Respectful Insolence

I was half-tempted to e-mail this one to P. Z. or Larry Moran, but my inherently merciful nature got the better of me. Because it was so idiotic, I was afraid that, after P. Z. and his regular readers got through with it (or even worse for this poor ID advocate, Larry Moran), there wouldn’t be anything left other than a hint that there may have been a smear on the pavement where he had been. And, as much as this particular ID advocate and woo-meister has gotten on my nerves in the past outing me and all on at least three separate occasions, even I didn’t want to see that. Besides, why should I let P. Z. or other have all the fun? I bet that even he hasn’t seen an “argument” against evolution quite like this one. Or maybe he has, and I’m just sheltered. We’ll find out. Besides, I’m in Bethesda right now for an NIH study section meeting. I had been planning on trying to blog about a rather interesting surgical study that I’ve had in the PIle Of Stuff I Really Should Blog About for three or four weeks now, but that would take some actual work–you know, like reading the paper in depth and thinking about it. Such topics are more appropriate for the train ride home tomorrow, mainly because I don’t need Internet access, just the paper. Besides, I haven’t had a go at some bad ID arguments in quite a while.

It should come as no surprise that the particular ID advocate that I’m talking about is Pat Sullivan, and you know you’re in for a load of badly argued pseudoscience when he starts out “thinking

I was in Ireland the past 10 days playing golf. Lots of airplane and bus time. I got to think a lot, which is always scary I guess.

I found myself thinking about a particular comment I often get from evolutionists on my posts regarding evolution and intelligent design. “Predictability.” One of the claimed elements of a good scientific theory are the predictions one can make based on the theory. I don’t claim to be an expert on all that. But it made me think about evolution and what I think life should look like if in fact “macro evolution” were true.

Pat is right to say that it’s a scary thing to see him think, at least if what he’s thinking about evolution or medicine. In this case, the results aren’t pretty. Personally, I love the way ID advocates like Pat will mention, almost as a point of pride, how they aren’t “experts” on biology or scientific theories in an “aw, shucks” manner that’s supposed to make you think they’re just regular people. Pat, of course, is not “regular” people. He’s the creator of ACT!, whose importance and ubiquitousness until recently I hadn’t appreciated. The problem is, he seems to think that his flair for marketing somehow translates into an understanding of science, even to the point where he at one time dismissed “Darwinism” as having a “marketing problem.” He demonstrates this in his next observation:

As a review, I have advocated that while micro evolution is unquestionably true, it does not automatically follow that macro evolution is also true. It has not been observed, it has not been demonstrated experimentally as far as I can tell from what I read. IMO, Darwinists merely “infer” that macro occurred because they can observe micro. Much like IDist’s infer design because they don’t believe Darwinian processes can explain the intricate appearance of design. Both make inferences which seems a perfectly reasonable thing for scientists to do.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the worst part of Pat’s post (patience, it’s coming.), although it is breathtakingly ignorant to equate inferences based on decades of research and multiple converging lines of evidence (evolution) with an “inference” based on incredulity that evolution could have produced the complexity of life (intelligent design, which is in essence a claim that “we know design when we see it”). In any case, whenever you hear someone blathering about “micro” and “macro” evolution in the manner that Pat does here, you know you’re listening to an “intelligent design” creationist who is ignorant of biology, particularly the part where Pat claims that “macroevolution has not been observed.” That’s a time-honored ID canard that, no matter how many times it’s slapped down, keeps coming back again and again, not unlike Michael Myers in the Halloween movies or Jason in the Friday the 13th movies, with about the same level of ugliness. (Halloween’s coming up; so I couldn’t resist such metaphors.) He dismisses “macroevolution” as being “merely inferred” in the same way that “design” is inferred. Of course, when looking at evolution over hundreds of millions of years we could not have directly observed speciation, but we have abundant evidence for it, including the fossil record and DNA homologies. When multiple different techniques arrive at the same or very similar answers, it’s generally considered powerful confirmation of a theory. Such is the case for the theory of evolution; where genomic, fossil, and a variety of other lines of evidence all support common descent and some form of “macroevolution.”

Of course, the whole macroevolution/microevolution dichotomy is a bit of an arbitrary definition. The reason is simple. Microevolution is commonly defined as evolutionary changes within species while macroevolution is defined as evolutionary changes above the level of the species, particularly leading to speciation itself. The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is thus not fundamental distinction, particularly when it is noted that the definition of what constitutes a species is not always clear. Rather, it is more a convenient rough dividing line, given that there is no truly objective general criteria for when a species has changed enough to count as a new species if it doesn’t split into two or more species, allowing us to invoke the definition that species cannot interbreed. What is clear is that, to some extent, microevolutionary processes must underlie macroevolutionary processes, but it is a hotly debated topic whether macroevolutionary processes represent the sum of only microevolutionary processes or whether there are other higher level processes that also contribute to macroevolution. Regardless, contrary to what ID advocates would have you believe, these scientific controversies are about how macroevolution occurs and what mechanisms drive it, not whether it occurs. As John Wilkins put it:

Macroevolution is at least evolution at or above the level of speciation, but it remains an open debate among scientists whether or not it is solely the end product of microevolutionary processes or there is some other set of processes that causes higher level trends and patterns. It is this writer’s opinion that macroevolutionary processes are just the vector sum of microevolutionary processes in conjunction with large scale changes in geology and the environment, but this is only one of several opinions held by specialists.

