by Jim Manzi

OK, now let’s take on the mailbag on this one.

Manzi's claim is incorrect. Coyne does not claim “that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe”.

Here is the third sentence of Coyne’s review (as quoted in my post):

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 …

I don’t know how to interpret this other than as I did. Commenter 1 goes on to say:

He [Coyne] actually says religious people see our world as part of an unfolding and divinely scripted plan” and “these Faithful… have tweaked the theory of evolution to bring it into line with their needs”.

I agree that Coyne also says this.  I also agree that some of “the Faithful” have tried to tweak the theory of evolution to bring it in lines with their needs, and this (i.e., creationism) is nonsense.Commenter 1 continues:

The author says there is plenty of room within the bounds of science to ponder questions of the beginning, the end, and our purpose, and Coyne does not say otherwise.

Actually, I never said any such thing.  It is my view that Baconian science, properly considered, eschews the consideration of such ultimate questions by the definition of its methodology, because (to cite Bacon) such philosophical meanderings “tend to discourse rather than works”. Commenter 1 ends with:

There are not any religions (at least ones that require faith) that operate within the bounds of science, and those that have twisted evolution to fit their doctrine are causing real harm to science and society. This is of course not new, but should be condemned for what it is, propaganda, and intentionally misleading people for the benefit of a corrupt institution is wrong.

I have attacked the notion of religion operating within the bounds of science, and often in front of audiences that don’t really want to hear it. Commenter 2 starts with this:

I think both Wright and Manzi have a weird tendency to get it exactly wrong when writing about natural selection, which is manifested in the insistence on labeling it as an "Algorithm" (especially with that insidious capital A).  I think the label reflects a considerable bias, since the algorithms we all know and love (in the computer age) are all *written*, and written with a purpose. But there's simply no evidence for a writer in the genetic processes of reproduction, despite the fact that those processes happily result in evolution described by natural selection, and the "purpose" of evolution (i.e., reproductive fitness) is simply a logical consequence of its existence in the first place.  

I did not claim any evidence for “a writer”, simply that the existence of evolution through natural selection does demonstrate that there is no writer (to use your metaphor).   I think that the idea that “the ‘purpose’ of evolution (i.e., reproductive fitness) is simply a logical consequence of its existence in the first place” misses the whole point of my post.  In any relevant evolutionary context, including both what we see in the world around us and the factory GA example from my post, reproductive fitness is determined by an environment external to the organism.  Why does this environment exist as it does?  Why do the rules of the particular genetic process (e.g., crossover probabilities, etc.) exist as they do?  And so forth.  To say that “it is a logical consequence of its existence” is to avoid any such questions. Commenter 2 ends with:

And since religions have long used the majesty of life as a primary argument for a creator, I think we have to concede, by virtue of the logical principle of parsimony, that the complete plausibility of a godless model to account for it (thanks to the concepts introduced by Darwin), along with the lack of any evidence for a god-based model, counts as a significant stroke against god's apologists.

Without addressing the question of whether disproving argument X for the existence of Y tells you that Y doesn’t exist, rather simply telling you that X is an incorrect argument, I again think this misses the point of the post.  Evolution through natural selection is a “godless model” for how particles can be manipulated according to physical laws to create new adaptive forms.  It doesn’t address the origin of the physical laws or whether these laws are teleological.  Commenter 3 has this to say:

You appear to assert that ultimately, randomness, like other features of nature, could have been built into the programming of nature and that therefore, it is impossible for scientists, in this case, scientists working in the the biological science of evolutionary biology, to reach a consensus on indeterminacy that is empirically testable in a scientific sense. 

I don’t think I made any such claim.  I did say that:

[T]he evolutionary process does not add any incremental randomness to outcomes beyond what is already present in other physical laws, simply such great complexity that scientists are well-advised to treat it as if it were goalless.

Commenter 3 goes on:

But the problem with your argument, which you imply, and which maybe you did not intend to imply, is that where science cannot go, religion and philosophy are free to enter.  And that religion and philosophy must be given free reign to step in and assert as true without any corresponding need for evidence various assertions of what is undeniably true, likely true, or should be belived as true; and that whatever these assertions are, whether made by religion, based on faith, a received orthodoxy, tradition, spiritual practice or meditation, or whether made by philosophy, based on argument or moral or other intuition, they should, for some inexplicable or poorly explained reason, receive credence because it is impossible to accumulate testable empirical evidence on such subject matter.  To which I reply:  "The [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks".

