1. “It’s…bizarre,” Coyne writes, “that Numbers would give credibility to Nelson, a young-earth Discovery-Institute creationist, by debating him.”
Well, Jerry — you’ve debated me too, for nearly an hour, on Canadian television. How naughty of you.
2. Coyne bashes Bloggingheads.tv for inviting me on, and speculates that the blame should be placed on the Templeton Foundation, one of the site’s sponsors: “shame on Bloggingheads t.v.,” he writes, “for putting on a young-earth creationist on Science Saturday. (Bloggingheads t.v. is sponsored by The Templeton Foundation; could this have something to do with it?)”
But Bloggingheads has also hosted outspoken atheists, such as PZ Myers (Pharyngula) and Abbie Smith (ERV). In fact, most of the science-related guests are atheists or agnostics of one flavor or another — Sean Carroll, John Horgan, Carl Zimmer, etc. — with occasional theism-friendly types thrown in for spice, such as Karl Giberson, Jeff Schloss, or Bob Wright (the site’s co-founder). I’m a Bloggingheads fan precisely because I can expect to hear strong challenges to theism, which, while painful, make me think. Thinking is good.
3. Coyne and Myers both say the imperfection argument — i.e., an intelligent designer wouldn’t have done it this way, ergo, the undirected processes of evolution are responsible — isn’t theological.
Both need to think about this more deeply. Here is how Coyne expresses the imperfection argument in Why Evolution Is True:
What I mean by “bad design” is the notion that if organisms were built from scratch by a designer — one who used the biological building blocks of nerves, muscles, bone, and so on — they would not have such imperfections. Perfect design would truly be the sign of a skilled and intelligent designer. Imperfect design is the mark of evolution; in fact, it’s precisely what we expect from evolution. (p. 81; emphasis in original)
To make this argument work, one needs to know what an intelligent designer would have done, and some metric for assessing whether the actual biological feature in question hits, or fails to hit, that target. Coyne leaves these assumptions implicit in his book, but they play a role in his argument nonetheless. The designer Coyne thinks his examples refute is a Paleyesque optimizer, which means the whole of Coyne’s “bad design” argument is conditioned (logically) on that theological construct. Change the theology, and the argument miscarries.
The reader can see this for himself by swapping in, as intelligent designer, not a Paleyesque optimizer, but a deity with limited power (á la John Stuart Mill), or a “malevolent” deity (e.g., Kali). The range of logically possible designers requires that one fix the meaning of “intelligent designer,” either by using one’s own theology (or philosophy), or borrowing the same from one’s interlocutor.
But Coyne is arguing against American creationists and IDers, not John Stuart Mill or the neighborhood Kali-devotee, the reader is doubtless thinking.
Yes, and that’s just the point. As I said in the Bloggingheads segment, the content of evolutionary biology, at least as Jerry Coyne explains it, is thus conditioned on some local variant of intelligent design, as understood by Jerry Coyne. Paradoxically, ID ends up inside biology because Jerry brings it there to make his case for undirected evolution.
I encourage the reader to find a copy of Why Evolution Is True, and read it with this paradox in mind. Its implications are far-reaching.
4. Lastly, a comment about Ron Numbers and what Myers and Coyne see as his unwarranted civility towards me and the topics discussed in the Bloggingheads segment.
Ron and I have been close friends since 1983. Until his untimely death from colon cancer in March 2000, the science writer and atheist Bob Schadewald and I were also close friends, staying in each other’s homes on visits, talking on the phone regularly, sharing research materials, and so forth. Bob was a former president of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and an unflagging critic of “creationism” and intelligent design. His criticisms could peel the paint off any poorly-formulated idea.
But Bob, like Ron (and Michael Ruse) was also a mensch: a person of humanity who valued friendly opposition for the insights it gave. Without civility, there can be no reasoned disagreement; without reasoned disagreement, no painful struggling towards knowledge.