Mark Vernon on evolution: out of his depth again

I’m loath to tell anyone, however misguided, to shut up.  After all, skepticism goes hand in hand with a penchant for free discussion, and even accommodationists have the right to expel their opinions into the ether. But that doesn’t stop us from calling attention to those opinions that are misguided, delusional, or simply stupid.

And in the latter class we often find Mark Vernon, ex-Anglican priest, obfuscator supreme, and apophatic theologian (read this for some LOLz).  Mark Vernon reminds me of the Kardashians: he doesn’t contribute anything to society except gibberish, yet he still gets attention.  And for reasons obscure to me, the Guardian continues to publish his lucubrations.

I’ve largely ignored him, but this week he takes on evolution in a column called “Ultra-Darwinists and the pious gene” (did you cringe when you read that?). As you might expect, the combination of his deep sympathy for religion, mushy thinking, and ignorance of evolutionary biology makes for a toxic brew.

Vernon is touting a new book by Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: How the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Got It Wrong (did you cringe again?).  I can’t wait to read Cunningham’s analysis (NOT!).  Vernon doesn’t explicitly name the “ultra-Darwinists”, but it’s clear that they include Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins.

And here are Vernon’s criticisms of modern evolutionary biology, apparently derived from Cunningham’s book.  All of them are misguided.  Note that I am not criticizing Vernon because he hasn’t had formal training in evolutionary biology; I’m criticizing him because what he says shows a complete ignorance of modern evolutionary biology.

1. Ultra-Darwinists think that every trait is adaptive, and in an optimal form.

First, why do most mammals walk on four legs? It may be because four is an optimal adaptation for walking on land. Or it may be because the number four originates with the four fish fins that predate mammal legs. The difference is subtle but much hangs on it. If the number four is an optimal adaptation – not merely a byproduct of fins – then it exemplifies the power of natural selection to explain all sorts of traits. Only, consider a millipede. It would presumably think there’s nothing optimal about four at all. I’d blame the fish, it might muse. And we might remember the millipede’s contribution because, if it’s hard to say whether features of organisms are adaptations or not, that causes all sorts of problems for the universal acid of ultra-Darwinism.

It’s as if we’ve never considered the idea of constraints, both genetic and developmental.  That’s nuts.  Every evolutionist—and that includes Dawkins (who has discussed constraints in several places—see Chapter 3 of The Extended Phenotype, for example) and Dennett—know that the four-limbed configuration of vertebrates is probably the result of our evolution from lobe-finned fish, who had four “limbs.”  That is, we have genetic and developmental constraints preventing an increase in limb number, for the same reason (as geneticist J.B.S. Haldane noted) that humans haven’t become wingéd angels. We don’t have the genetic variation and developmental program for either wing buds or exquisite moral sentiments.

As for arthropods, their segmental structure (reflected in their developmental program) makes it evolutionarily much easier for them to change the number of body appendages through mutation and selection.  Period.

2.  Ultra-Darwinists think that free will, mind, and ethics are delusions, leading to nihilism.

Strongly adaptationist explanations are common in ultra-Darwinism and the work of the acid. But as Cunningham repeatedly – actually, obsessively – points out, when they are rehearsed as gospel, they exact a terrible price. They describe such humanly invaluable features as mind, ethics and free will as delusions – akin to what Nietzsche called “true lies”. The resulting nihilism is one of Cunningham’s prime objections to the paradigm.

Of course, the ultra-Darwinists don’t live as if mind, ethics and free will are delusions. They cut the grass but not their dogs; they eat lettuce but not their neighbour’s children. So, Cunningham suggests, scratch an ultra-Darwinist and watch a hypocrite bleed. Or, in a less gory aside, he notes that an excellent title for an ultra-Darwinist book would be The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Person. You get the point: ultra-Darwinism is empty because it doesn’t explain, it explains away.

Let’s grant Vernon the premise that free will, at least in the sense that most people think of it—as a ghost in the brain machine—is delusional.  But, as we’ve seen before, Dan Dennett sees free will as something else, an evolved characteristic of our psychology that isn’t teleological.  And if we act as if we have free will in the teleological sense, so what? Why is that a problem?  I don’t believe in pure free will, but I act as if I do.  Really, we have no choice but to act that way!

But as for mind and ethics, those are manifestly not delusions.  Mind is the combination of brain and consciousness, and both of those are not delusions, but products of evolution.  Now we may not know much about how the brain evolved, and even less about how consciousness evolved (after all, first we have to find out how consciousness is formed by genes and neurons), but mind is not a delusion.  We know that because although much of “mind” is a subjective experience, we have every evidence that other people (and other primates) have minds that work in ways similar to ours.

And in what sense is ethics a “delusion”?  We practice ethics, many ethical norms are shared among human societies, and we find their rudiments in primate societies.  And human ethical norms may be evolved features of our mentality, or byproducts of a big brain encased in a social being, or a combination of both.  In that sense mind is no more a delusion than is agriculture or chess.  One gets the sense that Vernon (and perhaps Cunningham) would only consider mind and ethics non-delusional if they were given to us by god. And I’m convinced that that’s what Vernon really believes.

