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Thursday, August 10th, 2006
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Godless: The Church of Liberalism

by Ann Coulter

Coultergeist

A review by Jerry Coyne

H. L. Mencken once responded to a question asked by many of his readers: "If you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, then why do you live here?" His answer was, "Why do men go to zoos?" Sadly, Mencken is not here to ogle the newest creature in the American Zoo: the Bleached Flamingo, otherwise known as Ann Coulter. This beast draws crowds by its frequent, raucous calls, eerily resembling a human voice, and its unearthly appearance, scrawny and pallid. (Wikipedia notes that "a white or pale flamingo ... is usually unhealthy or suffering from a lack of food.") The etiolated Coulter issued a piercing squawk this spring with her now-notorious book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism. Its thesis, harebrained even by her standards, is that liberals are an atheistic lot who have devised a substitute religion, replete with the sacraments of abortion, feminism, coddling of criminals, and -- you guessed it -- bestiality. Liberals also have their god, who, like Coulter's, is bearded and imposing. He is none other than Charles Darwin. But the left-wing god is malevolent, for Coulter sees Darwin as the root cause of every ill afflicting our society, not to mention being responsible for the historical atrocities of Hitler and Stalin.

The furor caused by her vicious remarks about the 9/11 widows ("I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much.") has distracted people from the main topic of her book: evolutionary biology, or rather the pathetic pseudoscientific arguments of its modern fundamentalist challenger, Intelligent Design (ID). This occupies four of Coulter's eleven chapters. Enamored of ID, and unable to fathom a scientific reason why biologists don't buy it, Coulter suggests that scientists are an evil sub-cabal of atheist liberals, a group so addicted to godlessness that they must hide at all costs the awful "truth" that evolution didn't happen. She accuses evolutionists of brainwashing children with phony fossils and made-up "evidence," turning the kids into "Darwiniacs" stripped of all moral (i.e., biblical) grounding and prone to become beasts and genocidal lunatics. To Coulter, biologists are folks who, when not playing with test tubes or warping children's minds, encourage people to have sex with dogs. (I am not making this up.)

Any sane person who starts reading Godless will soon ask, Does Coulter really believe this stuff? The answer is that it doesn't much matter. What's far more disturbing than Coulter herself (and she's plenty disturbing: On the cover photo she has the scariest eyes since Rasputin) is the fact that Americans are lapping up her latest prose like a pack of starved cats. The buyers cannot be political opponents who just want to enjoy her "humor"; like me, those people wouldn't enrich her by a dime. (I didn't pay for my copy.) Rather, a lot of folks apparently like her ravings -- suggesting that, on some level at least, they must agree with her. And this means that the hundreds of thousands of Americans who put Coulter at the top of the best-seller lists see evolution as a national menace.

Well, that's hardly news. We've known for years that nearly half of all Americans believe in the Genesis account of creation, and only about 10 percent want evolution taught in public schools without mentioning ID or other forms of creationism. But it's worth taking up the cudgels once again, if only to show that, contrary to Coulter's claim, accepting Darwinism is not tantamount to endorsing immorality and genocide.

First, one has to ask whether Coulter (who, by the way, attacks me in her book) really understands the Darwinism she rejects. The answer is a resounding No. According to the book's acknowledgments, Coulter was tutored in the "complex ideas" of evolution by David Berlinski, a science writer; Michael Behe, a third-rate biologist at Lehigh University (whose own department's website disowns his bizarre ideas); and William Dembski, a fairly bright theologian who went off the intellectual rails and now peddles creationism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. These are the "giants" of the ID movement, which shows how retarded it really is. Learning biology from this lot is like learning elocution from George W. Bush.

