Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Casey Luskin touts the results of a Michigan poll showing that 76% of “Michiganonians” (huh?) agree with the following statement:

“Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.”

My first thought was that this is a typically misleading poll question. If there was scientific evidence against the theory of evolution, how could any intellectually honest person say it should not be taught? No scientist that I know of would take that position in a million years. The question, of course, presumes that which is entirely disputable and hardly axiomatic – that there actually is scientific evidence against evolution.

ID advocates like to use this phrase, but what they really mean is not evidence against evolution but their arguments against evolution. At very best, they might be able to find evidence that is not yet fully explained by evolution, like the bacterial flagellum for which we do not yet have a precise developmental history. But given that we have very good evolutionary explanations for many other complex biochemical systems (even by the admission of Michael Behe), this hardly counts as evidence against evolution.

As if to prove my point, look at the example that Luskin uses to show what he means by “evidence against evolution”:

To illustrate the difference between these two approaches, one can look at vertebrate embryos and recognize that they start developing very differently in a way which challenges the famous “biogenetic law,” inspired by the faked 19th century “research” drawings of Ernst Haeckel (below). One can inform students that actual embryological data challenges the notion of common descent without saying anything about intelligent design or other alternatives to Darwinism.

Notice how he completely changes targets from the premise to his conclusion. First he says that embryological data shows something different than Haeckel’s biogenetic law assumed. This is true. But Haeckel’s biogenetic law was a late 19th century concept that was discredited not long afterward, even without the widespread knowledge that his drawings weren’t accurate. The evidence of embryology is, in fact, against the biogenetic law; it is not, however, against the notion of common descent. Indeed, some of the best evidence of common descent comes from embryology.

This is the typical creationist ploy regarding Haeckel, pretending that the biogenetic law is a part of evolutionary theory. It’s not. It was a single hypothesis of a single man well over a century ago and it was left behind nearly that long ago. That has nothing whatsoever to do with the validity of common descent. If Luskin really thinks that there is embryological evidence against common descent, rather than specifically against the biogenetic law, let him present that evidence and explain why it logically argues against common descent. As it stands, he has demonstrated perfectly that what ID advocates tout as “evidence against evolution” is typically just a distortion of both the evidence and of the theory it is alleged to negate.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    March 28, 2006

    Hopefully, you Michiganders will not be taken in by Casey “The Conman” Luskin. Even speaking as a former Buckeye, I would hate to see you taken in by this long-range scurilous scumbag weasel from the coast.

  2. #2 RPM
    March 28, 2006

    The biggest problem with the statement is the ambiguity of “Darwin’s theory of evolution”. Does this mean common descent? Descent with modification? Natural selection? There are alternative ways to achieve common descent: vertical inheritance, horizontal transmission, endocytotic origin of organelles. Even though vertical transmission of genes is the norm, all of types of inheritance should be taught. Furthermore, alternative evolutionary forces besides natural selection should also be taught (ie, sampling error/drift, mutation, non-random mating, sexual selection). These guys are just sloppy as all hell.

  3. #3 steve s
    March 28, 2006

    “You certainly donít have to agree here with descent with modification from a common ancestor but Iím going to start clamping down on anyone positively arguing against it. Itís simply counter-productive to our goals and reinforces the idea that ID is religion because nothing but religion argues against descent with modification from a common ancestor.”

    –Dave Springer, administrator of Dembski’s blog

    “One can inform students that actual embryological data challenges the notion of common descent without saying anything about intelligent design or other alternatives to Darwinism.”

    –Casey Luskin

  4. #4 Ginger Yellow
    March 28, 2006

    Do the DI’s more intelligent fellows not realise how stupid Luskin’s arguments consistently are? With all their millions could they not afford to hire as a flack an unscrupulous, broke person with training in evolutionary biology who might not sound like a moron?

  5. #5 J-Dog
    March 28, 2006

    Ginger – Just cause your idea is right, and it’s the RIGHT way to do somehing, does not mean the DI would do it that way. Face it – If you are the DI, you ARE a moron. You do NOT want anyone SMARTER THAN YOU in the office, because they would make you look like, well, a moron!

