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Web Letter

The language used to criticize another reader's comments about this article is a sad reminder of how less evolved we think we are. How about having an opinion and not being made bad in a personal way for it?

A few ideas among many to expand the debate:

1) Evolution and God are not opposing ideas.
2) Science and Spirit are not opposing ideas.
3) Believing in God has nothing to do with ego or how we believe how special we are.
4) There are many possible interpretations of Evolution so I can fully accept evolution and yet not necessarily agree with the version presented in this Article.
5) Richard Dawkins may be an incredible human being and a genius, but that doesn't mean he has all the answers. And he may be clueless about some parts of life (as we all are).
5) For atheists and scientists to pick creationists or organized religion to disprove the whole spiritual dimension of life is like saying that the kindergarden version of God is infantile. Of course it is. How about testing the PhD version of God instead. Now that would be a worthy opponent.
6) The word "God" doesn't mean anything because each person has their own interpretation of what God is. So when someone says, "I don't believe in God," I have no clue what they are talking about, since my understanding of what the word God represent may be radically different then theirs.

Basically my main issue with the article is that it is reductionist, and one can demonstrate and argue anything using reductionist reasoning. More interesting is systems thinking where one looks at all possible aspects and interconnections within that system. However, there is little in our society that supports this way of looking at life, and our education does not train us to do that.

Chris Alexander


Apr 28 2010 - 3:00pm

Web Letter

While I have no quarrel with the principle of natural selection, it is not the only factor in next generational change. Radiation can cause mutations in the genes. So can emotions that cause hormonal alterations in the parent.

Reuel S. Amdur

Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada

Apr 27 2010 - 3:16pm

Web Letter

[Editor's Note: The only web letters that will be posted about this article henceforth will be about the article itself, not Darin Zimmerman.]

For the record, I am a firm believer in evolution.

In fact, I think the current theory is too simplistic. I believe there are evolutionary processes yet to be discovered that show evolution is not just random mutations and natural selection but that it "behaves" more like a bio-feedback mechanism, making living organism much more adaptable than Darwin suggested. I posted links in The Beat comments to an article that posited a mother who smokes could affect her grandchildren's biology by altering the environment for her children who already have gotten the genetic material from their mother that they will get.

My original comment was simply answering the author's question: "Why is it...socially acceptable to reject evolutionary theory?"

And the answer is quite simple. Scientific experimentation is effectively a direct demonstration. Because we cannot directly demonstrate apes (or older primate cousins) can be turned into humans, we are left with deductive inference (ruling out all other possible explanations).

It is several orders of magnitude more difficult to prove something with deductive inference than with direct demonstration.

Darin Zimmerman

Cedar Rapids, IA

Apr 26 2010 - 10:59am

Web Letter

I'm afraid that Darin Zimmerman's letter of 4/22/10 contains some serious flaws. I suppose I should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the errors are unintentional if arising from ignorance, but why does it always seem so easy to tell which side of this issue one is on, just from the logical content (or lack of same) of their argument(s)?

In his letter, Darin claims that "there is a huge difference between the evidence supporting Germ Theory and...Evolutionary Theory," but the only example he puts forward is the wholly unsupported and demonstrably incorrect claim that "scientists studying germs can conduct controlled experiments, while scientists studying human evolution can only look at the fossil record." Any chance we could get a link to the evidence (preferably peer-reviewed) for this claim, or is it just a guess on Darin's part? I'm asking for evidence that "there's a huge difference between the evidence" for the two propositions, just to be clear what I'm asking you to support. Considering how well the claim holds up to even my limited understanding, I'm going to have to take all Darin's claims with a grain of salt.

This claim is erroneous in at least two major areas. First: When did the subject suddenly switch from "Evolutionary Theory and Natural Selection" to "Human Evolution"? Nice dodge, but the discussion is about evolution in general, not human evolution alone.

