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Jerry Coyne and Poisoning the Well

A disturbing feature of the debate over origins is the fact that many evolutionists, rather than offering facts or ideas, instead use the rhetorical tricks to push their ideas. Some of these are more subtle than others.

One tactic that has been popular for well over a decade is this – if a Darwin-doubter makes a claim that natural selection (or some other idea) might be challenged in the literature by some otherwise-orthodox figure in biology, then one of Darwin’s modern supporters is almost guaranteed to send an email like the following (I’d be surprised if there wasn’t actually a template for this):

Dear [[mainstream biologist]],

I have been viciously fighting the evil creationists to prevent biology from being thrust back into the dark ages. Recently it has come to my attention that [[Darwin doubter]] has used something you said in support of a point of his. He said [[insert quote here -- feel free to mangle if needed]].

Could you please respond and let us know if you are really part of their dark agenda to destroy biology by affirming their point or let us know if they are misquoting you.

Sincerely,

[[Darwin sycophant]]

Now, for those of you logically- and rhetorically-challenged, this strategy is called “poisoning the well”. It is a fallacious way to speak. You are inviting people to be disingenuous with you, because you are stating ahead-of-time that you will overreact when someone disagrees.

What usually happens is that there is almost exactly a form-letter response as well! It reads something like this:

Dear [[Darwin sycophant]],

Thank you for letting me know about the evil creationists. Since I am not a creationist myself, rest assured that any use they have made of my work must by definition be a misquote.

When [[Darwin doubter] quoted me as saying [[insert quote]], what I really meant was [[insert explanation that means the same thing but is worded differently]].

Thanks for the good work you do fighting evil.

Sincerely,

[[Mainstream biologist]]

Then, the Darwin supporter posts the response on their website as proof positive that anyone who doubts Darwinian explanations is stupid, and there is no one who even supports even a single point that they make.

On my own blog, I posted about an incident like there here from Talk.Origins.

But today, Jerry Coyne decided to grace us not with one, but with five instances of this! Paul Nelson had done the service of pointing out that Shapiro’s views on selection are not quite as out-of-the-mainstream as Coyne had indicated in a previous post. Nelson even gave several examples of people whose opinions are similar to Shapiro’s.

So, to discredit Nelson’s opinion, Jerry sent each of the people named by Nelson this letter:

Gentlemen:

I’m writing just to let you know that you were mentioned in an email sent to me by Paul Nelson, a Discovery Institute Fellow and young-earth creationist. His email was written in response to a post on my website criticizing Jim Shapiro’s contention that natural selection is relatively unimportant not just in evolution, but in accounting for adaptations. My post is here and links to Shapiro’s.

At any rate, if you wanted to comment on what Nelson says about your views of selection, I’d be glad to listen (if I can post them on my website, I’ll do so, regardless of what they are, but I would need your permission). I have read the papers of many of you, and while I know that several of you question aspects of modern evolutionary theory, I wasn’t aware that any of you denied the efficacy of selection in accounting for adaptations.

I’m not speaking here of the prevalence among episodes of evolutionary change of selection versus other mechanisms such as drift, but of the prevalence of selection in explaining obvious adaptations like mimicry, the speed of cheetahs, and so on. So, for example, from what I know of Lynch’s views, he advocates processes like drift in genomic change but doesn’t question selection as the impetus for the evolution of things that everyone regards as adaptations on the morphological level. But I may be wrong.

At any rate, if Nelson has accurately characterized your views, do let me know. And again, I won’t make anything public without your permission.

Thanks,
Jerry

So, you’ll notice that *all* of the components are there. He makes sure they know ahead-of-time that Nelson is a Discovery Institute fellow and one of the bad guys. He then gives a false picture of Paul Nelson’s point. Coyne said that Nelson disagreed with selectionist interpretations for *any* adaptation, while Nelson was talking about selection as a fundamental core of evolution (i.e. of building body plans. In fact, while the debate was over *Shapiro’s* view of evolution, Coyne did not ask them about Shapiro’s view, but rather about what they thought about what *Nelson* said about their own work (which was not provided to them).

The responses, predictably, followed the same format. For space reasons, let’s just look at the first one – Eric Davidson:

Dear Jerry

Of course I would not disagree for one second about the importance of adaptive selection for species specific characters of all kinds, whether on protein or regulatory sequences.

I admire your willingness to take on creationists in public; I find their views so antediluvian that I can only ignore them.

