An open letter to Charlotte Allen, an ignorant, evolution-dissing writer

January 22, 2018 • 12:15 pm

Dear Ms. Allen,

I have become aware of your recent article, “St. Charles Darwin“, in First Things (“America’s most influential journal of religion and public life”). The point of your article appears to be twofold: to defend A. N. Wilson’s execrable hit-piece that masquerades as a book-length biography of Darwin (I reviewed his book here), and, second, to question the truth of evolution itself.  But, by your own admission, you have no expertise to do either of these things.

First, you admit that you know nothing about Darwin’s life:

I have no idea myself whether Charles Darwin was a “self-effacing” and “endearing” beetlemaniac—a Mahatma Gandhi of biology, so to speak—as his fans claim, or a cat-killing, digestive tract-obsessed egotist and plagiarist, as Wilson seems to think.

Perhaps you should read some of the Darwin scholarship by historians of science, like Janet Browne, and then you might get an idea of what the man was really like. And if you did that, you’d see that the critiques of Wilson’s biography by myself, John van Wyhe, and Adrian Woolfson—critiques that you find “hilarious”—rest on Wilson’s blatant misrepresentation of the biographical facts. Wilson simply distorted and lied about Darwin’s life (did you see that I caught him in a blatant lie about Darwin’s supposed plagiarism?).

Your claim that our criticisms of Wilson’s book stem from the fact that he is an atheist turned Christian, and that his religiosity is why his book has “gotten under the skin of people who make at least part of their living promoting Darwin”, is ludicrous. The book would remain dreadful even if Wilson had remained an atheist.

After I read Wilson’s book, I was puzzled that an apparently smart man could do such a terrible job criticizing not just Darwin, but his theory of evolution. It was then that I realized that Wilson was probably a creationist, or at least acted like one, and that suggested a plausible motivation for his execrable scholarship. But his scholarship remains bad regardless of his religion.

Further, you clearly know almost nothing about evolution, either, as seen in this paragraph:

It’s not surprising that Wilson, in his Darwin biography, finds the master’s theories wanting. Evolution, particularly evolutionary psychology, can be a useful heuristic in reminding us how similar we are to other animals, our kin, but when you go hunting through the fossil record for hard evolutionary evidence, you always come up . . . a little short. Yes, there seem to have been dinosaurs with feathers (presumably bird ancestors), but paleontologists continue to classify the extinct creatures as reptiles. There’s a “transitional” fish from the Devonian period, which artists like to draw with little legs like on the atheist bumper sticker—but the actual fossils, recovered in Nunavut, Canada, in 2004, are only of the fish’s head, whose bone structure seemed adapted to taking in air on shallow mud flats.

“Useful heuristic”? Do you know anything about evolution beyond what you’ve taken from Wilson’s book or the creationist literature? No the fossil record does not come up short. Those dinosaurs with feathers are exactly what we expect for transitional forms: they have a largely dinosaurian skeleton but birdlike feathers, and, moreover, appear well after theropod dinosaurs (the presumed ancestor) were already around—but before modern birds appeared. Further, the fossils become less dinosaurian and more birdlike as one gets to more recent strata. Whether one calls these “birds” or “dinosaurs” is a matter of taste; the important fact is that they are exactly the transitional forms we expect, and they appear at exactly the time they should have if dinosaurs evolved into birds.

And surely you know that the truth of evolution doesn’t rest solely on fossils—in fact, there was not much of a fossil record in Darwin’s time. His evidence for evolution derived from other areas like embryology, comparative morphology, vestigial organs, and biogeography. Now, of course, we do have fossil records of many transitional forms: not just those from reptiles to birds, but from reptiles to mammals, amphibians to reptiles, terrestrial mammals to whales, and—brace yourself, as you’re going to hate this!—from early hominins that had small brains, big teeth, and lived in the trees to the more cerebral and gracile species of Homo. All of these, and newer evidence from genetics as well, attest to the truth of evolution.

Your comment about Tiktaalik shows your further ignorance. It’s not just the fish’s head that we have, for crying out loud, but a substantial part of the postcranial skeleton, including its shoulder and front fins. Let me remind you by showing you the photos of the fossil:

The bony fins that might have evolved into legs:

And, as Greg Mayer reported on this site four years ago, we also have a pelvis and a partial hindlimb.

To see the significance of this fossil as the kind of “fish” that could have evolved into tetrapod amphibians, I suggest that you read Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish. Did you have a look at it? I didn’t think so.

