Peter Hitchens replies to me; I answer him

March 6, 2013 • 7:46 am

Two days ago I posted a critique of Peter Hitchens’s views on evolution (he doesn’t accept it).  One reader warned me that Hitchens would undoubtedly see that and reply, but I didn’t believe it: why would he mess with a small fish like me? Unfortunately, Hitchens is one of those splenetic people whose internal rage is sufficiently strong that he cannot resist replying to criticism, especially from an atheist.  I long ago learned the lesson of not engaging with critics unless there was a possibility of enlightening some third parties, for such engagement is futile. And if I did so, I’d spend all my time replying to the vitriolic posts about me on religious websites, as well as the deranged ravings of gun nuts cursing me on YouTube.

As my reader predicted, P. Hitchens could not resist, and sent a comment that I, instead of burying in a thread, will reproduce here. It was sent under his own name (give the man this: he’s no coward), and here it is in full:

Once again, we see here the visceral hatred, rage and intolerance of the atheist fanatics (and of the sad and embarrassing hero-worshippers of the Christopher Hitchens fan club). This, of course, is caused by their own lack of confidence in their faith, though they lack the candour or even the self-awareness to admit it *is* a faith. The mildest doubts are treated as dreadful heresy, and the death of the supposed heretic is openly desired (and that desire is then sneakily denied when it is pointed out). No serious person argues in this spite-filled, spittle-flecked fashion. Do grow up.

Here’s my response:

Dear Mr. Peter Hitchens,

As with many religious people who despise atheism, you have spent your time concentrating on the tone of my article (which, by the way, is much milder than the invective I regularly receive, without complaint, from religious people) rather than dealing with the substance of my criticism, which was far more extensive.

Let me remind you of the falsehoods you spread about evolution, which do not constitute “mild doubts” in the eyes of anyone who understands evolution.

  • You criticized Darwin (and implicitly, modern evolutionists) for suggesting that whales might have evolved from swimming bears. Yes, that was incorrect, but the fact is that whales did evolve from terrestrial mammals—deerlike instead of bearlike ones. And you “forgot” to add that we now have a series of transitional fossils from terrestrial mammals to modern whales,. That, by the way, addresses your second lie:
  • You claimed that microevolution occurs but does not cause substantial evolutionary change (“macroevolution”). Tsk, tsk, Mr. P. Hitchens—you should know better. In fact, I suspect you do—at least if you’ve read enough about evolution to consider yourself qualified to criticize it. I gave some evidence for the continuity between micro- and macroevolution. You ignored it.
  • You claimed that the Piltdown Man hoax shows that scientific findings are unrealiable. As I noted, the hoax was uncovered—by scientists—within a few decades. The theory and fact of evolution have been massive for over 150 years, and continue to grow and solidify.
  • You argued that Intelligent Design (ID) doesn’t specify a designer, implying that it’s not a religiously-based theory.  Anyone who knows ID knows that that claim is a sham. The Great Designer is the Christian God (aka Jesus and the Holy Ghost).
  • You claimed that evolution is “a theory about the distant past, witnessed by nobody,  based upon speculation, not upon observation.”  As I showed, that, too, is false. Evolution is based on far more than speculation; it rests on mountains of evidence, observations and fulfilled predictions. I wrote a book about this evidence. It’s called Why Evolution is True. Read it.
  • You argued that science hasn’t “proven” evolution.  That’s not our job. Our job is to find the best explanation for natural phenomena. Science is not in the business of uncovering absolute, immutable truths—that’s the futile aspiration of religion. Do you understand that—or anything about how science works?
  • You argued that there is evidence for adaptation, but that’s not “evolutionary change.” In fact it is. This shows again that you don’t understand even the most rudimentary claims of evolutionary biology.
  • You claimed that the implication of evolution 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.” If the purpose of studying evolution is to prove atheism, why are a fair number of evolutionary biologists religious? If you claim that we’re all out to dump on God, you don’t know biologists at all. Most of us don’t care about your god: we want to understand nature. If our findings make god’s existence less likely, then so much the worse for him—and you.
  • You characterize acceptance of evolution as a “faith.” Wrong, of course. We accept evolution because there is irrefutable evidence for it. Your imaginary Anglican god, in which you have real faith, is supported by no evidence at all. Faith is in fact belief in the absence of evidence.

These are just some of your claims that I answered. But instead of defending them, you choose to concentrate on the “rage and intolerance of the atheist fanatics.” To paraphrase your brother, when the tone-trolling begins, then you know that the other side doesn’t have an argument.

Yes, I was angry at your ignorance: it is a terrible crime that someone of your education and intelligence spends his time not only attacking one of the best-supported scientific theories we have, but spreading untruths about it. That harms the public understanding of science. I doubt that you would tolerate such a tissue of lies and ignorance when it comes to your political journalism. Do your bloody homework!

Two other points.  Your comment about the “sad and embarrassing hero-worshippers of the Christopher Hitchens fan club” is a rich mine for psychologists, but I’ll leave the mining to others.  Let me just say that atheists are not at all a “worshipping” fan club of your brother. Many of us have taken issue with his views, including those on the Iraq war, as well as his attitude towards women and his contempt for believers.  Atheists don’t “worship” people; we admire them, while recognizing their flaws. And your brother, whose memory you besmirch with that remark, was an admirable man in many ways that you are not. For one thing, he knew a hell of a lot more about evolution, and wouldn’t embarrass himself in public with the dreadful ignorance of biology you parade in your pages.

Finally, I do not wish for you to die, and never did.  That would cause terrible grief for those friends and family that you have, and I would not wish for that. What I said was this, “If I were religious, I’d say that God took the wrong Hitchens.”  When that was misinterpreted by a reader as meaning that I hoped you would die, I explained my comment as I meant it: if we had to choose between having you or your brother with us, I’d choose Christopher.  That clarification was not “sneaky,” but honest. Yet you impugn it as yet another reason to attack the “rage and intolerance” of atheists.  It’s almost as if you wish that I wish you could die, so you could further rage on about our tone.  Well, how about trying to engage our arguments—not only our arguments against god, but for evolution?

It is you who should grow up, Mr. P. Hitchens—intellectually. Do some research about evolution, but first remove your religious blinders. As all journalists know, you have to understand a topic before you express opinions about it. And put away your childish things, which include that Anglican faith.

Jerry Coyne


I guess Peter Hitchens will be reading this, as well as the comments. If you want to add your own response, please do so. But I ask that you be civil.

242 thoughts on “Peter Hitchens replies to me; I answer him

  1. Jerry Coyne is one of my favourite people on the planet; here, once again, he demonstrates why with a beautifully clear, potent and compelling response to one of my least favourite people on the planet.

    His book is excellent too, please read it; or if you already have, read it again and buy it for everyone you know.

  2. Hi, Prof. Coyne.

    The distinction you draw between faith and being motivated by evidence was the reason for my apparently annoying post a while ago that “truth” is not the best way to characterize the results of scientific investigation.

    Quoting you:

    “You argued that science hasn’t “proven” evolution. That’s not our job. Our job is to find the best explanation for natural phenomena. Science is not in the business of uncovering absolute, immutable truths—that’s the futile aspiration of religion”

    This is why I’m in favor of using the term “convincing”, or “convinced” rather than “truth”, because “truth” does imply “immutability” and in principle science does not aspire to that while religion does.

    1. These are, of course, complex issues that aren’t resolvable by simple posts on a website, so don’t take me as trying to “prove” you’re wrong (about ‘truth’–haha). Lots of philosophers of science see this in very different ways, not that I don’t think there is a best way–I don’t mean to imply relativism, just recognition of the complexity. Lots of philosophical work, inlcuding that of Popper, has converged to make it look like ‘truth,’ in some sense of that term, isn’t the proper epistemic goal of science. But others suggest that the term is still flexible enough to use, allowing for it to be weakened from senses that absolutists in the past have wanted to use it in. It certainly doesn’t imply immutability, sicne we easily understand “I am hungry” to be true (I tell you it is, not lying) but am pretty sure it won’t be in 30 minutes.

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I guess I see “truth” as irreparably tainted, like “God”. Even those who don’t actually believe in the guy in the sky type of “God”, but in some sort of ordering principle, Spinoza’s God if you will, implicate old Nobodaddy by using the word. Similarly with “truth”, I think. It’s very easy to say that scientists were convinced of the “truth” of the division of humans into distinct races, but now have changed their minds, as evidence of why science should be discounted. That the methods of science disproved the previous “truth” consensus is not noted by critics. “Convincing evidence” implicates the progressive and provisional nature of scientific investigation.

        Your example of hunger is about an entirely different kind of truth. In the first place, this “truth” is incorrigible, in that nobody can deny the validity of your feeling, as if to say that you are not “really” hungry. (Exception here for shrinks, who might assert that the feeling of hunger is really displaced anxiety) Secondly, hunger, like all feelings is transient in nature. You either eat or starve;j in either case hunger ceases.

        Epistemic hunger–to steal a term from Dennett, is never satisfied, and thus is both always true, and never arriving at truth.

        1. I dunno… with a sufficiently advanced brain scanner we probably will be able to objectively measure things like hunger & love in the not-too-distant future. fMRI is already pretty darn good.

