If Creationists Were Beetles . . .

So then, Jerry Coyne now comes to explain, in the famous phrase, the origin of species. How is it that wherever we look we see distinct species, and not a long blur of intermediate types and missing links between each of the species?

In addressing this question, he sets out laboriously to prove something that nobody denies, which is that there are distinct types of animals, that there are variations within kinds, and that there are often wide spaces between them. He notes that the natives of the Arfak Mountains in New Guinea recognized 136 different types of local birds, while Western zoologists had come up with 137 species. This “should convince us, that the discontinuities of nature are not arbitrary, but an objective fact” (p. 169). Well, okay, but was anyone arguing the point?

Coyne argues that such species usually arise because of some kind of geographical separation — mountain ranges, islands,  two sides of a river — which allows for certain traits to be reinforced and for others to fade into the background. Later in the chapter, he also notes how certain distinct species can arise through a fun and interesting process called polyploidy, where the chromosomes of a particular species are doubled.

But for the most part, he is simply pointing to how physical factors can cause certain populations to be isolated from others, and there, mingling among themselves, to do naturally what dog breeders have been doing for a long time. Speaking of species, in this Coyne is arguing against a species of creationism that doesn’t exist. The most ardent fundamentalist creationist acknowledges cheerfully that all the races of men descended from Noah and Mrs. Noah, and that there is (self-evidently) variation within kinds.

So allow me to say this again. Coyne clearly does not know who he is talking to, and consequently does not know what he is talking about.

“It also counts as evidence against creationism. After all, there’s no obvious reason why a creator would produce similar species of birds, or lizards on continents but not on isolated islands. (By ‘similar,’ I mean so similar that evolutionists would regard them as close relatives. Most creationists do not accept species as ‘relatives’ since that presupposes evolution” (p. 185).

On the contrary, if we are talking about evolutionary taxonomy — what evolutionists call “species” — all creationists acknowledge that numerous species are related to each other.

Our dispute is not over whether bigger beaks can come from smaller beaks, or furrier beasts from less furry beasts, or shorter tails from longer tails, or light skin from darker skin. In 1937, evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky coined the terms microevolution and macroevolution in order to reluctantly note that we had to try to account for macro changes (which we couldn’t see happening) on the basis of micro changes (which we could). Some evolutionists, like Dobzhansky, see the problem, some, like Coyne, are blissfully unaware, and others, like me and my fellow non-evolutionists, believe that what is called macroevolution cannot successfully be accounted for by piling up microevolutionary changes.

So the creationist is not someone who denies what is called microevolution. The creationist is one who denies that microevolution is a set of “baby steps” sufficient to account for the transformation to another kind of animal entirely. If such a transformation were simply a long, arduous trek, then baby steps will get you there eventually. But is the transformation from no skeleton to an exoskeleton, or no skeleton to endoskeleton, the equivalent of a long walk, where each step is just like the previous one, or is more like a “back to the drawing board” kind of thing?

I am not a scientist, as Coyne is, but I am a polemicist, and since Coyne decided to engage in some polemical science, he has to that extent come onto my turf. And I can say that, as a simple matter of craft competence, he is in way over his head, and needs to go back to counting his Drosophilia. He does not understand the tenets of the position he is seeking to refute. If creationists were a kind of beetle, Coyne ought not to write a book calling us spiders.

I should note on other thing. Coyne makes a nice little blunder when he tries to wave his hands over a problem caused by the passing of the years.

“How fast would speciation need to be to explain the present diversity of life? It’s been estimated that there are 10 million species on earth today. Let’s raise that to 100 million to take into account undiscovered species. It turns out that if you started with a single species 3.5 billion years ago, you could get 100 million species living today even if each ancestral species split into two descendants only once every 200 million years. As we’ve seen, real speciation happens a lot faster than that . . .”  (p. 179).

Remind me sometime to tell you the story of the man who drowned in a river that was on average only six inches deep. How could such a thing have possibly happened?
Let us clear our throats and look at these numbers a little quizzically. Coyne has earlier said that the number of species on earth could have been as high as 4 billion (p. 22), not 100 million (p. 179), and he has earlier acknowledged that the vast majority of the speciation occurred in the last 600 million years (p. 28), not in the last 3.5 billion (p. 179). In other words, between pages 22-28 and page 179, there is a whole lot of fudging going on, which is to say, we are not trying to get 100 million species into 3.5 billion years. It is more like we are trying to get 4 billion species into 600 million years, which is quite a different problem of division.  Wouldn’t you say?

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  • Doane

    “he is in way over his head, and needs to go back to counting his Drosophilia. He does not understand the tenets of the position he is seeking to refute.”

    Whoa! this has the same tone as when you asked Hitchens if he was going to just stand there and bleed. Nicely done. Ray Comforts new short film on Evolution and his interviews with UCLA students and professors is the funniest thing I have ever watched. Trailer below:


  • Mark B. Hanson

    Are you sure you quoted Coyne’s numbers correctly? Because (in American math, anyway) 3.5 billion divided by 200 million is 17.5. Assuming the number of species doubles every 200 million years, we would have 2 to the 17.5th power (round up to 18) – or just over 260,000 species. to get 100 million species in that time, the tree would have to split about 27 times, requiring 130 million years per split.

    So if we can’t trust Coyne with simple math…

  • http://oldfatslowland.blogspot.com/ oldfatslow

    “The most ardent fundamentalist creationist
    acknowledges cheerfully that all the races of
    men descended from Noah and Mrs. Noah, and
    that there is (self-evidently) variation
    within kinds.”

    Not merely from Ma and Pa Noah – Mrs Ham,
    Mrs. Shem, and Mrs. Japeth were not, AFAIK,
    daughters of the Noahs.


