Falling for the most common misconception about evolution, a Catholic asserts that a doctor can’t be an atheist

If you ask an evolutionary biologist what the most common public misconception about evolution by natural selection is, you’re likely to get this response: “It’s the false assumption that evolution is an accidental process and that its results are purely due to chance.”

The scientific answer to this misconception, of course, is that evolution by natural selection is a combination of an “accidental” process (the production of variation by random mutation) and a deterministic one—the sorting out of that variation by natural selection, which simply describes the eventual dominance of mutational variants that are better at replicating. Of course there can be truly “accidental” ways of evolving, as with genetic drift, but we’re talking about the kind of selection-produced processes that yield the adaptations that Darwin and his latter-day followers found so wondrous.

This is all explained in my book Why Evolution is True, and on practically every evolution website aimed at the public. But people still flaunt this misconception, either not educating themselves or willfully ignoring the scientific answer. Here’s one of the ignorant—a Catholic who loves Jesus writing in the Catholic Transcript Online (click on screenshot to go to article):

The author is identified like this:

Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist who resides in Torrington. He loves Jesus, his wife and kids and the Red Sox (usually in that order). He can be reached at MerryCatholic@gmail.com.


Apropos, just yesterday I received an email from a middle school student who, supposedly investigating evolution vs. creationism for a school project, has sent me several emails containing questions implying that she is either a nascent creationist or finds their arguments persuasive. I answered her previous questions or directed her to sites where she can find answers, as well as urging her to read my book. But nevertheless, she persists. After I got this latest email, I decided to stop corresponding  with her. Curiously, she does not attend a religious school, so all I can guess is that her teachers aren’t giving her a good scientific education. Here are her latest questions, which are along the lines of her previous ones.

Good evening Mr. Coyne,

Sorry to bother you again, but I have some questions that need to be answered by a professional/expert in the evolution.

If everything in the universe came as a result of a random big bang, then isn’t that like if someone told you that there was an explosion at a printing plant and that the ink spattered onto the walls and ceilings and formed an unabridged dictionary. How likely would that be?

Also, if humans evolved from animals—from apes, for example—why is there such a huge gap between the intellectual abilities of humans and those of apes? Humans have qualities far beyond what is necessary for mere survival. In fact, we as humans care for sick people and help those who are less fortunate. Why would we do that if evolution—with its ‘survival of the fittest’ motto—were true?

Ah, the old tornado in a junkyard/Boeing 747 argument! And human exceptionalism to boot! All the readers here should by now be able to give scientific responses to both these questions. But I’m disappointed that the young lady who beleaguers me with these questions simply can’t do the legwork to find out the answers for herself.

h/t: Rich


  1. GBJames
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:17 am | Permalink


  2. Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Bill Dunn is a recovering atheist …

    I bet he’s not a former atheist. Christian apologists *love* to claim to have previously been an atheist, but this is usually a rhetorical device rather than the truth.

    • ian Clark
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Prior to their “atheism” is their childhood religious indoctrination…every single time.

      • Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        Fake news!

      • Vaal
        Posted May 3, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Absolutely ian. It’s so tiring to hear the old “I used to be an atheist” when “being an atheist” means a period of doubt between times of belief.

    • busterggi
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      He probably slept late one Sunday, that’s enough to make you an atheist in fundie eyes.

    • josh
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I think it usually means they stopped attending church services in favor of partying in college, then lapsed back into religious observance once they started seeking domesticity.

    • Geoff Toscano
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I really don’t think it’s possible to move from genuine, considered atheism to religious belief. It’s a one way street. One has only to see the output of people like Lee Strobel to appreciate how much they are lying/deluding themselves.

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      I usually like to claim that no true atheist would convert to Christianity. The conversation usually goes like this:

      Christian: I see Joe Bloggs has renounced his atheism and is accepting Jesus into his life.

      Me: He obviously wasn’t a true atheist.

      Christian: That’s the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

      Me: Remember how yesterday I told you I was an ex-Christian and you said I couldn’t have been a real Christian…?

  3. Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    With a brain like that, we atheists don’t need him. I just hope no one is convinced by his drivel.

  4. Hempenstein
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Well, Julie (to give you a name),

    The time of philosophical puzzling this question has long since passed.

    After the Big Bang, things didn’t start to happen until some 4Bn yrs ago when self-replicating molecules emerged. The best sense of how that came about is through the interaction of small organic molecules with inorganic clays like Montmorillonite.

