Comes now chapter two of Jerry Coyne’s book, called Written in the Rocks. It will take a post or two to deal with this chapter, so patience, all of you.
My first post will address the structure of his argumentation, and later I will look at the time involved in all this — my own variation on what is called Haldane’s Dilemma.
First, we may take as an indicator of how Coyne represents data generally by how he represents the position of his adversaries. He refers to the “creationist prediction that all species must appear suddenly and then remain unchanged” (p. 32). As stated, this is simplistic and wrong, and when he tries to qualify it a moment later, he misrepresents even as he qualifies.
“Even some creationists will admit that minor changes in size and shape might occur over time — a process called microevolution — but they reject the idea that one very different kind of animal or plant can some from another (macroevolution)” (pp. 32-33)
It is not “some creationists admit that changes might happen.” It is all creationists insist changes have happened. Variation within kinds, including significant variation, is not something that any competent creationist denies. Indeed, it is an essential part of the creationist model.
That said, here is the problem with the structure of Coyne’s argument. Recall the elementary school exercise where the teacher would give you ten vocabulary words and your job was to write a creative little story using those words. But with such an exercise, it is hard to get things wrong, as long as you complete the assignment. The story is yours to write. But suppose the situation were more like what we have before us in the fossil record. Suppose you had a set number of vocabulary words, and your job was to reconstruct the book they came from — War and Peace, say. The fossils we have are the vocabulary words we have to use, and the entire history of all living organisms is the book we must reconstruct. Suppose further that the words we had to work with came down to us entirely and completely by chance, brought to us by wind and tide.
How much do we know? What happens when we hold it up against what we don’t know? Coyne acknowledges part of this, and is oblivious to the other. Here they are — one, two.
“We can estimate that we have fossil evidence of only 0.1 percent to 1 percent of all species — hardly a good sample of the history of life” (p. 22).
Well stated, good start, but . . .
“Nevertheless, we have enough fossils to give us a good idea of how evolution proceeded” (p. 22).
The results of the rest of the chapter are akin to what happened with the Piltdown man — building up quite a story about Mr. and Mrs. Piltdown, and all from the tooth of an extinct pig. There is no dispute that Coyne is using all his assigned vocabulary, and he is doing so creatively and with great ingenuity. He is a learned man. But the novel he has reconstructed is not War and Peace, but rather Tom Swift and the Alien Robot.
It might be complained that my illustration of a novel is unfair because words don’t have a lineage from earlier words used in the book, and what we have with evolution is a huge, gigantic family tree. Right — and 99% of the tree is missing, and you are trying to reconstruct it, on the supposition that it is a tree, and you don’t even know that, and you are doing it with a dogmatic and serene aplomb.
“No theory of special creation or any theory other than evolution, can explain these patterns” (p. 29).
Oh. Glad somebody told us. There we were, wasting our time . . . Actually, I would be glad to acknowledge that the creationism he has in his mind is not able to explain these patterns, because the creationism he is fighting with in there is unable by definition to explain anything.
So let me change the illustration. You are doing genealogical research of a family over 100,000 years, and all you have is photographs of .01 percent of the noses, and no ancestry.com, no records, no family Bibles, and so on. You don’t even know if it is a family line. Now comparing what you actually know (your nose photographs) with what you acknowledge you do not and cannot know (everything else), could we have a little humility please?
One final comment, not so much an argument.
“Asked what observation could conceivably disprove evolution, the curmudgeonly biologist J.B.S Haldane reportedly growled, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!” (p. 53).
I just want to state for the record that if I ever found one, I wouldn’t bother to take it in, knowing that I could not be believed. “What do you mean Precambrian? That’s a rabbit, you doofus.”