Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Silly Anti-Evolution Diatribe

And it’s from Michigan, from a blog that calls itself The Local Area Watch, run by William and Bridget Tingley (who have given each other funny titles like “executive director” and “editor”. And they’re not too happy with the school board’s decision. Darwinism Isn’t Science, they declare, and then proceed to show that they know next to nothing about the subject (which is hardly surprising to anyone who pays attention to anti-evolutionary screeds). The nonsense begins almost immediately:

There is a great deal confusion about evolution. For instance, what does the word mean? If evolution means that organisms have changed form over the billions of years since life originated on Earth, who can seriously dispute that? Sure, there are the Young-Earthers who misread Genesis as a science text to draw the factually unfounded conclusion that our planet is only 6,000 years old. The Board of Education rightly excludes from the classroom their psuedo-science which is refuted by the well-established facts of paleontology.

But if evolution is synonymous with Darwinism, then evolution is not science and should no more be taught in science classes than the creationism of the Young-Earthers. Darwinism is a conjecture (not a scientific theory as it is commonly mislabeled) as to HOW living organisms first originated on Earth and then changed into other organisms over time. As to origins, the Darwinist conjecture is that non-living matter combined in some manner to become living creatures. As to evolution, the Darwinist conjecture is that natural selection, sometimes called “survival of the fittest”, is the mechanism that forced organisms to change form over the eons.


One of the most fascinating and annoying rhetorical tools in the anti-evolutionary arsenal is this bizarre notion that there is a difference between “Darwinism” and evolution. In no other area of science does anyone define a theory by the name of its founder; no one speaks of Einsteinism or Newtonism. Of course, evolutionary biologists do not typically use the term “Darwinism” either except in a very narrow and mostly historical sense. But the claim that “Darwinism” is distinct from the theory of evolution is absurd and does nothing but obscure the issue.

Tingley’s first mistake is in thinking that abiogenesis is a part of “Darwinism”; that simply isn’t true. In fact, Darwin said virtually nothing about the origin of life, as opposed to its evolution, and even suggested in the second edition of the Origin that the first life forms had been placed here by a Creator. It’s actually quite a famous phrase:

There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

The origin of life is certainly a fascinating question, and one that many scientists are working on answering, but its answer has little bearing on the validity of the theory of evolution. However the first self-replicating life forms came to be here, whether through inevitable self-organization, or carried on the solar winds from meteorites, or placed by God, life has evolved on Earth since that time. On that, the evidence is exceedingly clear. He also seems to think, as so many anti-evolutionists do, that “Darwinism” presumes that natural selection is the only mechanism that drives changes in species; again, that simply is not the case. How ubuiquitous natural selection is in relation to other mechanisms (neutral evolution, genetic drift, sexual selection, etc) is still an open question, but no one, not even Richard Dawkins, would argue that every single change in a population had to be driven by natural selection.

So far, so bad. It doesn’t get much better.

As to whether or not these conjectures are correct, we simply don’t know. There is no evidence as to HOW life originated or HOW it later evolved into the plants and animals that now inhabit the Earth. Indeed, the persistent failure of scientists over the past 150 years since Charles Darwin first published his conjectures to establish any scientific foundation for them suggests that Darwinism probably should be consigned to the same dustbin as phlogiston, phrenology, and the steady-state universe.

This is a statement so profoundly ridiculous that you can do little but laugh at its obvious ignorance. Evolution, most simply stated, is the theory that all modern life forms are derived from one or a few common ancestors via descent with modification (that’s the basic model; there are hundreds of ancillary theories and hypotheses under that umbrella). And the evidence for common descent is absolutely overwhelming. Even the famous young earth creationist geologist Kurt Wise told a gathering of creationists a few years ago that anyone who claims that evolution is not a very successful explanation for the evidence is kidding themselves.

The evidence for common descent is so obvious to anyone who has studied the question that it hardly seems necessary to continue to list them. I would love to hear from Mr. Tingley how he explains the nested heirarchies found in the fossil record without common descent. Or the successional order of appearance (scroll down for my challenge on that subject to anti-evolutionists, which has never been answered) for the various life forms on earth. Or the symmetry of phylogenetic trees based on anatomical evidence with ones based on molecular homologies. Or the patterns of endogenous retroviruses among species, which can only be explained by common descent.

However, what the fossil record is and what explains it are two separate subjects. The first is science and clearly suitable for instruction in public classrooms. The second is hotly contested and no scientific theory exists regarding it, only a lot of conjectures and a few hypotheses.

