Talk Reason PRINT

Secondary Addiction Part II: Ann Coulter on Evolution

By James Downard

Posted July 9, 2006

Coulter (2006, 216-217) commenced her foray into paleontology with -- surprise -- a spurt of 1979 text blocks from David Raup on how the fossil record "now appears to be much more complex and much less gradualistic."

As those familiar with the apologetics of creationism will already know, Coulter's authority quoting of Raup falls well within standard operating procedures for antievolutionists who prefer lifting opinions from people rather than evaluating data. Examples for just the Raup case run from Young Earth creationist Duane Gish (1993, 77-79; 1995, 350-351) to ID patron saint Phillip Johnson (1991, 170-171) and Old Earth "progressive creationist" Robert C. Newman, "Conclusion," in Moreland & Reynolds (1999, 154).

Meanwhile there was Raup himself: "The Geological and Paleontological Arguments of Creationism," in Godfrey (1983, 156), patiently explaining what is obvious to a paleontologist but not to lay persons who think the New York Times is a technical journal. Transitional forms do in fact exist, but not as the smooth baby-step sequences Darwin imagined in the 19th century, noting Archaeopteryx as an example of where taxonomists had to arbitrarily classify it as either a "bird" or "reptile." Such ambiguity is exactly what shouldn't have been the case were "birds" and "reptiles" the unbridgeable typological categories mandated by the mythology of creationism.

The problem for all these antievolutionary critics who riff off Raup is the same one Coulter suffers from via the osmosis of her secondary reading. Not one of them has the slightest comprehension of or interest in the facts of natural history. They have no working idea in their own minds of what diversity exists in the real world, or how much variety is to be found in the fossil record. Add to that the complete conceptual failure to work out from their own nonevolutionary perspective exactly what they think was going on in the past -- or what should have been taking place were the dreaded evolution theory really calling the shots.

In a quite real sense then, antievolutionists are comparing nothing (their lack of understanding of evolutionary theory) to nothing (their non-formulated design theory). No surprise then that they decide that Intelligent Design wins this contest.

So when they read some paleontologist "conceding" that the fossil evidence is not so "gradualistic" as formerly thought, they jump to utterly unwarranted conclusions driven by their own lack of familiarity with fundamental principles or the available evidence. Given their lack of direct source data, this is actually a perfectly understandable (albeit patently indefensible) mistake for them to make.

By analogy, an antievolutionist trying to think about fossils is like taking someone who refuses to believe in the existence of the extinct Oldsmobile to a junkyard for evidence. Unless you have some idea of what an Oldsmobile would look like, though, how could you know you weren't already looking at Oldsmobile parts?

The initial failure of Coulter's reading starts with the fact that her reference base has no comprehension of what speciation involves. Let's begin with biogeography.

It was no coincidence that Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace independently hit on the "descent with modification via natural selection" thing from having explored the world as field naturalists. Unlike the museum-based evolution skeptics (such as Cuvier or Owen), Darwin and Wallace saw firsthand the peculiarly restricted nature of animal diversity, especially on isolated islands.

It was hardly a problem to imagine a designer populating an island with creatures well suited to their existence there. But if the driving force behind life were natural evolution, then an entirely different imperative comes into play. No matter how habitable a freshwater stream might be on a distant isle, there could be no fish there because specialized freshwater adapted fish could not have crossed the oceans to colonize it. No matter how big the forest may be -- composed, not incidentally, entirely of plants able to propagate by floating or airborne seed dispersal (e.g. via bird droppings) -- there would be no large endemic vertebrate herbivores or carnivores strolling amongst the foliage. This pattern was so ubiquitous, seen by Darwin and Wallace in different decades and opposite sides of the world, that they were each driven to realize the only way to account for these data was to accept that branching speciation had indeed been the cause of it.

So what is the Intelligent Design explanation for all this? It is the same as the creationist explanation. They don't have one. Oh, it's way worse than simply offering lame or pathetic ad hoc excuses for the facts of biogeography. It is that antievolutionists literally do not think about biogeography at all -- neither to refute its evolutionary implications, nor to somehow integrate it into the design framework whose scientific verity they are so confident of.