    Two books by Nick Lane should start you on the way to getting up to speed – Life Ascending and The Vital Question. If nothing else, they’ll give you a reason to come to grips with the redox tables when you get to chemistry.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      “After the Big Bang, things didn’t start to happen until some 4Bn yrs ago when self-replicating molecules emerged.”

      You should clarify that this assertion is about Earth alone. Entire trees of life, millions of planets teeming with life, even great civilizations could have come and gone billions of years before the supernova that created the dust cloud which eventually coalesced into our solar system.

      • Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        True but I think he can be forgiven for omitting that part. I’d like it to be true too but we certainly do not have evidence for any of it.

      • Hempenstein
        Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        Julie is focused on Earth, and most likely humans. The objective was to give an enormously brief and partial skim into abiogenic origins to suggest to her that there’s a huge (and ever-expanding) body of knowledge out there that I suspect she’s completely unaware of.

        • Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          Yeah, sorry man. You’re right. I was just commenting.

        • Liz
          Posted May 3, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          I found this also.

          Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Life?

          “That night in Hawaii, Faber declared that there were only two possible explanations for fine-tuning. ‘One is that there is a God and that God made it that way,’ she said. But for Faber, an atheist, divine intervention is not the answer.

          ‘The only other approach that makes any sense is to argue that there really is an infinite, or a very big, ensemble of universes out there and we are in one,’ she said.

          This ensemble would be the multiverse.”


          I love the name Julie. She sounds like a bright, inquisitive young lady.

          • Geoff Toscano
            Posted May 3, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

            “Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Life?“

            Nope, life, indeed everything in the universe, formed itself (fine tuned) around emerging parameters. Lots of physical laws that we wouldn’t even recognise tried to get in on the act, but were forced out by competing forces. Life on earth only began to exist when conditions had stabilised enough to permit it.

            Life has constantly fine tuned itself round the pre-existing conditions, not the other way round.

            • Posted May 3, 2018 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

              Not disputing you but what did you mean by;

              “Lots of physical laws that we wouldn’t even recognise tried to get in on the act, but were forced out by competing forces.”

              What physical laws were these? If we couldn’t recognize them, how do you know they “tried to get in on the act”? Srs question.

              • Geoff Toscano
                Posted May 3, 2018 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

                I actually have no idea, it was sort of a literary tool to make a point, namely that we have no way of knowing whether the universe could be different to the way it is. Perhaps there are laws of gravity that work differently to the laws we know, where perhaps the acceleration is proportional to mass, or where the speed of light isn’t limited. Had these laws somehow found their way into our universe then life (if it existed at all) would be very different to what we see. Might occupants of this ‘alternative’ universe then gaze in wonder and awe, pondering the odds against their existence, given the level of fine tuning?

          • Posted May 3, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

            “The only other approach that makes any sense…”

            Well, no. There could be only one Universe, but if it weren’t “fine-tuned” for life (i.e., no more than 99.999,999,999,999,999,999,999,… % inimical to life), we wouldn’t be here to contemplate the question.

            It doesn’t matter how improbable life was to begin with, once it’s happened, it’s happened.


            • Liz
              Posted May 3, 2018 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

              Well in terms of inflationary theory, Alan Guth apparently showed something very important that I don’t know enough about to give it justice but it was something like the universe is not flat but it seems that way and he figured out that it wasn’t that special. But if you are looking at the amount of dark energy in our universe, it still seems very odd and or special. It can be special and fine-tuned and still just be as it is. A “god” explanation is unnecessary and erroneous. As Brian Greene explained in his Ted Talk mentioned in a different comment about the fine-tuning of the universe from 2012, it’s comparable to how we look at the planets in relation to the sun. If you don’t ask and answer the question in the correct way, you won’t know. How the specific amount of dark energy is present in such a particular way in our universe is like how Earth is a specific distance from the sun. It just so happens that we are able to exist and survive in these conditions to observe that these measurements exist. It just is that way.

  5. Steve F.
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Well, as an atheist interventional cardiologist I have no trouble seeing the human body and circulatory system as an end product of unguided evolution. If there is a guide, it needs to be reported to the appropriate medical boards for gross and criminal negligence.

    • Geoff Toscano
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      My brother in law is a cardiologist and shares your views. On the odd occasion we’ve discussed religion his response is ‘it’s just so obvious that there isn’t a god’.

