Ann Coulter's "Flatulent Raccoon Theory"

››› ››› ROB SAVILLO

Executive summary

Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism Evolution Misinformation

In her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Crown Forum, June 2006), right-wing pundit Ann Coulter devotes two chapters to a bizarre attempt to disprove the theory of evolution. With a mix of misleading claims, pseudo-scientific arguments, distortions of evolutionary theory, and outright falsehoods, Coulter places herself not only outside the mainstream but truly toward the lunatic fringe. After all, no reasonable person argues that one cannot believe in God and simultaneously accept the findings of decades of accumulated research on evolution. Yet, Coulter appears to believe that in order to prove that liberals are "godless," she must attack evolutionary theory itself.

Though she stops short of saying that the earth is 6,000 years old and Adam and Eve rode through the Garden of Eden on the backs of dinosaurs, in her quest to disprove evolutionary theory, Coulter echoes the arguments of the creationists from whom even many religious conservatives distanced themselves long ago.

Among her falsehoods, misinformation, and distortions, Coulter:

  • Misstates how fossils demonstrate the evolutionary transition from reptiles and mammals, as well as the fossil record of dinosaurs and mammals.
  • Distorts the likelihood that a living creature will be fossilized.
  • Distorts the duration of the period known as the Cambrian explosion, omits important information about its significance, and suggests that 10 million years is "sudden."
  • On transitional fossils, misrepresents relation of the Archaeopteryx to modern birds.
  • Omits information regarding the Piltdown man and Archaeoraptor hoaxes.
  • Misrepresents the evolution of the eye and ignores recent research.
  • Falsely suggests that "irreducible complexity" disproves evolutionary theory.
  • On the drawings and theories of Ernst Haeckel, omits a century of scientific criticism while falsely suggesting that textbooks still use Haeckel.
  • Falsely suggests that the Miller-Urey experiment did not accurately reflect early Earth atmosphere.
  • Throughout the book, displays her own misunderstandings regarding evolutionary theory (i.e. descent with modification, the evolution of bacteria).
  • Offers only classic creationist arguments from discredited, unscientific ideas, despite a claim on the inner jacket sleeve of the book stating that Coulter writes "with a keen appreciation of genuine science."

According to the weblog of William Dembski, a supporter of intelligent design, all of the above-mentioned falsehoods, misinformation, and distortions can be attributed to his "generous tutoring."

The evidence reveals that Coulter's two chapters on the theory of evolution display her own ignorance toward the subject while providing an avenue to make ad hominem attacks against scientists, progressives, and Democrats.

Ann Coulter's "Flatulent Raccoon Theory"
Robert Savillo
Media Matters for America
June 2006

Introduction

According to right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, "flatulent raccoon theory" is as valid as Darwinian evolution. On Page 214 of her new book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, she states:

Throw in enough words like imagine, perhaps, and might have -- and you've got yourself a scientific theory! How about this: Imagine a giant raccoon passed gas and perhaps the resulting gas might have created the vast variety of life we see on Earth. And if you don't accept the giant raccoon flatulence theory for the origin of life, you must be a fundamentalist Christian nut who believes the Earth is flat. That's basically how the argument for evolution goes [emphasis in original].

Coulter uses this "theory" that she has concocted throughout the book to suggest that Darwinian evolution is similarly questionable once one has all the facts. Coulter appears to be trying to develop a parody of evolution analogous to Bobby Henderson's parody religion, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- created in response to the Kansas School Board's decision to require the teaching of "intelligent design" as an "alternative" to the theory of evolution. Henderson's Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster serves as an alternate version of "intelligent design" because of the obvious parallels. But while the satirists who created the Flying Spaghetti Monster use its similarities with intelligent design to comic effect, Coulter identified no comparable parallels between "flatulent raccoon theory" and the theory of evolution. Furthermore, Coulter's analogy makes a mistake common to many creationists who confuse Darwinian evolution, the explanation of how different species develop, with theories about the origin of life.

Coulter devotes two whole chapters to the discussion of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Throughout, she offers falsehoods, misleading statements, and distortions of evolutionary theory, all packaged with smears of prominent progressive and Democratic figures as well as news reporters and media personalities. Coulter doesn't actually present new evidence to make her case against evolutionary theory; she only uses the space to criticize evolution, which is a tired tactic of creationists. Page after page, the reader is bombarded with classic creationist arguments. But evolution is a scientific theory that has the support of the National Academy of Sciences; it has no relation to beliefs that cannot be tested, thus the suggestion that "liberals think evolution disproves God" is completely illogical.

The arguments that Coulter uses echo those made by several other creationists. She recites arguments first published by Henry Morris in his 1974 book, Scientific Creationism, about the fossil record and reiterates his distortions about the Cambrian period and the drawings of 19th-century embryologist Ernst Haeckel. Another creationist source whose arguments Coulter repeats is the book, Life -- How Did It Get Here?, which contained distortions of the Cambrian period and the Miller-Urey experiment. Coulter also pushes arguments by Duane Gish, a faculty member of the Institute for Creation Research, including distortions of transitional fossils and the Piltdown man hoax. In addition, Coulter misrepresents the evidence about the evolution of the eye, as do Francis Hitching, author of the 1982 book, The Neck of the Giraffe, and Walt Brown of the Center for Creation Science. Other apparent sources for some of Coulter's arguments include Jonathan Wells's Icons of Evolution, published in 2000.