I am by no means the first critic of antievolutionism to have noticed this curious omission, of course. Creationists cannot claim biogeography has not been repeatedly brought to their attention, such as by Joel Cracraft, "Systematics, Comparative Biology, and the Case against Creationism," in Godfrey (1983, 183-184), Strahler (1987, 365-366) or Ecker (1990, 42-43). And yet the closest any major creationist has got to the topic is Gish (1993, 213-215) patently misrepresenting the contents of Kitcher (1982, 51-52). Morris & Morris (1996, 237) played coy: "For some reason, the geographical distribution of animals and plants is often cited (and has been, since before Darwin's time) as an evidence of evolution."

On the ID side, biogeography has so far continued to resist their curiosity too, as noted in the critical review by Peterson (2002, 18). Examples may start with Michael Denton (1985, 33-34) conceding the evolutionary implication of biogeography -- that Darwin was perfectly right that it implied speciation -- then doing nothing with it, in that work or the subsequent backsliding of Denton (1998). The verbose Phillip Johnson (1991, 151) managed to devote but one sentence to the topic. Biogeography also failed to make the cut in Jonathan Wells (2000) or in any substantive sense in Cornelius Hunter (2001; 2003). Indeed, the brief section on "Biogeography" in Hunter (2001, 97-98, 113) riffed off a Michael Ruse authority quote -- but skipped the larger issue of why isolated islands invariably possess restricted inhabitants (no large endemic vertebrates on Hawaii, for example). Hunter's selective coverage was especially brazen, as he had actually referenced Cracraft's article (noted above) from the Godfrey anthology, Hunter (2003, 158n). So either Hunter was dull as a sack of hammers here, or he was willfully suppressing the issue.

Because biogeography is a complete non-subject for them, Coulter (not typically caught reading people she doesn't already agree with) would have no way of knowing the monumental hole residing at the very center of ID mythology. Millions of species of plants and animals and microorganisms have flowed through time and space in a pattern uniquely accountable by evolutionary theory. This is attested doubly by the detailed discussions evolutionists devote to the subject, and by the failure of antievolutionists to even dare a clumsy whack at it. That would evidently include all of the tutorials whom Coulter (2006, 303) reported she obtained from those Discovery Institute Fellows Behe, Berlinski and Dembski (none of whom have ventured any opinion on the biogeography/speciation issue, even though all of them have professed to have assiduously digested Denton's 1985 book).

To reiterate: without a firm grip on the raw data of biogeography antievolutionists can have no sense of what branching speciation can do in the living world. Hence they can possess not even a rough heuristic to apply to the much more fragmentary fossil data to assess how much may be conservatively accounted for by the microevolutionary wiggles of accepted speciation mandated by the strictures of observed biogeography. Indeed, to fit the full range of biogeography into a design framework functionally requires attributing "creation with apparent ancestry" to the designed organisms. Which puts ID antievolutionism into the same omphalos category as "creation with apparent age" used by Young Earth Creationists to dismiss theologically unpleasant geological or cosmological findings.

Now that some of the missing context is laid out, we can take a gander at how Coulter (2006, 217-218) can pen such hilarious drivel as this:

But we don't have "interminable varieties." We don't have fossils "connecting" the extinct to the extant. We don't have the "finest graduated steps." What the fossil record shows is sudden bursts of all manner of animals, modest change, and then sudden and total extinction. Dinosaurs appeared, lived for 150 million years, and then disappeared, only to be quickly replaced with mammals. Neither the creation nor the extinction of dinosaurs was accomplished by a gradual process of any sort.

You also never see the mutations that turned out to be clunkers, like the dog that mutated webbed feet or the fish that mutated feet. To the contrary, all the changes always seem to follow a straight line.

But if the mutations were really random, with Mother Nature ruthlessly striking down the genetic losers, then for every mutation that was desirable, there ought to be a staggering number that are undesirable. Otherwise, the mutations aren't random, they are deliberate -- and then you get into all the hocus-pocus about an "intelligent designer" and will probably start speaking in tongues and going to NASCAR races. But that's not what the fossil record shows. We don't have fossils for the vast quantities of hapless creatures that ought to have died out in a survival-of-the-fittest regime.

The evolution cultists hypothesize -- since this is a real science, as opposed to intelligent design, which is just a bunch of crazy conjectures -- that the bad mutations didn't stick around long enough to leave fossils. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: the clunkier mutations simply never fossilized, and why are you asking so many questions?

