|Feature Article - May 2009
|by Do-While Jones
We continue our review of Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True.
Last month, we began our review of a recently published book that has been getting rave reviews from prominent evolutionists. We gave a general overview, observing that the predominant theme is basically that evolution must be true because Christianity is false. That, of course, is as logically invalid as saying that Buddhism is true because Christianity is false. In the course of making his argument, he distorts the creationist position in an attempt to prove Christianity is false.
This month we are going to examine the specific arguments Coyne presents in favor of evolution.
Here is Coyne’s definition of evolution:
In essence, the modern theory of evolution is easy to grasp. It can be summarized in a single (albeit slightly long) sentence: 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. 1
Notice that he intentionally excludes the origin of life. He postulates the existence of a single kind of living thing, “perhaps a self-replicating molecule,” upon which all subsequent changes build. Because of this definition, he avoids all discussion of how a lifeless Earth produced that first living thing.
According to Coyne, evolution begins with a living thing that already contains a mechanism for obtaining energy from the environment, a mechanism for storing that energy, converting the energy to other forms, using that energy for useful purposes, the ability to grow, the ability to reproduce itself, intrinsic genetic information, and has a method for expressing that genetic information as physical features. This living thing came about by some natural process which we can’t even begin to imagine, but isn’t of any real importance to answering the question of how we came to be on this Earth.
Clearly, the origin of that first living thing is vital to the theory of evolution. Why doesn’t Coyne include the origin of life in his definition of evolution? You know the answer. He can’t begin to explain it. Defining evolution as he did gives him an excuse to not even try.
If you are expecting a book with the title, Why Evolution is True to contain proof for the theory of evolution, you will be disappointed. What it really contains is excuses why evolutionists can’t prove evolution is true, why it is unreasonable to expect evolutionists to provide proof, and why you should believe in evolution anyway. Let the excuses begin!
Nobody has ever observed macroevolution in the laboratory or in nature. Here is his excuse for why we have not.
Further, we shouldn’t expect to see more than small changes in one or a few features of a species—what is known as microevolutionary change. Given the gradual pace of evolution, it’s unreasonable to expect to see selection transforming one “type” of plant or animal into another—so-called macroevolution—within a human lifetime. Though macroevolution is occurring today, we simply won’t be around long enough to see it. Remember that the issue is not whether macroevolutionary change happens—we already know from the fossil record that it does—but whether it was caused by natural selection, and whether natural selection can build complex features and organisms. [italics his] 2
There is a process known as “microevolution” that really does occur. Microevolution is the variation within a species that occurs because of loss of genetic information. But he is talking about “macroevolution,” which is the creation of a new kind of living thing resulting from genetic information that previously did not exist.
He asserts, without proof, that macroevolution is occurring today, while admitting that one can’t see it happening. That is, genetic information is supposedly arising spontaneously that will create a new kind of creature. He just knows it, even though nobody can actually see it. The alleged reason nobody can see it is because it happens so slowly.
For one thing, natural selection in the wild is often incredibly slow. The evolution of feathers, for example, probably took hundreds of thousands of years. Even if feathers were evolving today, it would simply be impossible to watch this happening in real time, much less to measure whatever type of selection was acting to make feathers larger. 3
The real reason why nobody has ever seen it is because it hasn’t happened! Genetic information doesn’t just magically appear.
He thinks he sees macroevolution in the fossil record. This is remarkable because he spends so many pages trying to explain why there are no missing links in the fossil record!
We don’t find any missing links in the fossil record but, according to Coyne, we should not expect to find any.
Taking into account all of these requirements, it’s clear that the fossil record must be incomplete. … 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! [italics his] 4
What should our “missing link” with apes look like? Remember that the “missing link” is the single ancestral species that gave rise to modern humans on the one hand and chimpanzees on the other. It’s not reasonable to expect the discovery of that critical single species, for its identification would require a complete series of ancestor-descendant fossils on both the chimp and human lineages, series that we could trace back until they intersect at the ancestor. Except for a few marine microorganisms, such complete fossil sequences don’t exist. And our early human ancestors were large, relatively few in number compared to grazers like antelopes, and inhabited a small part of Africa under dry conditions not conducive to fossilization. Their fossils, like those of all apes and monkeys, are scarce. This resembles our problem with the evolution of birds from feathered reptiles, for whom transitional fossils are also rare. We can certainly trace the evolution of birds from feathered reptiles, but we’re not sure exactly which fossil species were the direct ancestors of modern birds.