      • Posted May 3, 2018 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        Why would some people end up with cleft palettes if we hadn’t evolved from fish?


        • phil
          Posted May 4, 2018 at 1:10 am | Permalink

          So god in his infinite wisdom could teach us something worthwhile, although what that is is rarely spelled out. And never mind about the suffering of the poor people left with cleft palettes, or any number of other disadvantageous differences.

          Why doesn’t god heal cleft palettes to show what a generous guy he is? Suffer the little children to go unto him for they shall get no healing.

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted May 4, 2018 at 8:41 am | Permalink

          I know an artist who had a cleft palette. His paint kept dribbling through the crack in the board…

  6. Don
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Those questions from the middle school child are directly from the creationist playbook. She may not be attending a religious school, but I think it highly likely she is getting coached from someone, either her parents or her church.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly. It’s plain to see.

    • Larry Smith
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly. These are not the honest questions of a young person seeking knowledge, but someone acting at the behest of others, either directly or indirectly.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      Yup. 3, 2, 1, “Where you there?”

      • phil
        Posted May 4, 2018 at 1:11 am | Permalink

        Something that has occasionally puzzled me is why that doesn’t also demolish everything written in the Bible.

        • Posted May 4, 2018 at 2:00 am | Permalink

          Because it’s all based on eyewitness accounts of people who were there.

          Sometimes the eyewitness was God.


          • Jonathan Wallace
            Posted May 4, 2018 at 3:48 am | Permalink

            Never mind the fact that these witnesses produced contradictory and inconsistent accounts of various parts of the story(both within the Bible and between it and the holy texts of other religions, not to mention the many word-of-mouth creation stories of so-called pagans)!

  7. Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    It took our planet billions of years to produce a dictionary. No explosion. Albeit, she is philosophically referring to Boltzmann brains.

    My oldest son is in middle school. I taught him some ideas about Boltzmann Brains and their possibility of existence. But, to date, we have no evidence of such brains, unless you are Star Lord and your dad is a Celestial…

  8. AC Harper
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    As I gazed at those medical posters, which showed the incidence of childhood cancers and sexually transmitted diseases, a question popped into my head: How can a doctor possibly believe in a benevolent god?

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      + 1

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

      Love that return question!
      An apologetic answer I once received was that the good things are contrived by the Merciful God, whereas the bad performances are the Devil’s responsability.

  9. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    “Just think about it.” This phrase always seems followed by wishful thinking.

  10. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I think that it is quite understandable that the hardest difficulty for accepting the principle of life’s evolution by random mutation and natural selection lies in the “black box” into which the random mutations are fed in on the one side, while visibly quite perfect organisms are coming out on the other side, on which natural selection then can act.
    In other (paraphrased) words: “natural selection can explain the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest.”
    A general theory of innovation should be given together with Darwinism, maybe, to make the access to understanding it easier.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      It is not a black box, Rosmarie. Genetics and molecular biology are strong, robust bodies of scientific knowledge.

      • Rosmarie Maran
        Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        Of course not for geneticists, but for lay people who try to understand – and want to be convinced. And not only just accept.

        • Diane Garlick
          Posted May 4, 2018 at 3:28 am | Permalink

          Have you read Why Evolution is True? Or Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker? Both are very accessible and enjoyable reading.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 4, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          All you need is not-quite perfect copying (to provide some variation) and some sort of feedback mechanism (which is provided by ‘survival of the fittest’). And lots and lots of time. In fact, given those, evolution is inevitable.

          No ‘quite perfect’ organisms are involved nor, indeed, do they exist. Any doctor can point out many obvious design faults which could very simply have been avoided. I can point out one for starters (and I’m not a doctor) – why do we eat and breathe through the same hole, with obvious risks of choking when food gets stuck, transforming a mere case of potential indigestion into a life-threatening emergency?


          • Posted May 4, 2018 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

            About this question, I read this on a Quora forum:

            —Most birds, reptiles, and mammals, like humans, use their mouths for both eating and breathing, and rely on a movable flap to choose whether to connect their mouths to.—– The exception is whales and dolphins.===

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Evolution is pretty amazing. And we still don’t know much about how life got started. Amazement is certainly justified. On the other hand, that evolution is real and true seems rather obvious once you know a little about it.

