Jerry Coyne Evades Evolution 2.0

I got this question from an inquisitive reader:

I’m wrestling with some essential Jerry Coyne here. I figure this is pretty fundamental and therefore worth my taking the time to understand better.

Coyne says:

What we mean by “random” is that mutations occur regardless of whether they would be good for the organism. That is, the chances of an adaptive mutation occurring is not increased if the environment changes in a way that would favor that mutation.  The word “random” does not, to evolutionists, mean that every gene has the same chance of mutating, nor that mutation rates can’t be affected by other things. What it means is that mutation is not somehow adjusted so that good mutations crop up just when they would be advantageous. My friend Paul Sniegowski, a professor at Penn, uses the term “indifferent” instead of “random,” and I think that’s a better way to describe the neo-Darwinian view of mutations.

– What Coyne says is actually consistent with how you and Denis Noble and others define “random,” yes? no?

Coyne is saying: ‘OK, mutation patterns are not

“mathematically random” because of transposition etc having specific patterns, but the mutations themselves do not have a larger goal.’

That is Jerry Coyne’s definition of “random.”
In other words he is saying mutations might have patterns, but they’re still not teleological.
Shapiro and Noble and I are all insisting the mutations are teleological. (Along with McClintock, Margulis, etc.)
Teleological means there is a goal. Unlike water flowing downhill, which only takes the path of least resistance, a teleological system tries to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’ In order to get there, it will find a way over, find a way under, go around the left or the right – even when faced with unpredictable obstacles.

– And your core issue with Coyne (at least on this point) is that heritable variation is NOT random, even as he defines it. Your 5 blades of the evolutionary Swiss Army Knife are the primary causes of heritable variation, not random mutation. Yes?


Coyne then goes on:

And there are no experiments—none—showing that mutations are not indifferent, and plenty showing they are.

Is that just a patently false statement? If so, how does an informed person answer Coyne’s assertion here?

This is where I got this, by the way:

It is patently false.
I counter the same assertion by PZ Myers in my blog post “Memo to PZ Myers: Damage is random. Repair is not.”
Corn plants repairing ring chromosomes when Barbara McClintock damaged them with x-rays is not random. The plant was trying to reproduce so it repaired its DNA by creating a novel DNA sequence (suffering from missing information) and went on to reproduce. This is clearly teleological.
Bacteria go into SOS response when subjected to shock and rapidly repair their DNA. That is teleological.
Nearly all cells employ a 3-stage process for DNA error detection and correction. This decreases the copying error rate from 1 error per 10,000 base pairs to 1 in a billion. That is teleological. (Shapiro 2011)
Starving bacteria mutations rates go up by a factor of 100,000 as they attempt to locate a physiology that enables them to digest other nutrients that are present in the environment.
Hybrids merge, doubling the number of chromosomes (for example emmer wheats + goat grass = modern wheat); epigenetics switches nearly half of the genes off because they’re not needed, and then over a period of time, “hybrid dysgenesis” deletes genes that are no longer necessary, reducing the size of the genome.
That’s teleological.
Insects burrow into leaves and the plant develops structured called “galls” in response to the parasitic activity. The plant re-arranges its genome in patterns that are utterly unique to different kinds of parasites. That is teleological. (McClintock 1984)
Colonies of bacteria differentiate into different specialized jobs depending on where they are located. Their genomes re-arrange accordingly to help them do their jobs. This is teleological and highly contextual.
Bacteria getting killed by antibiotics go into hypermutation and do horizontal gene transfer and a small % of them find a solution and develop resistance. That is teleological.
University of Redding in the UK deletes flagella genes and then those bacteria rebuild the missing coding sequences. They grow flagella and start swimming around. (This took 4 days.) That is teleological.
When Coyne says “there are no experiments—none—showing that mutations are not indifferent” he is either lying or willfully ignoring 75 years of well documented experiments.
When Jerry Coyne says “Famous physiologist embarrasses himself” that’s a tell. It’s really code for “Famous physiologist embarrasses Jerry Coyne.”
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7 Responses

  1. Logan Mccardle says:

    I would like to add an ecologists perspective to some of your assertions.