The misuse of the terms by creationists is all their own work. It is not due to the ways scientists have used them. Basically when creationists use “macroevolution” they mean “evolution which we object to on theological grounds”, and by “microevolution” they mean “evolution we either cannot deny, or which is acceptable on theological grounds”.

There’s an old quip that’s been around Usenet for a long time that characterizes the ID creationist definitions of microevolution as “evolution for which the evidence is so overwhelming that even the Institute for Creation Research can’t deny it” and of macroevolution as evolution which is only “proven beyond reasonable doubt, not beyond unreasonable doubt.” Clearly, whichever of the above definitions you chose, Pat is using a creationist definition of microevolution and macroevolution. That’s a common enough creationist fallacy that it often suffices to say that, although scientists use the terms, evolutionary biologists do not mean the same thing that creationists like Pat do when they use the terms. When ID creationists use these terms, they do so with the clear implication that there is some sort of hard boundary, beyond which evolution cannot work, which was the central thesis of Michael Behe’s latest book, The Edge of Evolution, a book whose bad science has been thoroughly trashed by people as various as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Corey Powell, P. Z. Myers, and Abbie Smith.

Moreover, although it’s tempting to point out that speciation generally takes many, many generations and is thus difficult to observe in mammals and other creatures with relatively long lifespans (i.e., significant fractions of a human lifespan), there are multiple examples of speciation that have been observed, contrary to Pat’s sticking his fingers in his ears and wailing “Na, na, na, I can’t hear you!”–which leads him to make what is almost the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard even Pat saying about evolution (not yet, friends, I’m saving the pièce de résistance for last):

I find it interesting that it is NOT OBVIOUS that evolution is still occurring. Think about it. Look at the world around you. Things appear basically complete. It seems to me the theory of macro evolution would predict that we would see MASSIVE evidence of macro evolution still taking place. It seems we would see many species of plants, animals and humans in transition from one thing to another, creating entirely new species. Instead we see nothing at all. That seems rather odd to me. It does not seem to be what Macro Evolution would predict. In fact, we almost daily are reminded the number of species is actually declining. Why is it totally OBVIOUS that species are disappearing during our lifetime and yet no new species are appearing at the same time?

I’m seriously tempted to use my old trope (TSIB, for those familiar with common Orac-isms), but I refrained other than the initials. Holy crap! Where to start? “It does not seem to be what macroevolution would predict”? How on earth would Pat know what macroevolution would predict? Do I really have to bring up something really basic? I guess I do; so I’ll repeat it: Evolution takes place over many, many generations. One human lifetime is a mere blink of the eye (to use the cliche) in comparison. What would Pat expect to see? Monkeys turning into humans or humans turning into this within the time frame of his less than a century lifespan? Maybe Pat thinks that evolutionary theory predicts this is the sort of thing that should be happening, but that’s only because Pat clearly doesn’t understand evolutionary theory or geologic time. The sorts of speciation events that could possibly be directly observed in a human lifetime tend to be the ones that we have observed: in insects, microorganisms, plants, etc. Moreover, in reality evolutionary theory would tend to predict that all available ecological niches would be filled with organisms adapted to these niches. Indeed, it is evolution that would tend to predict a seemingly “complete” world, at least at any single snapshot we could take. (And, make no mistake about it, a human life is a mere snapshot in evolutionary time.)

Now, here’s the pièce de résistance, which literally made my jaw drop in wonder over how a person so smart in one area (marketing) can say such ignorant things about another area (biology):

Why would macro evolution somehow take primordial soup and create thru random means this amazingly diverse world we observe and then STOP? I suppose it can be argued it is because of the massive amount of time and the last 5,000 years is just a nit in time. But that seems irrelevant to me. Regardless of where we are on the spectrum of time, there ought to be massive numbers of obvious, incomplete transitional forms for us to observe. e,g, cows with 3 legs and a partial 4th still in the process of evolving. Multiply that across tens of millions of species. The amount of macro evolution we should be observing ought to be massive. And yet there essentially is nothing.

You heard it right. Right after having the arrogance to blithely dismiss what science knows, namely that 5,000 years is a “nit in time” as far as evolution is concerned as “seeming irrelevant” to him, Pat goes on to argue that because we don’t see cows with three legs and a fourth one evolving or other such “transitional forms” macroevolution can’t be true. The mind boggles! I don’t know where he got his idea of what constitutes a “transitional form,” but it’s a doozy. Here’s a hint: Transitional forms are only recognizable when compared to the form from which they evolved and the form into which they ultimately evolved. Without that frame of reference, there is no way to recognize them as being “transitional.” In a manner of speaking, it could be argued that all life is a “transitional form” because all life is evolving. He then goes on to confuse evolution with ecology:

Imagine an area of town where a major real estate development is taking place. Over the course of the development, on any given day one would observe “incompleteness.” But there would come a time when it basically would be complete. Some stores will go out of business and a different store takes it’s place, but no big changes as a whole. If random macro evolution is responsible for what we see, why would it not be like a massive development where things NEVER appear finished or complete? What brought macro evolution to a halt? Could it be that it simply never happened?

In other words, once species have completely filled all the niches in a given ecoystem, the whole system appears “complete.” Therefore, because the ecosystem doesn’t appear to Pat to be “incomplete,” macroevolution couldn’t have happened and couldn’t be happening now. It’s hard not to conclude that Pat doesn’t seem to know the difference between a species and an ecosystem. Moreover, he doesn’t help his case by citing Kazmer Ujvarosy, who is into some seriously bizarre thinking about not just evolution but medicine.