Eric

One should note that Davidson’s remarks are actually in favor of Nelson’s position, despite his pleas to the contrary. Davidson said, “I would not disagree for one second about the importance of adaptive selection for species specific characters of all kinds” (emphasis mine). Note that Nelson was talking about the problem of selection regarding body plans, and Davidson said that there is no problem regarding selection for species-specific characters – in other words, NON-BODY-PLAN characters!

Most of the other responses continue in the same way, though Kirschner and Gerhart (unsurprisingly) seem more taken by natural selection in the whole of life history than the rest.

If Coyne was looking for a serious response, a better way to frame the argument would have been this:

Dear [biologist],

I’m writing an blog post on the various viewpoints of the scope of natural selection in evolution by leading researchers, can you offer me your general opinion?

Such a response would have generated much more candid responses. He could then, as followup, mention the rest of the context and make sure they want to be posted on his blog. But, with the letter that he actually wrote, is it any wonder that he received the response that he did? Is Coyne’s behavior what we expect of our academics? Sadly, it is what has become normal in the Darwin lobby, whether academic or not.

NOTE – slight update from original to give more context about the issue being discussed.

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14 Responses to Jerry Coyne and Poisoning the Well

  1. I actually saw Coyne’s post and noted extraordinary hedging in addition to well-poisoning. That is, so afraid of the responses was Coyne that he had to limit what he claiming to things like mimicry and the speed of cheetahs! But who doubts cheetahs could get a bit faster through selective pressure? It’s building the cheetah in the first place that’s the tricky part.
    And when we put that in the context of the underwhelming responses (attacks on ID rather than defences of the power Coyne attributes to NS; one hadn’t even read what Nelson said and so was in no position to comment on its veracity – nonetheless he disagreed with it!), as well as the creationism “set-up” in Coyne’s letter to let them know what answer was required, the whole thing has can be seen to be worthless.

  2. Mr Arrington:

    Thinking of the fallacies involved here, I would suggest that a good part of the game is thought police patrolling.

    Where that is going on “consensus” is worthless.

    I would suggest though that while there is some well-poisoning that targets the Darwin Doubter, that is not the only meaning of well poisoning: preemptively attacking the man to silence him from speaking on a point.

    Here is Nizkor:

    Description of Poisoning the Well

    This sort of “reasoning” involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about the person. This “argument” has the following form:

    Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person A is presented.
    Therefore any claims person A makes will be false.

    This sort of “reasoning” is obviously fallacious. The person making such an attack is hoping that the unfavorable information will bias listeners against the person in question and hence that they will reject any claims he might make. However, merely presenting unfavorable information about a person (even if it is true) hardly counts as evidence against the claims he/she might make. This is especially clear when Poisoning the Well is looked at as a form of ad Homimem in which the attack is made prior to the person even making the claim or claims.

    That is perhaps why I tend to speak instead to clouding, polarising and poisoning the atmosphere in which discussion is to be carried out.

    The targetting of the person cited is subtler, as it is not quite an outright attack yet: the thought policeman is showing the stick, rather than brandishing or using it.

    The bankruptcy of the evolutionary materialist pseudo-consensus is ever more plain for those with eyes to see.

    KF

  3. related post on ENV:

    Nelson in the Lions’ Den – David Klinghoffer December 11, 2012
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....67331.html

    I just watched Dr. Nelson’s video, it is an excellent update on ontogenetic depth:

    Darwin or Design? – Paul Nelson at Saddleback Church – Nov. 2012 – ontogenetic depth – video
    http://www.saddleback.com/mc/m/7ece8/

    notes:

    Understanding Ontogenetic Depth, Part II: Natural Selection Is a Harsh Mistress – Paul Nelson – April 7, 2011
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....45581.html

    earlier video

    Modern Synthesis of Neo-Darwinism Is Dead – No Evidence For Body Plan Morphogenesis From Embryonic Mutations – Paul Nelson – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/5548184/

  4. All the responses are displayed at Coynes website, and they are uniformly critical of ID.

  5. @Graham2 Indeed, but Paul Nelson never said ID had the support of those biologists. He said they disputed the kind of efficacy of NS that Coyne says it has. Thus it is no surprise that Coyne tried to turn this simple question into an evolution versus ID debate because he knew he couldn’t actually get the support of those biologists for the theory as he touts it but that he could easily illicit condemnations of the ID. On the point actually at issue, then, Paul Nelson appears to have characterised those biologists’ views more accurately than Coyne – Coyne’s disingenuous goalpost moving not withstanding.