    Admittedly I have not read your book, and you may have at some point have addressed the objections I am about to bring up and if so please let me know, but I have read several of your blog posts including this one where you continuously posit teleology as a driver of beneficial mutations, and these objections never come up.

    It seems to me that if you are going to posit teleology, then you have three hurdles to overcome, which as of yet (to my knowledge) you have not addressed.

    Hurdle 1) If need or some form of decision making drives beneficial variation why then are 99% of all organisms that have ever existed on the planet extinct? If there is an intelligence (in fact a super-intelligence) guiding evolution as you claim why is it can only seem to get it right 1% of the time? Could it be possible that when you look at life on earth today you are looking at the 1% that won the evolutionary lottery, and that 1% when viewed through your engineers design-seeking lens (coupled with an inadequate understanding of biology) gives the mere appearance of design? Can you please explain the 99% extinction of all species in a design/teleological framework?

    Hurdle 2) Related to hurdle 1, why are extinction rates today on average low estimates 10 times higher than background levels due to human activity (for some taxa such as amphibians it can be >40,000 times higher than background)? Why is not the built in teleological driver that you propose saving earth’s biodiversity from the actions of the designer’s favorite design (humans)?

    Hurdle 3) The Red Queen

    I am very interested to hear your response.

    • “If need or some form of decision making drives beneficial variation why then are 99% of all organisms that have ever existed on the planet extinct?”

      Logan, that is no different than saying “If all those business owners are smart and purposeful, then why do most of them still go out of business?”

      Answer is, just because something is purposeful doesn’t make it omniscient or all powerful. It’s just that simple.

      As an engineer I can tell you that no machine or program anywhere works at all without teleology getting inserted somewhere. If you know an exception please demonstrate it. I have a $3 million prize for a naturally occurring code at

      Answer to 2 is the same as one. You seem to be saying “existence of extinction rules out teleology.” That is a non-sequitur.

      • Logan Mccardle says:

        But you are not talking about mere human designers are you? So your designer is not omniscient and all powerful then? It’s just a tinkerer who sometimes gets it right, and a given species persists, but most of the time (overwhelmingly so) gets it wrong and the species goes extinct? Well then that is statistically no better than random i.e. – if you are going to posit teleology then you have to have a designer that gets it right at least 1/10 times. < 1/100 is no different than what would be expected under statistical randomness, and is what occurs under the natural un-directed process of evolution.

        As a biologist I can tell you that DNA is an emergent natural "code" that has precursors (RNA world) – in so far as it can be described as a code and its functionality can be explained without invoking teleology. So I guess you owe me $3 million then right? I know people have pointed this out to you previously, and you give some lame dishonest excuse why DNA does not count as a naturally arising code.

        Thanks for the non-answers (You copped out of question 2, and completely ignored question 3).

        • Just because evolution doesn’t produce the nice safe sanitized results that we might have all hoped for doesn’t make it random. Just because species go extinct doesn’t mean the process of speciation is random.

          You do not seem to understand what randomness is or what I am asking for.

          The prize specification is posted at Go through the specification step by step and answer each of the questions. In the process you will likely begin to understand what we are really seeking here.

          Of course DNA doesn’t count! Using DNA as your proof when you don’t know where DNA came from in the first place and can’t prove it, is called “Begging the question.” This is a well known fallacy in philosophy.

  2. HI Perry,

    I wonder: do you use ‘programming’ and ‘teleological’ interchangeably?

    Just like any protein, a car shock absorber always seeks it’s ground state. Would you consider the relaxation of a shock absorber to be a teleological event?

    • no.

      • Donald Hall says:

        First off, I really enjoyed your book and it was very helpful during a rough point in my life. I thank you for that. It has been awhile since I read it so I need some clarification on this topic. I remember you saying in your book of a conversation with your brother about whether every now and then a good mutation improve or create a bird species. My question is if we do have random mutations all the time (or at anytime) and the mutation just happens to be something that improves a detail in the species and makes it better, then would natural selection work just fine in weeding out the rest of the specifics. Or would a mutation that changes a detail in the species just simply causes a change and natural selection through time begins to change that species into something else. At times I think that if a random mutation happens and changes a detail of the species and it happens to be better, then natural selection could work just fine. Any clarification on this would be helpful.

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