Our letter to Science about Agustín Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing

June 21, 2021 • 1:30 pm

On May 21, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a takedown of Darwin in a Science op-ed on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Asserting that Darwin was a racist, a white supremacist, and a man whose ideas justified “colonialism” as well as “genocide,” Fuentes’s piece was over the top: a typical and execrable specimen of holding someone living decades ago responsible for adhering to the moral norms of his time. (Actually, Darwin, an abolitionist, was a far sight better than many of his contemporaries.) In other words, according to Fuentes, Darwin should have known better. But I bet you ten to one that Fuentes, had he been Darwin’s contemporary, would have been even more of a moral reprobate than Charles himself.

I criticized Fuentes’s piece here (and Robert Wright did elsewhere), though Jonathan Marks, a well known anthropological firebrand, sprang to Fuentes’s defense. Several weeks ago, a bunch of us evolutionary biologists got together and wrote a joint letter to Science criticizing Fuentes’s piece.  The journal sat on it, said it wouldn’t appear in print, but have at last put it online. You can see the link to our letter below, but I’ve posted the whole thing, along with our names, addresses, and the references we use.

Click on the screenshot to see our letter (and Marks’s):

What we wrote:

RE: “The Descent of Man”, 150 years on

“The Descent of Man” 150 years on

In this 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1), Science published one article celebrating the progress in human evolutionary science built on Darwin’s foundations (2), along with a second, Editorial article, three quarters of which instead pilloried Darwin for his “racist and sexist view of humanity” (3). Fuentes argues that students should be “taught Darwin as [a] man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience”. We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.

What Darwin wrote was of course shaped by Victorian realities and perspectives on sex and racial differences, some still extant today, but this is not a new revelation [4]. Rather than calmly noting these influences, Fuentes repeatedly puts Darwin in the dock for the Victorian sexist and racist norms within which he presented his explosive thesis that humanity evolved. Fuentes incorrectly suggests that Darwin justified genocide. Darwin was frequently and notably more modern in his thinking than most Victorians. In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz (5). On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329). His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution (1).

Students taught about the historical context for Darwin’s writing should appreciate how revolutionary Darwin’s ideas were, challenging many (but not all) prevailing Victorian perspectives (6). We lament the failure to celebrate the vast impact of those ideas at the expense of the distorting treatment Fuentes offers.

Andrew Whiten1, Walter Bodmer2, Brian Charlesworth3, Deborah Charlesworth3, Jerry Coyne4, Frans de Waal5, Sergey Gavrilets6, Debra Lieberman7, Ruth Mace8, Andrea Bamberg Migliano9, Boguslaw Pawlowski10 and Peter Richerson1

1School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9PE, UK. 2Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DS, UK. 3School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3FL, UK, 4Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 1101 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL60637, USA. 5Psychology Department (PAIS Bldg), Suite 270, 36 Eagle Row, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. 6Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ of Tennessee Knoxville, TN 37922, USA. 7Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA. 8(Editor in Chief, Evolutionary Human Science) Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK. 9Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich, 190 Winterthurerstrasse, Zurich 8057, Switzerland. 10(President, European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association) Department of Human Biology, University of Wroclaw, ul. S. Przybyszewskiego 63, 51-148 Wrocław, Poland. 11Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Corresponding author. Email: a.whiten@st-andrews.ac.uk

1. C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. With an introduction by J. T. Bonner and R. M. May. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1871/1981).
2. P. J. Richerson, S. Gavrilets, F. B. M. de Waal. Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s the Descent of Man. Science 372, 806.
3. A. Fuentes. “The Descent of Man” 150 years on. Science 372, 769.
4. A. J. Desmond, J. R. Moore. Darwin. (Penguin, London, 1992).
5. P. J. Richerson, R. Hames. Busting myths about evolutionary anthropology. Anthropology News, July 18 (2017) doi: 10.1111/AN.510
6. H. E. Gruber. Darwin on Man. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974).

We could have said a lot more, but there is a strict word limit for Science letters.

Robert Wright takes apart Agustín Fuentes’s critique of Darwin

May 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

On May 22 I discussed, or rather criticized sharply, a takedown of Darwin published in Science by by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University. This year is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s two-part book: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. And while there was a good article in the same issue of Science by three other researchers , Fuentes’s short takedown, while it did at least note Darwin’s book had some merit, wound up being a misguided and highly woke critique calling out Darwin for racism, sexism and misogyny. My article pointed out some of Fuentes’s errors; I’ll mention just two of them.

