Stark raving mad...

Well, it looks like Ed Brayton beat me to this one, but since I penned most of this post by the time I saw his, I figure I’ll go ahead and share it anyway.

After Jason’s excoriation of Sisson, I thought we’d hit rock-bottom in terms of ignorant dilettantes. If only it were so. Rodney Stark, professor of sociology at Baylor (home to another favorite of ours), proves that there really is no rock-bottom when it comes to anti-evolutionist diatribes. His just published bit in The American Enterprise is titled Fact, Fable, and Darwin. And man is it a doozy.

He starts out with a disingenuous disclaimer and then jumps in with both feet:

I write as neither a creationist nor a Darwinist, but as one who knows what is probably the most disreputable scientific secret of the past century: There is no plausible scientific theory of the origin of species!

You might think at this point that Stark would go into a lengthy discussion of allopatry vs. sympatry, mechanisms of reproductive isolation, chromosomal speciation, and other well-known theories of speciation that have been written about at length over many decades. Uh-uh. Instead, what we get is a litany of ridiculous claims, no clearly defined terms, ad hominems of every kind, and above all, quote-mining. (And man, is there ever some serious quote mining - he even reproduces the canard about Gould saying there were no transitional fossils, candidly dispatched by Ed Brayton here.) The usual creationist blather is all dragged out: biologists are covering up a dark secret; they’re guilty of deception; they all know it’s all false but just won’t say so because of orthodoxy; their entire motivation is atheism – in other words, the sort of stuff that strikes everyone but true believers as an absurd and dishonest attempt to discredit scientific expertise.

I won’t spend time going through all of Stark’s rambling opus and refuting each bit of nonsense as it crops up - there’s way too much of it, and I would hate to deprive our peanut gallery the chance to take it apart piece by piece - so I’ll just get to the heart of the matter. Stark writes:

The biological world is now classified into a set of nested categories. Within each genus (mammals, reptiles, etc.) are species (dogs, horses, elephants, etc.) and within each species are many specific varieties, or breeds (Great Dane, Poodle, Beagle, etc.).

It was well-known that selective breeding can create variations within species. But the boundaries between species are distinct and firm–one species does not simply trail off into another by degrees.

(waits for laughter to die down. . .)

Needless to say, anyone who thinks that mammals are a genus and that elephants comprise a single species needs to be hit over the head with a grade-school text book and forever disbarred from opening his mouth when it comes to biology. His bombast about species boundaries being firm and distinct is hard to take seriously given that he doesn’t even know what a species is. If he did, he might realize that speciation has been observed on multiple occasions, and that there are innumerable examples of how species blend into one another, as is the case with Darwin’s finches, and with ring species. Heck, even elephants make a good example.

The fact that Stark doesn’t clearly define what he’s talking about makes it easy for him to connect a number of disjointed issues into one seamless stream of dishonest nonsense, which rambles from topic to topic with little in the way of coherence. Scientists quoted about speciation are treated as if they were talking about higher-level evolution, and vice-versa. Mechanisms of small-scale evolution are confused with common descent, and so on. To a person knowledgeable about biology and evolution, there is no meaningful continuity in Stark’s piece, and certainly nothing that’s not grossly misleading.

The typology that Stark so brazenly insists is biological reality was abandoned by scientists long ago, not because of some metaphysical bias as Stark indulges himself to believe, but because the facts just don’t fit. It’s just not possible to shoehorn biological organisms into Platonic types; they consistently confound any attempt to do so because they contain too much variation, and in some cases, they blend right into each other. That’s why there’s more than one species concept - it can be very hard to tell when you’ve got two or more species, or when you have a single species with many varieties. The only reason that higher-level taxonomic groups are so distinct is because extinction has wiped-out the intermediates.

Creationists (from whom Stark appears to have borrowed all of his arguments) have long insisted that typologically distinct organisms (what they call “kinds”) are real, but their arguments are entirely unpersuasive. Most poignantly, they have been unable to come up with a consistent definition of “kinds” that can withstand trivial counter-example. Does “kinds” mean species? Well, observed instances of speciation make that untenable. Attempts to define “kinds” as being equivalent to higher taxonomic categories are inconsistent and invariably end up with completely different categories for different taxa – sometimes it’s genera, sometimes it’s phyla, and at other times it’s anything in between. (The one consistency is that humans and chimps are never in the same “kind”, even though far more dissimilar species frequently are.) But at least creationists realize the scope of the problem. Rodney Stark, on the other hand, is not yet up to that level of sophistication.