      I think what bothers us most about postings like this one by the “lapsed atheist” is the deliberate ignorance it displays. It is not hard to imagine someone who doesn’t understand evolution because they haven’t studied it, or they have and were unable to absorb it for some reason. However, such people do not write articles like this one. This is someone whose intent is to mislead.

      • Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        If he is a “recovering atheist” then he is still an atheist, isn’t he?

        • Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          That’s how Bill Dunn describes himself. By use of “recovering”, I imagine he is insinuating that atheism is a disease.

          • Posted May 4, 2018 at 7:56 am | Permalink

            I’m a recovering Catholic, but I fear the brain damage might be irreversible.

  11. Posted May 3, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    “However, experience and common sense tell us that complicated, intricate things exist only when planning and intelligence and guidance are involved.“

    Oh, Jeez, Paley again, now with cuckoo clocks. Send this man a copy of “The Blind Watchmaker.”

  12. Pliny the in Between
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    How can a doc be an atheist? Easy – recognize that confirmation bias is a major factor in misdiagnosis.

  13. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    And the assumption, then, is that the community of biologists, who obviously spend a lot of time observing life and who are uniformly atheist, must be involved in a dark conspiracy. No wonder that you can’ trust what they say.

  14. Larry Smith
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Ah, the Donna Reed Argument… the Achilles Heel of evolutionary theory! I was wondering when the creationists would finally figure this out.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink


    • freiner
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      It won’t work. They always get tripped up by the Larry Mondello Corollary.

  15. E.A. Blair
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Mr. Dunn also misapprehends the term “survival of the fittest” as it applies to evolution. Many people understand the phrase in the Spencerian rather than the Darwinian sense. That, I suspect, is what leads those same people to conclude that evolution is goal-driven and that humans are the intended result. The middle school correspondent hints that she has bought in to that idea. I’ve found that people who subscribe to the tornado in a junkyard metaphor also tend to think that humans are an end product, not an intermediate form (or, given the way things are going, a dead end).

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, the term SotF is rarely used by biologists today due to its misleading character. “Fitness” is not meant in the sense of physical fitness.

      The young woman might look at the book “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” by RUssian anarchist Peter Kropotkin who first proposed the notion that altruism has survival benefits.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      “That, I suspect, is what leads those same people to conclude that evolution is goal-driven and that humans are the intended result.”

      That’s probably so, or at least it reinforces assumptions that that is the case. I think religious beliefs predispose believers to assume those things about evolution.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Yep. Life means human life rather than cockroach life (320 million years old) or shark life (420 million years old).

      I imagine a bunch of heavyweight dinosaurs meditating 66 million years ago on fine tuning, their world dominance and cosmic significance.

  16. Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    That’s right, atheism is nothing more than an anti-God religious belief system, with no scientific facts to back it up. I should know, because I was an atheist for many years.

    If being an atheist for many years makes one an expert on all things atheist- then surely being a Catholic for many years makes one an expert on all things Christian?

    I’d chime in with “Christianity is a death cult” but since I was never a Christian I’m not an expert on that.

  17. Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    How can a doctor be an atheist? Maybe she has observed the uncontrolled replication of cancer cells.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Yep. Any ideas of a benevolent god die very quickly in pediatric oncology.

  18. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I believe your questioner, the sorry to bother you again person, is just a con. This person does not want to understand anything. The mind is already set. You are just someone to harass because you are the guy with all those bad ideas about evolution. Ink scattered all over the walls and formed a dictionary. And by the way, it is a very poor con job.

  19. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Bill Dunn is Clichéman – dull, unseasoned, overcooked fare.

    I’ve copy-pasted [very selectively to be frank & bolded caps are my emphasis] the below extracts from Dunn’s THE MERRY CATHOLIC blog. I can’t find anything he’s published that’s in the least bit merry & he’s not a wordsmith nor a thinker. I get the impression that he tends to use the standard atheist tropes [things atheists say] to hang his posts on.