The jacket of Coulter's book states that Coulter writes from a "keen appreciation for genuine science." Inside, she credits a cadre of supporters of intelligent design:

I couldn't have written about evolution without the generous tutoring of Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and William Dembski, all of whom are fabulous at translating complex ideas, unlike liberal arts types, who constantly force me to the dictionary to relearn the meaning of quotidian. [emphasis in original]

Wells, Berlinski, Dembski, and Behe are senior fellows with the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a nonprofit think tank that aims to "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God," as recorded in a 1998 internal memo.

The Center for Science and Culture describes itself as supporting "research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design." "Intelligent design" is an idea that life is too complex to have evolved naturally, and so, an "intelligent designer" must have created all life on Earth. Behe's concept of "irreducible complexity" is an attempt to provide empirical evidence in support of this idea; but U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III stated in his conclusion for the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case that "intelligent design" is not science because it fails in three ways:

(1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.

In addition, Jones also acknowledged that the Discovery Institute's 1998 internal memo, often referred to as the Wedge Document, is further evidence that the think tank's ultimate motives reflect those of creationists. The judge quoted a National Academy of Sciences booklet that places "intelligent design" and creationism in the same category: "Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science."

Because Coulter relies on the discredited arguments of proponents of "intelligent design" and creationism, her book contains the same falsehoods, misinformation, and distortions that prevent those ideas from being accepted as solid science.

The fossil record

Coulter claims several times that the fossil record in no way supports Darwin's theory of evolution. On Page 199, she claims that evolution is "a make-believe story, based on a theory that is a tautology, with no proof in the scientist's laboratory or the fossil record." Again, on Page 215, she claims that there's "absolutely nothing in the fossil record to support it [evolution]." To support her claim, Coulter attempts to show that several well-known examples of the fossil record do not provide evidence of evolution.

Scientists have compiled a well-documented case demonstrating "large-scale, progressive, continuous, gradual, and geochronologically successive morphologic change" between reptiles and mammals. Coulter argues, on Page 228, that scientists "have no idea if the reptiles are even related to the mammal-like reptiles, much less to the mammals." However, contrary to Coulter's claim, science has observed links between reptiles and mammals through an existing succession of transitional fossils. Skeletal features are used to distinguish between reptilian fossils and mammalian fossils. While many characteristics differ between reptiles and mammals, scientists have observed reptilian fossils that over time took on characteristics of mammals, such as the construction of the lower jaw. Reptiles' lower jaw consists of multiple bones, while mammals' lower jaw is a single large bone. Additionally, most bones in reptiles and mammals are homologous, which suggests that the bones are of common origin. The most important homologous bones between reptiles and mammals are several skull and jaw bones of reptiles and middle ear bones of mammals. Furthermore, synapsids (a particular group of reptiles) share an additional homologous structure with mammals -- an opening behind the eye socket in the skull. This is very characteristic of mammals, which is why synapsids are referred to as mammal-like reptiles.

When scientists have placed the fossils of reptiles and mammals in the proper geochronological order, they have observed a natural succession in synapsids that becomes more mammalian and less reptilian. The lower jaw successively increases in size until the entire lower jaw is one bone. Coulter is aware of this evidence, but does not refute it. On Page 229, she states, "The jawbone metamorphosis didn't prove evolution," but she doesn't offer any evidence to explain why evidence of jawbone metamorphosis should not be seen as evidence of evolution; the reader is apparently expected to have faith in Coulter's unsupported conclusion and disregard the work of professional scientists. Scientists also have observed successive, geochronological change from reptilian sprawling limb posture to mammalian upright limb posture.

Another example that Coulter uses to make her argument that the fossil record does not support the theory of evolution involves bats. On Page 230, she claims that "the bat appears in the fossil record millions of years ago, fully formed and largely indistinguishable from today's bats." However, according to the University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology's website, the earliest bat fossils -- which are of teeth only -- exhibit characteristics of both bats and insectivores (an order of mammal that includes hedgehogs, shrews, and moles). The museum also concludes that because the fossils are only teeth, scientists "don't know what the rest of the animal was like"; however, the fossils still exhibit characteristics of two different orders of mammal. Additionally, the website states:

[Bats] are one of the least common groups in the fossil record. Bats have small, light skeletons that do not preserve well. Also, many live in tropical forests, where conditions are usually unfavorable for the formation of fossils.

This suggests that the reason that bats seem to appear in the fossil record as "fully formed" is probably due to the even rarer chance of fossilization compared to other mammals. Furthermore, New Scientist reports that a change in only a single gene allowed bats to evolve wings, which could explain why the appearance of bats in the fossil record seems to be "sudden."

Coulter continues to distort the fossil record when she speaks of dinosaurs and mammals. On Page 217, she states, "Dinosaurs appeared, lived 150 million years, and then disappeared, only to be quickly replaced with mammals." This statement distorts the true fossil record. According to an article in Science magazine, a pair of researchers studied the genetic differences of hundreds of vertebrate specimens and concluded that modern orders of mammals -- such as primates, rodents, and carnivores -- date back well into the Cretaceous period (approximately 144 million to 65 million years ago), in some cases more than 100 million years ago. Previous studies of the fossil record led scientists to suggest that mammals first appeared 225 million years ago (during the Triassic period) as only small, shrew-like animals (still putting mammals and dinosaurs in existence at the same time), and only after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs did modern orders of mammals appear. But more recent research shows that modern orders of mammals existed at the same time as dinosaurs. Additionally, the fossil recordpdf shows that dinosaurs inhabited the planet for approximately 185 million years (approximately 250 million to 65 million years ago), not 150 million years.

