Professor Jerry Coyne’s credibility as a New Atheist is now in tatters, after the publication of yesterday’s devastating rebuttal by philosopher Edward Feser, on top of the one he wrote last week. Additionally, Coyne has undermined his scientific credibility by declaring that “it’s simply wrong to suggest that there’s any real scientific ‘debate’ about macroevolution.” (Coyne made this comment in a post which took a gratuitous swipe at a Canadian science text titled, Human Biology, Anatomy and Physiology for the Health Sciences by Wendi Roscoe, Professor in the Health Science department at Fanshawe College, London, Ontario. Professor Roscoe’s ratings are stellar and as far as I can ascertain, she is a convinced evolutionist. Roscoe’s “crime,” in Coyne’s eyes, was to write the following short sentence about macroevolution in her book, after stating that microevolution (“small changes within a species”) had been “confirmed with many different experiments”:
Macroevolution – the appearance of new species over thousands to millions of years – cannot be proven and therefore remains a “theory.”
Professor Roscoe then went on to add: “This portion of Darwin’s work remains highly debated today.” Despite admitting (in his post) to not having read her book, Coyne uncharitably assumed that by “theory,” Roscoe meant “theory” in its vernacular sense: a “guess or speculation,” or what scientists would call an “unsubstantiated hypothesis.” After reviewing the evidence for macroevolution (which turned out to be merely evidence for common descent) and scoffing at what he regarded as the absurd notion (contradicted by species transitions in the fossil record) that “there is some barrier beyond which small, incremental changes cannot add up to big ones” – Coyne triumphantly concluded:
Finally, it’s simply wrong to suggest that there’s any real scientific “debate” about macroevolution. What debate exists is only the denial of macroevolution by creationists.
Famous last words. Talk about leading with one’s chin.
(UPDATE: Right off the top of my head, I can think of three possible barriers to macroevolution. At the present time, we have no experimental evidence that microevolution can create orphan genes, or that it can give rise to viable and beneficial changes to the developmental regulatory networks which control an organism’s body plan. Finally, we have no evidence that microevolution can generate new developmental regulatory networks. END)
To compound his woes, the Talk Origins site which Professor Coyne recommends to his readers on the evidence for macroevolution actually contradicts him on this point: the FAQ article by philosopher of science John Wilkins on Macroevolution freely acknowledges that there is a lively debate on the subject:
The reductive relation between microevolution and macroevolution is hotly debated. There are those who, with Dobzhansky, say that macroevolution reduces to microevolution…
Nonreductionists will argue, however, that there are emergent processes and entities in macroevolution that cannot be captured ontologically…
Macroevolution is at least evolution at or above the level of speciation, but it remains an open debate among scientists whether or not it is solely the end product of microevolutionary processes or there is some other set of processes that causes higher level trends and patterns. It is this writer’s opinion that macroevolutionary processes are just the vector sum of microevolutionary processes in conjunction with large scale changes in geology and the environment, but this is only one of several opinions held by specialists.
Indeed, Talk Origins even features a closed debate between Professor Larry Moran and atheist science vlogger L. Aron Nelson in 2004, on the subject of macroevolution – specifically, whether macroevolutionary events can be explained as nothing more than repeated rounds of microevolution.
Leading evolutionary biologist Professor Francisco Ayala, co-editor (with Robert Arp) of a text titled, Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), is also quite up-front regarding the ongoing scientific debate on macroevolution:
So, there is no doubt or debate that these kinds of micro- or macroevolutionary events have occurred (and are continuing to occur). There is a debate, however, as to whether macroevolutionary changes are reducible to microevolutionary processes.…
…So the debate still rages on and, in the words of Todd Grantham (2007), the question still remains: “Is macroevolution more than successive rounds of microevolution?” (Part V, Introduction, p. 166)
The scientific controversy over macroevolution continues to rage, even today. In their recent book, The Cambrian Explosion (Roberts and Company, 2013), paleontologists Douglas Erwin and James Valentine argue that microevolutionary processes cannot account for the evolution of new animal body plans which occurred during a relatively short period, between 530 and 520 million years ago:
The nature of appropriate explanations is particularly evident in the final theme of the book: the implications that the Cambrian explosion has for understanding evolution and, in particular, for the dichotomy between microevolution and macroevolution. If our theoretical notions do not explain the fossil patterns or are contradicted by them, the theory is either incorrect or is applicable only to special cases… One important concern has been whether the microevolutionary patterns commonly studied in modern organisms by evolutionary biologists are sufficient to understand and explain the events of the Cambrian or whether evolutionary theory needs to be expanded to include a more diverse set of macroevolutionary processes. We strongly hold to the latter position. (pp. 9-10)
The quotes listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. Two years ago, I wrote a post on Uncommon Descent titled, Macroevolution, microevolution and chemistry: the devil is in the details. In the Appendix to that post, which I reproduce without alteration below, I collected a list of quotes from famous biologists, attesting to the existence of a vigorous and ongoing controversy on the subject of macroevolution. I invite readers to judge for themselves whether there’s any real scientific “debate” about macroevolution.
