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Secondary Addiction: Ann Coulter on Evolution

Part I

By James Downard

Posted June 29, 2006

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter's latest opus, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, has sparked considerable media fuss over her acidic characterization of activist 9/11 widows: "I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much." To which she added pusillanimous ad hominem masquerading for wit: "And by the way, how do we know their husbands weren't planning to divorce these harpies?" Coulter (2006, 103, 112)

All this is grist for debate on literary civility, of course, but Coulter's tome landed in my crosshairs on account of the third of her book (the last 4 of 11 chapters) devoted to assailing the Liberal's Creation Myth, Darwinian evolutionary theory. Her sashay into matters scientific delightfully illustrates a common theme in sloppy thinking. Coulter is a secondary citation addict.

Like a scholarly lemming, she compulsively reads inaccurate antievolutionary sources and accepts them on account of their reinforcement of what she wants to be true. It never once occurs to her that she might find it prudent to check on the reliability of those sources before accompanying them off the cliff, either by investigating critical takes on those sources, or by actually inspecting the original technical literature directly.

This starts naturally enough with the commonest activity of antievolutionists: fielding the "usual suspects" of authority quotes mined over the years by critics more concerned with succulent text strings than evaluating far more recalcitrant data.

Thus Coulter (2006, 201) invoked the late paleontologist Colin Patterson, who stuck his foot in his mouth on several occasions by criticizing how evolutionary theory was applied to taxonomy issues without noticing the creationist in the audience taking notes or even recording it. Coulter's particular rehash was obtained secondarily from a February 2001 Tom Bethell American Spectator piece (p. 10 actually, though Coutler's endnote didn't specify pages). She did not explain any context -- such as that Bethell was replying to a conservative correspondent appalled at the magazine's publishing of the antievolutionary Wells (2000). Bethell (1999, 20) had previously fielded the quote, by the way, so was merely trotting out a favored authority quote. Of course, to have learned that Patterson did not harbor the level of doubt about evolution that his out of place quotes seemed to suggest would have required additional research (such as has been done at the Talk Origins Archive). But such follow-ups are not Coulter's forte.

Having vacuumed the conclusions of Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, Coulter (2006, 205) revealed: "Although clearly annoyed with him, many evolutionists were forced to concede Behe's point. Evolutionary biologist Tom Cavalier-Smith, at the University of British Columbia, said, 'For none of the cases mentioned by Behe is there yet a comprehensive and detailed explanation of the probable steps in the evolution of the observed complexity.'"

Cavalier-Smith was speaking as a rigorous scientist, of course. As it happens, science lacks "a comprehensive and detailed explanation" for many things. For instance, exactly how lightning is generated in a storm cloud. See for instance De Blij (1994, 62): "For reasons that scientists still do not completely understand, storm clouds separate charges into positive and negative clusters."

But does this therefore mean that we know nothing about the natural generation of lightning -- or evolution of those "complex systems" Behe wrote about? This is where knowing the provenance of the quote matters. Coulter had no endnote for it, so we don't know if she latched onto it secondarily. For her sake, let's hope she did, because if she had obtained it from the original source, then she is guilty of monumental misrepresentation.

Re Behe (1996, 68, 179, 279n, 285n), what Cavalier-Smith (1997) had written after that one sentence Coulter elected to quote constituted a devastating litany of Behe's limitations as a reliable redactor of current scientific technicalities:

For none of the cases mentioned by Behe is there yet a comprehensive and detailed explanation of the probable steps in the evolution of the observed complexity. The problems have indeed been sorely neglected, though Behe repeatedly exaggerates that neglect with such hyperboles as "an eerie and complete silence." But when criticizing existing evolutionary explanations, Behe uses intellectually dishonest double standards. He dismisses my first treatment of the origin of cilia [citing a 1978 paper] as non-quantitative and therefore "utterly useless", and ignores my later work on the topic [citing 1997 & 1992 works]. But it does not worry him that his empty, religious notion of "intelligent design" is equally non-quantitative; worse still, lacking even qualitative detail of what did the designing, and how the hypothetical design was executed, it explains nothing. He states that "if a theory claims to be able to explain some phenomenon but does not even generate an attempt at an explanation it should be banished" and "without details, discussion is doomed to be unscientific and fruitless." If he had applied these strictures to his panacea of "intelligent design" we would have been spared this worthless book.