    In response to seeing this comment online: “The pope condemned fake news, then told everyone there’s a magic man living in the sky” our Dear Bill goes into full turgid mode:

    The Most Important Question in the World

    […] Sometimes SNOOTY ATHEISTS can be so TEDIOUS. Yeah, we get it. You don’t believe in God. And in your view, folks who do believe in God are obsessed with a non-existent “magic man living in the sky.” […] It is not a coincidence that the people promoting ideas such as moral relativism, hedonism, and nihilism so often hold a secular, ATHEISTIC worldview. […] Can I prove scientifically that God created mankind? No, not really, not any more than a SMART-ALECK ATHEIST can prove scientifically that random swirling molecules accidentally formed themselves into a complex living organism capable of reproducing. But the thing is, 100 years from now we all will know with certainty which view is correct. I suspect it might be a bit dicey at that point, not to mention surprising, for the SNARKY ATHEISTS among us. […] On the other hand, if I’m wrong and atheism is true, 100 years from now today’s SNARKY ATHEISTS will ceased to have existed (as will I, of course), and they won’t be able to tell me I was wrong.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Now that’s a perfect example of the True Christian Love I’ve come to expect from outspoken Christians. Christianity, it’s all about Love man.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      Oh great — Pascal’s Wager and the tornado in a junkyard in a single paragraph! Bill Dunn, agent of P.R.A.T.T. [Previously Refuted A Thousand Times] He must not have been much of an atheist.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      “not any more than a SMART-ALECK ATHEIST can prove scientifically that random swirling molecules accidentally formed themselves into a complex living organism capable of reproducing”

      Well, of course we can’t, because that’s not what happened!


      • Posted May 3, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        Sorry; that probably sounded a bit snarky.


        • Michael Fisher
          Posted May 3, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink


  20. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Exactly right:

    Dunn adds that “atheism is a belief system based on blind faith”, and makes that claim because we don’t understand how life came into being from “non-living chemicals.” Again, the man lacks knowledge and information. That’s like saying that belief in the Big Bang is based on blind faith because we don’t know exactly how it occurred.

    The analogy with “the Hot Big Bang happened but we are still arguing the mechanism” is striking. I usually point out that we see planets form hot and sterile, and that we now see life, so life emerged fromnon-life.

    How else than from “non-living chemicals” would “living chemicals” emerge? And where does atheism/theism come into that?

    By the way, I wonder if it is this Bill Dunn from Freedom from Religion Foundation:

    “I started out life as a member of the One Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, and I am coming to the end of it without organized religion or mystical thinking. I am an atheist, thank God, with no fear of hell and no hope of heaven.”


    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      No, it’s a different Bill Dunn from the photographs. There’s also a Bill Dunn creationist politician – all very confusing.

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted May 3, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Maybe the “Merry Catholic” should call himself “Will” instead of “Bill” – then he could be “Will B. Dunn” (who was a character in a comic strip once; Kudzu, I think).

        I grew up in a Catholic family, had an uncle who was a Catholic priest and was subjected to twelve years of Catholic education. It’s anything but merry.

  21. mirandaga
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    “But by the same logic, neither can anyone who observes living creatures [be an atheist].”

    Good point. I was suspicious of this guy as soon as I saw that he “usually” loves Jesus more than he loves the Red Sox—not to mention more than he loves his wife and kids.

    Re the middle-schooler, I strongly suspect someone is either 1) putting you on or 2) putting her up to this. The questions and their formulation seem disingenuous at best. I admire your initial attempt to answer her questions but think you were wise to disengage from that conversation.

  22. Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I am a physician and it was my training that confirmed my atheism. There is the old trope that there are no atheists in foxholes, but a stint in the pediatric burn unit will convince a person that god has abandoned the poor victims of abuse, neglect or outright torture for the crimes of crying too loudly or needing a diaper changed.

    Google images of purpura fulminans and see if you still believe in a benevolent god. (there mostly infants, aren’t they)

    Then look at look at the gallbladder, a wretched vile, mischievous organ that shares a common channel with the pancreas, where passed stones from the gallbladder can block the pancreas and cause deadly pancreatitis. It could be avoided with a simple large opening away from the pancreas, where stones would fall harmlessly into the g.i. tract. An intern wouldn’t make that design mistake.

    I could go on…

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget the old joke about running the sewage lines through the entertainment district.

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      My favorite reply when someone tells me about the wonderful creator is that he/she/it must have wanted to welcome a proportion of the dearly beloved early by making the food and air pipes cross so a percentage of them would choke to death on steak each year. A freshman engineer at Lehigh (or the engineering school of your choice) wouldn’t make such a dumb mistake.

