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Ann Coulter on Evolution

James Levine

Ann Coulter devotes the last four chapters of Godless to attacks on the theory of evolution. As in all her books, Coulter does not do original research but relies on the work of other authors. In this case, she mines the crème-de-la-crème of anti-evolutionary literature. I recognize her quote mining of evolutionary scientists from Duane Gish's Evolution: The Fossils Still Say No. Much of her work heavily relies on the work of Henry Morris and employs his arguments. She repeats the argument that if Darwin's theory were true there would be millions of transitional fossils and there aren't any. She repeats the argument that all mutations are harmful. She also relies on Behe for irreducible complexity and Berlinski for some snide remarks. She correctly points out that the theory of evolution like quantum mechanics has counterintuitive aspects, but she also asserts (incorrectly) that unlike quantum mechanics there is no evidence for the theory of evolution. What makes her account bearable is her acid wit. She is genuinely funny. I'd advise anyone who wants to read the creationist literature to skip the humorless Morris, Gish, and Behe and just read Coulter. They will not miss any important science.

While she says there is no evidence for the theory of evolution, she ignores the molecular evidence, especially the molecular evidence from the theory of genetically inherited diseases. Human beings share more genetically-inherited diseases with apes than with rats. She ignores evo-devo [Developmental Evolutionary Biology], which has done so much to uncover the evolution of the bird's feather. She ignores Fisher's theories of population genetics, which have been empirically tested and verified. In any case, who is she to judge the merits of a scientific theory? She is a lawyer and a journalist, and the research techniques she uses to study political and historical subjects, which in this case amount to "quote mining," are not suitable for studying issues in biological science.

She says that the only reason liberals believe in the theory of evolution is so that they don't have to believe in God. Which liberals does she know? Plenty of liberals believe in God! They just don't believe in a God who made a particular historical morality valid for all time.

Ann Coulter aligns herself with religious fundamentalism, though fundamentalism is in much worse shape intellectually than Darwinism. Fundamentalism is based on the belief that we need an inerrant book to tell us what is right and wrong. In no other field of human endeavor do we believe we need an inerrant book. We do mechanical engineering without an inerrant book on the laws of mechanics. We do mathematics without an inerrant book on geometry. In every other discipline we are willing to recognize that our knowledge is fallible and subject to correction and that our knowledge comes from experience not a book. But suddenly when it comes to ethics, billions believe that an inerrant authority is needed, either the pronouncements of an inerrant Pope or an inerrant Scripture. Why is this so? Why isn't moral intuition enough? Why isn't moral knowledge fallible like every other kind of knowledge we possess? Why can't it be corrected by experience?

Perhaps the common descent of man and ape isn't obvious to the scientifically uneducated, but the evolution of religious cultures is pretty obvious to anyone with a smattering knowledge of history. Martin Luther's Christianity is not first-century Christianity. Perhaps biological evolution isn't obvious to some nonscientists, but sociological evolution should be obvious to the historically educated, and that is more than enough evolution to put to death the religious fundamentalism Coulter defends. (She does say the earth is billions of years old, but morally she aligns herself with the fundamentalists.)

The Bible itself shows layers like an archeological dig and does not represent a unitary morality but represents thousands of years of cultural evolution. When fundamentalists talk of Biblical morality, we should ask, which one? If Coulter is a religious fundamentalist, how seriously does she take Jesus' command to own nothing and give all her possessions away to the poor? Every Christian, however fundamentalist, has a smorgasbord approach to Biblical morality; since that is the only approach the Bible permits. The Bible is an irreducibly ambiguous text.

Even if evolution is false, all Coulter has established is that nature is a botched job, which implies an incompetent, not an omnipotent, designer. The fossil record shows a nature that proceeds in uncertain fits and starts. It has horrors like the parasite wasp and pathological liars in miniskirts. The progress of life on earth does not look like a master symphony designed by an omnipotent God but looks like the product of a limited being who was trying to understand how the laws of biology interacted with the laws of physics and chemistry. Why spend a few billions years playing with the biochemistry of bacteria before getting to man?

Personally, I find the thought that there is some limited intelligence behind the savagery of nature rather hideous, a horror story of an idea out of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. If evolution is false, I prefer to think that Samuel Alexander's calmer vision of nature is correct. Samuel Alexander had the idea that nature has in it the ability to create genuine novelty. These genuine novelties are not the result of inbuilt mechanisms (as in Darwin) or the brooding thoughts of a master Designer (as in Theism) but are spontaneous and creative events. Alexander thought nature could put forth things in surprising ways that could not be anticipated in advance. There can be genuinely new emergent properties. Such a theory can't be tested, of course, because, by definition there can be no laws predicting the production of genuine novelties. Alexander has a place for "God" in his vision of nature. God is not creator, but product. In Alexander's view of nature, God is not yet. He is a being that may yet be created, as some future novelty.

However, the evidence for the theory of evolution is overwhelming. Evolution is a blind mechanical process, requiring no assistance from a capacity in nature for genuine novelty. The laws of physics forged in the furnace of the big bang, and the fundamental constants set in the symmetry breaking events of the early universe, together suffice for all future realities.

Even if Coulter is right, and evolution is a secular myth, Intelligent Design would not point to a religiously satisfying alternative to the theory of evolution. ID theory would not prove an emotionally and religiously satisfying God exists. The works of nature do not show intelligence combined with benevolence but ignorance combined with cruelty. Coulter ignores the vast array of evidence that exists for the theory of evolution, and perpetuates creationist myths. She does not engage with the evidence for the theory of evolution. She ignores it. What makes her book bearable is her brutal sense of humor.





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Published:
  2006-09-20

Categories:
  Evolution vs. Creationism, Religious Right

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