Rush Limbaugh’s clueless rant about evolution

This last week I had the misfortune to hear Rush Limbaugh flapping his yap attempting to defend Christine O’Donnell’s ignorant comments about evolution. Unsurprisingly his comment were a grab bag of typical creationist nonsense. Here is the audio of the beginning of his diatribe:

Paraphrasing from the audio: “If humans evolved from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”

This is logically exactly the same thing as asking “if my cousin and I are actually related, then why does my cousin still exist?”

The difference here being the number of generations separating humans as a species from other primates (like monkeys) versus those between you and your cousin. And just as you share a common ancestor with your cousin (grandma), we as a species share a common ancestor with other apes and with monkeys.

It is a really brain dead argument and it is one that even many young Earth creationists shy away from. For example Creation Ministries International (formerly part of Answers in Genesis) lists this as one of the arguments that “should definitely not be used

As for Rush’s harangue about Darwin somehow being responsible (along with Freud) for all the evils in the world since his time, this is standard creationist boilerplate and is known as an argumentum ad consequentiam or an “appeal to consequences“. The claim being that if an idea leads to bad consequences then it must be false. This is obvious nonsense.

For example  the theory of relativity undoubtedly played a part (the E = mc2 part) in leading to the development of nuclear weapons (and their subsequent use on Japan at the end of the Second World War and then their proliferation during the Cold War).  Does that mean we  therefore doubt the validity of the theory of relativity? Of course not.

Though I can see why Rush might be troubled by some of Freud’s ideas. I mean, have you seen those cigars Rush smokes?

Anyway, even if (and it is a huge if) we accepted that evolutionary theory led to bad things happening this would not detract from its scientific credibility. And of course there are plenty of good reasons to not even accept the huge IF in the first place.

See just about the whole first section of Philosophy and Theology section to the Index to Creationist Claims.

In the audio clip Rush finally wonders what would have happened if Darwin had become a street sweeper rather than a scientist. Well, that’s easy. We would now be arguing about Alfred Russel Wallace’s (the co-discover of natural selection) theory of evolution instead of Darwin’s. This is because it was only a matter of time before some scientist would have figured out how evolution works. If it wasn’t Darwin or Wallace then it would have been someone else, just as someone would have  eventually developed relativity theory had Einstein never been born.

Shortly after where the clip leaves off he got a call from a well meaning conservative atheist who tried to set him straight but it was clear that the caller wasn’t familiar enough with creationist arguments to effectively answer Limbaugh’s bilge.

Let’s take a look.

RUSH: Well, the only thing that some people have with Darwin is that they believe evolution cannot explain creation. I happen to agree with that. I don’t think evolution can explain creation. And something had to evolve from something. Where does something come from? It didn’t evolve from nothing. Something had to put it there. It had to be created. Darwin tries to argue against creation, and it gives the anti-creationists ammo, Darwin does. I think it actually limits inquiry and curiosity, contrary to promoting it.

CALLER: Well, but why would you disparage a certain theory just because you can’t explain something else? I mean, you know, there’s lots of –

RUSH: Well, Darwin can’t prove his, either.

CALLER: I think there is solid evidence in favor of Darwin. Like I said, 98% DNA the same. If you look at — if you look at the fossils –

RUSH: Okay, what Big Banged? There was a Big Bang, right? The Big Bang of what?

Rush is asking evolution not simply to explain the origin and diversification of species but to explain the origin of the universe and life as well, something it is not intended to do. This is absolutely typical of creationists who regularly conflate the theories and conclusions of all of modern science with evolutionary theory. This is why you will often hear them speak of “evolutionist astronomers” or “evolutionist physicists”.

They seem to think that if the findings of any scientific discipline contradicts their theology then that makes it part of evolutionary theory.  It doesn’t. It means their theology conflicts with all of modern science not just evolutionary theory.

If someone (like Rush) starts off by stating they have a problem with evolution and then proceeds to ask  critical questions about Big Bang theory, then they are completely ignorant of the subject and not in a position to be pontificating about it (especially not on nationally syndicated radio).

