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.