  23. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Dear student,
    It would take a long time to answer your questions, and I had thought to answer one or two, but it would take far too long. Actually, you will do better if you find out the answers on your own since the best kind of learning is done that way.
    I am going to assume here that you are being taught creationism at some level. Either by your parents or by your teachers. I am sorry if I am wrong in that. One thing is for sure: If you look to creationist sources for answers to these questions, you will not get an accurate picture of what is most probably true. I say ‘most probably’ because that is the kind of language preferred in science. Our views can be overturned by new facts, and that does happen from time to time. It is just that the views from scientists regarding the big bang and the origin of life and its evolution has been earned by discovering an overwhelming amount of facts. These facts are sufficiently numerous and mutually supporting that there seems little danger that the theories behind the big bang and evolution will ever be substantially overturned as they stand now. It is important to point out that we arrive at our theories, in their present form, after a history of revision and refinements because of new facts that come in. Science is ‘self-correcting’ in that way. For example, a few decades ago people who studied human evolution from fossils had thought that our form of upright walking on just two legs started on the open savannas. That idea did make sense, but then new fossils were found of very early bipedal primates, possibly in line with our ancestors, that clearly demonstrated that upright walking got its start in the forests. So an old theory was overturned by new facts. This particular view regarding evolution of our sort of primate has continued to be supported by yet new discoveries, and so it is now considered most probably true. Revising theories based on new facts. That is what gets the job done. I could go on at length about how this or that area of science has been updated, for the better, based on new discoveries and facts.

    So I have a question for you. Think about the various creationist viewpoints that you have may have learned regarding things like the origin of life and its evolution. Can you think of a single instance where creationists have ever changed their ‘theories’ in light of new facts? Do they revise? Ever? You are young, and so maybe you don’t know for sure. But I bet that if you are being taught creationism by adults then they cannot think of any revisions either! You should ask them about that. Not revising viewpoints in light of new facts is a sign of dogma, not science, and it is not a reliable way to find the path toward the truth.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Very nice, Mark. Well done. I hope she pays attention.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted May 3, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        Sadly, she won’t of course.

    • Liz
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      I love this. It’s wonderful.

      I’d also ask her to watch the Ted Talk by Brian Greene, Why is our universe fine-tuned for life?

      At 12:00.
      “…So we find ourselves in a universe with a particular amount of dark energy we’ve measured simply because our universe has conditions hospitable to our form of life. And that would be that. Mystery solved. Multiverse found.”

      At 15:39.
      “…Which means in the inflationary theory, the Big Bang giving rise to our universe is likely not a one-time event. Instead the fuel not only generates our Big Bang, but it would also generate countless other Big Bangs each giving rise to its own separate universe with our universe becoming but one bubble in a grand cosmic bubble bath of universes.”

      The dictionary analogy doesn’t sound that off but I’m not sure where she’s going with that.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      I love the main part of what you wrote, but must niggle about the last paragraph. Please forgive.

      “Can you think of a single instance where creationists have ever changed their ‘theories’ in light of new facts? Do they revise? Ever?…Not revising viewpoints in light of new facts is a sign of dogma, not science, and it is not a reliable way to find the path toward the truth.”

      The sourcebook for creationists, the bible, first was collected orally by the Jews from various locations and peoples of the Middle East. Even the Jews did not all agree on requirements for being good Jews. When it was finally transcribed from multiple oral and/or written sources, the editors selected what to include and exclude. Sometimes, they didn’t do a very good job. Examples: Evolution of God from a mountain/weather god, one of many, to the one and only god of the universe. Two different creation myths. Two different genealogies of Jesus.

      In addition to the book being more of a collection (history, laws, poetry, etc.)than one greatest story , there has been no one universal (catholic) christianity from the very beginning. Interpretations varied widely (wildly). Some heads of churches became heretics. Their beliefs and writings were excluded from the canon. Some were excommunicated. Some were killed. Even with the pope and priests being the only ones allowed to read the Bible and disseminate information from it, there were many divergences in belief. Once common folk learned to read and had Bibles in their native languages instead of Latin, the opportunity for diverse interpretations exploded. And that’s where we are today with christianity. That doesn’t even address all the other religions around us.

      I doubt that the young person has even read the bible entirely.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted May 3, 2018 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

        Nothing to forgive, really. In religion (and creationism is religious), the history is more a matter of bifurcation as one one religion derives from another and splits away in acrimony. So too, within a given religion new sects are seen to form and diverge away in a great tree of delusion.