Behe's attack on Russell Doolittle's discussion of gene duplication and divergence in the origin of blood clotting involves an almost willful misunderstanding, and his numerical criticisms are as fallacious as others debunked by Ford Doolittle.

Behe, ignorant of much of the literature, claims that no scientist has ever discussed the origin of vesicle targeting (actually discussed in Ref. 3, not cited by Behe, though the most detailed one on the origin of eukaryotic biochemical properties) or protein translocation (see Refs 6 and 7), the most detailed discussion of the origin of the most-basic complex cellular biochemical properties, which he deceitfully ignored despite citing the volume containing it as "evidence" that no paper has ever been published on the subject!) Maybe he did not want his readers to find the papers (Refs 3 and 7) that most clearly show how one can explain (in outline at least -- obviously they are not the final answer) the origins of complex biochemical and cellular structures in logical steps using mutation, selection and detailed phylogenetic arguments. His ignorant assumption that the origin of a protoSRP would have killed the cell is refuted by the absence of the translation arrest domain in the eubacterial signal recognition particle (SRP) RNA [citing a 1989 paper], which provides a simpler ancestor to the more complex archaebacterial/eukaryotic particle. The problem he raises [p. 112] for the origin of secreted eukaryotic glycoproteins is spurious, because the sugar must have been added to the protein on the non-cystolic side of the membrane in the common ancestor of eukaryotes and archaebacteria, even before the ER (endoplasmic reticulum) evolved, since it is added thus at the archaebacterial cell surface, as any good biochemist should have known, even without reading my discussion of the origin of the ER (Ref. 3).

Behe is unaware of the extensive comparative evidence, for example, the existence of fully motile diatom cilia lacking the central pair microtubules, that cilia (the most complex cell organelles of all) are not, in fact, irreducibly complex by his definition. He does not mention the evidence that the protein tubulin, the major constituent of ciliary microtubules, evolved from the bacterial cell-division protein ftsZ (Ref. 9), or that other motility organelles much simpler than cilia, for example, protozoan axostyles, evolved from bundles of microtubules by acquiring the capacity to bend, which he implies is impossible. Of course, there is no mention of protozoa, in which cilia arose; probably (like many biochemists), the author knows next to nothing about them. Though he criticizes me in particular, and evolutionary biology in general, for "fuzzy word pictures", I suspect that the last thing Behe wants is a scientific explanation for the origin of cilia. If he really has a genuine interest in molecular evolution, why has he never published on the subject himself in scientific journals?

Behe states "the reason that 'interrupted genes' exist at all is still a mystery", but cites none of the hundreds of papers on their evolution, blissfully unaware of the "selfish" transposon theory [citing Cavalier-Smith's 1991 paper] of their origin, now widely accepted even by former sceptics [citing a 1994 book]. He seems ignorant of the general concept of "selfish" genetic parasites [again citing the 1994 & 1991 sources just referenced], inherent in a darwinian view of life but alien to the anthropocentric, design-oriented, engineering view of life so widespread among biochemists, pervading even the cartoons in Trends in Biochemical Sciences.

Are these various omissions merely through ignorance or by deliberate intent because, as a Catholic, Behe prefers the illusion of an intelligent biochemist creator to mutations and the blind gropings of macromolecules?

One might pose that question to Christian Coulter also. (Incidentally, though Behe mentioned Cavalier-Smith's article in a July 31, 2000 "Response to Critics" at the Discovery Institute website, Behe did not discuss any of Cavalier-Smith's specific points.)

Behe's unfamiliarity with relevant technical issues has continued, playing a role in the 2005 Dover, PA antievolution issue, as Judge Jones was notably unimpressed with Behe's vacuity apropos a stack of science papers presented to him by the opposing legal team during cross-examination.

One of her next nuggets concerned the evolution of the eye -- or rather what she imagines this to involve, courtesy of some more secondary sources. Citing Berlinski (2003), Coulter (2006, 207-208) piled up a chain of secondary redaction:

Even if they start with light-sensitive cells, Darwin's apostles still can't get to an eye. There have long been bald assertions by Darwiniacs of the existence of a computer simulation of the evolution of the eye. The webpage of the National Science Teachers Association baldly states, "Computer simulations of natural selection are common, such as the computer simulation of the evolution of the eye as described in [Richard] Dawkins."