    Also, who but a moron would work there, amongst the smarmy, self-rightous idiotic people that make up the DI?
    I shudder to think about having to go the work everyday there! Good idea for a movie though: Nightmare In Seatle!

  6. #6 mark
    March 28, 2006

    Gee, I was just going to ask if those people prefer to be known as morons that don’t know any better, or as liars who have no scruples.

  7. #7 SkookumPlanet
    March 28, 2006

    Guy’s, I’m gonna have to disagree with you.

    As scientific-style argument it’s swiss cheese. But everyone knows the DI is a combo of a theocracy lobbying firm, a psychomarketing lie factory, and a baseball park peanut vendor..

    Get your HOT THEOCRACY BULLS**T right here! FRESH off the ASSEMBLY LINE, right now! Get’em while they seem SMART! Get your HOT THEOCRACY…..

    Very little of this material was meant for your eyes. Besides, they need a few, maybe many, morons around to produce material the local evangelical morons understand enough to construct propaganda, I mean, arguments from.

    Mark
    Dey be lyun.

  8. #8 Ken Brown
    March 28, 2006

    Ed,
    I think you’re absolutely right that the DI (and ID theorists in general) are foolish when they put so much emphasis on “evidence against evolution.” Common descent is clearly true, many of the DI admit it, so why do they continue to present such shoddy evidence against it?

    It’s got to be politics. But not just the evil-creationist-Trojan-horse of Barbara Forrest kind of politics. Rather, I see 3 reasons for it: 1. A good portion of their support does come from lay Christians who don’t know a thing about science but would never support something they thought approved of evolution. 2. Many outspoken evolutionists have insisted that design itself is an inadmissible subject, so ID theorists tend to focus on evolution instead, which is (obviously) an acceptable topic for science. 3. Despite the mountains of good evidence for evolution, the simple fact remains that almost all the entry level discussions of it have relied heavily on such shoddy arguments like Haeckel’s embryos as their only “proof” of common descent.

    This was certainly true of the textbook for my college intro to biology (edited by Gould). It assumed evolution true on almost every page, but this is the extent of the evidence it offered for it: A photocopy of Haeckel’s drawings and a brief discussion of vertebrate homology to support common descent, a discussion of drosophila fruit flies and melanic moths to support natural selection, and a discussion of the Miller-Urey experiment to support the natural origin of life. Is it any wonder that so many people – once they find out that each of those (with the possible exceptions of vertebrate homology and dropsophila) have long been discredited or at least fail to prove what is claimed for them – conclude that evolution is little more than an ideology?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing the DI (they should know better), but neither am I surprised that they focus so much on this kind of “evidence against evolution.”

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    March 28, 2006

    Ken-

    I tend to agree with you that a lot of biology textbooks are badly written, but I think it also needs to be said that the DI’s claims about Haeckel’s ideas are highly distorted. They consistently conflate Haeckel’s biogenetic law – an idea that was discarded a very long time ago – with all embryological evidence for common ancestry, including those embryological homologies that were in your college textbook.

    Two other points. First, I don’t think it’s true that “outspoken evolutionists” rule out design as a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry. It certainly is true that virtually all scientists rule out supernatural design as such a subject, and for good reason.

    Second, I would argue that the primary reason why ID advocates focus on negative arguments against evolution is quite simple – it’s all they have. At the core, all they really have is a god of the gaps argument that requires the failure of evolution as a basic premise in order to set up the unjustified “therefore God must have done it” conclusion. They have no positive model of ID; all they have is negative arguments against evolution and bad analogies between human design and supernatural design that masquerade as positive arguments.

  10. #10 Dave S.
    March 28, 2006

    Ed says:

    They have no positive model of ID; all they have is negative arguments against evolution and bad analogies between human design and supernatural design that masquerade as positive arguments.

    Au contraire. The DI’s own Rob Crowther in an article on the Flying Spaghetti Monster in USA Today writes, and I quote -

    It’s too bad that they’ll get attention for this sort of drivel when we have a robust scientific research program that the media doesn’t seem to want to write much about.

    Must be like all that good news in Iraq the media also doesn’t like to write about.

