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Christopher Hitchens—blind to salamander reality

Photo by ensceptico, flickr.comChristopher Hitchens

A well-known atheist’s ‘eureka moment’ shows the desperation of evolutionists

In a recent article in the leftist online magazine Slate, prominent atheistic journalist Christopher Hitchens (b. 1949) thinks he has found the knock-down argument against creationists and intelligent design supporters. Fellow misotheist Richard Dawkins (b. 1941) and another anti-theist Sir David Attenborough (b. 1926) agree. Not surprisingly, there have been questions to us about this, so Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds. As will be seen, their whole argument displays ‘breathtaking inanity’ and ignorance of what creationists really teach, and desperation if this is one of their best proofs of evolution.

Christopher Hitchens is a British-born American journalist and author, recently best known for his antitheistic book God Is Not Great. He is also an avid debater, although he seemed to come off second best against Dinesh D Souza (b. 1961), author of What’s So Great About Christianity?1 In a bizarre recent article, Losing Sight of Progress: How blind salamanders make nonsense of creationists claims,2 Hitchens thinks he has clinched the case for his antitheistic faith. He begins:

It is extremely seldom that one has the opportunity to think a new thought about a familiar subject, let alone an original thought on a contested subject, so when I had a moment of eureka a few nights ago, my very first instinct was to distrust my very first instinct. To phrase it briefly, I was watching the astonishing TV series Planet Earth (which, by the way, contains photography of the natural world of a sort that redefines the art) and had come to the segment that deals with life underground. The subterranean caverns and rivers of our world are one of the last unexplored frontiers, and the sheer extent of the discoveries, in Mexico and Indonesia particularly, is quite enough to stagger the mind. 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.
Photo by Yolaine Conti, sxc.husalamander

So Hitchens thinks that eyeless salamanders are a ‘moment of eureka’. He later explains why:

If you follow the continuing argument between the advocates of Darwin’s natural selectiontheory and the partisans of creationism or “intelligent design”, you will instantly see what I am driving at. The creationists (to give them their proper name and to deny them their annoying annexation of the word intelligent) invariably speak of the eye in hushed tones. How, they demand to know, can such a sophisticated organ have gone through clumsy evolutionary stages in order to reach its current magnificence and versatility?

That is indeed a problem, and Hitchens continues:

The problem was best phrased by Darwin himself, in his essay “Organs of Extreme Perfection and Complication”:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

As we have advised in our Don’t Use page, care must be taken with this quote. Darwin went on to say that although it seems absurd, he nevertheless believes it could have happened via small changes worked on by natural selection. Hitchens goes on to say:

His defenders, such as Michael Shermer in his excellent book Why Darwin Matters, draw upon post-Darwinian scientific advances. They do not rely on what might be loosely called “blind chance”:

Evolution also posits that modern organisms should show a variety of structures from simple to complex, reflecting an evolutionary history rather than an instantaneous creation. The human eye, for example, is the result of a long and complex pathway that goes back hundreds of millions of years. Initially a simple eyespot with a handful of light-sensitive cells that provided information to the organism about an important source of the light …

This is indeed a continuation of Darwinian ideas. Yet there are a number of problems with this as well as the next point. For example, the usual simulations start with the nerve behind the light-sensitive spot. The vertebrate eye has the nerves in front of the photoreceptors, while the evolutionary just-so story provides no transitions from behind to in front, with all the other complex coordinated changes that would have to occur as well. See also Fibre optics in eye demolish atheistic bad design argument.

Hold it right there, says Ann Coulter in her ridiculous book 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?”

Coulter’s book actually nails the ‘Darwiniacs’, as she calls them, on this and in many other places. Indeed, the photochemistry involved in even the simplest light-detecting cells is enormously complex. So although evolutionists claim to be climbing a gentle slope up ‘Mt Improbable’, they are really starting from a sheer ledge near the top. See At the bottom of Mount Improbable? Eye evolution, a case study.

The salamanders of Planet Earth appear to this layman to furnish a possibly devastating answer to that question. Humans are almost programmed to think in terms of progress and of gradual yet upward curves, even when confronted with evidence that the past includes as many great dyings out of species as it does examples of the burgeoning of them. Thus even Shermer subconsciously talks of a ‘pathway’ that implicitly stretches ahead. But 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?

Well, what about them? This is the crux of Hitchens’ argument. Yet this is his own blind spot. Proving that someone can fall down the mountain (Improbable or otherwise) is hardly proof that he could have climbed up there in the first place. That’s the general problem with many alleged proofs of evolution: it’s not that the changes are too small, but that they are going in the wrong direction —see The evolution train’s a-comin (Sorry, a-goin in the wrong direction).

This is easily explainable: there are many ways to break something, but not many ways to make something in the first place. So it’s not surprising that it would be relatively easy for a mutation, or copying mistake in the genes, to ruin the eyes. In the light, natural selection would eliminate such mutations, since blind creatures could see neither prey nor predators.

But in a pitch-black cave, there would be no natural selection against blind creatures, so they could proliferate. They might even have an advantage, because a shrivelled eye is less likely to be damaged. Creationists have explained this long ago—see New eyes for blind cave fish? A remarkable experiment leads to much evolutionary misinterpretation.