First, Fuentes claimed that Darwin’s view of sexual selection in animals and humans involved female passivity and male choice, ergo it was misogynistic, denying females a role in evolution. (There may, however, indeed be cases where females are passive, as when males compete with each other—e.g., elephant seals or deer—and females are constrained to mate with the winner. Is it really useful to say that male-male competition for females is a misogynistic view? But most theories of sexual selection, including Darwin’s, involve both male traits and behaviors and female preferences for those traits and behaviors, so Fuentes didn’t even get his biology right.

The second involves Fuentes’s ridiculous assertion that Darwin’s views justified genocide and colonialism. As I wrote, quoting Fuentes:

Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:

[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others.

Again, Fuentes didn’t do his homework, for he was eager to convince the world that Darwin, who was far more liberal in his views than most of his Victorian peers (he was, for one thing, an abolitionist), was riddled with moral failings.

Here’s one more beef I had before we move on to Robert Wright’s critique. I wrote this:

Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin.

As a friend wrote me:

This kind of anachronistic moralization has been neatly exposed by the philosopher Robbie George – way, way, to the religious right of us, but clever and broad-minded (he’s joined with Cornel West in defending academic freedom). George asked his class whether if they had been antebellum Southerners they would have opposed slavery, and of course all of them—preposterously—claim they would have been abolitionists. A moral version of the Fundamental Attribution Error – people think that people who hold bad beliefs must be bad people.

Likewise, I’m sure that had Fuentes been a contemporary of Darwin, his views would have been at least as misogynistic, racist, and colonialist as Darwin’s. So where does he get off using today’s morality to go after a man of the nineteenth century?

But I digress. Another person who offers a thorough critique of Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing is author Robert Wright. I have often disagreed with Wright, but I’m with him 100% in this article from his Substack site (click on the screenshot):

Like Fuentes did towards Darwin, Wright offers some tepid praise for Fuentes’s hit job:

There are things about this essay I like. For example: I understood it, which distinguishes it from many things written by contemporary anthropologists. Also, it’s hard to argue with its claim that Darwin said things about race and gender that would get a guy canceled today. (As one person put it on Twitter, Darwin, “was 19th century euro upper class. It’d be stranger if he WASN’T ‘problematic’ by today’s standards.”)

That is, Fuentes’s piece is laudable because one can understand it. Not high praise! Also, Darwin’s views on race and gender have been well known for years to clash with modern sensibilities, so that’s not new.

But then Wright swings his hammer, and his concern is pretty much the same as mine: Darwin’s supposed justification of genocide. Wright correctly sees a logical error here:

Here’s the confusion: In reading Darwin, Fuentes fails to distinguish between an explanation of something and a justification of something.

The error:

Here’s the assertion by Fuentes that, so far as I can tell, is flat-out wrong. After (accurately) writing that Darwin “asserted evolutionary differences between races,” he adds: “He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through ‘survival of the fittest.’ ”

I’ve read a fair amount of Darwin, and I don’t remember him defending imperialism or genocide. So I asked Fuentes on Twitter if he could back up that claim by providing actual quotes from The Descent of Man. He didn’t oblige me, but he did direct me to chapter 7. So I pulled my copy of Descent off my bookshelf and took a look.

So Wright contacted Fuentes and asks for evidence that Darwin justified imperialism and genocide. Fuentes doesn’t respond properly, but just points to a chapter in Darwin’s book. Unfortunately for Fuentes, Wright read that chapter and found that while Darwin explains why races supplant each other, he never justifies it. Wright gives several quotes about how tribes drive each other to extinction, but there is nothing even close to the view that Darwin is “justifying genocide” or approving of mass killing.

Wright then goes on to give the well-known evidence that Darwin was often horrified by the damage and pain wrought by natural selection as it eliminates ill-adapted individuals. And, as we know, that Darwin correctly believed in monogenesis: that all “races” and groups of human descended from a single common ancestor.  Here’s a bit from Wright with a very famous quote from Darwin:

Anyone who wants to join Fuentes in arguing that Darwin is trying to justify genocide runs into a couple of problems.

First: Wouldn’t it be odd if, in the very chapter of Descent which argues that all groups of humans have an equal claim to being human, Darwin’s intended message was that wiping some of them out is a good thing?

