Jerry Coyne’s first chapter of Why Evolution Is True begins with something of a patronizing quotation from Jacques Monod. “A curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it” (p. 1) Well, excuse us.
But after that, he starts at the right place, which is the appearance of design. Coyne quotes Paley’s form of the argument from design, which he then calls “both commonsensical and ancient” (p. 2). Beginning this way, Coyne acknowledges that evolutionists must walk up something of an incline until we all come out on the sunny uplands of enlightenment. That incline is the fact that the appearance of design is all around us. Coyne believes, however, that if we just define our terms properly, the problem evaporates.
Let me begin with his definition of evolution, followed by a brief definition of the six constituent elements of it.
“Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species — perhaps a self-replicating molecule — that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection” (p. 3).
The six components of this are as follows — evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and evolutionary change by nonselective means (p. 3). Evolution means that genetic changes occur over time. Gradualism means that the time involved is a long time. Speciation means that different groups split, and go their separate ways, developing in different directions over time. Common ancestry is the “flip side of speciation” (p. 8), pointing out that all these variegated species didn’t used to be variegated — they came from a common source. Natural selection is what accounts for the appearance of design. It is that when there are genetic mutations in a group, and some of those differences provide a survival advantage, then those helpful differences will be passed on down the line. Survival-friendly genes have a “unfair” advantage. The last tenet is that some events may help out with evolution without using natural selection, as, for example, when different groups have differing numbers of offspring. This means that some changes “have nothing to do with adaptation” (p. 13).
Okay, so back to Paley. When we find a watch in the woods, we may infer a watchmaker. Not so fast, Coyne says, and then provides us with an alternative way of getting to the watch. Now most creationist critiques at this point show that it is not quite so simple as all that, and argue with the alternative way of getting to the watch. I am entirely on board with all of that, but want to make another point. But before getting to my different point, however, let me just tip my hat to the traditional critiques — which I will no doubt be offering myself later on in this book review. For one example, the chasm between inorganic and organic is enormous, and it is a gap for which Coyne’s six component parts of evolution have absolutely no relevance. So what happened there? For another example, why should any of the genetic changes confer any survival advantage at all? And so forth.
But here is the different point, one that grants, for the sake of the argument, that Coyne has offered us a way of getting to a watch without a watchmaker. That still doesn’t prove that there was no watchmaker . . . but Coyne thinks it does.
Once the mechanism of natural selection was pointed out, Coyne thinks the discussion is over.
“The more one learns about plants and animals, the more one marvels at how well their designs fit their ways of life. What could be more natural than inferring that this fit reflects conscious design? Yet Darwin looked beyond the obvious, suggesting — and supporting with copious evidence — two ideas that forever dispelled the idea of deliberate design. Those ideas were evolution and natural selection” (p. 3).
Now look at what he does here. There are two possible explanations for something, one kind of obvious, and the other far-fetched. Darwin, and Coyne after him, show that the far-fetched option is a possibility, yay, and Coyne therefore thinks this “forever dispelled” the other option. But to show that something with the appearance of design might have been the result of an impersonal process does not show that it had to have been the result of an impersonal process. How could that follow? To go from the possibility of no God to the certainty of no God is an exercise in wish fulfillment.
If Paley’s companion, arguing with him, showed (with copious evidence) that the watch could have assembled itself, why can Paley not still reply that he thinks it is simpler to surmise that somebody lost his watch. “Look. There is a name inscribed on the back of it. William of Occam. And here’s his shaving kit. It has a razor in it.”
This is to argue, in effect, that if there is the slightest possibility that there is no God, then we must conclude decisively that there is no God. But to go from “there might not be a designer” to “there must not be a designer” is a great leap — almost as great as the leap from inorganic to organic, and like that earlier chasm, there is no natural selection to help you get across it.
This is because bad arguments, being inorganic, don’t have any genetic material.