  24. Ty Gardner
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I can’t speak for physicians, but as a professor of human anatomy I find it easy to be an atheist. While my atheism isn’t based on the human body, there is nothing I’ve learned about it that challenges atheism or evolution, but much that support evolution and cannot be explained meaningfully without it. I suppose I could also accept any view of God that accepts that God does nothing, but I’ve had little luck finding theists who accept such a god.

  25. Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Here we go again!

    I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Anaximander or one of the other presocratic evolutionists had been more persuasive!

  26. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Another common misconception about evolution is not understanding that change is gradual and that there are periods of evolutionary stasis.
    What are people thinking when they say they have never seen a dog morph into a cat, or that monkeys in zoos are not evolving?

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      If I’m descended from my grand-parents how come there are still cousins? 🙂

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted May 3, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        Technically, that is more a riposte to the argument “Why are monkeys still here?” rather than to the argument “Why aren’t monkeys evolving?”

        • Jonathan Wallace
          Posted May 4, 2018 at 3:56 am | Permalink

          Yes I agree – I was alluding to another common misconception i.e. the idea that if we evolved from monkeys that requires monkeys to no longer exist as such.

    • Posted May 3, 2018 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      And that it’s populations that evolve, not individuals.


      • Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        I have noticed that people don’t realize that this is a technical term. Just like “force” in physics or “valid” in logic – people have to learn to use the stipulative definition where appropriate. I have also noticed that a lot of people have trouble understanding stipulative definitions!

  27. Ray Little
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    The giveaway phrase is ‘No, really.’ at the start of the third paragraph quoted. When I saw that, all of Dunn’s preceding words were automatically erased from my consciousness.

  28. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    It occurs to me that the founder of medicine, Hippocrates, as a strong advocate of separating medicine and religion!!!

    Wikipedia reports “He separated the discipline of medicine from religion, believing and arguing that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the gods but rather the product of environmental factors, diet, and living habits. Indeed there is not a single mention of a mystical illness in the entirety of the Hippocratic Corpus.”

    • Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      The saying, “Men think it is divine merely because they don’t understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why there would be no end of divine things.” is attributed to that school as well.

      • Posted May 4, 2018 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        (The reference is to epilepsy, should have included that.)

  29. darrelle
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    The basics of evolution are really rather simple. It’s much harder (apparently) to understand how those few simple concepts can lead to such complexity from such, comparatively, simple precursors. As has been said better by others many times, this was perhaps Darwin’s most significant insight, that such complexity can arise from simple beginnings following a few simple rules.

    And that’s one of the biggest flies in the ointment. Believer’s just will not let go of that pre-modern science concept that complexity can only be created by something more complex and that has agency. Their religion keeps them stuck in the past, looking to the past for wisdom, because their religion is a product of ancient times when those points of view were the norm. I’ve always found it pathetic that believers proclaim the specialness of humans but at the same time think so little of us as to think that we are not capable of improving on the wisdom of the ancients. As in almost every single thing they think is so grand about their religious world view the reality far outshines their belief.

    Trying to use evidence to convince them doesn’t work very well for several reasons, but I think one of the most relevant is that many people rely almost entirely on arguments from authority. To them the “debate” is simply a contest between what their authorities say vs what the other side’s authorities say. The most important criteria for them in judging what to believe is who is saying it, not what they are saying. Naturally they are going to side with their authority without ever making any effort to understand what the science actually says.

    • mirandaga
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      “To them the ‘debate’ is simply a contest between what their authorities say vs what the other side’s authorities say.”

      This is certainly true of many theists, but not of Bill Dunn, who is appealing instead to experiential evidence—specifically, his observation of the intricacies of the human body. I can understand why he might be inspired to become a theist or a creationist based on this evidence, but why a Christian, and why oh why a Catholic? It makes no sense.

      • Doug
        Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

        I’m from Connecticut and I’ve been reading Dunn’s crap in my local paper for decades. In one column he said that he gave up his atheism when his daughter was born; he had been raised a Catholic, but he had been taught in school that life was created by random chemical processes, yadda yadda, so he became an atheist. When he saw his newborn daughter, he realized that random processes couldn’t have created a baby.