  • http://www.wordsmithofaustin.com Dan Smith

    There was no “transformation from an exoskeleton to an endoskeleton….” The two groups that formed the vertebrates and the arthropods emerged from the Bilateria in a profound split of that group before animals with either endo- or exoskeleton existed. Each group later developed its own unique kind of skeleton quite independently of each other. This is the kind of mistake that is typical of creationists, who often seem to think of life as “chain of being” rather than the vast number of different branches it actually is.

  • http://www.dregstudios.com Brandt

    Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-agenda-in.html with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

  • Owen Jones

    For someone to assert that there is no argument against the “Theory of Evolution” other than that of religious doctrine is simply not educated. There is a voluminous history of critical literature on the subject going back to Plato and Aristotle. Most recently in “Race and State,” by Eric Voegelin, who was not exactly what you would call an Orthodox Christian. He certainly was not utilizing any Christian arguments.

  • AttyFAM

    This is addressed to Mark Hanson. Your claim that species double every 200 million years is specious. Homo Sapiens appeared only about 200,000 years ago, and genus Homo about 2 million years ago, with at least five recognizably different species in that time. And while we do not evolve as fast as smaller life forms, let’s just use the 400K number for now. 3.5 Billion divided by 400K is 8,750. Now 2^8750 is a number far too long to set forth in the next hundred years.

    But let’s be fair. There was not a lot of life forms at 3.5B years when the earth formed, so let’s go down a few years to about 600,000,000 years ago. 600M divided by 400K is 1,500. But 2^1500 is still far too long to write out in the next twenty years.

    OK, allow for the Permian Extinction and the lesser Cretaceous_Palogene extinction event of 66 million years ago, which wiped out about 75% of all species. Say that left some 1,000,000 species at that time. So now we are down to 66M/400,000 = 165; so we have 1,000,000 x 2^165. You still don’t want to spend the next two years writing that number out.

    If you still don’t believe in evolution, then, when you get drug resistant tuberculosis, insist on taking only the medications in use in 1954.

  • AttyFAM

    To Owen Jones –

    The science of evolution is only 160 years old, and has really only had a lot of site research done in the last 60 years. So, I hardly think that arguments by Plato and Aristotle can be considered on point. Nor is Voegelin’s work from 1933 any more convincing than the author’s reference to Dobzhansky, who also wrote in the 1930s. Read the current literature on evolution.

  • BeamMeUp

    According to Genesis, after Cain killed Abel, he fled to the east where he eventually raised his own family. My question for the creationists: If Adam and Eve, the first man and woman on Earth, had only two sons and no daughters, where did Mrs. Cain come from?

    Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) in the movie Contact said she was expelled from Sunday School class when she was 8 for asking this and too many other questions.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Dan, thanks for the correction. I adjusted that section.

  • Douglas Wilson

    BeamMeUp, he married his sister.

  • katecho

    BeamMeUp wrote:

    “If Adam and Eve, the first man and woman on Earth, had only two sons and no daughters, where did Mrs. Cain come from? Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) in the movie Contact said she was expelled from Sunday School class when she was 8 for asking this and too many other questions.”

    Apparently some opponents of creation and the Christian faith are now getting their arguments and stereotypes about us from pop media and movies. I thought the evolutionists and skeptics were supposed to be all about free thought, rational and critical inquiry, and intellectual integrity.

    GENESIS 5:4 Then the days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight
    hundred years, and he begat sons and daughters.

    If Adam and Eve had only two sons and no daughters, then who is Seth? Just five chapters in, we learn that Seth was born after Cain and Abel, and there were other sons and daughters too. Adam lived a good long time.

    I’m going to assume that BeamMeUp acknowledges that the movie Contact was fiction, but may not know that it was also a work of propaganda. In it, the author, evolutionary cosmologist Carl Sagan, seemed to take for granted that intelligence could be easily inferred from a deep space signal having specified complexity, but apparently creationists are barred from making the same inferences locally. The plot is constructed such that there is no proof of the extraterrestrial encounter, and so the truth of it must be taken by faith. In other words, Foster’s character has had special revelation from the gods, but she is rejected by the skeptics of her day who lack faith. Only a minister named Joss is receptive. The search for a hidden message in the number Pi provides a continuing theme of an even higher power (intelligent designer?), transcending the universe itself. We should note that Sagan was not an atheist, but an agnostic humanist. In the broad sense, he was quite a religious man, promoting a way of life around a romanticized view of human thought and progression.

  • Mark B. Hanson

    AttyFAM: I was referring to Jerry Coyne’s figures in the block quote in Doug’s post. It was Coyne that used that number. It’s his math I am arguing with.

    And did you read anything in Doug’s post? Every creationist believes in microevolution – variation within a species due to mutation. Your comment on bacteria is exactly what Doug was attacking as a misapprehension by Coyne and other evolutionary apologists. Thanks for making his point.

  • Mark B. Hanson

    Sorry – unclosed emphasis tag after “anything”.

  • Max

    Just in case anyone is interested, a quick bit of math (if I did it correctly), using the 4 billion species and 600 million years, would put the evolutionary divergence at every 20 million years – an order of magnitude difference.

  • http://skepticsannotedbible.com Steve Wells

    >>It is more like we are trying to get 4 billion species into 600 million years, which is quite a different problem of division.  Wouldn’t you say?
    I have a pin oak tree in my back yard that has 300,000 leaves. All of these leaves were produced within a few weeks last spring. 100,000 leaves/week. Quite a problem in division, wouldn’t you say?
    The tree of life is just that: a tree. Each species is a leaf on a branch. The evolution of 4 billion species in 600 million years is less of a problem than the tree in my backyard.