          For that reason, I don’t find ‘subjective’ arguments (those that say things like you can’t measure ‘hunger’) that compelling these days. I think we can already look at a brain-looking-at-someone-they-love and do a pretty good job of telling what is going on and even distinguishing limerence.

          [note: I caution extreme skepticism when dealing with interpretations of fMRI scans, they are still extremely primitive and I think often misinterpreted – but the point is our brains do behave differently when presented with different circumstances and I think we will get better and better at decoding it]

        2. I was thinking yours was the obvious reply to my example, and I was actually hoping you might make that reply. See, once you say what you did, you are putting forth a proto-theory of truth, divisions into kinds, ways of knowing, etc., that might or might not be right, but complicates the issues quite a bit. So certain kinds of truth imply immutability, and certain ones don’t? Do you, or anyone else, have such a categorization that matches up with all the ordinary (and technical) usages of ‘truth’? I can tell you, because I have done the research, the answer is no, no one has it. (If you do, you’ll be quite famous in philosophy!) Here’s the problem: My example does show (you implicitly admit this) that not all instances of ‘truth’ imply immutability. Your attempt to say why certain types of truth don’t looks to me to be a pretty complex and much more dubious proposition, and probably (again, you admit this) part of your own subjective sense of what truth means. (That’s not a bad thing–we all do it; I’m not arguing some kind of inherent superiorityof my own here.) It seems to me just as likely, faced with the daunting prospect of a categorization, that it is at least equally likely that we don’t want to say that ordinary, or scientific, truth, implies immutability either. I suspect, and again this isnt’ a knock down drag out attempt to refute your point, that some non-philosophers and non-critical thinkers saddled us, philosophers and scientists, with a notion of ETERNAL, IMMUTABLE and CAPITAL O OBJECTIVE TRUTH (say it with resounding force, as if in an echo chamber, with the sounds of whirling winds in the background!), which we never believed in anyway, or at least, never had to believe in.

          1. I have a professor, an otherwise very smart person, who denigrates a certain type of philosophy (the type I do!) and science in general, by always referring to “truth with a capital T,” or Absolute Truth, or Objective Truth, as if it is some horrible bogeyman and you can’t talk about little t truth without implying Big T Truth. That’s just crazy. It’s made up! (The word immutable is another one she could and probalby does sometimes use here.) It’s a straw man. Philosophers of science and philosophers of truth do quite well and never refer to the BIG ONE at all. It’s like, you set the bar that high, it isn’t surprising that science or science and rationality can never meet it! Yes, I guess I want to keep the concept but downscale it, and my point is that it woudln’t need to be downscaled if someone hadn’t upscaled it in the first place.

            You, as you say so nicely, were indoctrinated with this kind of talk. I’m just offering another option. You sound like a smart person, very much the type I expect here at WEIT, so I don’t see this as ‘hammering you,’ like we would hammer people who are blatantly ignorant.

            Thanks for the conversation.

            1. Sorry this is getting long, but it’s important, to me anyway. I suspect (I was wrong that you said as much, after rereading) that you, like me, heard people, often religious people and non-scientists, and even some bad philosophers, talk about this capital T Truth and took it, as anyone would, that that was part and parcel of truth. SO, like Popper (you have a lot of good company here in philosophy, Brian!), want to jettison the concept, and talk only about concepts of evidence. I think we can save truth, small t. Here’s one natural thing my view allows us to say, and yours (and all your good company’s) doesn’t: What is x convincing evidence for? The truth of y! Yes, a weaker way of saying it is, “for the proposition, y is justified,” but Hume showed that you really don’t escape any epistemological problems by moving to the weaker claims, about justification. All the problems re-arise in new but analogous guises.

            2. Well, I’ve read my Wittgenstein (Investigations, not the Tractatus) and realize we can play any language game we choose, and can choose any rules that serve us.

              Our criticism of supernatural belief systems is that playing tennis without a net isn’t an (epistemological) game at all, because the rules can change at any moment.

              So I don’t really have a problem with calling the current consensus of scientific opinion “truth” except in a defensive ideological way. In order to distinguish science from other proposed epistemologic systems, we could change the goal. Let religions seek truth, we seek something else entirely-“reality” as it were.

              I’m not sure Popper really succeeded in his goal of coming up with a reliable distinction between “science” and “pseudo-science”. With some ideas such as astrology, the distinction is clear, with others, such as clinical medical (not to mention psychiatric) practice, we might not have reliable criteria for distinguishing (or not) medical empiricism from science. There simply isn’t time to check whether those practices are “falsifiable”. I’ve been corrupted, of course by Lakatos and Feyerabend.

              At any rate, as you have probably figured out, I’m an amateur philosopher at best. (Note the etymological consonance between those two terms) As an amateur, I can simply play with concepts and have fun with discussions. It’s not my job, after all.

              Thanks back.

              1. Truth as it is overwhelmingly broken down into subsections here in the above arguments is really not an argument of Science but of philosophy. Can we all agree that if you see a dog poop on the side walk that what is left is in fact dog poop. Science is in the business of focusing the scope from the infinitely large to the the infinitely small. The specific direction the scope focuses on is determined by the agenda of the the given grant or corporate donation e.g. some see the poop, some see the enzymes, some see the proteins, some just smell it, some see what a deity left for another to eat…it is all true. Science is always changing as it follows the only constant of the universe, change, and tries to understand how it works. In the current era the motive of understanding is how to manipulate it into cash.

    2. Keep in mind there exists a plenitude of ‘observable facts of evolution’ as distinguished from the Theory of Evolution that attempts to account for those facts.

      We have SEEN organisms go from single-cellular modes to multi-cellular modes. We have SEEN divergence of sexual compatibility. We have SEEN the evolution of new function. We have SEEN every necessary genetic mutation happen. We have SEEN how mutations alter both form and function. There are hundreds of thousands of direct, individual observations not just a few.

      The THEORY, that accounts for how this happens, could be wrong (at least in part) and is constantly refined as our knowledge increases.

      The observable, hard facts of evolution are not likely to be changed any more than the fact of gravity. It is our Theory of gravity that has changed in light of new facts (observations) about gravity. Just as the Theory of Evolution continues to grow as we learn new facts about Evolution.

      E.g., the common ancestry of human and chimp is part of the theory — it COULD be wrong, but there is a vast mountain of evidence supporting it. When the two species split is likely to shift around as we gain more knowledge, but THAT they split isn’t nearly as likely to change (the evidence from chromosome 2 is extremely compelling: )

      1. “Compelling” is just what I mean. At any rate, I’ve just bought the book through this website’s portal to Amazon. I hope this means Dr. Coyne gets a few pennies more.

        1. I read Dr. Coyne’s book last month, and it is the best compilation of evidence for Evolution I’ve seen, written in plain language that anybody can understand. (Clearly he’s had much practice trying to explain it to undergrads who’ve had no science education in high school, the usual case in the U.S.)
          And with the evidence so plainly presented, that is the challenge to P. Hitchens and all other Creationists: Give us another theory that makes any sense at all. But stop trying to ignore the evidence.

    3. How about this? Proper scientific methodology provides humanity with greater approximations of the natural world (not implying that there is any other world, i.e. a supernatural world). The positive utilization of these approximations have been beneficial to humanity. The scientific quest is open-ended and self-corrective. Will science ever provide us with an absolute truth? We’ll have to stick with it and see!

    4. This is such a *small* point – It’s true that there is a beech tree in my garden, I planted it there. Sure I can’t prove absolutely, that I’m not living in some virtual reality or matrix world. But really the distinction is so trivial that it’s hardly worth discussing. Evolution is true to the extent that anything we observe is true.

        1. It means Jerry “pwnd” PH. From the Urban Dictionary: Drop The Mic – “A phrase describing the action performed after getting the better of someone.”

  3. Mr Hitchens rejects evolution because he doesn’t like its moral implications. It’s the same attitude that led the church to reject heliocentrism in the face of overwhelming evidence. Eppur si muove. He’ll catch up in the end.

    1. Not necessarily. How many centuries did it take the Church to catch up? I doubt Mr. Hitchens will be living centuries.

    2. Is this Paul Davies, physicist, and author of The Mind of God (and others)?

      I hope so, for then I shall have to read that book again (probably the 4th time) with other eyes and a more “open mind”, because this short remark (and the one below) says he sees things different from what I surmised he did in that book.

      And if all this is addressed to the right man, I can only say what a delight to hear this from him.

      Regarding JAC’s reference to Piltdown Man I believe it is necessary to point out that anthropologists such as Raymond Dart, Louis Leakey, Broom and a number of others in Europe and the USA rejected the claims of the British scientists almost immediately. It took sir Arthur Keith and his fellows who so much wanted the “first man” to be British, forty years to admit their blind acceptance of an obvious fraud.

      1. I am not that Paul Davies. Sorry!

        Piltdown Man is a red herring. Being human, scientists are occasionally guilty of naivety, wishful thinking, self-delusion – all the same flaws which religious people may or may not display. But at their best, they follow where the evidence leads, even if they don’t like the look of where it’s taking them – Quantum theory being a case in point. Whereas religious people know where they want to go and either skew the evidence to fit or just refuse to look at it.

    3. I can’t think of a single moral conclusion we can draw FROM evolutionary theory (not that it cannot be informative). It can tell us how we got to where we are but not how we should behave.

