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The Coulter Hoax
How Ann Coulter Exposed the Intelligent Design Movement
Ann Coulter's treatment of evolutionary biology in her book Godless is best interpreted as a hoax,
providing a scathing satire of the antievolution community.
By Peter Olofsson
Posted March 14, 2007
In the summer of 2006, I heard that a new book called
Godless presented an insightful and devastating criticism
of the theory of evolution. Although I learned that its
author, Ann Coulter, is not a scientist but a lawyer turned
author and TV pundit, she nevertheless appeared to be an
intelligent and well-educated person, so I started reading. At
first I was puzzled. There did not seem to be anything new;
only tired and outdated antievolution arguments involving
moths, finches, and fruit flies. But it wasn't until Coulter
dusted off the old Piltdown man story that I suddenly realized:
it was a hoax! And it was brilliant.
Coulter has very cleverly written a fake criticism of evolution,
much like the way NYU physicist Alan Sokal in 1996
published a fake physics article
in a literary journal, an affair
that has become known as the
"Sokal hoax." A self-proclaimed
"old unabashed leftist,"
Sokal was disturbed by the
sloppily antiscientific, postmodernistic
mentality that had
started to replace reason and
rationality within the academic
left and ingeniously made his
point by managing to get his
nonsense article published by
the very people he wished to
expose. Coulter's aim at antiscience
is at the other end of
the political spectrum. An
equally unabashed rightist, she
is apparently disturbed by how
factions within the political
right abandon their normally
rational standards when it
comes to the issue of evolution.
However, whereas Sokal revealed
his hoax in a separate article, Coulter challenges her
readers to find out the truth for themselves. Without claiming
to do justice to Coulter's multifaceted and sometimes subtle
satire, I will attempt to outline some of her most amusing and
Intelligent Design and Astrology
The attacks on evolution these days come not so much from
traditional creationists, adhering to the literal interpretation of
Genesis, as from proponents of intelligent design (ID), the
notion that some biological systems are so complicated that
they must have been designed. Unlike creationists, the ID proponents
refuse to identify the designer; in particular, they do
not mention God. As a matter of fact, design is only defined
as "anything else but chance."
A problem with ID that has been pointed out over and over
is that it isn't much of a scientific theory, as it does not attempt
to explain anything, only criticize evolutionary biology.
Coulter makes this point subtly. She nicely summarizes the
theory of evolution by listing the main driving forces, mutation
and natural selection, and the conclusion, creation of new
species. And the corresponding summary of ID? Absent!
Two of the most vehement ID advocates are Michael Behe
and William Dembski. Behe is a professor of biochemistry at
Lehigh University and one of very few ID proponents who is
actually a scientist with an established research record. In 1996
Behe published Darwin's Black Box, which claims to present a
biochemical challenge to evolutionary biology, a claim that has
been thoroughly opposed, for example, by Brown University
biology professor Kenneth Miller. It is hard for most of us to
follow the technical arguments,
but Behe would be the first to
admit (and in fact does so on
his academic Web site) that he
is very lonely among his peers
in advocating ID.
Coulter makes fun of Behe
by vastly exaggerating his
claims. For example, she claims
that Behe has "disproved evolution"
by demonstrating it to be
a "mathematical impossibility."
The truth is that Behe, who has
no expertise in mathematics,
accepts much of evolutionary
On occasion, Coulter's satire
is quite esoteric. Such is the
case when she states, "Behe disproved
is simply a nondisprovable
pseudoscience, like astrology."
To understand the subtle
linking of Behe to astrology,
one must be familiar with Behe's testimony in the Dover trial
in which he had to concede that if intelligent design was
accepted as science, one must also accept astrology.
The other front figure, William Dembski, is a research professor
in philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological
Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I think Coulter is perhaps
overly sarcastic when she lists his background: doctorate in
mathematics, master of divinity degree, postdoctoral work in
mathematics, physics, and computer science.
The sarcasm here is that Coulter lists postdoctoral positions
in physics, mathematics, and computer science, but when one
looks up Dembski's publication record, none of these positions
led to any published research. In fact, Dembski has published
precisely one original research article in a reputable journal: a
1990 paper on probability theory. Coulter goes on to refer to
Dembski's "complicated mathematical formulas" and "statistical
models" and jokes that there is yet no serious response. In
reality, the few mathematicians who have bothered examining
Dembski's mathematics have been completely unimpressed. A
nice summary and evaluation of Dembski's oeuvre was written
for the Dover trial by renowned mathematician Jeffrey Shallit.
Shallit's conclusion in one word: pseudomathematics.
The Return of Mr. Piltdown
Arguments against evolution have not evolved much. Coulter
illustrates this fact by repeating many old antievolution arguments,
some of which are wrong, some of which are irrelevant,
and some of which are both. I will only briefly touch upon three:
the Piltdown man, the peppered moth, and the fossil record.