Given all this, we can’t expect to find the single particular species that represents the “missing link” between humans and other apes. We can hope only to find its evolutionary cousins. Remember also that this common ancestor was not a chimpanzee, and probably didn’t look like either modern chimps or humans. Nevertheless, it’s likely that the “missing link” was closer in appearance to modern chimps than to modern humans. We are the odd man out in the evolution of modern apes, who all resemble one another far more than they resemble us. 5 [italics his]
We will return to this issue of humans being so different from modern apes later; but let’s stick to the impossibility of finding missing links for the moment.
Clearly, he is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He says that complete fossils sequences don’t exist, except for a few microscopic marine organisms. Microscopic fossils are controversial because scientists don’t always agree that they even are fossils. But, let’s suppose they really are fossils. Just because they look similar doesn’t necessarily mean that they are biologically descended from one another. Even if they are descended from one another, they are all still just microorganisms which demonstrate variation—not evolution. So, actually, the alleged microscopic fossils don’t really show evolution.
Human and bird fossils allegedly provide the best (although incomplete) sequence of fossils, but even they don’t really show a clear pattern of evolution, so Coyne remains in full-blown excuse mode.
Although far from complete, the record of human evolution is one of the best confirmations we have of an evolutionary prediction, and is especially gratifying because the prediction was Darwin’s.
But a few caveats. We don’t (and can’t expect to) have a continuous fossil record of human ancestry. Instead, we see a tangled bush of many different species. Most of them went extinct without leaving descendants, and only one genetic lineage threaded its way through time to become modern humans. We’re not sure yet which fossil species lie along that particular thread, and which were evolutionary dead ends. The most surprising thing we’ve learned about our history is that we’ve had many close evolutionary cousins who died out without leaving descendants. It’s even possible that as many as four humanlike species lived in Africa at the same time, and maybe in the same place. Imagine the encounters that might have taken place! Did they kill one another, or try to interbreed? 6
After saying they are unable to tell how the different fossils are related, he next admits they aren’t even able to classify the fossils with any degree of certainty.
And the names of ancestral human fossils can’t be taken too seriously. Like theology, paleontology is a field in which the students far outnumber the objects of study. There are lively—and sometimes acrimonious—debates about whether a given fossil is really something new, or merely a variant of an already named species. These arguments about scientific names often mean very little. Whether a humanlike fossil is named as one species or another can turn on matters as small as half a millimeter in the diameter of a tooth, or slight differences in the shape of the thighbone. 7
It is important to remember that when paleontologists talk about “human fossils” they generally aren’t talking about complete skeletons. Often they are talking about one or two bones, a partial skull, or a few teeth. One can’t even be sure that the teeth and bones go together. This is why there are so many arguments. The models of our “human ancestors” that are displayed in museums are based on a few bones and a lot of speculation based on the presumption of evolution.
Here is his self-contradictory summary.
Looking at the whole array of bones, then what do we have? Clearly, indisputable evidence for human evolution from apelike ancestors. Granted, we can’t yet trace out a continuous lineage from an apelike early hominid to modern Homo sapiens. The fossils are scattered in time and space, a series of dots yet to be genealogically connected. And we may never have enough fossils to join them. 8
It is indisputable and yet unproven. How can you argue with “logic” like that?
Coyne makes general claims that the evolution of dinosaurs to birds, and the origin of flight, is well documented in the fossil record. But when he gets to specifics, he just makes excuses for why they don’t really know anything at all about the evolution of birds.
Because reptiles appear in the fossil record before birds, we can guess that the common ancestor of birds and reptiles was an ancient reptile, and would have looked like one. We now know that this common ancestor was a dinosaur. 9 [italics his]
Coyne so easily goes from “guess” to “know.” Even if the fossil record showed that a particular reptile died before a particular bird, it doesn’t prove that the bird is a biological descendant of the reptile. It is an indisputable fact that Big Brown (the horse that won the 2008 Kentucky Derby) died in 2008, and President George Washington died in 1799. Does that prove that Big Brown was a biological descendant of George Washington? Of course not!
We want you to get the full impact of Coyne’s explanation about bird evolution, so here is a long passage. As always, colored highlights are ours, but the italics for emphasis in the quote are his.
But if feathers didn’t arise as adaptations for flying, what on earth were they for? Again, we don’t know. They could have been used for ornamentation or display—perhaps to attract mates. It seems more likely, though, that they were used for insulation. Unlike modern reptiles, theropods may have been partially warm-blooded; and even if they weren’t, feathers would have helped maintain body temperature. And what feathers evolved from is even more mysterious. The best guess is that they derive from the same cells that give rise to reptilian scales, but not everyone agrees.