Pat seems to have it in his mind that evolution happens so fast that it should be apparent to all. In fact, it’s not apparent to all; if it were so then it wouldn’t have taken until the 1700s and 1800s for scientists to recognize that evolution had happened and it wouldn’t have taken until the mid 1800s for a viable mechanism for evolution to be proposed by Charles Darwin. As much as Pat might fervently wish it otherwise, not all science is immediately obvious to the “common man” that Pat believes himself to be. Indeed, although the basic concepts behind evolution can be grasped by most educated lay people, I would argue that Pat hasn’t even reached that level of understanding, given that he is still in essence asking a question as bad as the infamous creationist question: If evolution is happening, why are there still monkeys? In essence Pat is asking: If evolution is happening, why isn’t it obvious to me personally that it’s happening? Why aren’t there cows with three legs?

I have to admit that I’ve never heard the “argument from ‘completeness’” used against evolution in this way before. It’s basically an argument from incredulity on steroids with an amazing bit of self-centeredness and a huge misunderstanding of evolutionary theory thrown in, to boot. I have to wonder what Pat was doing in the 1970s. After all, it was the “me” decade. I will give Pat credit for one thing, though; he only used the term “Darwinist” once in his whole post. For an ID creationist, anything less than five times is progress.

Comments

  1. #1 Joe
    October 29, 2007

    Paul Gross (Creationism’s Trojan Horse) has also published a review of Behe’s latest book.

    I am embarrassed to admit that I realized “TSIB” means “the stupid, it burns” …

  2. #2 pough
    October 29, 2007

    Apparently, the three-legged cows have a plan and the plan includes growing one more leg for completeness. Nice plan. Too bad they’re just cows and evolution is undirected. Oh well.

    I like the way you can read his stuff as an Onion-like opinion piece or else the amusingly silly ideas of a child dressed up in adult words. It works either way.

  3. #3 Brian
    October 29, 2007

    I’ve seen this argument before, and it basically boils down to this: EVOLUTION is impossible, because I see no current evidence of DESIGN. The flaw in the argument isn’t the time-course of things (that’s a convenient red herring), the problem is the all-too-common assumption about ‘half-leg’ transitional states.

    WE know that the definition of evolution in Pat’s argument is beyond flawed, and that the logic isn’t even internally consistent, but that’s not the point of this particular slight of hand. The point is to bring the argument back to design, and away from “understanding evolution.” It’s alarmingly effective: we smack our heads at the bizarre dismissal of thousands vs. millions of years, while “open-minded” adults start to ask about 3-legged cows. It makes me cry in my beer. It’s actually ironic that they’d take this stance, though, since Pat’s basically going out of his way to demonstrate that animals are no longer being “designed” in any literal sense, without providing any real flaw in evolution.

    Then again, arguing against evolution is claiming citizenship from the fine nation of Rand-McNally (where hamburgers eat people): you either know enough to know it’s stupid, or are too lazy to question it.

  4. #4 pough
    October 29, 2007

    It’s also very interesting (for me) to see evolution through creationist eyes. For example, when I think of a transitional form, I think of things like cynodonts; creationists think of houses that have only been framed and are yet unfinished. They think that extant living things are a destination; that the initial life forms were starters with a plan.

    It’s hard not to think of evolution as wrong when your thinking of evolution is wrong.

  5. #5 J-dog
    October 29, 2007

    Act! sucks as a contact manager. GoldMine is better.

    Thank you for the post – now I understand better why I don’t like ACT!

  6. #6 Samantha Vimes
    October 29, 2007

    and just in case someone uninformed in evolution is reading this:

    Vertebrates have 4 limbs of some sort. Yes, even whales, who evolution streamlined for swimming by altering their development; the genes for quadruped development are there, but suppressed. Vestigial leg bones may be found in whales, and ones in polluted waters that alter their development sometimes revert to having external legs.
    A cow did not develop from a 3- legged creature.

  7. #7 KeithB
    October 29, 2007

    I wonder if we could get Pat to do a thought experiment:
    Transport yourself back to the time of the dinosaurs. Look around, what is going on to make you think that in a few million years, the flora and fauna will be completely different? What does “incomplete evolution” look like? I guess he figures that there will be a bunch of 2 and 3 legged mammals flopping around on the ground. No wonder it took them so long to compete with the dinosaurs!

  8. #8 daedalus2u
    October 29, 2007

    Here is a 6 legged cow. Doesn’t that prove that cows are trying to evolve to have 6 legs like ants, or 8 legs, like spiders, or thousands of legs like milipedes?

    http://www.metro.co.uk/weird/article.html?in_article_id=33075&in_page_id=2

    The ecological niche for thousand-legged cows is completely empty. Since Nature abhors a vacuum, cows are trying to evolve to fill it ASAP.

  9. #9 John Marley
    October 29, 2007

    I guess he figures that there will be a bunch of 2 and 3 legged mammals flopping around on the ground

    Apparently that’s exactly what he would expect.

  10. #10 NoAstronomer
    October 29, 2007

    I did have a whole list of ongoing macro-evolution to post. But it was kind of boring so I’ll restrict myself to this comment:

    A three legged cow would be difficult to achieve due to bilateral symmetry issues. In fact one of the predictions of modern biology might be that a three legged cow is nearly impossible.

    How about a SIX legged cow?

