Peter Hitchens: diehard antievolutionist

I’m not sure how famous or authoritative Peter Hitchens is in the UK (he’s virtually unknown in the U.S.), but after I wrote a piece on his dissing of Anthony Grayling’s new book, several readers informed me that P. Hitchens, unlike his brother, is a serious doubter of modern evolutionary theory.  I don’t want to turn my site into a vendetta against this pathetic little man (he’s not worth it, for one thing), but I wanted to take a brief opportunity to show him up for the ignoramus he is. What a contrast to his eloquent and science-friendly brother!

I’ve read three of his pieces in the Mail Online (an appropriate venue for this guy), and they’re dire. While P. Hitchens claims he’s not a creationist, he echoes many creationist sentiments. He also uses many creationist tropes, including cherry-picking literature for Darwin criticism, arguing that intelligent design is not religiously based, claiming that there is no evidence for either natural selection or evolution beyond “microevolution,” and even, for crying out loud, pointing out the “Piltdown Man” hoax as an example of how science can go wrong. (That forgery was, of course, revealed by scientists, who are not sworn to upholding evolution!)  P. Hitchens’s use of Piltdown Man as a “lesson” on how scientific truth (read “evolution”) can be wrong shows how low he can sink. Piltdown Man was revealed as a hoax within a few decades, as evidence slowly mounted to discredit it, while the evidence for evolution has simply grown larger and stronger in the 154 years since the theory was laid out in The Origin.

Here are Hitchens’s three pieces, with a few quotes (and a few responses) for each. His quotes are indented.

Can bears turn into whales?” (Feb. 1, 2010)

I had the impression (though Mr Crosland may be able to put me right) that radiometric dating used objectively measurable, and repeatable factors to reach its conclusions about the age of the planet, in which case it really isn’t comparable to evolution by natural selection, which arranges the known facts to suit its own subjective beliefs, and ceaselessly invents equally untestable supplementary theories to explain the various gaps and inconsistencies which then arise.

Of course evolutionary theory is testable and falsifiable, as is the part of that theory represented by natural selection. Here are three tests. First, a palatable insect mimicking an unpalatable model (“Batesian mimicry”) should be found in the same geographic area as its model, as the system evolves by natural selection induced by predator avoidance. The predator must be able to see both model and mimic.  Second test: no true altruism should exist in animals without culture, as natural selection could not favor a trait that causes an individual to sacrifice its fitness to help a nonrelative. And we see no such cases.  Third test: no animal should show an adaptation that is useful only for members of another species (e.g., teats on a monkey that could suckle only squirrels), for natural selection can’t build those adaptations (though God could). And we see no such adaptations.

I am perfectly prepared to accept the possibility, dispiriting though it would be, that evolution by natural selection might explain the current state of the realm of nature. It is a plausible and elegant possible explanation. I just think the theory lacks any conclusive proof, is open to serious question on scientific grounds, from which it is only protected by a stifling orthodoxy. (This is always expressed by such expressions as ‘overwhelming majority’, as if scientific questions could be settled by a vote or a fashion parade).

Science is not in the business of providing “conclusive proof”; we’re in the business of providing the best possible (and testable) explanations for natural phenomena, and evolution is precisely that explanation for the production of change and diversity of life over time.  I wrote a book on this!  There is no good competitor, and none of us protects evolution as a “stifling orthodoxy.” The scientist who could disprove evolution (and it’s possible, you know, since there are at least a dozen conceivable observations that could disprove it), would win fame and glory.  Scientific questions are settled not by numbers of adherents alone, but by the slow growth of a consensus of scientists that builds after theories are tested and supported by experiment and observation. Hitchens clearly knows nothing about how science works.

No, I just have the same attitude towards the evolutionary faith as the politer, more tolerant agnostics have towards mine. But theirs is – it seems – a respectable position, whereas mine is – it seems – outrageous, despite the fact that I can’t prove my case and the agnostics don’t much want to prove theirs.

So I am at liberty (I happen to think) not to accept it or its drab moral implications as proven or inescapable. I could do this privately and keep quiet about my view, as I suspect many do, but I think that would be cowardly.

Evolution is not a faith, Mr. Hitchens, and you should know that. Did you ever read anything written by your brother? The reason why evolution is respectable “truth” and your religion is not is that there are mountains of empirical evidence for evolution and not even a grain of sand to support the truth claims of religion. Again, science doesn’t “prove” things; it supports explanations through evidence. Evolution is supported that way; your religion is not.

I know you like it. You know you like it.” (Feb. 22, 2010) (This is a defense of intelligent design–JAC)

What I have noticed about the whole Intelligent Design debate – and the thing which first interested me about it – was the way in which it was headed off here before it even got going. Its supporters were generally crudely misrepresented in the British media. What is clear from Expelled is that many of the dissenters from Darwinian orthodoxy are themselves scientists, which conflicts with the idea widely accepted among British observers that ID is embraced mainly by bearded hillbilly patriarchs with bushy beards, shotguns and wild eyes, accompanied by about nine obedient wives dressed in identical ankle-length gingham frocks.

Most supporters of ID are not scientists, but some are people who were trained as scientists (with an agenda to overthrow evolution, as in the case of Jon Wells) but don’t practice it now. Exceptions are almost never biologists, but engineers and chemists. And all the supporters of ID are religious, which surely should tell you something.

Something that is also missed here is the fact that ID is not identical with Biblical literalism, as is generally claimed by evolution enthusiasts. In fact it doesn’t really set out a coherent theory of the origin of species, or if it has I’ve never seen it. It suggests that there are reasons to believe that some sort of design is, or may be involved in the natural world. It doesn’t specify who or what the designer is.