Or they revert to Darwin's excuse of 150 years ago about the paucity of the fossil record. If that explains anything, it only explains why we wouldn't find one particular unfit mutation -- say, if we went looking only for the dog with webbed feet. It doesn't explain why we don't find any bad mutations -- a dog that mutated antennae, or gills, or a tail on its head. In order to mutate the good stuff, like a bird's lung, there would have to be countless mutations that were at least as better than what existed before. If each one of the incremental mutations is more "fit" than what preceded it -- which it has to be in order to survive -- those transitional mutations should have stayed around long enough to appear in the fossil record, before mutating their way to something even better. But in the course of millions and millions of years, all we see are slight variations on the final product.

Where to begin with all this surfeit of delight?

Let's start with her claim about dinosaur evolution. How exactly did she ascertain what the fossil data pertaining to dinosaurs were? There were no references for any of this. But then again, Coulter could not have cited anyone in the antievolution register here even had she wanted to, for there would be no one for her to parasitize. Apart from the threadbare Gish (1992; 1995, 115-128) and even loonier Ham (1998) and Taylor (1987), all in the wacky YEC camp, dinosaurs are as much a non-subject for antievolutionists as biogeography.

Had Coulter ventured forth from the anoxic Intelligent Design heights to consult some actual paleontological resources, she would have tumbled onto the fact that the appearance of dinosaurs is anything but devoid of gradual origins. The pesky critters here are the lagosuchids ("rabbit crocs") of the Triassic. See Michael J. Benton, "Origin and Interrelationships of Dinosaurs," in Weishampel et al. (1990, 17-18) or Kevin Padian, "Origin of Dinosaurs," in Currie & Padian (1997, 481-484), with the skeleton of Lagosuchus illustrated in both. Incidentally, Gish presumably had access to the Benton piece, since he cited the anthology a few pages later, but Gish (1995, 122) somehow managed to miss this intelligence (and this being the only "detailed" coverage in the entire antievolution literature, remember).

The predecessor status of Lagosuchus is established by comparison to early dinosaurs, which of course is a task that no antievolutionist has ever been caught doing. We may start with the likes of the Late Triassic theropod Coelophysis, as well as the later Jurassic forms, such as Compsognathus (we'll encounter him again in a further installment of this series) and Ornitholestes, all conveniently on display in sources like Norman (1985, 40-41). Indicating just how transitional the lagosuchids were, Paul (1988, 240-244) was undecided whether they should be regarded as protodinosaurs or the most primitive of dinosaurs. In the aforementioned book entry, Benton also called attention to the anatomical similarities between the lagosuchids and another of the groups appearing at that time: pterosaurs -- as did Bakker (1986, 293-295), noting the head, neck, shoulder and ankles.

Thus the diapsid branch of the reptiles (the group that includes familiar reptiles along with the "archosaur" bunch of crocodiles, dinosaurs, and their bird relations) was up to some very interesting evolutionary activity back in the Mesozoic. But none of this could be visible to antievolutionary pundits whose idea of "research" does not consist of toddling off to a library and checking out a few relevant works.

And with what cavalier -- though not Cavalier-Smith -- brevity Coulter characterized the "modest change" attending the dinosaur's 150-million-year run! As dinosaur paleontology happens to be among one of my keener interests, let me summarize what Coulter did (or could) not. Small bipedal beasts proliferated as pelvic bones shifted around, limbs atrophied away toes, necks and tails sprouted stiffening struts, weight increased and stances went quadrupedal, skull bones warped and teeth arrangements developed monster steak knives and plant-graters. And let's not forget feathers -- more on that in a later installment.

By what possible stretch of the imagination can all this be deemed "modest change"? Or by what legerdemain can the known intermediate fossils documenting each of these transitions be flicked away by fact-starved secondary-addict journalists?

And speaking of transitional fossils, what exactly was going through Coulter's head when she declared the absence of "the fish that mutated feet"? As we'll see, not only was Coulter deaf as a post to the details of the readily available literature, but Coulter doesn't even pay attention to herself. For only 10 pages further on, in Coulter (2006, 227-228) we read this:

But every few years, the Darwiniacs find some odd creature that looks a little like another creature, and it is triumphantly announced that evolution has been "proved true." Thus, for example, on April 6, 2006, the New York Times gave prime front-page, above-the-fold space to an article headlined, "Fossil Called Missing Link from Sea to Land Animals." The article quoted unnamed scientists as saying that this discovery "should undercut the argument that there is no evidence in the fossil record of one kind of creature becoming another kind." So they found an odd-looking fish with weird appendages and pronounced the missing link between fish and land animals. But only if evolution is assumed to be true is there any basis for assuming that the fish is related to fishes without appendages or to land animals -- much less for assuming that each step was produced by a brutal battle of survival of the fittest. And there is no reason to assume evolution is true until, among other things, the Darwiniacs can produce a whole glut of transitional animals -- i.e., a [sic] entirely new fossil record.