In one of the best known blind cave fish, Astyanax mexicanus, there is another reason why the blind fish can have an advantage in caves. This is pleiotropy, where a single gene has more than one effect on an organism. It turns out that a control gene, hedgehog, which affects a number of processes including development of the jaws and tastebuds, also inhibits another control gene, pax6, which controls development of the eyes. A fish with bigger jaws and more sensitive tastebuds would have an advantage in finding food, but this must be traded off with the loss of eye development. In the light, loss of eyes is a big disadvantage, so natural selection would eliminate a fish that over-expresses hedgehog, despite its better jaws and taste. But in the dark caves, a fish with highly expressed hedgehog would have a big advantage, since the loss of eyes would be irrelevant.3

Also, to underscore the point that there are many ways to break things, there are actually a number of ways to produce blindness, even in Astyanax. This is shown by breeding different populations of blind fish, and resulting in a number of sighted progeny. This is explained because the sight loss in the different populations is caused by different mutations, so ‘when you cross them, the genetic deficiencies in one lineage are compensated for by strengths in the other, and vice-versa.’4 We have also pointed this out in Let the blind see: Breeding blind fish with blind fish restores sight, so Hitchens has even less excuse—exactly the same principles apply to blind salamanders and other blind troglobionts (cave-dwelling living organisms).

When it comes to breaking something, it need not take very long either. Breaking is often quicker than making, just as it’s often much quicker to fall off a mountain than to climb it. We can see this in humans, when sighted parents have blind children due to a genetic defect—this can happen in only one generation. Yet Hitchens gushed:

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.

He of course provides no proof. Indeed, the fact that sight can be regained in one generation shows that there has been little time for mutations to further degenerate the genes—note that natural selection would not preserve genes connected to eyes and the visual parts of the brain if there were no selection for eyesight. Indeed, Dr John Sanford, inventor of the gene gun, in his book Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome, shows that the known rate of harmful mutations accumulation would have resulted in error catastrophe if we had really been around for millions of years.

But Hitchens blunders on:

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.’

Biblical Christians believe that not only was there a ‘very good’ creation, but also a Fall due to Adam’s sin, whereupon God cursed the creation. If someone tries to show that a certain philosophical system is incoherent, it is perfectly in order for a defender of this system to invoke certain aspects of this system to defend its coherence. So when an atheist attacks the biblical creation model, it is perfectly in order to cite the biblical Fall to defend the integrity of this belief system. One result of the Fall was deleterious mutations.

This means that the explanation above was perfectly compatible with the biblical model.

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.

Which is why creationists agree that mutations and selection is the right explanation. But we have also pointed out that natural selection is the opposite of evolution, since it removes information.

Indeed, creationists proposed natural selection as a conservative force well before Darwin, which hinders the downward slide of a population by eliminating the less fit. The blind fish are one of the best proofs of this: natural selection conserves sight in most populations by eliminating sightless mutants; when this selective pressure is removed, blind mutants proliferate, so the population goes informationally downhill.

I wrote to professor Richard Dawkins to ask if I had stumbled on the outlines of a point, and he replied as follows:

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? Maybe your point is a little different from this, in which case I don’t think I have seen it written down before.

Of course, creationists deny God created blind salamanders, and agree that this is one genuine example of a vestigial organ. But even genuine vestigial organs prove merely devolution, not evolution. What would be impressive would be a nascent organ, one growing where none existed before in the creature’s ancestry. Dawkins must be willingly ignorant of what creationists teach, or is deceitfully knocking down a straw man. After all, why should his ethics be trusted under his own belief system when Dawkins has agreed that ultimately evolution ‘leads to a moral vacuum … in which [people’s] best impulses have no basis in nature’, and scoffed at the idea of righteous indignation and retribution against child murderers and other vile criminals?

I recommend for further reading the chapter on eyes and the many different ways in which they are formed that is contained in Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable;

I’ve already read that—see my review.

also “The Blind Cave Fish’s Tale” in his Chaucerian collection The Ancestor’s Tale.

Also reviewed in the Journal of Creation.5

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.

As shown, there is a big difference in the forward and reverse directions: as one of Australia’s leading molecular biologists, Dr Ian Macreadie, pointed out:

‘Evolution would argue for things improving, whereas I see everything falling to pieces. Genes being corrupted, mutations [mistakes as DNA is copied each generation] causing an increasing community burden of inherited diseases. All things were well designed initially.’

For example, to the old theistic question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Which we note Hitchens has not actually answered. Atheists must believe by faith that nothing exploded and became everything.

we can now counterpose the findings of professor Lawrence Krauss and others, about the foreseeable heat death of the universe, the Hubble “red shift” that shows the universe’s rate of explosive expansion actually increasing, and the not-so-far-off collision of our own galaxy with Andromeda, already loomingly visible in the night sky. So, the question can and must be rephrased: “Why will our brief ‘something’ so soon be replaced with nothing?”

That’s a problem if the natural world is all there is, but no problem for the Christian who believes that God has promised to make a new heaven and new earth. See also Theistic evolution: Future shock? and The future some issues for long-age Christians and

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.

More likely, we should appreciate the wonders of design we observe, but also recognize that the present world has degenerated from perfection. This should be an eye-opener to those in the IDM who think we should ‘leave the Bible out of it’; without the real history of the Bible, Christians have always been vulnerable to arguments of deteriorated and vicious design.

Update: Christopher Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011). See Christopher Hitchens: Staring Death in the Face … And the difference that Biblical Creation makes!.

Published: 26 July 2008

References and notes

  1. See review of D’Souza’s book by Lita Sanders, Mostly masterful defence of Christianity; pity it’s slack on creation, Journal of Creation 22(2): 32–35, 2008. Return to text.
  2. Slate, www.slate.com/id/2195683, 21 July 2008. Return to text.
  3. W.R. Jeffrey, Adaptive evolution of eye degeneration in the Mexican blind cavefish, Journal of Heredity 96(3):185–196, 2005. Return to text.
  4. New York University, Progeny of blind fish can regain their sight, ScienceDaily 8 Jan 2008; the work was formally published in an issue of Current Biology. Return to text.
  5. See review by Lael Weinberger, Long tails, tall tales, Journal of Creation 22(1):37–40, 2008. Return to text.