It has been a while since I have gone through a book chapter by chapter and, weather permitting, the next one I shall attempt is Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. Coyne is a big time Johnny in the world of evolution, so I will definitely be punching up out of my weight class. The closest I have ever gotten to the the big time in the world of evolution was that tour of the Smithsonian I took as a kid.
This review of his preface will serve, in a neat, chiastic way, as my preface to the review.
Coyne begins by discussing a legal fracas in 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania, a case precipitated by a school board instructing that the ninth graders under their charge be told that evolution was a theory, not a fact, that they ought to keep an open mind, and that the book Of Pandas and People was available to them in case they wanted to check it out for themselves. Of course, planes started falling from the sky at the very prospect, and the trial would have gone very badly for the Truth had not Bruce Willis parachuted in and saved the judge from those hostage-taking creationists who had him in a back room and were showing him flannel graph pictures of Noah’s Ark. Still, for all that, it was a close call.
In the preface, Coyne complains about the staying power of creationism. He says that it was shown in the trial that “Of Pandas and People was shown to be a put-up job, a creationist book in which the words ‘creation’ had simply been replaced by the words ‘intelligent design'” (p. xii). He says a moment later that the judge, deciding for evolution, had opined that “intelligent design was just recycled creationism” (p. xii). And he gives us credit for being . . . um . . . pretty resilient. “Creationism is like the inflatable roly-poly clown I played with as a child: when you punch it, it briefly goes down, but then pops back up” (p. xiii). And as if I were trying to make this particular point for him, here I show up reviewing his book, with a red nose and as irrational as all get out.
But let me begin my engagement with Coyne with a brief, flickering moment of agreement. One evolutionary scientist once said that intelligent design was simply creationism in a cheap tuxedo. I agree with the central point there, but I actually think it is a very fine tuxedo. Many of the ID folks simply want to maintain that the world around us exhibits design, meaning there was a some kind of designer, and they are not saying who that designer might be. Might be God, who knows, might be somebody else. Right. We are not saying that it was God who created the world . . . just someone with the same skill set.
This ID coyness really has been unfortunate. If the designer of this world who scattered evidences of design throughout His handiwork is God, well, then, there you are — creationism. But if that designer is not God, but rather a really smart angel/alien, what ID argument from design could not be applied to him? Does not this non-Deity creator of the whole shooting match exhibit at least as much design as, say, mitochondria? A 3-D printer that prints, say, a domino, has printed a domino that exhibits design. But when my gaze moves from the domino to the printer itself, why do I have to stop asking questions? That exhibits a heckuva lot more design, if you ask me, which you should.
But my agreement with Coyne on this point really is fleeting. The arguments of ID, although unfortunately mislocated by many ID advocates on the cosmic flow chart, are nonetheless unanswerable by someone in Coyne’s position. It is high dogma with these guys that materialism is an axiomatic given. In their minds, no scientific evidence, by definition, can legitimately lead to a questioning of this materialism. This is his faith position, and let us be blunt — this was not something that was scientifically ascertained. What scientific experiment could possibly be constructed, or scientific computer model programmed, that would show that the only way to find out anything whatever is through such experiments and modeling? This is not reason — it is mobius strip reason. What my net don’t catch ain’t fish.
Coyne is unable to answer the ID challenge on two levels. The first is within the framework of science and reason that he accepts as given, a framework that collides with his a priori materialism. With regard to the first framework, if confronted with an argument from (say) irreducible complexity, he has to say (instead of answering the argument) that only a creationist would argue from irreducible complexity. Okay, and at least I grant the point. Now, how about it? Tell me how a small wooden platform can catch mice in the course of its evolution up to a working mechanism that catches mice more efficiently.
The second framework is his materialism, which renders all argumentation — whether in favor of evolution or not — absurd. Coyne revealed his hard materialism when he wrote elsewhere that “the view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics must be true unless you’re religious.” But if our thoughts are simply what these chemicals in my bone box do under these conditions and at this temperature, then (of course) I have no reason for supposing my beliefs to be true. But — and follow me closely here — this would include the belief that my bone box has any chemicals in it, or that my chemicals have a bone box to hold them. The belief that the universe is simply and solely atoms in motion has a hard time accounting for the existence of anything that would not be atoms in motion. But my knowledge that the universe is atoms in motion is not . . . wait for it . . . is not atoms in motion. Knowledge is as immaterial as the Queen of Fairie. Farley’s ghost, call your office.
Coyne wants this volume of his to give “a succinct summary of why modern science recognizes evolution as true” (p. xiv). And in the spirit of good sportsmanship, I would like to wish him luck.