  11. #11 George
    October 29, 2007

    Wow, yet another product to scratch of the list…

  12. #12 Nemo
    October 29, 2007

    Samantha: More specifically, tetrapods have four limbs. Not all vertebrates are tetrapods, though of course all mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians are. In other words, most fish are not — and all the other vertebrates are descended from one line of tetrapod fish.

  13. #13 Joseph
    October 29, 2007

    It seems we would see many species of plants, animals and humans in transition from one thing to another, creating entirely new species.

    All species that we see today are transitional forms. Except, of course, those that will go extinct.

  14. #14 cheeky
    October 29, 2007

    This mus be a spoof – Nobody but nobody can be that thick !!

  15. #15 vhurtig
    October 29, 2007

    It seems to me his analogy inadvertantly reflects how evolotionary change works in an ecosystem. “Some stores will go out of business and a different store takes it’s place, but no big changes as a whole.” Replace store with species and you have evolution. Thats generally how towns change, a little here, a little there, nothing noticable at the moment, but over a long period of time you end up with big changes.

  16. #16 Brian
    October 29, 2007

    You know, a better analogy for these people might be restaurant menu items. Certain items, like Honey Mustard dressing, Bloomin’ Onions (or equivalent), salads on fast food menus, anything with “chipotle,” etc., have gradually entered the gustatory lexicon at some relatively popular restaurant and then disseminated throughout restaurants nationwide. We hardly notice this process, but at some point you turn around and wonder what menus must have looked like before someone invented the Caesar Salad.

    http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/SaladHistory.htm

  17. #17 The Ridger
    October 29, 2007

    Hey, Sleipnir has 8 legs! Go, evolution!

  18. #18 VWXYNot?
    October 29, 2007

    Heh! I have commented on that blog before and it got me precisely nowhere. How do you even start to argue against someone whose “understanding” of the ToE is so completely wrong?

    Talking of which, here’s an excellent creationist argument from a recent post about fruit fly evolution:

    “so,… any day now we should be seeing fruit flys turning into birds…. I am not holding my breath.”

  19. #19 PeteK
    October 29, 2007

    Why has noone mentioned “kinds”? Surely the whole macro/micro distinction is based on the ancient Platonic form/essence/kind, way of non-thinking – that a creature is either 100% e.g. cat, or 100% not, that it doesn’t amtter how many examples of speciation that are documented, they’re always the same “kind” of animal. If you think in that way, no evolutionary change can trully be called evolutionary, unless the desendeants “look” like a fundamentally different “kind”.

    It’s aesthetics, based on ways of thinking inherited from our primitive ancestors, when they used to carry a naive picture of prey in their minds, to enhance their chances of hunting one sucessfully. Creationists don’t invoke scientific arguments and rebuttals, but rather harp on the Bible telling us that animals only ever bring forth after their undefinable “kind”…

  20. #20 Prometheus
    October 29, 2007

    Orac,

    Pat clearly has missed the boat on this one – he’s got a “transitional form” staring him in the face every morning.

    Obviously, Pat is a member of the sub-species of humans too closed-minded to look beyond their childhood religious indoctrination. This is a “transitional form” between pre-scientific humans and scientific humans. They have enough intellectual ability to sound scientific, but not enough to truly grasp the concepts.

    Eventually, they will disappear like the Neanderthals. But probably not in my lifetime (too bad).

    Pat’s hilarious idea that evolution has stopped only underscores his lack of comprehension. Does he really believe that the world he sees around him is static? We’re just a few tens of thousands of years out of the last Ice Age and probably on our way to warmer times (before plunging into yet another Ice Age).

    Things change, and it’s only the terminally ignorant who believe that they don’t. Doubtless, there were Permian invertebrates who thought the same as Pat just before the massive asteroid wiped out 95+% of all species on the planet.

    Change happens.

    Prometheus

  21. #21 Calli Arcale
    October 29, 2007

    When I was in high school biology class, I came up with a good analogy for transitional forms that actually convinced a few people that evolution did actually make sense. Basically, I shared my own “ah-ha!” thought with the class. I will share it again now. Forgive the obviousness of it; I was 16 and only newly aware of intelligent thought. ;-)

    Imagine a bowl of Skittles. They look delicious, but you know you shouldn’t just scarf them all down. But one won’t hurt, will it? So you eat one Skittle. But there’s still a big bowl of Skittles there, so what would one more Skittle hurt? So you eat a second one. That’s almost indistinguishable from eating just one, at least as far as anyone can tell by looking at the bowl. They’re very tasty. So you decide to have just one more. Three Skittles. Mmmm! Oh, one more won’t hurt. It’s just one Skittle. Flash forward an hour, and suddenly the whole bowl is empty. You never intended to the eat them all. So what happened? You just had one more.

    The transition between a very light snack of Skittles and the entire bowl of Skittles was not clear-cut at all. Indeed, it wasn’t even perceptible. But there’s obviously a huge difference between one Skittle and an entire bowl.

    The same logic can apply to evolution. There is no clear line between H. sapiens and H. habilus, yet the two are definitely distinct creatures. Take it to the extreme, and there is no clear line between H. sapiens and a paramecium — yet they are different as night and day. Given the vastness of the world, it is not unreasonable to expect that differences so slight as to be imperceptible side-by-side will result in entities that are almost completely different.

    The flaw behind a lot of anti-evolution thinking is the notion that species are distinct, easily-defined entities rather than fuzzy-edged blobs on a spectrum. (Dog versus cat is obvious; dog versus wolf is less clear.) I think this is related to the widespread tendency to think of Mankind as distinct from Nature, and humans as distinct from animals.