Wow. No scientific theory exists to explain the fossil record? He’s gone from arguing that the theory of evolution is unsupported to arguing that it doesn’t exist at all. Stunning, isn’t it? He’s right, of course, that the fossil record and what explains it are separate things; one is a fact (or set of data), the other is the explanation for it. And evolution is not only the best explanation for the data, it’s the only explanation for it. Bizarrely, he appears to think that we should teach about the fossil record, but not evolution as its explanation. Pray tell, then, what explanation would he prefer?

To teach that Darwinism is the only scientifically valid explanation of the origin of life and evolution is to seriously misinform students. Whatever one thinks of Intelligent Design (which if nothing else is asking fundamental questions that Darwinism has not answered) it is not the only challenge to the dogma of Darwinism. Even if the American academy is strait-jacketed by Darwinism, this not so in Europe and Asia where scientists are exploiting discoveries in genetics and molecular biology to develop alternatives to the Darwinist account of evolution. Even Lamarckianism, of all things, has gotten a new scientific respectability.

Really? I’d sure like to hear some of those alternatives to evolution. Can Tingley provide any actual references to them? I highly doubt it. He’s talking out his posterior. If he has a compelling non-evolutionary explanation for the natural history of life on earth, by all means bring it up and let’s discuss it.

In science, a theory is an explanation for a phenomenon that has been validated by observation or experimentation, such as Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation that makes claims that are testable by observation or experimentation. The standard model of the Big Bang is a hypothesis that could be reduced to a theory once there is sufficient astronomical observation of its claims. A conjecture is another proposed explanation, uncontradicted by any known fact, that is not presently testable by any practical means. So-called string theory is such a conjecture. It is a fascinating explanation of what the fundamental bits and pieces of our universe may be, but it makes no claims right now that can be tested.

Darwinism is a conjecture in this sense, because we cannot devise any experiment that would prove life could never arise from non-life (you can’t prove a negative), nor can we as a practical matter sit around for a few million years to observe whether or not natural selection causes current organisms to evolve into other ones.

Utter nonsense. By his reasoning, the entire field of astronomy is “conjecture” because we cannot sit around for millions of years observing how galaxies formed. But that hardly means we can’t find other means to test such explanations. Evolution is tested by observation every day, in both big and small ways. Only someone completely ignorant of the scientific literature would argue that evolution is untestable and therefore “conjecture”.

Interestingly, Intelligent Design (which is whole ‘nother kettle of fish from the creationism of the Young-Earthers) is more scientific than Darwinism in this regard. It puts forth the hypothesis of irreducible complexity: The idea that the basic component of life, the cell, could not originate from the blind forces of physics and chemistry bringing together non-living matter to produce it or any predecessor to it. If scientists ever do create life from non-life, that would go a long way to shooting down irreducible complexity and so Intelligent Design.

Absolutely bizarre. One paragraph after saying “we cannot devise any experiment that would prove life could never arise from non-life (you can’t prove a negative)”, he then claims that irreducible complexity is a testable concept. But how on earth do you devise an experiment to prove that allegedly IC systems could not have evolved? Behe tried to do it in his paper with Snoke and failed miserably; the paper actually showed that IC systems can evolve, even when he rigged every variable to make it as unlikely as possible. And he admitted that under oath in the Dover trial.

Bridget, presumably his wife, then jumped in with a comment and displayed her own rank ignorance. She basically repeats the entire Icons of Evolution hitlist of silly arguments and false claims one by one. I particularly enjoyed this one:

A vast quantity of plants and animals appeared on the scene in the blink of a geological eye more than 500 million years ago. The Cambrian period it is known as. In a stretch of time less than 5-10 million years (the maximum length of time), there was a sudden explosion of the majority of animal phyla that is in place in our world today.

5-10 million years, maximum? That claim was out of date half a century ago, for crying out loud, and it’s downright laughable now. As more and more precambrian fossils are found, this “explosion” is looking more and more like a long process stretching out at least 100 million years. And the notion that this “explosion” included animals “in place in our world today” is a baldfaced lie. In fact, not one of the animals found during this period still exists today except for a few marine invertebrate descendants. Missing from this “explosion” are virtually animal that exists on earth, including almost all of the major taxa – insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals (all land animals, in fact) and all land plants as well.

She goes even further and declares that “the evidence AGAINST Darwinism is greater than the evidence for it.” How do you even begin to argue with that kind of delusion? Well, you don’t. But ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success.

Comments

  1. #1 Tim B.
    October 16, 2006

    This is probably not the place to bring up a question that’s been bugging me, but I guess I pose it anyway.

    I strongly adhere to the idea that Darwin’s theory of evolution, supplemented with later genetic discovery, is the best explanation for the variety of species. I have several books on evolution (Wilson, Dennett, etc.) and every time I read them, I nod in assent.

