Over at his Website, Why Evolution is True, Professor Jerry Coyne has written three unintentionally funny posts in the past week. I thought readers of Uncommon Descent might enjoy them, so here goes.
Coyne gets taken in by a fake photo of Charles Darwin
Recently, Professor Coyne wrote a post titled, What Darwin looked like (10 July 2013), in which he displayed a colorized copy (emailed to him by a reader named Fred, and colorized by a talented 18-year-old artist named “Zuzah” from Denmark) of what Coyne assured his readers was an original photo of Charles Darwin. In his own words:
I thought I’d seen every photo of Darwin, but didn’t know this one, so I suspected it was a Photoshop job. However, it does appear to be real, and you can see the original here. Why do you suppose he was making the “Shhh!” gesture? Perhaps it was a pose denoting profound thought.
In the photo, Darwin’s right index finger is pointing skywards. At first glance, he appears to be making a “Shhh!” gesture, but as one of Coyne’s readers pointed out, if you look more closely, you can see that Darwin’s lips aren’t pursed, so that’s one thing Coyne got wrong from the start.
It gets worse. Another of Coyne’s readers found an additional problem with the photo: the hand in the photo wasn’t Darwin’s.
The hand was Photoshopped in. I’m pretty sure @kejames told me she had met Darwin’s finger-double. If memory serves correct, he works at the London Natural History Museum.
But there was more to come. Even the image of Darwin’s face wasn’t an original. As one of Coyne’s commenters bluntly put it:
The “original” is a fake. As other commenters noted, it’s composition is very un-Victorian. The actual original seems to be this Elliott & Fry portrait from 1881. Note that the photoshopper has reversed the image – Darwin’s beard curls left in the photoshopped version, his right eyebrow (rather than the left) is bushier in the photoshopped version, and the mole/pimple/bump is to the left of his nose (rather than the right) in the photoshopped version. Several independent photos at the National Portrait Gallery confirm that the Elliott & Fry photo is correctly oriented.
Another commenter concurred:
They have indeed reversed the original image. The clue is in Darwin’s facial wen. See this post for more details:
So far there has been no comment from Professor Coyne. I think his readers are entitled to at least a brief apology. Moving on…
Coyne objects to being called “a staunch atheistic evolutionist”
In another recent short post, titled, More epithets (12 July 2013), Professor Coyne took exception to being described as “a staunch atheistic evolutionist” in an article by Garrett Haley at ChristianNews.net. Coyne considered this to be a “slur” – a disparaging remark.
I must confess I am utterly mystified that Coyne would take umbrage at being called a staunch atheistic evolutionist. The term “staunch” is anything but disparaging: online dictionaries define it as meaning “firm and steadfast; true” or “loyal, firm and dependable.” Google the phrase “I’m a staunch atheist” and you’ll get 95,700 results, including this one by a self-described “staunch atheist” who evidently isn’t too fond of Richard Dawkins. (By comparison, “I’m a staunch Christian” gets only 11,300 hits.) Nor can I imagine why the term “atheistic evolutionist” would offend Professor Coyne; after all, he is a prominent atheist and also an evolutionist, and in a 2009 post, he ridiculed attempts by theologians such as John Haught to reconcile theism with evolution as an unfalsifiable rationalization: “What observations, I ask, could convince Haught that there is no god behind evolution? … I defy Haught to describe any possible evolutionary scenario that he couldn’t rationalize as part of God’s plan.” In the same post, Coyne quoted a passage from a Washington Post article in which Haught described him as a “contemporary evolutionary materialist,” without raising the slightest objection. If Professor Coyne thinks it’s all right for someone to call him an evolutionary materialist, then he cannot consistently object to being called an atheistic evolutionist. Coyne would do well to follow the example of an Australian scientist who openly declared on a 2012 theology thread: “I’m an atheistic evolutionist, meteorologist and embryologist.” Here is a man who is admirably up-front about his beliefs: for him, “atheistic evolutionist” is a badge of honor, and he wears it with pride.