      Nature is not all sheer brutality, there is a deep interconnectedness and frequent examples of symbiosis, cooperation, and altrusim as well. These are all tools in our toolkit, the question is how to apply them (and I think the strong evidence is that we operate largely on ignorance, inference, and habit and we generally do a very poor job of it-but that’s a different discussion).

      But to draw moral conclusions directly from evolutionary theory would be to commit the Naturalistic fallacy.

      So I think this objection fails on its face (though you could be correct and this could be a large part of the nature of Peter’s objection, my point is that it’s a very poorly considered objection if that is the case).

  4. “[evolution is] a theory about the distant past, witnessed by nobody, based upon speculation, not upon observation”

    I guess we should throw out the vast majority of murder cases then.

    1. The same reason we can throw away god belief. creation is a thing that happened in the distant past and witnessed by nobody and is based upon conjecture and not obseravtion

  5. Bloody brilliant ! I will use some of the arguments myself (I know them but you have expressed them far far better than I could ever) in some of the spats I have on line.

  6. I appreciate you addressing the false claim that Atheists hope for the deaths of the faithful. This is a hostile mischaracterisation.

    1. It appears to me to be a case of projection: The believers in an Afterlife want death for atheists, so that they will be irrefutably shown the errors and eternal terrors they have brought upon themselves with their non-belief.
      I’ve seen this fantasy repeated in many comments about PZ Meyers, et. al.

      Atheists know that there is only this life, and only this, and know how precious, fragile, and unique (in the Universe) it is. We know that death is a very final end, and wish it upon no one.

      We only wish for human enlightenment, not death.

      1. I completely agree. I am an Atheist but also have respect of all life, in many cases more so than those that claim a faith in some deity and their wholesome works written in some book known as a bible. I used to have respect for people that need to believe in a deity. But, I am finally sickened by it. Truth seeking is done by truth seekers. Only if a deity believer is willing to begin seeking truth will they ever be enlightened with knowledge that brings about more questions that need answered. Only then do they begin the journey to freedom of thought, free thinking, reality and all the horrors of being the Human animal they are. I embrace my evil and my love as part of my whole, I am not afraid of my actions – unless they are breaking some human made law that has consequences. Even then I am only afraid to be caught and face those consequences and that does not necessarily stop me from being who I am.

        I have seen the evolution of man from my date of birth until now and I don’t like what I see. Military or so called defense only being used as offending tools. Science studies being edited by government PR. Liberties and privileges taken away. Deceit on mass scale e.g. Operation Ajax, Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Silverado Savings and loan, 911 WTC alleged terrorist attack, The AIG Lehman bros. Goldman Sachs fraud, Monsanto GMOs rBGH, Citizens United…all scientifically calculated and engineered.

        Just be careful of what you call science.

  7. The accusation that evolution is a closet faith is often made. Odd that religious people should use it as an insult! But leaving that aside, there is a linguistic sleight of hand here. Sure, scientists have a reluctance to abandon theories in the face of anomalous evidence, which is partly pragmatic (anomalies often turn out to be blips) and partly emotional. But ask evolutionary scientists to name a piece of evidence that, if it came to light, would catastrophically undermine their position and they all can. Ask religious people the same question and they can’t. That’s true faith and it’s categorically different from a scientist’s faith in a theory.

    1. Right, Paul, and to me, that’s the key to the vaunted “open-mindedness.” After seeing the movie What the Bleep Do We Know, I was ranting about how awful it was to the friend I had seen it with, and someone I know, a true believer in woo, came up and said, well you’re just closed minded! To which I gave her this definition of being open-minded, knowing what evidence would change my mind, which I did, and she didn’t.

      1. Keep Tim Minchin’s “Storm” handy for moments like that! If you don’t know it by heart, hie thee away to the intertubes and spend the best 9 minutes of your life watching it!!

    2. “But ask evolutionary scientists to name a piece of evidence that, if it came to light, would catastrophically undermine their position and they all can. Ask religious people the same question and they can’t. That’s true faith and it’s categorically different from a scientist’s faith in a theory.”

      ExACTly! Well said, Paul Davies, and much appreciated; THANK YOU!

  8. It is always an unfortunate disappointment when people fail to engage on the substance of an argument. What a waste of opportunity.

    I wanted to voice my agreement with you on one point. I don’t hate Peter and I don’t wish anyone dead or tortured, I leave that to the Christians who invoke Hell (and often enough, *real* physical violence) on the slightest dissimilitude, even against other Christians (

    I have a little collection of vitriol that Peter might want to pursue before he trots out his hypocritical rage again:

    We human beings have a lot of things to be legitimately ANGRY about when it comes to religion and the harmful (and disgusting) behaviors it often purposefully and willfully promotes. I say ‘human beings’ because this anger isn’t unique to atheists or secularists, many religious people are angry about most of it – but each religion seems to excuse their own abuses while they condemn those of their neighbor.

    This image (very tall JPG, doesn’t work well on phones) sums up many of the problems very well: What’s The Harm?

    It’s often said that atheists believe in nothing, well here is my voice on what living without god means to me:

    For what little it is worth, I once took a crack at summing up an argument for Evolution and I welcome critical feedback to improve it:

  9. So every time people get passionate about an issue you can decide which side is right by looking to see which side is angrier? This seems to be the implication oPHitchens’ argument: lack of confidence is the best explanation for vitriol.

    But note that derailing the issue and instead concentrating on tone rather than topic is ALSO associated with a lack of confidence in one’s views. As Jerry points out, the main thrust of his criticism was the substance of your objections to evolution. People whose arguments are weak will often resort to diversionary tactics.

    So — even if your characterization of the “rage” was correct (which I don’t think it was) — we’re now at an impasse.

    You need to address the science, sir.

      1. “What you know matters less, than the volume with which what you don’t know’s expressed! Content has never been less important, soooo… … Have …got …to be LOUD!!!!”

        From “Loud” in Matilda, the Musical, opened on Broadway as of March 4, 2013.

  10. I am always puzzled by people like P. Hitchens who acknowledge microevolution but claim that macroevolution does not occur. Unless you are a YEC I would think a mechanism to prevent small changes from accumulating into big changes over long spans of time would be necessary. But they never seem to worry about that.

    Obviously anyone who thinks that tiny, incremental changes do not produce major shifts over time has never worked on software maintenance!

    1. Agreed. When I teach this stuff I always make a point to show that macroevolution is really a kind of ‘extension’ of microevolution, but with a speciation process inserted in so that populations become separated by a kind of wedge. But from generation to generation the events are otherwise microevolutionary changes. My students always look startled for a moment, b/c they thought until then that micro- was somehow ‘different’ from macro- , then it starts to dawn on them that they really are not very different.

      1. The only difference is perspective. From far away it is “macroevolution”. From close up it is “microevolution”.

        Species is a utilitarian and less than precisely defined concept. If you pick an organism right from the middle of a direct line of descendants spanning hundreds of thousands of generations, there will be so many differences between that organism and the 1st and final organisms that we would categorize them as different species. If the line is only tens of generations there would still be differences, but the magnitude of the differences will be insignificant with respect to any concept of species that is useful to consider in most circumstances (well, excepting micro organisms of course).

        But those differences that occur from generation to generation, they are all the same types of events, no matter which generational gap they occur in or how big the generational gap is. Species is just a concept devised to categorize organisms by the degree of relatedness between them.

        No magic necessary or implied. Very simple actually, except for the large time scales involved. It is so simple that it is inevitable. It is simple enough that the only plausible reason for so many people to claim that “macroevolution” is impossible is their desperate desire to hold on to beliefs that are not compatible with evolution.

  11. Mr. Hitchens, if you come into this thread, I suggest you read about modern, witnessed, MACRO EVOLUTION at the National Geographic:

    An excerpt follows:

    Researchers found that the lizards developed cecal valves—muscles between the large and small intestine—that slowed down food digestion in fermenting chambers, which allowed their bodies to process the vegetation’s cellulose into volatile fatty acids.

    “They evolved an expanded gut to allow them to process these leaves,” Irschick said, adding it was something that had not been documented before. “This was a brand-new structure.”

    Along with the ability to digest plants came the ability to bite harder, powered by a head that had grown longer and wider.

    The rapid physical evolution also sparked changes in the lizard’s social and behavioral structure, he said. For one, the plentiful food sources allowed for easier reproduction and a denser population.

    The lizard also dropped some of its territorial defenses, the authors concluded.

    Thirty generations of isolation on an island and we have a new lizard species.

    1. I don’t think you understand the depth of the creationist disingenuity. They call what you cited ‘microevolution’ because it’s “still a lizard” (despite this isn’t how biologists use the terms, creationists know better). They based this on the Biblical use of ‘kinds’.

      Until you show them a lizard turning into a lion they won’t likely budge.

      1. J. Wells has expressed this idea when discussing the famous Galapagos finches: they can differentiate within limits, but if the environmental pressure becomes great enough, the population will simply die off. ID recognizes microevolution & extinction, but not macroevolution. Google ‘baramin’.

  12. He argued like a cheap lawyer, ignores the evidence presented, took offence at your tone and only attempted to refute your character and the cartoon version of reality as he sees it. Quite a shame to see a good education get wasted like Mr. Hitchens has done here.

    “the sad and embarrassing hero-worshippers of the Christopher Hitchens fan club”

    This made me laugh, he’s got so much so wrong and these poor excuses he’s making are just embarrassing. Christopher was a great teacher, he changed the way I think many times and he was a great speaker, which I would say Peter is too, the difference is the humourless noise that comes from the thoughts of Peter Hitchens.