Really, Mr. P. Hitchens? If there’s no religion behind ID, why are all its advocates religious? (David Berlinski seems to be the sole exception.) And aren’t you aware that IDers like Michael Behe privately admit that the designer is the Christian God, and that the “we-don’t-know-who-the-designer-is” stance is a ruse designed to get ID past American courts.

By 1938, Sir Arthur Keith was still calling [Piltdown Man] ‘one of nature’s many and vain attempts to produce a new type of mankind’. But in 1949 a leading dental surgeon, Alvan Marston, concluded the jawbone was that of an ape. The news wasn’t welcome. The Daily Mail reported an anthropologist’s weary comment: ‘Controversy over the Piltdown Man was fought out many years ago – now it seems it is to be revived again’. He spoke truer than he knew. Within four years, the whole thing would be acknowledged as a tremendous fake. But for several decades it was discussed and referred to as if it were part of an unquestioned truth. You can either learn something from this, or not learn anything from it.

Yes, our science can be wrong but is self-correcting. Religion is wrong and not self-correcting—unless it is corrected by science, as in the case of Adam and Eve, evolution, and a hundred other formerly solid tenets of faith.

“Can bears turn into whales? (Part two)—Charles Darwin revisited.” (Feb. 14, 2013).

As I said, and now repeat, the theory of evolution, *whatever its merits and problems*, is – and has to be by its nature – a theory about the distant past, witnessed by nobody,  based upon speculation, not upon observation.

Other areas involving events in the distant past, witnessed by nobody, include the Big Bang, archaeology, history, and much of cosmology. But they are also based on observations, predictions, and tests. Would P. Hitchens seriously question the existence of the Big Bang because nobody saw it? Once again he belies his ignorance of how science operates, thereby showing a close kinship with creationists.

First, what do these two gentlemen think my position is on the theory of evolution by natural selection? I will re-state it, yet again. It is that I am quite prepared to accept that it may be true, though I should personally be sorry if it turned out to be so as, it its implication is plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved. I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.

Well, evolution is “proved” in the sense that it’s considered by all rational people to be a scientific truth.  Does that mean that atheism is now proved, Mr. P. Hitchens? Have you read my book, and will that make you an atheist now?

The purpose of studying evolution never was, of course, to disprove the existence of God. It was to understand how modern life came about, and when.  If it disproves scripture or militates against a loving God, well, that’s too damn bad for scripture and God. It is silly to pretend that evolutionists are doing their work with a secret aim of knocking down religion. That result is an unintended byproduct.

I am getting ill reading his piece, and will add just one more comment that shows P. Hitchens’s kinship to classical creationists. It involves admitting that while there is microevolution (the phenomena he’s discussing below include Peter and Rosemary Grant’s classic work on an episode of natural selection in the medium ground finch, as well as antibiotic resistance in bacteria), there’s no evidence for macroevolution.

These undoubted phenomena, which he mentions in the apparent belief that I haven’t heard of them,  are evidence of *adaptation*, which could easily exist in a non-evolutionary system (as could extinction)  and fall well short of the far more ambitious changes required for the evolutionary theory to work. The point at which adaptation becomes evolutionary change is one of the most interesting in science, and not easily answered, particularly by measurable evidence.  This is where the circularity tends to come in.

Earth to Peter Hitchens: adaptation is evolutionary change! There is no circularity, but merely a purely subjective and meaningless judgment about when evolutionary change becomes “significant” evolutionary change, or macroevolution. But we can see this happening in the fossil record: in the remarkably complete series of transitional fossils between theropod dinosaurs and birds, reptiles and mammals, and terrestrial mammals and whales. All this is well known, and shows a continuum between micro- and macroevolution.

It is remarkable that anyone who even pretends to be a serious intellectual can spout the nonsense that P. Hitchens did in these posts.  They belie a complete misunderstanding of science—a willful misunderstanding—that obviously comes from his dislike of evolution as a blow to his faith. Even a paper as dire as the Mail should be ashamed to publish tripe like this.

As for P. Hitchens, I’ll debate him any time about the evidence for evolution.  What a difference from his brother he is: a difference that surely must rankle, since Peter could never aspire to anything like the erudition or eloquence of Christopher. Relegated to the intellectual hinterlands of the Mail, P. Hitchens resorts to spouting antievolution nonsense alongside his creationist brethren.

If I were religious, I’d say that God took the wrong Hitchens.

108 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    “Did you ever read anything written by your brother?”

    I’m a brother who can attest to this sort of thing not being unique to the Hitchens boys.

  2. @eightyc
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    If people haven’t yet watched the debate between he and his brother, they really should. It was pretty awesome.

    I won’t attempt to link to the youtube video since it might actually embed the video on here.

  3. Stacy
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t read anything by my brother.

    • Dave
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      :-)

  4. Grania Spingies
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I’ve only rarely read Peter Hitchens’ column. There is, after all, only so much my blood pressure can take. I’ve often been somewhat perplexed about where he gets his “facts” from I mean, an ostensibly intelligent and educated man shouldn’t say the things he does in public and not get laughed at.

    But I can recall his claiming during the last public debate he had with his brother (2010?) that all you could find in the UK was pro-evolution books and ID-bashing books – as if that were a bad thing – and that “try as you might” you couldn’t find anything on Creation Science in any of its flavors.

    This in fact, wasn’t true or accurate if he’d bothered to do any research about what was going on in new “faith” schools in the UK, just to name one example.