At the end, I wondered how you—even more ignorant about Darwin and evolution than was Wilson—could do such a terrible job in your article. And I conclude that, like Wilson, you have been conditioned by your religious beliefs to attack Darwin and his ideas. I implore you to do some reading about science before you further mislead the readers of First Things. For, without doing your journalistic homework, you’ll do nothing to keep that magazine “an influential journal of religion and public life.”

Do you really want to cast in your lot with creationists? Enlightened believers accepted evolution a long time ago.  Surely you don’t want First Things to become Worst Things!

Yours sincerely,
Jerry Coyne


I’ve posted the link to this piece as a comment after Allen’s piece. We’ll see if it appears.

115 thoughts on “An open letter to Charlotte Allen, an ignorant, evolution-dissing writer

  1. Your comment hasn’t appeared yet, but some creationists’ comments have.

    Her article is terrible from the get-go. She doesn’t criticize the critiques on their merits, but characterizes them in terms designed to bias readers against them. She’s not going to let her ignorance of the facts get in the way of telling others what to think, though.

    1. She is guilty of more than simple ignorance because she has succumbed to the famous Argument from Personal Incredulity. Only by knowing nothing about the fossil record (particularly the hominin fossil record) can anyone make the bizarre statement that: “when you go hunting through the the fossil record for hard evolutionary evidence, you always come up . . . a little short.”

      Meanwhile, in reality, it takes a lot of serious study to learn of even a small subset of the transitional hominin fossils over the past five million years, and the genetic insights from fossil Neaderthals, ancient modern humans, living humans, and other primates, etc., are coming in so fast they are hard to keep up with. Allen is arrogant enough to pretend that she has gone “hunting”, when she clearly has not.

      1. She really means “when I search my personal knowledge about the fossil record that I have right now, I always come up a little short”.

  2. Odd that those transitionals keep showing up when they’re expected. Exhibiting the expected derivations, with the novelty being what is sought by paleontologists. And typically not being at even maximal local fitness (Archaeopteryx is hardly a great flyer).

    What could explain this? I mean, other than the obvious, evolution, which just can’t be allowed a foot in the door, despite being the ubiquitous causal explanation in biology.

    Glen Davidson

    1. Yes exactly.

      YECer: “Okay so you found a fossil in the layer evolution predicted, with the features evolution predicted, transitional between different groups as evolution predicted. So what? God could’ve done all that…”

  3. oooooh my – excellent, Dr C. Hope that she is stunned but unlikely. I am delighted by such an eloquent, courteous rebuttal, take down.

    1. I started doing this in college with students who were basically creationists. I would call the Evangelical hotline and debate those people. I wanted to talk to everyone all of the time about religion, the missing pieces, what made sense, and what didn’t. I was promoting evolution and challenging everyone. I wanted to do that for my career. I applied for an interdisciplinary studies major in philosophy, religion, and science…. To make a long story short, you don’t make a living promoting Darwin. You do it on the side. There is no job for that unless you work somewhere that is non-profit if you’re lucky. You might be able to volunteer somewhere and write grants to fund your project. Otherwise, what I do, is do what I’m passionate about on the side. Return on investment was a difficult lesson to learn. People will not pay you to challenge their deeply held beliefs. You might consider being a teacher. That’s another route.

    1. It did.

      I believe the default ordering of comments is “Best”, meaning in descending order of number of upvotes. If you’re logged on, I recommend contributing the link yourself, and upvoting all comments that include the link.

  4. MeanCharlotte [as she calls herself] is a poor writer & poor thinker. Doesn’t seem to have a writing bone in her so she goes for the controversy – pushing buttons is her game.

    Here’s her Twitter if you want to size up this “Respected conservative journalist–that’s a quote from Virginia Postrel–plus, I have a Ph.D. in medieval studies, so I’m really smart!”

      1. Yes, and the question is whether any of these earlier primates walked on their knuckles. AFAIK, it’s still controversial, but there’s some evidence that chimpanzees + bonobos and gorillas evolved knuckle-walking independently…

        1. It depends on where you start your hominins, but the Australopithecines (ca. 3.5 mya)certainly did not as the Laetoli footprints, fossilized in volcanic ash, clearly show. They probably did a bit of tree climbing because they were probably succulent prey.

          1. I have long wondered if Patas Monkeys are following the same evolutionary route. They rely partly on speed (55 kph for adult males) and acceleration: not bad for accomplished tree-climbers. They can resort to trees for safety and sleep.

    1. One person commenting on that site expressed the perfect ad hominin argument to folks such as she*: “Evolution is not a theory but a fact. The only evidence against evolution are those humans that have against all odds and nature have not evolved to understand the truth of evolution.” She’s not a knuckle walker; she’s an unevolved knuckle-dragger.
      *Don’t know if that’s grammatically correct; I’m a grammatical knuckle-dragger.