Second, and more important: Fuentes’s interpretation of chapter 7 is at odds with other evidence about Darwin’s sensibilities. In The Origin of Species, Darwin goes on and on about why some kinds of animals flourish and others don’t and why some animals succeed in killing other animals and how such lethal skills are favored by natural selection. He maintains an air of clinical detachment throughout, as he does in chapter 7 of Descent. Yet we know from his personal correspondence that he was so horrified by the cruelty of nature—the cruelty that is both a product of and an engine of natural selection—that he found it hard to reconcile with religious faith.

He wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

Does that sound like a man who would want to justify the mass suffering of human beings?

On Twitter, I pressed Fuentes on what exactly he meant when he said Darwin had offered a “justification” for imperialism and genocide. He said, “by justification i mean ‘the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.’ ”

I suppose Fuentes could try to wiggle out of my indictment by underscoring the “or” in “right or reasonable” and then insisting he meant “reasonable” in some value-free way. Such as: Darwin was trying to give explanations for group extinction that are “reasonable” just in the sense of being “plausible.” But if that’s what Fuentes meant, then he’s basically saying that by “justify” he didn’t mean “justify.”

Indeed!  Fuentes is conflating what Darwin thought was true in nature (and he may have been wrong) with Darwin’s approval of nature. In other words, Fuentes committed the classic “naturalistic fallacy”: equating what happens in the wild with what is good or worthy of approval.

Wright winds up with one more zinger leveled at Fuentes:

. . . if we don’t understand why bad things happen, it will be harder to prevent their recurrence. So if you’re against imperialism and genocide, maybe you should be careful about casually accusing people of being in favor of them when your only evidence is that they want to understand them.

Good job, Robert!

Although some of us predicted that the Pecksniffs would eventually come after Darwin, other readers said that wouldn’t happen. Well, it did, and perhaps more is in store. But if the best job that can be done is one like Fuentes’s, it’s not a convincing indictment of Darwin as an immoral racist, sexist, and colonialist.

For sure Darwin wasn’t perfect by modern moral lights. But he was more liberal, and more kind, than most Brits in his position, and why should we worry so much about Darwin’s morality when what’s important is his science? The morality of Victorian days is largely gone, but the science remains.

I’d like to think that, in the future, instead of being known as “The man who took down Darwin,” Fuentes will be known as “The Pecksniff who went after Darwin but failed to score a hit.”  The man’s scholarship is shoddy, and his piece looks like an excuse to flaunt Fuentes’s own moral superiority—or the moral superiority of moderns over Victorians. But if you want to hear about moral improvement without the snark and finger-pointing, it’s better to read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. 

h/t: Justin

Bret Weinstein goes awry when claiming that neo-Darwinian theory is missing an important part

September 20, 2019 • 10:45 am

After Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying resigned from The Evergreen State College under trying circumstances, Bret started a Patreon site and a YouTube channel in which he discusses evolutionary biology. As I mentioned in a post yesterday, Weinstein has been claiming in some of his onstage conversations that modern evolutionary theory has made no progress since the publication of Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene in 1976. And I discussed why I didn’t think that was a fair criticism, suggesting that Weinstein might be unaware of the progress that’s been made in the three areas he singled out as stagnant: speciation, sexual selection, and the correlation of diversity with latitude.

In this 9-minute video, Bret argues not only that evolutionary biology is stagnant, but its central paradigm—evolution via natural selection—is lacking a very important part.

As he argues, “The most important unanswered question, at least in evolutionary biology, has to do with where the power of evolution comes from.” He claims that the standard story that random mutations (mostly bad but occasionally good), winnowed by selection, doesn’t come “anywhere close to explaining how a shrewlike animal becomes a batlike animal by having membranes and bones extended in its hands, that become wings”.  He says that “There’s a flaw in the story that surrounds the question, ‘How do mutations alter the morphology of one creature so that it can take on a different ecological role?'”

Listen to Bret’s answer.

Bret’s answer to the question that he sees as heretofore unanswered is the evolution of “explorer modes,” which he defines as “mechanisms in which an evolved clade [related group of organisms] explores design space, so they can discover opportunities that it would not find by accident.”

What does this mean? He argues that an “explorer mode” gives natural selection a way to create new types of organisms in a way “that would not be discovered by accident”. I presume he means here that there are many organisms in which a combination geographic isolation “by accident”—e.g., via haphazard colonization of a new area such as an island, or separation of populations by geographic barriers or continental drift—followed by random mutation and selection, is a combination simply inadequate to explain evolution.

