Jerry Coyne and the “Fact” of Evolution
Dr. Jerry Coyne is recognized in atheistic circles as one of, if not the, leading evolutionary biologists in the world. He has written a book, Why Evolution Is True, that leading atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have widely endorsed. Allegedly, Dr. Coyne has compiled an insurmountable case for evolution.
On closer inspection, however, one begins to see serious flaws with Coyne’s “evidence” and his mode of reasoning. One of his most serious deficiencies is the way in which he equivocates the term evolution. Equivocation is a classic tool of dishonest argument in which a person gives a term multiple meanings and then uses the term in a different sense than is correct. For instance, suppose a person were to say: “I’m holding nothing in my hand, and nothing is stronger than God. So what I have in my hand is stronger than God.” Anyone listening to the statement understands that there is some type of “sleight of hand” at play. The rub lies in the multiple meanings of the word nothing. In the first instance, it means “non-existence,” and in the second instance, it means “of the things that do exists, not one fits the category.” Thus, the logical fallacy of equivocation is one that often muddles the issue at hand.
Throughout Coyne’s book he abuses the term evolution, defining it in multiple ways and equivocating it. For instance, he states: “Evolution is a fact” (2009, p. xiii). What does he mean by the term evolution? That is the question. In some places, he defines the term as the idea that all life arose by naturalistic processes from “a single naked replicating molecule” (p. 233). According to that definition, evolution most certainly is not a fact for many reasons, not the least of which is that life cannot arise from non-living “molecules” (see Miller, 2012). In other places, however, Coyne defines the term in ways that any creation scientist would freely acknowledge to be true.
For instance, on page 180, Coyne discusses experiments in which biologists force “animals or plants to adapt through evolution to different environments…. After a period of adaptation, the different ‘populations’ are tested in the lab to see if they have evolved reproductive barriers.” Notice that in this instance of the use of the term “evolution,” Coyne simply means a process by which organisms can change slightly to adapt to their environment. Few, if any, creationists would argue that animals do not adapt based on their environment and built-in genetic flexibility. The fact that animals can adapt and change to a certain degree is quite different from the idea that all life arose from a single molecule. Carefully watch the argument then. Evolution is seen in a lab (minor adaptations), thus we must admit that evolution (molecules to man) is true. Such equivocation from one of the leading proponents of evolution should alert the critical reader to a serious deficiency in the molecules-to-man aspect of the term evolution.
Again, on page 217, Coyne talks about human “evolution” that we can envision occurring. He mentions that one human allele called CCR5-∆32 “provides its carriers with strong protection against infection with the AIDS virus.” He then states, “We can predict that if AIDS continues as a significant source of mortality, the frequency of this allele will rise in affected populations. That’s evolution, as surely as is antibiotic resistance in bacteria.” Notice again the equivocation. No creationist (to my knowledge) has any problem recognizing the existence of certain alleles that might proffer a certain benefit to those humans that have them. Nor would the spread of those alleles throughout portions of the human population militate against anything proposed by the creation model. By terming this process as “evolution,” Coyne then says that we know evolution (molecules to man) is true.
At one point in his book, Coyne tacitly admits what he is doing. On page 143, he states:
True, breeders haven’t turned a cat into a dog, and laboratory studies haven’t turned bacterium into an amoeba (although, as we’ve seen, new bacterial species have arisen in the lab). But it is foolish to think that these are serious objections to natural selection. Big transformations take time—huge spans of it. To really see the power of selection, we must extrapolate the small changes that selection creates in our lifetime over the millions of years that it has really had to work in nature.
While he does not openly admit to equivocating the term evolution, he does differentiate between what is actually seen in the laboratory (and in nature), and what we must “extrapolate” from what we see. In reality, his “extrapolation” of “big transformations” is the antiscientific idea of molecules-to-man evolution. Were he to stop where the evidence stops, he would be forced to say that small changes—about which both creationists and evolutionists agree—have not been shown to render “big transformations” (for more information on this fact, see Butt, 2006; Butt 2008; Thompson and Harrub, 2002; Thompson, 1994).
Coyne’s use of the logical fallacy of equivocation belies the inherent weakness of the theory of evolution that he attempts to defend. No legitimate, factual scientific evidence has ever been produced that remotely substantiates the concept that a single replicating molecule evolved into a human over millions of years of mindless, materialistic processes. Were we to stick only with what we know to be fact, we would be forced to conclude, as the late atheist-turned-believer Antony Flew commented: “The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such ‘end-directed, self-replicating’ life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind (2007, p. 132).
Butt, Kyle (2006), “What Do the Finches Prove?,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=9&article=1652.
Butt, Kyle (2008), “Mutant Fruit Flies Bug Evolution,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=9&article=2501.
Coyne, Jerry (2009), Why Evolution Is True (New York: Viking).
Flew, Antony and Roy Varghese (2007), There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: Harper One).
Miller, Jeff (2012), “The Law of Biogenesis (Part 1),” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=12&article=4165.
Thompson, Bert (1994), “Bacterial Antibiotic Resistance—Proof of Evolution?,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=9&article=572.
Thompson, Bert and Brad Harrub (2002), “Fifteen Answers to Scientific American’s Nonsense,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=9&article=1350.