    Yet…

    Invariably, I soon find myself awash in incomprehension. I just can’t fix in my mind a satisfactory picture of the process. As an example, take the movement of a sea creature onto land and, then, the reverse — a specie moving back to water. This boggles my mind, even when I try my best to comprehend or imagine millions of years for these processes to occur.

    Also invariably, I get confused about population selection versus individual mutations…or sexual distribution of new genetic material affecting phylomorphic change.

    But I seem, especially, dense about the above-mentioned visualization of, say, a land creature gradually taking on the characteristics of a whale. Granting large time and granting pressures that would force such a proto-whale more and more toward sea life, I just can’t fathom how the slow formation of a blow-hole would correspond with a creature spending more and more time in the water. Same thing goes with all the other required morphic changes.

    So, my ignorance is now on full display.

  2. #2 Skemono
    October 16, 2006

    But I seem, especially, dense about the above-mentioned visualization of, say, a land creature gradually taking on the characteristics of a whale. Granting large time and granting pressures that would force such a proto-whale more and more toward sea life, I just can’t fathom how the slow formation of a blow-hole would correspond with a creature spending more and more time in the water. Same thing goes with all the other required morphic changes.

    There are some pages that may help out with this. Go here; you can follow the links to other pages (here, here, and here). Hopefully that’ll help.

  3. #3 Tim B.
    October 16, 2006

    Skemono,

    Thank you very much. I’ll be hitting the links today.

  4. #4 mark
    October 16, 2006

    Why should evolution of an aquatic critter from a terrestrial one be any more incredible than evolution of a terrestrial critter from an aquatic one? In both cases, one must be careful not to think in terms of end goals; in neither case is a species evolving toward life in a future habitat–selection acts on the present.

    I especially like the Tingleys’ remark about foreign acceptance of Intelligent Design Creationism (I must have missed their explanation of why ID is not really Creationism). An article in a recent issue of Science tabulated acceptance of evolution among about 35 countries, and every country except Turkey ranked higher than the U.S. for acceptance. I guess the Tingleys are just more denizens of the Bizarro World that have gotten loose.

  5. #5 Matthew
    October 16, 2006

    Good work Ed, there’s nothing like a good creationism fisking.

  6. #6 Will
    October 16, 2006

    I think we need a new law, similar to Godwin’s Law. As soon as you use the term “Darwinism” or “Darwinist” in a debate, you lose. You prove you do not have a full understanding of evolution and are talking out of your ass.

  7. #7 tubi
    October 16, 2006

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book called “Galapagos” in which a group of human tourists gets stranded on one of the Galapagos Islands following a worldwide catastrophe. As they progress and learn to adapt, the population undergoes changes that result in essentially a new species coming into being, having made the land to sea adaptation. It is fiction, of course, but it is interesting to think about and shows how such a thing could happen.

  8. #8 tubi
    October 16, 2006

    I think we need a new law, similar to Godwin’s Law.

    I’d like to see one also that voids any further discussion as soon as Bill Clinton is blamed for something he didn’t do.

  9. #9 plunge
    October 16, 2006

    I really love the “major phyla” thing coupled with the “fruit flies only give birth to fruit flies” thing.

    Do these guys have no idea how taxonomy works? There is a reason why all the major phyla appear at a certain point in time and no new phyla have appeared since. It’s because all modern life is descended from past life and thus HAS to belong in subcategories below the phyla level. Duh.

  10. #10 John McKay
    October 16, 2006

    The use of “Darwinism” and “Darwinist” isn’t sheer ignorance; it’s a carefully thought out propaganda strategy. An “-ism” inplies an ideology or a dogma. It moves evolution out of science and into the land of politics. Americans are trained to be suspicious of ideology and like to believe that their beliefs are practical and nonideological (whether they really are or not is another question). Just getting the word “Darwinism” before the audience gains them a few points in any argument. This is the same reason that some use the terms “evolutionism” and “evolutionist” to describe our side.

    On the subject of new Godwin’s laws, I submit that anyone over the age of sixteen who uses the word “nother” in writing should be immediately laughed out of the room and sent back to high school for remedial English classes.

  11. #11 plunge
    October 16, 2006

    I have begun direct engagement. Sheilds at 80%!

  12. #12 RPM
    October 16, 2006

    Ed, Newtonian Physics?

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    October 16, 2006

    RPM-

    That’s close, but that’s using the name as an adjective, which is common in science. But we don’t call anyone a Newtonist or an Einsteinist.

  14. #14 kehrsam
    October 16, 2006

    We still call them Freudians, however — for the good reason that a huge amount of woo is still bound up with the good stuff.

  15. #15 Phobos
    October 16, 2006

    I think we need a new law, similar to Godwin’s Law. As soon as you use the term “Darwinism” or “Darwinist” in a debate, you lose.