    1. “He argued like a cheap lawyer, ignores the evidence presented, took offence at your tone and only attempted to refute your character and the cartoon version of reality as he sees it.”

      He writes for the Daily Mail. Nuff said?

      1. Hey, I used to practice (criminal) law, and while I admit that I was a (poorly) paid Sophist, there’s no call for gratuitous slaps at my noble former profession. Or put another way, the next time you get arrested, call a philosopher.

      2. Very true, Graham. He is also a regular on UK TV debates, like Newsnight and The Big Question. He’s become a typical “rent a quote” type. Journos know they can always rely on him to produce a line which will provoke a reaction.

    2. “He argued like a cheap lawyer, ignores the evidence presented, took offence at your tone and only attempted to refute your character and the cartoon version of reality as he sees it.”
      In other words, he argued like a journalist?

  13. It’s really this simple.

    1. Peter Hitchens makes a claim that his Anglican God exists.

    2. Atheists ask him for the evidence for this.

    3. He can provide none other than to play the “hurt feelings card” (as described by Dan Dennett) and proclaim that it is his faith that his Anglican God exists, and the we must respect that.

    4. We LOLz.

    5. Then his feelings get hurt even more.

    6. Then we LOLz some more because before us a grown man behaves like a child wishing for a Father up in the Skies.

    7. The End.

    It really IS that simple!

    1. Simultaneously,

      1. PH makes the claim that evolution is false.

      2. We, through JC, give him tons of evidence that that is not true.

      3. PH ignores the evidence, but is hurt saying we just want to kill him.

      4. We say the evidence again, even putting numbers on it so he can keep the points distinct.


      1. My #5 didn’t come through, since I put it in pointy brackets, which apparently, I used to be informed by some program, are dangerous. It just said,

        5. Your move, PH!

        1. lol.

          5a. Like a child, the move IS to throw a tantrum.

          6. It seems that for some of us (i.e., accommodationists), the reaction to the tantrum is to put them kid gloves on because this man-child is going to leave a mess all over the place.

          1. 6a. For some of us (i.e. the “militant” ones), the reaction to the tantrum is to say “Dude. What’s with the tantrum? You’re clearly wrong here, here, there, and here and some more here and here and here. There’s no need to cry when one is wrong. All you have to do is read some more and learn how to think critically and some day you’ll get it. Throwing tantrums will just make learning that much more difficult. And you do know that just because you wish for something to be true, no matter how badly you want it to be true, doesn’t mean that it actually Is true. Ok? So go wash up and get ready for supper”. Lolz.

            1. @eightyc

              I assume ‘militant’ refers to Jerry’s (minor) point, in another post of his, that you wouldn’t use the term in reference to the U.K. Labour Party; I’ve been away for a bit, but did anyone comment that you would do precisely that? I used to be in the Militant Tendency, part of the Labour Party. Small, but influential for a while in the 80s; you’d have to be a political scientist, if you were American, to have heard of them, but most British will have heard of them.

  14. When a person speculates on what’s in the mind of their opponent, they tend to stick with what we’re familiar with. I’d speculate that Hitchens is familiar with loyalty to beliefs. It would be easy for him to imagine scientists being motivated by some loyalty to materialism, perhaps bending the truth here and there to support it. Such a motive might seem silly to real scientists, who are for the most part actually impressed by the truth of what they study. And a such reality-driven belief might seem silly, or suspicious, to Hitchens, who’s sadly not familiar with it. I mean maybe, since we’re speculating on motives.

    1. Such a motive might seem silly to real scientists, who are for the most part actually impressed by the truth of what they study.

      Not to mention acutely aware of the excitement to be had from overturning accepted wisdom… 🙂

    1. Not sure it’s quite right to compare Peter Hitchens with Britain’s greatest ever Prime Minister, about whom that line was originally spun!

      1. The surviving Mr. Hitchens (sounds almost like “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray”, doesn’t it) is certainly more deserving of that line than Clement Attlee, whom I would concur in describing as Britain’s greatest peace-time Premier of the 20th century.

  15. He will only respond with digressive bile. You mentioned WEIT. You should reply only if you receive scientifically based criticism of your book. Silence is expected.

  16. P Hitchens is stuck on the idea that evolution is “the creation myth of atheism”. This prevents him honestly looking in to the matter and instead causes him to search for anything he can to contradict it.

    Funniest moment on that recent thread was when someone asked him if he believed in the ice age. “You can hardly argue with tonnes of ice!” was his reply, evidence that he is willing to post arrant nonsense without even considering what it means.

    1. Here we go, Peter said:
      ” I am asked about the ice age, because it too was an event in the distant past which was unobserved. It seems to me that the ice age is an event of a different order from the evolution by natural selection of the species of the earth. Evidence of the former existence of several billions of tons of ice is fairly unchallengeable. Evidence of Darwin’s hypothesis is, by its nature , more perishable, more scattered and harder to produce.”

        1. He’s right, it is. Nevertheless, the evidence is still in. Doesn’t his holy book say something about the really blind being those who refuse to see, rather than who have been unfortunate (in this case, to live prior to approximately 150 years ago) to have no sight?

          1. He’s correct that they are different. All that amorphous ice is gone now, back to the sea and sky and everywhere else. All we are left with is its mark on the land.

            When it comes to evolution we have marks on the land, plus remains of the old organisms in fossils, and the descendants of those organisms here to study. It’s a different, greater order of magnitude of evidence we have all around us.

  17. Dr. Coyne,

    Thanks for this.

    Really good stuff.

    The reactive rage Mr. Hitchens exhibited seems common of the erudite Christians I know who wish to be considered modern, yet also obedient to their cultural superstitions. I recently needed to end a friendship with one of them because even the mildest illustration incompatibility between religious and scientific epistemology was deemed “arrogant and bigoted”.

    It seems the only recourse the well-read yet still deeply superstitious (e.g. the sophisticated believer) has when faced with the cognitive dissonance modernity creates for their religion is ad hominem rooted in imaginary persecution.

    1. I think that one of the main reasons the ‘sophisticated believer’ is so appalled by just criticism is that they have bought into the idea that everyone’s identity is reflected in the faith they have chosen — and it’s all faith. Religious claims are both well-supported hypotheses AND personal expressions of values. And this is right and good.

      Go after the hypothesis like a good scientist and you are immediately cast into the villain role of someone attacking another someone’s personal values. If who we are determines what we believe then anyone who tries to change your mind is an arrogant bigot. They’re saying you’re wrong. Not that your views are wrong, but YOU are. They’re rejecting your identity. How rude. How bigoted. How arrogant.

      Dangerous view. When there is no longer any distinction between attacking a person and attacking their hypothesis then freedom of speech is dead. How arrogant.

  18. Here’s a plea to Mr. Hitchens. Please, please respond to the issues and evidence Jerry Coyne raises. Please. We don’t hate you, but we disrespect the lack of thinking that so often, we have found, has gone into the formation of such ideas, and hence we disrespect those ideas. Since you are the purveyor of those ideas, it often looks like we disrespect you, as a human being, but we don’t.

    Yes, we are convinced that there is no good response to those what Jerry has put forth, since people like Jerry and myself have been asking this of people like yourself for many years now, and have gotten absolutely nothing but a rehashing of a few trite old arguments that have been refuted a zillion times, and invective. No, we don’t have lofty expectations.

    But can you try? We believe that to determine whihc views are true and which are false–about anything, God, Anglicanism, evolution, materialism, that they ahve to be, literally have to be, subjected to a process of putting them out there, letting them be subjected to criticism by the best minds out there, by the canons of rationality as they are currently understood (and part of the fun of it, the part I like best, is recognizing that even the canons of rationality have to be subjected to this process, too, and though we have come to substantial agreement about those canons, some of them are still being subjected to this process to this day!)


  19. I would argue that one of the Hitchens is adopted but the evidence of their similar genetic makeup overcomes that.

  20. Seems as though the British school systems are also not doing a good job of educating their children in science. Poor Peter, poor England, poor us.

  21. Peter Hitchens is no doubt a highly educated man. I also believe he was once an atheist himself but returned to faith held beliefs. I have seen him on TV and he is an imposing prescence but doesn’t have his brothers humour. I feel that there may be some hateful jealousy at foot here.

  22. I would contend that the Piltdown Man artifacts were discarded precisely because of our increasing understanding of evolution.

    As we gathered evidence about the evolution of the human species, Piltdown Man became more and more of an anomaly. Eventually we reached a point where the theory and Piltdown Man bones could not both be true. At that point the voices which had been doubting the bones almost since their ‘discovery’ were finally heard.

    In a god-did-it world there would have been no reason to question the authenticity of the bones.


  23. Firstly, Peter Hitchens need not worry himself about the dehumanizing influence of accepting evolution, as ‘The selfish gene leads to an altruistic society’. Social Darwinism is separate from the scientific theory and fact of evolution.

    Secondly, with such fear assuaged, he can now learn why he is wrong in his misrepresentation of Evolution. His God would expect no less of him, and he can join countless of Christians who do accept evolution.

