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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

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Ann Coulter's Big Idea: Let's Return to the Good Old Days

Posted: 09/05/11 05:40 PM ET

Ann Coulter has recently performed an important service for the American populace. Just in case anyone had any doubt that electing a right wing ideologue from Texas with a strong fundamentalist bent to the White House would mean a return to the past -- and by that I most assuredly don't mean the "good old days" -- Coulter demonstrates that that's exactly what will happen as well as anyone could.

First, the context for Coulter's service. Rick Perry, like George W. Bush before him, doesn't believe that evolution is much of a scientific theory. While both want creationism taught alongside evolution in public school science classrooms and laboratories, Perry recently went a step further than Bush and actually claimed that Texas is doing exactly that. Perry is absolutely wrong on that point! Despite the best efforts of the extremists on the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), creationism, including its gussied up relative, intelligent design, is not being taught in Texas schools. While it's true that the SBOE has adopted guidelines that don't encourage a robust teaching of evolution, Texas schools are not fully flying in the face of clearly established legal precedent and teaching creationism. Perry was simply pandering to an anti-science crowd and promoting poppycock. Or he is so out of touch with legal and educational policy that neither he nor his statements deserve any credibility. (Come to think of it, the last two sentences are not mutually exclusive and both might well be true!)

Now the specifics of Coulter's service. She just published a piece in Human Events that purports to defend Perry's view of evolution. What she did that was so useful was to reprise old, discredited arguments and recycle them as new facts. As Coulter so magnificently demonstrates, what we'll get with Rick Perry is a more extreme version of the rhetoric and policies of George W. Bush. And, even more to the point, Coulter shows that the message is so important that there's absolutely no reason to think we might have learned something over the past decade. No, the arguments are exactly the same and the knowledge some of us have gained is simply ignored.

More specifically, Coulter uses Perry's promotion of creationism as an opportunity to say that evolution has been completely disproven and, get ready for this, disproven by the scientific community!: "The more we have learned about molecules, cells and DNA -- a body of knowledge some refer to as "science" -- the more preposterous Darwin's theory has become."

What does Coulter know that the rest of the scientific community seems not to know? She claims to know all about intelligent design and makes the stale argument offered by William Paley in 1802 and Michael Behe in 1996 that lots of biological entities are far too complex to have evolved. At least she makes her inane and scientifically vacuous arguments humorous by providing an updated political context:

It is a mathematical impossibility, for example, that all 30 to 40 parts of the cell's flagellum -- forget the 200 parts of the cilium! -- could all arise at once by random mutation. According to most scientists, such an occurrence is considered even less likely than John Edwards marrying Rielle Hunter, the "ground zero" of the impossible.

I'm not going to touch the John Edwards bit, but I'll happily point out that the absurdity of her first sentence. No scientist cognizant of evolutionary theory believes that all parts of complex structures "arise at once by random mutation." Yes, mutations may well be random, in the sense that organisms cannot select which mutations to manifest, but their propagation from generation to generation are must assuredly not random. And, more importantly, evolution is a cumulative process, with small changes occurring and combining in unforeseen and unplanned manners. Those that enhance reproduction leave more offspring than those that have detrimental effects.

Interestingly, evolution can be seen to be analogous to the cumulative process that occurs in educated societies. As more and more people study a problem, we learn more about the problem. We discard bad ideas, ideas that are not supported by data, and rally around those that offer the most explanatory power -- constantly refining them as we learn more.

In this context, the problem with what Coulter has written is strikingly clear. She offers her opinion -- an opinion that she proudly points out that she previously stated in her 2006 book "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" -- but she ignores the fact that a great deal of research has occurred since then. Indeed, award winning journalist Carl Zimmer pointed out that there have been 59,000 peer-reviewed papers published in the scientific literature on evolution since Coulter published her screed.

Zimmer goes on to provide a reference to the specific structures Coulter claims could not possibly have evolved: "To see what scientists are actually saying, you can start by reading this review that presents a detailed hypothesis about the incremental evolution of the flagellum and the cilium, based on actual experiments."

In Ann Coulter's universe, our understanding of the world does not grow and change. Instead, she, like Rick Perry, forms an opinion and sticks to it regardless of what the experts might learn. And, like Perry, she panders to the fundamentalist set by calling those who understand and accept evolution "godphobics."

Through my work with the religious leaders and scientists who comprise The Clergy Letter Project, it has become absolutely clear to me that religion and science are not in competition with each other and that thousands of deeply devout clergy are not "godphobic" and are fully supportive of teaching modern evolutionary theory. It also has become clear to me that these individuals are interested in having a richer, more civil and more enlightening conversation about the topic than is evidenced by Coulter's name-calling.

 
 
 

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