  6. From Paul Nelson: workers such as Eric Davidson, Michael Lynch, Andreas Wagner, John Gerhart & Marc Kirschner, or Scott Gilbert (all of whom, among many others, have recently expressed frank doubts about selection)

    So Coyne, doubting the truth of this claim, actually asked the 5 gentlemen is it true, and 4 of the 5 were quite clear that, NO, it isnt. They had no doubts about the importance of natural selection. The 1st (of the 5) replys wasnt clear and is (selectively!) quoted above.

  7. It is not in origin subjects but in all intercourse between mankind.
    People just only notice it in their contention.
    a outside observer would not know this tacxtics are going on.
    We aere outside observers of everything other then our own intewrests.
    It could only be this way logically.
    We all have been misled in things we have no idea we have been misled in.
    me too but I don’t know what they are but can calculate they must be now and in the past.
    A line of reasoning.

  8. That’s exactly what Coyne didn’t do. To see why, I refer you to the “Larry Moran defends Paul Nelson” article linked to below. The point being that Coyne asked a loaded question which moved the goalposts significantly. He asked, for example, about the speed of a cheetah and mimicry, but these are very different from the issue Nelson was raising which was about body plans. Thus Coyne didn’t even have the courage to ask these people to comment on what Nelson was really saying, nor about their views on Coyne’s “only game in town” view of selection. Then there’s the well-poisoning referred to above. And given all this, the answers on Coyne’s site are hardly relevant, nor surprising.

  9. Dr. Nelson wasn’t even arguing selection is void of power (he was quite clear about that), he was arguing that the types of variation Darwinism needs to explain Body Plan morphogenesis are exactly the types of variations that are in fact the least likely to be tolerated by a organism, i.e. a straight up contradiction to what the Darwinian theory needs for it to be viable!:

    As to criticisms of natural selection though,,,

    Inconsistent Nature: The Enigma of Life’s Stupendous Prodigality – James Le Fanu – September 2011
    Excerpt: Many species that might seem exceptionally well adapted for “the survival of the fittest” are surprisingly uncommon. The scarce African hunting dog has the highest kill rate of any predator on the savannah, while cheetahs may have no difficulty in feeding themselves thanks to their astonishing speediness — but are a hundred times less common than lions.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....51281.html

    Accidental origins: Where species come from – March 2010
    Excerpt: If speciation results from natural selection via many small changes, you would expect the branch lengths to fit a bell-shaped curve.,,, Instead, Pagel’s team found that in 78 per cent of the trees, the best fit for the branch length distribution was another familiar curve, known as the exponential distribution. Like the bell curve, the exponential has a straightforward explanation – but it is a disquieting one for evolutionary biologists. The exponential is the pattern you get when you are waiting for some single, infrequent event to happen.,,,To Pagel, the implications for speciation are clear: “It isn’t the accumulation of events that causes a speciation, it’s single, rare events falling out of the sky, so to speak.”
    http://www.newscientist.com/ar.....tml?page=2

    Oxford University Admits Darwinism’s Shaky Math Foundation – May 2011
    Excerpt: However, mathematical population geneticists mainly deny that natural selection leads to optimization of any useful kind. This fifty-year old schism is intellectually damaging in itself, and has prevented improvements in our concept of what fitness is. – On a 2011 Job Description for a Mathematician, at Oxford, to ‘fix’ the persistent mathematical problems with neo-Darwinism within two years.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....46351.html

    The Strength of Phenotypic Selection in Natural Populations
    This review demonstrates that our information about the strength of phenotypic selection in natural populations has increased dramatically in the past 2 decades, but many important issues about selection remain unresolved.
    http://www.oeb.harvard.edu/fac.....1AmNat.pdf

    Darwin proven wrong, again! Experimental Evolution Reveals Resistance to Change (Fruit Flies)
    Excerpt: Our work provides a new perspective on the genetic basis of adaptation. Despite decades of sustained selection in relatively small, sexually reproducing laboratory populations, selection did not lead to the fixation of newly arising unconditionally advantageous alleles.
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....to-change/

    What Darwin Got Wrong: – Stephen Meyer – Feb. 2010
    Natural selection by definition only “selects” or favors functional advantage. What we have learned in biology over the last 50 years shows that at every level in the biological hierarchy — whether we are talking about novel genes, proteins, molecular machines, signal transduction circuits, organs, or body plans — functional advantage depends upon the occurrence of a series of vastly improbable and tightly coordinated mutational events. Careful quantitative analysis has shown that these events that are so improbable as to put thresholds of selectable function well beyond the reach of chance.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....ellig.html