    So I think it’s reasonable to assume that P. Hitchens only sources his facts from the side he agrees with. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that his facts don’t turn out to be consistent with reality.

    • Harry
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Grania, the debate took place in March 2008 and P.Hitchens did indeed complain about the lack of ID-books in Britain. Anyone interested can watch the debate here:
      youtube.com/watch?v=ggIDnBl0zIU

      The ID discussion starts around the 1.31 mark, but it’s worth it to watch the whole to really get an understanding of how extreme P. Hitchens is.

  5. bric
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I rather suspect that P. Hitchens’ opinions and public stances begin and end with a deep need to feed by opposition his envy for his erudite late brother.

    • Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      While that is a bit of an ad hom. I can’t help feeling it is also true.

      “its implication is plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved.”

      So theism stands or falls on divine creation as the origin of species, is that what he is saying? How odd.

      “I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.”

      What is silly is to think that a scientific theory that explains all the facts – and, unlike creationism, doesn’t explain all other conceivable creations, possible or im- – has a non-scientific purpose.

  6. Matt Bowman
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    “What is clear from Expelled…” LOL! Once you play the I watched Expelled and learned (blank) card, you lose all credibility.

    • Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

      I watched Expelled and learned blank, but I don’t think I lose any credibility thereby.

      (I was watching it in a cinema when my phone rang. I answered it, bothering nobody – there was nobody else there to bother.)

  7. Veroxitatis
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    God got the wrong one, but what’s new. Friend of the bigot: enemy of the thoughtful.

    • Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      I don’t think that’s ever an appropriate sentiment. Mourning one person’s death is one thing; wishing death on another is something else.

      • gbjames
        Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Ever? Is it a thought crime?

        • Jordan Bissell
          Posted March 5, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

          Not a thought crime, just crude and malicious: Peter Hitchens is skeptical about evolution–better if he were dead. Wunderbar, Dr. Coyne.

          • gbjames
            Posted March 5, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

            Oh, pass the smelling salts!

          • whyevolutionistrue
            Posted March 5, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

            I don’t wish Peter Hitchens dead at all. What I said is that if we (or God) had a choice of losing one of the brothers, I would have preferred to keep Christopher.

            Wunderbar,and thanks for the misguided insult.

            Take those smelling salts.

      • Veroxitatis
        Posted March 6, 2013 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        How strange to conflate such a statement with whatever personal opinion you may feel justified in ascribing to me.
        If I believed in God (which is denied) then, if I accepted that it is part of His attributes to determine dates of death (which, if I did believe in God, I would be agnostic about on the basis of lack of scriptural authority) I would say that God got the wrong one.
        A sort of double separatim argument as lawyers say. And, of course, lawyers say a lot of things they don’t believe.

        • Posted March 6, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          That’s how I feel. I don’t think it’s appropriate to suggest one person’s death would be preferable to another – save perhaps where the maligned person intentionally caused the other’s death (fine, gbjames; there are no absolutes in life…). I hoped my original statement would be taken as mild reproach, rather than anything more aggressive. I rarely have cause to disagree with anything written here (save for an occasional adaptationist bias), and I seem to be in the minority on this one. You live and learn.

  8. steve oberski
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    As a religious apologist, Peter Hitchens should be avoiding the Piltdown Man hoax.

    Stephen Jay Gould speculated that the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin could have been the mastermind behind that hoax.

    • DekeBrodie
      Posted March 5, 2013 at 3:03 am | Permalink

      It’s too pat to blame the believer in this case. Stephen Jay Gould might have speculated all he wanted about Teilhard de Chardin but it’s now pretty clear that the forger was Charles Dawson, the man who ‘found’ the bones. Or rather manufactured them.

      Dawson’s own collection of objects was filled with fakes claiming to be antique.

  9. Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure how famous or authoritative Peter Hitchens is in the UK ..

    Not all that much, he’s mostly well regarded by people who are already of his opinion, rather than someone who is regarded as “authoritative”.

    P. Hitchens, unlike his brother, is a serious doubter of modern evolutionary theory.

    Well he is religious, and religious with the zeal of a convert, so what do you expect? It’s also obvious (just from reading your quotes for example) that he judges evolution on what he sees as its implications, and on what he wants to be true, not on any assessment of the evidence (of which he is oblivious).

  10. spud2006
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Christopher Hitchens and Peter Hitchens were and are (in certain circles) known as Hitchens major and minor* respectively for a reason.

    * May not be immediately comprehensible without at least a nodding familiarity with the British, specifically English public school system. Though, to be fair, you can probably get the gist without such knowledge, simply by comparing the writings of both men.

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Well not exactly. It was used to distinguish brothers by age, not by intellect or talent. One could hardly refer to them as senior and junior since the father would be Hitchens senior and the boys both junior.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I think the system used to differentiate Catholic saints is most apropos here. That gives us “Hitchens the Greater” and “Hitchens the Lesser”.

      • Posted March 4, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        I think I prefer “Hitchens the Great” and “Hitchens – the other one”.

        • Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

          Or perhaps “Hitchens” and “someone else (also called Hitchens)”.

          • Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

            I think there’s just Hitchens and someone who may achieve the status of footnote on his wikipedia entry in the long run.

        • David Duncan
          Posted March 6, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

          In chess Peter would be referred to as “A. N. Other”.

