Uncommon Descent

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25 February 2009

Hog’s tail or bacon? Jerry Coyne in The New Republic

Michael J Behe

Dear Readers,
In a long book review in The New Republic, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne calls Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller a creationist. No surprise there — “creationist” has a lot of negative emotional resonance in many intellectual circles, so it makes a fellow’s rhetorical task a lot easier if he can tag his intellectual opponent with the label. (Kind of like calling someone a “communist” back in the 1950s.) No need for the hapless “creationist” to be a Biblical literalist, or to believe in a young earth, or to be politically or socially conservative, or have any other attribute the general public thinks of when they hear the “C” word. For Coyne, one just has to think that there may be a God who has somehow affected nature.
In fact Miller thinks that God set up the general laws of the universe in the knowledge that some intelligent species would emerge over time, to commune with Him. (To be convinced of the existence of God, the skeptical Coyne wants a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus to appear to the residents of New York City, or something equally dramatic. Some of us view the genetic code and the intricate molecular machinery of life as rather more spectacular than a supersized apparition.) Miller, however, is the poster boy for a religious scientist who thinks God would never abrogate the laws of nature (at least during the general development of the universe — special events in religious history are another matter). Calling Miller a creationist is stretching the word far out of shape, to make it simply a synonym for “theist,” with the advantage to Coyne that the associated rhetorical baggage is dumped on Miller.
I would feel more sympathy for Miller except for the fact that he pulls the same trick when it suits his purpose. As Jerry Coyne notes, “One of Miller’s keenest insights is that ID involves not just design but also supernatural creation.” So even though proponents of ID such as (ahem) me explicitly deny the necessity of supernatural creation to ID, and go to great lengths to explain the difference between a scientific conclusion of design and a theological conclusion of creation, that’s ignored, and both Coyne and Miller paint ID with the creationist brush, the better to dismiss it.
My purpose here, however, is not to either attack or defend Miller, who can fend for himself. Rather, it is to point out a rather large confusion in Jerry Coyne’s thinking. He writes:
“What is surprising in all this is how close many creationists have come to Darwinism. Important advocates of ID such as Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University (and a witness for the defense in the Harrisburg case), accept that the earth is billions of years old, that evolution has occurred — some of it caused by natural selection — and that many species share common ancestors. In Behe’s view, God’s role in the development of life could merely have been as the Maker of Mutations, tweaking DNA sequences when necessary to fuel the appearance of new mutations and species. In effect, Behe has bought all but the tail of the Darwinian hog.”
But if I have accepted everything but the teeny-weeny tail of Darwinism, why does Coyne get so upset with me (see his earlier review of The Edge of Evolution, also in The New Republic)? You’d think that if Jerry Coyne and I agreed on 99% of the important things, he’d be a bit friendlier. And why does he pummel Miller as a “creationist” for accepting everything but the very furthest tip of the hog’s tail? In fact, why does Coyne use the same epithet for Miller as for someone who thinks the world was created in a puff of smoke six thousand years ago?
Because of course, contra Jerry Coyne, the question of purposeful design versus no design is hardly peripheral — it is central. The existence of intentional design is not the hog’s tail; it is the bacon. A real “Maker of Mutations” or “Mover of Electrons” (as Coyne derisively designates Miller’s view of God) cuts the heart out of Darwinism. As many people besides myself have pointed out over scores of years, Darwin’s claim to fame was not to propose “evolution,” teleological versions of which had been proposed by others before him. Rather, Darwin’s contribution was to propose an apparently ateleological mechanism for evolution — random mutation and natural selection. Frankly, it is astounding that Jerry Coyne gets so confused about the significance of Darwin’s theory.
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