An article in Wikipedia notes that “atheistic evolution (also known as dysteleological evolution) is the view referring to biological evolution occurring ‘apart from any supernatural process.'” and it adds that the term “has been in use since at least 1906 in The Metaphysical Magazine.” The reference it gives is as follows: Richmond, J.F. (1906). The Metaphysical Magazine, Volume 20. Metaphysical Publishing Company. p. 129. The article goes on to describe Professor Richard Dawkins as “a prominent supporter of atheistic evolution”, and it even includes a link to a BBC video clip by Dawkins, in which he argues for atheistic evolution. So I have to ask: given Professor Dawkins’ eager embrace of the term “atheistic evolutionist”, what accounts for Professor Coyne’s reticence about using this term?
Indeed, one of the commenters to Professor Coyne’s recent post was also mystified as to why he would consider “staunch atheistic evolutionist” to be a “slur”:
“Staunch atheistic evolutionist” – where’s the slur? Surely it would only be one, or sound like one, to a religious creationist? With respect, it sounds like a reasonably accurate description of your position so far as I can tell.
Another commenter also chimed in:
I agree — surely Jerry is staunch in both his atheism and his evolutionary approach to biology. The other terms on the lists may be slurs, but this combination seems to be simply descriptive.
I’d be happy to describe myself as a staunch atheist, and although “evolutionist” wouldn’t be accurate for me, since I’m not a biologist, I wouldn’t be insulted by the term.
I and two of your loyal readers are baffled, Professor Coyne. Perhaps you would care to enlighten us as to why you take particular umbrage at a phrase which describes you perfectly accurately, without conveying any rancor or malice.
Coyne: Wasps disprove the existence of a benevolent God
But the funniest piece of the week over at Why Evolution Is True was one titled, Another wonderful creature: the cicada-killing wasp (12 July 2013), which quoted from an article in the Atlantic about the wasp Sphecius speciosus (pictured above, courtesy of Wikipedia and Bill Buchanan), which kills cicadas. Allow me to quote a brief excerpt:
A killer paralyzes a cicada with a single sting, but getting it back to the burrow can be an all-day affair. It may be three times the killer’s own weight–too heavy to properly fly with. Instead she drags it up the nearest tree, then launches herself, prey in claw, and glides as far as possible toward her burrow. She may have to repeat the process half a dozen times.
Back at the burrow, she deposits the paralyzed cicada in a brood chamber. Then she lays an egg and carefully tucks it beneath the cicada’s foreleg, beside the puncture wound from her sting… The female then seals the chamber with dirt, the cicada still living and immobilized within it. A few days later the egg hatches and grub begins to eat the cicada alive, using the puncture wood as an entry point.
What lesson did Professor Coyne draw from all this? Did he attempt to enlighten his readers as to how this gliding behavior by the wasp might have originated, as a biologist might do? No. He put it down to tenacity and “an exquisite sense of direction”, and left it at that:
I’m astounded, and still find it hard to believe, that the wasps actually glide to their nests from a tree rather than fly… The ability to glide toward her burrow after climbing several trees in succession suggests that these wasps have an exquisite sense of direction. And what tenacity!
As an evolutionist might say: there’s no mechanism in this explanation. But the funniest part was the conclusion Coyne drew at the end of his post:
It’s this kind of eating-the-prey alive behavior that helped convince Darwin that if there was a god, it wasn’t a kindly one.
Now, if the prey were alive but not conscious, then the wasp’s behavior would be no more problematic, theologically speaking, than if it were to eat a plant that was still alive. So I take it that Professor Coyne is inferring that a cicada is capable of suffering pain when it is being eaten alive by a wasp.