  11. Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Peter is an astonishing embarrassment to his profession in my view. I remember reading his article in response to the Tucson senator shooting. I can honestly say it was the worst piece of ‘journalism’ I’ve read for as long as I can remember. And that is in no way hyperbole. I’d drawn that conclusion before even seeing that it was him that had written it, so it wasn’t bias on my part. I was gobsmacked that people can get away with being paid for writing such nonsense, even at the Daily Wail.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    In his pro-theist book “The Rage Against God” (I’ve read sections, not the whole thing), Peter spends a disproportionate amount of time/space on what he calls “state atheism”, i.e. the Soviet Union, which evidently as a young man he enthusiastically supported. He also decries as “pseudo-religious” the British personality cult around Winston Churchill during WW2.
    However, I think his wiser brother Christopher correctly noted that is is the cult around Joseph Stalin that was really semi-religious in a bad way.

    Peter H decries “countries in which man sets himself up to replace God with the State”, but the whole point of the American constitution is that the state is not an object of worship in any way, while the constitution nonetheless remains godless. Thus the Soviet Union becomes Peter H’s scapegoat, and pro-democratic atheism is practically treated as if it didn’t exist.

    I watched the entire debate between Peter and Christopher a couple years ago, and recall only once agreeing with Peter while agreeing with Christopher dozens of times.

    And does he really think scientists settle things by democratic vote??

  13. Harry
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s well-known that Hitch and his hack brother didn’t get along, although I think they reached some sort of truce during Hitch’s last year. During an interview on C-Span’s In Depth in 2009, he was briefly asked about his family. Hitch doesn’t call his brother an out-right loon, but that’s what he implies by comparing him to Rush Limbaugh.

    Here’s my attempted transcipt from that conversation:

    “-You have one brother?
    He’s, well, he’s sort of… how should I describe it… He’s a kind of the Rush Limbaugh of England, well that wouldn’t quiet do it. He’s a better than that actually. He’s a better writer than he is. He’s a lot on the air, radio and on television as an extreme Christian and an extreme conservative. I guess there has to be one in every family.
    -Are you close?
    No. We never were, actually. For one reason, we’re not close – we’re too close. In other words, we’re too close in age. He must be a year and a half younger than me, not much more, which is – I’ve read a lot about this – too close. He’s not small enough to be a baby brother and it’s too near to be a rival. Too close for comfort! And we’re not alike each other as personalities. We haven’t lived in the same town for a long time anyway, and our differences are not narrow ones. But that’s not really the problem I don’t think. It’s not that we have different opinions – I have lots of friends, religious and conservative. It’s just a sibling difference.”

    • Posted March 4, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

      So he’s an extreme Christian? Has he ever commented on Hitch’s discovery that their mother was Jewish?

    • Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      This is exactly the problem I have trying to explain The Daily Mail to my US friends. “It’s like Fox News… well, no it’s not really…” There is no direct equivalent. The conservatives just don’t have the same attitude in England.

  14. eric
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    If I were religious, I’d say that God took the wrong Hitchens.

    Or that he had an intellectual budget for the two of them.

    • Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Or that he wanted to have an intelligent conversation.

      • Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        :-) Same point was made on the previous Hitching post…

        I can imagine Christopher, in this event, saying to God: “bugger… I had such good arguments, too.”

    • neil
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      One thing is certain–he left us with the wrong one.

  15. Stevan
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, you got it right in the first paragraph. Peter Hitchens is indeed a pathetic little man.

    He says stupid things to create controversy and sales for a discredited tabloid.

    • Posted March 4, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      The trouble is that Peter appears to believe the stupid things he says, which differentiates him from your average shit-stirrer.

  16. Steve
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post Jerry. Hitchens writes a column in the Mail on Sunday and it’s absolute garbage. He claims to be a former Trotskyist who has found God. He occasionly appears on tv and it’s painful viewing. You’re right about the Daily Mail as well. Right wing tosh (it does do good crosswords though).

  17. Sastra
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    So I am at liberty (I happen to think) not to accept (evolution) or its drab moral implications as proven or inescapable. I could do this privately and keep quiet about my view, as I suspect many do, but I think that would be cowardly.

    Well, not so much cowardly as self-defeating, I think. If you’re going to be hip and cool and take a contrarian position against mainstream science based on how you’re “at liberty” to believe what you want as long as it’s not “drab,” then the effect is going to be diminished without an audience.

  18. Dan
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Peter must have been dropped on his head as a baby a bit too many times.. =[

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Or perhaps not enough times.

  19. Doug
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Just this morning I was reading Love, Poverty and War as I drank my morning coffee. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, this is a collection of reviews and essays by Christopher Hitchens, published a few years back. This morning’s essay (one must resist the temptation to deplete the limited supply too quickly) involved a trip along Route 66 in a rented Corvette. Of a town in Oklahoma he wrote that if the wind ever stopped blowing all the chickens would fall over. Such a simple line, but perfect in its execution. If there is a genetic component to writing Peter has drawn the lesser set of alleles.

  20. ridelo
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

  21. ridelo
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    “Of course evolutionary theories are testable and falsifiable, as is the part of that theory represented by natural selection. Here are three tests.”…

    Are there more such tests? I find this terribly interesting. I could use them for my blog.

  22. moarscienceplz
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    “Third test: no animal should show an adaptation that is useful only for members of another species”

    Umm, doesn’t the human vermiform appendix fail this test?

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Also, the human ‘goosebump’ response.

      • Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        I think the idea is that “humans” don’t show these adaptations, they are a carry over from a past ancestor. If say, humans didn’t already have the goosebump response, then ended up developing it (at no benefit to us) that would be a case relevant to the third test described.

