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December 22, 2011 12:49 pm

Dr. Jerry Coyne: My Culturally-Jewish, Atheistic, Biologist Bro’ at the University of Chicago

avatar by Moshe Averick

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Dr. Jerry Coyne: My Bro' at U. of C.

I recently took a look at Dr. Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True, and came across a post entitled “Oy Gewalt! A creationist rabbi attacks me.” Intrigued, I immediately began reading. Imagine the shock to my system when I discovered – in the very first sentence – that the identity of this “creationist rabbi” who attacked Dr. Coyne, was none other than myself: “The notorious and obstreperous Rabbi Moshe Averick…” Ok, I wasn’t really shocked. Someone had mentioned to me that he had responded to a recent article of mine where I had…well, attacked him.

While the “Fort Sumter moment” of this battle of dueling-blogsters was a post by Dr. Coyne entitled “David Berlinski makes an ass of himself defending Intelligent Design“ to which I fired back with a column on, the substance of our disagreement has boiled down to two points, which really turns out to be one main point with a distracting sidebar. The main point in Dr. Coyne’s own words:

  • “The notorious and obstreperous Rabbi Moshe Averick, whose shtick is that life couldn’t have arisen by natural means, ergo God…”
  • “Averick, who thinks he’s struck the Achilles heel of evolution by arguing that we know nothing about the origin of life…”
  • “Averick’s shtick has always been that since science can’t tell us how life arose from nonliving precursors, God must have done it. He claims to be a novice in all other areas of evolution, not qualified to pass judgment on neo-darwinism, or my  own work, but he’s 100% sure about abiogenesis [life from non-life]; science not only can’t tell us how life began, but never will.

In other words, Dr. Coyne and I disagree about what is the most reasonable answer to the question “How did life begin?” Everyone agrees that science has no answer; in fact the origin of life is one of the biggest mysteries in the scientific world. It is important to clarify that Darwinian Evolution and Origin of Life are two completely separate fields of scientific inquiry. Once the staggeringly complex and sophisticated machinery of life is in place – more specifically, the DNA-based self-replicating system common to all life – it becomes possible to envision a process of Darwinian Evolution. On the other hand, Origin of Life researchers are involved in the extraordinarily difficult task of trying to figure out how that machinery, along with an encyclopedic amount of genetically coded information could have been assembled in the first place from non-living chemicals. It is a terrible mistake to confuse these two areas of research. That is why I found it strange that Dr. Coyne wrote, “Averick…thinks he’s struck the Achilles heel of evolution by arguing that we know nothing about the origin of life…”

The fact that we know nothing about the origin of life is not the Achilles heel of evolution – evolution can take place only after life begins – it is the Achilles heel of atheism. You see, Dr. Coyne is certain that one day scientists will propose/discover a plausible, empirically demonstrable, testable, and falsifiable natural pathway through which life could have emerged from non-life. I, on the other hand, confidently assert that the gaping chasm between non-life and life is so wide, that it is absurd to think that it could have been crossed by means of an unguided, naturalistic process. Bridging the gap between life and non-life is a fundamentally different type of challenge than bridging the gap between higher and lower forms of life: “The gulf between a mixture of simple chemicals and a bacterium is much more profound than the gulf between a bacterium and an elephant.” (the late Dr. Robert Shapiro, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, NYU – not a supporter of ID theory) In my opinion, the astoundingly high level of functional complexity found in the “simplest” bacterium could only have been the result of an act of creation by a conscious intelligent agent.

Why should we fight?

It does not seem to me that a simple disagreement about the origin of life should be cause for me and Dr. Coyne to be at each others throats. From my perspective, the salvos we fire back and forth at each other are more like two gamers playing an online version of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto; although it is clear we strongly disagree there is certainly no personal hostility involved. My guess is that Dr. Coyne feels the same. In fact, in his Oy Gewalt! post he does display a slapstick, Jerry Lewis-like sense of humor which I found to be very entertaining and funny. In the middle of the post he inserted this picture:

No, it is not Dr. Ernst Mayr (the distinguished gentleman on the screen), the famous evolutionary biologist who is issuing the challenge, it is the distinguished gentleman in front of the screen, Dr. Jerry Coyne, who is saying, “Come At Me Bro.” As I said, this picture shows a playfulness and sense of humor that I appreciated. I would also like to point out that nobody has ever seen Jerry Lewis and Jerry Coyne in a room at the same time.

Jerry, I am respectfully answering your challenge and would like to “come at you bro.” Let’s stop fighting over the internet and meet in person and have a mature, civil discussion about Origin of Life. I think the University of Chicago would be a wonderful place to have an exciting and stimulating evening of mind vs. mind, intellect vs. intellect, and worldview vs. worldview. Don’t forget, I grew up in

the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago and Hyde Park was my old stomping grounds. I’ve always loved the U. of C. campus. The more I think about it the better it sounds. After all, we do have quite a bit in common; two nice Jewish boys in Chicago who love Hyde Park, who love to hack away at our word processors, who thoroughly enjoy an honest battle of ideas, and most important of all, we both love pastrami sandwiches!

As a show of good faith that I sincerely want to bury the hatchet, I am sending you a virtual gift. Happy Chanukah Jerry, to you and your loved ones. Looking forward to hearing from you.

A Peace Offering from Rabbi Averick to Dr. Jerry Coyne.

Re:  the distracting sidebar (read: tempest in a teapot) that I mentioned earlier.

“Every living cell, even the simplest bacterium, teems with molecular contraptions that would be the envy of any nanotechnologist. As they incessantly shake or spin or crawl around the cell, these machines cut, paste and copy genetic molecules, shuttle nutrients around or turn them into energy, build and repair cellular membranes, relay mechanical, chemical or electrical messages—the list goes on and on, and new discoveries add to it all the time. It is virtually impossible to imagine how a cell’s machines, which are mostly protein-based catalysts called enzymes, could have formed spontaneously as life first arose from nonliving matter around 3.7 billion years ago.” (“The Origin of Life on Earth”, Jack Szostak and Alonso Ricard, Scientific American, Sep. 2009)

Disclaimer with prejudice: Dr. Jack Szostak, Nobel Laureate, is an atheist and a firm believer in a naturalistic origin of life. Although it is clear from the above citation that Dr. Szostak is well aware of the profound challenges involved in discovering a naturalistic origin of life, he has made it absolutely clear that he does not believe in Intelligent Design theory. While Dr. Szostak has offered some speculative theories about how life might have emerged from non-life, suffice it to say there is no conclusive evidence to support his proposals. I have quoted Dr. Szostak, both in my book and in articles, to support the undisputed fact that Origin of Life researchers face enormous challenges in their attempt to discover an unguided process which would result in the emergence of life from the pre-biotic slime 3.8 billion years ago, and that until now these attempts have met with failure. I have never tried to portray Dr. Szostak as a supporter of ID theory or a believer in God. I stated explicitly in my book that none of the scientists I cite are supporters of ID theory, including Dr. Szostak. If anything I’ve ever written made it appear that I did, it was unintentional.

If you wish to be notified when Rabbi Averick’s new columns appear, send an email to and simply write the word Subscribe in the subject bar.  Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. .

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