    2. I’m not a knuckle-dragger, I’m a knuckle-dragger’s son and I’m only dragging knuckles till the knuckle-dragger comes.

      I’m not a knuckle-dragger, knuckle-draggin’s fine for me
      but I’m only dragging knuckles cos the knuckle-dragger’s up a tree.

  5. Well said Jerry.

    So often creationists etc just repeat anti-Darwin/anti-evolution arguments they’ve heard from people they trust, then when those arguments are debunked they have no comeback. If they actually took the trouble to understand evolution themselves, they’d discover a beautiful elegance they’ll never find in the Bible.

    One of the best things about being an atheist is the clarity of thought. There’s no need to be constantly trying to reconcile the irreconcilable in your mind because everything fits. There are gaps of knowledge, but that just makes you want to find the answers.

    1. In my experience, right-wing people just repeat what they are told. This may come their religious training: These experts here have all the answers, all you need to do is repeat them, no thought or self-examination is required.

        1. But most of my direct experience is with right-wingers. I don’t associate with any authoritarian leftists. I have no choice about associating with a certain number of right-wingers (family, jobs).

  6. “but paleontologists continue to classify the extinct creatures as reptiles. ”
    They don’t

    ‘Reptile’ is an obsolete word

  7. Of course it was ignorant, uninformed and down right awful. She wasn’t really reviewing a book or critiquing Darwin or rebutting critics of Wilson. Not really.

    She was testifying.

  8. Allen:

    You must not say anything unkind about the selfless scientist who labored for decades at his study in rural Kent to develop his theories for the benefit of the rest of us.

    No Charlotte, it’s perfectly fine to say unkind things about Darwin or any science ‘hero’. What’s not okay is to make up things, like AN Wilson did.

    1. One of the funny things I find about Christians – they claim to have the key to objective moral truth, and yet they’re awfully comfortable with lying.

  9. Wilson, a devoted Christian as a young man (he had successively been an Anglican, a Roman Catholic, and an Anglican again), lost his religious faith during the late 1980s. He published a militant secularist tract, Against Religion, in 1990, and in subsequent years biographies of Jesus and Paul of Tarsus, presenting the former as a kindly Jewish rabbi whose memory was traduced by his fanatical followers and the latter as an out-and-out nutcase.

    Just further indication that AN Wilson has the highly ‘plastic’ sort of mind that can believe almost anything to be true, regardless of evidence, so long as it feels right in the moment.

  10. Further, on Tiktaalik, there are now a large number of specimens of different developmental ages of this species. It is one of the most complete records of a transitional form that there is.

  11. When you’re a christian writing to a christian audience, this is the kind of dreck that gets you published.

    Excellent and lucid take-down of the charlatan named Charlotte.

    1. Agree. Btw: As a German, I find it always interesting to discover a german word in the english vocabulary. Yet it is a little regrettable, however, that these are usually terms that describe more negative things, such as: “gewalt”, “schmutz” and actually “dreck”. Did the latter one really arrive into the English language?

        1. Dreck is so very german as you can think of it. But of course, there are thousands of Yiddish words which are the same or similar to German, because Yiddish is a language that emerged from Middle High German with Hebrew, Slavic and other language elements.

      1. Yes, “dreck” is definitely used in English. When Mad Magazine used to parody Star Trek they called it “Star Dreck.” Another negative German word now used in English is “kitsch.”

        1. Oh I didn’t know that. And “Star Dreck” sounds really funny to me.
          I do not find “kitsch” so negative now, because the word is usually used to indicate that someone knows about aesthetic things and can tell the difference to useless crap.

          1. Is that the definition of “kitsch” in Germany today? I [UK] regard it as a form of art that’s empty & soulless. To quote Tate modern, it’s “used in English to describe particularly cheap, vulgar and sentimental forms of popular and commercial culture” – Picture of dogs playing poker, the blue lady, late Elvis stage costumes etc

            Of course there is also kitsch art that’s supposedly an ironic play on this such as the sculptures, other 3D stuff & prints of Jeff Koons. A sort of contemporary version of Andy Warhol. Vacuum.

            CLICK HERE FOR TOO MUCH JEFF KOONS & explore the links on left & right sides

            1. No, useless crap is not the right definition of kitsch, your definition is correct.
              The wording is only due to the hurry to cope with writing as quickly as possible, and I did not feel so good about using that phrase, but the right words for the description were just not quickly enough in my mind.

              Koons – yes that’s exact that kind of “art” that deserves to be called “Kitsch”.