I made no argument that any religious, philosophical or other similar arguments should or should not “receive credence”.  I argued that Coyne’s argument that evolution through natural selection has shown that there is no divine plan for the universe should not be given credence. Commenter 4 says:

I wonder if you've heard of epicycles.

Yes, as it happens, I have.Then he goes on to say:

Epicycles were invented by the faithful to account for astronomical observations not in keeping with geocentrism. The inventors "knew" the Earth was the center of the Universe. But more and more observations indicated otherwise. Instead of reevaluating their basic assumption, they invented epicycles to account for inconsistencies.

The Copernican revolution was the lead example of a paradigm shift in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is the canonical reference for what you are describing.  Kuhn’s description of the details of how this happened doesn’t have much similarity to your summary.  Most specifically, the heliocentric theory initially fit the data worse than the existing geocentric alternative.  The problem was that Copernicus assumed circular orbits (I guess he just knew that they had to be circles).  It required Kepler to figure out, and it took a while, that planets have elliptical orbits in order to have the heliocentric theory actually perform better on the dimension that you cite.  He concludes:

You're right: there's nothing about evolutionary science that disproves it was God's plan all along for humanity to come into existence through an evolutionary process. But to embrace that notion in the face of Evolution's credence over reevaluation of your initial assumption -- God exists and he willed us into existence -- is just epicycling. 

Once again, I defended no particular notion of God or not God in that post.  My point was that evolution doesn’t address specific philosophical questions.  Commenter 5 says:

The "goals" of evolution are extremely local in space and in time. For it to serve an overarching purpose, either God created the universe with the specific intention that evolution would run its course exactly as it did, or God tinkered with the process constantly by adjusting the environment so that selective pressures would coincide with the purpose that He designed. Either way, you have the deity knowing exactly what the final product should be, and achieving it through evolution, not because evolution is a good way to fulfill this purpose (as the genetic algorithm is for improving the output of a chemical plant), but by rigging the system. Thus the whole point of evolution as an optimization process (which is specifically the possibility Manzi raised) is absurd.

I have very little idea what any deity might know or not know, or do or not do.  Saying that “Evolution doesn’t entail atheism” is very different from saying that “Here’s how God operates in some way that makes sense to me”. Commenter 6 says:

The reason evolutionary science has ignored the problems of ultimate origin and ultimate purpose is because the first is a matter of physics and not biology and is furthermore unanswerable, and the second is elusive and ever-changing to the point that it becomes meaningless. An ultimate purpose suggests permanence, after all, and not the actual conditions of the fitness landscape: chaotic, shifting, and never-ending.

My point was that it becomes meaningless as a practical matter to scientists, but that does not make it meaningless.

"The field of philosophical speculation that does not contradict any valid scientific findings is much wider open to Wright than Coyne is willing to accept." If that's the case, then it would have to be larger than even Wright is willing to accept. Has he ever heard of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

I’m willing to bet an enormous amount of money that Robert Wright has heard of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The seventh and final commenter says this:

It seems to me that you have missed the point of Coyne's argument, which is a boilerplate, although tacit, application of Occam's Razor.  It goes like this.1. Evolution explains biology in terms of purely physical phenomena. 2. Explanations involving God posit non-physical phenomena. 3. It is rationally compelling to prefer theories that posit as few fundamental kinds of things as possible.  Therefore, it is rationally compelling to prefer evolutionary explanations that do not posit God. Occam's razor is essential to evolution - the removal of purpose-driven biology because it is unnecessary is exactly its point.  If one has a general scientific outlook, one that includes Occam's razor, evolutionary theory without designers or master plans is pretty compelling. One might question the assumption of Occam's razor.  But, if one did, one would have a pretty hard time explaining why they should find evolutionary theory so compelling to begin with.  

I basically agree with this. The real question is: what are the boundaries of knowledge that comprise biology, and more broadly science as a whole?  Commenter 6 goes on:

To instead drive a teched out version of a cosmological argument involving ultimate beginnings or explanations completely misses the point.  That's another argument entirely that is more usefully discussed independently of evolution. 

But this doesn’t “miss the point”.  To the contrary, that an “argument involving ultimate beginnings or explanations” should be discussed “independently of evolution” was exactly the point I was trying to make in the post. He ends with:

If your position is merely that one can logically reconcile belief in God with belief in evolutionary theory then the answer is obviously, "yes".  But to believe that God is involved in evolutionary explanations - at any level - involves serious intellectual tension. 

To repeat, this is exactly my position, and I’ m glad you agree with it.  Jerry Coyne says he doesn’t, and that’s why I wrote the post.

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