    I am compelled to ask: Is Peter’s faith so weak that he fails to use the brain that his God gave him? Is his faith so insubstantial that he is unable to accept a solid, interlocking body of evidence explaining how the diversity of life on earth came to being? Then, I would suggest that he strengthen his faith so as not to lead others astray in his responsibility as a journalist.

    1. “Social Darwinism is separate from the scientific theory and fact of evolution.”

      As should be very apparent from the politics of the U.S.

      1. For any given individual, if you count up the number of the following concepts to which he or she adheres:

        *Darwinism (i. e., biological evolution)
        *Social Darwinism

        you will find that the result you obtain is nearly always “one”.

  24. Why is it, I wonder (and I wonder as someone who’s born the brunt of this sort of thing in spades), that evangelical Christians almost always resort to focusing on the “tone” of their opponents (and do so in a tone of their own that is excessive in its own sanctimonious right.)

      1. And it’s such a give-away! You feel a kind of vicarious embarrassment for their feeble attempt at argument.

    1. This is a very good question John. As you too well know, many evangelicals know exactly where the line is regarding who is in and who is out, and what the in-crowd is expected to support. As soon as someone on the inside challenges the group-think, the line is quickly redrawn to cast out the challenger – this way they cannot be accused of eating their own. It is the questioner who has strayed and who must be rebuked. However, they generally cannot respond either theologically or rationally to the challenge, and thus must resort to casting aspersions, questioning motives, complaining about tone, or simply declaring apostacy. Since most of this behavior is based on limited or lacking knowledge of the subject at hand, be it evolution or pacifism, it is easier for evangelicals to complain about tone rather than put forth a cogent argument – if there is one.

  25. So many modern creationists would be considered heretics by their forebearers, with their amusing acceptance of some parts of evolutionary theory, since well not even they can ignore those parts. As always, religion gives way before science and people like Mr. Hitchens have to be hypocrites to cling to their religion. I am also always amused by the claim of “tone” by Christians. For a written medium, these Chritians always seem to find the tone that they want and so desperately hope for in any writing that demonstrates their religion is nonsense. And they are almost always wrong, only being wannabee martyrs.

  26. Peter Hitchens wrote a book called, The Rage Against God. The lead at the top of his book reads, “how atheism led me to faith.” I found a video on youtube, Peter Hitchens Author Interview–The Rage Against God. In it he says, “after a while you learn to take pleasure in being derided and sneered at” and we now see that here. (In my own experience I have found that some Christians like to see themselves as victims, martyrs, crucified.) He says that he wrote his book in response to Christopher’s book, God is Not Great.

    1. This reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s “Speech to the Graduates”:

      Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes.
      Interestingly, in my case I share that honor with the Prospect Park Zoo.

      Now, with Christopher gone, Peter is out of custody.

  27. Concerning PH’s Piltdown point: Like lawyers and politicians, journalists like PH are not interested in the truth, but in winning cases and scoring points. PH citing Piltdown is a typical example of attempted point-scoring. I think our arguments with non-scientists often seem bewildering to us because we scientists don’t belong, at least as scientists, to the pervasive culture of point scoring.

  28. I doubt that Peter Hitchens is done with you yet. He hasn’t played his favourite, the “atheists don’t believe in order that they may engage in immoral activity” card.

  29. I am highly amused at Peter Hitchens’ statement, which is little more than the petulant outburst I have come to expect from him.

    Let’s look at it in detail:

    “we see here the visceral hatred, rage and intolerance of the atheist fanatics”

    Right away, rather than concentrating on the facts Peter goes on the attack, generalising about atheists (but then, he is wont to generalise about several groups in society), and ironically full of “visceral hatred, rage and intolerance”. Furthermore, if there has been any group in history which Peter’s statement is more of true of, it is the religious, and thousands of years of bloodshed serves as witness to that. In my experience those who are intolerant of the faiths of others are not atheists, who are very tolerant, but anti-theists; there is a huge difference between the two.

    “and of the sad and embarrassing hero-worshippers of the Christopher Hitchens fan club”

    Pardon? In my experience the vast majority of atheists are freethinkers who do not hero-worship anyone. If we refuse to bow before the altar of any gods then we are unlikely to bow before the altar of Chritopher Hitchens, no matter how much we admired his intelligence. By equal measure, I admire the intelligence of Richard Dawkins but feel he is arrogant and think his public persona leaves much to be desired. I also do not agree with all Christopher Hitchens said, nor with all Richard Dawkins says, and I doubt I am any different from most atheists.

    I am also astounded that Peter Hitchens appears to be taking a side-swipe at his late brother.

    “This, of course, is caused by their own lack of confidence in their faith”

    Actually this is more true of Peter Hitchens or any other theists who react to any comments by atheists about the non-existence of god(s). If they were at all secure in their faith, they would not be offended and neither would they feel any need to respond. I have friends who are Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and even Wiccans, and my own sister is a practising Spiritualist Medium, yet all are secure enough in their faiths not to be at all phased by any atheist statements I happen to come out with. To even respond to an atheist statement immediately suggests a lack of faith in god(s).

    “though they lack the candour or even the self-awareness to admit it *is* a faith”

    Indeed it is not. Atheism is a faith in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby, bald is a hair colour, and not writing for newspapers makes you a journalist.

    “The mildest doubts are treated as dreadful heresy, and the death of the supposed heretic is openly desired”

    This is more true of the religious, as even a cursory glance at history will bear witness to. Plus as a former Baptist Christian I can assure Peter Hitchens that this culture is very much alive within the Presbytarian tradtion.

    “and that desire is then sneakily denied when it is pointed out”

    Completely untrue, and I would point out to Peter Hitchens just how many Christians “rejoiced” at his late brother’s passing, how many put up posts on the internet gloating that Christopher Hitchens was “burning in Hell” and then how many others played the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, claiming that those doing that were “not true Christians”. And I have heard that one all too often over the deaths of a great many people and theists gloating over those deaths.

    “No serious person argues in this spite-filled, spittle-flecked fashion”

    Hilarious, when that is exactly what Peter Hitchens has done in this statement.

    “Do grow up.”

    Physician heal thyself Peter.

    1. “Atheism is a faith in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby, bald is a hair colour, and not writing for newspapers makes you a journalist.”

      The converse is also true, of course – writing for newspapers doesn’t necessarily make you a journalist. By any means.

  30. “and of the sad and embarrassing hero-worshippers of the Christopher Hitchens fan club”

    What an appalling public admission to make about one’s own brother. So, if Mr. Hitchens can’t be the intellectual force that his brother was, the only thing left to do is to attack his brother’s legacy? How . . . small.

    Marta is not impressed.

    1. Actually, I suspect his motives are merely pecuniary. Without Christopher Hitchens, who’d care what no-name Peter had to say? What value would his particular incoherence hold for the faith-heads?

      1. Good point. But P. Hitchen’s comment simply oozes with resentment and jealousy. What, Hitchens skipped the Cain and Abel story in his own holy book?

        1. 1 John 4:20 ESV

          If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

  31. I must admit when confronted with the irrational rage demonstrated by P.H.’s recent repost one is tempted to respond in kind. But my better angels have convenced me to do otherwise…..on the other hand(smile).

    The convincing evidence there is no God, is the quality of those who speak for him.

  32. I have often noticed that someone with deep knowledge of a thing has a certain humility because he/she knows how much more there is to learn and knows where some of the worst gaps are. People with very superficial knowledge, on the other hand, naturally can’t sense the scope of their ignorance and don’t understand how vast it may be. How could they, if they have no grasp of the totality of the subject? This ignorance shows up pretty quickly when there is an orderly debate. I think this is relevant here.

    1. Excellent point. I find that an educated person is merely someone who, to paraphrase the odious Donald Rumsfeld, has more “known unknowns” than most others. A truly ignorant person is someone who only has “unknown unknowns”, and is thus ignorant even of their own ignorance.

  33. The vagaries of sibling rivalry are no rubric for the verisimilitude of a proposition.

    You have lost Peter. Your compass was never broken because it never existed.

  34. Great comments. I would just like to point out the amusing (to me, anyway) juxtaposition of the JC’s request to be civil in the comments, to PH’s actual comment.

  35. My piece: my atheism is a result of my honestly examining the evidence. If more evidence comes in, I’ll look at it…and if the evidence points toward the existence of some deity I’ll abandon atheism in a heart beat.

  36. You should not refer to yourself as a small fish. Your performance in your debate with John Haught was stellar. Your anti-compatiblism arguments are unmatched. You may have found something you are better at than biology. You are a rising star, not a small fish.


  37. I love and miss Christopher! I miss his wit, erudition and humility (YES! humility) and his sense of social justice and detailed knowledge of history and literature. I miss his take-the-bull-by-the-horns BRIO in living life and doing things his own way.

    One Christopher is worth a few dozen Peters.

    And, really, Peter’s banal shopworn responses — and prose — toward evolution and “atheist fanatics” are just tedious.

    1. You mention Hitch’s humility, which may not have been his strongest attribute. I remember his response to a very naive questioner, at a bookstore (Prose and Poetry?) in California. He could have eviscerated the guy, but treated him very courteously, with some humor, but he did not humiliate him and tried hard to answer his questions honestly. I wish I could be that civil to other human beings.

  38. Over the years I had occasionally read articles by this guy Hitchens, and sort of vaguely noticed that he seemed to have wildly varying opinions on some topics.