APPENDIX: What scientists say about the relation between macroevolution and microevolution
(a) Scientific authorities who SUPPORT the view that macroevolution is just an extrapolation of microevolution, over long periods of time
“Along with the reductionist attitude that organisms are nothing more than vessels to carry their genes came the extrapolation that the tiny genetic and phenotypic changes observed in fruit flies and lab rats were sufficient to explain all of evolution. This defines all evolution as microevolution, the gradual and tiny changes that cause different wing veins in a fruit fly or a slightly longer tail in a rat. From this, Neo-Darwinism extrapolates all larger evolutionary changes (macroevolution) as just microevolution writ large. These central tenets – reductionism, panselectionism, extrapolationism, and gradualism – were central to the Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy of the 1940s and 1950s and are still followed by the majority of evolutionary biologists today.”
– Prothero, Donald R. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. 2007. Cited by Mung here.
“Many who reject darwinism on religious grounds . . . argue that such small changes [as seen in selective breeding] cannot explain the evolution of new groups of plants and animals. This argument defies common sense. When, after a Christmas visit, we watch grandma leave on the train to Miami, we assume that the rest of her journey will be an extrapolation of that first quarter-mile. A creationist unwilling to extrapolate from micro- to macroevolution is as irrational as an observer who assumes that, after grandma’s train disappears around the bend, it is seized by divine forces and instantly transported to Florida.”
– Coyne, Jerry A. 2001 (Aug 19). Nature 412:587. Cited by Richard Peachey here.
“…we shouldn’t expect to see more than small changes in one or a few features of a species – what is known as microevolutionary change. Given the gradual pace of evolution, it’s unreasonable to expect to see selection transforming one “type” of plant or animal to another – so-called macroevolution – within a human lifetime. Though macroevolution is occurring today, we simply won’t be around long enough to see it. Remember that the issue is not whether macroevolutionary change happens – we already know from the fossil record that it does – but whether it was caused by natural selection, and whether natural selection can build complex features and organisms.”
– Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. 2009. Oxford University Press, p. 144. Cited by Mung here.
“So where are we? We know that a process very like natural selection – animal and plant breeding – has taken the genetic variation present in wild species and from it created huge “evolutionary” transformations. We know that these transformations can be much larger, and faster, than real evolutionary change that took place in the past. We’ve seen that selection operates in the laboratory, in microorganisms that cause disease, and in the wild. We know of no adaptations that absolutely could not have been molded by natural selection, and in many cases we can plausibly infer how selection did mold them. And mathematical models show that natural selection can produce complex features easily and quickly. The obvious conclusion: we can provisionally assume that natural selection is the cause of all adaptive evolution – though not of every feature of evolution, since genetic drift can also play a role.
“True, breeders haven’t turned a cat into a dog, and laboratory studies haven’t turned a 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.”
– Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. 2009. Oxford University Press, p. 155.
“The claim that microevolution can’t be extrapolated to macroevolution is ubiquitous among ID advocates and the creationists who preceded them…. it is nothing more than standard creation science terminology for the creationist claim that various groups of organisms were specially created by God, with specified limits on how far they could change over time.”
– Matzke, N. and Gross, P., 2006, here.
“For biologists, then, the microevolution/macroevolution distinction is a matter of scale of analysis, and not some ill-defined level of evolutionary “newness.” Studies that examine evolution at a coarse scale of analysis are also macroevolutionary studies, because they are typically looking at multiple species – separate branches on the evolutionary tree. Evolution within a single twig on the tree, by contrast, is microevolution.”
– Matzke, N., and Gross, P. (2006). “Analyzing Critical Analysis: The Fallback Antievolutionist Strategy.” Chapter 2 of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools. Scott, E., and Branch, G., eds., Beacon Press, pp. 49-50. Cited by Nick Matzke here.
“I was not prepared to find creationists . . . actually accepting the [peppered] moths as examples of small-scale evolution by natural selection! . . . That, to my mind, is tantamount to conceding the entire issue, for . . . there is utter continuity in evolutionary processes from the smallest scales (microevolution) up through the largest scales (macroevolution).”
– Eldredge, N. 2000. The Triumph of Evolution. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co. p. 119. (cf. pp. 62, 66, 76, 88). Cited by Richard Peachey here.