Professor Coyne is committing the pathetic fallacy here: he is inferring the existence of conscious pain from the vaguely pain-like behavior of the insects in question. Pain is officially defined by the International Association for the Study of Pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage,” which is “always subjective“. Nociception (a bodily reaction to noxious stimuli) and pain are not the same thing: the former can take place without the latter, and vice versa.
Moreover, as I pointed out in a recent post which critiqued the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (a document signed by a mere dozen or so of the world’s 75,000-odd neuroscientists), even the signatories of that Declaration (whose views are considerably further “to the left” than those of the majority of neuroscientists) could not agree amongst themselves as to whether insects felt pain or not. I also quoted from an article by Dr. James Rose titled, The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain (Reviews in Fisheries Science, 10(1): 1–38, 2002):
It is a well-established principle in neuroscience that neural functions depend on specific neural structures. Furthermore, the form of those structures, to a great extent, dictates the properties of the functions they subserve. If the specific structures mediating human pain experience, or very similar structures, are not present in an organism’s brain, a reasonably close approximation of the pain experience can not be present. If some form of pain awareness were possible in the brain of a fish, which diverse evidence shows is highly improbable, its properties would necessarily be so different as to not be comparable to human-like experiences of pain and suffering. (2002, Summary and Conclusions)
If this is true even for fish, then how much more so for invertebrates such as insects, whose brains are even more radically different from ours?
Even if one were to grant that insects feel pain of some sort and that they are aware of this pain (i.e. that they possess what is called primary consciousness), no neuroscientist alive today would impute self-awareness, or higher-order consciousness, to these creatures. This is a point of vital philosophical importance. As Dr. James D. Rose et al. point out in their 2012 article, Can fish really feel pain? (Fish and Fisheries, published online 20 December 2012, doi: 10.1111/faf.12010):
Even those scientists who would attribute some form of consciousness, such as primary consciousness, to fairly diverse species of vertebrates typically do not believe that ﬁshes could have self-awareness (Donald 2001; Tulving 2005). The debate about that capacity has mostly been centered on whether it is unique to great apes or just humans (Macphail 1998; Donald 2001; Povinelli 2004; Wynne 2004; Terrace and Metcalfe 2005).This point is pivotal because one of the most critical determinants of suffering from pain is the personal awareness and ownership of the pain (Price 1999). This is why dissociation techniques, in which a person can use mental imagery to separate themselves from pain, are effective for reducing suffering (Price 1999). In contrast, without awareness of self, the pain is no one’s problem. It is simply there, something to be reduced or avoided if possible, but not a ‘personal’ problem. The known importance of self-awareness for pain contradicts, Sneddon’s (2011) claim that an absence of self-awareness in ﬁshes would make their ‘pain’ worse. (2012, p. 27)
Dr. James Rose is a zoologist of considerable standing. The point he makes is a telling one: “without awareness of self, the pain is no one’s problem.” No-one suggests that fish – let alone insects – are self-aware. Consequently their pain, if any, is not a ‘personal’ problem and therefore cannot be invoked as an argument against an omnibenevolent Deity. An omnibenevolent Deity cares about everyone, but if suffering takes place in some organisms without a “someone” to experience it, then what’s the problem? Coyne seems to be assuming that a benevolent Deity would have a disinterested wish to rid the world of suffering. But it makes far more sense to suppose that such a Deity would care about sufferers, not suffering. If suffering occurs without a sufferer, than that’s surely none of God’s concern.
I would urge readers to take the time and trouble to familiarize themselves with both the 2002 and 2012 articles by Dr. James Rose. Rose’s mastery of the literature in the field is impressive, and his refutations of his critics are devastating.
Charles Darwin, writing in the nineteenth century before Morgan’s Canon was formulated, could be pardoned for thinking anthropomorphically about the death throes of insects. I am greatly amused, though, to see that anthropomorphism is alive and well at the University of Chicago, in the second decade of the 21st century. Perhaps Professor Coyne would care to explain? Does he really believe that each insect is a “self” that suffers in agony while it is being devoured?