But why not? Bret argues that mutation and selection are “not powerful enough to account for the vast array of niches that have been discovered by species over the history of life.” But he gives no calculations to show this; he’s merely hazarding a guess, a guess without any empirical support. In other words, he’s making up a problem that hasn’t been shown to be a problem.

So what Weinstein is positing is not that animals invade new niches by accident and then evolved new species and morphologies, but that there are evolved “explorer modes” built into organisms by natural selection that help them find new niches.

He gives two examples of this. The first is Pacific salmon, which home to their natal streams, returning to fresh water from the sea every couple of years to breed. Very rarely, a salmon might invade a new stream, and, if that stream was devoid of other salmon, it would find a bonanza: lots of food and empty space. The descendants of that first explorer would thrive, and eventually, perhaps, become sufficiently genetically different that they’d constitute a new species.

The invasion of a new stream by a few stray individuals surely must have happened in evolution, but Weinstein insists that this is not an accident—a case of wayward salmon losing their way—but that they have evolved to explore. And that evolution was prompted by a form of selection that, while risky, has big payoffs: finding a new stream. He sees this form of selection as general, and essential to account for Earth’s diversity.

But there are big problems with this scenario. First, it applies only to changes in behavior: migration or wandering behavior. It does not and cannot explain the difference in morphology between a bat and its ancestor, or any differences between species in morphology, physiology, and so on. Those still require random mutation and selection. Even if his mechanism operates—and I don’t think it does in the way he posits—it only explains how an animal finds a new habitat in which garden-variety mutation and selection then proceed to work, and to create new morphology. The morphological differences evolve by same-old same-old.

But are “explorer modules” even plausible? Perhaps occasionally, but surely the cost of leaving your habitat and finding another one must frequently exceed the chance of finding a new, open niche in which you can thrive. At present, for instance, Pacific streams are pretty much tapped out for salmon residents, so invading a new stream would have no payoff. In other words, even if “explorer modules” were advantageous, they are self-defeating. Selection would favor not exploring.

Weinstein, then, hasn’t shown that the payoff from an explorer mode would generally exceed the costs. Yes, an individual could hit the jackpot, but what about all those individuals that don’t? If the average cost of exploring exceeds the benefit of a rare payoff, then exploring won’t evolve.

Further, and importantly, if these modules were favored by selection, you would see many more animals exhibiting them than do. If all salmon had evolved explorer modes, then you’d see many, many salmon leaving their streams and trying to find new ones. You don’t see that: migration is rare. This supports the idea that, in salmon, colonization of new streams is an accident: a bug rather than a feature. Weinstein has failed to explain the infrequency of exploring.

It’s clear that Bret thinks that “explorer mode” is something that is selected for. As he says, “It stands to reason, then, that selection would discover a mechanism that searched design space, rather than finding opportunities in design space haphazardly.” That’s clearly a claim that exploring is somehow built into an organism’s genes. Further, he says, it creates new morphologies faster than the conventional scenario. But we don’t know that the conventional scenario—wandering followed by the conventional mutation + selection—is too slow to create life’s diversity.

Now there are animals in which “exploration” is ubiquitous and a general phenomenon. One is the ballooning of spiders, in which spiderlings, when hatched, throw out a thread of silk to waft them away on the wind. Another is, of course, the dispersal of dandelion seeds via their fluff. Still another is the migration of young male lions away from their pride.

But these phenomena aren’t what Bret means by “explorer mode”, as they are ubiquitous in the species, and have evolved because finding a new habitat is essential if you are to avoid competition and thus leave your genes.  And even in these cases, the difference between species in morphology—why a tiger is striped but leopards are spotted—evolves by conventional natural selection.  Yes, a different habitat may be involved in creating that selection, but there are many ways that animals can find themselves in different geographic areas by accident. I don’t think that finches colonized the Galápagos island because they were showing their evolved tendency to explore. Most finches heading out over the Pacific, or blown over the ocean, would perish.

The other example Bret uses is human consciousness. We evolved consciousness, he says, so we can explore new ways of life. But this is not at all analogous to a salmon evolving “wandering behavior” because that kind of behavior helps you invade an empty niche. True, consciousness helped us invade a “cognitive niche”, and that may have had ramifications for the evolution of other parts of our body, like our brains or our hands, but you don’t need to invoke a new type of evolution to see how consciousness (or big brains) might have evolved. They could have evolved simply because they give individuals a reproductive advantage. There was no real “exploring” here analogous to Weinstein’s scenario of salmon taking risks because they could have big payoffs, as there was no risk involved in acquiring a mutation that made you more conscious. So I’ll ignore that scenario.