RUSH: Of course creationism is — but Darwinism is faith, too. That’s my whole point. Darwinism is presented as absolute science, inarguable science, and it’s faith as well.

CALLER: It is science. It is science, Rush. There’s a lot of evidence –

RUSH: Well, then I’m going to say creationism is a science, intelligent design is a science. If you say my faith isn’t a science, I’m going to say yours isn’t.

Here Rush throws out the old creation science canard that both creationism and Darwinism evolutionary theory are faith positions and implies that he can declare creationism to be science by fiat. Talk about hubris.

Evolutionary theory is based upon countless observations of empirical evidence from a wide array of scientific disciplines (creationist claims notwithstanding). Creationism is a theological position taken without regard for the evidence. Indeed,  often in active disregard of it.

And in fact arguments like Rush’s are not only rejected by pretty much all of the scientific community (for over a century), they have also been repeatedly rejected by the courts (for half a century).

See:

Claim CA610: Evolution is a religion because it encompasses views of values and ultimate meanings.

Claim CA612: Because evolution has never been observed, the theory of evolution requires as much faith as creationism does.

Next Rush regurgitated another hoary old chestnut: the tautology argument.

RUSH: There’s another objection that some people have to evolution, and that is, to some people it’s a tautology, survival of the fittest, meaning that what survives is the fittest.  … Now, back to tautology. How do you know it’s the fittest, survival of the fittest? Well, the only way you know that it’s the fittest is that if survived. It’s just circular. It really doesn’t advance anything.

This is another argument that is so bad that a lot of young Earth creationist say it isn’t a good idea to use it. Creation Ministries International lists it on their site as one of the arguments which they think “are doubtful, hence inadvisable to use“.

The reason it’s bad is that if falls apart as soon as you move away from the phrase “survival of the fittest” (coined not by Darwin but Herbert Spencer) to actually looking at real life examples of natural selection. Organisms are not considered “the fittest” merely because they survive, rather they are fittest, or rather fitter than their conspecifics, because they tend to survive and reproduce at greater rates for specific reasons in a specific environment.

For example, in the mid-1970′s Japanese scientists discovered a species of Flavobacterium living in industrial waste ponds which had the ability to digest nylon 6 (a man-made polymer). It was later determined that they gained this ability through a couple of different mutations which ultimately led to them being able to produce several enzymes which could break down nylon 6 into edible bits. This opened up a whole new source of food to this strain of Flavobacterium that was unavailable to their conspecifics who had not inherited the nylonase producing mutations thus giving them an advantage.

So nylonase producing Flavobacterium, living in ponds full of nylon 6, were “fitter” than non-nylonase producing Flavobacterium in the same environment because they had access to a whole new food source unavailable to their un-mutated conspecifics.

They are not the “fittest” merely because they survived, they are the fittest because they have a specific ability—producing nylonase—in a specific environment—ponds full of nylon 6—which gives them access to food unavailable to the “less fit” (in that particular environment) Flavobacterium who cannot produce nylonase.

There is nothing tautological or circular about that, and that is what Darwin, and every evolutionary biologist since, has meant by natural selection (or “survival of the fittest”).

See:

Claim CA500: Natural selection, or “survival of the fittest,” is tautologous (i.e., uses circular reasoning).

Evolution and Philosophy: A Good Tautology is Hard to Find by John Wilkins

Is Natural Selection a Tautology? by Jason Rosenhouse

Darwin’s Untimely Burial by Stephen Jay Gould

RUSH: It’s always amazed me that liberals embrace this [survival of the fittest]. Liberals hate the survival of the fittest, do they not? Liberals are obsessed with the equality of outcome. Liberals say they’re animated and motivated by the fact that they can’t stand the inequality of things. It’s not fair that somebody should be richer than somebody else. It’s not fair that somebody should have two houses while somebody else has only one. Well, if they’re gonna profess their belief in evolution, isn’t it the case that the survival of the fittest must be allowed to explain all of this? In other words, that some people have more than others because they’re more competent; they’re more able; they’re more fit. And yet the same people want to tell us, “Oh, yeah, you have to believe in survival of the fittest. That’s why the weak members of the tribe end up being slaughtered, that’s why the weak lion goes away and gets creamed by the wildebeest or whatever the hell happens. You know, vanishes into the veldt in Rhodesia.”