    Only when GinG came out did I realise that there were two of them, that C was the mostly sensible one and that P was the screaming Tory.

    Note to USers etc: there are still plenty of bonkers Rabid Right people over here, and many of them write for the Mail, the Murdoch papers and the Torygraph.

  39. Wow, classic projection from Mr. Hitchens. Just classic. Obviously, he is describing only himself and his followers.

    And I think it’s just killin him to know that he shares the same last name with the much more famous and much more appreciated Christopher Hitchens. He just can’t live that down.

  40. Gosh, ok, I know I’ve commented enough on this one, so this is the last one. I didn’t read every word of every reply here, but I read around extensively, and want to note two things. How devoid it is of rage and intolerance, and two, how much I think anyone could learn from reading these replies. THey hit on a variety of topics, as would be expected given that we all know so many different things here. Thanks, Peter! You bring out the best in us! And thanks to Jerry and the general community here at WEIT!

  41. I’m with Jerry on all of the scientific issues and I do think that the facts are much more important than the tone. But still, in contrast to the general civility of this site and Jerry himself, the facetious snark about “god taking the wrong Hitchens” was a bit too nasty and personal. Whatever their differences, they were family, and Peter Hitchens has more reason to mourn for his late brother than any of us.

    That one sentence did step over the line, and it’s understandable that Peter Hitchens’ reaction is somewhat emotional and therefore aggressive.

    1. Yes I agree. Hitchens’ reaction was provoked by this particular line. It is his actual, fairly recently deceased brother we’re talking about, however much they didn’t apparently like each other. Plus it’s a line that Hitchens gets a lot, not that everyone would know that, but it is something that understandably winds him up.

      1. “It is his actual, fairly recently deceased brother we’re talking about, however much they didn’t apparently like each other.”

        But that’s just it, really. They never got on and only ever shared a surname and some DNA. Hitchens major was known (amongst other things, I’ll concede) as a stellar writer, a fierce and ferociously wide-ranging intellect knowing for being possessed of a command of the English language positively frightening to we lesser mortals and a remarkable talker/debater. Peter Hitchens writes scientifically illiterate, creationist, anti-anti-depressant garbage for a low-rent tabloid rag. I don’t, in all honesty, think you need to look very much further than that as an explanation for the career of Hitchens minor.

    2. Really? It sounds to you like Peter Hitchens is mourning his brother?

      He thinks admirers of his brother are “sad” “embarrassing” “hero-worshippers”.

      I’ve spoken more kindly than that of people who voted for George W. Bush.

      1. His disrespecting the “CH fan club” doesn’t mean he disrespects CH. And their deep intellectual disagreement doesn’t mean there was no love between them as brothers. Sorry, but suggesting such also steps over the line. Let’s stick to the intellectual arguments, the facts shine much brighter than cheap guesses about someone’s family psychology.

        1. Do you not get it that Peter Hitchens is stating that he doesn’t think his brother is worthy of his fans’ admiration? How is that NOT disrespecting his brother?

          I was not in need of the rest of your comment. Perhaps you’d like to stick that in your hat?

          1. Well, I’ll do so and wear that hat quite comfortably. Apparently you took offense by my presumptuous remark, as did PH with Jerry’s. But my point was that PH did get my sympathies because I found that one line too hurtful towards him. And yet, his ideas and arguments are so silly that his writings deserve little or none. I suppose I’m a bit more critical of the conduct of Jerry and other fellow atheists, because I instinctively hold them to a higher standard than the religiously inflicted.

      2. Mourning, I can’t speak for ColdThinker but I’d say no not any more 15 months after the funeral. But emotions are complex. Christopher was Peter’s bigger brother growing up as well as in adulthood. There was animosity right to the end, and peace was not properly made between them. P Hitch is clearly an angry man about lots of things so I can only imagine how he feels when people keep telling him if they had a choice, they would put him in his brother’s grave instead.

        Stuff like that is emotional button-pushing. I’m not defending what Hitchens has actually said but I think it’s fairly predictable he might react to that strongly. It also gets in the way of the actual scientific points, not that Hitch would be likely to engage with them, but this gives him a bit of an excuse to run away from Jerry.

        1. “I’m not defending what Hitchens has actually said but I think it’s fairly predictable he might react to that strongly. It also gets in the way of the actual scientific points, not that Hitch would be likely to engage with them, but this gives him a bit of an excuse to run away from Jerry.”

          As you say, he hasn’t a hope in the hell he believes in of engaging with anything scientific. Hence the risible (the word is never meant in a good way) emotionalism of P. Hitchens’s response. It’s all he has. Bring up endogenous retroviruses, introns, transposons and so forth and his head would explode.

  42. Poor Peter. Sibling rivalry is tough when your rival is dead. But be happy, Peter, that so many of us here think so highly of your late brother.

    However, the wrong Hitchens comment was gratuitious and uncalled for, IMO. I apologize for my own post where I piled on.

  43. Hi Pete,
    I have a suggestion for you. Next time before you demand those who disagree with you “grow up”, you better realize demanding lack of faith to somehow be equal to faith is not a sign of having grown up.

  44. A typical trap that theists strive for is to mischaracterize ‘Atheism’ as a belief.

    As I attempt to expound on here:

    There is much to be gained from correcting the attempted mischaracterization. Doing so removes much of the ‘Gish-Gallop’ style momentum a theist inserts into their indignation driven rants.

    In a nut-shell this argument dismisses theists claims that ‘Atheism’ is a belief:

    The atheist rejects the claim that there is a supernatural entity or force that interacts with existence.

    Atheism makes no claims whatsoever.

    Atheism asserts nothing.

    That rejection is based on a lack of substantiation related to the claim. There is nothing that gives merit to the claim that there is a supernatural entity or force that interacts with existence.

    One cannot BE an ‘Atheist’, because ‘Atheist’ is not an action or a ‘method’. It is a decision. Just as is deciding to not drink a glass of Habanero juice… (No, thank you)

    One IS an Atheist as the default setting upon rejecting a claim.
    One is A-Habanero as the default setting upon rejecting the beverage.

    There is no belief as a criteria for this concept.

    That is not the same as anti-theistic methodologies or efforts… Many (but not all) Atheists are anti-theistic.

  45. For some reason, whenever I have the misfortune to read anything by Peter Hitchens, I am always reminded of the right winged maniac TV host Lewis Prothero in the movie “V for Vendetta”.

  46. damn, gina. bravo. i’m glad you called him out on the remark about his brother. i don’t think i’ve ever spoken about my brother that way, even when we weren’t on speaking terms. unbelievable!

  47. Great post by Professor Coyne. I wish Mr. Hitchens could step back for a minute and look at what the defense of religion does to one’s integrity. As an atheist I don’t have to make up lies about religion to support my position. Why do defenders of religious belief have to lie to support their position? And no, there is nothing noble about the Noble Lie.

    1. And most Anglicans don’t have a problem with evolution (it may have a problem with them). He doesn’t have to deny science, let alone so vehemently. His projection of his ire onto others, and then protesting with the force of a molten volcano is clear for all to see – except Peter. This is more than a blind spot!

  48. It is probably a little infradig to refer someone to another author than JAC on this website, but besides Why Evolution is True I think Peter H could do well to read at least one of Victor Stenger’s works. I would recommend God, The Failed Hypothesis.

  49. The recessive Hitchens, like most of his kind, does not care about reason, logic or truth. It is in my opinion wrong to argue along these lines. When Professor Coyne writes “…It’s almost as if you wish that I wish you could die, so you could further rage on about our tone…” he touches the real nerve.

    1. “The recessive Hitchens …”

      Ouch. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a thoroughgoing bastard.

      But still: ouch 🙂

            1. yurki100,

              I am so tired of this canard or “where do we get our morality?” Think of it this way, ask yourself “Why is child abuse wrong?” Can you point to specific passage in your holy book, any holy book, that forbids this action? It’s not one of the Mitzvahs or Commandments in the Hebrew Bible, nor is it in the New Testament. So where does it say this is wrong? Although, I’ll bet that you think it’s wrong, don’t you despite the verses that condone abuse against children (think of stoning as a case and point). So, if you can’t point to a holy book, where does it come from? This exercise points to the stupidity of your question. Because you can’t point to a 2,000 year old book to justify an action makes it neither moral or immoral. Look at slavery as another example. Both sides of this debate during the 1800s in the United States used the Bible as justification for and against their respective positions.

              So, I’m eager to learn where you think we get our morals…I’m waiting.

            2. My background is quite typical in the educated world. School made an atheist. I lived carelessly and cheated women. And I thought it was okay to break the law unless I get caught.

              Why do people need laws, if they know what’s right and wrong?

              1. Thanks for your frankness yurki. The prisons (I used to work as a defense attorney) are full of highly-religious people, who presumably have privileged access to knowing right from wrong. Very few atheists there.

    1. What’s wrong with you is that you are not honest enough state your position and instead play rhetorical silly bugger.

            1. You had all the hallmarks of a fundagelical.

              Glad to see my fundie detector is still working.

            1. Als Spam [spæm] oder Junk (englisch für ‚Abfall‘ oder ‚Plunder‘) werden unerwünschte, in der Regel auf elektronischem Weg übertragene Nachrichten bezeichnet, die dem Empfänger unverlangt zugestellt werden und häufig werbenden Inhalt enthalten. Dieser Vorgang wird Spamming oder Spammen genannt, der Verursacher Spammer.