In general, I think Bret advances a thesis here that a.) isn’t needed, because there isn’t really a question that needs answering (nobody is worrying, “Hey, evolution was faster than mutation and selection could create”), b.) has its own problems, as payoffs have to be greater on average than the costs of exploring, c.) fails to explain why exploring is so infrequent, and d.) completely fails to account for the morphological differences between species that, he says, prompted this theory.

I think Weinstein’s explanation, then, is misleading: certainly so if it’s a general one intended to fill an important lacuna in evolutionary theory. Weinstein hasn’t shown that such a lacuna exists. And if there’s no need for such a theory because neo-Darwinism hasn’t been shown to be insufficient to explain diversity, then invoking “explorer modes” is an exercise without a motivation.



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.

Kas Thomas “replies” (if you can call it that)

February 18, 2014 • 7:09 am

The good thing about the internet is that you can debate scientific or other intellectual issues in almost real time, though the downside is that you don’t have reams of time to ponder and refine your answers.

Two days ago I criticized an article by writer Kas Thomas at Big Think:The trouble with Darwin.” Thomas made many errors in his claims about the problems with modern evolutionary theory, and I tried to answer them. So did many commenters, both on this site and at Big Think.

Thomas replied by first calling his critics “haters,” and then by flaunting his biology degrees, tw**ting, “You need to get a couple of degrees in bio sciences from a real university (like UC Irvine or UC Davis) as I did, then come back and we’ll talk.” And he said that despite noting on another site that he “never used those degrees.”

Of course none of this constituted response to my original scientific criticisms, or those raised by the many commenters on Thomas’s original post.

For example, he claimed that we had no idea how speciation worked (cue the Juggalos here: “f*cking speciation—how does that work?). He claimed that we had no clues about how natural selection created new features (although we could understand how it eliminated features). He claimed that we didn’t understand how the bacterial flagellum evolved, or how the Cambrian Explosion proceeded, and so on.

Many of these criticisms—and note that Thomas’s title clearly implied that modern evolutionary theory was in trouble because of these problems—were taken from the creationist playbook. It’s no coincidence that Thomas used the flagellum, the Cambrian Explosion, and the inability of evolutionary theory to explain “gain of function” as his Big Problems with Darwinism. Those are, of course, common tropes of Intelligent Design flunkies.  Clearly, Thomas had simply digested the ID literature and regurgitated it at Big Think. I patiently tried to explain in my critique how many of these criticisms were misguided, and that our lack of understanding of how some things evolved does not constitute a fatal flaw in modern evolutionary theory.

Now, at his oddly named website assertTrur(), Thomas attempts a more substantive reply in an equally oddly named post, “Scientists should be humble, not arrogant.” You’ll recognize that title, too, as a common STFU tactic of theologians and faitheists towards scientists. But arrogance is writing provocatively titled articles without the knowledge to back them up—and that Thomas does that in spades.  In calling for “humility,” Thomas aligns himself closer with theologians and other critics of science. It’s the last resort of the desperate.

Thomas’s hurt feelings are paraded at the beginning of his new piece which, as a whole, is not a response to the scientific errors noted in his original post. (His words are indented.)

It’s shocking how much venom and bile you can stir up by criticizing Darwin in public. I more or less expected, when I wrote a post critical of evolutionary theory at BigThink.com, there’d be a few heated comments. I didn’t expect so many of the 350+ comments to be so heated. Quite a few of the comments were and are just plain ugly. And the most vitriolic attacks are coming not from the religious right, but from supporters of Darwin!

Looks like I struck a nerve.

Shades of Chris Mooney! For the “struck a nerve” trope is one often used by Mooney when making silly arguments that his critics jumped all over. It is a non-answer meant to imply that you’ve said something telling and thereby angered your misguided opponents. But the “nerve” that Thomas struck was not our knowledge that evolutionary theory is deeply problematic, but our resistance to the deep-seated ignorance shown by Thomas’s piece, and the fact that it was published at a once-reputable site.

