Peter Hitchens has been promising for a while to respond to my criticism of his views on evolution. His main beef is, to wit, that he considers evolution possible but not strongly supported. To use his words:
I am perfectly prepared to accept the possibility, dispiriting though it would be, that evolution by natural selection might explain the current state of the realm of nature. It is a plausible and elegant possible explanation. I just think the theory lacks any conclusive proof, is open to serious question on scientific grounds, from which it is only protected by a stifling orthodoxy. (This is always expressed by such expressions as ‘overwhelming majority’, as if scientific questions could be settled by a vote or a fashion parade).
(Of course no scientist purports to provide “conclusive proof” about anything, and so Hitchens reveals his profound ignorance of how science works. Evolution is so strongly supported that it would be perverse to reject it, and in that sense it’s a scientific fact.)
In another article, Hitchens said this:
First, what do these two gentlemen think my position is on the theory of evolution by natural selection? I will re-state it, yet again. It is that I am quite prepared to accept that it may be true, though I should personally be sorry if it turned out to be so as, it its implication is plainly atheistical, and if its truth could be proved, then the truth of atheism could be proved. I believe that is its purpose, and that it is silly to pretend otherwise.
Finally, he’s shown considerable sympathy for Intelligent Design (even claiming that it’s not religiously based and subject to unwarranted censorship by both scientists and bookshops):
What I have noticed about the whole Intelligent Design debate – and the thing which first interested me about it – was the way in which it was headed off here before it even got going. Its supporters were generally crudely misrepresented in the British media. What is clear from Expelled [JAC: the movie] is that many of the dissenters from Darwinian orthodoxy are themselves scientists, which conflicts with the idea widely accepted among British observers that ID is embraced mainly by bearded hillbilly patriarchs with bushy beards, shotguns and wild eyes, accompanied by about nine obedient wives dressed in identical ankle-length gingham frocks.
Something that is also missed here is the fact that ID is not identical with Biblical literalism, as is generally claimed by evolution enthusiasts. In fact it doesn’t really set out a coherent theory of the origin of species, or if it has I’ve never seen it. It suggests that there are reasons to believe that some sort of design is, or may be involved in the natural world. It doesn’t specify who or what the designer is.
On three occasions I’ve tried at length, using evidence and quotations, to correct P. Hitchens’s gross ignorance of and misconceptions about evolution, and three times I’ve failed (here, here, and here). Now, after promising one of his commenters, a Mr. Platt, that he’d finally answer me about evolution, P. Hitchens has done so. His reponse is in a new column called “It’s all gone a bit Platt.” The relevant bit is below: Mr. Platt’s comments are in plain type, while P. Hitchens’s responses are in bold.
Note once again Hitchens’s obsession with bodily fluids, which reminds me a bit of Commander Jack D. Ripper in the movie,”Dr. Strangelove”:
Mr Platt then gets to his real red meat.
I am asked for examples of points he has failed to respond to. Very recently Professor Jerry Coyne rebutted all the nonsense Mr. Hitchens had been posting about evolution, answering in detail all of his concerns about evidence, observations, the ability of the theory to make testable predictions, and so on. This *demands* a response!’
I must repeat here that my alleged ‘nonsense’ consists of saying that the theory of evolution by natural selection may be right. Professor Coyne, so far as I know, never came here to make his points. I tried, once or twice, to engage with him and his little society of admirers at his blog (which, unlike this one, appears to attract an entirely unanimous audience) . But I received nothing but huffy abuse, and decided not to continue. As I have said before, I think a basic generosity to opponents is essential in any serious debate. I felt there was no such generosity there. No moral or other rule obliges me to tangle in discussion with people who despise me. Others have also drawn attention to Professor Coyne’s remarks about me and my late brother. I have no duty to engage with people who behave in this way.
Mr Platt then shows that his apparent concern for courtesy is in fact nothing of the kind.
He declares : ‘Anyone having their life’s work in science contemptuously dismissed as a mere “cult” is fully entitled to be discourteous ‘.
This is actually wholly ridiculous. Professor Coyne does not personally own the theory of evolution by natural selection (about which I remain agnostic) , nor does he personally own the snide, dismissive, arrogant know-all cult of aggressive modern atheism which has adopted evolution by natural selection as its dogma and subjects any dissenters to heresy hunts . Both these phenomena have many adherents and many leaders. Even if he were their very embodiment, there is nothing personally abusive in attacking the ideas expressed by someone else. I have no knowledge of, and have never made any reference to, Professor Coyne’s personal character nor to his family. I assume that he is an intelligent, informed person. I do not seek a quarrel of any kind with him. I believe that he genuinely believes the theory he espouses to be true. I concede that he may be right. But I do not think he (or anyone else) has established with certainty that it is demonstrably so.
What on earth is one to do about a person who goes out of his way to seek an argument with someone he has never met, and who has never voluntarily sought any contact with him, who concedes that he may be right? And how is one to respond if this mysterious uninvited , unprovoked assailant conducts his attack with bad-tempered scorn dripping from his every phrase? In my case, it is as if an angry person, of whom I know nothing , plants himself in the street in front of me and commences to lecture me crossly on my (undoubted) faults, saliva flying in all directions. Here is what I do. I turn away. I cross the street, and hope he does not follow me.
I would say that I did try, to begin with, to respond reasonably and peaceably, to what was being shouted at me. But the shouting simply intensified ( as it always does, whenever I discuss this subject, which is why I no longer do so, ever, and will not again) . So, as I say, I crossed the street.
How can I respond to such a non-response?
What characterizes P. Hitchens’s piece, beyond the usual poor writing, is its complete failure to engage the substantive arguments I made about evolution: the evidence for it, the proof that Intelligent Design has religious roots and is simply creationism in disguise, the dismissal of his example of Piltdown Man as showing the perfidies of science, the notion of scientific “truth” versus “proof”, and so on. Rather, the man rambles on about bodily fluids, his brother, and continues to claim (disingenously, so I think) that he’s perfeclty willing to consider evolution as true—though he apparently hasn’t seen convincing evidence.
Peter Hitchens has been singing the “I’m-willing-to-be-convinced” song for three years, and hasn’t yet bothered to acquaint himself with the evidence. Given that, he has no right to be offended by my tone. I suggest that he read my book, and then if he still finds himself unconvinced, he needs to tell us why. The fact is that the man simply doesn’t want to do his homework, probably because of his fear that he would find, as his brother well knew, that evolution is a solidly established scientific fact.
This is a man who is willfully ignorant. He fears that evolution will dispel his faith, and so he doesn’t want to go near Darwin. Evolution, after all, is plainly “atheistical.”
As for why I engaged him on my website when I’d never met him, it’s simple: he made statements, in a public forum, that were not only unscientific but antiscientific. He showed unwarranted favor toward the discredited idea of Intelligent Design, made fun of scientists for the Piltdown Man episode (a hoax uncovered by scientists), and claimed again and again that he saw no convincing evidence for evolution. In short, his willful ignorance, disseminated through the disreputable but widely read Daily Mail, is harmful to the public understanding of science. There’s no reason for me to meet him, or to engage him on his blog, to call him out for his ignorance.
When a man has no substantive arguments, he harps on tone. That’s exactly what you see in the “response” above.
Do me a favor, Mr. Hitchens, and read my book. It’s time for you to stop saying that you’re prepared to accept evolution and actually learn something about it. Although you clearly dislike being compared to your brother, at least he had the genes for trying to learn.