        • moarscienceplz
          Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

          That is, of course, the evolutionary explanation for the feature. But if it is used as a test for the validity of the TOE, you can’t automatically assume that it is a vestigial feature. If you wanted to use this argument in a discussion with a creationist, you would have to provide additional proof that humans had ancestor species and that the feature had been useful to the ancestor.

          So, I personally would shy away from this test if I were trying to convince a Creationist.

          • Posted March 4, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

            “If you wanted to use this argument in a discussion with a creationist, you would have to provide additional proof that humans had ancestor species and that the feature had been useful to the ancestor.”

            Yes, I imagine you would, and though I’m not an expert on the subject matter I think the proof is available.

            “So, I personally would shy away from this test if I were trying to convince a Creationist.”

            Ok, but an inclination against using that test is different than saying certain human attributes fail it.

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted March 5, 2013 at 3:11 am | Permalink

        I think you misunderstand the test. The test isn’t “no animal should show an adaption that doesn’t help the current species, but if present in another species would help that species.” Rather, it is “no animal should show an adaptions that doesn’t help the current species, but while present in the current species does help a different species”.

        As far as I am aware goosebumps on human do not help humans, but as long as they are on the human they also don’t help any other species (although other species’ goosebumps can help those species that have them).

        • TheBlackCat
          Posted March 5, 2013 at 3:16 am | Permalink

          To put it in more concrete terms, the thing that would not be present is:

          Species A has trait X
          The presence of trait X in species A has no effect on species A
          The presence of trait X in species A has a beneficial effect on species B

          I am not sure I actually agree with this, since natural selection would not produce this, but neutral change could. I would say a better test would be:

          Species A has trait X
          The presence of trait X in species A has a detrimental effect on species A
          The presence of trait X in species A has a beneficial effect on species B

          That would be selected against

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted March 5, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        Goosebumps erect body hair (to the extent you have it, which varies to a great extent in our species), which has several real functions appropriate to one or more of the contexts in which the reflex is triggered.

      • Ken Fabian
        Posted March 7, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        Goosebumps – are fully functional as part of the mechano-sensory function of hairs. Move or vibrate hair shafts and it is sensed by nerves within follicles and skin. Goosebumps, by making the hair shafts stand on end, extend touch sensitivity to the furthest distance beyond the surface of the skin. By separating the individual hair shafts there is less dampening of those movements and vibrations and therefore increase fine sensitivity.

        Goosebumps happen during moments of fright and arousal – when maximum sensory sensitivity is important. The sensory function and the ability to stand hairs on end are universal across mammals and almost certainly predate mammals as a distinct form – and has never been lost. Even Mole Rats – renowned for their ‘hairlessness’ retain some hairs, which are used to feel with. Other functions for hairs – insulation, visual warnings to competitors and predators – have come and gone, but this fundamental function remains. It is not vestigial.

        How is it possible that people who live immersed their whole lives in the sensory input from their hairs not notice? How can academics who study the evolution of human skin and hair not recognise the connection between goosebumps and the touch sensitivity of hairs?

    • Doug
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Debatable. One hypothesis that has been floated is that the vermiform appendix is a protected niche from which the microbiome of the gut can be “rebooted” following catastrophic gut illness. This would be useful for all concerned (the human host and the repopulating microbiome). It is a plausible notion in want of evidence.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I’ve heard that, but I think it’s BS. Can
        my GI tract be completely sterilized of it’s native flora by even a “catastrophic” disease? I highly doubt it.

        • Doug Gray
          Posted March 4, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

          I agree that sterilization is unlikely, but it is conceivable that the flora would recover more quickly from partial elimination were there a population sequestered in a blind alley. That would be enough to provide a selective advantage, which is all the hypothesis requires. Apart from data, of course!

          • Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

            Y’all could benefit from googling “Gould spandrels”.

            Off the top of my head:

            – there has to be something at the end of the small intestine, since we evolved from animals that had appendices and thus the large intestine joins at the side.

            – maybe the bit that is left over is not deleterious enough to be removed altogether.

            – maybe it is still under selection, and another few hundred thousand years would see further size reduction if we hadn’t invented medicine.

            – anyone who really cares can look at gene expression patterns in the appendix of humans and a few other mammals (grazing and non-grazing), then allelic diversity, signatures of selection etc. in whatever genes are important in there. Good luck getting that funded.

            • Doug Gray
              Posted March 5, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

              I am well aware of Gould’s spandrel argument, and agree that it would be difficult to refute in this case. I found your arguments somewhat less compelling. There is no requirement to have something (like an appendix) at the end of the small intestine – many mammalian species (pigs, dogs, elephants, whales, etc.) do not have an equivalent structure, and humans are occasionally born without an appendix. In the literature it has been asserted been that (rather like the eye) the appendix has evolved independently in multiple lineages, and has been lost more than once. In our case there is simply not enough known to draw conclusions about the strength or direction of current selective pressure. With current knowledge there isn’t even consensus on the wisdom of prophylactic appendectomy. That might be worth a grant proposal, but it won’t be me writing it.

              • Posted March 6, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

                Didn’t know that some mammals don’t have one (I’m a botanist. Sue me). It won’t be me writing that grant either :).

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted March 5, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          There’s some recent buzz about “fecal transplants” that may be relevant to your thought experiment.

    • pktom64
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      We’ll, it’s really not my domain but I think you’ve got the idea wrong. That we have vestigial parts or reactions (goosebumps) is really just another evidence for evolution.

    • Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      “Third test: no animal should show an adaptation that is useful only for members of another species”

      Umm, doesn’t the human vermiform appendix fail this test?

      Which species benefits from the appendix?