  22. #22 Paul
    October 29, 2007

    Just look around you people, the world is clearly flat! I mean apart from the hills, obviously. But they don’t count, cus they’re not doing anything, they’re just sitting there, mountaining. Or something.

  23. #23 Emma
    October 29, 2007

    Cannot, cannot, cannot, CANNOT get past the “cows with three legs” bit.

  24. #24 melior
    October 29, 2007

    Pat doesn’t have the cell phone number of anyone with “transitional form” in their contact info, therefore he is unable to imagine that there are any.

  25. #25 Elizabeth Reid
    October 29, 2007

    I don’t think the pre-cow was a cow with three legs; I think it was a cow with four VERY TINY legs. Evolution had to continually lengthen the legs to get to the cow we have today; tomorrow’s cows with be up to 18 feet tall.

    It makes as much sense as the three legs, anyway.

  26. #26 wolfwalker
    October 29, 2007

    Nemo wrote: Samantha: More specifically, tetrapods have four limbs.

    Pedantry alert: what about snakes?

    I usually say this as “all tetrapods have two or fewer pairs of limbs.” Covers all cases, and even works in the point of bilateral symmetry. A tetrapod with more than two pairs of limbs, such as a centaur or a gryphon, would be proof of either creationism or ETs.

  27. #27 Moopheus
    October 29, 2007

    I weep now.

  28. #28 Nat
    October 29, 2007

    It took me less than a second to work out what TSIB stood for.

    I feel like such a cheap fan-boy now. The shame.

  29. #29 Deech56
    October 29, 2007

    I think the dogcow is the transitional species.

    It’s a Mac thing. Moof.

  30. #30 Susannah
    October 29, 2007

    Elizabeth Reid:
    “I don’t think the pre-cow was a cow with three legs; I think it was a cow with four VERY TINY legs. Evolution had to continually lengthen the legs to get to the cow we have today; tomorrow’s cows with be up to 18 feet tall.”

    Those poor tiny-legged cows were at a real disadvantage; their hooves didn’t even reach the ground.

    “It makes as much sense as the three legs, anyway.”

    That it does.

  31. #31 Rjaye
    October 29, 2007

    Hmm, I think I like the idea of a three legged cow. I think I’ll sit here and transition a third arm. I could really use one.

    Wish me luck.

  32. #32 Michael Suttkus, II
    October 29, 2007

    However, if I may, while it’s technically true that you can’t tell a transitional until it transits, there are some bluntly obvious examples of transitions-in-progress living among us today. (They’ll only fail to be transitions-in-progress should they go extinct, which is sadly likely in the case of the best example.)

    My second favorite example of existing transitions is YOU! Every creationist on the planet is a pretty convincing argument for transitional! No, I’m not making a joke, I’m just getting to the back of the problem, or rather the problems of the back. The vertebrate back is built with various ligaments tying the internal organs to the spine. These pull down on the spine of quadrapeds, but the quadraped back is well built for it.

    We had to go and stand up, which messed up everything. Our back is only partially adapted to supporting the weight of our skull. That weight points down along the spine, a direction evolution has made our spines woefully unprepared for. Worse, all those organ supports that did such a good job holding our organs when we lived on four legs, well, our spines just don’t work that way now. Because or organs are now being pulled by gravity in the wrong direction, and their supports are not holding them up, but kinda pulling sideways…

    Well, it’s a mess. The result is that our spines are constantly pulled by forces they just aren’t designed for. Our backs are still largely built for being quadrapeds! Why do humans have bad backs later in life? Because we’re only half-evolved to being bipeds yet!

    Note, if you don’t believe in evolution, you’ll have to accept that our intelligent designer… is an idiot. Hmmm, maybe Pat Sullivan sees God in his own image!

    The all-time best example is the Panda. Everything about the panda screams transitional. It’s diet is purely herbivorous, but it’s biology is carnivorous. It’s teeth are sharp carnivore’s teeth, only slightly modified in the direction of a herbivores blunt mashers. Carnivores have short digestive tracts because meat digests easily. herbivores have long tracts, with many folds in the intestines to allow for the greater time plants need to digest. The panda’s digestive tract is a bit longer than a standard carnivore, but not remotely long enough for a hebivore. As a result, it is horribly bad at digesting it’s diet, wasting massive amounts of energy it can’t absorb. As a result, it must eat almost constantly.

    The panda’s musculature, is a carnivores, built for rapid bursts of speed, though modified to where it doesn’t do this very well either, but the form is all there.

    In short, every feature of the panda screams out it’s evolutionary history, a carnivore the diet of which has recently shifted and the biology of which has yet to catch up.

    In several years of challenging creationists with this obvious example of either utterly stupid design or obvious transitionality, I’ve only seen one make an attempt to defend it. His analysis: “Isn’t it great that it has an inefficient digestive system! If it didn’t, it would over-energize itself eating so much!”

    The stupid, it immolates!

    The all time stupidest example of “What should transitions look like” goes to Duane Gish, former champion of the ICR (Institute for Creation Research, or Institute for Credulous Retards, as you see fit). He pointed to the fact that reptiles and mammals have different jaw joints, and stated that evolutionists must expect that the reptile jaw joints evolved away to nothing, leaving the jaw hanging loose for millions of years, then evolved the new mammalian jaw joints. Obviously, an animal walking around with a loose jaw is preposterous, therefore, creationism! Those dumb evolutionists!