Despite the unknowns, we can make some guesses about how natural selection fashioned modern birds. Early carnivorous dinosaurs evolved longer forelimbs and hands, which probably helped them grab and handle their prey. That kind of grabbing would favor evolution of muscles that would quickly extend the front legs and pull them inward: exactly the motion used for the downward stroke in true flight. Then followed the feathery covering, probably for insulation. Given these innovations, there are at least two ways flight could have evolved. The first is called the “trees down” scenario. There is evidence that some theropods lived at least partly in trees. Feathery forelimbs would help these reptiles glide from tree to tree, or from tree to ground, which would help them escape predators, find food more readily, or cushion their falls.
A different—and more likely—scenario is called the “ground up” theory, which sees flight evolving as an outgrowth of open-armed runs and leaps that feathered dinosaurs might have made to catch their prey. Longer wings could also have evolved as running aids. The chukar partridge, a game bird studied by Kenneth Dial at the University of Montana, represents a living example of this step. These partridges almost never fly, and flap their wings mainly to help them run uphill. The flapping gives them not only extra propulsion, but also more traction against the ground. Newborn chicks can run up 45-degree slopes, and adults can ascent 105-degree slopes—overhangs more than vertical!—solely by running and flapping their wings. The obvious advantage is that uphill scrambling helps these birds escape predators. The next step in evolving flight would be very short airborne hops, like those made by turkeys and quail fleeing from danger.
In either the “trees down” or “ground up” scenario, natural selection could begin to favor individuals who could fly farther instead of merely gliding, leaping, or flying for short bursts. Then would come the other innovations shared by modern birds, including hollow bones for lightness and that large breastbone.
While we may speculate about the details, the existence of transitional fossils—and the evolution of birds from reptiles—is fact. 10
The only real science here is the study showing that wings can help birds run uphill. All the rest is, as Coyne admits, speculation—and therefore an undeniable fact!
We don’t have space this month to point out all the times Coyne makes bold general claims about the fossils, and then makes excuses for why the fossil data doesn’t support the general claim. We hope we have given you enough examples to prove our point, and hope that you read his book to find more examples for yourself.
Earlier in this essay we did promise, however, to examine Coyne’s statement about humans being so different from apes. This is important because evolutionists are stuck in the middle. On the one hand, they need to prove that we are so close genetically to apes that we must be biologically related to them. On the other hand, they need to explain how such a small genetic difference can produce such obvious, significant differences between men and apes.
That oft-quoted 1.5 percent difference between ourselves and chimps, then is really larger than it looks … More than 6 percent of genes found in humans simply aren’t found in any form in chimpanzees. There are over fourteen hundred novel genes expressed in humans but not in chimps. … Despite our general resemblance to our primate cousins, then, evolving a human from an apelike ancestor probably required substantial genetic change. 11 [italics his]
He is pretty close to the truth here. We’ve shown before that the allegedly small genetic difference between apes and man is a fictitious result of some artful mathematics. 12 There really is a substantial genetic difference between apes and humans which evolutionists don’t like to admit because it weakens their argument that we share a common biological ancestor.
The most basic problem with the theory of evolution is staring us right in the face, but it is so obvious that it is often overlooked.
Indeed, perhaps the most striking fact about nature is that it is discontinuous. When you look at animals and plants, each individual almost always falls into one of many discrete groups. When we look at a single wild cat, for example, we are immediately able to identify it as either a lion, a cougar, a snow leopard, and so on. All cats do not blur insensibly into one another through a series of feline intermediates. And although there is a variation among individuals within a cluster (as all lion researchers know, each lion looks different from every other), the clusters nevertheless remain discrete in “organism space.” We see clusters in all organisms that reproduce sexually.
These discrete clusters are known as species. And at first sight, their existence looks like a problem for evolutionary theory. Evolution is, after all, a continuous process, so how can it produce groups of animals and plants that are discrete and discontinuous, separated from others by gaps in appearance and behavior? How these groups arise is the problem of speciation—or the origin of species.
That, of course, is the title of Darwin’s most famous book, a title implying that he had a lot to say about speciation. … Yet Darwin’s magnum opus was largely silent on the “mystery of mysteries.” And what little he did say on this topic is seen by most modern evolutionists as muddled. 13 [italics his]
If the theory of evolution were true, then plants and animals really would blur together without clear distinctions. It really is a problem for which Coyne has no good answer.
The origin of sex is one of the hardest things for evolutionists to explain. Coyne doesn’t have an answer. As usual, he just punts.
The question of the number of sexes is a messy theoretical issue that needn’t detain us, except to note that theory shows that two sexes will evolutionarily replace mating systems involving three or more sexes: two sexes is the most robust and stable strategy.
The theory of why the two sexes have different numbers and sizes of gametes is equally messy. This condition presumably evolved from that in earlier sexually reproducing species in which the two sexes had gametes of equal size. 14
On those rare occasions when Coyne isn’t attacking creationists or making excuses for why there isn’t any real proof for evolution, he makes false claims about evidence for evolution. Here are just a few.