3.  The lack of a strict correlation between organismal complexity and gene number is a problem for Darwinism.

No it’s not.  It was a surprise for geneticists to discover that more “complex” organisms—and be aware that the definition and quantification of “complexity” are slippery—don’t always have more genes or more DNA. But now we largely understand why. Lots of the genome can be junk, and there can be evolutionary duplications of entire genomes (it’s happened twice in vertebrates) without changing the organism much.  And sometimes DNA can be selfish, replicating itself in a “genic selection” process that has nothing to do with organismal complexity.  In fact, far from baffling ultra-Darwinists, we take up this issue with gusto. The “ultra-Darwinist” Richard Dawkins did so on p. 45 of The Selfish Gene (did Vernon ever read it?)

Sex is not the only apparent paradox that becomes less puzzling the moment we learn to think in selfish gene terms. For instance, it appears that the amount of DNA in organisms is more than is strictly necessary for building them: a large fraction of the DNA is never translated into protein. From the point of view of the individual organism this seems paradoxical. If the ‘purpose’ of DNA is to supervise the building of bodies, it is surprising to find a large quantity of DNA which does no such thing. Biologists are racking their brains trying to think what useful task this apparently surplus DNA is doing. But from the point of view of the selfish genes themselves, there is no paradox. The true ‘purpose’ of DNA is to survive, no more and no less. The simplest way to explain the surplus DNA is to suppose that it is a parasite, or at best a harmless but useless passenger, hitching a ride in the survival machines created by the other DNA.

Further, polyploid plants form commonly by duplicating the genome of an ancestor, and they’re no more complex than were their ancestors.  Duplication of whole genomes in animals is rarer, but it still happens, and no new complexity arises.

But after raising the red complexity herring, Vernon goes off into Mushville:

The second question draws attention to the genomes of single-celled organisms that can be found to be much bulkier than those of complex creatures like us. With that discovery, the “gene for x” notion dies. Instead, the way to explain why there’s no correlation between genes and complexity is to realise that the expression of genes has everything to do the environment in which the creature lives: the environment matters quite as much as the genome.

I’ve parsed this paragraph twice, and still can’t understand what Vernon is talking about. I suspect he doesn’t either.

4.  Convergent evolution shows an inevitability that is incompatible with ultra-Darwinism, but compatible with Jebus.

The third question asks about the various evolutionary paths of remarkably similar features, of which camera eyes are but one of very many. They show that natural selection repeats itself, and that suggests convergence in evolution, and perhaps that evolution is predictable. If the “tape of life”, to recall the expression of Stephen Jay Gould, were run again, it would not produce dramatically different organisms each time.

Vernon is conflating two things here:  convergence and predictability. The first is no problem for Darwinism: certain designs will arise more than once, due simply to similar selection pressures, to genomes and developmental programs that are similar among not-too-related groups, and pure coincidence. That’s why the euphorbs of the Old World resemble the cacti of the New World: it’s adaptive in both places for plants to lose their leaves, form spines, and have barrel shapes that store water.

But remember that for every case of convergence there are also evolutionary one-offs: complex traits that have appeared only once.  These include the elephant’s trunk, feathers in birds, closed carpals in plants, erectile fangs of vipers, the wings of insects—and the mentality made possible by the complex human brain.

Which brings us to “predictability”, which differs from convergence. What Vernon and his fellow theistic evolutionists, like Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris, mean by “predictability” is this: the appearance of humans was inevitable, and human-like creatures would always reappear if we were to rerun the tape of life. This is a key argument of religious biologists and mushbrain apologists like Vernon, for the appearance of humans must have been inevitable if God was steering the evolutionary process.  After all, according to theists like Vernon, Homo sapiens is the sine qua non of evolution: the apogee of the process and its ultimate, god-directed goal.

Note that because humans and their big brains arose only once in evolution, they have nothing to do with convergence. Like feathers and elephant trunks, humans are an evolutionary one-off.  Giving examples of convergence says nothing about the evolutionary inevitability of a creature that arose just a single time.

At any rate, the argument that the appearance of humanoid creatures was inevitable is specious, and I’ve discussed why several times before (see, for example, here and here). It’s telling that people like Vernon, Miller, and Conway Morris spend a lot of time arguing for the inevitability of the singleton human, but not for the inevitability of the singleton bird feather or elephant trunk. But of course we know why:

If you accept such convergence and predictability – and both are still controversial – the possibility of teleology returns to evolution. That, in turn, raises the possibility of a universe right not just for life like ours, but for self-aware, even God-seeking, life. You get the point: post-ultra-Darwinist evolutionary theory can – and should – be welcomed by theologians.

Maybe those theologians should learn some biology before rushing to embrace “post-ultra-Darwinist evolutionary theory.”

