The next chapter of Coyne’s book is on vestigia, atavistic throwbacks, embryonic recapitulation, topped off with alleged screw-ups in the so-called process of intelligent design.
Let’s start with this last item, since we should be able to dispense with it in a paragraph or so. The structure of this argument is strange, in that Coyne is trying to disprove the existence of automotive engineers by showing that carburetors can get gummed up. The reason Coyne falls into this trap is that he is failing to interact with the entire creationist narrative, which is creation and fall. The point is not that everything about the world is perfect in every way, but rather that the universe exhibits design everywhere we look, even in those places where some of the features of that design are busted. Their bustedness is part of the narrative, so finding examples of it doesn’t refute anybody or anything. Paley’s argument from the watch could still work even if we found a watch that wasn’t ticking. The argument could still work even though the watch wasn’t. But Coyne says:
“Perfect design would truly be the sign of a skilled and intelligent designer. Imperfect design is the mark of evolution; in fact, it’s precisely what we expect from evolution” (p. 81).
Imperfect design is also something we would expect to find in a created and fallen order.
When it comes to vestigia (like the appendix) or atavisms (like whale legs or human tails), there are two ways to engage with the argument. One is to deny that the data is being represented fully, fairly or accurately, and the other is to grant the data and point out that it doesn’t necessarily mean what is being claimed for it. I would want to reject the idea that God put a bunch of false leads into the created order so that He might test our faith (p. 85).
Creationists do not have a problem granting that variations (some of them significant) can occur over time within the classification of “kinds” (Gen. 1:21). Take the lowly skink, for example. Out of all of the skinks, some have legs, some have no legs, and some have various kinds of in between thingies. If our father Noah took no more than two skinks on board the ark, there is no problem whatever caused for any thinking creationist by the appearance or disappearance of legs in any of the descendants.
One example of atavism that Coyne cites is that of the whale leg. “About one whale in five hundred is actually born with a rear leg that protrudes outside the body wall” (p. 64). My first method of doubt mentioned above would want to ask questions — how far outside the body wall does it protrude? Five centimeters? On a whale? Should we call it the leg pimple? Why just one leg? Did they hop? Those bits of bone you found inside it, what are the grounds for identifying one bit (just centimeters long) as a whale tibia, other than that it fits with the “just so” story you are telling?
Reasonable questions, but let’s move on to the second approach to evolutionary skepticism. Remember the skink. Some whales do have a pelvis (which has a function for them), but not the function that our pelvis does. Suppose that whales are not descended from really big cows of some sort, as the evolutionary theory demands. Suppose they are descended from other whales, identifiable as such, that used to have flippers in the rear? Suppose whales got tired of being taken for sea lions? or walruses? and so they pulled a skink? If you ask me to prove my hypothesis, I will point proudly to this five centimeter flipper bump. See it flapping?
Embryonic recapitulation is a weird one, because it seems like a odd dependence on something that doesn’t really prove anything. The slashes on the side of a human embryo look like the slashes that turn into gills on a fish, but on us they turn into our head and upper body instead. Even on evolutionary assumptions, what would be the point (as in, survival advantage) of having each embryo of every living species go through a historical reenactment of the history of all life heretofore? Is it like having kindergarten kids dress up like Pilgrims at Thanksgiving? Is our time in the womb some kind of evolutionary Heritage Days?
My last comments will be addressed to vestigia, things that are still hanging around but which we have not discovered a function for yet. You can have your appendix taken out, and appear to be no worse for it, which we could not say about the stomach or the pancreas. So why wouldn’t we assume that the appendix is a left over from days gone by? Here are a couple of brief responses. First, it could be vestigial. Remember that the creation is fallen. Maybe the appendix was something we needed when we were still eating from the tree of life. Second, remember that medical science is still in its infancy. Most of what is going on in the body is still opaque to us, and so I would be leery of pronouncing on anything like this. The fact you can take an appendix out and not have the patient keel over dead is certainly suggestive of something. But perhaps we don’t know the whole story yet.
But the place where modern scientific hubris really kicks in is with the whole subject of “junk DNA.” and “dead genes” (pp. 66-73). How long have we even known about DNA? Since April of 1953, which means that our knowledge of the existence of DNA is two months older than I am. For pity’s sake! It is as though a couple archeologists discovered that the library of Alexandria didn’t really burn down, because they found the whole thing buried under sand, got into the first chamber, read two books, and declared the rest of the library worthless. They knew it was worthless because there were countless languages in there that they didn’t understand. Just a bunch of gibberish. For an example of some of the pronouncements that ought not to have been made about this, you can check out the book trailer here.
One of the things my friend Mitch Stokes likes to emphasize is the importance of true skepticism. Reading a chapter like this just underscores that point.