Give Me That Old Time Evolution:

A Response to the New Republic
Jonathan Wells
Discovery Institute
October 12, 2005
Print ArticleIn a recent article in The New Republic,1 University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne writes:
Exactly eighty years after the Scopes "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tennessee, history is about to repeat itself. In a courtroom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in late September, scientists and creationists will square off about whether and how high school students in Dover, Pennsylvania will learn about biological evolution.
But Coyne leaves out one important detail. Eighty years ago in Tennessee, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued to permit the teaching of Darwinian evolution. Today in Pennsylvania, the ACLU is suing to prohibit the teaching of anything but Darwinian evolution.

In 2004, the Dover (PA) school board decided that students studying Darwinian evolution should be informed that there is a competing theory called intelligent design (ID). Students are not required to learn anything about ID; they are simply told that there is a book about it in the school library, and they are encouraged to keep an open mind.

That was too much for the ACLU. And Jerry Coyne.

Coyne's lengthy essay condemning the Dover policy makes essentially two points: (1) "Intelligent design, or ID, is the latest pseudoscientific incarnation of religious creationism, cleverly crafted by a new group of enthusiasts to circumvent recent legal restrictions." (2) "Evolution has graduated from theory to fact. We know that species on earth today descended from earlier, different species, and that every pair of species had a common ancestor that existed in the past. Most evolutionary change in the features of organisms, moreover, is almost certainly the result of natural selection."

Yet Coyne's article reveals that he doesn't understand ID. And his fossilized arguments in favor of evolution require leaps of faith that would give a martyr pause.

What Intelligent Design Is--And Isn’t

ID maintains that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided natural processes.

Three things are noteworthy about this description of ID. First, design is inferred from evidence, not deduced from scripture or religious doctrines. All of us make design inferences every day, often unconsciously. ID attempts to formulate our everyday logic in terms rigorous enough to warrant inferences from the evidence in nature. This is clearly not the same as biblical creationism.

Second, ID doesn't explain everything in terms of design. There is still room for chance and necessity. Furthermore, ID does not claim that design must be optimal; something may be designed even if it is flawed. Nor does ID purport to explain everything in the history of life; extinction, among other things, may be undesigned.

Third, ID does not tell us the identity of the designer. Although most proponents of ID believe that the designer is the God of the Bible, they acknowledge that this belief goes beyond the evidence in nature.

Critics object that the designer has to be supernatural, therefore ID is inherently religious rather than scientific. But some ID proponents maintain that the designer does not have to be supernatural. And even if the designer were supernatural, ID in this respect would be no more religious than Darwinism; both have implications for theism. According to Richard Dawkins, by showing that design is an illusion, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist; on the other hand, by showing that design is real, ID makes it possible for some people to be intellectually fulfilled theists. If the former is scientific, why isn't the latter?

In his essay, Coyne begins by criticizing young-Earth creationism, though anyone who has read the writings of ID proponents knows that ID is not young-Earth creationism. Coyne then declares that ID is "merely the latest incarnation of the biblical creationism espoused by William Jennings Bryan in Dayton," and he proceeds to criticize biblical creationism under the illusion that he is thereby criticizing ID.

For example, Coyne thinks that "IDers believe" that the designer created "major forms ex nihilo" and "instantaneously created species that thereafter remain largely unchanged." He also assumes that vestigial remnants of past species count against ID: "An appendix is simply a bad thing to have. It is certainly not the product of intelligent design." Furthermore, he states, "Creationists make a serious mistake when using the absence of transitional forms as evidence for an intelligent designer… When such fossils are found, as they often are, creationists must then punt and change their emphasis." Finally, Coyne argues that Galápagos finches and Hawaiian fruit flies "point to one explanation: Species on islands descend from individuals who successfully colonized from the mainland and subsequently evolved into new species." This last point, Coyne claims, "has always been the Achilles' heel of creationists."

