Sunday, September 12, 2004

Adams on Evolution, I

Town Hall columnist Mike Adams has been pounding the anti-evolution drum quite a bit lately. In this column, dated September 10, he demonstrates his ability to crib anti-evolution talking points from the Young-Earth literature. His column takes the form of an imagined question and answer session between a biology class and a substitute teacher. The “Ms. Derwin” referred to is supposed to be the regular teacher of the class. We'll take it one question at a time:

Q: Ms. Derwin told us that the fittest individuals in the population will leave the most offspring. When I asked her to define “fittest individuals” she said that they are the ones who leave the most offspring. Can you elaborate on that? I mean, if I told someone that the Pizza Hut is located next to the Wal-Mart they might ask me where the Wal-Mart is located. Shouldn’t I be prepared to tell them something more than “next to the Pizza Hut?”

A: I’m afraid I really don’t know the answer. It’s outside my area of ex …

The substitute teacher in this scenario, who Adams cleverly names Ms. Merx, is described as a sociologist. I think she showed impressive modesty in admitting that the definitions of technical terms within evolutionary biology are outside her area of expertise. Adams is himself a sociologist. If only he had shown similar modesty.

The answer to Adams' question is that it is not correct to say that “the fittest individuals will leave the most offspring”. It is equally incorrect to define the fittest indviduals as the ones who leave the most offspring. Rather, the fittest individuals are the ones who are expected, based on their various physical characteristics, to be more fecund than other individuals in the population. Fitness is an inherently probabilistic concept. As Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, the fastest, smartest, sexiest, most cunning individual in the population might get struck by lightning before reproducing.

Much of what evolutionary biologists do is to try to understand how and why the incipient stages of traits found in modern organisms were likely to have been adaptive. There is nothing tautological in this. But, seriously, do you get the impression that Adams cares too much about what biologists actually do?

Q: I have a question about our reading from Richard Dawkins. He stated that an animal might have a need for five percent of an eye because it might provide him with five percent vision. Wouldn’t five percent of an eye produce zero percent vision?

A: Well, I’m afraid that it is purely a matter of speculation. I think that maybe …

Do you think maybe Adams is being a bit literal here? That when Dawkins talked about “five percent of an eye” he wasn't talking about taking a modern eye and arbitrarily removing ninety-five percent of its mass? Dawkins' point, obviously, was that possessing a structure that provides any vision at all, no matter how rudimentary, is still a big improvement over having no vision at all. In his book Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins elaborates at great length about what he thinks those early stages of eye evolution looked like. If Adams finds Dawkins' scenario implausible, he is free to tell us why. But presenting absurd caricatures of the arguments of people who know vastly more biology than he does really ought to be beneath him.

The column continues in this vain, with Adams repeating some more of the hoariest cliches in the anti-evolution literature. It doesn't start to get interesting again until the very end, where we find this:

Mike S. Adams ( recommends “Darwin on Trial” by Phillip Johnson and “Total Truth” by Nancy Pearcey to those who are struggling with their faith. This editorial was inspired by both.

I find it interesting that Adams recommends Johnson and Pearcey, who are themselves purveyors of some of the vilest anti-evolution rhetoric on record, to people who are struggling with their faith. The implication is that coming to believe that evolution is a dying theory should bolster your religious beliefs. I always find it a bit depressing when people suggest that it is nature's mysteries, and not our ability to unravel those mysteries, that is supposed to make us aware of God's glory.