              You can learn to use goolge translate whilst you are also learning to use google for your education re spam.

    2. You can’t “make” an atom because you’re neither a subatomic particle or in control of subatomic particles.

      You can, actually, manufacture living cells (you’re doing it right now). You just can’t do it consciously.

      What’s wrong with you? I don’t know. I don’t know you.

      However, here’s what’s wrong with your comment: it’s a vague, incoherent and off-topic non-sequitur. You’ve also followed it up with two more comments that do nothing to explain what the hell you’re talking about.

        1. Opinions do not equal facts, let alone truth. You seem terribly confused about that. Reality isn’t about opinions.

  50. I miss Hitch. I think I’ll raise a glass of Johnny Walker and smoke a cigarette tonight and watch his debate with his brother again.

  51. Once again an excellent post from our host, followed by excellent comments by the commenters. 🙂

    I have only this to add: since Peter claims macro-evolution does not exist, a positive thing that Peter can do is identify the mechanism that prevents micro-evolution over time resulting in macro-evolution. Surely there is a Nobel prize, or at least a Templeton grant, in being able to do that?

  52. There is something seriously wrong with Hitchen’s reply. A paragraph of enraged bitter tantrum, projecting the faults of religion onto atheists, followed by “Do grow up”.

    It seems almost as if it was intended as a joke, but I’m sure it wasn’t, which makes it actually very sad. It seems to come from a standpoint of desperation and despair. There certainly isn’t any trace of Christianity living up to its claims of moral superiority, but then I’m sure it is very difficult to be in the losing position of defending an indefensible archaic tradition merely because it’s traditional.

  53. After reading Peter Hitchens I know how Galileo must have felt. Amazing what a slight change in DNA can do to a brother.

    P.S.: DNA is a molecule that encodes genetic instructions Mr. Hitchens.

  54. Actually I change my mind, my favourite bit from the recent evolution thread on Hitchensblog wasn’t the ice age bit, it was this:

    “Yet again I’m asked why I don’t knuckle under to the ‘vast majority’ of scientists who ‘believe in ‘ evolution. Majorities do not now, never have and never will, decide scientific truth. Frequently in science, a small minority has been right and the rest wrong. People believe things , especially things where there is no hard proof, for non-scientific reasons, even when they are scientists (though of course many scientific specialisms have no bearing on evolution, and no special right to pronounce upon it) . Sometimes they do so because they want to. Sometimes they do so because it is safer, for their careers and their funding, if they do so. Often they have never thought about it all, and accept conventional wisdom as they accept fashions in clothes and hair. These fashions, and these opinions, may well look ridiculous 50 years hence but because they are fashions, nobody notices that now.”
    “Posted by: Peter Hitchens | 17 February 2013 at 04:53 PM”

    1. His brother might have responded with a Thomas Jefferson quote:

      In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

      It’s somewhat hypocritical of him to claim that many scientific specialisms have no bearing on evolution, and no special right to pronounce upon it and then proceed to pronounce on it himself.

      1. Hypocrisy is a common thread when it comes to science in Hichens’ work.

        This section is like a mirror on his views. He thinks scientists are like journalists, each looking at their own specialist interest, but the difference is that journalists are brave enough to challenge ideas whereas scientists build careers by agreeing with each other.

        The absolute gem is how he says we might all realise how it was just a fad in 50 years time. His argument would not have been out of place in 1913. In 2013 is arrant nonsense.

  55. I never could quite understand how one wouldn’t understand that: micro+micro+micro=macro

    The only opposition I’ve had towards the macro is from the religious angle. I used to be quite religious myself and just saw Nature as created by a deity- the only conflict I saw was between religion and science.

  56. Bravo on your well-considered response, Prof. Coyne. I can add very little else, and I’m self-censoring wrt Hitchens the minor. What a deluded little man of massive hubris.

  57. Whenever I hear that tired, shopworn & frankly embarrasing creationist false disctinction of “micro” and “macro” evolution, I immediately wonder:

    – Would creationists similarly deny the ability of a struck match to both light a cigarette and start a bushfire? Just how difficult to grasp is the concept of “accumulated minor alterations over time = major alterations”?

    – Why are creationists so dedicated to denying their membership in the biosphere of this planet? What possible shame can there be in admitting the truth: that although we are an exceptional & unique species, we share DNA with every other life form?

    – Why are creationists (and fundamentalists in general) so fond of levelling charges of “adopting a faith position” when addressing those who accept evolution or those who are atheists? Is this an accidental misreading, petulant projection, a blatant misrepresentation or is it, in fact, an admission that faith is unjustified?

    – Why do creationists constantly conflate evolution and atheism? Why do they impute “atheistical” motives on those who accept the reality of evolution (with the obvious implication always that atheists/evolutionists are Social Darwinists/immoral/amoral/hedonists)?

    – What, precisely, is so shameful about being an ape?

    I don’t expect Peter Hitchens to answer these questions (and I do have my own hypotheses regarding them); nonetheless I’d appreciate some feedback from him and from the assembly, as it were.

  58. Piltdown Man was “discovered” in 1908 (published 1912) and exposed in 1953. Now in 2013 it’s been exposed for 4/3 times as long as it was ever believed for (and there was considerable skepticism for the whole of that time).

    It now a venerable fraud, not a serious criticism of evolution. Anyone who uses it as a debating point today might as well be complaining about phlogiston.

    1. The same people who invoke the long-debunked (by scientists!) Piltdown also seem fond of painting evolution as some idle, still-unchanged notion of Darwin’s from 1859, not the ever-expanding and ever more detailed theory it has become in the intervening century and a half. But it’s to be expected; faith-based initiatives are notoriously tardy when it comes to cottoning on to the major discoveries of the world. Indeed, with regard to progress in science, morality and social justice (and innumerable other avenues), today’s creo-fundistas rival none other than the Vatican when it comes to playing catch-up with the grown-ups.

      1. I got into an argument on facebook. I stated that evolutionary theory was an accepted fact as much gravity, to which she responded that gravity has not been proven! She’d obviously been reading up to counter my argument and stopped after reading Newton (or at least an essay on Newtonian gravity). They are just silly and insecure people who need to believe in something because they are not comfortable that we are all merely small organic cogs in the great machine that is the universe.

  59. Imagine being Claude Feynman, hypothetical brother of famed physicist Richard Feynman who has a freaking integral named after him and Claude runs “Feynman’s Haircare and Tire Emporium” in Bakersfield. People are always talking about your brother and not how you can tame that cowlick or repair that puncture. The bitterness might settle after a few decades of that.

    So with Peter Hitchins who will be known as the Lesser Hitchins.

    And, from what I can tell, rightly so. Not worth the bother, I say.

    1. I think Claude would be better off, because his profession is unrelated to his brothers. Peter has the unenviable task of making a living in the same profession.

  60. Fantastic reply, Jerry!
    Peter, I was saddened more than anything, by your attitude and words toward your brother, Christopher. He had so many wonderful qualities: I remember him sitting amongst a group of Christians at the Christian Book Expo, and the host’s voice was gentle toward Christopher and warm, as if he really liked him. Christopher stole the show with his comments, especially his unforgettable words about Fraulein Fritzl. You should be proud of him and not besmerch his name. He’s your brother! Jerry is right, it is not too late to study evolution. I just learned about it four years ago, and it is a fascinating subject!

  61. I find it hilarious that we’re having the same damn experience. You call yourself small potatoes, I should be a good deal less. Posting as “Michael” in the “What sort of people are in the Christopher Hitchens fan club”

    I was also immediately met with bile by PHitchens, and then, just like your experience, had to walk him thru, point by point, my criticism. He didn’t respond to me, naturally. If he’s afraid of direct argument as regards facts, I figure he’ll do the same with you.

  62. To a man we can be grateful for having had here, a brilliant mind, a passionate being who sought the truth and while human, had integrity and believed in his causes and the connection we all share as human beings (primates half a chromosome removed from monkeys lol).

    I didn’t agree with everything he said, but with most things. Even his opponents should respect the sincerity, dedication and professionalism he had. Many,many journalists could do a hell of a lot worse than to seek to excel to the level he did in investigative journalism.

    He was a man of words, (well educated and deeply read), he knew how to command them. He was charismatic, an entertainer, a thought provoker. He endeared himself to so many of us and is sorely missed, but not forgotten. I dare say he will be remembered for his wit, his understanding and his brilliance. His debates were far more enthralling than anything TV, game or social media could provide.

    He was able to touch so many of us, whether in agreement or opposition. He was Christopher Hitchens, a legend in our time.

    Having a Johnnie Walker Black and sparkling mineral water in your honour, SIR

    1. I just want to say that there were many fulsome eulogies after the Hitch died, many of which were truly heartfelt and genuinely touching, and that one of yours was beautiful. Bravo.

  63. P. Hitchens has done what he always does, chiming in with religious apologists everywhere, demonstrating neither imagination nor integrity.

    1) He attacks atheists for having an opinion.

    2) He provides not a speck of evidence to support his Yahweh belief.

    3) He takes the position that the scientific method is a culture of back-patting conspiracy, that it’s no more useful than religious claims, implying that all opinions are equal, except that his claim alone provides meaning which means he should win the match uncontested.