Coulter uses the examples of reptiles, mammals, bats, and dinosaurs to make her larger claim that because there are gaps in the fossil record, it does not support evolution. She states, on Page 216, "New species suddenly appear[] out of nowhere, remain[] largely unchanged for millions of years, and then suddenly disappear[]." Again, on Page 217, she states, "What the fossil record shows is sudden bursts of all manner of animals, modest change, and then sudden and total extinction." But, in fact, the fossil record supports evolutionary theory.

The Cambrian explosion

Coulter attempts to use the phenomenon known as the Cambrian explosion to cast doubt on Darwinian evolution, but her arguments are based on several distortions. The term "Cambrian explosion" is used to describe the fact that a significantly greater number of fossils have been found of organisms that existed during the Cambrian period than existed before. Scientists have proposed numerous explanations for why more fossils are found from organisms that lived during this period. One explanation suggests that because species that predate the Cambrian period by 45 million years were microscopic, evolutionary changes in the fossils of pre-Cambrian organisms may be too small to see. Another explanation suggests that because the Earth was coming out of an ice age during the beginning of the Cambrian period, complex development could have been hindered before then or populations could have been kept low in number. Yet another explanation suggests that because early predators first appeared in the late pre-Cambrian period, hard-bodied parts are likely to have begun to evolve as a response in the early Cambrian period. Because hard-bodied parts are more likely to be fossilized than soft-bodied parts, the Cambrian explosion suggests that it is likely there are more fossils but not necessarily more organisms. Coulter falsely claims that the existence of the Cambrian explosion casts doubt on Darwinian evolution by selectively quoting scientists, by misrepresenting the true duration and fossil discoveries of the Cambrian period, and by falsely stating that one of the possible scientific explanations for the Cambrian explosion -- that soft-bodied organisms are not easily fossilized -- is not supported by the facts.

Coulter ridicules the scientific argument that soft-bodied organisms are much less likely to be fossilized by stating that this claim is on "par with the Flatulent Raccoon Theory of life's origins." She argues that, in explaining the Cambrian explosion, evolutionists "respond to all problems in the fossil record by asking us to assume all creatures we would expect to find if evolution was true and really did exist (really!) -- but somehow never fossilized" [emphasis in original]. Coulter argues that the soft-bodied organisms that fossilized in Chengjiang, China, found in 1984, disprove this scientific theory: "The interesting thing about the pre-Cambrian organisms is that they are soft-bodied, microscopic creatures -- precisely the sort of animal the evolution cult claimed wouldn't fossilize."

Coulter's statements clearly mislead the reader about the process of fossilization -- not to mention the fact that she falsely claims that the fossils found in Chengjiang are "pre-Cambrian," when, in fact, they are dated at approximately 525 million years ago, or during the Cambrian period. A peer-reviewed studypdf by James W. Hagadorn -- who studied the fossils found in Chengjiang -- titled, "Chengjiang: Early Record of the Cambrian Explosion," explains how these soft-bodied organisms became fossilized:

In general, fossils appear to be exquisitely preserved because they have undergone minimal transport and sustained minimal postburial taphonomic overprinting.

[...]

[Evidence] suggests that fossils were likely entrained in and/or buried by a series of microturbidites deposited in a relatively quiescent setting; fine-grained sandstones likely reflect the influence of sporadic strong storm events.

Additionally, the article to which Coulter refers to make her claim, "Spectacular Fossils Record Early Riot of Creation" [The New York Times, 4/23/91], quotes a paleontologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, Jan Bergstrom, who analyzed the fossils found in Chengjiang:

A violent storm probably stirred up the sea bottom and the mud settled over a large area, cutting off the animals' oxygen and preserving them.

Furthermore, Coulter's suggestion that fossilization is not difficult -- in particular, fossilization of soft-bodied organisms -- is false. Science News Online describes the process of fossilization as a rare occurrence:

Not every organism that dies becomes a fossil. In fact, fossilization is the exception, not the rule. Only certain combinations of biological materials, environmental conditions, and fate will preserve a recently dead organism and give it a chance at fame in a museum display.

The University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology also states that "[f]ossilization is a rare event." In addition, BBC's "Science & Nature: Prehistoric Life" section reports that "[f]ossilisation of soft-bodied animals is a strange, lengthy and very rare process."

But Coulter doesn't stop there. On Page 224, she states that "[t]he Cambrian period isn't a small gap in the fossil record chock-full of evolutionary evidence. There is no evidence in the fossil record." This statement suggests that the Cambrian explosion is evidence against evolution. She claims that biology teacher Roger DeHart of Burlington-Edison High School in Washington state was "banned from teaching biology" because he "tried to tell his students about the Chinese fossils." However, the article that she cites as evidence, "Enlisting Science to Find the Fingerprints of a Creator" (Los Angeles Times, 3/25/01), makes no mention of the Chengjiang fossils, and she offers no further support for her claim.