“… there is no justification for dismissing the selective and genetic mechanism responsible for the change from grey to black in [peppered] moths as incapable of producing new organs… there are no grounds for doubting that the mechanism of selection and mutation that has adaptively turned grey moths black in 100 years has been adequate to achieve evolutionary changes that have taken place during hundreds and thousands of millions of years.”
– De Beer, G. 1964. Atlas of Evolution. London: Nelson. pp. 93f. Cited by Richard Peachey here.
“Most sceptics about natural selection are prepared to accept that it can bring about minor changes like the dark coloration that has evolved in various species of moth since the industrial revolution. But, having accepted this, they then point out how small a change this is. … But… the moths only took a hundred years to make their change…. just think about the time involved.”
– Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. p. 40. Cited by Richard Peachey here.
(b) Scientists who are UNDECIDED on whether macroevolution is explicable in terms of microevolution
“One of the oldest problems in evolutionary biology remains largely unsolved; Historically, the neo-Darwinian synthesizers stressed the predominance of micromutations in evolution, whereas others noted the similarities between some dramatic mutations and evolutionary transitions to argue for macromutationism.”
– Stern, David L. Perspective: Evolutionary Developmental Biology and the Problem of Variation, Evolution, 2000, 54, 1079-1091. A contribution from the University of Cambridge.
“A persistent debate in evolutionary biology is one over the continuity of microevolution and macroevolution – whether macroevolutionary trends are governed by the principles of microevolution.”
– Simons, Andrew M. The Continuity of Microevolution and Macroevolution Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2002, 15, 688-701. A contribution from Carleton University.
“A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger-scale changes evident over longer periods of life’s history (macroevolution). Outsiders to this rich literature may be surprised that there is no consensus on this issue, and that strong viewpoints are held at both ends of the spectrum, with many undecided.”
“Most professional biologists today think of microevolution as evolution within species and of macroevolution as what happens over time to differentiate species or ‘higher’ groups of organisms (genera, families, etc.)….
“The reason I think creationists, and the public at large, are not well served by scientists in this case is because few evolutionary biologists talk to the public to begin with, and when they are confronted with the micro/macro question, they simply accuse creationists of making up such a distinction and move on. What they (we) should say is that there is indeed genuine disagreement among professional biologists about the meaningfulness of the concept, and even those who agree that there is something to it are still trying to figure out an explanation.”
– Massimo Pigliucci, “Is There Such a Thing as Macroevolution?” Skeptical Inquirer 31(2):18,19, March/April, 2007. Pigliucci is a prominent professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy.
(Cited by Richard Peachey here.)
(c) Scientific authorities who REJECT the view that macroevolution is merely an extrapolation of microevolution
Do the “engines of variation” provide sufficient variation to move beyond microevolution to macroevolution.”
“This is indeed the central question. One of the central tenets of the “modern synthesis of evolutionary biology” as celebrated in 1959 was the idea that macroevolution and microevolution were essentially the same process. That is, macroevolution was simply microevolution extrapolated over deep evolutionary time, using the same mechanisms and with essentially the same effects.
“A half century of research into macroevolution has shown that this is probably not the case. In particular, macroevolutionary events (such as the splitting of a single species into two or more, a process known as cladogenesis) do not necessarily take a long time at all. Indeed, in plants it can take as little as a single generation. We have observed the origin of new species of rose, primroses, trees, and all sorts of plants by genetic processes, such as allopolyploidy and autopolyploidy. Indeed, most of the cultivated roses so beloved of gardeners are new species of roses that originated spontaneously as the result of chromosomal rearrangements, which rose fanciers then exploited.
“The real problem, therefore, is explaining cladogenesis in animals. As Lynn Margulis has repeatedly pointed out, animals have a unique mechanism of sexual reproduction and development, one that apparently makes the kinds of chromosomal events that are common in plants very difficult in animals.
“However, she has proposed an alternative mechanism for cladogenesis in animals, based on the acquisition and fusion of genomes. Research into such mechanisms has only just begun, but has already been shown to explain the origin of eukaryotes via the fusion of disparate lines of prokaryotes, plus the origin of several species of animals and plants as the result of genome acquisition. As Lynn has been extraordinarily successful in the past in proposing testable mechanisms for macroevolutionary changes, I look forward to many more discoveries in this field.”
“In other words, microevolution (i.e. natural selection, genetic drift, and other processes that happen anagenetically at the population level) and macroevolution (i.e. extinction/adaptive radiation, genetic innovation, and symbiosis that happen cladogenetically at the species level and above) are in many ways fundamentally different processes with fundamentally different mechanisms. Furthermore, for reasons beyond the scope of this thread, macroevolution is probably not mathematically modelable in the way that microevolution has historically been.”
