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Christopher Hitchens and His Cave Myths

In his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, atheist author Christopher Hitchens calls intelligent design (ID) "tripe" and "a huge menacing lurch forward by the forces of barbarism." While supporting the evolution of humans, he asserts that there is "[n]o divine plan" and that "[e]verything works without that assumption." Hitchens laments the existence of religion because "millions of people in all societies still prefer the myths of the cave and the tribe and the blood sacrifice." (pg. 282) In his debate against Jay Wesley Richards, Hitchens reportedly argued against God by alleging that God would not create certain features we observe, to which Richards aptly replied, "A sneer is not an argument." Unfortunately, Hitchens is still using sneers as arguments. What's more, it now seems that it is Hitchens who prefers myths about caves.

In a recent article published on Slate.com, Hitchens claims that intelligent design is refuted due to the presence of vestigial eyes on blind cave salamanders. He even got Richard Dawkins to back him up, saying: "Vestigial eyes, for example, are clear evidence that these cave salamanders must have had ancestors who were different from them--had eyes, in this case. That is evolution. Why on earth would God create a salamander with vestiges of eyes? If he wanted to create blind salamanders, why not just create blind salamanders?"

Ignoring the fact that Hitchens and Dawkins misconstrue ID in theological terms, the problem with the argument is that ID fully accepts that varying degrees of Darwinian evolution can take place, and in fact ID proponents regularly point out that evolution is quite good at effecting loss-of-function. While random mutations usually fail miserably at creating new complex biological functions, they are in fact quite good at messing up complex biological functions (or doing nothing). When natural selection occasionally prefers the "messed up" state, it's quite capable of preserving it. But the neo-Darwinian mechanism is not good at producing new complex functions. As I wrote earlier this year regarding species that live in caves:

[E]xamples of loss-of-function in organisms may be best explained by natural processes of random mutation and natural selection. In this regard, features like functionless eyes on blind cave fish are probably best explained by Darwinian evolution. This poses no challenge to the validity of intelligent design in other cases. ID is far more interested in explaining the GAIN of biological function rather than loss of function.

("Another Intelligent Design Prediction Fulfilled: Function for a Pseudogene")

In his book The Making of the Fittest, biologist Sean B. Carroll uses such "loss of function" examples to explain how the "fittest" are "made." As I wrote in response to Carroll:
Carroll gives a few other examples in his chapter explaining "the making and evolution of complexity." The first involves the fact that single mutations in various genes can abolish eyes or the pelvis in fish. These are simple mutations which turn off regulatory genes, thereby preventing an organ structure from forming. His second example deals with the loss of wing spots on butterfly wings. Again, the mechanism is a simple mutation which turns off the wing-spot genes. These examples all invoke loss of function by turning of pre-existing genes. Exactly how are the fittest made? Carroll's examples don't answer that question.

(Casey Luskin, "The Evolutionary Gospel According to Sean B. Carroll".)

Hitchens, Dawkins and Carroll can have all the evidence they want that the neo-Darwinian mechanism can mess things up, turn genes off, and cause "loss-of-function." No one on any side of this debate doubts that random mutations are quite good at destroying complex features. Us folks on the ID side suspect that random mutation and natural selection aren't good at doing very much more than that. And the constant citations by Darwinists of "loss of function" examples as alleged refutations of ID only strengthens our argument.

Meanwhile, ID proponents seek to explain a far more interesting aspect of biological history: the origin of new complex biological features. Despite his quotation of Michael Shermer on the evolution of the eye, Hitchens has yet to do that.