There is nothing whatsoever preventing scientists from studying evolution in small, fast-living microorganisms, and with that understanding of evolution and NS, adding on top of it any new knowledge we gain about the evolution of slower-breeding lifeforms such as humans. In fact, Richard Lenski has been running a long-term experiment in twelve cloned colonies of E. coli bacteria. The experiment started on my 20th birthday, and has been running for twenty-two years, well over 40,000 generations. Practically everything that the evolution-deniers hold up as "unanswered questions about evolution" was observed right under a microscope in this one study alone. We've seen mutation(s) add information to a genome, we've seen traits that take multiple random mutations to make the new trait work, we've seen the evolution of brand-new abilities, signaling pathways, and even the ability to digest an all-new food source.

This sort of testing can tell us a lot about how evolution and natural selection work. If NS works exactly as predicted in every fast-breeding unicellular or multicellular species we study, what do you think it is that stops NS from working exactly the same way in longer-lived species? Can you offer any scientific evidence that there's some sort of explicit barrier to change in longer-lived species? Without some evidence that evolution and NS work differently in longer-lived species, this is just an argument from incredulity--"I don't know how it works, so nobody knows how it works!" We observe that natural selection works just as predicted in fast-breeding species, and every bit of data we've collected so far on slower-breeding species supports it.

Second: scientists studying human evolution can look at a great deal more than just fossils! The claim that they can't is just flat-out incorrect, no ifs, ands or buts.

Where have you been for the last fifteen years? During that time we've sequenced not just the full human genome but the genomes of many of our closest relatives, and constantly increasing numbers of less closely related species. We've been able to compare these genomes to learn a hell of a lot more than we'd learn from fossils alone. Through genetic sequencing and comparison, we can compare our genome with that of other species and see exactly when our common ancestors diverged.

Endogenous retroviruses alone should be the final nail in the coffin for anyone who fully understands what they tell us about our evolutionary past. Do you understand what ERVs are and what they tell us about our history and the history of life on Earth, Darin?

Why would we need to "transform apes into humans over a period of tens of millions of years," when we can show that evolution happens just as predicted in fast-breeding species, and we can read our genome to see that it happened in us just as it did in all other species? Do you think that the only way we can learn about the sun is to create a real sun in the lab?

Thank you Jerry Coyne, for the well-written and informative article. I've got your book, and all the positive reviews were absolutely correct: it's fantastic! Please keep up the good work of bringing real science to the masses.

Matt Ouimette

San Francisco, CA

Apr 23 2010 - 7:44pm

Web Letter

A previous letter-writer wrote: "The biggest difference is that scientists studying germs can conduct controlled experiments, while scientists studying human evolution can only look at the fossil record. "

In the immortal words of Wolfgang Pauli: Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! "That is not only not right, it is not even wrong!"

Attempts to put up a magical evolution-free picket fence around the Homo genus of Hominidae have been attempted for well over a century. They have all, one by one, failed, as Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated in his collection of essays called The Panda's Thumb. Furthermore, anyone who seriously thinks that "the fossil record" is (a) a poor way to study human evolution and/or (b) the only evidence we have at hand for the study of human evolution has never heard of cladistics, or even the breakthroughs in mitochondrial DNA study. (You know--that whole "mitochondrial Eve" business of a few years back?)

Sorry, folks, but humans are subject to evolutionary processes, just like every other life form. That's just the way it is. Deal with it.

(Oh, and Professor Coyne: Excellent review! Thank you very much for it.)

Tamara Baker

St. Paul, MN

Apr 23 2010 - 6:06pm

Web Letter

Thank you, Jerry Coyne, for a wonderful review of Richard Dawkins's book, which I enjoyed thoroughly when it came out. The book is truly amazing, and I want to read your book too, once I get the chance to get my hands on a copy.

I've been reading your blog for awhile now and enjoy your insights. Knowing about the F&P book ahead of time, I was a little startled that it was that bad--reading your review of it just added to how bad it really is, and I will be sure to bypass it.

