Buchanan’s Inane Rant Against Darwin

July 2006
by Steven Novella, MD

Linus Pauling was a brilliant Nobel laureate chemist but his name is probably more recognized today for his touting of the amazing curative powers of Vitamin C and orthomolecular medicine. It is unfortunate that Dr. Pauling fell victim to a common intellectual pitfall – wandering with undue authority into disciplines beyond one’s true expertise. Linus Pauling incorrectly thought that his background as a chemist and his general prowess as a scientist would serve him well in the very different and specialized field of medicine. The result was an embarrassing footnote at the end of a brilliant scientist’s career.

Far worse a spectacle than a scientist straying a bit far from their field is when non-scientist intellectuals attempt to apply their cognitive powers to a scientific controversy while they understand little about how science works and less about the relevant scientific facts of the controversy. Recently, political commentator and one-time presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan gave a stunning example of this precise folly, in two essays on Darwinism and Intelligent Design.

Early in both essays Buchanan extols the virtues of Tom Bethell and his book “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.” Bethell, a journalist and also not a scientist, attacks Darwinian evolution, along with a long line of other scientific claims, from global warming to cloning – basically any accepted scientific claim that is inconvenient for his political views. So Buchanan compounds his own ignorance by committing another intellectual sin in apparently relying upon a non-authoritative secondary hostile source for his information.

The result is a string of absurd and easily refuted claims regarding evolutionary theory. It is worthy to note that this is a departure from Buchanan’s typical quality and style when dealing with political issues. Regardless of what you may think about his politics, he has earned a reputation for being at the very least careful and factual in constructing his arguments, and at times even insightful. It is an intriguing fact of the human condition that someone like Buchanan can be a thought-leader within the political arena and simultaneously a blathering idiot in the scientific arena.

The Claims

The Core of Buchanan’s argument is that Darwinian evolution is devoid of factual support and therefore must be taken on faith alone. This premise leads Buchanan in his first article, “Darwinism on Defense,”1 to characterize Darwinism as being on the decline and in fact to predict its demise. Creationists, of course, have been playing this tune for decades – claiming evolution is a “theory in crisis” and on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile, the factual basis for evolution has progressed impressively, and it remains a robust and growing scientific discipline. If evolutionary theory is in trouble it seems the entire scientific community has failed to notice.

Buchanan writes: “For generations, scientists have searched for the ‘missing link’ between ape and man. But not only is that link still missing, no links between species have been found.” This statement is so contrary to reality it would be the equivalent of Buchanan stating as a premise to a political argument that Israel does not exist and is only a myth.

Despite a virtual flood of transitional fossils (what Buchanan quaintly refers to as “missing links”) over the last century, this claim is still a favorite of creationists. But before I launch into a satisfying list of transitional fossils, let me define what is meant by this, for creationists are often vague and inconsistent on this point. A transitional species (whether extinct or extant) is one that occupies a place on the evolutionary tree of life that lies morphologically and temporally between two other species. This could be an extinct species that is ancestral to two living species, an extinct species that connects a more recent species to a more ancient species, or any permutation of possible evolutionary relationships.

So let’s take Buchanan’s first example of modern humans and modern apes. Darwin’s theory predicted that we would find fossil evidence of older species that were morphologically between apes and humans – and this is exactly what has been discovered. There are now numerous identified species of hominids that walk upright like humans but have brain sizes that are smaller for their body size than any human yet larger than any living ape. The oldest hominids, Australopithecus africanus, afarensis, and robustus, were bipedal like modern humans but retained some limb features characteristic of tree-climbers. Their brains were only a little larger than modern apes, and their faces were protruding. More recent hominids like Homo habilis and Homo erectus had fully modern bipedal gaits and still larger brains and flatter faces, but still not up to modern human specs. The most recent species, Homo neandertalensis and Homo sapiens (us) have, of course, human sized brains. There are still other hominid species, displaying a branching bush of evolutionary change, of which we happen to be the only surviving member.

What does this vast array of fossil evidence represent if not the “missing links” between humans and apes? And if not, what would transitional forms between humans and apes look like? One wonders if Buchanan has ever visited a museum of natural history.

What about other transitional fossils? Well, to name a few of my favorites, there is now fossil evidence for many species of feathered bird-like small dinosaurs. Some of these species, like Archaeopteryx, are almost literally half bird and half dinosaur.2 In fact creationists cannot agree among themselves whether they should dismiss Archaeopteryx as not transitional because it is a full bird that happens to have had teeth, a bony tail, and a suite of other reptilian characteristics, or a full dinosaur with faked feathers. The feathered dinosaur evidence is a slam-dunk for evolution.

Whales have also been a traditional favorite for creationists. In the 1980’s and 90’s a number of species that are half-way between modern whales and their terrestrial ancestors were found. Among them is Ambulocetus – a literal walking whale. Swish!

There are beautiful transitional forms between reptiles and mammals, fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, ants and wasps, and countless more. Just browse through talkorigins.org for a staggering list of transitional forms.3

Buchanan brings up the example of bats, and it is true that we have not discovered fossil evidence of bat ancestors. There are plenty of gaps in the fossil evidence, as of course there should be. But more importantly, over time the gaps in the fossil evidence are slowly being filled in – as evolutionary theory (but not creationism) predicts. Yet there will always be (albeit shrinking) gaps. Twenty years ago whales were the favorite example of creationists, then Ambulectus walked all over that example so now they have bats. When bat ancestors are discovered they will just migrate their example over to some other gap.