To support her suggestion that the Chengjiang fossils are evidence against evolution, Coulter takes several quotes from paleontologists and other experts out of context. On Page 222, Coulter claims that "Jan Bergstrom, a paleontologist who examined the Chinese fossils, said the Cambrian period was not 'evolution,' it was 'a revolution.' " In contrast, the full quote of Bergstrom from the article that Coulter cites [The New York Times, 4/23/91], "[The fossils] suggested that the Cambrian transition was 'a revolution perhaps more than evolution,'" does not suggest that evolution did not occur. Furthermore, she quotes Harvard professor Andrew Knoll from the same article:

"Most of everything that was going to happen, all the ways of making invertebrate animals, had already happened by the mid-Cambrian. Now, it seems the new life forms were invented within the first few million years of the Cambrian."

Coulter then claims that Knoll is "pretending the Cambrian explosion never happened." But the quote that Coulter uses directly references the Cambrian explosion and the Chengjiang fossils. This is evident in Knoll's last sentence: "[I]t seems the new life forms were invented within the first few million years of the Cambrian." Finally, Coulter takes another quote out of context, this time from University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne. From his New Republic Online article (subscription required), "The Case Against Intelligent Design: The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name," Coulter quotes Coyne:

We still do not understand why many groups originated in even this relatively short time, although it may reflect an artifact: the evolution of easily fossilized hard parts suddenly made organisms capable of being fossilized.

While Coulter is ignoring scientific research that supports Coyne's quote, she goes on to claim that "[t]wenty years later after the Chinese fossils were discovered, Coyne was still pretending not to have heard of them." She suggests that Coyne believes no soft-bodied organisms have been found as early as the Cambrian period, but Coyne's article also states that "600 million years ago, we see the appearance of rudimentary animals with shells, and many soft-bodied marine organisms." Coyne later discusses the Cambrian explosion in his article as well. Coulter misleadingly suggests that these scientists believe that no soft-bodied organism can fossilize, when they are stating that soft-bodied organisms are much more unlikely to become fossilized than hard-bodied organisms, and therefore, those fossils will be much rarer.

Coulter also distorts other aspects of the Cambrian period. On Page 221, she claims, "The best estimate for the duration of the Cambrian explosion is [...] 5 to 10 million years. And that is the maximum length." However, Simon Conway Morris of the University of Cambridge writespdf that the part with the most evolutionary interest of the Cambrian period (the Cambrian explosion) is between "the diverse Ediacaran faunas of latest Neoproterozoic age and the Chengjiang Burgess Shale-type faunas," approximately 550 million to 530 million years ago, or 20 million years. Further, the University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology states that the earliest age during the Cambrian period lasted approximately 23 million years. On the previous page, Coulter also distorts the Cambrian explosion, describing the event as "a period of less than 10 million years" and "a sudden explosion of nearly all the animal phyla we have today." While 5 to 10 million years is within the range of estimates for the duration of the Cambrian explosion, it is by no means "the maximum length" according to scientists. Additionally, even 5 million years -- the shortest estimate -- is hardly "sudden." Furthermore, not all "animal phyla we have today" first appeared during the Cambrian period. According to Daniel Y.-C. Wang, Sudhir Kumar, and S. Blair Hedges, in a paper (subscription required) published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Cnidarians and sponges are found before the Cambrian period. The paper also states that at least six animal phyla have been found from before the Cambrian period, according to molecular evidence.

Transitional fossils

On Page 226, Coulter claims on that "Darwiniacs do not have a single observable example of one species evolving into another by the Darwinian mechanism of variation and selection." Coulter cites The New York Times article, "Fossil Called Missing Link From Sea to Land Animals," [4/6/06] and suggests that the 375 million-year-old fish the article discusses is not a transitional fossil. Coulter apparently expects the reader to believe her explanation of the fish over the team of scientists who discovered it, led by University of Chicago professor Neil H. Shubin, who is quoted in the article. Coulter claims that the research team found only "an odd-looking fish with weird appendages" and then asserts that "only if evolution is assumed" is there any connection between fish and land animals. Coulter does not attempt to discuss any of the anatomical traits of the fish to prove her claim; however, The New York Times article to which she refers goes into great detail about the anatomical traits of the fish and how those traits "anticipate the emergence of land animals -- and is thus a predecessor of amphibians, reptiles and dinosaurs, mammals and eventually humans." Additionally, the article quotes Dr. Michael J. Novacek, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan:

"We've got Archaeopteryx, an early whale that lived on land, and now this animal showing the transition from fish to tetrapod. What more do we need from the fossil record to show that the creationists are flatly wrong?"

On Page 219, Coulter makes a claim about the Archaeopteryx, stating:

For over a hundred years, evolutionists proudly pointed to their same sad birdlike animal, Archaeopteryx, as their lone transitional fossil linking dinosaurs and birds.

[...]

Alas, it is now agreed that poor Archaeopteryx is no relation of modern birds.

Contrary to Coulter's claim, the Archaeopteryx shows a clear relation to both dinosaurs and modern birds. The University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology describes several of these features:

Unlike all living birds, Archaeopteryx had a full set of teeth, a rather flat sternum ("breastbone"), a long, bony tail, gastralia ("belly ribs"), and three claws on the wing which could have still been used to grasp prey (or maybe trees). However, its feathers, wings, furcula ("wishbone") and reduced fingers are all characteristics of modern birds. [emphasis in original]

While recent discoveries have found that feathers may not be characteristic of birds alone, this article points to other features found in the Archaeopteryx that are characteristic of only modern birds and features that are characteristic of only dinosaurs. The article states:

This is why Archae[opteryx] is a true transitional species, because it shares some characters which are diagnostic of one group whilst still retaining characters diagnostic of its ancestral group.