Normally Coulter can be provisionally excused for writing stupid things on the grounds of extenuating ignorance. After all, what could she know of those two ancient orders Dipnoi (lungfish) and crossopterygians (coelacanths and their extinct rhipidistian relatives, such as Eusthenopteron) in the subclass Sarcopterygii? Without studying them, she could hardly be accused of knowing how they share with basal amphibians (like Ichthyostega and Acanthostega) distinctive bony limbs, specialized vertebrae, and a two-part cranium with internal nares and unique teeth. Of course her curiosity about them might have been jump-started by the very newspaper piece she had supposedly read, as Wilford (2006, A20) mentioned all of our italicized taxa by name. But there is no reason to suppose that Coulter has much curiosity to satisfy.

Had Coulter sought to do so, though, by perusing the extensive Intelligent Design analyses of these taxa she would have bumped into our familiar problem: no antievolutionist (let alone ID pundit) pays the slightest attention to these things. The thorough Wilford ironically interviewed Duane Gish, who promised "This alleged transitional fish will have to be evaluated carefully." But is that not likely to be the same level of "careful" the indefatigably misleading Gish (1995, 83-92) has already manifested regarding previously discovered fish-tetrapod fossils? Fortunately we know exactly what Gish could have known (but consistently neglected to mention) by comparing Gish's account to the missing substance covered by sources Gish had professed to have read: Strahler (1987, 408-412) and McGowan (1984, 150-158).

For the more technically minded (watch Coulter's back here, slipping out the exit), try Radinsky (1987, 78-81) comparing the structural layout of Eusthenopteron with early amphibians, noting how their relevant dynamic muscle transformations were traceable in the fossils. See also Lambert & The Diagram Group (1985, 86-87, 90-93), Colbert & Morales (1991, 64-69), Michael Benton, "The Rise of the Fishes," in Gould (1993, 79-83), Ahlberg et al. (1996), Rich et al. (1996, 367-371) or Weinberg (2000, 98-102, 195-203). Incidentally, unlike the external gills of modern amphibians, the earliest had internal fishlike gills, Coates & Clack (1991), prompting Ken Miller (1999, 40) to remind antievolutionists (his italics): "The first amphibians looked more like fish than any amphibian species that would follow them in the next 380 million years."

But the mysterious Designer responsible for all these organisms apparently just loves Charles Darwin, for that crafty personage dutifully populated the Devonian with still more beasties sufficient to prompt ripples of cognitive pleasure from evolutionary paleontologists (a redundant term here, since only evolutionary scientists actually do paleontology). One of those doers is Jennifer Clack (2005), whose excellent summary of the available data (including her own field work) stands in glaring contrast to the vacuous fluff emanating via keyboard from Coulter's derived upper tetrapod limbs.

Starting with Eusthenopteron, and running through such diagnostic taxa as Panderichthys, Elpistostege, Livoniana, Elginerteton, Ventastega, Acanthostega, Icthyostega, and Tulerpeton, these document the development of increasingly robust toed feet attached to shoulder girdles. They were used initially not to clamber up onto the land, as formerly thought before these fossils were found to clarify the process, but employed adaptively to lift their nostrils up to breathe air directly from the lungs they possessed along with gills. Thus there were indisputably millions of years of "fish with feet" preceding the first amphibians.

Which brings us to the subject of Coulter's fishy prose.

May we assume that her sole familiarity with the tetrapod evolution issue consists not of actually reading Ahlberg & Clack (2006) -- let alone the original papers, Daeschler et al. (2006) and Shubin et al. (2006) -- but only that quick glance through the New York Times piece? And it had to be quick, too, for how else could she have managed to miss the rather salient feature of Tiktaalik, the animal Coulter couldn't even screw up the courage to call by name. But she did manage to avoid using dangerously clear terminology, such as "limbs" or "elbows" or "wrists" observed on Tiktaalik. Cf. Wilford (2006, A18): "the beginnings of digits, protowrists, elbows and shoulders." Instead Coulter dubs them "weird appendages" -- afraid to call a foot a foot, perhaps, but still agile enough to stick her own firmly in the mouth.