Clearly Vernon understands very little about modern evolutionary biology.  He just culls whatever ideas he can that appear to support Jebus, and presents them as a reconciliation between science and faith.  He even drags out poor, misused Thomas Aquinas, doomed to be eternally (and wrongly) praised for his prescience about science:

Some theologians could even be said to have anticipated this new Darwinism. “It is clear,” wrote Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, “that nature is a certain kind of divine art impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship.”

I’m learning that the invocation of Aquinas, like the use of the word “nuanced”, is a signal to run away very fast.

Finally, Vernon’s post shows his hallmark: the use of deepities. I’ve already given one example, and here’s one more:

The debating point here is that Richard Dawkins’ notion of the immortal gene – the selfish replicator for which the organism is but a vehicle and the environment but a medium for its perpetuation – is not only mistaken but, further, anti-evolutionary. The immortal gene must be somehow above evolution in order to be immortal. It’s at such moments that Cunningham concludes that the ultra-Darwinists are rather like the creationists they so loathe: both smuggle “supernatural” elements, like immortality, into their accounts of the natural world.

The first part, about he immortal gene being above evolution, sounds very academic and deep, but means nothing.  The second part, about “immortal” genes being a “supernatural” concept, is simply wrong; it uses the passing on of DNA between generations, due to replication and reproduction, as something synonymous with god—or rather with creationism. There is nothing numinous or celestial about DNA replication.  And even that specious analogy is flawed, for surely Vernon himself, like Miller and Conway Morris, believe in immortality—and they’re not garden-variety creationists.

Can someone at the Guardian—someone who knows a bit about science and evolution—please take a look at Vernon’s pieces? I’d really like to know why stuff like this is considered worthy to publish.

70 Comments

  1. Veronica Abbass
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Since Mark Vernon is described as an “ex-Anglican priest,” I was curious about what he is now.

    According to his profile on
    guardian.co.uk/global/2008/jun/02/resource4

    “Mark Vernon is a writer, journalist and author. . . . He began his professional life as a priest in the Church of England, left an atheist, and is now agnostic.”

    From atheist to agnostic: I step forward, two steps backward.

    • Veronica Abbass
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Sorry, I meant to say one step forward.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Damnit, man. Keep an eye on Eric.

      • Pete Moulton
        Posted February 19, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        I think Eric will be OK. He actually thinks, you know (and very well, at that!).

  2. SaintStephen
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    For me at least, Professor Coyne nailed it some time ago with this brilliant summary, which applies perfectly to Vernon’s tripe:

    {Insert Anti-Evolution rant here{ ===> Ergo Jesus

    The point being, of course, even IF Vernon’s (or anybody’s) “arguments” were valid and perhaps even damaging to modern evolutionary theory, WHY IN THE NAME OF PETE WOULD THIS CRAZY, COCKAMAMIE STORY ABOUT SOMEONE NAMED JESUS ALL OF A SUDDEN ENTER THE PICTURE? WHY?

    It would be like saying “Sorry Professor Hawking, we can’t detect any of your radiation coming out of Black Holes, therefore a giant, invsible space Tarantula must be gobbling it up.”

    Vernon is either stupid, brainwashed, ignorant, or a lying manipulator.

    • SaintStephen
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Dammit… almost had it perfect:

      {Insert Anti-Evolution rant here} ===> Ergo Jesus

  3. Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    The second question draws attention to the genomes of single-celled organisms that can be found to be much bulkier than those of complex creatures like us. With that discovery, the “gene for x” notion dies. Instead, the way to explain why there’s no correlation between genes and complexity is to realise that the expression of genes has everything to do the environment in which the creature lives: the environment matters quite as much as the genome.

    I think I know what he is saying here, but I fail to see how it has anything to do with his point.

    The presence of a gene for a trait doesn’t necessitate its expression, because it may be a trait in conflict with another trait that aids more in the survival of the carrier of the gene. Blind cavefish, for example, still have the genes for developing functional eyes, but they don’t develop eyesight because other traits such as smell and sensing electric fields guide them away from predatorss or towards prey better than sight could, and so the “cost” of vision just ain’t worth it and the vision trait ceases to be turned on even when the genes are present.

    But, what does that have to do with what he is saying? Bog knows.

  4. Badger3k
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    The invocation of Aquinas is indicative of the backwards-looking mindset of the religious apologist rather than the forward-looking mindset of rational people. If he thinks the 13th century is more than history, it’s sad. We’ve progressed since then…well, some of us have. Granted, we atheists might have no (real) new arguments, but we have something the atheists of ages past didn’t have – science and evidence, and we get more every day.

    re: immortal genes – maybe he thinks there is some gene that actually is immortal (and unchangeable), living a vampiric existence? Like the way creationists like O’Leary consistently confuse the selfish gene concept with actual thoughts and emotions.

