Re: [asa] Jerry Coyne's Confused Attack on Religion

From: Schwarzwald <>
Date: Thu Jan 29 2009 - 01:15:44 EST

Heya Randy,

1. Convergence in evolution means a common trait that has evolved in
> multiple independent lineages. The problem I have with convergence is the
> definition of "common trait". It clearly doesn't extend to identical genetic
> sequences in DNA. That is taken as proof of the same lineage since it is so
> improbable. On the other hand, if the trait is defined in too general a
> manner, then it becomes meaningless, almost to the point of a tautology.
> Like "it is alive". So a streamlined body shape for minimizing water drag or
> aerodynamics can be observed in multiple lineages. That is convergence but
> not a very surprising one. Intelligence, as I stated in a previous thread,
> can be defined in such a way that all plants and bacteria also have
> intelligence. Whether dolphins have the same type of intelligence as humans
> depends on how narrowly one wishes to define intelligence. Coyne is saying,
> I think, that humanoid intelligence is a concept that distinguishes
> humanoids from all other creatures by a gargantuan gulf. Call it what you
> want, humans have a lot of characteristics that distinguish us from others
> and serves to define what it means to be human. Again, if defined too
> narrowly or too broadly, it would become meaningless. But as it is, that
> distinctive characteristic cannot be said to be convergent because we have
> observed only one lineage in which it has evolved.

I have to read Morris' book, but instinctively I have a problem with viewing
things this way.

That convergence is real - nature has a habit of finding the same solutions
to various problems, even in distinct lineages - seems to be
non-controversial here. Coyne's response seems to be that humans should not
be viewed as an intended outcome of evolution, on the grounds that the
appearance of humans seems tremendously singular. As you said, 'a lot of
characteristics that distinguish us from others and serves to define what it
means to be human', and those characteristics are only showing up in one

What strikes me as interesting is that, by Coyne's own implied standard, it
would be justified to view quite a lot of developments in evolution as
intended. After all, humans are just one of the outcomes of evolution -
maybe the most singularly important one according to the standards of most
religions, but just one of many nevertheless. That places him in the odd
position where, if he's arguing we should place less weight on the idea that
humans or the human-like were an intended outcome of evolution due to their
being singular insofar as convergence goes, quite a lot of other
developments in evolutionary history should have claims of 'intentional
outcome' strengthened. So already, to fend off what Miller and Conway-Morris
implies, he seems to give up a lot of ground.

Even so, I think the ground given up goes further than that. The theme seems
to be that evolution, even in the most 'naturalistic'-friendly estimation,
has a noticeable track record of tending towards certain results.
Convergence happens to be a particularly strong example of that. And it does
open the door - wide, in my view - to start asking questions about how
humans or the human-like can be expected to come about.

> 3. A non-convergent trait is not inevitable but is a random, contingent
> occurrence that could not have been foreseen or predicted. That is, if it is
> not a likely result from several possible paths, then one cannot expect it
> to occur *a priori*. Hence, it was not intended. Or at least we have no
> indication that a "front-loader" designed it to be likely to occur.

Granted, that's a for-all-practical-purposes view from the perspective of
science. But I think it just highlights the limits of science particularly
when it comes to questions like this. Whether one is looking at evolution
and seeing design or seeing its lack, the science is over and the
philosophizing/theologizing has begun.

For myself, one major problem I have with Coyne's attitude is the seeming
unspoken assumption that he (in ruling out design, arguing that God would
not do things certain ways, or did not do certain things) is doing science,
while Conway-Morris, Miller, and everyone else is merely doing theology (or
worse, 'anti-science' because they're coming to different conclusions.)
Insofar as they're just interpreting data to speak about the appearances of
design, they're doing the same thing. They either both are doing science, or
(in my view) they both are engaging in philosophy and (a)theology.

> I think Coyne's fundamental error is analogous to confusing material causes
> with final causes--he is confusing material intent with divine intent. I
> think he is right that if 600Mya we wanted to identify the material causes
> to be put in place to make it likely that humanoid intelligence would
> evolve, we'd come up empty. That does not, however, rule out divine intent.

Just quoting this to give some agreement. I think there's vastly more wrong
with Coyne's article, some of which Mike Gene has pointed out, but that sort
of confusion does not help.

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Received on Thu Jan 29 01:16:27 2009

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