Coyne’s next chapter is on the “engine of evolution,” which is to say, natural selection. One of his examples was one I was already familiar with, and since it is quite a fun one — let’s just go with it.
There is a kind of roundworm that is a parasite to a species of ant in Central America. I will just give you the short form here. An infected ant has its normally black abdomen turn a bright red. The ant is made sluggish by the parasite, and his now red abdomen is made to stick straight up into the air, looking for all the world like an edible berry, at least to birds. In addition, the connection between the thorax and the abdomen is weakened, making it easier for a bird to pick that berry (p. 113). And while ants normally can produce a pheromone which warn the other ants of an attack, the pheromones in the infected ant are all shut down. Got all that?
A bird comes down and scarfs the berry, which is full of roundworm eggs. Those eggs are passed on through in the bird droppings, which other ants think would be good to scavenge in order to get food for their larvae back home. Taken back to the ant colony, these roundworm eggs hatch inside the pupae, and the worms head on down to the abdomen to mate and produce more eggs, and make the abdomen red and berry-like.
Now anyone who can read an account like this, while stipulating that it must be the result of natural processes flying blind, without laughing out loud, is simply not paying attention.
“It is staggering adaptations like this — the many ways that parasites control their carriers, just to pass on the parasites’ genes — that gets an evolutionist’s juices flowing” (p. 113).
That word staggering is right, and what we know about such processes is scarcely a fraction of what is actually going on. And it is going on everywhere.
To his credit, Coyne admits how it looks. “Everywhere we look in nature, we see animals that seem beautifully designed to fit their environment” (p. 115). At the same time, he denies that natural selection is blind. He acknowledges that the chance mutations are blind, but argues that the filtering of such mutations by natural selection is manifestly not random (p. 119). The cards are shuffled by chance, but the invisible poker playing hand (natural selection) renders everything reasonable and scientific. The only problem is that the hand is not attached to a head, but is pretty smart anyway.
So this means my first point in response to all this is something that Coyne would cheerfully grant, and indeed says himself. But I want to say it stronger. All this means that the roundworm in our example does not know anything. It does not know that there is such a thing as an ant, or an abdomen, or a thorax, or a berry, or a bird, or bird droppings, or a roundworm. It is not doing anything. It is just propagating along, and then a mutation happens. Coyne acknowledges that “most [mutations] are harmful or neutral” (p. 118). He goes on to say that a “few can turn out to be useful.” “The useful ones are the raw material for evolution” (p. 118).
The engine of evolution breaks down a lot, but it still drives everything everywhere.
And this is where I need to jump ahead to another part of the chapter where Coyne interacts (very inadequately) with the ID argument of “irreducible complexity,” articulated most effectively in Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box. Coyne’s one-sentence statement of irreducible complexity is accurate as far as it goes, which is not very far, but which after that gets really lame pretty rapidly. The first sentence below is his summary.
“IDers argue that such traits, involving many parts that must cooperate for that trait to function at all defy Darwinian explanation. Therefore, by default, they must have been designed by a supernatural agent. This is commonly called the ‘God of the gaps’ argument, and it is an argument from ignorance” (p. 137).
Since the citation above concludes with the word ignorance, now would be a good time to point how that Coyne doesn’t have the faintest idea of how his opponent’s arguments actually work. For a scholar to argue this way, with the banner of knowledge snapping smartly above his head, is simply disgraceful. Better an argument from ignorance than an argument in ignorance, that’s the first thing. And second, Behe’s argument isn’t an argument from ignorance. It is an argument from our knowledge of complex systems.
Irreducible complexity is an argument which engages with the claims for natural selection, and does so at every step of the process. Take Behe’s simple illustration of a mousetrap. In order to build an evolutionary mousetrap, it is not sufficient to give yourself hundreds of thousands of years in which to wait patiently for the mousetrap to evolve and to then confer a staggering survival advantage all at once. The argument requires that each step of the process confer a significant survival advantage, all by itself. Coyne acknowledges the necessity of this, but then proceeds blithely on his way with his nose in the air.
This is a serious argument, one which (in the details) Coyne just ignores. He is either ignoring it because he is ignorant in the old-fashioned way, or he is ignoring it because he knows that he has no answer to the argument, and decided to blow smoke instead.
To take Behe’s mousetrap example, you can’t have a mutation that gives you a small wooden platform, which catches the occasional mouse, thus conferring a slight survival advantage. The wood platform wouldn’t catch anything, and would just get the way. And no bird would mistake it for a berry.
Then the next thing you can’t have is a hundred thousand years of dragging around a small wooden platform, as you wait for the mutation that produces a spring that rests uselessly on that platform, doing nothing also, just like the platform, but somehow resulting in a few more mice being caught. No, the whole mousetrap must be there, completely assembled, in order to do anything helpful at all. It is an irreducibly complex system.
Back to the roundworm. He doesn’t know anything about this argument, so his mutations keep turning the ant abdomen into replicas of berries that birds detest, into camo-skin that hides the ants better than they were hidden before, and into little pebble replicas. When he finally hits on the red berry, yay, it was at the same time that another uncooperative mutation made the attack pheromone release in triple amounts, so that the other ants were in a state of constant vigilance. Not only that, but another mutation made the attachment of abdomen and thorax a super-strong one, and also made the ant particularly energetic, not sluggish, and yet another mutation made the red abdomen droop down between the ant legs where the birds couldn’t see it. So then we had to wait for another one hundred thousand trips around the sun for the red berry thing to happen again, but this time with the pheromones shut off, and the abdomen attachment weakened, and the ants interested in hunting down roundworm eggs, which they came to believe were just the thing for their larvae.
Not only that, but we have to explain what’s in it for the ants. We can see at once that this exquisite system confers survival advantages on the roundworm. But why aren’t the ants mutating themselves a red berry hider? All you need is a hundred thousand years, and some ants still alive at the end of it.
So then, in building this system, you are not just rolling one dice with fifty sides. You are rolling ten die at the same time, each one with fifty sides. And you are doing this, or something equivalent, on every third leaf in the jungle. Evolution advances, inexorably, on the strength of a Powerball winner every ten minutes.
Whenever you are telling a fictional story, the one thing you must not lose is “the willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of the audience. One writing coach (a gent named Bickham) advises fiction writers to avoid dropping “an alligator through the transom.” You lose people when they say, “Oh, for pity’s sake!”
In the early years of evolutionary theory, there was an awful lot we didn’t know about the staggering complexity of life forms, all the way up to the elephants and whales, and all the way down to flagellated bacteria. But now our scientific knowledge is advancing so rapidly that evolutionists, in order to keep telling us their “just so” story, have to drop an alligator through the transom on a more or less continual basis. It is raining alligators. Better yet, we have gotten to that tipping point of scientific knowledge has finally gotten its big break, and has been allowed to write the screenplay for Alligatornado.
This chapter also has a section where Coyne argues from the success of animal breeders.
“If artificial selection can produce such canine diversity so quickly, it becomes easier to accept that the lesser diversity of wild dogs arose by natural selection acting over a period of a thousand times longer” (p. 126).
I see. The fact that a farmer in Nebraska can grow a thousand acres of corn, all of it in straight rows, makes it easier to believe that this could eventually happen by itself, if only we give it enough time? The fact that something can happen when tended is an argument for not having to tend things?
So one last thing, and I will leave this chapter be. If the Creator packaged the capacity for striking diversity within kinds (as He plainly did with the dog), how is the existence of a striking diversity an argument against God having done that?