  5. Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Just so that you have them close at hand, here are the blurbs on the book from the Amazon site:

    “A work of stunning scientific erudition and critical insight.” –Louis Dupré, Yale University

    “This book connects the debate about the nature of Darwinian evolution to the Christian theology of creation. . . . Cunningham shows that the picture of God as the great Designer of artifacts, espoused by Paley and common to both ultra-Darwinians and creationists, is profoundly at odds with Christianity.” –Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age

    “Dawkins and company lack a minimum of understanding of what religion is about, of how it works. Cunningham’s book is thus obligatory reading for all interested in this topic: while fully endorsing the scientific validity of Darwinism, it clearly brings to light its limitations in understanding not only religion but also our human predicament. A book like this is needed like simple bread in our confused times.” –Slavoj Zizek

    “A brilliant and enlightening book! . . . Singularly important for the dialogue between science, religion, and culture.” –Archbishop Joseph Źyciński, Catholic University of Lublin, Poland

    “Cunningham brings a formidable and illuminating intelligence to a topic all too often hidden amid clouds of prejudice, polemic, and ideology. This is a splendid book!” –David Bentley Hart, author of Atheist Delusions

    Aside from Zizek, who does not seem to know what he is talking about most of the time, the rest of religious ideologues. Taylor is a Templeton winner, Hart is an Orthodox theologian of over-rated ability, and Louis Dupré, we are told by Wikipedia, is a Catholic phenomenologist and religious philosopher. It’s amazing how completely disjointed religion is making our culture. It is no longer possible for the religious to understand science, and of course the religious will continue to argue that anyone who understands science cannot understand religion. The latter is not true, since religion can be understood scientifically, while even the religious cannot understand themselves when they are thinking or acting religiously.

    • Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      Another court stenographer pontificating about universal laws. The “domain of expertise” has been reduced to “the man who dies with the most dissimulated lies wins.”

    • Thornavis.
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Poor Vernon he has Slavoj Zizek on his side, a man who thinks that those who were fearful of the Terror during the French Revolution were thus revealing their anti-revolutionary guilt. Never mind at least he’s not a nihilist eh ?

      • Tim Harris
        Posted February 19, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

        Zizek: a sort of preening philosophical court jester, and not a very good one. I think that what drives him is cynicism – ‘Now, what can I say here that will be OUTRAGEOUS!’ But what he says never amounts to very much.

    • Posted February 20, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

      If it matters, Taylor is also a Catholic.

  6. Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    The consequences of Vernon’s pieces are damaging. You will get a host of religious minded people, who don’t understand evolution, pointing at this piece as a good enough counter-argument to avoid learning anything about evolution. They just see it as an ongoing debate and that whenever an ‘evolutionist’ (I hate that word) has evidence or an argument someone on their ‘side’ (it’s all just partisanship left wing right wing thing, forget the data!) will come and publish a counter-point which is stupid and ignorant but written by someone with some ability to write and use big words and stupid philosophical arguments. The problem is that of the undereducated untrained mind relies on a deficient heuristic that sees complex arguments as beyond their comprehension so that can do nothing but assign each equal worth, with the exception that the argument they already happen to agree with must be the correct one.

    The end result is that when someone who does understand science attempts to make a point those arguments just fall on deaf ears.

  7. Scott Bergquist
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Every Naturalist (i.e. believers in a real world that omits supernatural effects, gods, or forces) should buy and read “101 Theory Drive” by Terry McDermott.

    Here is a citation from the book (page 252), paraphrasing neuroscientist Gary Lynch:

    “Evolution has a direction, Lynch liked to say, and it isn’t toward perfection. Over time the useful mutations have survived. The process is far from elegant, and the resulting organism is a magnificent contraption, a sackful of accidents stuffed with extra parts and sometimes contradictor actions that nonetheless work. Well, much of the time.
    Brain scientists, better than almost anyone, see in their experiments the routine evidence of biological complications. The mammalian brain is very much not how you would have designed the thing if you had started out with a clean slate. If you could, it is highly unlikely you would use the molecules that heal scratches on you arm to secure you memories, but no one was in charge of this process.

  8. Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    The Guardian’s site presumably makes money from advertisers based on something like the number of views from unique IP addresses. I worry that when Jerry Coyne blogs about a bad article on evolution (like this one) and we all march over to read it, we are essentially voting for them to print more along the same lines.

    Does this concern anyone else? Should we avoid visiting sites when we don’t have the time to send a complaint if it turns out we agree the article’s terrible? Is that a stupid thought?

    • Kevin
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Well, if their site is anything like mine, it’s not views that are the important thing, but click-throughs.

      Doesn’t matter if you see the ad; you have to do something about it in order for the payoff to occur.

      In the end, it’s a small price to pay if the result of your visit is an attempt to correct the egregious misuse of science in the service of not-science.

    • David Leech
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      This aspect also worries me, it’s all very well that this article is being torn a new one in the CiF section of the online version of the paper. Though how many people read the online version? The fact that they probably print this thing to promote hits also means that the same writers also appear in the print edition where no refutation is forthcoming. They then get a free ride for there propaganda.

      • David Leech
        Posted February 19, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        there/their duh!

