Atheist Christopher Hitchens Takes Creationist to Task

on July 26, 2008

Rabid atheist Christopher Hitchens, writing in online magazine Slate, takes creationists to task for our alleged “blindness” to the “de”-evolution of sight.

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It seems Hitchens has done some work recently in the field of cave salamanders—and by work, we mean watching television! Hitchens explains what he thinks may be an evolutionary insight:

I was watching the astonishing TV series Planet Earth . . . and had come to the segment that deals with life underground. . . . Various creatures were found doing their thing far away from the light, and as they were caught by the camera, I noticed—in particular of the salamanders—that they had typical faces. In other words, they had mouths and muzzles and eyes arranged in the same way as most animals. Except that the eyes were denoted only by little concavities or indentations. Even as I was grasping the implications of this, the fine voice of Sir David Attenborough was telling me how many millions of years it had taken for these denizens of the underworld to lose the eyes they had once possessed.

Hitchens points out that creationists often point to the eye as a primary example of design—a feature that defies evolution except in the minds of those willing to suspend disbelief. But Hitchens begins to quote atheist Michael Shermer on how the eye could have originated through sequential evolutionary steps. The fuller story is usually oversimplified thusly:

  1. a simple light-sensitive spot
  2. a depression forms housing the light-sensitive spot
  3. the depression closes, forming a nearly enclosed pouch with a pinhole aperture
  4. the pouch is covered over by transparent tissue and filled with transparent fluid, and eventually all the parts of the modern eye evolve (lens, cornea, iris, retina, etc.)

(See the links below for materials describing the incredible eye!)

Hitchens then sets up fellow polemicist Ann Coulter as a stand-in for anyone identifying with the Intelligent Design movement or any variant of creationism. Hitchens quotes Coulter, who writes in Godless: The Church of Liberalism, “The interesting question is not: How did a primitive eye become a complex eye? The interesting question is: How did the 'light-sensitive cells' come to exist in the first place?”

At this point, however, Hitchens’ logic becomes tumultuous:

The salamanders of Planet Earth appear to this layman to furnish a possibly devastating answer to [Coulter’s] question. Humans are almost programmed to think in terms of progress and of gradual yet upward curves . . . [b]ut what of the creatures who turned around and headed back in the opposite direction, from complex to primitive in point of eyesight, and ended up losing even the eyes they did have?
Whoever benefits from this inquiry, it cannot possibly be Coulter or her patrons at the creationist Discovery Institute. The most they can do is to intone that “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” Whereas the likelihood that the post-ocular blindness of underground salamanders is another aspect of evolution by natural selection seems, when you think about it at all, so overwhelmingly probable as to constitute a near certainty.

So excited was Hitchens about this as-yet unclear burst of intuition that he e-mailed Richard Dawkins, another icon of atheism, to ask his thoughts. Dawkins wrote back:

"Why on earth would God create a salamander with vestiges of eyes?"

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? Why give them dummy eyes that don’t work and that look as though they were inherited from sighted ancestors?

Hitchens concludes with such thoughts as, “I am not myself able to add anything about the formation of light cells, eyespots, and lenses, but I do think that there is a dialectical usefulness to considering the conventional arguments in reverse, as it were.”

So . . . that’s it? The argument is so disappointing (as we’ll explain below) that, if it weren’t so prominently authored by an iconic atheist/evolutionist, we certainly wouldn’t bother covering it in News to Note. But, lest our silence be misinterpreted as being at a loss for answers, here are our thoughts.

Hitchens’ argument shows he is not familiar with what the vast majority of creationists (if not the entirety) believes (including young-earth and old-earth creationists as well as advocates of generic “intelligent design”). Hitchens’ observation is intended to ridicule the crowd that believes in fixity of species (that species never change). But who is a member of this crowd? Not anyone we know. We submit that when it is implied that creationists believe in such absolute fixity of species, that this is merely a straw man that evolutionists prop up to knock down. The Bible certainly doesn’t teach us that organisms never change.

What creationists do believe, based on observational science and the Bible’s teaching, is that animals only reproduce after their kind—a taxonomic division generally much more inclusive than species or even genus. The genotypic and phenotypic characteristics of an individual (or the frequencies of genotypes and phenotypes present in a population) may change in certain ways, but not in information-adding ways that could turn a molecule into a man in millions of years. Thus, it is well within the creationist framework for a population of salamanders living in a cave to lose their eyes over time, as eyeless salamanders are more “fit” to survive than those who use up energy to grow and maintain useless eyes. (Furthermore, the views of old-earth creationists and advocates of intelligent design are even less strict about what changes an organism may undergo—yet Hitchens lumps them in, too, as victims of his argument.)

In other words, Hitchens mistakenly assumes that believing life was designed precludes believing also that life-forms can change at all. Think of it this way: let’s say we discover a computer program that has the ability to change, within limits, to accommodate different operating systems and hardware capabilities. The computer program always has the same purpose; there are only ever minor, and usually negative, variations in the program, such as automatic disabling of some features if the computer hardware is deficient. Of course, the program is thousands of lines of complicated programming code.

The computer program always has the same purpose.

Should a computer user, upon discovering the program’s ability to adapt, claim the program must have “adapted its way into existence”!? Of course not—yet this is what evolutionists effectively believe. How much more absurd, then, would it be to ridicule those who believe the program had a programmer by pointing out its adaptive capabilities—which were intentionally designed by the programmer!

The closing paragraph of Hitchens’ article indicates that creation is not all he misunderstands about the biblical worldview. He writes:

[T]o the old theistic question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” we can now counterpose . . . the foreseeable heat death of the universe . . . and the not-so-far-off collision of our own galaxy with Andromeda . . . . So, the question can and must be rephrased: “Why will our brief ‘something’ so soon be replaced with nothing?” It’s only once we shake our own innate belief in linear progression and consider the many recessions we have undergone and will undergo that we can grasp the gross stupidity of those who repose their faith in divine providence and godly design.

Frustrating as Hitchens’ juvenile rhetoric may be, it’s at least a reminder to keep him and others in need of salvation in your prayers.

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