But adding insult to injury for Coulter are the circumstances of how the paleontologists Shubin, Daeschler et al. happened upon that "odd-looking" Tiktaalik. It wasn't dumb luck, or happenstance. It was part of a field project specifically undertaken to hunt for a predicted intermediate. That is because by now there were so many benchmarks available (as we saw above in Clark's 2005 survey) that paleontologists were able to home in on specific deposits that fit the bill for likely locales to have preserved animals that were already expected on evolutionary grounds to have existed.

Which brings us to an intriguing question. Just how come these "Darwiniacs" are so good at second-guessing the Designer and figuring out where the next "fish with feet" -- oh, pardon me, "odd-looking fish with weird appendages" -- would be found? Isn't it just a teensy bit curious that paleontologists are able to pull this prediction trick off? As we'll see in another later installment of Till Coulter's Merry Pranks (regarding the reptile-mammal transition) this isn't the only time evolutionists have anticipated the handiwork of the Designer. So if natural evolution isn't the cause for the origin of these hitherto unknown animals, why is it that evolutionists alone are able to anticipate their existence? How come the Design set aren't the ones figuring any of this out?

Then again, consider what would be at stake to test out a theory of Designer Diversity. First they would have to actually come up with one -- tackling all those data they have paid no attention to. But worse still, the testing of that would not involve toasting the death of Darwin at a Discovery Institute seminar. It would require some long circuitous plane reservations and a far-from-chic dress code. Can you just imagine Ann Coulter, teemed with Behe, Berlinski and Dembski, hightailing it off to a desolate Canadian rock outcropping, where the weather is so bad that digging can only be done there for a few summer months? Having personally experienced the joys of extracting a forklift stuck in loose gravel on a cold snowy night, I can sympathize with the pluck of field paleontologists who put their science on the line in a way no antievolutionist ever dares.

Just as you can usually tell which side in a civil war is doing the most massacring by seeing who is fleeing and who is chasing, you can tell who the real scientists are by who actually does the work. And when it comes to paleontology, there is only one set of players, and they aren't the people who complain about "Darwiniacs."

In respect of antievolutionary apologetics ("pardon me, but I don't want to think about that") Coulter's escapades on Tiktaalik are boringly conventional. Up in my neck of the woods, creationist Chuck Missler soaks up every scrap of antievolutionary "evidence" he detects at WorldNetDaily or the Discovery Institute. But when the regular media were positively sloshing with references to Tiktaalik, lo and behold these failed to make the cut in his weekly K-House News (available online at

Similarly, the Discovery Institute weighed in with a piece by non-paleontologist Jonathan Witt ( Without examining any feature of Tiktaalik or relating it to any purported designed "type" Witt contented his curiosity by wafting some smoke in front of the mirror, courtesy of non-paleontologist Wells (2000, 134-135, 220-221). It was good enough for Witt to have Wells quote Henry Gee on the limits of detecting specific lineages through fossils, then use Wells commenting not on any early fossil tetrapod, but on an altogether different subject. Wells was drawn on for the claim (quite incorrect as we shall see in a later installment) that Archaeopteryx has been discarded as a reptile/bird intermediate.

But even were Wells right about Archaeopteryx, how could that justify not examining Tiktaalik on its own merits? Is it paleontological guilt by association now?

That's how easy it is to dispose of fossil evidence at the DI -- and by extension, by Coulter, via her tutors there. It saves them all that exhausting research/education/work stuff that plagues those Darwiniacs. Witt's reliance on Wells for Gee skipped the lecture on the rigors of cladistic taxonomy, which would have put Gee (1999) in clearer perspective. Strict cladism actually forbids the identification of ancestor/descendant relationships on principle. It is a technique for evaluating the comparative strengths of competing phylogenetic structures -- thus comparative relatedness. Gee's views have been mutated (via Wells) into the faulty perception that fossil data cannot be carefully assessed regarding how closely related two organisms might be compared to some outgroup. That's all -- not a blanket dismissal of their common ancestry.

That judgment is based on the detailed examination of the physical characters, something which antievolutionists do not do.