      • Thornavis.
        Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        I’d hazard a guess that far more people read the online version of the Guardian than the hard copy. Me for one, I wouldn’t waste my money actually buying the thing.

  9. truthspeaker
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I don’t think he’s arguing against Dawkins and Dennet. I think he’s arguing against people who don’t exist, since I have never heard of anyone, anywhere, espousing the ideas he ascribes to “ultra-Darwinists”.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

      Whaddaya wanna bet “ultra-Darwinists” catches fire to the extent we can’t not hear it? :(

    • Posted February 19, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

      In the documentary Cunningham did, he made it quite clear he was referring to Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore as ultra-Darwinists. The latter two appeared in the documentary to talk about aspects of the Darwinian model applied to culture.

  10. Kevin
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Why do I get the sense that whenever he uses the prefix “ultra” that his hand quivered over the typewriter and he was forced away from the prefix he would prefer — über.

    Theist code being what it is, this is nothing more than a extremely thinly veiled accusation of fascism.

  11. Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    “Mark Vernon reminds me of the Kardashians: he doesn’t contribute anything to society except gibberish, yet he still gets attention.”

    I have to take exception to this; Kim Kardashian HAS contributed to my marriage. Example: when my wife asks the formerly dreaded “does my butt look big in this”, I can honestly answer: YES, and that is a GOOD thing.” Ms. K. Kardashian gives me cover to say that. :)

    Mr. Vernon’s contributions escape me.

    • SaintStephen
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I must agree. The stunning Kimmy Kardashian has contributed plenty to my existence on this peculiar planet.

      That, however, is a subject for a different website.

      • Posted February 19, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        Oh no, do tell us all about it. It’s fascinating, and entirely appropriate.

        • Kevin
          Posted February 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          Until very recently (like in the past 2 weeks or so), I didn’t even know who that person is.

          Lucky me, now I do…and I’m still baffled as to why I would need to.

          • locutus7
            Posted February 19, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps uber-temptress Snookie from the cultural touchstone Jersey Shore might be more to your exquisitely nuanced taste for the deliciously low (heh, heh). To bolster her intellectual credentials she wrote a book. Well, okay, some ghost-writer wrote it under her name, but still…

            • Posted February 20, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

              Hey if it (ghost written book) was good enough for Sarah Palin….

        • SaintStephen
          Posted February 19, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

          Oh, very well. I put it on your blog, since you asked so nicely.
          ;)

    • truthspeaker
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Screw that. There are plenty of attractive women on TV with large booties and a talent that got them on TV in the first place. Find one of them instead.

      • Posted February 19, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Such as?
        Sorry, but I really don’t follow TV; the only reason I heard about KK is that my wife saw me looking at a gym photo of her; I had no idea who she was at the time, what she was famous for, etc.

        Had I not been told her name, Dr. Coyne’s comment would have flown right over my head.

  12. gillt
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    With that discovery, the “gene for x” notion dies. Instead, the way to explain why there’s no correlation between genes and complexity is to realise that the expression of genes has everything to do the environment in which the creature lives: the environment matters quite as much as the genome.

    If I understand correctly, Vernon is actually saying there’s no correlation between genes and gene expression.

    This is a clear case of not knowing what you’re talking about but wanting to sound like you do.

  13. Michael Fugate
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    If you want to get a taste of Cunnigham’s thought this paper seems to be a summary of the book.
    http://theologyphilosophycentre.co.uk/online-papers/#cunningham

    My favorite review is from the publisher’s site http://www.eerdmans.com:

    David Bentley Hart
    — author of The Beauty of the Infinite and Atheist Delusions
    “Cunningham has taken the time to immerse himself in the literature of contemporary evolutionary biology (of which he provides a far better and far more probing general treatment than does, say, Richard Dawkins), and as he is deeply grounded in the whole tradition of philosophical theology, he produces an argument that casts a brilliant light on the innumerable and inevitable intersections between evolutionary theory and metaphysical speculation. This book is a signal achievement, a wonderful antidote to the tiresome caricatures and diatribes constantly generated these days by the preening apostles of doctrinaire materialism.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      OMFG. “The preening apostles of doctrinaire materialism?”

      Note “the intersections” in there, too…

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Vernon also shows a complete ignorance of modern science in general, I would say:

    the possibility of teleology returns to evolution.

    Presumably Vernon argues that if “convergence and predictability” are part of the evolutionary process, it could have been invoked by creation of the universe.

    But that this opens up a gap for gods isn’t factually correct any longer. Since we now know of pathways for cosmology, even physical laws themselves, non-natural agent theories takes triple penalty.

    First for the usual reason that they destroy predictability (somewhat ironically here). Second for the usual reason that natural theories are those that have been tested as working. Third because even if they were natural, say invoking natural agents, they would now be non-parsimonious compared to simpler theories.

    All that aside, the usual problem of “who created the creator” destroys teleology in physics, since we know processes can be eternal (and it is the simplest situation), but teleology is about discrete agent objects.