    If this kind of thinking weren`t so dangerous to the world, I would simply yawn and stretch and maybe grab a nap. That level of smugness inspires that response.

    But the claims he is making are ultimate claims and he has to do a lot better than that if he wants to continue to make them.

    He has a lot of nerve accusing people who disagree with him of having unsavoury motives and using substandard methodology.

    Give us a shred of evidence Mr. Hitchens. One measly shred. But first demonstrate that you understand what evidence is.

    Your “takedown“ of evolution suggests you`re not the least bit interested in evidence.

    Address the facts. That`s all anyone is asking.

  64. I was recently confronted with evidence of IQ differences between racial groups. My initial reaction was to rubbish the whole concept of IQ measurement, speculate about flaws in the methodology and the impossibility of discounting all socio-economic influences … and so on. Why did I react like this? Because I found the moral implications of the evidence so distasteful that I could hardly bring myself to look at it rationally.
    Sound familiar?
    Perhaps we should be more understanding of the way religious people react to evidence for evolution, and acknowledge that we ALL behave irrationally when we fear that dearly-held beliefs are being undermined. Remember, even Einstein, most iconic of scientists, resisted the weirder implications of quantum theory not because the evidence was weak but because he didn’t WANT the universe to be like that!

    1. Am not sure that the other main ideas at the time (Copenhagen) make a lot of sense either. Certainly, others such as Schrodinger didn’t think so. And isn’t the jury still out on the weirdness of QM?

    2. Paul Davies, you were right to “rubbish the whole concept of IQ measurement, speculate about flaws in the methodology and the iimpossibility of discounting all socio-economic influences … and so on.” It should be up to those presenting their evidence to show they have not made those particular mistakes.

      (For the record, I have not seen evidence that any so-called “IQ measurement” has much validity — and I’ve looked at a lot of so-called “evidence.”)

      And no, we “ALL” do not behave irrationally when our dearly-held beliefs are being undermined. Some, yes, others, no.

    3. Perhaps we should be more understanding of the way religious people react to evidence for evolution, and acknowledge that we ALL behave irrationally when we fear that dearly-held beliefs are being undermined.

      Asking sharp and critical questions which directly address controversial issues isn’t being irrational — so I don’t think your particular analogy holds. But your general point — that we can all behave irrationally when we are fearful — is a fair one, and true enough I think.

      The problem is that there’s a dividing line between privately wrestling with opposing views in your own mind — and publicly parading your dogmatic certainty about as a sign of moral valor. We can empathize with an internal conflict and condemn a bad argument; we can even do it at the same time!

      We expect better from Hitchens. Which is, admittedly, probably irrational.

  65. I think the problem with Hitchens’ articles boils down to the simple fact that he doesn’t appear to know enough biology to have an informed opinion on the subject. This is distressingly common among “skeptics” of evolution: they confuse their skepticism with simple ignorance and failure to do their homework.

    I propose a simple rule for people who fancy themselves public intellectuals and who have the urge to express opinions on evolution: if you don’t think you could pass the sort of AP biology test administered to American high school students as a test of biological knowledge, consider just refraining from comment. It might save you from unnecessary embarrassment. And, in the meantime, read at least one serious book on the subject written by someone at the level of Dawkins or Coyne.

    There is something about evolution that just forces some people to shoot their mouths off. If the subject were, say, Bulgarian political history, I couldn’t imagine Hitchens getting into a debate with an expert on the subject without having done any serious background reading. Yet on evolution, everyone fancies themselves an expert because they once half paid attention to some Discovery Channel special and have heard the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

    1. I agree. Apparently people with little to no knowledge of biology feel qualified to argue against an overwhelming consensus of experts in the field (in many fields!) because the theory of evolution fails at the level of “common sense.” They don’t need to know any of the details if that’s the case. They just need to think about it quiet-like on their own for a while — and then stick by their instincts.

    2. “I think the problem with Hitchens’ articles boils down to the simple fact that he doesn’t appear to know enough biology to have an informed opinion on the subject. This is distressingly common among “skeptics” of evolution: they confuse their skepticism with simple ignorance and failure to do their homework.”

      Only partly right. P. Hitchen’s ignorance of real evolutionary biology is so patent to the extent that I’m inclined to think that he almost makes a show of it. Going up against an esteemed geneticist who is the co-author of the definitive textbook on speciation – a word that I would put money on P. Hitchens being wholly unable to explain or define – is akin to madness. But it actually reduces, fundamentally, to something far, far simpler than that, something that I’ll come on to in a moment.

      “There is something about evolution that just forces some people to shoot their mouths off. If the subject were, say, Bulgarian political history, I couldn’t imagine Hitchens getting into a debate with an expert on the subject without having done any serious background reading. Yet on evolution, everyone fancies themselves an expert because they once half paid attention to some Discovery Channel special and have heard the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’.”

      Hitchens is on record, openly and explicitly, as saying that the reason he doesn’t want to believe in evolution by natural selection (and my goodness, how much of a play he makes of claiming that belief is a choice – something in which he has the advantage over me since no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot make myself take to be true something my reason tells me is arrant nonsense) is because of its implications. It’s like the man has never heard of the term argumentum ad consequentiam. He has openly stated, in posts linked to and quoted here, that he allegedly (I use the word advisedy) seems to believe that evolution by natural selection is an atheistical plot to undermine belief in a god – not just any god, needless to say, but the specifically Judaeo-Christian God which is the hub of his Anglicanism.

      To what extent Hitchens actually believes any of this meretricious pap is debatable; he may sincerely believe it all to be the case or, more cynically, he may be conducting a rhetorical offensive for goodness only knows what private ends known only to himself.

  66. Mr Coyne’s request that responses to Peter Hitchen’s remarks be civil excludes me from the discussion.

    I have a great deal to say, but no doubt it would all be very insulting to Mr. Hitchens.

    The man causes me to miss his brother all the more.

  67. Thank you so much Professor Coyne. I am a long-standing critic of Peter Hitchens on the subject of evolution and have regularly contributed to his blog. I cannot tell you how much of a pleasure it was for me to see in your words so many of the points I have been making to him over years.

    That this time the words come from an expert will, I fear, make no difference. He is fond of quoting experts when they agree with him and calling their expertise into question when they do not. Despite his frequent claims that he bases his views on evidence and logic, I think all can see from his views on evolution that this is not the case.

  68. What always intrigues me is the way that all religions claim theirs is one of love and tolerance, and then use the most vile invectives when you dare to stand up for what you know to be true; that there is no God and that evolution is an accepted scientific principle. Is it just me or does religion breed hypocrisy?

  69. As someone who has been reading Peter Hitchens’ Daily Mail articles for some years now, I can only applaud Professor Coyne’s deconstruction and destruction of Mr Hitchens’ anti-evolution arguments. One thing many here may not be aware of, is Peter Hitchens’ underlying reasons for being hostile toward evolutionary theory. These have *nothing* to do with an objective examination of evidence, reason and reality (after all, Mr Hitchens also denies the existence of addiction, ADHD, and dyslexia, dismissing them as woolley-liberal excuses for weakness, bad behaviour and stupidity). Paradoxically, Peter Hitchens’ ‘faith’ in god is largely manufactured and non-spiritual. As with evolution, he claims that the existence of ‘god’ is unknowable, and will always be unknowable. Mr Hitchens has hijacked Christianity for purely political reasons. He wants to see a nationalistic form of Anglicansim not only favoured by government, but virtually *running* governement. He would like to see Christianity taught as ‘truth’ in British state schools so as to make belief in Christ the default position; thus, anyone who rejects Christianity later in life, would be the ones making the ‘choice’ to reject god for selfish and sinful reasons, and would then be denied favour by the Christianized state. In essence, like so many proselytizers (and fascists) of the past, Peter Hitchens is using ‘god’ as a weapon with which to impose his own highly dubious and eccentric moral agenda on an unwilling populace. Mr Hitchens wants to instil belief in (and fear of) god in the uneducated masses. In this respect, Peter Hitchens can be equated with a snake oil salesman, an Inquisitor, the Wizard of Oz, Matthew Hopkins or the Dr Zaius character from Planet of the Apes. A man who would seek to deny and hide the truth of human origins (evolution) from wider society, so as to promote his own god-sanctioned moral absolutist agenda. To Peter Hitchens, evolution denies the unquestionable authority of his god. For if humans were not created by his god just as we appear today, where is god’s authority over us? And it should also be borne in mind that Peter Hitchens does not just deny the theory of evolution by natural selection. He denies the fact that evolution has taken place at all, by whatever mechanism.

  70. Close your eyes and his voice is nigh on a carbon copy of that of his late brother. Here, any further commonality between the two disappears.

  71. Shalom Jerry.
    My humble apology if I repeat things you already know.
    I write to you privately. I bless Israel and I thank you for your blog.
    My testimony:


    What do you think? Would there be science at all, if A&E didn’t fall?


    God made. We discover. I recommend warmly.

    Plus +
    Why does satan want to destroy Israel? Because he doesn’t want Messiah to come back.
    – Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’

    – In Order for the Jewish Temple to rebuilt the Dome of the Rock must be removed. In the Muslim world, a Jewish Temple on this location is an unthinkable event. Islamic councils have already threatened world war if Israel attempts to construct a Jewish Temple. So its not without a war such an event will take place.


    I wish to see you in new Jerusalem.

    Plus + plus +


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