Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Vox Day: Once More Into the Breach

I always find these exchanges with Vox Day so amusing, mostly because of the weapons grade projection he engages in and the fact that he thinks merely being smug in response to an argument defeats that argument. In his latest response to my exchange with Ellis Washington, both are on full display.

Ed Brayton asked Ellis Washington a question for the apparent purposes of evading a debate with him. Calling my non-response to a question asked of Ellis Washington “a rhetorical fallacy” isn’t just ridiculous, it doesn’t even make sense. First, asking such a question is not an appropriate response to a debate challenge; one does not engage in the debate prior to it actually taking place.

Actually, no. Ellis Washington did not challenge me to a debate. He asked me a rather inane question and I answered it. He asked me how I could accept evolution (or even more stupidly, how could I “have faith” in it when I don’t) in light of the little quote fragment he had from Darwin that was A) out of context; B) misattributed (because he had never actually read the letter it came from, he merely cribbed it from some creationist pamphlet or website); and C) utterly irrelevant to the validity of evolution.

The question Ellis Washington asked was moronic. It was the kind of thing one would expect from the most ignorant of people, not from someone who thinks as highly of himself as Washington does. Frankly, anyone with an IQ over room temperature should be embarrassed for having asked such a stupid question. Nonetheless, I answered it in a perfectly straightforward and civil manner.

It was only after asking that stupid question that Washington then said he would be “happy to debate” me on “this or any other subjects.” Really? Someone is supposed to take that seriously as a “debate challenge”?

One of the more amusing things about the internet dynamic is this notion of debate challenges. Person A drops such a challenge and if person B does not immediately accept, they are branded a coward by assholes like Vox Day. As if such a debate would actually settle anything, as if any and every such challenge would be worth one’s time, as if every person making such a challenge has any ability to uphold their side without embarrassing themselves. And frankly, anyone who asked the question he asked doesn’t know the first thing about the subject.

And by the way, Mr. Washington has never bothered to respond to my reply to his idiotic question or to the perfectly reasonable question I posed to him to see if he knew anything at all about the subject. Unlike Vox, I won’t childishly chalk that up to cowardice; I just don’t think he can answer the question. I don’t think anyone can.

And on that subject, Vox adds more ridiculous blather:

Brayton clearly doesn’t understand that it does not matter if his “simple factual claim” is wrong or not. What matters is that the truth or falsehood of that “simple factual claim” says nothing about the truth or falsehood of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which happens to be the subject that Washington raised with him. The proposition that there is only one coherent, reasonable explanation for something is not tantamount to the proposition that the coherent, reasonable explanation is actually correct.

How does Vox imagine we judge the validity of a scientific theory? We do so by the ability of that theory to explain the data we have and to predict the nature of new data before it is discovered. The theory of evolution (i.e. common descent) explains the data on endogenous retroviruses extraordinarily well. But we can, in fact, go even further than that.

Not only does evolution explain ERV patterns perfectly well, those patterns make no sense at all without the theory of evolution. In other words, there is no coherent explanation of them without common descent. Furthermore, if those patterns did not look the way they do, common descent could not possibly explain them.

If, instead of finding ERVs in perfectly nested hierarchies that also match the nested hierarchies previously developed based on anatomical and molecular homology, we found that they appeared in a random pattern — i.e. in the same spots in the genomes of wildly disparate species but not in the species thought to be descendant from those that have them — then evolution would be all but falsified. That feature of ERVs simply must be the way it is if common descent is true, a prediction that predates the discovery of ERVs.

Before ever discovering them, if you tell an evolutionary biologist that viruses can insert themselves into the genome at uncontrolled points (essentially mimicking the randomness of mutations) and then become fixed in the genome so that they are replicated along with all the other genetic coding in every cell, that biologist would predict the exact pattern we find. If that can happen, then when it happens in species A, it should then also be present in every species believed to be descendant from that species based upon the phylogenetic trees we’ve already built using anatomical and molecular sequencing data. And just as importantly, it is extremely unlikely for the same virus to be inserted at exactly the same spot in the genome a species that is not descendant from the species in which that insertion became fixed.

In other words, the pattern of nested hierarchies that we see when we look at the insertions of ERVs in the genomes of hundreds or thousands of species is predicted by the theory of evolution, explained perfectly by the theory of evolution and explained only by the theory of evolution – unless one wishes to accept a “theory” like “some supernatural being poofed it into existence that way because they felt like it.” And if one thinks such an alternative is a reasonable explanation then, quite frankly, all of science is out the window because one can always come up with such an explanation for any set of data. The problem, of course, is that such explanations are useless because they can explain ANY set of data, while the actual scientific theory cannot.

So yes, the ability of evolutionary theory to explain the ERV data is, in fact, quite relevant to the validity of that theory. Does it provide some sort of absolute proof that the theory of evolution is true? Of course not. But science does not have only two categories — absolutely true or utter nonsense. We assign certainty to an explanation based on the ability of that explanation to explain a wide range of data over a long period of time. And by that measure, evolution is wildly successful. We can therefore have a high degree of certainty that it is the correct explanation. It has enormous explanatory power, which is the very reason we design theories in the first place.

That Vox Day and Ellis Washington do not understand this is neither surprising nor a particular cause for concern. That they announce their ignorance with such condescension and arrogance is merely amusing.