If we know the half-life, how much of the radioisotope was there when the rock was formed (something that geologists can accurately determine), and how much remains now, it’s relatively simple to estimate the age of the rock. 15
Geologists have no possible way of knowing how much radioactive material was in the rock when it formed.
Several radio-isotopes usually occur together, so the dates can be cross-checked, and the ages invariably agree. 16
No, they don’t invariably agree, unless you throw out the ages that don’t agree! The discordant dates of the Apollo 11 moon rocks are typical. (Only 10 of 116 measurements agreed with the “accepted” age of the moon. 17)
The fossil record documents the gradual loss of toes over time, so that in modern horses only the middle one—the hoof—remains. 18
This story about horse evolution has been debunked by evolutionists themselves for years! Even the Chicago Field Museum admits it. 19 20 How could Coyne not know that?
Coyne even goes so far as to try to defend Ernst Haeckel’s biogenetic law, sort of.
Noting this principle, Ernst Haeckel, a German evolutionist and Darwin’s contemporary, formulated a “biogenetic law” in 1866, famously summarized as “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” This means the development of an organism simply replays its evolutionary history. But this notion is true in only a limited sense. Embryonic stages don’t look like the adult forms of their ancestors, as Haeckel claimed, but like the embryonic forms of ancestors. Human fetuses, for example, never resemble adult fish or reptiles, but in certain ways they do resemble embryonic fish and reptiles. Also the recapitulation is neither strict nor inevitable: not every feature of an ancestor’s embryo appears in its descendants, nor do all stages of development unfold in a strict evolutionary order. Further, some species, like plants, have dispensed with nearly all traces of their ancestry during development. Haeckel’s law has fallen into disrepute not only because it wasn’t strictly true, but also because Haeckel was accused, largely unjustly, of fudging some drawings of early embryos to make them look more similar than they really are. Yet we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Embryos still show a form of recapitulation: features that arose earlier in evolution often appear earlier in development. And this makes sense only if species have an evolutionary history.
Now, we’re not absolutely sure why some species retain much of their evolutionary history during development. The “adding new stuff onto old” principle is just a hypothesis—an explanation for the facts of embryology. 21 [italics his]
In summary, embryos look similar during development, except when they don’t; and this only makes sense to evolutionists. They don’t know why this happens. They don’t know why it only happens in some species. But it explains the facts of embryology!
We don’t know why Coyne thinks Haeckel was “unjustly” accused of faking the drawings. There is no question that he did fake them. His guilt has been known for decades.
The theory of evolution is full of contradictions, resulting in debates and arguments among evolutionists. Coyne says these controversies prove how strong the theory is.
Critics of evolution seize upon these controversies, arguing that they show something is wrong with the theory of evolution itself. But this is specious. There is no dissent among serious biologists about the major claims of evolutionary theory—only about the details of how evolution occurred, and about the relative roles of various evolutionary mechanisms. Far from discrediting evolution, the “controversies” are in fact the sign of a vibrant, thriving field. What moves science forward is [sic] ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments. A science without controversy is a science without progress. 22
This is just amazing! There are controversies precisely because the theory is wrong. He says all the people who believe in evolution really believe in evolution (they just believe other believers in evolution are wrong). The fact that there is so much ignorance and controversy about evolution proves how true it must be.
If it is true that debate about evolution promotes scientific progress, why is it that evolutionists go to court to prevent debate about evolution from being discussed in American public schools?
The more you read about evolution, written by evolutionists, the less you will believe it!
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Coyne, Why Evolution is True, 2009, page 3
2 ibid. page 133
3 ibid. page 132
4 ibid. page 22
5 ibid. pages 195-196
6 ibid. pages 196-197
7 ibid. page 197
8 ibid. page 207
9 ibid. page 34
10 ibid. pages 46-47
11 ibid. pages 210-211
12 Disclosure, January 2003, “98% Chimp” http://scienceagainstevolution.org/v7i4f.htm
13 Coyne, Why Evolution is True, 2009, page 169-170
14 ibid. page 156
15 ibid. page 23
16 ibid. page 24
17 Disclosure, June 2008, “The Age of the Moon”, http://www.scienceagainstevolution.org/v12i9f.htm
18 Coyne, Why Evolution is True, 2009, page 65
19 Disclosure, February 2002, “Horses and Peppered Moths”, http://www.scienceagainstevolution.org/v6i5f.htm
20 Disclosure, October 1997, “Education Behind the Times”, http://www.scienceagainstevolution.org/v2i1e.htm
21 Coyne, Why Evolution is True, 2009, page 78
22 ibid. page 223