              1. The Scottish-Italian Jack Vettriano is a hugely popular artist – an example of how to get very, very wealthy doing kitsch Art. Perhaps Germany is inoculated against him?

              2. No question, that’s pure Kitsch. But the best example for becoming very very wealthy by doing kitsch Art is Jeffrey Koons, isn’t it?

                I have no idea about the reception of Vettriano in Germany, but the art market follows anyone who promises profit. And whether it’s kitsch or not, it does not matter anyway.

              3. Yes. Koons is probably richer than the Scot – certainly Koons originals are in the millions of $s while Vettriano is only six digits maximum, but the Scot gets points for a massive poster market – so it’s difficult to know which pile of cash is bigger.

              1. You’ve got me beat hands down! I read up on him & his sinister pastel prints of homes with all windows lit – somehow more sinister than the reverse approach: the Gothic darkness of the Adams family mansion.

                I see Hallmark & Walmart embraced him & that his stuff is in 5% of U.S. homes. A lot of Christian themes too. Ugh!

              2. And he was in some creepy scandal before he died. Can’t remember what. There’s a whole store full of his schlock on the very tony main drag (high street) in the very artsy Carmel-by-the-Sea in California. Nauseating. Yes, some of the paintings actually light up and some of the waterfalls seem to flow. And they ain’t cheap.

                And who remembers that guy Keane with the kids (and cats?) with the huge eyes? Not to mention velvet Elvises.

              3. 😬in order to avoid it, Michael. Although I do have a good friend with whom I compete to give each other the tackiest Xmas gifts. My mother had a fellow world-travelling diplomatic friend with whom she did the same: par exemple, glow-in-the-dark 3-D popes rising from tombs postcards (bought at the Vatican). It takes a certain eye to spot such treasures.

          2. The reference to “Star Dreck” reminds me of another Mad Magazine title. “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, along with Star Trek, was a show I watched religiously as a child. Mad parodied it with “Voyage to See What’s on the Bottom” and that still makes me smile. Sorry, off-topic.

      2. I guess it has arrived…I don’t think it’s uncommon, but maybe it is. It does appear in two of my English dictionaries (Oxford and Heritage). It had a Yiddish etymology as well as Germanic.

        Incidentally, I first wrote “drivel” but felt it didn’t have the same bite as “dreck”.

        German has great onomatopoeic words, especially harsh/negative sounding ones, so perhaps that’s why many are adopted into English.

        1. Yes, maybe that’s a good explanation.
          For the Germans, myself included, there is a preference for saying everything in English, simply because it sounds good.
          Traveling in your own language only is sometimes very boring.
          In addition, the sentences in English are usually shorter, so you get to the point faster.

          1. I do say “es schneit” when it is sleeting (somewhere between rain and snow). I think snow is beautiful, but sleet horrible, so I’ve adapted the German phrase for “it’s snowing” to mean it’s sleeting.

            My wife says it now too, but I think she thinks it actually means “sleeting” in German; I don’t correct her, because it makes me laugh when she says it…I know, cultural appropriation. 🙂

  12. Classic religious sciency stuff. I used to engage in such arguments myself, before I read WEIT. Here is what they do: intelligent people who have learned only the basics of evolution make lucid, smart-sounding arguments trotting out a reference to this sciency thing or that. The equally uninformed but fervent audience gobbles it up in a self-congratulatory way. They think to themselves, ‘See? Scientists think they are so smart, they think they’re smarter than God. See how easily we can refute their arguments?’ Creationists, many of them anyway, think that Satan is behind the theory of evolution. They think that it is one of the ways the devil leads us astray. Remember, the Bible says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” My mom took this to mean: don’t get too smarty-pants for God. In their eyes, there is no greater fool than the person who thinks they can figure things out and don’t need God. In my opinion, there is no convincing people who view knowledge as a mortal danger. It will be through education and several more generations that people in the US will catch up to more enlightened Western countries in this area.

  13. I don’t exactly remember, but we had an example of a review a couple months back from someone with no background in the subject. (I think it was the Kirkus review brouhaha). I remember in my first college History course we were supposed to do a book review. With no other experience in the literature, it was one of the hardest papers I’ve ever written. Why any self-respecting publication would choose an ignorant reviewer is beyond me.

  14. I’m beginning to think that anyone who writes about Darwin should be required to read “On the Origin of Species” and “The Voyage of the Beagle” (and pass a test on the contents) before starting up their word processor.

    Can you imagine someone writing a critique of Einstein and the theory of relativity without having a basic understanding of physics?

    1. Can you imagine someone writing a critique of Einstein and the theory of relativity without having a basic understanding of physics?