      There actually are examples that, superficially, do come close to demonstrating a failure of the third test. Lots of ‘em, in fact — basically every species that humans have ever domesticated. That’s most dramatically the case with species whose reproductive systems no longer function as reproductive systems but instead nourish humans — in other words, every plant whose fruit or seeds we eat which must be propagated by cloning (grafting, etc.) and which cannot reproduce without human intervention. That’s a significant fraction of the foods we eat.

      The basic reason those don’t count as failings of the third test is because those traits do, indirectly but only at one step removed, benefit the species in question. None of those species would exist at all if they weren’t tasty for humans, and the tastier they become the more the plants thrive, even if only with help from humans.

      Cheers,

      b&

  23. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    If he weren’t related to Christopher I doubt that any attention would be paid to this man.

    I have a question for people like this who deny evolution but who also accept that the earth is a whole lot older than 6000 years. If evolution is wrong, then just where did we come from? Are they seriously trying to say that the rest of the world evolved and then we just popped out of nowhere? Or were we all, animals, dinosaurs, etc. hopping around getting our feet burnt as the world was created and cooled down?

    • derekw
      Posted March 7, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      There are two basic Christian views accepting the age of earth/universe. Old-earth creationism (OEC) and theistic evolution (TE.) TE’s in general commit to the Darwinistic evolutionary process with some God-ordained intervention at the begining (abiogenesis, setting up natural laws) or ‘tweak miracles’ along the way. OEC’s see God as creating more ‘in situ’ over the earth life-history timeframe whereby species are a fiat creation into developing niches and to replenish habitats after extinction events. Reasons to Believe is the best known OEC proponent and their model summary can be found at:

      http://www.reasons.org/articles/summary-of-reasons-to-believe-s-testable-creation-model

  24. Posted March 4, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    A perfect example of the tragically smug fusion of educated brain and terrible mind. Or perhaps, as his brother would have put it, an example of how religion poisons everything.

    For sheer chutzpah, this quote grabbed me:

    “This is always expressed by such expressions as ‘overwhelming majority’, as if scientific questions could be settled by a vote or a fashion parade”

    Leaving aside the amusing idea of Hitchens the Lesser giving us some learnin’s in science, all he’s done is wilfully misinterpret the phrase “overwhelming majority”. He wants the reader to see evolution as nothing more than an ad populum assertion, rather than a broad agreement about the consistent interpretation of actual evidence, which is where the “overwhelming majority” of agreement comes from. I suppose it’s easiest to project one’s own faults on to one’s opponents.

    What a waste of formal education and column inches: Terrible arguments presented in plummy style.

  25. Posted March 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    “arguing that intelligent design is not religiously based”

    I’ve heard so many creationists saying something along these lines and it’s driving me insane. How can these people say that with a straight face? How?!

    “though I should personally be sorry if it turned out to be so as, it its implication is plainly atheistical”

    I doubt you will you ever believe in evolution, unless you studied it a bit more and stopped reading the Bible for breakfast. And what happened to the creationist hullabaloo about how so many famous scientists had followed a religion? Don’t wanna fall on that at this moment, do we?

    In my part of Earth, I’ve been asked have I ever witnessed evolution, how do I know scientists are telling the truth, and have I done my own experiments to test evolution- so without ID and mean ol’ atheists, people like P. Hitchens will think of something else.

    • Posted March 5, 2013 at 4:25 am | Permalink

      I agree whole-heartedly. For example ….

      “Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.” ~ William Dembski

      Of course one doesn’t even need a quote from the “Dr. Dr. Newton of Information Theory” to demonstrate the lie that ID has nothing to do with religion and that it’s not a mutation of creationism to sneak past the court system.

      All one has to do is ask the following questions and prepare to be stonewalled by ID proponents.

      Who or what is the Designer(s) ?

      (one of the most important questions I would have if I were involved at all in the “science” of ID. This cannot be discussed, this cat must stay in the the bag.)

      When did the Designer(s) design ?

      (One will find no consensus, and intentionally so, on the age of the Earth or when life first appeared on Earth. This pretense is maintained in order to provide an accommodation or “Big Tent” for varying religious beliefs on these questions. No answers or evidence will be provided as to whether the “information” is hidden in the genome for millions of years [or ten thousand] or if the Designer tweaks his designs along the way when he/she/it deems it necessary.)

      How did the Designer(s) implement his/her/it’s designs.

      (No mechanism will be proposed and no evidence will be provided. What one will receive is various convoluted gambits on “chance” or “probabilities” usually followed up by a shifting of the burden of proof AKA chaff is thrown in the air as a diversion.

      Dembski has stated, “ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories.”

      Indeed, no “stories” will be told and evidence-free assertions will abound. Dembski will also conveniently avoid any legitimate criticisms of his work as well as make any attempt to correct it.)

      Of course we could delve into Behe, Wells, and the other “fellows” of the Dishonesty Institute. Perhaps even delve into Sewells profound misunderstandings of the “2nd law” and “entropy” but the same questions mentioned above will always remain.

      There you have it, a “science” about a “Designer” where one cannot ask these fundamental questions…

      Who, What, Where, How, are not welcome questions in Intelligent Design.

      All Science So Far !

      (hat tip to PT and ATBC)

  26. Occam
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    If the surviving Mr. Hitchens does indeed partake of the same parental genes as his late, and rightly lamented, alleged sibling, then the obtuseness displayed by Mr. Hitchens should allay fears of genetic determinism: apparently, genes are not everything, not by a long shot.

  27. Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    P Hitchins is also quite often on BBC Question Time. I usually make sure nothing throwable is close at hand when he is on.