Which brings us to a big White Elephant lurking in the antievolutionary forest. Where exactly is the Design model for life that could be subjected to that same rigorous hair-splitting of cladistic analysis? After all, cladism is not dependent on evolutionary assumptions. It is only an analytical tool comparing the relative parsimony of competing schema. What are the typological out-groups (or in-groups, for that matter) to be evaluated? That we never get.

But it's worse than that. And Coulter stepped into this very large hole along with the pachyderm by her smug remark about the need for "a whole glut of transitional animals -- i.e., a entirely new fossil record."

We know of the fossils that actually exist. Coulter doesn't know about them, obviously, but we do. So let us give Coulter her assumption and suppose that none of these fossils are actually legitimate intermediates. What to do then? Coulter gives the impression that somewhere in her neurons is lurking some concept of what a perfect Darwinian fossil record would have looked like, against which she is measuring the paltry extant examples.

But we have no reason to believe that is the case. Coulter possesses none of the skills necessary to construct such a series, or evaluate it. No idea of comparative anatomy or how to relate that in taxonomy, or familiarity with the actual taxa to be so evaluated. But just because Coulter doesn't know anything about it, that shouldn't have stopped every antievolutionist from performing that task, to clinch their argument. Except they don't do that either. And I think by now you can see why.

In order to imagine what a perfect evolutionary fossil record would look like, and to use that as a stick to beat down those Darwiniacs, you would have to contend the following. That you had understood the evolutionary process being proposed (natural micromutations in a species population preserved by natural selection) and had fairly inferred from that what the ideal sequence would have looked like. That perfect sequence would consist of, say, X members, of which no single member could ever equate to any of the known fossils. Otherwise you would have examples of the perfect intermediates the antievolutionist insist don't exist. To sustain that argument the antievolutionist will have to explain exactly in what respect each of the known fossils might be distinguished from the members of that "perfect" series.

This is the hunt for the Oldsmobile in the junkyard. In order to know that you don't have an Oldsmobile fragment, don't you have to know what an Oldsmobile is supposed to look like?

Moving from extinct GM cars to extinct animals, you can sense the daunting task awaiting the antievolutionist here. Just how are they supposed to explain how an intermediate foot on a fish isn't really an intermediate foot, but only some "weird appendage" that just coincidentally looks exactly like what an intermediate foot would have to look like on biological grounds. Compound that by thousands of anatomical characters, for all the various taxa in the fossil record, and you have the recipe for a truly entertaining show -- certainly as funny as hearing Bill Clinton trying to parse the meaning of "is".

As much as Darwiniacs might look forward to reading such a work, by whatever foolhardy Fellow at the Discovery Institute (or other bastion of natural history research) who cares to tackle it, I have to warn you, not to hold your breath for the IDiots Guide to Fossil Morphology.

Having peeled back the onion of Coulter's "reasoning" this far, we can step back one more notch to take note of the really deep flaw in her understanding of evolution. You will notice above how I specified "natural micromutation" as the grist for the natural selection preservation sieve. Coulter apparently thinks that evolutionists are expecting to see gargantuan saltational mutations at the root of major transitions. Hence her expectation that there should have been things like "a dog that mutated antennae." Naturally Coulter cited nobody actually claiming that, since there are no recent evolutionists I know of who entertain such notions. Evolutionists are certain that all "macromutations" are ultimately a concatenation of microevolutionary mutation -- point mutations in structural and regulatory genes, introns and transcriptional frame-shifts, etc. Kirschner & Gerhart (2005) represent a recent informative exposition of these issues.

Indeed, the more that is discovered about the way in which genes become channeled along diverging lineages into specialized applications, the more impossible such saltational chimeras appear. Take Coulter's antennae-sprouting pup. The homeobox genes involved in the formation of arthropod antennae are the same ones that operate in other organisms -- from mammals to plants ("types" not customarily accounted especially "similar" by creationists). The homeobox genes of a fruit fly and mouse are virtually identical sequences positioned in the same locations on their respective chromosomes, yet result in very different body plan effects. An insect's skeleton is external, its body segmentation far more pronounced, so any changes to a fruit fly's HOM complex will modify how wings and legs are to be attached. But mammals have experienced a few hundred million years of their own non-arthropod evolution, adding to that ancestral substrate considerable genetic modification for things like a vertebrate's internal skeleton and musculature. During this adventure the mammalian Hox has undergone assorted gene doublings and duplications, and now exists in four copies on separate chromosomes (just as amphibians, birds, and worms have worked their own variations).