Upon review of the evidence provided by the museum, Coulter's claim that "Archaeopteryx is no relation of modern birds" is false. In addition, the museum also writes about the strong connections between birds and dinosaurs, which also addresses the recent discoveries of possibly feathered dinosaurs. The museum states, "It appears that many coelurosaurs were cloaked in an external fibrous covering that could be called 'protofeathers,' " while also discussing the relation between scales and feathers.

In discussing transitional fossils, Coulter also omits the fact that scientists have discovered numerous transitional fossils from the Cambrian explosion, such as lobopods, which are intermediate between arthropods and worms.

Piltdown man and Archaeoraptor

Coulter writes about two hoaxes, Piltdown man and Archaeoraptor (not to be confused with Archaeopteryx), to cast doubt on real evidence that supports the theory of evolution. But in each case, she omits important information.

The Piltdown man fossil was reportedly discovered in 1912 by Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward near a gravel pit in Piltdown, England. The fossil was believed to be a 500,000-year-old British "ape-man." In 1953, the fossil was revealed to be a hoax; the jawbone had been stained and filed down to appear ape-like, and the skull was a recent human fossil. But in discussing this event, Coulter leaves out the fact that it was scientists who discovered that Piltdown man was a hoax, which demonstrates that scientists were skeptical of the Piltdown man fossil from the beginning. Of course, scientists stopped using Piltdown man fossil as evidence as soon as it was proved to be a hoax.

Unlike the Piltdown man, Archaeoraptor was never accepted by any mainstream scientists. Coulter fails to inform the reader that a Chinese fossil hunter claimed to discover the fossils and assembled them to be more marketable to collectors. Additionally, articles about Archaeoraptor were not published (subscription required) in peer-reviewed scientific journals but in the popular press, such as the National Geographic. Furthermore, the papers describing the fossil were rejected (subscription required) by Nature and Science, whose editors suspected that the fossil was illegally smuggled and doctored.

Moreover, the Archaeoraptor fossil was discovered to be made up of two previously unknown species, Microraptor zhaoianus and Yanornis martini. The site where these fossils were found has been a hotbed for fossils that have provided evidence confirming the link between birds and dinosaurs. The article also quotes Kevin Padian of the University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology:

Chinese villagers who found the specimen don't make a lot of money, and they don't know what these animals look like. There was no hoax. These are poor people trying to make a little extra money by selling fossils on the black market.

Coulter's failure to include these facts in her discussion of Piltdown man and Archaeoraptor distorts the truth about the two hoaxes.

The evolution of the eye

On Page 201, Coulter claims that "evolution is the eminently plausible theory that the human eye [...] came into existence purely by accident," suggesting that the human eye is too complex to have evolved naturally. Coulter uses the human eye example throughout her chapters on evolution to suggest that biological evolution cannot explain how the eye was formed. On pages 222 and 223, Coulter states that the "eye appeared at the beginning of the Cambrian period" and that "there were no light-sensitive pits" for the eye to evolve from. She ridicules New Scientist for stating that "the first eyes 'probably evolved from light-sensitive cells' " and asserts that because the eye appears fully formed in the Cambrian period that it could not have evolved naturally. But recent research from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory has found evidence that the "light-sensitive cells of our eyes [...] come from an ancient population of light-sensitive cells that were initially located in the brain." The laboratory's press release announcing the discovery also notes:

The scientists discovered that two types of light-sensitive cells existed in our early animal ancestors: rhabdomeric and ciliary. In most animals, rhabdomeric cells became part of the eyes, and ciliary cells remained embedded in the brain.

The scientists studied a marine worm that closely resembles its ancestors from 600 million years ago, Platynereis dumerilii, to come to the conclusion that the eyes evolved from the brain. Using a technique called "molecular fingerprinting," the scientists were able to determine that cells of the marine worms and humans share common ancestry. Scientist Kristin Tessmar-Raible concluded:

When I saw this vertebrate-type molecule active in the cells of the Playtnereis brain -- it was clear that these cells and the vertebrate rods and cones shared a molecular fingerprint. This was concrete evidence of common evolutionary origin. We had finally solved one of the big mysteries in human eye evolution [emphasis in original].

This evidence shows that the first eyes probably evolved from light-sensitive cells that were originally located in the brain. Additionally, PBS reports the stages of how the eye probably evolved and states that "eyes corresponding to every stage in this sequence have been found in existing living species." Additionally, PBS reports that "only 364,000 years would have been needed for a camera-like eye to evolve from a light-sensitive patch," which is considerably less time than the duration of the Cambrian explosion, during which Coulter suggests the eye appeared without evolutionary explanation.

Irreducible complexity

Coulter also touts the work of Michael Behe, an intelligent design proponent who has made arguments regarding other biological systems similar to those that creationists make about the eye. On Page 204, Coulter claims that "Behe disproved evolution." Behe's basic idea is that there are in organisms "irreducibly complex" systems that cannot be explained by random mutation and natural selection. These "irreducibly complex" systems would cease to function if any one part fails -- which Behe claims rules out evolution and leaves only design. There are several problems with Behe's idea of "irreducible complexity."

