Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Bradfield on Evolution

If you thought Nathan Bradfield’s take on church and state was absurd and overly simplistic, wait till you see what he has to say about evolution. To begin with, he’s getting his information from the Worldnutdaily, which is a bit like learning about physics by reading Highlights. He’s parroting this article about the Discovery Institute’s famous list of “dissenting scientists” that has the gall to refer to it as a list of “top scientists.” The very first paragraph:

The list truly is a “Who’s Who” of prominent scientists in the world today, and now another 100 ranking leaders have added their signatures to a challenge to Darwin’s theory of evolution.


Now that’s just funny. A “Who’s Who” of prominent scientists? In what alternate universe? How many of the names on that list do you suppose Nathan has ever heard of outside of lists like this? I suppose they think Richard Sternberg is a “prominent scientist”, but if not for the Smithsonian controversy even those of us who keep up with this issue had no idea who he was. He was so obscure, in fact, that the head of the department at the NMNH where Sternberg was a Research Associate had never even heard of him and didn’t know he existed and had an office in his own department until that controversy broke. Golly, that’s sure “prominent.”

The only names on the list with any prominence at all, even within their own narrow fields, are Phillip Skell, Henry Schaefer and Frank Tipler. And guess what? None of them are in fields that deal with evolutionary biology at all. Their opinion on evolutionary theory is no more authoritative than anyone else who has no knowledge of the issue. If you want a measure of just how obscure most of them are and how much effort the DI has to go through to make them appear more credible than they are, look no further than the list of credentials they give for each of them and the fact that they switch back and forth between citing where they got their degrees from and what organization they are affiliated with now, picking whichever one sounds more impressive.

And consider the fact that the majority of people on the list are in fields that have no relevance to evolutionary biology at all. A chemist or a physicist or a doctor has no more specialized knowledge of biology than a sociologist or a mechanic for that matter. This is not only an appeal to authority, it is an appeal to non-existent authority. Of course, the last thing the ID advocates should be engaging in is such appeals to authority, especially in light of the fact that well over 99% of scientists in the relevant fields accept evolution. If you’re going to appeal to the authority of a tiny percentage of scientists, most of them obscure names in fields with no connection to evolution, it seems rather silly to reject an appeal to the overwhelming opinion of those scientists who actually work in the field.

And the statement itself, as I’ve pointed out many times before, is virtually meaningless. Here’s the actual statement they are agreeing to:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

That has nothing to do with dissent from Darwinism. or support for ID. I would go even further than this statement goes. I’m not only skeptical of the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life we see around us, I flatly deny that those two things alone account for it. Random mutation is not the only source of genetic variation and natural selection is not the only means by which a trait can become fixed in a population. No evolutionary biologist would disagree with the statement above; even Richard Dawkins could honestly sign that statement. It is completely meaningless.

He then quotes this statement from the article:

“We know intuitively that Darwinism can accomplish some things but not others,” said Egnor, who has signed the statement. “The question is what is that boundary? Does the information content in living things exceed that boundary? Darwinists have never faced those questions. They’ve never asked scientifically, can random mutation and natural selection generate the information content in living things.”

Who is Egnor? He’s a professor of neurological surgery, which means he’s as qualified to speak on this issue as I am. Indeed, given the absurdity of his statement, I dare say I am more qualified than he. At the very least, I can recognize the nonsense here. First, like the others who signed the list, he is laboring under the misconception that random mutation and natural selection are the only relevant factors in evolution; that is absolutely false. Second, the phrase “information content” is meaningless in this context.

What he asks whether mutation and selection can generation the “information content”, the only thing this can possibly mean is whether they can explain the emergence of new traits. The answer is yes, and we have observed it happening both in the lab and in nature. A textbook example is the nylon-eating bacteria, which evolved in just the last century the ability to digest nylon as a result of mutation and selection. We can see it in the development of all sorts of biochemical systems, like antifreeze proteins in arctic fish, that even ID advocates accept as resulting from evolution. It simply is not true that mutation and selection can’t account for “new information” – meaning new genes that produce new proteins with new functions – in a genome.

Now here’s Nathan’s hilarious response to the quote above:

And who would? That’s because the answer is NO. If it could answer those questions, we would have a plethora of fossils showing where animals mutated more poorly and were killed in “survival of the fittest.” Instead we have animals and fish showing up and disappearing. This completely contradicts the entire basis for Darwin’s theory – random mutation and natural selection.