Thomas goes on to aver that he is not a creationist, and that he doesn’t believe in “magical thinking.” Why, then, did he just regurgitate arguments taken from creationists? Did he not think before he wrote?

He then flaunts his degrees again—you know, the ones he didn’t use:

More than one commenter suggested I get some biology training before writing about evolution. (One person touted his bio degree from the University of California at Irvine, unaware that I also have a degree in biology from UCI.) I guess I should have made clear, up front, that I have two degrees in biology: a B.S. from UCI and a master’s in microbiology (summa cum laude) from UC Davis, where I was a Regents’ Fellow. I took (and passed) qualifying exams for a Ph.D. One of the specialty areas I was examined in was molecular genetics.

Well, none of that training is in evolutionary biology per se, but let’s put that aside. The fact is that had Thomas done even the minimal amount of research, or consulted a real evolutionary biologist, he would have known that his criticisms of evolutionary theory were tripe. He would have known, for instance, that we know a good deal more about speciation than we did in the 1930’s, and a huge amount more than Darwin did. (Despite the title of Darwin’s book, he had very little to say about how one lineage divides into two or more.) And we know in many cases precisely how “gain of new functions” arises. Gene duplication, which I mentioned in my original critique, is one; and the cooption of old features to new (e.g., lactate dehydrogenase enzymes recycled to make lens proteins in animal eyes) is another.

In response, he either stands his ground or makes even more mistakes. Here’s an example of the latter:

What did I say in my BigThink blog that was so shocking? First let’s get clear what I did not say. One of the commenters claimed I said changes in DNA were not responsible for evolution. I never said that. What I said was that point mutations (of the kind the give rise to single-nucleotide polymorphisms) are almost certainly not a major driver of evolution. We know this because it’s been demonstrated many times that the majority of non-neutral point mutations are deleterious, leading to loss of function, not gain of function. Spend some time reading about “Muller’s ratchet” if you don’t believe me.

The fact is that in many, many cases, we know that point mutations are drivers of evolution; in fact, I’d say we have enough evidence to say that they are major drivers of evolution. Even in gene duplication, where the new functions arise after genes duplicate and then diverge (e.g., alpha versus beta hemoglobins), you have to have those post-duplication point mutations to get adaptive evolution. Or, when adaptation arises via changes in “regulatory regions” (or transcription factors: those proteins that regulate the expression of other genes), that, too, occurs via point mutations.  And even in “neutral evolution” (changes in DNA that aren’t “adaptive,” but either neutral or slightly deleterious), we see divergence via the accumulation point mutations as well.

I am in fact hard pressed to think of much evolution, adaptive or not, that doesn’t involve point mutations. Simple gene duplication without divergence, so that you duplicate genes to make a lot more of an identical protein, is one example. (I believe that’s how cold-water fish make antifreeeze proteins.) But Thomas is simply wrong in his logic that because most mutations are deleterious, point mutations cannot be a major driver of evolution.  Mutations are numerous and recurrent, and some of them will be beneficial. They just have to be sufficiently frequent to be the substrate of adaptation. And we know that populations have reservoirs of low-frequency mutations that are deleterious but can become adaptive when the environment changes. Her are two examples: white coat-color genes in mice that are maladaptive in their normal habitats but are useful when those mice invade white beaches. Or, the low frequency of insecticide resistance genes in mosquitoes that can become adaptive once humans apply insecticide. The success of artificial selection in almost every case testifies to the reservoir of deleterious forms of genes (kept in the population by recurrent mutation) that can suddenly become useful.

But Thomas’s real failure to educate himself is shown in what he says about speciation, a topic with which I’m well acquainted, having written an entire 500-page book on it with Allen Orr.

How, then, does speciation occur? We don’t know. No one has seen it occur in the lab. Nature no doubt relies on a variety of tactics, some of which we know a good deal about, many of which we barely understand, no doubt others of which we haven’t yet discovered. We know that sexuality (which is probably around a billion years old) has led to an explosion of diversity (and has kept Muller’s ratchet from sending countless species into extinction). On a molecular level, there are still many things we don’t understand about how chromatin is managed, how micro-RNA is regulated, when and why DNA methylases come into play, the relative importance (or unimportance) of translocases, and much, much more. To assert that we understand how speciation occurs is to assert a half-truth. It’s like saying we understand the weather because we can measure atmospheric pressure.

Of course we don’t know everything about how speciation worked, but we now understand the process a lot more than we did in, say, 1930.

