The Language of God: A Shoddy Harmonization

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

Collins mentions some creationist positions in light of the fossil record. It’s obvious he doesn’t agree with these arguments: “[n]o serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology…” (p.99). Later in the book, he will defend his thesis that just DNA by itself is enough to give credence to the theory of evolution. But he, unfortunately, does nothing to actually refute the arguments except make assertions of his own.

One creationist argument is that, with all the animals that have existed throughout the ages, there should be billions of transitional fossils for us to discover. Collins points out that fossils can be created only under specific conditions and, given this fact, “it is actually amazing that we have such a wealth of information about organisms that have lived in the past” (p.94). A second argument is that there are no transitional fossils. Collins: “Good evidence exists for transitional forms from reptiles to birds, and from reptiles to mammals. Arguments that this model cannot explain certain species, such as whales, have generally fallen by the wayside as further investigation has revealed the existence of transitional species, of at precisely the date and place that evolutionary theory would predict” (p. 96). A third creationist argument is the brevity of the Cambrian Explosion.

I understand how Collins wants to refute some creationist views. But he does so remarkably poorly – all he gives us are bald assertions. It doesn’t matter if his assertions are correct; he does absolutely nothing to help the reader gain an appreciation for why he is correct. Where are the references, the citations, the footnotes? I’m not saying that Collins has to present a doctoral dissertation to get his readers to accept his statements, but I think even a couple of citations would go a long way. I also understand that this book is generally for the lay person, but I think he underestimates the capability of his audience. The endnotes he provides at the end of the book are pretty meager, so I don’t think adding a couple dozen more would kill him. I’d almost go so far as to say that all Collins has to do is point his readers to the TalkOrigins Index of Creationist Claims and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. Of course, you know they won’t read those sources; I bought my father Jerry Coyne’s book and, after he finished, he said something like “I still don’t see how macroevolution is true.” *facepalm*

As far as his handling of the Cambrian explosion is concerned, he completely dropped the ball on this one. He goes so far as to say that those who think the Cambrian explosion was an intervention by a supernatural force fall into god-of-the-gaps thinking (it seems the god-of-the-gaps fallacy is the only one he’s aware of, given how often he tosses it around), but he doesn’t say why they get the Cambrian explosion wrong. Furthermore, he gets the chronology wrong. He says that evidence suggests that the land remained barren until about 400 million years ago (MYA), at which point plants appeared on dry land. 30 MYA later, we get animals. (Again, no references.) Maybe I’m unsure what Collins means by animals, but TalkOrigins.org cites the Cambrian explosion at around 543-530 MYA. And TalkOrigins does provide references.

Collins’ whole point with this book is to find a way to harmonize science and belief in God (or, at least, his definition of God). He had a chance to do that in this section, and he didn’t do nearly as much as he should have. And that’s a shame.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ritchie

    *pedant mode on*
    30 MYA later…?
    *pedant mode off*

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Just one more example of Collins being not-well-informed outside his own specific field.

    A really good book for rebutting Creationist claims concerning the fossil record is Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero. He sets up the Creationist claims one by one, and demolishes them. Grand Canyon, Cambrian explosion, fossil series showing gradual change, transitional fossils, human ancestor fossils, etc. Lots of good pictures.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    He says that evidence suggests that the land remained barren until about 400 million years ago (MYA), at which point plants appeared on dry land. 30 MYA later, we get animals. (Again, no references.)

    Perhaps he means land animals? The Cambrian critters were all wet.

  • Em

    I bought my father Jerry Coyne’s book and, after he finished, he said something like “I still don’t see how macroevolution is true.” *facepalm*

    The University of Michigan has some interesting research on such situations:

    In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. [...] “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

    Kind of a downer there. But it still doesn’t excuse Collins for not citing his sources.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    If evolution is real, where’s all the transitional species, like flying squirrels?

  • Austin Green

    Furthermore, he gets the chronology wrong. He says that evidence suggests that the land remained barren until about 400 million years ago (MYA), at which point plants appeared on dry land. 30 MYA later, we get animals. (Again, no references.) Maybe I’m unsure what Collins means by animals, but TalkOrigins.org cites the Cambrian explosion at around 543-530 MYA. And TalkOrigins does provide references.

    The Cambrian Explosion was not a diversification event of terrestrial life. Collins is more or less correct in his assertion that the terrestrial realm was not significantly populated until 400 Ma, as far as I can tell. (Truthfully I’m not too good with specific dates, but that sounds to be at about the time of the Silurian-Devonian.) The first terrestrial animals would have been found during the late Devonian, when Eurypterids decided to use their specially adapted water-storing gills to venture on land for bits of time and see what’s around. The Cambrian explosion, however, was an entirely marine diversification event.

  • keddaw

    Comment #5 by: Chris Swanson

    I recall some flying monkeys, but they were working for Christine O’Donnell the witch.

    Incidentally, I recall reading some ‘controversial’ hypothesis that says evolution happens fastest when not driven by natural selection but when it is given free rein to try out many forms and diversify without the non-beneficial changes being immediately preyed upon or out-competed. This makes sense to me and allows for huge variety to occur in (relatively) short periods before a more sedate pace forced by natural selection. What I love about this hypothesis is that it allows for seemingly ‘backwards’ or non-beneficial adaptations to occur that allow for later changes that are very beneficial. i.e. not every step in the evolution of body part X had to make it better than what came before.

    If this is true then we should see similar evolutionary explosions when animals are introduced to new habitats with few competitors or predators. And guess what, we do.

  • BJ Marshall

    @austin green: Thanks for the clarification about the Cambrian Explosion. I think your assessment is correct.

    I do want to point out a pitfall I think I mistakenly fell into: making a false equivocation.

    I can see where I read Collins talking about “barren land” and then “we get animals,” and that made me think “Oh, he must be talking about animals coming onto the barren land.” But then, when I put in the stuff about the Cambrian explosion, I considered the term “animals” in a broader phylogenic meaning, as in “Oh, he must be talking about non-plants.”


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X