I’ll take non sequiturs for $1000, Alex. Animals that “mutated more poorly” died off and did not leave offspring; thus, the chances of a specimen with that “poorly mutated” trait are virtually nil. And we don’t have animals and fish just “showing up”, we find them showing up in very specific patterns throughout the fossil record, patterns that are not only required if evolution is true but can be used to make predictions within specific lineages that turn out to be true.

Tetrapods, for example, don’t just “show up” out of the blue in the fossil record; they appear at the end of a long line of species that show a gradual adaptation to life on land. Those adaptations include the structure of the 4 limbs, which become more and more adapted to sustain weight outside the water, the shape of the skull and many more traits. We have a remarkable series of fossils showing how this transition between lobe-finned fish and land-adapted tetrapods occurred, with each successive species showing slightly better adaptation than the previous one.

Not only are these patterns consistent with evolution, they are required by it; if such patterns were not found, evolution would be disproved. But evolution not only explains this evidence, it also makes accurate predictions of new evidence. Scientists can look at the pattern of morphological intermediates, the ages of the rocks in which they were found and the environmental conditions in which they lived and predict which intermediate forms that are missing in the series must have existed, what they looked like, when they lived and the kind of environment they lived in.

Lo and behold, such predictions have been verified many times, most recently with the find of Tiktaalik roseae, a transitional form between lobe-finned fishes and tetrapods. Paleontologists predicted the traits it must have shown, that it would be found in early Devonian strata and in deposits laid down in a shallow river environment. And that’s exactly what they found. The same has been true of transitions between land mammals and cetaceans, between theropod dinosaurs and birds and between therapsid reptiles and mammals. All of this, of course, the anti-evolutionists just wave away; their ignorance is simply impenetrable.

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    February 13, 2007

    Maybe I’m missing something, but can’t it be said of most species that went extinct that they “mutated badly”? Dodos might still be around if they had retained a bit more wariness of predators. Yes, of course, any mutation that is so deleterious that it kills before the organism reproduces won’t produce a new species. (It might leave fossils behind, if it recurs frequently in an existing species.) But if the issue is evolutionary wrong turns, species that existed and then went extinct, we have those in plenty.

  2. #2 JimV
    February 13, 2007

    Thanks for the excellent article. I have just copied it into my personal list of outstanding answers to anti-evolutionists.

  3. #3 Dave S.
    February 13, 2007

    All of this, of course, the anti-evolutionists just wave away; their ignorance is simply impenetrable.

    I think it was Upton Sinclair who once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”. Now imagine how difficult it must be if that man thinks his mortal soul depends on his not understanding it.

  4. #4 SLC
    February 13, 2007

    It should also be pointed out that most of the so-called scientists in the DIs’ list received their “advanced degrees” from bible colleges.

  5. #5 Matthew Young
    February 13, 2007

    I think it’s a typo, Ed. He clearly means a ‘Who? Who?’ list of scientists.

  6. #6 Skemono
    February 13, 2007

    If it could answer those questions, we would have a plethora of fossils showing where animals mutated more poorly and were killed in “survival of the fittest.” Instead we have animals and fish showing up and disappearing.

    So we don’t have animals with poor survival skills dying off, we just have them showing up and disappearing. Good to know.

  7. #7 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 13, 2007

    which is a bit like learning about physics by reading Highlights.

    Highlights may be simplistic, but it is not wrong-headed. Goofus wouldn’t apologize, but Gallant would.

  8. #8 CPT_Doom
    February 13, 2007

    “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

    Well, I am no evolutionary biologist, but even I respond with a “Duh!” to the last sentence. Of course careful examination of ALL evidence should ALWAYS be encouraged. That’s called the scientific method. After all, simple Darwinian theory could not explain the existence of bees or ants.

    And of course the ID advocates never consider the interactions of random mutations and natural selection that can make one small change lead to whole new species. There was a great special, I believe on PBS (which, of course, makes it a liberal, Satanic special) about how dogs separated from wolves. Wolves are a relatively genetically limited species, while dogs show huge amounts of genetic variation. Part of the special focused on experiments, I believe with foxes, by scientists who had been sent to the Soviet gulags. They wanted to see if they could tame foxes, and bred those who were least fearful of humans. In a very few generations, not only were the offspring of this breeding experiment trainable, they began to show the types of genetic variation that dogs demonstrate (e.g., hide color, ear length, etc.). When they examined their results, the theory that resulted was that those animals who were less fearful – who showed less fight/flight response – also generated less adrenaline. Their offspring generated even less adrenaline with each generation, and that allowed previously unexpressed genes to come forward.