The first is that, contrary to Behe's argument, irreducibly complex systems can evolve. Because an irreducibly complex system is defined as one that fails if any one part ceases to function, the concept indicates only that the addition of single parts did not evolve the system. Therefore, other mechanisms of evolution are still left, including deletion of parts, duplication of the system, change of function, addition of a second function to a single part, and gradual modification of parts. Additionally, when two mechanisms that are particularly common -- gene duplication and deletion of parts -- happen together, irreducible complexity is an expected result. This was discovered in 1918 by Nobel prize-winning geneticist Hermann Muller, who referred to the phenomenon as interlocking complexity. Furthermore, there are irreducibly complex systems whose evolutionary origins have been described in detail, such as the Krebs citric acid cycle.

Another problem is in Behe's definition of parts. Biochemists count parts as individual atoms, because that is the smallest level of organization they consider in their analyses. In contrast, Behe counts sets of molecules as parts and does not provide an explanation for this decision. This creates a problem for an idea that claims to be science -- if Behe does not explain how he arrived at his definition of a single part, then other scientists cannot repeat his work. Repetition is a key component of the scientific method.

One of Behe's examples that Coulter touts, the flagellum, further calls Behe's assertions into question. On Page 204, Coulter repeats the false claim that "[t]he absence of almost any one of the parts would render the flagellum useless." In reality, the flagellum still functions as either a simpler flagellum or a secretion system if certain parts are lost. Additionally, there are dispensable proteins found in the eukaryotic flagellum.

Furthermore, Behe's ideas on "irreducible complexity" have never been published in a peer-reviewed paper or article. And during the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case in 2004, Behe admitted under oath that his own simulation model of the evolution of biochemical systems revealed that irreducibly complex systems could evolve in 20,000 years, even if the model is rigged to make that outcome as unlikely as possible.

Coulter endorses Behe's claims of design on Page 205, stating that "[l]ife at the molecular level, he [Behe] concluded, 'is a loud, clear, piercing cry of design.' " To the contrary, the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case concluded that Behe's arguments against evolution did not constitute evidence for design. The presiding judge in the case -- John E. Jones III, who was nominated by President Bush -- statedpdf in his decision:

ID proponents primarily argue for design through negative arguments against evolution, as illustrated by Professor Behe's argument that "irreducibly complex" systems cannot be produced through Darwinian, or any natural, mechanisms. However, we believe that arguments against evolution are not arguments for design.

Jones proceeded to dismiss many of Behe's ideas in his decision, stating:

Professor Behe's concept of irreducible complexity depends on ignoring ways in which evolution is known to occur.

[...]

Although both Professors Behe and [Scott] Minnich assert that there is a quantitative aspect to the inference, on cross-examination they admitted that there is no quantitative criteria for determining the degree of complexity or number of parts that bespeak design, rather than a natural process.

[...]

Professor Behe excludes, by definition, the possibility that a precursor to the bacterial flagellum functioned not as a rotary motor, but in some other way, for example as a secretory system.

[...]

[E]vidence, based upon peer-reviewed studies, [suggests] that they [Behe's biomechanical system examples: the bacterial flagellum, the blood-clotting cascade, and the immune system] are not in fact irreducibly complex.

[...]

Accordingly, the purported positive argument for ID does not satisfy the ground rules of science which require testable hypotheses based upon natural explanations.

Finally, Jones noted that the National Academy of Sciences has rejected Behe's arguments for "irreducible complexity," as has the scientific community in general through peer-reviewed papers.

Ernst Haeckel's drawings

Coulter suggests that the discredited theories of Ernst Haeckel, a 19th-century proponent of the idea that evidence in embryology, his idea that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," supported the theory of evolution, are still used by evolutionists. Haeckel suggested that the ancestral experiences of a given organism are physically echoed during the embryonic development of that organism, and he published falsified drawings to illustrate this idea. Coulter suggests that Haeckel's ideas were a part of Darwin's theory of evolution, but in fact, Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, seven years before Haeckel came up with his ideas and 15 years before Haeckel's drawings were published. Moreover, the University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology's history on Haeckel states, "Although trained as a physician, Haeckel abandoned his practice in 1859 after reading Darwin's Origin of Species," which suggests the opposite of what Coulter claims. On Page 239, Coulter quotes Darwin suggesting that embryology is " 'the strongest single class of facts' supporting his theory." Not only is Coulter confusing embryology in general with the work done by Haeckel, but she is ignoring the fact that Darwin's theory of evolution influenced Haeckel, not the other way around. Additionally, the quotes attributed to Darwin are sourced to the work of intelligent design proponent Jonathan Wells, which pulled the quotes from 1859 and 1860, before Haeckel published his ideas.

Coulter claims on Page 240 that "the Darwiniacs aren't giving up just because Haeckel's drawings were fake." She also claims that the drawings were exposed as fakes only in 1997, suggesting that they were accepted as fact until relatively recently. She cites Wells, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, who also argues that Darwin's The Origin of Species was influenced by the work of Haeckel. Wells cites many authors who support evolutionary theory in his discussion of Haeckel: Adam Sedgwick (1894), William Garstang (1922), Gavin de Beer (1958), William Ballard (1976), Stephen J. Gould (1977 and 2000), Richard Elinson (1987), Jane Oppenheimer (1987), and Michael Richardson (1995) -- all of whom were critical of Haeckel's ideas, which is a fact that Wells conveniently omits in his book Icons of Evolution. Additionally, this detailed article about Haeckel and Wells states that Haeckel's ideas "were invalidated by Mendelian genetics and the neo-Darwinian synthesis." The article concludes that:

Haeckel's work was discredited in the 19th century, and has not been relevant to biology since the rediscovery of Mendel's laws of genetics. That the biogenetic law is false has been the consensus of biologists for over 100 years, and developmental biologists have been working constructively to provide alternative explanations, which have so far all been evolutionary in nature.