        He then began “studying” Christianity; he says that he had blindly accepted atheism and he wasn’t going to repeat that mistake by blindly accept religion. It was going to take a lot to convince HIM! He read that the apostles were put to death for preaching Christianity and this was enough to convince him; since nobody would die for a lie, Christianity MUST be true! “There really is no other explanation,” he insists. So the Peoples’ Temple, Heaven’s Gate and other suicide cults must be true? It also evidently didn’t occur to him that stories of the apostles’ martyrdom might be fiction.

        But wait, there’s more! Some people point out that the stories of the Resurrection contradict each other. You might think that this would cast doubt on it, but to Dunn, this proves that the Resurrection happened! If it were a lie, the evangelists would have made sure that they had their story straight. The fact that folk tales (King Arthur, etc.) vary from source to source escapes him.

        So that’s why he’s a Christian.

        • Doug
          Posted May 3, 2018 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

          “by blindly acceptING religion.” I always spot the goofs just after clicking “Post Comment.”

      • darrelle
        Posted May 4, 2018 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        I suppose he could be telling the truth about that, but I have serious doubts. Based on what I’ve read by him I’m not as willing as you to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  30. mirandaga
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    “However, experience and common sense tell us that complicated, intricate things exist only when planning and intelligence and guidance are involved.”

    This may be true of things that are engineered into existence—e.g., cuckoo clocks and Saturn rockets—but it is not true of things that are created—e.g., sonatas and sonnets. This is the main flaw in the ID argument—the assumption that God is an engineer rather than an artist.

  31. josh
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    “…isn’t that like if someone told you that there was an explosion at a printing plant and that the ink spattered onto the walls and ceilings and formed an unabridged dictionary. How likely would that be? ”

    Here’s a much better analogy: imagine a hot gas of water vapor confined to a tank which then explodes into empty space. As the vapor expands it cools, first forming water droplets that merge and split under a complicated interplay of forces, then ice crystals. The crystals exhibit a great amount of what we call order and regularity, in fact they even reproduce themselves in a sense since the crystal lattice repeats itself and crystals naturally grow. This seems very different from the chaos of the initial hot explosion, yet it follows directly from physics. You can even approximate this experiment with a tank of compressed gas and a valve to release it, ice can form on the valve.

    The settling of our current “orderly” universe out of the dense, chaotic plasma of the big bang period is just a more complicated (and ongoing) version of this kind of process. It’s inevitable.

  32. Kurt
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure it’s already been said but it can’t be said often enough: to me the true horror of religion is that it causes people like this man proudly states that he loves a (likely) fictional character more than his family.

    • Diane Garlick
      Posted May 4, 2018 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      + 1

  33. Christopher
    Posted May 3, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I still shudder to think of all the times I sat in classes like Bio 101 and 102 with people decked out in crosses, head scarves, and one particularly irritating Jesus t-shirt. The university had a program that was heavily focused on pre-med students so what I can’t understand, what really chaps my arse is how many of those future doctors could be religious. How can one study biology, chemistry, physics, or medicine and NOT be an atheist?!

    • Liz
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I was agnostic and wouldn’t have called myself an atheist. I definitely wasn’t religious by the time I was in college. I was aggressive with religious people, wanted to figure out what was right, and desperately wanted people not to be religious. I couldn’t stand it. I would always wonder, though, and ask weird questions that my peers and friends didn’t want to talk about or just didn’t understand. This is so simple but apparently when it was happening it wasn’t. In about 2002 I went to my vertebrate history prof. who was super chill, smart, and had a bunch of birds, during her office hours and asked what came before DNA. She said maybe a strand of RNA. And I asked about what she thought about a god theory and she quietly shut the door on me. Seriously. And I was really quiet and shy. There are plenty of people who still ask that. I thought it was a good question although I didn’t really think that was be correct. I was like, um, okay.

  34. Posted May 3, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink


    In addition to the books of PCCE, Richard Dawkins and others, I suggest that everyone,
    including this youngster, read “De Rerum Natura” by Lucretius. Then, follow up by reading “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt.

    • freiner
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      A strong Epicurean second to these recommendations.

  35. Posted May 4, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Go easy on the middle school student. That could have been me, fifteen years ago or so.

  36. FB
    Posted May 5, 2018 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Evolution should be considered as important and hard to understand as Chemistry, Physics or Biology. We should demand two years of Evolution coursework in High School. It’s very different from “God did it” that can be grasped by a five year-old in five minutes.

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