Buchanan writes: “No one denies “micro-evolution” – i.e., species adapting to their environment. It is macro-evolution that is in trouble.” The problem with this statement is that there is no operational definition of “micro-evolution” vs “macro-evolution”. There is no theoretical basis for drawing a line between the two. For example, if one accepts micro evolution then why won’t small changes accumulate over hundreds of millions of years to add up to big (macro) changes? Also, modern genetics has shown that single mutations can result in big morphological changes as easily as small ones. Mutations in genes that control development from a fetus to an adult, for example, can have profound “macro” changes on the adult organism.

Buchanan also repeats this piece of creationist nonsense that was crusty thirty years ago when I first heard it:

“The Darwinian thesis of ‘survival of the fittest’ turns out to be nothing but a tautology. How do we know existing species were the fittest? Because they survived. Why did they survive? Because they were the fittest.”

Darwin’s theory of the mechanism of evolution, often simplified as “survival of the fittest” is that members of a species display a broad range of natural variation that is acted upon by natural selection. Those traits that provide an advantage to survival and reproduction have a greater chance of being represented in future generations. Being “fittest” is not merely defined as having survived but rather as those animals who can run faster to escape a predator, reach higher to gain access to leaves others cannot reach, blend into their environment to avoid detection, or perhaps even have the brightest plumage to attract a mate. Being fittest may be defined as producing the most eggs, or having a stronger parental instinct to guard those eggs from predators. Population geneticists have validated the concept of differential survival based upon adaptive traits – so survival of the fittest is no mere hypothesis, it is a proven fact of nature.

Buchanan’s second article, “Darwin’s Pyrrhic Victory”4 was written after Judge John Jones III handed down a scathing decision against the Dover, PA school board, ruling that Intelligent Design is not science but rather Christian faith trying to disguise itself as science, and therefore teaching it in public school science classrooms violates the constitutional provision of separation of church and state.5 Here Buchanan does little more than restate his premise that there is no evidence for Darwin’s ideas so it is just as much faith as any other notion.

Buchanan also makes a common, although still inexcusable, mistake of incorrectly stating the following: “Darwinism claims, for example, that matter evolved from non-matter – i.e., something from nothing – that life evolved from non-life; that, through natural selection, rudimentary forms evolved into more complex forms; and that men are descended from animals or apes.” Evolutionary theory only deals with the latter two claims; it has nothing to say about the origin of matter or the origin of life from non-life. These are separate scientific disciplines.

But Buchanan goes on to commit the classic denier strategy of saying that neither matter nor life has been produced in a test tube, therefore there is no evidence for a natural (non miraculous) origin for either. Here he is applying a falsely narrow and entirely inappropriate criterion to a scientific question. Historical sciences, like cosmology and evolution, do not function entirely in the laboratory. They often operate by inferring the past by observing the universe today. We will never make a big bang in the laboratory, that doesn’t mean we cannot think about it scientifically, or that we must bow to any particular religious concept of the origin of everything.

Finally Buchanan turns from older style creationist arguments to those more in vogue among current Intelligent Design advocates. He writes: “A retreating glacier may have created the mountain, but the glacier didn’t build the cabin on top of it. Reason tells us the cabin came about through intelligent design.”

Here Buchanan is clumsily repeating the ID notion that if something looks complex it must have been designed. However, this misses entirely the fact that simple natural processes can spontaneously create complexity over time, if there is a mechanism. Evolution requires a system – in this case life – that can use energy to reproduce itself, that incorporates variation and the potential for “mistakes” in reproduction, and differential survival through selective pressures. This allows for the accumulation of favorable variation, for an increase in complexity over time. This complexity may be astounding, given enough time, and even beautiful and elegant, as self-regulating systems tend to be. Yet it should also be blind and messy. What a perfect description of life, for that is exactly what we find.

Biology displays beauty and elegance, but also inefficiency, flawed design, and illogical quirkiness. It is what you would expect from a constrained evolved system, a system that is forced to clumsily use parts on hand for whatever challenge of survival happens to occur. Life does not resemble a top-down designed system, a final product designed directly in its current form.


In the arena of ideas, Buchanan has embarrassed himself. Luckily for him, his reputation is not based upon his knowledge of science or his savvy as a scientific thinker. His two articles, taken together, do serve as yet another cautionary tale – caution against the hubris that causes someone to pontificate about matters they do not understand simply because they have an audience, and caution against the always perilous intrusion of politics into science.

Darwin’s contribution to humanity’s knowledge of the natural world has proven to be profound and enduring – far beyond the ability of Buchanan or those with an anti-scientific political or religious agenda to diminish.


1) Buchanan, P. Darwin on Defense. www.theamericancause.org/a-pjb-051219-darwinism.htm (April 06, 2006)
2) Novella, S. Creationists Run Afowl of the Evidence, The New England Journal of Skepticism, Vol.2 Issue 1, Jan. 1999
3) Talkorigins.org transitional fossil bibliography, www.talkorigins.org/origins/biblio/transitional_fossils.html
4) Buchanan, P. Darwin’s Pyrrhic victory. www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=48102 (April 06, 2006),
5) Kitzmiller vs Dover School District, Dec. 20, 2005; http://fl1.findlaw.com/news.findlaw.com/hdocs/docs/educate/ktzmllrdvr122005opn.pdf