Sorry for the uninspired headline, but it's the only thing I could think of as I read this unbelievably bad column from USA Today. It's a dialogue between Democratic strategist Bob Beckel and conservative pundit Cal Thomas. Beckel starts off with this:
Cal, I'm going to stray from the consensus liberal line on the issue of intelligent design. The Dover, Pa., school board had a good reason to allow the teaching of intelligent design as a scientific alternative to Darwinism in the school system's science classes. Despite the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community that evolution is the sole explanation for all living things, these scientists have yet to prove the theory conclusively. Not only are there still gaping holes in the evolutionary chain from single cells to man, the science crowd hasn't come close to explaining why only man among all living things has a conscience, a moral framework and a free will.
Beckel, of course, can't be troubled to give any examples of gaping holes in the evolutionary chain from single cells to man. Nor does he give any reason for why we should trust his judgment more than the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community. I would be amazed if Beckel could even provide a coherent summary of what the theory of evolution actually says.
As for his specific points, it sounds like he's parroting the standard creationist trope about gaps in the fossil record. Of course, what's significant about the fossil record is that not one of the tens of millions of fossils that have been found is out of place from an evolutionary standpoint. On top of that, creationist propaganda notwithstanding, there are numerous examples of transitional series in the fossil record. And the fossil record is only one line of evidence we have in establishing evolution.
As for the business about conscience and free will, he's wrong for two reasons. The first is that human beings are almost certainly not the only species to have evolved a conscience and free will. All of those hominid species that predated Homo sapiens surely had a sense of right and wrong; and we now know there were rather a lot of them. And I wouldn't dismiss out of hand the possibility that apes have a sense of conscience as well. In fact, it seems likely to me that they do.
In other words, Beckel has no basis at all for his assertion of human uniqueness here.
The second problem is that there is nothing especially puzzling about why a certain adaptation might arise only in a small number of species. In fact, the problem is that there are several possible explanations for such phenomena but usually too little data for deciding between them.
Why do humans have the most developed sense of conscience in the known animal kingdom? Perhaps because there is a large element of chance in the course of evolution, and the appropriate combination of environmental conidtions and genetic variations only arose in one branch of the evolutionary tree. Or perhaps it's because once one species develops a big enough brain to have notions like conscience they are also srong enough to wipe out all the competing species that would otherwise have evolved such brains. Or maybe the primate body plan is the only one that is sufficiently plastic to be able to accommodate a large brain. And those are just off the top of my head.
Our inability to give the precise reasons for human uniqueness only reflects the fact that we have limited data about the past. It is not some defect in the theory.
Wow, all that from a few sentences. The column gets worse (oh, so much worse!) from here. Happily, P.Z. Myers has has saved me the trouble of doing a fuller fisking. Micheal Dunford offers some additional thoughts here.
However, I must, with great regret, correct one small statement in Myers' essay. He describes Beckel as a nonentity. If only that were so! He's actually a fairly prominent pundit.
Actually, Beckel is just another in a long line of “Fox liberals.” These are people who appear on Fox News ostensibly to defend the liberal view of things, but then just mostly pander to the right-wing hosts of Fox's chat shows. Beckel sits right alongside people like Alan Colmes, Juan Williams and Mara Liasson.
Beckel in particular is often seen on Fox's Hannity and Colmes. His typical performance begins by receiving some hate-filled pack of lies from Hannity. He then gives a “Oh Hannity, you scamp!” chuckle before conceding ninety percent of everything Hannity said. He concludes by offering an ineffective reply to the remaining ten percent.
It hasn't alwys been like this. In the nineties Beckel appeared regularly on CNN. He was the liberal host of Crossfire Sunday, and often sat in for Michael Kinsley or Bill Press on the regular Crossfire. And he was often pretty good in these venues. But in those days he hadn't yet sold out to Fox.
And what are his credentials as a Democratic strategist? Well, he ran Walter Mondale's campaign in 1984. Remind me how that one turned out...