Yet none of these has any bearing on intelligent design. A designer does not have to create ex nihilo or instantaneously (after all, human designers don't). Some features may, indeed, be vestigial remnants of past species; the fossil record may, indeed, contain transitional forms; and some species may, indeed, be descended from a common ancestor. What do these have to do with ID's modest assertion that some features of the natural world may be detectably designed? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Just because Coyne says he's criticizing ID, that doesn't mean he is. What he's really doing is trotting out the same tired old arguments against biblical creationism that Darwinists have been using for 150 years. Coyne simply doesn't realize that intelligent design is not biblical creationism. His arguments are like punches thrown at an imaginary opponent by a boxer warming up for a fight. What does he do when another boxer actually enters the ring?

Let's see.

Criticizing The Evidence For ID--Or Not

Coyne confronts in detail only one ID proponent in his essay: Lehigh University biochemist Michael J. Behe. In his 1996 book Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Behe quotes Darwin: "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 absolutely break down."

Behe then asks: "What type of biological system could not be formed by 'numerous, successive, slight modifications'?" And he answers: "Well, for starters, a system that is irreducibly complex. By irreducibly complex, I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning."

As the title of Behe's book indicates, the inner workings of the cell were a mystery (a "black box") for Darwin. Modern biochemistry, however, has uncovered many irreducibly complex systems inside living cells. Not only do these pose a problem for Darwin's theory, but they also point to design: "Inferring that biochemical systems were designed by an intelligent agent is a humdrum process that requires no new principles of logic or science. It comes simply from the hard work that biochemistry has done over the past forty years, combined with a consideration of the way in which we reach conclusions of design every day."

One of the examples of irreducible complexity described by Behe is the biochemistry of vision, which involves a series of specialized molecules that detect and amplify light impulses. All of the molecules must be present and interacting in order for the system to function at all.

In response to Behe, Coyne devotes six long paragraphs to arguing that the anatomy of the eye could have evolved step by step. Yet Behe's argument is based on biochemistry, not anatomy. "It is no longer enough," Behe wrote, "to consider only the anatomical structure of whole eyes, as Darwin did in the nineteenth century (and as popularizers of evolution continue to do today)… Anatomy is, quite simply, irrelevant to the question of whether evolution could take place on the molecular level."

In other words, Coyne's attempt to refute ID with a discussion of eye anatomy is beside the point, like the flailing of a punch-drunk boxer. His only jab at Behe's actual argument is the following: "Biochemical systems evolved in the same way that the eye evolved, by adding parts successively and adaptively to simpler, functioning systems."

That's it. No evidence. Simply an unsupported assertion that "biochemical systems evolved." Why should we believe that? Because a professor at The University of Chicago says so? Is that how science works?

So Coyne fails to land even one punch. In his unsuccessful attempt to refute the positive case for ID, however, Coyne concludes: "Insofar as intelligent-design theory can be tested scientifically, it has been falsified." This is bad news for those Darwinists who insist that ID is unscientific because it is untestable and unfalsifiable: A theory cannot be both untestable and tested, both unfalsifiable and falsified.

Not to worry, though. "The final blow to the claim that intelligent design is scientific," writes Coyne, "is its proponents admission that we cannot understand the designer's goals or methods." Fortunately for the Darwinists, Coyne can understand the designer's goals and methods. He claims to know, for example, that "a creator, especially an intelligent one, would not bestow useless tooth buds, wings, or eyes on large numbers of species."

Like Darwin himself, Coyne defends evolution by arguing that a designer would not have done things in certain ways. "Would an intelligent designer create millions of species and then make them go extinct, only to replace them with other species, repeating this process over and over again? Would an intelligent designer produce animals having a mixture of mammalian and reptilian traits, at exactly the time when reptiles are thought to have been evolving into mammals? Why did the designer give tiny, non-functional wings to kiwi birds?" And so on.

But how can Coyne know what an intelligent designer would or would not have done -- especially when he's convinced that such a designer doesn't even exist? If Darwinism is scientific, why doesn't Coyne simply support it with sufficient evidence?

Well, he tries; but the results are not impressive.

Why The "Overwhelming" Evidence For Evolution Isn’t

Coyne writes: "The fossil record is the most obvious place to search for evidence of evolution." The record shows, among other things, "the staggered appearance of groups that become very different over the next 500 million years" after the major animal groups ("phyla") appear in the Cambrian explosion. Coyne also cites embryological evidence from vestigial structures and biogeographical evidence from oceanic islands (mentioned above).