As expected with such tutors, the Darwinism decried by Coulter is the usual distorted cardboard cut-out. All she does is parrot the ID line: There are no transitional fossils; natural selection can't create true novelty; some features of organisms could not have evolved and therefore must have been designed by an unspecified supernatural agent. And her "research" method consists of using quotes taken out of context, scouring biased secondary sources, and distorting what appears in the scientific literature. Judging by the shoddy documentation of the evolution section, I'm not convinced that the rest of the book isn't based on equally shoddy research. At any rate, I won't belabor the case that Coulter makes for ID, as I've already shown in TNR that her arguments are completely bogus.

What is especially striking is Coulter's failure to tell us what she really believes about how the earth's species got here. It's clear that she thinks God had a direct hand in it, but beyond that we remain unenlightened. IDers believe in limited amounts of evolution. Does Coulter think that mammals evolved from reptiles? If not, what are those curious mammal-like reptiles that appear exactly at the right time in the fossil record? Did humans evolve from ape-like primates, or did the Designer conjure us into existence all at once? How did all those annoying fossils get there, in remarkable evolutionary order?

And, when faced with the real evidence that shows how strongly evolution trumps ID, she clams up completely. What about the massive fossil evidence for human evolution -- what exactly were those creatures 2 million years ago that had human-like skeletons but ape-like brains? Did a race of Limbaughs walk the earth? And why did God -- sorry, the Intelligent Designer -- give whales a vestigial pelvis, and the flightless kiwi bird tiny, nonfunctional wings? Why do we carry around in our DNA useless genes that are functional in similar species? Did the Designer decide to make the world look as though life had evolved? What a joker! And the Designer doesn't seem all that intelligent, either. He must have been asleep at the wheel when he designed our appendix, back, and prostate gland.

There are none so blind as those who will not see, and Coulter knows that myopia about evolution is a lucrative game. After all, she is a millionaire, reveling in her status as a celebrity and stalked by ignorazzis. I have never seen anyone enjoy her own inanity so much.

But after ranting for nearly a hundred pages about evolution, Coulter finally gives away the game on page 277: "God exists whether or not archaeopteryx ever evolved into something better. If evolution is true, then God created evolution." Gee. Evolution might be true after all! But she's just spent a hundred pages telling us it isn't! What gives? As Tennessee Williams's Big Daddy said, there's a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room.

What's annoying about Coulter (note: there's more than one thing!) is that she insistently demands evidence for evolution (none of which she'll ever accept), but requires not a shred of evidence for her "alternative hypothesis." She repeatedly assures us that God exists (not just any God -- the Christian God), that there is only one God (she's no Hindu, folks), that we are made in the image of said God, that the Christian Bible, like Antonin Scalia's Constitution, "is not a 'living' document" (that is, not susceptible to changing interpretation; so does she think that Genesis is literally true?), and that God just might have used evolution as part of His plan. What makes her so sure about all this? And how does she know that the Supreme Being, even if It exists, goes by the name of Yahweh, rather than Allah, Wotan, Zeus, or Mabel? If Coulter just knows these things by faith alone, she should say so, and then tell us why she's so sure that what Parsees or Zunis just know is wrong. I, for one, am not prepared to believe that Ann Coulter is made in God's image without seeing some proof.

Moreover, if evolution is wrong, why is it the central paradigm of biology? According to Coulter, it's all a big con game. In smoky back rooms at annual meetings, evolutionists plot ways to jam Darwin down America's throat, knowing that even though it is scientifically incorrect, Darwinism (Coulter says) "lets them off the hook morally. Do whatever you feel like doing -- screw your secretary, kill Grandma, abort your defective child -- Darwin says it will benefit humanity!"

Unfortunately for Coulter (but fortunately for humanity), science doesn't work this way. Scientists gain fame and high reputation not for propping up their personal prejudices, but for finding out facts about nature. And if evolution really were wrong, the renegade scientist who disproved it -- and showed that generations of his predecessors were misled -- would reach the top of the scientific ladder in one leap, gaining fame and riches. All it would take to trash Darwinism is a simple demonstration that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, or that our closest genetic relative is the rabbit. There is no cabal, no back-room conspiracy. Instead, the empirical evidence for evolution just keeps piling up, year after year.