Further, the author of the 1997 study that Coulter, Michael K. Richardson, had this to say about Wells's interpretation of his work:

A recent study coauthored by several of us and discussed by Elizabeth Pennisi (Science, 5 Sept. 1997, p. 1435) examined inaccuracies in embryo drawings published last century by Ernst Haeckel. Our work has been used in a nationally televised debate to attack evolutionary theory and to suggest that evolution cannot explain embryology. We strongly disagree with this viewpoint. Data from embryology are fully consistent with Darwinian evolution. ... [T]he mixture of similarities and differences among vertebrate embryos reflects evolutionary change in developmental mechanisms inherited from a common ancestor. ... Haeckel's inaccuracies damage his credibility, but they do not invalidate the mass of published evidence for Darwinian evolution. Ironically, had Haeckel drawn the embryos accurately, his first two valid points in favor of evolution would have been better demonstrated.

Additionally, Coulter continues to discuss Haeckel's drawings as if they are still being used today. Also on Page 240, Coulter claims that:

Fully five years later [after Richardson's 1997 study], the New York Times reported that biology textbooks were still running Haeckel's doctored drawings. The Times specifically singled out the third edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, 'the bedrock of the field,' as one of the culprits.

Coulter fails to inform the reader that the very same Times article, printed April 8, 2001, also mentions that the authors of Molecular Biology of the Cell planned to correct the error in a subsequent edition. An online version of the fourth edition, published February 28, 2002, can be viewed here. In addition, other textbooks also corrected the problem after Richardson's study was published in 1997. Furthermore, the textbook argument Coulter uses was also pushed by Wells, whose Icons of Evolution chapter on the falsified drawings contained numerous distortions of biology textbooks. By omitting the fact that textbooks had corrected the error after Richardson's study and that the textbook she cited, Molecular Biology of the Cell, corrected the problem shortly after the Times article, Coulter suggested that the falsified drawings of Haeckel are still being used in textbooks.

The Miller-Urey experiment

Another scientific study that Coulter distorts is the Miller-Urey experiment. The experiment, designed to simulate early Earth atmosphere, produced amino acids, which are the building blocks of life, within one week. On Page 241, Coulter claims that "geochemists realized that the Earth's early atmosphere was probably nothing like the gases used in the Miller-Urey experiment." The simulated atmosphere in the Miller-Urey experiment consisted of water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen. And according to a recent Washington University research:

Using primitive meteorites called chondrites as their models, earth and planetary scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have performed outgassing calculations and shown that the early Earth's atmosphere was a reducing one, chock full of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor.

Moreover, subsequent experiments using different gases and different sources of energy have yielded similar -- if not better -- results than the Miller-Urey experiment. As Alan D. Gishlick of the National Center for Science Education noted, "new experiments since the Miller-Urey ones have achieved similar results using various corrected atmospheric compositions."

Distortions of evolutionary theory

Throughout Coulter's two chapters on evolutionary theory, she offers up her own rhetorical questions, as if they accurately represent evolutionary theory. She posits these questions in the context that evolutionary theory says, "X is possible, so why haven't we seen X in the fossil record, or why hasn't X mutation been found?"

On Page 218, Coulter writes:

It [the theory of evolution] doesn't explain why we don't find any bad mutations -- a dog that mutated antennae, or gills, or a tail on its head [emphasis in original].

Coulter appears to be suggesting that we should find "some spectacular failures" in evolutionary history. She then falsely equates these "bad mutations" with beneficial, transitional mutations. She states that "[i]n order to mutate the good stuff ... there would have to be countless mutations that were at least better than what existed before." Her comment suggests that she is aware that evolutionary theory is based on the principle that only beneficial mutations are likely to survive multiple generations, let alone millions of years of generations (a point which refutes her claim about bad mutations). Therefore, given that fossilization is a rare occurrence, one can logically conclude that the reason we don't find "bad" mutations in the fossil record to the extent that Coulter suggests is because it's likely that the number of generations would be incredibly small; it is much more unlikely that "bad" mutations would be fossilized than progressively beneficial mutations. Additionally, PBS reports that seemingly "bad" mutations, such as sickle-cell anemia, persist in the gene pool because they are also beneficial in some way. And while most mutations are nonbeneficial, those mutations are almost always recessive in the genetic code, which prevents their traits from being expressed.

Also on Page 218:

There is no reason to expect, for example, that the first place our eyes ever appeared was on the front of our faces. Why don't we have ancestors with eyes on the bottom of their feet, on their arms, or on the top of their heads?

Coulter fails to explain how eyes on the bottom of our feet would be beneficial. She also demonstrates her ignorance of recent research that provides evidence that the light-sensitive cells that evolved into our eyes migrated from their original location in the brain, which raises the question: Why would these light-sensitive cells travel the furthest distance from the brain before evolving into our eyes?

On Page 228:

The successive appearance of more complex species does seem to show something that looks like progress. But that has nothing to do with the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. One also sees progress in the Wright brothers' increasingly complex airplanes, a master's paintings, and the advance from the peace pipe to Marlboro Lights -- progressions all notable for being the product of "intelligent design."

Here, Coulter misleadingly compares living, biological, autonomous beings with inanimate, human-made objects. This is an illogical comparison that serves only to highlight the illogicality of Coulter's argument.