    Austin Hughes: Most Evolutionary Literature Showing Positive Selection in the Genome is “Worthless” – Casey Luskin – 2012
    Excerpt – When University of South Carolina evolutionary biologist Austin Hughes was asked about the problem with positive Darwinian selection, he says, “The problem is there really isn’t all that much evidence that it actually happens to the extent to which it would be needed to explain all of the adaptive traits of organisms.”
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....55121.html

    Darwin’s Legacy – Donald R. Prothero – February 2012
    Excerpt: In four of the biggest climatic-vegetational events of the last 50 million years, the mammals and birds show no noticeable change in response to changing climates. No matter how many presentations I give where I show these data, no one (including myself) has a good explanation yet for such widespread stasis despite the obvious selective pressures of changing climate.
    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/12-02-15/#feature

    On Enzymes and Teleology – Dr. Ann Gauger – July 19, 2012
    Excerpt: “This is an interesting turn in evolutionary thinking. People have been saying for years, “Of course evolution isn’t random, it’s directed by natural selection. It’s not chance, it’s chance and necessity.” But in recent years the rhetoric has changed. Now evolution is constrained. Not all options are open, and natural selection is not the major player, it’s the happenstance of genetic drift that drives change. But somehow it all happens anyway, and evolution gets the credit.”
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....62391.html

    Hundreds Of Natural-selection Studies Could Be Wrong, Study Demonstrates – Mar. 30, 2009
    Excerpt: “Our finding means that hundreds of published studies on natural selection may have drawn incorrect conclusions,”,,, “Nei said that many scientists who examine human evolution have used faulty statistical methods in their studies and, as a result, their conclusions could be wrong. For example, in one published study the scientists used a statistical method to demonstrate pervasive natural selection during human evolution. “This group documented adaptive evolution in many genes expressed in the brain, thyroid, and placenta, which are assumed to be important for human evolution.”,,, “But if the statistical method that they used is not reliable, then their results also might not be reliable,”,,, “we are saying that these statistical methods can lead scientists to make erroneous inferences,” he said.
    (Hmm, 3 years later — no honest corrections!)
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....200821.htm

    “Although living things occupy a three-dimensional space, their internal physiology and anatomy operate as if they were four-dimensional. Quarter-power scaling laws are perhaps as universal and as uniquely biological as the biochemical pathways of metabolism, the structure and function of the genetic code and the process of natural selection.,,, The conclusion here is inescapable, that the driving force for these invariant scaling laws cannot have been natural selection.” Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong (London: Profile Books, 2010), p. 78-79

  10. Dr. Nelson wasn’t even arguing selection is void of power (he was quite clear about that), he was arguing that the types of variation Darwinism needs to explain Body Plan morphogenesis are exactly the types of variations that are in fact the least likely to be tolerated by a organism, i.e. a straight up contradiction to what the Darwinian theory needs for it to be viable!:

    As to criticisms of natural selection though,,,

    Inconsistent Nature: The Enigma of Life’s Stupendous Prodigality – James Le Fanu – September 2011
    Excerpt: Many species that might seem exceptionally well adapted for “the survival of the fittest” are surprisingly uncommon. The scarce African hunting dog has the highest kill rate of any predator on the savannah, while cheetahs may have no difficulty in feeding themselves thanks to their astonishing speediness — but are a hundred times less common than lions.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....51281.html

    Accidental origins: Where species come from – March 2010
    Excerpt: If speciation results from natural selection via many small changes, you would expect the branch lengths to fit a bell-shaped curve.,,, Instead, Pagel’s team found that in 78 per cent of the trees, the best fit for the branch length distribution was another familiar curve, known as the exponential distribution. Like the bell curve, the exponential has a straightforward explanation – but it is a disquieting one for evolutionary biologists. The exponential is the pattern you get when you are waiting for some single, infrequent event to happen.,,,To Pagel, the implications for speciation are clear: “It isn’t the accumulation of events that causes a speciation, it’s single, rare events falling out of the sky, so to speak.”
    http://www.newscientist.com/ar.....tml?page=2

    Oxford University Admits Darwinism’s Shaky Math Foundation – May 2011
    Excerpt: However, mathematical population geneticists mainly deny that natural selection leads to optimization of any useful kind. This fifty-year old schism is intellectually damaging in itself, and has prevented improvements in our concept of what fitness is. – On a 2011 Job Description for a Mathematician, at Oxford, to ‘fix’ the persistent mathematical problems with neo-Darwinism within two years.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....46351.html

    The Strength of Phenotypic Selection in Natural Populations
    This review demonstrates that our information about the strength of phenotypic selection in natural populations has increased dramatically in the past 2 decades, but many important issues about selection remain unresolved.
    http://www.oeb.harvard.edu/fac.....1AmNat.pdf