What Rush is espousing here is the “naturalistic fallacy” or an “appeal to nature” or rather he is attacking a strawman of “Liberals” by insisting that they must espouse such arguments.

These fallacies are essentially the argument that what is natural or what happens in nature is good and moral and therefore we should promote it. For example if in nature male mammals kill the offspring sired by their female’s former mate then we should do likewise (that would have made the Brady Bunch a radically different show!).

The problem here is obviously that just because nature is “cruel” and “heartless” (it is actually neither as “nature” has no intent) doesn’t mean that is how we want to conduct our lives or order our societies. We can accept that in nature the weak usually die, that the strong survive, and that this drives evolution as the process of natural selection, while at the same time deciding that for ourselves as intelligent, hopefully civilized, beings we are going to nurture the weak among us and that  this is the “right” thing to do.

Indeed Darwin himself in his The Descent of Man (1871), after speculating that our caring for the ill and infirm might lead to the propagation of the ‘less fit’ wrote the following:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. – Darwin, Charles (1871) The Descent of Man, Chap. V [emphasis mine]

So Darwin, contrary to what people like Rush would have us think, thought that we must help the “weak and helpless” even if it somehow conflicted with how natural selection works in nature.

Rush’s caricature also falsely assumes that natural selection is always about strong individuals dominating weaker individuals when in fact it often about individuals cooperating together for mutual benefit (think bees, termites, African wild dogs, lions, naked mole rats, most primates, etc. etc. etc.) .

So there is no necessary contradiction in accepting evolution driven by natural selection while simultaneously advocating charity, “social justice” or even socialism.

Finally even if “Liberals” were somehow being inconsistent, so frelling what? That would only mean that “Liberals” were inconsistent, not that there was a problem with evolutionary theory. Contrary to what Rush might think the universe does not revolve around his imagined cosmic battle between “Liberals” and “Conservatives”. Being a political independent myself I don’t give a dren what “Liberals” think about evolution.

RUSH: Darwin’s major premise is the Origin of the Species. Now, I, living in Literalville, say, point me to a species we have seen originate. I’m sorry, I live in Literalville. Origin of the Species. Okay, I’m sorry. As much as people may love Darwin, he cannot explain the Origin of the Species. And nor can I. Nor can Marx, and nor can Obama.

Only Limbaugh could bring Karl Marx (or perhaps he meant Groucho) and President Obama into a discussion about speciation. And not too surprisingly, Rush is once again using an argument that  the young Earth creationists at Creation Ministries International say is one that “should definitely not be used” against evolution:

CMI: ‘No new species have been produced.’ This is not true—new species have been observed to form. In fact, rapid speciation is an important part of the creation model.

In fact several instances of speciation have more or less been directly observed (fruit flies & mosquitoes) and several more fairly recent examples are strongly supported by the evidence (African cichlids).

See:

Claim CB910: No new species have been observed.

Observed Instances of Speciation by Joseph Boxhorn

Some More Observed Speciation Events by Chris Stassen et al.

Of course many creationists, remaining in denial will counter examples such as observed speciation in fruit flies with the quip that the daughter species are still fruit flies demanding to directly observe fruit flies giving rise to some completely different type of insect or organism (dogs turning into cats etc.).

Time and again I’ve seen creationists wave away examples of speciation as simply being “variation within a kind” and demanding to see documentation of much more radical changes as evidence for evolution, like a fish turning into amphibians in one or only a few generations.

The problem with this is that evolutionary theory predicts we shouldn’t ever see such radical transformations within the lifetime of a human being. According to our understanding of genetics and the mechanisms of speciation all we should be able to see within our lifetimes are exactly what we do see, small changes from one species to another. For example a new, slightly different, species of guppy arising from an already existing species of guppy. The sorts of changes required for amphibians to evolve from fishes would take many hundreds of thousands, or more likely millions of years to occur, and through innumerable intermediate speciation events. For evidence of this we have to look elsewhere (the fossil record, genetic comparisons etc.).