    And all _that_ aside, teleologists would have to answer Dawkins’ observation that we know well how simplicity grow complexity (say, in evolution) but not how complexity would come about without such growth as teleology demands, it has never been observed.

    It is completely ludicrous today to try to accommodate modern science and religion. Not beneficiary, not wanted, not possible.

  15. Posted February 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    “There is nothing numinous or celestial about DNA replication.”

    Aw shucks, really? Not even something a little bit celestial?

    • Badger3k
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Consider that every element that makes us up originally came from stars – is that celestial enough?

  16. Jeremy Nel
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    You know, I really feel sorry for Dawkins sometimes. Has there ever been a clearer writer who has been more misunderstood? I suspect it’s either willful, or else his clarity in dealing with complex ideas gives idiots the impression of having understood him, when they’ve merely missed his point.

    • Bryan
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. I think it’s either willful or delusional. Dawkins’ writing is so clear that one can’t help but understand what he’s saying – and some readers don’t want to understand that there is no supernatural “something” that sets human beings apart from other mammals. They really, really, really don’t want to understand!

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:39 am | Permalink

        Why “either” willful “or” delusional?
        It is clearly both, mixed in with dollops of “vindictive” & “jealous”, for bad measure.

  17. Posted February 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I must be a masochist – I often visit Mark Vernon’s blog on the oft-rewarded chance that I’ll have a *facepalm* moment.

    Today, for example, I was greeted with:

    “Gay marriage – What would Plato say?”
    (http://www.markvernon.com/friendshiponline/dotclear/index.php?post/2011/02/17/Plato-on-gay-marriage)

    The expected *facepalm* duly occurred.

    • Kevin
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Yes, because when I think of any modern problem, my first instinct is to turn to the thoughts of someone who lived before the invention of toilet paper. Or buttons, zippers, and shoelaces.

      Of course, Plato would probably have said something like “there exists on a different plane of existence a perfect gay marriage.” So, I don’t see what the trouble would be.

      It’s amazing to see the desperation of shallow thinkers trying to invoke whatever argument from authority they think might stick. I always ask such people to keep it within the current century, if possible.

      • Posted February 19, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

        Really?! Thus excluding Montaigne, Hume, Shakespeare, Euripides, Thoreau, and one or two other people who had an occasional insight? That seems pretty sweeping.

        • Pete Moulton
          Posted February 19, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

          Darwin too, Ophelia!

        • Posted February 20, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

          I think the sentiment is that this-century thinkers have somehow managed to incorporate previous-centuries thinkers into their thinking, grabbed the relevant, good ideas still worthy of contemplation and re-thinking. How apt an observation in a post on evolution … :)

    • Posted February 19, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      So we gay people must put aside passion in favour of “higher things” – just what the religious homophobes say, but attributed to an ancient Greek. What a coincidence! (No mention that the lover should be much older than the beloved.)

      Truly you can take the minister out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the minister.

  18. Ken Pidcock
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    The genre here is common: The evolutionary process might be different from what I think Professor Dawkins thinks it is, so Professor Dawkins is wrong. What’s somewhat novel (and I may be being too generous to other writers) is the total ignorance of even basic evolutionary biology.

    Also somewhat novel: An incomprehensible review that clarifies everything you would want to know about the book being reviewed.

  19. Posted February 19, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    To be honest, I stopped reading this article after, “First, why do most mammals walk on four legs?” when I ran into it over at the Guardian a few days back. It creepily reminded me of Ray Comfort’s explanation of the banana being God’s perfect fruit somehow. And thus making me wonder why is this religious fool was wrting in the Guardian science section? I presume he’s attempting to peddle Intelligent Design?

  20. Darrell E
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    So, Cunningham suggests, scratch an ultra-Darwinist and watch a hypocrite bleed. Or, in a less gory aside, he notes that an excellent title for an ultra-Darwinist book would be The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Person. You get the point: ultra-Darwinism is empty because it doesn’t explain, it explains away.

    This reminds me of a 4 year old being told by an older sibling that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and lashing out in anger and frustration.

    Cunningham’s problem seems to be that he just doesn’t want the modern theory of biological evolution to be true because of what that would mean for religion. And while Vernon may claim to be agnostic he appears to really love religion, and just does not want to deal with an existence in which the possibility of religion being true appears to be extremely small.

    • Scott
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      So true. The real non-presented issue (but is apparent in the conclusions) is about immortality. “Somehow, someone, throw me a rope, that I may live eternally!!!”

      These writers are simple cowards, and little else. They avoid contemplating the realistic absence from the universe their death will bring. Egomania.

  21. Sam
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t believe in pure free will, but I act as if I do. Really, we have no choice but to act that way!”

    Do we really? Surely to act as if we have free will is to act as if our choices have no causes. Is it even possible to act this way? What would such a choice look like?

    I think this was what Sam Harris was getting at in TML, when he said “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion”.