      Yes. The train wrecks are just as spectacular.

    2. See the chapter Latour’s Relativity by the physicist John Huth in A House Built on Sand (ed. Noretta Koertge).

  15. I greatly admire Prof Coyne for taking the time & trouble patiently and thoroughly, without being rude or scornful, to dissect Charlotte Allen’s article and demonstrate its appalling ignorance and absurdity. Bravo! If she had any grace, she’d check out what he said, thank him for setting her straight, and apologise. (By the way, I also admire Heather Hastie’s pertinent comments both on WEIT and on First Things.)

  16. It has become so common for people to give opinions on which they are not in the least qualified. Or make comments, write books and write papers with superficial research, and get peer approved by similar “scholars”. The ignorance is a disease and is spreading so contagiously, there seems no end to it. It is most of the time non-scientists who denigrate science without any evidence.

  17. I’ve always felt that the strongest support for evolution comes from the sheer logic behind it. Once the meme has entered the reasonably prepared mind it is hard to imagine how it could be otherwise. Of course, that isn’t any kind of scientific proof. My guess is that Darwin knew right away that evolution was true but also knew how hard it would be for many people to accept. This is what caused him to delay publishing so long — almost too long.

    1. That’s the way I see it too. The principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest seem so logical and obvious that the burden rests upon evolution deniers to explain what could be keeping it from happening.

      By the way, my comment with a link to this page on has been voted to the top of the list when viewed with the default “Sort by Best” setting, so the first thing viewers see in the comment section is the link.

    2. It is also why the presocratics (Anaximander and Empedocles, for example) who also postulated evolution by natural selection, had to wait for even greater geniuses do a whole bunch more background work so Darwin could do the genius move of putting it all together. I think, for example, that 19th century chemistry was needed, to show how *small* things could be.

  18. This from her Twitter profile.
    “Respected conservative journalist–that’s a quote from Virginia Postrel–plus, I have a Ph.D. in medieval studies, so I’m really smart!”

  19. One of the things that troubles me about evolution is why there are no “in-between” animals around. Shouldn’t there be a gajillion such creatures living today, more advanced than the ape, less advanced than a human being? If they all died out, why haven’t the apes? Appreciate if someone can explain that to a layman. Thanks

    1. “More advanced” & “less advanced” are not useful terms in most evolutionary talk – it’s all about ones “fitness” to ones environment & ones ability to pass on ones genes. Mr. Owl is not less or more “advanced” than me – your average owl has probably more living offspring than I have & they’re all better than me at flying & catching rodents.


      At the bottom of this comment is an incomplete list, but impressively long list of primates ALIVE TODAY in Indonesia

      Each name is a different species – thus the Agile gibbon doesn’t party on down & have kids with the Silvery gibbon & so on. The above two gibbons don’t mate with each other [as far as I know], because maybe they live in different valleys or on different islands, or in different niches in the same area, etc etc

      That is the way of the world if you step back away from the canvas & look at the history through a long lens – the common ancestor population of any two macaques listed below gradually split when some chance event split the population into two sufficiently that genes were seldom exchanged between the two new populations. These two populations then diverged sufficiently in their genetics to be given their own species label by us today

      There isn’t a spectrum of gibbons alive today. There isn’t a spectrum of macaques alive today. What survives today are those few examples at different places on each spectrum that are best fitted for the environment they are now in.

      Agile gibbon
      Müller’s Bornean gibbon
      Kloss’s gibbon
      Sumatran lar gibbon
      Silvery gibbon
      Bornean white-bearded gibbon

      Thomas’s langur

      Javan lutung

      Tonkean macaque
      Booted macaque
      Celebes crested macaque
      Gorontalo macaque
      Heck’s macaque
      Moor macaque
      Pagai Island macaque
      Siberut macaque
      Muna-Buton macaque

      Maroon leaf monkey

      Bornean orangutan
      Sumatran orangutan
      Tapanuli orangutan

      Homo sapiens

      Javan surili
      Natuna Island surili
      Sumatran surili
      White-fronted surili

      Dian’s tarsier
      Horsfield’s tarsier
      Jatna’s tarsier
      Lariang tarsier
      Peleng tarsier
      Pygmy tarsier
      Sangihe tarsier
      Siau Island tarsier
      Gursky’s spectral tarsier
      Wallace’s tarsier
      Tarsius fuscus

      1. I left out natural selection & its little brother sexual selection so as not to frighten the horses, but sexual selection is a powerful process for further ‘splitting’ a population over time – especially where there’s already a geographical or niche** barrier in place

        ** A niche might be as simple as food source – look up Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands

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