In his book River Out of Eden, Dawkins blathers on and on about "computer models of evolving eyes." But the computer simulation turned out to have as much basis in reality as the idea that domestic violence increases on Super Bowl Sunday. David Berlinski got to the bottom of the famed computer simulation, tracking down the scientists alleged to have performed this wondrous feat, and discovered -- as described in a tour de force article in Commentary magazine -- it didn't exist.

In The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, Tom Bethell quotes Berlinksi's summary of the evidence:

This notion that there is somewhere a computer model of the evolutionary development of the eye is an urban myth. Such a model does not exist. There is no such model anywhere in any laboratory. No one has the faintest idea how to make one. The whole story was fabricated out of thin air by Richard Dawkins. The senior author if the study on which Dawkins based his claim -- Dan E. Nilsson -- has explicitly rejected the idea that his laboratory has ever produced a computer simulation of the eye's development.

In other words, River Out of Eden is the Darwiniacs' version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Readers of Talk Reason will be familiar with the background of this story, and can only smile at how diligently Coulter has reported what other people claimed about Nilsson's work without actually bothering to check out the actual paper. As noted in my discussion of David Berlinski's escapades in "A Tale of Two Citations," the fact missed by the Coulter/Bethell/Berlinski daisy chain was that Nilsson & Pelger (1994) contained an entirely valid mathematical analysis of eye evolution basing each stage of the process on biologically known intermediaries. The upshot of their study was to show how surprisingly few 1% incremental wiggles (less than 2000 iterations) could nudge an active patch of cells into a focusing eye.

True, a "computer" wasn't involved in these calculations, so let's all slap Richie Dawkins for being a bad student. But the study still existed, and when I burrowed back to the source (in a way Coulter/Bethell failed to) I confirmed with Nilsson that Berlinski had never even bothered to request the original data summary, let alone establish that there was anything biologically unjustifiable about it. Hence Berlinski (2001) -- where he had initially fielded his claims, only repeated more stridently in Berlinksi (2003) Coulter drew on -- could not have in principle evaluated its correctness. Hence Bethell could have had no means by which he could have confirmed that Berlinski was right in his criticism. Hence Coulter couldn't have had a clue about how reliable Berlinski's "tour de force" piece had been in the first place.

As it happens, Coulter has a skilled affinity for making snap (and wrong) judgments about papers she hadn't read. Coulter (2006, 209-210) offered this:

On April 7, 2006 -- more than two years after Sharon Begley informed Wall Street Journal readers that the irreducible complexity argument had been solved eons ago and she was frankly bored with the subject -- the New York Times ran a front-page article declaring that researchers had finally produced a "counterargument to doubters of evolution who question how a progression of small changes could produce the intricate mechanisms found in living cells." This was under the headline: "Study, in a First, Explains Evolution's Molecular Advance." At least we finally had a clear admission that the irreducible complexity argument had not been answered before this. But look at the allegedly "complex" mechanism that scientists asserted -- not proved, asserted -- might have arisen by natural selection: a two-part molecular mechanism, the hormone and its receptor. Two parts! Even a mousetrap -- Behe's simplest example of a complex mechanism -- has three parts. And, of course, they still hadn't shown that the hormone-receptor pair could be produced by natural selection, only that this simple two-part mechanism might be produced by natural selection. That's front page news for the state religion.

The pattern is repetitive. Coulter draws on a newspaper piece rather than Bridgham et al. (2006) or even the commentary by Adami (2006). Bereft of any familiarity with the context or conclusions of that report, she boldly forged ahead to get the whole thing hilariously wrong.

Coulter clearly has no clue that, while Behe had not done so in Darwin's Black Box (the book she was familiar with), the avatar of ID had subsequently expanded his definition of irreducible complexity to include single receptor systems such as the one examined by Bridgham et al. (2006). Hence the Science paper was directly relevant to Behe's IC claims. Once again, readers of Talk Reason will recall Ian Musgrave's recent analysis here of the paper and how Michael Behe reacted to it by "moving the goalposts" and denying he had proposed protein binding sites as being IC.

Meanwhile, what had Bridgham's team done? Merely "asserted" something? Looking at the existing variations among vertebrates in how the receptor systems operated, they had employed their supposedly pathetic evolutionary presumptions to figure out what a precursor molecule should have been and then retroengineered it! They then proceeded to test this new molecule and thus proved (not "asserted") that the precursor did exactly what it should have. They then went on to determine the two mutations (each involving single amino acid replacements) that slid the system into the form currently known in higher vertebrates. Some "assertion"!