Just a sampling of sources here suggests the significance of this topic in current evolutionary biology. Whitfield (1993, 192-193), Krumlauf (1994), Lewin (1994, 1173-1178), McGinnis & Kuziora (1994), Gould (1994; 2002, 1095-1155), Lumsden & Krumlauf (1996), Müller (1996, 206-216, 243), Li (1997, 292-297), Meyer (1998), Coen (1999, 101-130), Maynard Smith & Szathmáry (1999, 120-122), Schwartz (1999, 33-38, 338-377), Carroll (2000), Duboule (2000) on Greer et al. (2000), Mayr (2001, 108-112) and Wray (2001). Beyond the considerable challenge of identifying which genes are involved in various processes, there is still the matter of figuring out why and how they do what they do. The preliminary character of work in this area is reflected in Fisher & Méchali (2003).

Meanwhile, it shouldn't come as much of a shock to discover how antievolutionists do not manifest any abiding curiosity about any of this HOX stuff, either to investigate them through direct research, or even ponder how they might relate to their supposedly designed systems.

On the overt creationist side, Morris & Morris (1996, 241) harrumphed: "This is hardly an appropriate place to try to discuss all these terms and concepts. Even specialists in molecular biology are still trying to sort them out. A little seems to be known about many things, but not much is known about anything specific in this unique field of study." Cf. the comparably rarified assessment of Taylor (1995, 30-31, 85-87).

As for the Discovery Institute gang, they follow well-worn ruts of secondary redaction that drive carefully around even their own sources. Thus the revised edition of Johnson (1993, 208) cited Mayr (1991) without hitting on pp. 158 & 181 text and glossary where homeobox was noted. And Johnson (1998, 57-66) criticized Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea on issues other than the allusion to homeobox in Dennett (1995, 353). Johnson (1998, 54-56) relied on Behe on his biochemical challenge to Darwinism, but did not wonder at how antiquated Behe (1996, 40-41) sounded when he dismissed the antennapedia mutation as too trivial a change to bother with, without connecting it to the by then extensive literature on homeobox. One may contrast biochemist Behe's response time here with how quickly Gould (1994) had picked up on the implications of homeotic genes. At long last Johnson (2000, 141-142) referred peripherally (and without citation or elaboration) to "the so-called hox genes that are common to many distinct groups."

Or take Moreland & Reynolds (1999) which sported philosophers Reynolds and Paul Nelson (of the Discovery Institute) for the YEC position, Bible scholar Robert C. Newman for the OEC side, and physicist Howard Van Till for Theistic Evolution (or as Van Till insists on describing it: "Fully-Gifted Creation"). Commentary was by the ubiquitous Phillip Johnson, engineers Walter Bradley and Richard Bube, theologians Moreland, Vern Sheridan Poythress and John Jefferson Davis. Not one of these contributors thought the HOX gene issue warranted attention.

And then there's the Discovery Institute luminaries William Dembski and Jonathan Wells.

Wells (2000, 73-77) touched on developmental genes only insofar as they play multiple roles in varied structures -- thus supposedly refuting the general concept of homology (physical structures inherited from a common ancestor). The issue is of course whether developmental complexes might be retained just as well, even when eventually manifested in non-homologous structures. Thus concerning Laufer et al. (1997) and Rodriguez-Esteban et al. (1997), two sources cursorily referenced by Wells (2000, 284), Gaunt (1997) noted that "the whole of this signaling pathway may be largely conserved between insects and vertebrates." Although the "homeobox" term never appeared in Wells' main text, it did arise en passant when Wells (2000, 41, 272) extracted a quote on the abrupt appearance of Cambrian phyla from "Jeffrey H. Schwartz, 'Homeobox Genes, Fossils, and the Origin of Species,' Anatomical Record (New Anatomist) 257 (1999), pp. 15-31." Cf. Conway Morris (2000).

