Jerry Coyne and Poisoning the Well
|December 11, 2012||Posted by johnnyb under Intelligent Design|
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.