As for biologists' supposed agenda of godlessness -- how ridiculous! Yes, a lot of scientists are atheists, but most have better things to do than deliberately destroy people's faith. This goes doubly for the many scientists -- roughly a third of them -- who are religious. After all, one of the most vocal (and effective) opponents of ID is Ken Miller of Brown University, a devout Catholic.

The real reason Coulter goes after evolution is not because it's wrong, but because she doesn't like it -- it doesn't accord with how she thinks the world should be. That's because she feels, along with many Americans, that "Darwin's theory overturned every aspect of Biblical morality." What's so sad -- not so much for Coulter as for Americans as a whole -- is that this idea is simply wrong. Darwinism, after all, is just a body of thought about the origin and change of biological diversity, not a handbook of ethics. (I just consulted my copy of The Origin of Species, and I swear that there's nothing in there about abortion or eugenics, much less about shtupping one's secretary.)

If Coulter were right, evolutionists would be the most beastly people on earth, not to be trusted in the vicinity of a goat. But I've been around biologists all of my adult life, and I can tell you that they're a lot more civil than, say, Coulter. It's a simple fact that you don't need the Bible -- or even religion -- to be moral. Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews, who don't follow the New Testament, usually behave responsibly despite this problem; and atheists and agnostics derive morality from non-biblical philosophy. In fact, one of the most ethical people I know is Coulter's version of the Antichrist: the atheistic biologist Richard Dawkins (more about that below). Dawkins would never say -- as Coulter does -- that Cindy Sheehan doesn't look good in shorts, that Al Franken resembles a monkey, or that 9/11 widows enjoyed the deaths of their husbands. Isn't there something in the Bible about doing unto others?

The mistake of equating Darwinism with a code of behavior leads Coulter into her most idiotic accusation: that the Holocaust and numberless murders of Stalin can be laid at Darwin's door. "From Marx to Hitler, the men responsible for the greatest mass murders of the twentieth century were avid Darwinists." Anyone who is religious should be very careful about saying something like this, because, throughout history, more killings have been done in the name of religion than of anything else. What's going on in the Middle East, and what happened in Serbia and Northern Ireland? What was the Inquisition about, and the Crusades, and the slaughter following the partition of India? Religion, of course -- or rather, religiously inspired killing. (Come to think of it, the reason Hitler singled out the Jews is that Christians regarded them for centuries as the killers of Christ. And I don't remember any mention of Darwinism in the Moscow Doctors' Trial.) If Darwin is guilty of genocide, then so are God, Jesus, Brahma, Martin Luther, and countless popes.

As Coulter well knows, the misuse of an idea for evil purposes does not mean that idea is wrong. In fact, she accuses liberals of making this very error: She attacks them for worrying that the message of racial inequality conveyed by the book The Bell Curve could promote genocide: "Only liberals could interpret a statement that people have varying IQs as a call to start killing people." Back at you, Ann: Only conservatives could interpret a statement that species evolved as a call to start killing people.

Coulter clearly knows better. I conclude that the trash-talking blonde bit is just a shtick (admittedly, a clever one) calculated to make her rich and famous. (Look at her website, where she whines regularly that she is not getting enough notice.) Her hyper-conservativism seems no more grounded than her faith. She has claimed that the Bible is her favorite book, she is rumored to go to church, and on the cover of Godless you see a cross dangling tantalizingly in her décolletage. But could anybody who absorbed the Sermon on the Mount write, as she does of Richard Dawkins, "I defy any of my coreligionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell"? Well, I wouldn't want Coulter to roast (there's not much meat there anyway), but I wish she'd shut up and learn something about evolution. Her case for ID involves the same stupid arguments that fundamentalists have made for a hundred years. They're about as convincing as the blonde hair that gets her so much attention. By their roots shall ye know them.

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.


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