    A quick search on YouTube is enough for anyone to find a few segments and to indulge in some braincell self abuse.

  28. ebonmuse
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    If Jerry (or anyone else) is interested, I had a three-round exchange with Peter Hitchens last year regarding the origins of morality:

    http://bigthink.com/daylight-atheism/a-response-to-peter-hitchens

    http://bigthink.com/daylight-atheism/a-response-to-peter-hitchens-part-ii

    http://bigthink.com/daylight-atheism/a-response-to-peter-hitchens-part-iii

    Knowing the wit and eloquence of his brother, I was expecting him to put forth a more tightly reasoned, or at least a more rhetorically scintillating, defense of divine command morality. I have to say I was disappointed. It was pretty run-of-the-mill stuff; his core assertion is that religious morality is the only kind that’s reliable because it never changes. (Ironic, because Peter Hitchens is an Anglican: the denomination that exists because one guy wanted to change a religious rule about divorce.)

    • Posted March 5, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      Oof, that was very difficult reading – I tried to read each of his comments but I had to give up in the end.
      Incidentally, would this comment be from “ebonmuse” of ebonmusings.org? There are some excellent essays hosted there.

  29. Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Excellent point re divorce!

    /@

  30. Persto
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, you are at your best debunking ID and creationism shit! Good stuff.

    Regards

  31. Gordon Munro
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Is the Brothers Hitchens’ shared dedication to verbal opponent obliteration a function of an anti-Quakeresque genetically derived character malformation or a purposely cultivated cussedness?

    • gbjames
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

      Huh? Only one of them was capable of verbally obliterating an opponent.

      • Gordon Munro
        Posted March 7, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        I was referring to the intentions of both Hitchens Bros, not equality of effectiveness as judged by us unbiased WEIT fans.

  32. Dan
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Am I the only one who thinks we may have lost the wrong brother?

    • gbjames
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      No.

      • Dan
        Posted March 4, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

        Just finished reading. See that point was already made!

    • spud2006
      Posted March 5, 2013 at 4:02 am | Permalink

      Very, very far from it.

  33. Dominic
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    Pardon my French but this Hitchens is a total idiot.

  34. Dominic
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    A good example of Natural selection for Hitchens junior -butterflies on an island in the Baltic

    http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/9/2/20130020.abstract?sid=4bc13723-77ff-440d-b018-5c55f50b3220

  35. Posted March 5, 2013 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    To coddle or not to coddle? Definitely the later if you are skilled enough to maintain politeness while ripping apart every fatuous bit of nonsense espoused. Superb post!

    “I wrote a book on this!”

    Rilly? :-)

  36. Aj
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure how famous or authoritative Peter Hitchens is in the UK.

    Well let’s put it this way, if you ever wanted to discover the putrid depth of vileness certain overeducated yet pig-shit thick media-whoring right-wing hacks are willing to plumb just to file some cheap copy, then Peter Hitchens is pretty authoritative.

    Melanie Philips would be the other go to, if for some Peter wasn’t willing to offer his opinion (heh).

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted March 5, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Add Barbara Amiel on the right and Polly Toynbee on the left.

      • Aj
        Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        Baroness Black was pretty bad, but I haven’t seen anything from her in a while. Not since her husband got sent down.

        Toynbee’s a different kind of dreadful if you ask me. Obviously she’s as partisan, but there’s something weirdly mechanical about her, especially when compared to genuine dingbats like Phillips and Hitchens. Ghastliness is their real only constant, beyond that they might (and do) say anything.

        Polly basically writes one of two articles every alternating week. The only variations are the name of the current Labour leader (who is/will be the greatest leader Britain has ever had) and whether Labour are in power or not (this legislation is the best thing since 1945/ worst thing since 1933).

        It’s bloody tedious stuff and I’ve no idea why the Guardian keeps on paying her for it (ok, I do; she gets a lot of comments from people who don’t seem to care that this week’s piece is exactly the same as her previous articles). It just makes me glad I don’t buy the damned paper anymore.

  37. Posted March 5, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Hitchens vs Hitchens on Youtube… part 1 of 14.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmnVQLOd9Lg

    Gonna watch this in my spare time.

  38. Diane G.
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    sub

  39. Posted March 5, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve recently come out of Christian fundamentalism. Your book was a great source of inspiration and help.

    I have since gone on to read dozens of books, watch hundreds of you tube videos (no exaggeration) and debates over the last year. (loved the moving naturalism forward series by the way and your talk on why religion and science are incompatible)

    There is an interesting debate between Peter and Christopher that you should see to sort of put the nail in the right coffin.

  40. Nick Evans
    Posted March 6, 2013 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, Peter seems to fill a similar niche to his brother, but in a different ecosystem: a contrarian gadfly who appeals to right-wing readers rather than left-wingers. He also fits well with the “lapsed Communist” group of right-wing columnists, who make their readers feel better that they too have grown out of their angry youthful passions. I suspect he doesn’t believe half of what he writes, but is doing it to provoke a reaction.

    Sadly, I also suspect that, as a columnist for the Mail, Peter is the more widely known Hitchens in the UK.

  41. Posted March 6, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    “Pathetic little man”–really? Ad hominum opener hurts your good points.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 6, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      You may be right… we don’t know how tall he is.

      • Matt Bowman
        Posted March 6, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        LMAO!!!

  42. Posted March 7, 2013 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read all the posts so I apologize if I’ve missed something but I would hope that at last a few of Jerry’s sheep here are intellectually honest enough to take him to task for his disgusting remark:

    “If I were religious, I’d say that God took the wrong Hitchens.”