    Darwin proven wrong, again! Experimental Evolution Reveals Resistance to Change (Fruit Flies)
    Excerpt: Our work provides a new perspective on the genetic basis of adaptation. Despite decades of sustained selection in relatively small, sexually reproducing laboratory populations, selection did not lead to the fixation of newly arising unconditionally advantageous alleles.
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....to-change/

    What Darwin Got Wrong: – Stephen Meyer – Feb. 2010
    Natural selection by definition only “selects” or favors functional advantage. What we have learned in biology over the last 50 years shows that at every level in the biological hierarchy — whether we are talking about novel genes, proteins, molecular machines, signal transduction circuits, organs, or body plans — functional advantage depends upon the occurrence of a series of vastly improbable and tightly coordinated mutational events. Careful quantitative analysis has shown that these events that are so improbable as to put thresholds of selectable function well beyond the reach of chance.

    Austin Hughes: Most Evolutionary Literature Showing Positive Selection in the Genome is “Worthless” – Casey Luskin – 2012
    Excerpt – When University of South Carolina evolutionary biologist Austin Hughes was asked about the problem with positive Darwinian selection, he says, “The problem is there really isn’t all that much evidence that it actually happens to the extent to which it would be needed to explain all of the adaptive traits of organisms.”
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....55121.html

    Darwin’s Legacy – Donald R. Prothero – February 2012
    Excerpt: In four of the biggest climatic-vegetational events of the last 50 million years, the mammals and birds show no noticeable change in response to changing climates. No matter how many presentations I give where I show these data, no one (including myself) has a good explanation yet for such widespread stasis despite the obvious selective pressures of changing climate.
    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/12-02-15/#feature

    On Enzymes and Teleology – Dr. Ann Gauger – July 19, 2012
    Excerpt: “This is an interesting turn in evolutionary thinking. People have been saying for years, “Of course evolution isn’t random, it’s directed by natural selection. It’s not chance, it’s chance and necessity.” But in recent years the rhetoric has changed. Now evolution is constrained. Not all options are open, and natural selection is not the major player, it’s the happenstance of genetic drift that drives change. But somehow it all happens anyway, and evolution gets the credit.”
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....62391.html

    Hundreds Of Natural-selection Studies Could Be Wrong, Study Demonstrates – Mar. 30, 2009
    Excerpt: “Our finding means that hundreds of published studies on natural selection may have drawn incorrect conclusions,”,,, “Nei said that many scientists who examine human evolution have used faulty statistical methods in their studies and, as a result, their conclusions could be wrong. For example, in one published study the scientists used a statistical method to demonstrate pervasive natural selection during human evolution. “This group documented adaptive evolution in many genes expressed in the brain, thyroid, and placenta, which are assumed to be important for human evolution.”,,, “But if the statistical method that they used is not reliable, then their results also might not be reliable,”,,, “we are saying that these statistical methods can lead scientists to make erroneous inferences,” he said.
    (Hmm, 3 years later — no honest corrections!)
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....200821.htm

    “Although living things occupy a three-dimensional space, their internal physiology and anatomy operate as if they were four-dimensional. Quarter-power scaling laws are perhaps as universal and as uniquely biological as the biochemical pathways of metabolism, the structure and function of the genetic code and the process of natural selection.,,, The conclusion here is inescapable, that the driving force for these invariant scaling laws cannot have been natural selection.” Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong (London: Profile Books, 2010), p. 78-79

  11. At Why Evolution Is True, the Chewbacca Defense – David Klinghoffer – December 13, 2012
    Excerpt: “There is no compelling empirical or theoretical evidence that complexity, modularity, redundancy or other features of genetic pathways are promoted by natural selection….Mmany aspects of complexity at the genomic, molecular and cellular levels in multicellular species are likely to owe their origins to these non-adaptive forces, representing little more than passive outcomes.”
    (Lynch, “The evolution of genetic networks by non-adaptive processes,” Nature Rev. Gen., 8:803-13, (October, 2007))
    So if the “complexity, modularity, redundancy or other features of genetic pathways” and “many aspects of complexity at the genomic, molecular and cellular levels in multicellular species” aren’t easily explained by natural selection, that’s a lot.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....67451.html

  12. Graham2-

    What is missing is actual evidence for natural selection actually doing something. Coyne can spew away all he wants but he doesn’t have anything to support his spewage.

  13. Graham2,

    It appears you’ve read nothing by any of those authors. So what makes you an expert?

  14. JB: Forgive, I though this thread was by Mr Arrington. KF

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