In her latest syndicated column, Ann Coulter launched an attack on Darwin's theory of evolution. She argues that "[m]odern science has disproved Darwinian evolution" because biologists now know that many features of organic life, such as complex cell structures, DNA, blood clotting, molecules, and "the cell's tiny flagellum and cilium" are extraordinarily complicated. From this, Coulter makes the leap that such things couldn't possibly have evolved through natural selection and random mutation, claiming this shows that evolution is "mathematically impossible."
Not only is that false, it's yet another example of Coulter's longtime war on science.
The concept Coulter is describing -- originated by intelligent design proponent Michael Behe -- is called "irreducible complexity." The basic idea is that "that there are in organisms 'irreducibly complex' systems that cannot be explained by random mutation and natural selection. These 'irreducibly complex' systems would cease to function if any one part fails -- which Behe claims rules out evolution and leaves only design."
Coulter devoted a significant portion of her 2006 book Godless: The Church of Liberalism to an attempt to disprove evolution. She similarly touted Behe and his "irreducible complexity" theory, claiming it "disproved evolution." Media Matters thoroughly addressed the issue at that time, noting several deep flaws in her reasoning:
The first is that, contrary to Behe's argument, irreducibly complex systems can evolve. Because an irreducibly complex system is defined as one that fails if any one part ceases to function, the concept indicates only that the addition of single parts did not evolve the system. Therefore, other mechanisms of evolution are still left, including deletion of parts, duplication of the system, change of function, addition of a second function to a single part, and gradual modification of parts. Additionally, when two mechanisms that are particularly common -- gene duplication and deletion of parts -- happen together, irreducible complexity is an expected result. This was discovered in 1918 by Nobel prize-winning geneticist Hermann Muller, who referred to the phenomenon as interlocking complexity. Furthermore, there are irreducibly complex systems whose evolutionary origins have been described in detail, such as the Krebs citric acid cycle.
One of Behe's examples that Coulter touts, the flagellum, further calls Behe's assertions into question. On Page 204, Coulter repeats the false claim that "[t]he absence of almost any one of the parts would render the flagellum useless." In reality, the flagellum still functions as either a simpler flagellum or a secretion system if certain parts are lost. Additionally, there are dispensable proteins found in the eukaryotic flagellum.
The idea of irreducible complexity has also been rejected by a federal judge as a basis for including intelligent design theory in public school science curriculum. Finally, the theory has also been rejected by the National Academy of Sciences and "the scientific community in general through peer-reviewed papers."
So the idea that evolution can't be true because living organisms are too complicated to have evolved naturally is, to put it mildly, not a slam dunk.
Running with crazy pseudoscientific theories is well-trodden territory for Coulter, who has a long history of making outlandish statements about the scientific community. She has:
- Referred to particular scientists who study climate change as "global warming cultists who want us all dead."
- Suggested that the idea that the life on earth was created by a "flatulent raccoon" is as valid as the idea that life developed through evolution.
- Called evolution a "fraud" and a "discredited mystery religion."
- Claimed in the wake of the meltdown crisis at Japanese nuclear plants that "radiation is actually good for you."