    But that would write-off every creationist/ID’er out there! :)

    Ed – I’d be interested to see if they ever respond to your post.

  16. #16 Tyler DiPietro
    October 16, 2006

    Tingley’s first mistake is in thinking that abiogenesis is a part of “Darwinism”; that simply isn’t true.

    I’ve found that the best retort to this sort of silliness is to come up with something more obviously silly with something other than evolution. Like this:

    I reject Einstein’s theory of special relativity because it can’t tell me why ice has more volume than water.

    Or this:

    I reject Turing’s theory of computation because it can’t tell me why light of a certain wavelength is blue.

  17. #17 orbital
    October 17, 2006

    And the notion that this “explosion” included animals “in place in our world today” is a baldfaced lie. In fact, not one of the animals found during this period still exists today except for a few marine invertebrate descendants.

    Maybe you could clear this up. Did you mean to say that there aren’t any animals similar to the ones in the cambrian and that the only ones close are some descendents?

    Or did you really mean to say that there aren’t any (that’s a lie) except for the ones there are?

  18. #18 The Ridger
    October 17, 2006

    We call them “Freudians” but not “Freudists”, and it’s not “Darwinians” but “Darwinists”.

    Not to imply that Freudian psychology or Freudian anything, really, is on the same footing as Darwinian biology. Let alone the new modern synthesis…

  19. #19 Spike
    October 17, 2006

    tubi-

    “I’d like to see one also that voids any further discussion as soon as Bill Clinton is blamed for something he didn’t do.”

    Or credited for something he had no part of.

  20. #20 Ed Brayton
    October 17, 2006

    orbital wrote:

    Maybe you could clear this up. Did you mean to say that there aren’t any animals similar to the ones in the cambrian and that the only ones close are some descendents?

    Yes, that’s what I meant to say, as part of a larger point that when creationists say that “all modern phyla” jumped into existence during the Cambrian, the ignorant think that means all the animals we see around us. In reality, aside from some marine invertebrates, most of which people don’t even know exist today, there is virtually nothing alive today that existed in the Cambrian or even had reasonably closely related species existing then.

  21. #21 Inquisitive Raven
    October 18, 2006

    The statement that “there was a sudden explosion of the majority of animal phyla that is in place in our world today,” is not a lie. Misleading perhaps, but it’s technically true. Every modern phylum has representatives in the Cambrian shale.

    That said, no members (or nearly none) of the smaller classifications (subphyla, classes, etc.)extant today could be found in rocks from that time.

    Don’t say they’re lying when a statement is true. Show how it’s incomplete. Otherwise, they can call you on lying.

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    October 18, 2006

    The lie is in the implication, not the technical details. The average person reading that has no idea what a phylum is and when someone says that “the majority of animal phyla that is in place in our world today” appeared in only ten million years (that part is an outright lie, though probably out of ignorance), the average reader thinks that means the majority of the animals we see around us. In fact, the only possible representative of the chordate phylum (which is all vertebrates) is a single tiny animal called Pikaia, which is not a vertebrate but appears to have a primitive notochord. That phylum contains virtually every animal one could name off the top of their head – all fish, all mammals, all amphibians, all reptiles, all birds.

  23. #23 Inquisitive Raven
    October 18, 2006

    The lie is in the implication, not the technical details. The average person reading that has no idea what a phylum is and when someone says that “the majority of animal phyla that is in place in our world today” appeared in only ten million years (that part is an outright lie, though probably out of ignorance), the average reader thinks that means the majority of the animals we see around us.

    Hey, I acknowledged that the statement was misleading, and I do think that they need to be called on it, BUT you have to do it in such a way that they can’t call you on it in turn. SJ Gould makes a big deal about how all the phyla came into existence by the end of the Cambrian era in his book on the Burgess Shale. It wouldn’t take that much quote mining for creationists to go “See you lied about that.” Take the time to explain just how broad a classification a phylum is, what some of the smaller classifications are and how the statement about phyla is misleading.

    Oh, nitpick here, the chordates != the vertebrates. The chordates include the vertebrates, but it’s the notochord, not the vertabrae that defines the phylum. There are non-vertebrate chordates extant today. See

  24. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chordates
  • #24 diane
    October 19, 2006

    I’m kind of surprised that they didn’t blame Bill clinton for the decision in the first place!
    “If evolution means that organisms have changed form over the billions of years since life originated on Earth, who can seriously dispute that?”.
    Maybe I’m wrong, but the schools are not teaching Darwinism, they are teaching “evolution”, which in the paragraph above, they don’t seem to have a problem with.
    What was the purpose of this article ecept to push their iD agenda?
    I

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