  11. #11 Ken Brown
    March 28, 2006

    Ed,
    You don’t have to convince me of the DI’s distortions, I can’t even stand to read “Evolution News and Views” anymore!

    As for the dearth of positive models of ID, again I largely agree with you. But I think Dembski’s ideas are a firm step in the right direction, if only he’d drop the “evolution can’t increase CSI” nonsense. Evolution can increase CSI because CSI is built into the physical (logical) structure of protein function in our universe, all you need is a system capable of finding it. I think CSI is a reliable marker of design, however, because it seems that even evolution rests on specified complexity (only life that is sufficiently complex can evolve at all) while we see designers produce CSI from nothing all the time. But that is not an argument against evolution, and neither is evolution an argument against design. That’s my opinion anyway; I’m not a scientist, after all.

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    March 28, 2006

    Dave-

    That “robust scientific research program” line is getting old and tiresome. If that was really the case, they wouldn’t have to point to – and distort the results of – papers like the ones published by Behe and Snoke in 2004 and Axe’s paper on perturbations. Not a single piece of original research that supports ID has been published anywhere that I know of and the papers they continually point to actually argue against their position. One wonders if they know what the word “robust” means. Or the word “research” for that matter.

  13. #13 Rieux
    March 28, 2006

    One wonders if they know what the word “robust” means. Or the word “research” for that matter.

    Looking over the DI quote, the statement also works if you fundamentally redefine “we,” “have,” or “a.” And of course words like “not” and “no” can work wonders in this kind of context.

  14. #14 SkookumPlanet
    March 28, 2006

    I need to make a cadence revision in the peanut vendor. I’m just back from running errands and I had the damn voice in my head the whole time. I hope I don’t dream it tonight also.

    Get’em while they STILL SEEM SMA-ART!

    For you elders [has it been that long?] the line ends with a “Call for Philip Mor-ris” hitch.

    They are baseball park peanut vendors.

  15. #15 Wesley R. Elsberry
    March 29, 2006

    Ken wrote: “But I think Dembski’s ideas are a firm step in the right direction, if only he’d drop the “evolution can’t increase CSI” nonsense.”

    Dembski’s “specified complexity” is simply a negative argument against natural cause, and the basic logical framework of his argument is in William Paley’s 1802 “Natural Theology”. There is nothing “firm” about Dembski’s argumentation (Wolpert referred to Dembski’s ideas as “written in jello”). As a step, Dembski is simply following Paley’s lead. That doesn’t seem to be the “right direction” to me.

    Critique of Dembski’s ideas.

  16. #16 Dave S.
    March 29, 2006

    Ed writes:

    That “robust scientific research program” line is getting old and tiresome. If that was really the case, they wouldn’t have to point to – and distort the results of – papers like the ones published by Behe and Snoke in 2004 and Axe’s paper on perturbations. Not a single piece of original research that supports ID has been published anywhere that I know of and the papers they continually point to actually argue against their position. One wonders if they know what the word “robust” means. Or the word “research” for that matter.

    Absolutely, but this kind of rhetoric plays to the uninformed and religiously motivated audience very nicely.

    You get more robust science from Professor Bunsen Honeydew at Muppet Labs.

  17. #17 Dave S.
    March 29, 2006

    Wesley writes:

    Dembski’s “specified complexity” is simply a negative argument against natural cause, and the basic logical framework of his argument is in William Paley’s 1802 “Natural Theology”. There is nothing “firm” about Dembski’s argumentation (Wolpert referred to Dembski’s ideas as “written in jello”). As a step, Dembski is simply following Paley’s lead. That doesn’t seem to be the “right direction” to me.

    Exactly.

    What bothers me in particular (of the many bothersome issues SC brings up) is that specification seems to be pretty much a subjective, after the fact determination which for evolution in particular relies on strawman conceptions of how that works. That, and the fact that the allegedly powerful explanatory filter seems to remain unused except for the most trivial and contrived artificial examples. Complaints that people use it all the time informally (which they do not) notwithstanding.

    The DI in my view specializes in parasitic science…where you take the results of other scientists that have nothing to do with intelligent design, and you give them an ID spin. That’s the extent of the “robust scientific research program”.

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