of the eye followed exactly that path, but we certainly cannot claim that no path exists.
Evidence for one step in the evolution of the vertebrate eye comes from comparative anatomy and genetics. The vertebrate Î²Î³-crystallin genes, which code for several proteins crucial for the lens, are very similar to the Ciona Î²Î³-crystallin gene. Ciona is an urochordate, a distant relative of vertebrates. Ciona’s single Î²Î³-crystallin gene is expressed in its otolith, a pigmented sister cell of the light-sensing ocellus. The origin of the lens appears to be based on co-optation of previously existing elements in a lensless system.
Nilsson and Pelger (1994) calculated that if each step were a 1 percent change, the evolution of the eye would take 1,829 steps, which could happen in 364,000 generations.
Notice that the third item in the list is the optic nerve, and that there is clearly more research than Coulter indicates in her book. There is no mention of Nilsson and Pleger. More on the evolution of the eye can be found here and here.
In reading Coulter’s book Godless it is hard not to spot mistakes in each paragraph and in some cases in consecutive sentences. This is truly amazing because it means she’d have to have a very high level of credulity when it comes to reading sources of these Creationist arguments. Typing in “evolution of the eye” in google takes one to a number of sites which would have pointed to Nilsson and Pleger, for example. Yet, the very idea of using google to even spot check some of her sources apparently didn’t even occur to Coulter. I’m only 9.5 pages into chapter 8 and have only scratched the surface of Coulter’s many mistakes.