    That was pretty low – even for Jerry Coyne. The Westboro Baptist Church notwithstanding, can you EVER imagine a Christian saying such a thing? I can’t either and Coyne should make a formal apology to Peter Hitchens.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 7, 2013 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      You have indeed missed something. A great deal, in fact. I’d suggest, Randy, that you do more reading and less tone-trolling.

    • Posted March 7, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      “The Westboro Baptist Church notwithstanding, can you EVER imagine a Christian saying such a thing?”

      Facebook Group ‘Praying’ For President Obama’s Death Passes One Million Members

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/28/facebook-group-praying-fo_n_555227.html

      Praying for Obama’s Death

      http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/02/14/praying-for-obamas-death.html

      Pastor’s Prayer for Obama’s Death Sparks Protest

      But whatever you do Randy, do not let reality influence your comments or beliefs. The rest of us might notice your house of cards.

      • Posted March 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Two wrongs don’t make a right, Rikki. I can admit these people are wrong. Will YOU publicly admit, right here on his forum, that Jerry Coyne was wrong to say what he said?

        What’s more, these people’s actions go against the specific teachings of Jesus to “love your enemy.” So they are hypocrites. But evolutionists and atheists have no such moral code.

        • Posted March 7, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          I also hope you are honest and objective enough to admit that there is a big difference between wanting someone to die to prevent the murder of millions of innocent children and wanting someone to die because they dare to question the sacred cow of evolution. I don’t agree with either position but any rational person can clearly see which one is more moral.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 7, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

            Randy, “I also hope you are honest and objective enough to admit that there is a big difference between” a remark about which Hitchens brother you’d prefer to still be hearing from, and “wanting someone to die.”

            Nothing JAC wrote was in any way objectionable. But the remark in question does refer to the usual Christian maunderings about what is and isn’t “God’s will,” something I do find objectionable, not to mention dripping with hubris.

          • Posted March 8, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            “Two wrongs don’t make a right, Rikki. I can admit these people are wrong. Will YOU publicly admit, right here on his forum, that Jerry Coyne was wrong to say what he said?”

            Actually, I’d rather you admitted that YOU were wrong when you essentially asserted no Christian would dare say such a thing. What you said was demonstrably false and you have yet to openly admit this. As far as what I feel about what Dr. Coyne said, I do think it was in bad taste but would not go as far as to say it was “wrong” however one might define that often slippery word.

            But I will give you this …

            I’m not entirely comfortable with the statement Dr. Coyne made as Christopher has only recently left us and I’d imagine that no matter what one thinks of Peter, or of their relationship, that this would be a very soft spot for him and an easy dig even if it wasn’t intended as such. I believe there’s little doubt that Peter would be driven to a more emotional response than a rational one given the circumstances which does not positively further the exchange. I’d imagine that like most families I know, there are always going to be unresolved issues or differences that frequently turn into regret once one of the members has passed away. I’m certain it doesn’t help that Peter may feel over-shadowed by Christopher’s legacy and this is apparent when he uses invectively the phrase “Christopher Hitchens Fan Club.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say what Dr. Coyne has said is “wrong” but it certainly wasn’t “nice” and I personally might not have gone down that road out of respect. Whether or not Peter deserves that respect is another subjective argument entirely. Finally, Dr. Coyne is a big boy and can defend or not his own words, I am not his keeper. Finally, remember that this whole sub-thread began because of a falsehood you implied, not the merits or relative morality of Dr. Coyne’s statements.

            Does this satisfy you Randy? As in, satisfied I gave my own subjective assessment. Whether or not that it agrees with yours is in my opinion irrelevant.

            “What’s more, these people’s actions go against the specific teachings of Jesus to “love your enemy.” So they are hypocrites.”

            Wherein you have just destroyed your original implied assertion that started this sub-thread. Here’s where the shifting of the goalposts and non sequiturs begin ….

            • Posted March 8, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

              For some reason the rest my replies are not going through and there’s no indication of moderation or reason for failure. I suspect it’s in my formatting and I cannot for the life of me figure out what it is and I’m not going to do a complete rewrite.

              I did finally receive one message after several attempts that I was making a duplicate post but even that comment is not displayed. Another comment on another thread went through just fine.

              It’s likely the fault is on my end and rather than continue to fail spectacularly, I’ll be abandoning this thread. My apologies if a mess of my hacked comments are displayed in the near future.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          Randy. You asked the following absurd question.

          “can you EVER imagine a Christian saying such a thing”

          Now you move the goalposts.

          These typical hideous religious examples, where people actually believe they are helping a deity to kill someone, are not remotely comparable to Jerry’s comment.

          And to claim that atheists have no moral code is not only wrong, it is offensive and obnoxious. Shame on you for making such a claim.

  43. Posted March 7, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    It is plain (at least to me) that Peter Hitchens and other likeminded people are religious, and have an agenda against what they erroneously think of as “materialism.” What is always striking to me though, is their absolute confusion regarding natural selection. Either they are unwilling to understand it, deny reality and evidence (agenda), unable to understand it and they need an explanation catered to them, or are utterly disingenuous.

  44. David Lee
    Posted March 7, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Also, the notion of all living things as the work of one creator is not only fabulously irrational, but is the greatest hoax perpetrated on humankind! Organized religion amounts to nothing more than a very lucrative control mechanism that reasonable, clear-thinking human being should leave in the dust bin at age six with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Religion is a fable run amok in modern society. The damage left by this fable is immeasurable and irreversible. pure rubbish!!


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