    So natural selection does not rely merely on random mutations, but the interaction between the environment and the genes already present, in how those genes are expressed.

  9. #9 Daniel Morgan
    February 13, 2007

    How many people trust a source like WingNutDaily as reliable information on science? The sorts of people who have no clue and don’t really care — they just want a few people on their side of the fence to make them feel more comfortable.

  10. #10 Jason
    February 13, 2007

    I’ll add that Tipler is considered highly nutty in his own field – not in a bad way, but in a highly imaginative, out-on-a-limb, way.

  11. #11 Leni
    February 13, 2007

    That isn’t the Tipler of physics text fame, is it?

  12. #12 Skip Evans
    February 13, 2007

    It should also be pointed out that most of the so-called scientists in the DIs’ list received their “advanced degrees” from bible colleges.

    This is not true. They all have legitimate advanced degrees, but Ed points out what we discovered when I was at NCSE: they listed them by whatever sounded most impressive, either where they earned their degree, or where they were when the list was compiled.

    For example, if they were presently at Probe Ministries (as one of the signers was at the time), they’d list where they got their degree, and likewise for the guy at ICR.

    And of course, more importantly, as Ed points, out, very few of them have experience in relevant fields.

    Check out the pretty thorough analysis we did of the list here:
    http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/3416_doubting_darwinism_through_cre_4_8_2002.asp

    And then compare that with Project Steve, which kicked the DI’s ass so completely that Stephen Meyer still has a bruise on his left butt cheek.

  13. #13 mark
    February 13, 2007

    And consider the story also making the rounds now, about Marcus Ross, who received a PhD. in geology despite being a YEC (or Kurt Wise, or numerous others). They’ve gone to good schools, passed their exams, but seem to have tripped and fallen on their heads somewhere along the way.

  14. #14 mark
    February 13, 2007

    …we would have a plethora of fossils showing where animals mutated more poorly and were killed in “survival of the fittest.”

    You might expect examples of creatures that had “mutated more poorly” would seldom be encountered, but I have definitely seen dead mutants that would not have done very well (actually, some were not live births).

  15. #15 SLC
    February 13, 2007

    Re Skip Evans

    Escuse me, the list to which you refer contains only 103 names. The creationists are now claiming a list of over 500 names. I am willing to bet that most of those additional ~400 received their degrees from bible colleges.

  16. #16 Ed Brayton
    February 13, 2007

    SLC-

    You’d be wrong. It’s over 600 now, but they are almost all legitimate degrees. Most of them aren’t in relevant fields, but they are from legitimate universities.

  17. #17 dr x
    February 14, 2007

    Ed, I appreciate your extraordinary persistence in answering these fools. The number of faulty assumptions, factual errors and errors in reasoning that infect their utterances make dealing with them a daunting task, but they must not be left to believe they are winning the day. More importantly, they must not be permitted to win in reality.

    I don’t think any of them are constituted in such a way as to be able(read willing and able) to follow the splendid reasoning behind your unpacking and exposing of their gibberish, but I suspect they know that there is something substantive on your end that is lacking in their own positions. As for the rest of us, it is just plain satisfying to watch someone take these idiots apart so handily.

  18. #18 surefire
    February 14, 2007

    Simplicity is obvious answer.If we evolved from apes, why do we not see apes evolving, and why are apes still in existence,instead of apes and humans existing at same time ?Theories are easily proven correct as fact or false with simple logic. Become a free thinker instead of brain washed idiots, by the higher learning institutes [so called]. Each and every living organism is far too complex to atribute to evolution,also there have many species, including humans where the strong never survived. enough said.

  19. #19 Skemono
    February 14, 2007

    Ah, yes. The old “spit out long-refuted talking points and declare the debate over” tactic.

  20. #20 Dave S.
    February 14, 2007

    Ah, yes. The old “spit out long-refuted talking points and declare the debate over” tactic.

    But Skemono, organisms are so complex…I mean they’re really really really complex.

    Thefore evolution is false, because we all know evolution can only create really really complex strucures.

    Q.E.D.

    P.S.: Evidence that humans haven’t evolved…some are still using that ridiculous, “If we evolved from apes, why do we not see apes evolving”, argument.

  21. #21 Ed Brayton
    February 14, 2007

    surefire wrote:

    If we evolved from apes, why do we not see apes evolving, and why are apes still in existence,instead of apes and humans existing at same time ?

    Come on, seriously, you didn’t just ask that question, did you? Anyone who asks this question proves only that they know absolutely nothing about evolution and can’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag. Ask yourself one simple question: did your parents die off when you were born?

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