"In the last 150 years," Coyne writes, "immense amounts of new evidence have been collected about biogeography, embryology, and, especially, the fossil record. All of it supports evolution." Coyne concludes: "And so, evolution has graduated from theory to fact. We know [his emphasis] that species on earth today descended from earlier, different species, and that every pair of species had a common ancestor that existed in the past." Indeed, "It makes as little sense to doubt the factuality of evolution as to doubt the factuality of gravity."

By "evolution" in these passages, Coyne means Darwin's notion that all living things are descended from one or a few common ancestors. Forget for a moment that this may have no relevance to intelligent design: Michael Behe, for example, has no quarrel with common ancestry. But note Coyne's choice of words: "all" of the evidence supports common ancestry, which is as much a "fact" as gravity, so "we know" that it's true.

Contrast this with the observations of Henry Gee, another Darwinist and a science writer for the journal Nature. In his 1999 book In Search of Deep Time, Gee wrote: "No fossil is buried with its birth certificate." It’s hard enough, with written records, to trace a human lineage back a few hundred years, and "the intervals of time that separate fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent." Gee concluded: "To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story -- amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific."

Gee doesn't doubt common ancestry, but since it's impossible to infer it from the fossil evidence he acknowledges that it's an assumption. Why, then, does Coyne claim that common ancestry is on a par with gravity? If I pick up something and then let it fall to the ground, am I assuming gravity or watching it in action? If no one can possibly observe ancestry and descent in fossil species, how can common ancestry be as "factual" as something all of us can observe with our own eyes? Only by an impressive leap of faith.

Coyne continues by citing the fossil evidence for some evolutionary transitions: "We now have transitional forms connecting major groups of organisms, including fish with tetrapods, dinosaurs with birds, reptiles with mammals, and land animals with whales." These fossil series are consistent with common ancestry; but do they establish it as a fact?

In his 1990 book Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, Ohio State University biologist Tim Berra used a series of Corvette automobile models to illustrate how transitional fossils are used to infer ancestry and descent: "If you compare a 1953 and a 1954 Corvette, side by side, then a 1954 and a 1955 model, and so on, the descent with modification is overwhelmingly obvious." This is what evolutionary biologists do with fossils, he continued, "and the evidence is so solid and comprehensive that it cannot be denied by reasonable people. " [Berra's emphasis]

Of course, what cannot be denied by reasonable people is that a series of Corvette automobile models provides evidence for design, not unguided evolution. So what can we infer from a series of transitional fossils? Not much: Maybe they are due to Darwinian evolution, or maybe they are due to intelligent design.

The uncertainty can be eliminated only if we know the cause. In the case of automobiles, we know that the cause is intelligent design. Do we know the cause in the case of living things?

Coyne thinks we do. "Most evolutionary change in the features of organisms," he writes, "is almost certainly the result of natural selection." Although Darwin had no direct support for this, and argued largely from analogy with domestic breeding, "biologists have now observed hundreds of cases of natural selection, beginning with the well-know examples of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, insect resistance to DDT, and HIV resistance to antiviral drugs."

Funny, Coyne doesn't mention peppered moths, which used to be the classic textbook example of natural selection in action. Before the industrial revolution most peppered moths were light-colored; but when moth populations near factories became predominantly dark-colored, Darwinian theory and some experiments conducted in the 1950s suggested that it was because dark moths were better camouflaged against pollution-darkened tree trunks and thus protected from predatory birds. For decades, biology textbooks illustrated this story with photographs of peppered moths on light and dark tree trunks, until biologists in the mid-1980s discovered that peppered moths don't normally rest on tree trunks. The photographs had been staged, often with dead moths stuck on the desired background.

Coyne himself taught the peppered moth story for years, until he learned to his embarrassment that it was a myth. "My own reaction," he wrote in Nature in 1998, "resembles the dismay attending my discovery, at the age of six, that it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas Eve." Most biology textbooks now simply omit all mention of this embarrassing episode.