  22. mikeyB
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    May have been already pointed out but seems to me a classic case of ignorance plus setting up straw men to punch holes into. As usual, read some more biology and learn what people actually think before spouting off nonsense. But if you did, you’d either be a real scientist or science journalist or you’d realize you’re whole argument collapses and you’d cease and desist and write about something else instead. Seems to me so many trees could be saved if people would take the time to read some basic biology. There’s a pattern here – in almost every post I’ve seen attacking evolution this seems to be the case.

  23. Posted February 19, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this detailed, illuminating, and entertaining refutation of anti-evolution, anti-science trash. This is the kind of thing that science blogging is great for.

  24. Posted February 19, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I bumped into Mark Vernon’s writings at the Guardian in 2008, and at that time he was getting very excited about one of Simon Conway Morris’s “God did it, therefore evolution is teleological” books.

    He hasn’t changed his tune. I wrote about it here:

    http://lambdadelta.wordpress.com/2008/08/19/doctor-pangloss-rides-again/

    It does strike of though as a bit odd that Vernon who is quite keen on teleology when it implies the existence of God has here sketched out a caricature of evolution that owes much to a weird and perverse line of teleology. Here he presents these evolutionary theorists as people who insist that there must be a gene for each trait, and each trait must have a strict adaptationist purpose. Then, perversely, he finds convergence to be a problem for these same caricatures–but surely if adaptation were so all-pervasive and elastic no biologist would be at all surprised to find the same solutions to similar engineering problems showing up again and again!

    He hasn’t changed much.

  25. Barney
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    With that discovery, the “gene for x” notion dies. Instead, the way to explain why there’s no correlation between genes and complexity is to realise that the expression of genes has everything to do the environment in which the creature lives: the environment matters quite as much as the genome.

    I think what Vernon and/or Cunningham are saying is that they have themselves now realised that although all cells of an organism carry the same genome, the cells can actually be very different, so that it’s not just the genome which controls the development of the cell, but its interaction with its surroundings too.

    They don’t seem to realise this has been obvious, and heavily studied, for many decades. They’ll be asking for someone to set up a field called ‘developmental biology’ soon.

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

      Vernon’s next essay:
      how is babby formed
      how girl get pragnent

  26. Posted February 19, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I really hated Did Darwin Kill God? for that reason. Ultra-darwinism is wrong, creationism is wrong (implicitly) therefore the right position is to be a theistic Darwinian.

    When the cases like this give such a weak account of reconciliation, and all they can do is straw-man the opposing views, it’s no wonder that there are scientists and philosophers out there talking of the irreconcilability between evolution and religion. The attempts at reconciling are just so pathetically weak.

  27. SLC
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Re Ken Miller

    Based on some recent presentations by Prof. Miller, I get the impression that he has backed off somewhat from his previous claims that the rise of humans was inevitable. As I understand it, his current position is that the rise of intelligence, not necessarily humans, was inevitable (c.f. Palaeontologist Dale Russell who has speculated that, if the dinosaurs’ extinction had not occurred, the Troodons might have evolved into intelligent bird like creatures).

    I would argue that his current position, unlike his previous position, is at least defensible. As I have commented elsewhere, a necessary condition for intelligence is encephalization, particularly an increase in the ration of brain size/body size. In this regard, it should be noted that the Cretaceous dinosaurs had greater brain/body size ratios then their Jurassic ancestors and that todays’ mammals have greater brain/body size rations then the mammals of 50 million years ago. This suggests that encephalization may have an adaptive advantage.

    However, it should be noted that it is not a sufficient condition for higher intelligence as brain organization is also important. Thus Neanderthals had brain/body size rations about the same as modern humans but their brains were organized differently.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

      If Ken has swayed this way, then it is a step in a preferable direction.
      “Encephalisation” is a nebulous and potentially misleading term here.
      It can mean “brains”: organic nerve structures wired in massive parallel fashion, necessarily located physically very close to each other.
      I suggest that complex silicon structures (the brains of ‘pooters) will become intelligent in every sense of the word in the future, and likely in a (very) physically distributed manner, such as the internet/cloud computing enable.
      Is this encephalisation?

  28. Posted February 19, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Miller still is trying as Amiel Rossow notes in his essay on the yin and yang of Miller that,in effect, he takes intelligent design out the front door,only to surreptitiously bring it back through the back one: directed evolution is ID !
    Thales and Strato are right teleonomy rules; Plato and Aristotle err enormously in affirming teleology behind science.

  29. Posted February 19, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I also comment as Skeptic Griggsy and Ignostic Morgan and have blogs associated with those monikers and others.
    Jerry, ever the teleonomic and atelic arguments! You are using the former without naming it! The latter just notes that theists beg the question of divine intent to show divine intent.
    That no intent-purpose- for us does not lead to that pathetic non sequitur that thus we are forlorn as we make our own meanings and purposes.
    ” Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate meaning to which neither God nor the future state can further validate.” Inquiring Lynn

    • Posted February 20, 2011 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      When theistic evolutionists can adduce evidence rather than that begged question of desired outcomes, then they would have caused a miracle!
      “Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr.Griggs

  30. Dave Ricks
    Posted February 20, 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Mark Vernon’s name aside, if this article was submitted as a writing assignment for an English class, the teacher would need to remark the paper does not define ultra-Darwinism, or show how it relates to some baseline-Darwinism. Science aside, this is a deficiency in writing at the undergraduate level.