We know that it involves the evolution of barriers to reproduction, so that to achieve speciation, two populations must become mutually intersterile (i.e., unable to produce fertile hybrids). We know that in many cases that intersterility is promoted by natural selection, and occurs most readily when the populations are geographically isolated. We know in some cases the precise genes involved in reproductive isolation, and how they interact with other genes. We know that speciation is unlikely to occur without the involvement of natural selection, and is promoted by things like sexual dimorphism. We know that a substantial amount of plant speciation occurs via chromosome duplication (polyploidy), and we know exactly how this happens. We also know that some species of plants and animals have evolved reproductive barriers after hybridizing with other species (“hybrid speciation”), and, as with polyploidy, we can replicate that process, at least with plants, in the lab.

Believe me, I could not have written that long book with Allen just to say, “Well, folks, we still don’t know anything about speciation.” The book, which Thomas clearly hasn’t read, is a compendium of what we do know about speciation.

As for methylases, translocases, the management of chromosomes and the regulation of RNA, Thomas is just throwing sand in our faces. We have no idea whether any of those things are involved in speciation (except for changes in chromosome number and structure, which we do understand). Thomas is just spewing molecular-biology jargon to sound knowledgeable.

Finally, Thomas emits some god-of-the-gaps arguments. That is, he doesn’t invoke God, but argues that something is wrong with evolutionary theory because we can’t yet explain everything. To wit:

One of the major embarrassments of modern biology is that more than a decade after having sequenced the human genome, we still don’t know what most of our DNA does: We can account for 30,000 human genes (which is not even ten times the number of genes in E. coli). Meanwhile our DNA has enough base-pairs to encode 3 million genes. But we’re pretty sure the “true number” of human genes is under 50,000. What does all that DNA do? We have some hints at answers, but no more than that. (Note: When the surplus of DNA in the human genome was first discovered, scientists called it “junk DNA.” It took years for that unfortunate terminology to disappear.) The honest answer is, we’re still not even close to understanding what all our DNA is doing.

So frickin’ what? First of all, that’s not evolutionary theory, but molecular genetics. It has nothing to do with “Darwinism”, as Thomas mistakenly calls modern evolutionary theory. And, yes, we don’t understand the function of all “junk DNA,” but we do understand some of it: inactive ancient viruses that have inserted themselves into our genome. We also know that we have inactive remnants of ancient DNA in our genome that were once active in our ancestors. One example: our many inactive olfactory receptor genes that we no longer need because we’re auditory and visual rather than olfactory beasts.

Of one thing I’m sure: eventually we will resolve the question of what all that extra DNA is doing. But in the meantime, in what sense is this an “embarrassment” to modern biology? Only Thomas, with his drive to discredit evolutionary biology, could see unsolved problems as “embarrassments.” They are challenges, and without them all science would grind to a halt. Is “dark matter” an embarrassment to physics? I don’t think physicists would agree. They are excited by this new possibility.

Finally, after playing the “butthurt” card and the “I haz credentials” card, Thomas plays the “humility card,” one that theologians often have up their sleeve when they’re losing at science poker:

It’s been my experience that the best scientists are humble, rather than proud. They’re willing to concede the immensity of what they don’t know. Arrogance and over-confidence are hallmarks of immaturity, in science as well as in life.

So we’re immature? Give me a break! All of us scientists concede what we don’t know, and where the unsolved puzzles lie. I mentioned several of them in my previous post.

And talk about overconfidence: what about a man who makes specious arguments about problems with speciation and inability to explain evolutionary novelty—all without having read the relevant literature? Sorry, but I won’t be lectured at by Thomas. I know where the unsolved puzzles are in my field, but I also know what we do know. So I don’t need Thomas to tell us this:

The list of things we don’t understand is far longer than the list of things we do understand. If we don’t understand that, all is lost.

That’s just a platitude. The person who is lost here is Kas Thomas, who badly needs to brush up on his evolutionary biology.

One thing is sure, though: the man is sufficiently arrogant that we’ll never hear him back down from his claims about speciation, evolutionary novelty, or point mutations. He’s not humble enough to admit that he was mistaken. And he’s not humble enough to stop flaunting the biology degrees that he admits he never used.

I have put a link to this post as a comment on Thomas’s website. But now I’m wondering why I just wasted an hour of my time—an hour when I could have been doing useful things like reading about the latest doings of the Kardashians—responding to someone who seems impervious to reason.