I know many people will not write a letter here as it has their real name attached, but I just wanted to say thank you.

To one gentleman who has also contributed a letter ahead of me I would suggest next time you read beyond the first page and then also read a book about evolution. If you'd taken the time to read beyond the first page you would realize that you don't need fossils to prove evolution happened and that controlled experiments have been done. If you're read any books on evolution, you would know this too.

Also, if you open your eyes to the world around you, it becomes very obvious that evolution happened. Try going out into nature once in awhile, that may help.

As for your ape-to-human comment--well, that about says it all for me. You really have no clue. Humans and apes are cousins that share a common ape-like ancestor.

If Dawkins's book doesn't appeal to you, you could try Coyne's.

Nick LaRue

Kotka, Finland

Apr 23 2010 - 2:42pm

Web Letter

Darin Zimmerman says in his webletter: "scientists studying human evolution can only look at the fossil record." Mr. Zimmerman, if you believe that you honestly seem very clueless about evolutionary biology. I'm just an interested layman, but even I know how wrong you are.

The fossil record is just one part of the evidence for evolution--and as far as I'm aware, not even the most persuasive part.

Scientists can compare DNA between members of both living and extinct species; they can perform many experiments on species with a short life cycle and observe the mechanisms of evolution in action; they can look at living examples of evolutionary change--like a ring species... In short, there's a lot more than just the fossil record in the large bin of evidence for the theory of evolution.

Do read the book by Dawkins mentioned in the article--it contains several examples of such evidence.

Marcus Bengtsson

Linköping, Sweden

Apr 23 2010 - 2:23pm

Web Letter

It is truly pathetic that a reasonably articulate commenter like Mr. Zimmerman offers such a vacuous rejoinder to Coyne's review. Mr. Zimmerman argues that because we can't do the experiment of evolving humans again in a laboratory like we can do experiments that support germ theory, the evidence for human evolution from ape-like progenitors is not strong like the evidence for germ theory. We can't do any experiments to reproduce Jeffrey Dahmer's murder of any particular victim either. But somehow, I find the fact that there was a victim's head in Dahmer's refrigerator and the stench of rotting bodies in a barrel in his bedroom to be compelling evidence for Dahmer's guilt. Jerry Coyne has correctly diagnosed the problem: only commitment to religion or some other extreme ideology can make an otherwise intelligent person so blind to the weakness of his/her position. Alas, neither Dawkins's book nor Jerry Coyne's excellent book (Why Evolution is True) are likely to make much headway against religious fundamentalism in the short run. Whether these fine books will help in the longer run remains to be seen.

Timothy Hughbanks

College Station, TX

Apr 23 2010 - 10:38am

Web Letter

There have been advances in physics since Darwin's time, including the concept of block time and the many world's interpretation of quantum physics. Time is an illusion, and everything that can possibly exist does and always has. We never even built anything. We found the absurdly improbable universe in which the desired objects always existed. Infinite parallel universes explain the absurd improbability of life better than natural selection.

Mark Scott Oller

Alexandria, VA

Apr 23 2010 - 10:06am

Web Letter

Coyne claims, "Richard Dawkins shows...the theory of evolution is supported by at least as much evidence as is the germ theory of disease," then asks, "Why is it...socially acceptable to reject evolutionary theory?"

The reason is that your premise (claim) is incorrect. There is a huge difference between the evidence supporting germ theory and the evidence supporting evolutionary theory.

The biggest difference is that scientists studying germs can conduct controlled experiments, while scientists studying human evolution can only look at the fossil record.

While it might be ethically dubious, a scientist can conduct a repeatable experiment that shows, perhaps 90 percent of the time a human intentionally infected with a certain protozoa will develop malaria; but we have been unable to design an experiment that transforms apes into humans over a period of tens of millions of years.

So irrespective of the "size" of the supporting evidence, the nature of it is so different that it is folly to compare them.

Darin Zimmerman

Cedar Rapids, IA

Apr 22 2010 - 3:54pm

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