So ironically creationists demand to see as evidence for evolution something which evolutionary theory says shouldn’t ever happen (heads they win, tails you loose).

In fact, if guppies ever did start giving birth to salamanders, that would be a miracle (creation), not evolution.

RUSH: But Darwinism isn’t science any more than creationism is. Global warming is not science, it’s not been proved in the scientific method. Another test of whether something is — and I’d have to confirm this with my official climatologist, Dr. Roy Spencer, University of Alabama Huntsville — but to me another test of whether something is science or not is if it’s predictive. Can you predict from your knowledge of the science? Evolution is not predictable. What has evolution ever predicted? What can we know for certain is going to happen down the road because of evolution?

Evolutionary theory predicts lots of things. Some in the standard sense of saying that this or that will be found to be true in the future, and also in the sense of making coherent sense of what was already known to be true when Darwin first formulated his theory, something known as retrodiction.

A classic example of a prediction—in the standard sense—based on evolution, comes from Darwin himself. In his book The Descent of Man (1871) in which he predicted the most likely place for our species to have originated:

On the Birthplace and Antiquity of Man – We are naturally led to enquire, where was the birthplace of man at that stage of descent when our progenitors diverged from the catarhine stock? The fact that they belonged to the stock clearly shews that they inhabited the Old World; but not Australia nor any oceanic island, as we may infer from the laws of geographical distribution. In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere. – Darwin, Charles (1871) The Descent of Man, Chap. VI (On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man)

See:

Claim CA210: A true science must make predictions. Evolution only describes what happened in the past, so it is not predictive for more examples.

Evolution and Philosophy: Predictions and Explanations by John S. Wilkins

Amongst the number of retrodictions made were that there should be a time-ordered pattern of change in the fossil record. That such a pattern existed was already considered an established fact by creationist geologists in the early 19th century. Evolutionary theory gave a logical, coherent, scientific reason for why this should be so.

The same can be said for the observed detailed patterns of similarities amongst living things (homologies) and the fact that all living things could be classified into a nested hierarchy, both things also considered established facts long before Darwin published the Origin of Species.

Evolution not only made sense of these things but for evolution to be true these things (and several others) had to follow. Creationism on the other hand is not bound by any such logical restrictions.

If there is a time-ordered pattern of change in the fossil record, great, it is because that’s how God did it.

If there was no time-ordered pattern of change in the fossil record, no problem, it is because that’s how God did it.

If living things can be classified into a nested hierarchy, fine, it is because that is how God did it.

If living things could not be classified into a nested hierarchy, that’s OK, it is because that is how God did it.

Any state of facts could be accommodated by creationism since God is not limited in how or why he does things. This is why “God did it” is not a scientific explanation.

RUSH: Just the other day, maybe yesterday, the day before, I had a story in the Stack of Stuff, they found 150 new species somewhere, didn’t even know existed. Well, okay, cool. I thought we were destroying species, but that’s beside the point, where did these come from? Simply because we didn’t know them, does that mean they weren’t there, because we had not discovered these species, they weren’t there? I’m sorry, I don’t believe that. Just because we didn’t know it doesn’t mean they weren’t there before we found out about it.

This last bit left me baffled. For the life of me I don’t know what the hell his point was supposed to be, or who is he arguing with. Who said that because we haven’t yet identified a species it doesn’t exist? Certainly no biologist that I am aware of has ever argued such a thing.

Of course given Rush’s palpable ignorance regarding evolution, it isn’t surprising that he might wander off into total incoherence from time to time.

2 thoughts on “Rush Limbaugh’s clueless rant about evolution

  1. A good analysis and dissection. Rush is best at pointing out the foibles of the other party, but when off the political reservation he sounds clueless. When I heard this segment live I was surprised about it as the last time he went off like this was back during Dover. I thought he learned to keep low about such matters when the verdict was handed down.

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