The Wells case is an especially amazing omission, given his Ph.D. in biology from Berkeley, and his peripheral citation of Conway Morris' Crucible of Creation that had discussed homeobox in some detail (pp. 148-151). But Dembski pulls a close second. While Dembski (1999, 174-183) offered a generalized account of genetics, he missed homeobox there and in Dembski (2002) -- and Conway Morris (1998) again arose marginally in Dembski (2002, 376-377n) without homeobox surfacing. And over the years Dembski (2004) has managed to get even farther away from exploring the details of the natural world -- which may be contrasted issue by issue with the depth of biological detail featured in works like the aforementioned Kirschner & Gerhart (2005).

Such stultifying lack of curiosity among the avatars of Intelligent Design goes a long way to explain how Coulter's idea of mutation could be so out of touch with contemporary biology.

To return to Coulter's example, when a dog embryo expresses its primary Hox ensemble, it's not to attach wing membranes or antennae, but to produce transient brain tissues, ultimately discarded in later development. Thus the idea that those genes could somehow flip on antennae as a unified structure is so biologically preposterous that it only underscores how blockhead ignorant Coulter is of modern biology (or, by inference, the futility of her DI tutorial experience).

Since no evolutionist thinks there should be mutations on such a scale, good or bad, the absence of such phenomena in the fossil record cannot possibly be set down as a problem for evolution. But while evolutionary theory can't be held at fault for failing to show "evidence" that only exists in Coulter's confused imagination, the absence of some forms of life in the past does raise some puzzles for Intelligent Design.

What would have prevented the designer from trying out such things in the past (or now for that matter)? Known organisms have some amazing attributes, so it can't be due to a designer squeamishness about creating creepy things. For example, the particularly gruesome "root-head" Sacculina that parasitizes crabs by castrating the crustacean and transforming it into "a feeding machine" to sustain the root-head, Gould (1996). See Zimmer (2000) and Zchori-Fein et al. (2001) for further tours of the parasitical zoo. Incidentally, Denton (1985, 220-221) briefly remarked on Sacculina, but only proposing its internal metamorphosis as a further problem for evolutionists to account for -- not as an indication of some design work more characteristic of a horror movie than a Disney nature special.

But besides the Tim Burton monstrosities of nature in the raw, we have a deeper problem with the design argument that cuts back to the biogeography issue. If a designer has virtual freedom to create whatever can function, why is it that only certain forms actually were created? In a book Coulter has probably never read, Douglas Futuyma (1982, 62) summed up this problem a quarter century ago in his cogent criticism of creationism:

One of the most remarkable revelations of comparative anatomy, in fact, is how seldom truly novel structures are found. We can imagine cherubs and flying horses with wings sprouting from their shoulders; but the wings of vertebrates are always modifications of the front legs. As Darwin's colleague Milne Edwards expressed it, "Nature is prodigal in variety, but niggard in innovation." Take any major group of animals, and the poverty of imagination that must be ascribed to a Creator becomes evident. For example, all of the peculiarities of the various modern mammals are simply modifications of the structures possessed by primitive insectivorous mammals such as hedgehogs; and these in turn are modified reptilian features."

So even such a modest chimera as a terrier-sized Pegasus, however perfectly capable of flight it might be in a design sense, would nonetheless give evolutionists fits, for they hold all vertebrates to have descended from four-limbed models, which have yet to acquire the genetic wherewithal for adding new ones. For similar evolutionary reasons, all taxonomical "mosaics" are not created equal. Some are most plausible, while others are genuinely preposterous. Just within the chordates, mammal-like reptiles -- yes, mammal-like amphibians -- no. Fish-like amphibians -- certainly (see above!), lancelet-like amphibians -- never. By studying the history of life with a sensitivity for pattern and continuity, evolutionary theory has repeatedly interpolated the existence of hitherto unknown categories of creatures, while excluding an equal menagerie of forms which, for some curious reason, God never did get around to trying out.

Assuming some brand of design were indeed true, how have evolutionists managed to pull off this little trick of so consistently anticipating the mind of God? Either they are just exceptionally good guessers, or the deity was in the habit of creating things deliberately (or inadvertently) to comport to evolutionary expectations. Had the transcendent and omniscient Intelligent Designer obtained an extremely advanced copy of the Origin of Species, and so liked what he read that he decided to use it as a "style manual" for generating new lifeforms for the next half-billion years?

We await Coulter's insightful observations on these and other questions.

Part III coming attractions ... Coulter takes wing but fails to get airborne.


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See also
Secondary Addiction: Ann Coulter on Evolution
Secondary Addiction Part III: Ann Coulter on Evolution

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