Of course there are other (and better) examples of natural selection besides the peppered myth. But do they come any closer to solving the Darwinists' problem? Are genetic mutations and natural selection sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living things, or is intelligent design necessary? This is the heart of the controversy between Darwinism and ID. Yet after devoting page after page to an irrelevant defense of common ancestry, Coyne contents himself here with a few sentences listing some standard examples of minor changes in existing species. He concludes: "The strength of selection observed in the wild, when extrapolated over long periods, is more than adequate to explain the diversification of life on Earth."

But this is nothing more than a restatement of Darwin's theory that minor changes within existing species, if given enough time, can lead to the major changes we see in the history of life. In 1937, Darwinian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky called the former "microevolution" and the latter "macroevolution," and he acknowledged that the extrapolation from one to the other was an "assumption." That assumption remains controversial to this day.

For example, Darwinists Scott Gilbert, John Opitz and Rudolf Raff wrote in Developmental Biology in 1996: "Genetics might be adequate for explaining microevolution, but microevolutionary changes in gene frequency were not seen as able to turn a reptile into a mammal or to convert a fish into an amphibian. Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest… The origin of species -- Darwin’s problem -- remains unsolved." In 2001, Darwinist Sean B. Carroll wrote in Nature: "A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger-scale changes evident over longer periods of life’s history (macroevolution)." (These people hate it when I quote them; but these are their words, not mine.)

Now here we are in 2005, and Coyne has nothing new to add. Although his own research deals with mutation and selection in fruit flies, Coyne presents no evidence here to justify the extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution, which remains as unsupported as ever. Coyne merely proclaims magisterially: "We have realized for decades that natural selection can indeed produce systems that, over time, become integrated to the point where that appear to be irreducibly complex."

Again, no evidence. None at all.

Coyne and his fellow Darwinists love to chant that the evidence for Darwinism is "overwhelming" -- and so it is, if we have to shovel it. How could it be otherwise? For decades, Darwinism has enjoyed a taxpayer-supported monopoly in the biological sciences. Scores of journals dedicated to advancing it have churned out literally tons of articles. Anyone who actually reads the literature of evolutionary biology with an open mind, however, soon realizes that almost all of it simply assumes that the theory is true. What is "overwhelming" is not the evidence, but the faith it takes to call Darwinian evolution a fact even after 150 years of failing to find much of any evidence for its core tenets.

This is why Darwinists cannot allow biology students to think critically about evolution, much less to hear about alternative theories such as intelligent design.

History Repeats Itself--But Doesn’t

In Pennsylvania, the ACLU is now fighting for the exact reverse of what it fought for in Tennessee, eighty years ago. Then the ACLU opposed censorship; now it wants to impose it.

The times have changed, but Jerry Coyne has not. If "history is about to repeat itself," as Coyne claims, it is not because of what's happening in Pennsylvania, but because he and his colleagues are stuck in a mythical past, locked in a battle between old-fashioned biblical creationism and old-fashioned Darwinism. The former is not intelligent design, regardless of how many times Coyne says it is. And the latter is, well, old. However plausible it may have seemed 150 years ago, it is no longer plausible in the light of modern biochemistry and cell biology. Coyne and his fellow Darwinists may continue in their dogmatic slumbers, but science is moving on.

The 1925 Tennessee trial became a byword largely because of the Hollywood movie "Inherit the Wind" (1960). Now maybe someone should make a movie about the 2005 Pennsylvania trial and call it "Inherit the Spin." The music could be an adaptation of "Give Me That Old Time Religion" from the 1960 movie, with Jerry Coyne and a chorus of ACLU attorneys singing:

Give me that old time evolution,
Give me that old time evolution,
Give me that old time evolution.
It's good enough for me.

It was good enough for Darwin,
It was good enough for Darwin,
It was good enough for Darwin,
So it's good enough for me.

It's become my religion,
It's become my religion,
It's become my religion,
And it's good enough for me.

You can't teach any other,
You can't teach any other,
You can't teach any other,
Darwin's good enough for me.

Give me that old time evolution,
Give me that old time evolution,
Give me that old time evolution.
It's good enough for me.

1Jerry A. Coyne, "The Case Against Intelligent Design: The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name," in The New Republic (August 22, 2005).