    Naturally, he began this argument decades after fossils with transitional jaw joints were known.

    The stupid… it’s napalm!

  33. #33 Freddy the Pig
    October 29, 2007

    A simple “common sense” analogy for the apparent lack of “observable” evolution is watching grass grow – Over as long a time span as anyone can stand to watch a blade of grass, it will not get visibly longer, but come back in few days and it is obvious. Grass growing is like the evolution of short lived species and a tree growing is like the evolution of longer lived species. It’s not a hard concept.

  34. #34 T. Bruce McNeely
    October 29, 2007

    I don’t think the pre-cow was a cow with three legs; I think it was a cow with four VERY TINY legs. Evolution had to continually lengthen the legs to get to the cow we have today; tomorrow’s cows with be up to 18 feet tall.

    How would you milk one of those suckers? On stilts?

    It makes as much sense as the three legs, anyway.

    If the missing leg were a hind leg, that would greatly ease the milking process. Presumably you would have right legged and left legged cows to accommodate right and left handed milkers. Unfortunately, the price of rump roast would immediately double.

  35. #35 David D.G.
    October 30, 2007

    Orac wrote:

    would Pat expect to see? Monkeys turning into humans or humans turning into THIS [linked] within the time frame of his less than a century lifespan?

    Orac, I don’t know whether I should state this as a boast or as a confession, but I was certain before I ever clicked on it what that link would lead me to. And I was absolutely right.

    I love the fact that your sci-fi interests and reference points so frequently coincide with mine. It’s just one of the lovely extras that make reading your blogs even more of a pleasure than their basic erudition and anti-nonsense attitude do already.

    ~David D.G.

  36. #36 Mobius
    October 30, 2007

    I have to admit, I have heard the “why has evolution stopped?” argument many times. I suspect it comes from fundamentalists thinking that humans, as they now exist, are the pinnacle of creation.

    But “cows with 3 legs”??? OMG, that is a new one on me. ROFLMAO

  37. #37 Sophist, FCD
    October 30, 2007

    Regardless of where we are on the spectrum of time, there ought to be massive numbers of obvious, incomplete transitional forms for us to observe. e,g, cows with 3 legs and a partial 4th still in the process of evolving.

    Pfft, we’ve been evolving for 3.7 million years in this here neck of the woods. You show up with three damn legs and someone’s gonna take your lunch money and give you a swirly.

    Imagine an area of town where a major real estate development is taking place. Over the course of the development, on any given day one would observe “incompleteness.”

    Oh, you foolish fool. The only reason that a half finished real estate development looks “incomplete” is that you already know what it’s going to look like when it’s done.

  38. #38 truth machine
    October 30, 2007

    Pat Sullivan deleted some of my posts and closed his comments section. You can see the whole exchange, with his pathetic and cowardly dodges of my points, at

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/10/what_evolution_predicts.php#comment-619969

  39. #39 truth machine
    October 30, 2007

    I have to admit that I’ve never heard the “argument from ‘completeness’” used against evolution in this way before.

    But this is exactly the same reasoning as the “half an eye is worthless” argument, which implies that the person saying this thinks that evolution predicts half eyes. Sullivan’s half a leg is no different. Your suggestion that he confuses species with ecosystems attributes far too much sophistication to his thought processes.

  40. #40 AJS
    October 30, 2007

    “If evolution works, why are there still monkeys?” What an idiotic question!

    Now that we have electric lights, why do people light candles at dinner parties?
    Now that we have television, why does anyone listen to the radio?
    Come to think of it, why do people still listen to MW radio even since the invention of FM?
    Now that we have the Internet, why do people still talk face-to-face?

  41. #41 Samantha Vimes
    October 30, 2007

    Thanks for the correction, nemo. I had a feeling I was getting something wrong and was asking myself about fish, but knowing it was the fish where the 4-limb thing started, I forgot it wasn’t all fish.

    I’m not a scientist; I just read a lot, and late at night, the memory can slip.

    Wolfwalker, everything I said about the whales is pretty much applicable to snakes, too. Had legs, blocked developing them (to ease transition through small passages more than streamlining for swimming). Some snakes have tiny growths of what were once back legs to aid in sex. I believe there is also a reptile species that has two front legs and I think is classified as a snake. I don’t remember the name. But the point being (unless I’ve really misunderstood the rules of body plan development), even for whales and snakes, the blueprint in their genes says they can be tetrapods. Only they have developed to suppress the gene expression, and if something interferes, the may revert to the basic plan.

    Which means that knowing the ancestry and ecological niche of bovines, we could predict they would be 4 legged without once having seen them.

  42. #42 truth machine
    October 30, 2007

    “If evolution works, why are there still monkeys?” What an idiotic question!

    Now that we have electric lights, why do people light candles at dinner parties?

    Candles don’t turn into electric lights, so that isn’t a smart or relevant answer.

    The correct answer is that not all of the predecessors of our simian ancestors are humans; some are monkeys. It’s the same as why, if George Walker Bush is descended from Walkers, there are still Walkers.

  43. #43 Silmarillion
    October 30, 2007

    I keep thinking of the poor one and two legged mammals flopping around on the ground *trying to mate* to produce the next generation of three legged mammals. Poor things.

  44. #44 Christophe Thill
    October 30, 2007

    And the now infamous 3-legged cow would be an intermediate form between a cow and… what exactly? A 2-legged cow perhaps?