“Arguments over macroevolution versus microevolution have waxed and waned through most of the twentieth century. Initially, paleontologists and other evolutionary biologists advanced a variety of non-Darwinian evolutionary processes as explanations for patterns found in the fossil record, emphasizing macroevolution as a source of morphologic novelty. Later, paleontologists, from Simpson to Gould, Stanley, and others, accepted the primacy of natural selection but argued that rapid speciation produced a discontinuity between micro- and macroevolution. This second phase emphasizes the sorting of innovations between species. Other discontinuities appear in the persistence of trends (differential success of species within clades), including species sorting, in the differential success between clades and in the origination and establishment of evolutionary novelties. These discontinuities impose a hierarchical structure to evolution and discredit any smooth extrapolation from allelic substitution to large-scale evolutionary patterns. Recent developments in comparative developmental biology suggest a need to reconsider the possibility that some macroevolutionary discontinuites may be associated with the origination of evolutionary innovation. The attractiveness of macroevolution reflects the exhaustive documentation of large-scale patterns which reveal a richness to evolution unexplained by microevolution. If the goal of evolutionary biology is to understand the history of life, rather than simply document experimental analysis of evolution, studies from paleontology, phylogenetics, developmental biology, and other fields demand the deeper view provided by macroevolution.”
– Erwin, Douglas H. Macroevolution is more than repeated rounds of microevolution. Evolution and Development, 2000, Mar-Apr;2(2):78-84.
“… large-scale evolutionary phenomena cannot be understood solely on the basis of extrapolation from processes observed at the level of modern populations and species… The most conspicuous event in metazoan evolution was the dramatic origin of major new structures and body plans documented by the Cambrian explosion… The extreme speed of anatomical change and adaptive radiation during this brief time period requires explanations that go beyond those proposed for the evolution of species within the modern biota… This explosive evolution of phyla with diverse body plans is certainly not explicable by extrapolation from the processes and rates of evolution observed in modern species…”
– Carroll, Robert. 2000 (Jan). Trends in Ecology and Evolution 15(1):27f. Cited by Richard Peachey here.
“… biologists have documented a veritable glut of cases for rapid and eminently measurable evolution on timescales of years and decades… to be visible at all over so short a span, evolution must be far too rapid (and transient) to serve as the basis for major transformations in geological time. Hence, the ‘paradox of the visibly irrelevant’ – or, if you can see it at all, it’s too fast to matter in the long run… These shortest-term studies are elegant and important, but they cannot represent the general mode for building patterns in the history of life… Thus, if we can measure it at all (in a few years), it is too powerful to be the stuff of life’s history… [Widely publicized cases such as beak size changes in ‘Darwin’s finches’] represent transient and momentary blips and fillips that ‘flesh out’ the rich history of lineages in stasis, not the atoms of substantial and steadily accumulated evolutionary trends… One scale doesn’t translate into another.”
– Gould, Stephen J. 1998 (Jan). Natural History 106(11):12, 14, 64. Cited by Richard Peachey here.
“If macroevolution is, as I believe, mainly a story of the differential success of certain kinds of species and, if most species change little in the phyletic mode during the course of their existence (Gould and Eldredge, 1977), then microevolutionary change within populations is not the stuff (by extrapolation) of major transformations.”
– Gould, Stephen J., in Ernst Mayr and William B. Provine, The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology (Harvard University Press paperback, 1998; originally published in 1980), p. 170. Cited by Richard Peachey here.
“A wide spectrum of researchers – ranging from geologists and paleontologists, through ecologists and population geneticists, to embryologists and molecular biologists – gathered at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History under the simple conference title: Macroevolution. Their task was to consider the mechanisms that underlie the origin of species and the evolutionary relationship between species… The central question of the Chicago conference was whether the mechanisms underlying microevolution can be extrapolated to explain the phenomena of macroevolution. At the risk of doing violence to the positions of some of the people at the meeting, the answer can be given as a clear, No.”
– Lewin, R. 1980 (Nov 21). Science 210:883. Cited by Richard Peachey here.
“What you are trying to argue, in a very confused way, is that you have some kind of problem with the statement that macroevolution is “just” microevolution over large amounts of time. Well, lots of people have a problem with this claim, including me – it’s rather like saying microeconomics can be simply scaled up to produce macroeconomics. Or that the ecology of a single field experiment can be scaled up to explain the macroecology of the Amazonian rainforest.”
– Matzke, Nicholas J., here.
Has anyone else noticed that Matzke falls into camps (a) and (c)?
(End of the quotes listed in my Appendix.)
No debate about macroevolution? Surely you’re joking, Professor Coyne!
Comment is welcome.