    In the 1990s, I reviewed some papers for the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. I always wanted to help the authors succeed in telling their story. But I noticed I couldn’t find a way to fix the worst-written papers by rearranging them. Then I realized, the worst-written papers were terrible as a symptom of the fact that they lacked a valid story we could rearrange into a more coherent form.

    This article fits my experience. If I tried to help this author tell their story, I would recommend they define ultra-Darwinism, and explain how it relates to some baseline-Darwinism. If they could do that, it would consume some of the space available for the article, but showing the relationship be well worth it to help the reader see what the author argues is bad about the ultra-Darwinism (the main point of the paper?). And then I would realize: The author would not be able to produce those definitions and contrasts — and then I would realize: The author does not have a point.

    So when I write here, “You can’t shine shit” or, “You can’t polish a turd”, I mean that without emotional heat, simply as a model or a visualization of my best efforts to make a paper like this better. You can move the surface around, but it will never shine, and the problem is not the presentation. The real problem with the writing is the author lacks a point.

  31. sailor1031
    Posted February 20, 2011 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    “This is a key argument of religious biologists and mushbrain apologists like Vernon, for the appearance of humans must have been inevitable if God was steering the evolutionary process. After all, according to theists like Vernon, Homo sapiens is the sine qua non of evolution: the apogee of the process and its ultimate, god-directed goal.”

    But we have, possibly, billions of years of evolving still to do, barring rogue asteroids or alien invasion, so why would anyone assume that the current state of humanity is “the ultimate, god-directed goal.” Makes no sense to me. More like we’re a very early model leading to who knows what. And why assume that it is humans that are the goal? Why not cockroaches or seaslugs or dolphins?
    It actually makes more sense for religionists to believe the genesis story. In that, doG gets what he wants right away. No waiting millions or billions of years. The fact that once doG creates humans he doesn’t like the product after all, probably means another great cataclysm somewhere down the road so “he” can bring out the new improved model (no evolution required – a straight redesign from the ground up).
    Oh boy the implications of religion are really complicated. I better leave it to theologians like Conor Cunningham…..and maybe they should leave science to scientists.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      But we have, possibly, billions of years of evolving still to do, barring rogue asteroids or alien invasion, so why would anyone assume that the current state of humanity is “the ultimate, god-directed goal.”

      Excellent point. Rather like the astronomy problem:

      Because of this [expansion], when future astronomers look to the sky, they will no longer witness the past. The past will have drifted beyond the cliffs of space. Observations will reveal nothing but an endless stretch of inky black stillness.

      If astronomers in the far future have records handed down from our era, attesting to an expanding cosmos filled with galaxies, they will face a peculiar choice: Should they believe “primitive” knowledge that speaks of a cosmos very much at odds with what anyone has seen for billions and billions of years? Or should they focus on their own observations and valiantly seek explanations for an island universe containing a small cluster of galaxies floating within an unchanging sea of darkness — a conception of the cosmos that we know definitively to be wrong?

      (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/opinion/16greene.html )

  32. Posted February 20, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    To me this is just a typical example of exaggerating a relatively minor but well-known point (that it _is_ _possible_ to over-emphasize the role of selection vs. constraints and contingency when thinking about evolution due to biases or prior committments) and then turning it into a caricature (the “ultraDarwinist”).

    To me it doesn’t seem all that different from the rhetorical excesses that surrounded some of Gould’s work, and some of the criticism of that work. I remember Steven Rose had a very similar list of “ultraDarwinist” positions in one of his books railing against “genetic determinism” and so on.

    My perspective is that he was not entirely wrong about various abuses of science for political purposes, but it was, like the present case, political writing that gets confused with science by readers and that seems to be deliberately encouraged by the author.

    It’s essentially splitting minor points of technical emphasis to make a political point. It has some ring of truth because the difference in emphasis is real, but to me once smart people recognize it as exaggeration, it should carry a lot less force to distort people’s thinking about biology.

  33. Teapot
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I have finally got around to reading The Selfish Gene, a mere 20 years after buying it.

    I am only at about page 80, but Vernon’s article contains several errors and straw men which even someone who has only read that far can spot immediately.

    If he has read the book, he clearly did so with his eyes closed.

    Still, if you want loads of web traffic, just write nonsense and wait for people to criticise it.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by machinemachine.net and TheBritishAtheist, Jerry Coyne. Jerry Coyne said: Mark Vernon out of his depth (again) http://wp.me/ppUXF-7AU [...]

  2. [...] Oh wait…maybe that was Kim Kardashian? I’ll bet that a certain Kardashian-bashing scientist is going to repent now. [...]

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