On pages 230-231, Coulter writes:

Moreover, if all species evolved from the same single-celled organism beginning in the same little mud puddle, why hasn't the earthworm made a little more progress? Was it never, ever desirable in any of the worm's many dirt holes to mutate eyes or legs or wings or a brain?

But Coulter doesn't explain how the mutation of "eyes or legs or wings" would have been beneficial to an earthworm, and she falsely suggests that earthworms don't have brains.

Finally, on pages 231-232:

Even the evolution fetishists do not claim that a mutating AIDS virus is on its way up the tree of life, soon to be a kangaroo. If a rapidly mutating bacterium or virus were proof of "evolution," then after 3 billion years of nonstop evolution, the only life forms we would have on earth would be extremely sturdy bacteria and viruses. Humans develop a tolerance for alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, but no one imagines a high tolerance for alcohol will somehow lead to a new organ, like a tail or a pair of wings.

Coulter's analogy reveals a basic misrepresentation of evolutionary theory. She suggests that when bacteria and viruses are bombarded with antibiotics or other medicines that the cells "develop a tolerance." In reality, the weak cells die and the stronger cells live to reproduce. This is the basic mechanism of evolution, that beneficial mutations (the stronger cells that are better able to survive the medicines) are more likely to survive multiple generations over time, thereby changing the gene pool of the population and creating a new strain of bacteria or virus. But Coulter suggests that a developed tolerance of the effects of alcohol leads to the next step of "a new organ, like a tail or a pair of wings" -- although she does not explain why such organs would naturally evolve to deal with increased alcohol consumption. Furthermore, Coulter appears to be ignorant of more recent research, reported in New Scientist, which establishes that alcohol tolerance is related to a "hangover" gene.

Smears of Democrats and progressives

No work of Coulter's would be complete without her gratuitously smearing progressives and Democrats while discussing unrelated topics. Throughout her two chapters on evolutionary theory, Coulter slanders prominent progressive and Democratic figures, as well as news reporters and media personalities. These smears work only to undermine the supposed "keen appreciation for genuine science" that Coulter writes from, as stated on the inside jacket sleeve of Godless.

Page 199:

[L]iberals think evolution disproves God.

[...]

If you want something that complicates a belief in God, try coming to terms with Michael Moore being one of God's special creatures.

Page 205:

But most of the cult reacted to Behe's argument the way feminists do to the suggestion that men and women might possibly have different aptitudes for math and science -- they got nasty, they cried, and they denied that anything had been proved.

Page 207:

Darwin's solution is like explaining how humans evolved by saying, "Assume Dennis Kucinich. Now, through slight improvements over a billion years, successive generations would eventually become taller, grow opposable thumbs, and generally become more humanlike until one day -- wham! -- you have yourself a human being."

Page 219:

The bizarre bird [Archaeopteryx] is just an odd creation that came out of nowhere and went nowhere, much like Air America Radio.

Page 221:

This is where all the deep thinking about evolution is being done these days, in the "social sciences" and Style section of the New York Times.

[...]

The New York Times will write honestly about Air America's ratings before high school biology textbooks will tell the truth about the Cambrian explosion.

Page 227:

No one disputes that a monkey looks like a human, especially in the case of Al Franken.

Page 229:

Michael Moore's essence is consistent with the Flatulent Raccoon Theory for the origin of life.

Page 231:

Forget getting to humans, which liberals rank as the lowest form of life.

Page 234:

My headline the day Clinton was impeached: "God Theory Is Proved True."

Page 235:

Yes, the same process [radiocarbon dating] that recently helped us pin down the exact year of Helen Thomas's birth ...

Page 236:

For two years black moths were bused out of the inner-city areas to the suburbs, while white moths were bused into the inner-city areas... (Is it just me, or does this scenario sound oddly familiar?)

Page 239:

And he [Ernst Haeckel] could show what humans looked like 1 million years ago by pointing to James Carville.

Additionally, Coulter repeatedly equates the religion of Scientology with the theory of evolution. She does so four times throughout her chapters on evolution, suggesting that there is almost as much valid science in the religion of Scientology as in the theory of evolution.

Page 199:

Liberal's creation myth is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which is about one notch above Scientology in scientific rigor.

Page 209:

The evolutionists' response [to Behe's irreducible complexity theory] is Well, it's possible. You can't say it couldn't 'possibly' happen -- and that was the test Darwin of Nazareth set for himself. It's also possible that galactic ruler Xenu brought billions of people to Earth 75 million years ago, piled them around volcanoes, and blew them up with hydrogen bombs, sending their souls flying every which way until they landed on the bodies of living humans, where they still invisibly reside today -- as Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard claimed. Yes, it's possible. [emphasis in original]

Page 215:

These people [evolutionists] make L. Ron Hubbard look like Aristotle.

Page 235:

Evolution's Piltdown Man makes Scientology's "e-meter" look like a particle accelerator at Los Alamos.

Besides these passing references equating the religion of Scientology with the theory of evolution, Coulter offers no in-depth explanation or justification for her comments.

Conclusion

While Coulter purports to have a "keen appreciation for genuine science," her chapters on evolutionary theory serve only to repeat scientifically discredited arguments that creationists have been parading around for decades. Rather than support her claims with scientific evidence, she instead substitutes the ad hominem attacks that have become her trademark.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Evolution / Intelligent Design
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