  45. #45 David Marjanović
    October 30, 2007

    I believe there is also a reptile species that has two front legs and I think is classified as a snake. I don’t remember the name.

    If you really mean front legs, you must mean Bipes the amphisbaenian, which is not a snake despite being (otherwise) snake-shaped. Google for it.

  46. #46 David Marjanović
    October 30, 2007

    I usually say this as “all tetrapods have two or fewer pairs of limbs.”

    All tetrapods either have four limbs or have at least one ancestor that had four limbs which are homologous to ours. :-)

  47. #47 Michael Suttkus, II
    October 30, 2007

    AJS, the correct response to, “If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” is “If Americans are descended from Europeans, why are there still people in Europe?” The answer two the two questions is exactly the same.

    Part of the problem is that creationists still think in terms of perfect states. Humans are perfect (god-shaped and everything). If monkeys could become us, all of them would! Therefore, the ongoing existance of monkeys shows monkeys can’t become us. Ergo, no evolution. Simplicity itself.

    Samantha Vimes:

    Some snakes have tiny growths of what were once back legs to aid in sex. I believe there is also a reptile species that has two front legs and I think is classified as a snake. I don’t remember the name.

    Clarification: All snakes are legless (except for the spurs found in pythons). There are numerous types of legless or near legless lizards. The glass lizards (commonly called glass-snakes or slow-worms) are an entirely legless branch of the lizards. Many skinks have either lost their legs or highly reduced them (including, locally, the sand skink, which has only stubs of legs that it keeps folded against it’s body). Already mentioned are the amphisbaenids, which aren’t snakes or lizards, but a sister group related to them both. Also known as worm-lizards, the amphisbaenids include mostly legless members, but several species have fully developed fore-limbs, while no or highly-reduced back limbs. Neat!

    Leglessness also occurs in the salamanders, where many legless, near-legless, and rear-legless types are known. Another group of amphibians, called Caecilians, are completely legless. I used to like to bother creationists with them as they had scales, and thus helped answer one of the “problems” the occasional creationist notices: Fish and reptiles have scales, amphibians don’t. Actually, all modern amphibians come from one group of amphibians that lost their scales after the reptiles already evolved, so it’s not really a problem. Ancient amphibians were scaled. Sadly, it turns out the Caecilian “scales” aren’t actually scales at all, but a bit of convergent evolution. I had to give up my neat example because of those pesky facts. Creationists have it so easy. They never have to worry about such things.

  48. #48 Michael Suttkus, II
    October 30, 2007

    PS. I like the skittles example. I shall have to steal it. If you ever see it with candy corn in for skittles, you’ll know who the guilty party is. : – )

  49. #49 truth machine
    October 30, 2007

    not all of the predecessors of our simian ancestors are humans; some are monkeys

    Whoa, I sure screwed that up. It should read “not all of the successors of our simian predecessors are humans; some are monkeys”.

    It’s all about branching.

  50. #50 Alison
    October 30, 2007

    OMGWTFBBQ!! I’m finally getting it. . .the creationists won’t accept any transitional forms that aren’t “incomplete”! They’re somehow analogous. Therefore, a fossil of a bovine ancestor, regardless of any scientific evidence that it was related to today’s cow, would not be a true “transitional fossil” if it had four legs, two eyes, an equal number of ribs on each side. . .

    The other thing to keep in mind, is that while you all have been giving excellent explanations of the difference between “microevolution” and “macroevolution”, it doesn’t take much time on Uncommon Descent to see that for some it means that small things like single-celled creatures and fruit flies evolve, anything that was big enough to fit on Noah’s Ark didn’t.

  51. #51 Michael Suttkus, II
    October 30, 2007

    Yes, the really demand “incomplete” organisms. when they ask about half an eye, they are imagining the left half of a modern eyeball in a partially completed socket. Evolution is so silly!

  52. #52 David Marjanović
    October 30, 2007

    Clarification: All snakes are legless (except for the spurs found in pythons).

    And the complete, though tiny, hindlimbs found in the mid-Cretaceous marine snakes like Pachyrhachis, Haasiophis and Eupodophis, and the terrestrial Najash.

    Already mentioned are the amphisbaenids, which aren’t snakes or lizards, but a sister group related to them both.

    Like the snakes, they are nested deeply within the lizards. You are right that they aren’t close to the snakes, though.

    There are no completely legless salamanders (…so far). Regarding the caecilians, an Early Jurassic caecilian with small limbs was described in 1993.

    Fish and reptiles have scales, amphibians don’t.

    That’s not a problem because scales and scales aren’t the same. The term “scale” is misleading. The scales of “fish”, “ancient amphibians”, and amphibians (where present — among the living, that only includes most caecilians) are bony plates in the middle layer of the skin (the dermis); the scales of “reptiles” and birds, and also those on rat tails, are thickened parts of the upper layer of the skin (the epidermis), much like feathers and hairs, though less modified. So, the “reptile” lineage first lost one kind of “scales” and then evolved the other.

  53. #53 Alan Kellogg
    October 30, 2007

    Wolfwalker,

    The griffon is actually a type of wyrm, more specifically the beastwyrm sub-family. Wyrms being diapsid reptiles descended from thecodonts much like crocodilians.

    The griffons (or gryphons if you insist) are descended from vermitheridae (aka Lung Wang (Earth Dragons)) via the hieracosphinx. It being the Lung Wang who gained the additional limb pair thanks to a mutation in a set of regulatory genes governing limb development. The griffon’s fur is actually a sort of pin feather which has evolved to resemble real hair.