The Piltdown man has been a favorite in the antievolution
camp for a long time. A fake fossil composed of a human skull
and the jaw bone of an ape, the Piltdown man was "discovered"
in 1912, and it was not until 1953 that the hoax was
revealed. Was it then exposed by a team of lawyers led by
Reverend Fred Phelps of Kansas? No such thing. The fraud
was exposed by scientists, doing what they usually do: trying
to figure out the truth. Moreover, there was no crisis in the scientific
community. In fact, quite the opposite was true, as the
Piltdown man was mostly regarded as an anomaly that did not
fit into the evolution of man, and everybody was glad to see
him gone. Coulter's joke consists of the mere mention of good
old Mr. Piltdown, who obviously cannot in any way be used
as an argument against evolution.
The peppered moth is a famous example of natural selection.
During the industrial revolution in England, the light-colored
variety of the moth started being replaced by a dark variety
that was better camouflaged against predators as soot from
the burning of coal started coating the countryside. This logical
and seemingly innocent example has not escaped the ire of
ID proponents. Coulter makes fun of the irrelevant complaint
that the famous photos of the moths that have appeared in
many biology books were staged. But, of course, one can stage
a photo for the purpose of comparison, just like a Photoshop
job could put Coulter next to Johnny Winter to compare a
lawyer from Connecticut and a blues guitarist from Texas.
As for the fossil record, finally, Coulter bluntly states that it
carries "no evidence" and supports this claim by jokingly referring
to the authority of a Phillip Johnson, who is a lawyer!
A Gigantic Conspiracy?
If evolutionary theory is not a legitimate science, it must be the
biggest scam the world has ever seen. By referring to "pseudoscience"
and biology teachers "lying to your children," Coulter
makes fun of the conspiracy theorists in the antievolution
crowd. It's all a gigantic worldwide cover-up (probably orchestrated
by the same people who blew up the World Trade Center
and the levees in New Orleans, and tried to blame "terrorists"
and a "hurricane"). It includes not only university professors
and researchers but high-school teachers, science reporters, and
Alex Trebek. And not only in America; the conspiracy is worldwide.
It is nothing short of a miracle how well organized it is.
Coulter also has some fun with the common debating trick
"reductio ad Hitlerum," the idea that any argument is invalidated
if it can be somehow linked to Hitler. In the case of evolution,
the argument comes in handy in claiming that Nazism
is a logical consequence of belief in evolution and that the latter
must therefore be flawed science.
This argument is silly in many ways. First, the validity of a
scientific theory does not hinge upon how it has been interpreted
by German dictators. And second, a scientific theory is
not an ideology; it aims at explaining nature, not telling us
what to do. Evolutionary biology did not oblige Hitler to kill
Jews any more than nuclear physics mandates Kim Jong-Il to
acquire the atomic bomb. And the theory of gravity does not
require that you go jump off a bridge.
What about God Then?
Evolutionary biology is no more an atheistic theory than is
nuclear physics, relativity theory, or astronomy. Famous
British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an atheist,
the previously mentioned Kenneth Miller is a Catholic, and
Michael Behe stated during the Dover trial that Darwin's theory
of evolution is not at all inconsistent with his private religious
beliefs. Inserting mystical or religious explanations for
natural phenomena is not new and did not even escape the
great Isaac Newton. He believed that the solar system was
unstable and required the occasional touch of the hand of God
to stay in order. Later, the French scientist Pierre-Simon
Laplace showed that the solar system was indeed stable without
the hand of God. By that time, Newton was long dead but
would easily have accepted Laplace's theory about the solar system
without losing his faith that God was ultimately responsible
for its creation.
The tale of Newton and Laplace brings us to the question
why there is, in some circles, such fear of science.
Coulter points out that no science is frightening to
Christians, thus encouraging people to accept that scientific
results are not a threat to their faith. I certainly agree.
Richard Dawkins and Kenneth Miller disagree about God's
existence, and it is up to you to decide with whom you
agree. However, when it comes to evolutionary biology,
they agree and they know what they are talking about. It is
unfortunate that some people are so insecure in their faith
that they fear their own intellects, especially as the concept
of man's free choice is central in Christian theology, making
it perfectly logical that God has created the world so that
we can explain it without assuming Him as a hypothesis.
Coulter offers these encouraging words: "Of course it's possible
to believe in God and in evolution" and "If evolution
is true, then God created evolution."
In conclusion, Coulter has written a biting satire over the
trend of anti-intellectualism that clouds part of the conservative
ideology, which is otherwise based on principle and reason.
If I have any objection to Coulter's piece, it would be that
it is a bit lengthy, but perhaps this too is part of the satire, as
some antievolution pieces tend to be pretty verbose. There are
also some things I don't fully understand, for example several
references to bestiality and some seemingly nonsequitur
remarks about Cher and Elton John. Considering how wonderfully
multilayered Coulter's writing is, I am sure there is a
perfectly logical explanation.
Peter Olofsson, whose PhD is in mathematical statistics from
Göteborg University in Sweden, is a visiting associate professor in
the Department of Mathematics at Tulane University. He has done
research in mathematical biology and published two books: one
textbook in probability and statistics and one new popular-science
book, Probabilities: The Little Numbers That Rule Our Lives.
His Web page is at www.peterolofsson.com. E-mail: peter@peter
This article originally appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp.48-50.