In Defense of Jim Manzi against Jerry Coyne

by Jim Manzi

Jerry Coyne has, in his words, “deigned” to respond to my post criticizing an assertion he made in his TNR review of Robert Wright’s book, Evolution of God.  In this response, Professor Coyne calls me a “flea”; makes fun of my last name by crossing out “Ponzi” and replacing it with “Manzi”; reviews the resume of another person, and asserts that it is mine; and describes my post as “tedious”, while responding to it with 1,500 words.  His tone, in other words, is somewhat intemperate.  I have found it to be an almost universal rule of debates and negotiations that when the guy on the other side of the table starts calling you names, it means that he doesn’t have much of an argument.  I certainly think so in this case.

Before getting to what I see as the meat of our disagreement, I should clear up what I believe to be a couple of material misrepresentations of my post by Professor Coyne.

First, he claims that I have asserted that evolution is a designed algorithm, and that evolution has a divinely created goal.  It is surprising that Coyne believes I made these assertions, when in the summation of the post I said the following:

Accepting evolution, therefore, requires neither the denial of a Creator nor the loss of the idea of ultimate purpose. It resolves neither issue for us one way or the other.

I went out of my way to say over and again that I was making no argument for a designer or a plan.  I was making a much narrower assertion: that evolution does not rule out such a belief.

Second, Professor Coyne says flatly that one of my two main points was that “the ‘first cause’ argument is evidence for God”.  Here is what I said in my post:

It is obvious from the factory analogy that evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. …

A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect. If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress.

In other words, being able to describe a set of physical rules that explain scientifically how particles can interact to create so much of nature (what I called a scientific result of “stupendous beauty and power”) does not address the problem of ultimate origins – i.e., where do these rules and the most fundamental particles come from?  Note that I didn’t assert that one must accept even as general an idea as Uncaused Cause, never mind God, merely that he must either accept there was a first cause, or just live with the problem of infinite regress.

Coyne cites the passage above and reacts in this way:

Oh dear. This is such an old chestnut.  And the answer is the same as it’s been for decades:  why is God any more an “uncaused cause” than is the universe, or the “physical laws” themselves?

But of course, implicit in Coyne’s response is the point that the problem of first cause existed before Charles Darwin was born – many centuries before, in fact, as per my post.  Once again, my point in this regard was not that the only resolution to this philosophical question is that one must believe in God, only that evolution through natural selection does not resolve it.

Once past the smokescreen of Coyne's Don Rickles schtick and his misrepresentations, we come to what I see as our core disagreement.  Hopefully engaging on this will be more productive.  In my post, I said that Coyne claimed in his review that “evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe.  Coyne, in his reply to me, says this about it:

Wrong!  What I have said repeatedly is that there is no evidence for a divine plan for the universe.

Well, here is the first paragraph of Coyne’s review, which I quoted in my post [Bold added]:

Over its history, science has delivered two crippling blows to humanity’s self-image. The first was Galileo’s announcement, in 1632, that our Earth was just another planet and not, as Scripture implied, the center of the universe. The secondand more severelanded in 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, demolishing, in 545 pages of closely reasoned prose, the comforting notion that we are unique among all speciesthe supreme object of God’s creation, and the only creature whose earthly travails could be cashed in for a comfortable afterlife.
He doesn’t say that there is no evidence for it, but that Darwin demolished this notion.

Coyne, in his reply, makes a lot of the fact that he doesn’t dismiss the idea of a “deistic creator that set things in motion and went to lunch”, but that certain conceptions of God are ruled out by science.  What is ruled out exactly?  It’s important here to distinguish between mechanism and purpose.  In his original essay, Coyne claims that “Charles Darwin…demolished…the comforting notion that we are unique among species – the supreme object of God’s creation”, so presumably without regard to the mechanism of just setting things in motion versus intervening frequently, Coyne believes that there can be no divine plan that makes us unique.

The key issue in our disagreement, it seems to me, is therefore not whether or not a purported God is deistic or interventionist, but rather whether evolution through natural selection precludes a purpose for the universe that privileges humans.  Coyne accepts that a position of “it’s all an incredibly ingenious façade designed by an omnipotent God to fool us” is always logically possible, but sees this as a sterile point of view.  I agree.  What we are disputing, then, could be said more practically as: Do the findings of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology uniquely preclude, using the normal English meaning of words, the idea of a divine plan that privileges humans in the way we mean in normal speech as religious?

Here is what I see to be Coyne’s argument for why we should answer this question with “Yes, evolution has pretty much ruled this out”:

Most tellingly, everything we know about evolution and natural selection militates against the idea of an externally-imposed goal, both because of the way the process works (competition between genes to leave copies of themselves in a contingent and changing world), and because evolution goes in different directions in different lineages, depending on what happens to be useful in different environments (Fleas lost wings, dinosaurs gained them.)  If complex humans were the goal, why do the rest of the millions of species over the history of life go off in completely different directions?  What kind of goal-driven process is that?

This is precisely the argument that I was trying to address in the post – the argument that the structure of the evolutionary process is inherently undirected.  Coyne simply repeats it without reference to my laborious (in Coyne’s words, “tedious”) attempt to demonstrate that it is invalid.  Every one of the issues that Coyne raises in this paragraph – roughly speaking, competition between genes, a complex and changing fitness landscape, and parallel development of alternative lineages – was addressed directly in my post.  Coyne asks “What kind of goal-driven process is that?”  As per my post, I can produce a goal-driven process that has these characteristics with a $2,000 laptop and a Java compiler.
I did a lot of work in the post to try to explain why the differences between the genetic algorithm example I provided and biochemical evolution in nature don’t affect the philosophical argument.  I didn’t do all of this to instruct Coyne – who as I said in the post is an eminent evolutionary biologist – but rather to enable a more practical public discussion of the frequently-made assertion that evolution through natural selection is inherently goalless.  As often as that has been repeated, I believe it to be incorrect, at least in a very specific sense.  Instead of engaging my direct argument against his evidence, Coyne simply pounds the table.  Coyne is the one who is repeating old chestnuts, not me.
My argument is not some kind of code for creationism or Intelligent Design or anything of that ilk, all of which seem clearly to me to be non-science.  And one final time, I am not claiming that I have shown that there is some purpose to the universe, never mind that there is a God who has a plan for it that privileges human beings.  What I have disputed is the claim that Darwin produced scientific findings which make such a belief uniquely untenable, I did this by showing that the core operations of genetic evolution do not preclude a goal.  As far as I can see, whether I’m right or wrong, that argument stands unchallenged by Professor Coyne’s response.