As it happens, such retroengineering is a skill performed by pesky Darwinists with increasing frequency, such as Jermann et al. (1995) on ruminant pancreatic ribonucleases, or Sharp (1997) re Messier & Stewart (1997) on digestive lysozymes found in colobine monkeys. Incidentally, thus far this knack has eluded the empirical embrace of Intelligent Design.

Having shown off her acute familiarity with the details of technical papers, Coulter plowed ahead with potshots on medical issues. Coulter (2006, 213-214) offered this:

As I understand the concept behind survival of the fittest, the appendix doesn't do much for the theory of evolution either. How does a survival-of-the-fittest regime evolve an organ that kills the host organism? Why hasn't evolution evolved the appendix away? (Another sign that your scientific theory is in trouble: When your argument against an opposing theory also disproves your own.)

Coulter has hit the nail squarely here: going by her "understanding" of the matter is her problem. She does not understand it. Not surprisingly, Coulter's glib rhetorical question is readily comprehended the moment you start paying attention to the available details. Consider Nesse & Williams (1998, 92):

The path of natural selection can even lead to a potentially fatal cul-de-sac, as in the case of the appendix, that vestige of a cavity that our ancestors employed in digestion. Because it no longer performs that function, and as it can kill when infected, the expectation might be that natural selection would have eliminated it. The reality is more complex. Appendicitis results when inflammation causes swelling, which compresses the artery supplying blood to the appendix. Blood flow protects against bacterial growth, so any reduction aids infection, which creates more swelling. If the blood supply is cut off completely, bacteria have free rein until the appendix bursts. A slender appendix is especially susceptible to this chain of events, so appendicitis may, paradoxically, apply the selective pressure that maintains a large appendix. Far from arguing that everything in the body is perfect, an evolutionary analysis reveals that we live with some very unfortunate legacies and that some vulnerabilities may even be actively maintained by the force of natural selection.

Such "scorched earth" approaches to our biology are turning out to be rather significant, most notably in the case of sickle cell anemia, where selection kept the dangerous gene for it in play because it peripherally slowed down the killing power of malaria.

Part II coming soon ... Ann Coulter vs. Paleontology

References

Adami, Christoph. 2006. "Reducible Complexity." Science 312 (7 April): 61-63.

Behe, Michael J. 1996. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: The Free Press.

Berlinski, David. 2001. "What Brings a World into Being?" Commentary 111 (April): 17-23.

________. 2003. "A Scientific Scandal." Commentary 115 (April): 29-36.

Bethell, Tom. 1999. "The Evolution Wars." The American Spectator 32 (December): 18-20.

Bridgham, Jamie T., Sean M. Carroll, and Joseph W. Thornton. 2006. "Evolution of Hormone-Receptor Complexity by Molecular Exploitation." Science 312 (7 April): 97-101.

Cavalier-Smith, Tom. 1997. "The blind biochemist." Trends in Ecology & Evolution 12 (April): 162-163.

Coulter, Ann. 2006. Godless: The Church of Liberalism. New York: Crown Forum.

De Blij, H. J. 1994. Nature on the Rampage. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Jermann, Thomas M., Jochen G. Opitz, Joseph Stackhouse, and Steven A. Benner. 1995. "Reconstructing the evolutionary history of the artiodactyl ribonuclease superfamily." Nature 374 (2 March): 57-59.

Messier, Walter, and Caro-Beth Stewart. 1997. "Episodic adaptive evolution of primate lysozymes." Nature 385 (9 January): 151-154.

Nesse, Randolph, and George C. Williams. 1998. "Evolution and the Origins of Disease." Scientific American 279 (November): 86-93.

Nilsson, Dan-E., and Susanne Pelger. 1994. "A pessimistic estimate of the time required for an eye to evolve." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (Biological Sciences) 256 (22 April): 53-58.

Sharp, Paul M. 1997. "In search of molecular darwinism." Nature 385 (9 January): 111-112.

Wells, Jonathan. 2000. "Survival of the Fakest." The American Spectator 10 (December): 18-24, 26-27.


See also
The DEMBSKI ALERT
Secondary Addiction Part II: Ann Coulter on Evolution
Secondary Addiction Part III: Ann Coulter on Evolution

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