    This information applies to pegasuses, sphinxes, and the shedu among a number of other animals.

    (We shall now pause while we wait for people to achieve illumination. :) )

  54. #54 Cain
    October 31, 2007

    Pat’s got a few responses up now to you and PZ, where he’s apparently ceasing to blog about evolution because he doesn’t like being called done. Also, he argues the Ipod is evidence for a designer, apparently not knowing the difference between “things that are alive” and “things that are not alive”.

  55. #55 Cain
    October 31, 2007

    Ugh, it’s late. “done” s/b “dumb”

  56. #56 has
    October 31, 2007

    There is no evidence of Pat Sullivan evolving half a brain, therefore Creationism is true.

  57. #57 Jud
    October 31, 2007

    “Regardless of where we are on the spectrum of time, there ought to be massive numbers of obvious, incomplete transitional forms for us to observe. e,g, cows with 3 legs and a partial 4th still in the process of evolving.”

    There have been a couple of previous responses to this in the comments, but if I can just put it as briefly and simply as possible:

    Pat Sullivan has half a brain. QED.

  58. #58 khan
    October 31, 2007

    The creationists’ version of evolution would seem to have been inspired by the child’s game: Cootie.

    http://www.ehow.com/how_2049972_play-cootie.html

  59. #59 Orac
    October 31, 2007

    Pat’s got a few responses up now to you and PZ, where he’s apparently ceasing to blog about evolution because he doesn’t like being called dumb.

    Actually, I do feel a teeny tiny bit guilty about coming down so hard on Pat. I know I shouldn’t, but I do because he tends to react like a whipped puppy dog (a petulant and defiant whipped puppy dog, actually) when his dumb statements about evolution are criticized. The problem is that he’s been corrected multiple times by people more patient than I and shown where to go to learn more. He either steadfastly refuses or he simply won’t accept the evidence that he is shown. The funny thing is that his response more or less boils down to: (1) Those evilutionists don’t understand my point of view (actually, we understand it far too well); (2) OK, I admit that I didn’t understand some terminology and science, but my viewpoint is valid anyway; and (3) those eviluitionists are all a bunch of arrogant, mean, close-minded poopie heads for picking on me.

    And then he takes his marbles and goes home.

    In actuality, it is Pat who is the arrogant one, all of his “aw-shucks” homeyness notwithstanding. He pontificates about the “predictions” that evolution makes when it is very clear that he hasn’t a clue what evolutionary theory predicts, that he doesn’t even know the difference between how evolution effects organisms versus ecosystems, and that his conception of “transitional forms” bears no resemblance to what biologists define as transitional forms. Then, when he is corrected, even when it’s done patiently (although the nastier comments give him an excuse to play the wounded martyr), he tells us that we don’t understand what he is saying because he is in essence speaking a different language. That may be true, but whatever language he is speaking it is not the language of biology. Then he concludes that biologists haven’t addressed all these “flaws” in evolutionary theory that he thinks he’s found, when anyone with a passing knowledge of the real scientific literature knows that these are areas of hot research and debate.

    In other words, Pat seems uneducable.

  60. #60 lb
    October 31, 2007

    So many stupid arguments so little space….

    3 legged cow – Seen one born, was hauled to the back field shot and left for the coyotes, wouldn’t have survived.

    Been seeing more and more cats with “thumbs” lately – If they figure out how to use them, we’re done for as a species.

    Incomplete creature – has he forgotten the platypus? Why would a god even create such a thing? Oh, never mind, it’s the devils creature, made to take us poor schmucks away from god (I know way too many of these people)

    If we evolved from Apes why are there still apes? If a labradoodle comes from Labradors and poodles, why are there still Labradors and poodles?

    Why has evolution stopped? Why are children larger than their parents? Why are more and more people born without wisdom teeth? Why did a Grizzly and a Polar bear mate?

    Watching the two legged mammal flopping around trying to mate – Yeah I saw the Paris Hilton sex tape too… Your right it was pathetic.

    First RealTec, Now ACT!….. Pretty soon, I’m going back to the paper and pen.

  61. #61 Dave Wisker
    November 1, 2007

    “In other words, Pat seems uneducable”

    After trying to educate him patiently and respectfully myself, I have to agree. He reminds me of a character in an unpublished poem my father wrote many years ago:

    In green and leafy Gloucestershire,
    At Great-Stowe-In-The-Wold,
    There lived a jolly bishop who was ninety-six years old.
    His own opinions settled all,
    He never could be told,
    When he the wrong end of the stick
    Had firmly taken hold.

  62. #62 James McGrath
    November 1, 2007

    The Discovery Institute responded to something I wrote, and in the process let slip a significant admission. I hope that bloggers and other interested individuals will document what they said, before they have a chance to change it. The author of the reply started by saying that the designer doesn’t have to be God, but then let slip that the designer’s identity is a theological problem!

  63. #63 Grodge
    November 1, 2007

    Orac, I give you credit for such a complete dissection of Pat’s usual mess of a blog entry. There was a time when I made the effort to engage Mr. Sullivan, but I found it an exercise in futility.

    My last comment on his site was met with a resounding echo of expletives and insults– Pat having gotten his Irish up on me– and I signed off on him.

    http://www.patsullivan.com/blog/2007/08/more-thoughts-o.html#comment-79510229

    Be aware, Orac, Pat seems to relish in this new found attention and oddly takes it as some validation for his cockamamie reasoning.

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