“What evolution predicts…”

No three words are more pregnant with the promise of error in a conversation with a creationist than to hear them say “what evolution predicts…”. It’s practically a guarantee that you’re going to hear something bizarre and fundamentally erroneous — but it is at least a good start on identifying basic misconceptions. Orac has found a doozy, a creationist who goes on at remarkable length, building a house of cards on a few flimsy premises. He’s dealt with it thoroughly, so I just want to focus on one piece of Pat Sullivan’s deeply flawed understanding of evolution.

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?

To me this makes the “Cambrian Explosion” all that more troublesome for evolutionists. This refers to the fact that in the fossil record entire species suddenly appear totally complete. No transitional forms at all. This in total contradiction to what the theory of macro evolution seems would have predicted.

This is the crux of his argument against evolution: that he never sees any organisms that he recognizes as “incomplete”. His example is that he doesn’t see any three-legged cows with a fourth in the process of evolving.

You read that right. No three-legged cows, no evolution.

There is so much that is wrong with that whole argument. Here’s a partial list.

  • The immediate ancestor of the cow was four-legged. The last common ancestor of all mammals was four-legged. The last common ancestor of all tetrapods was four-legged. We have to go back several hundred million years to find a cow ancestor that was not four-legged, but we’ve got them. Of course, it was four-finned, not three-legged.

  • Evolution does not proceed by selecting for organisms that are partially constructed steps on the way to some future “complete” organism. Every transitional form must be fully functional; that’s what is predicted by evolution, and that’s what we see. The distant ancestor of the cow was a healthy, thriving population of fish-like forms with paddle-like fins. The fins were modified by evolutionary processes for hundreds of millions of years, but every intermediate step was viable and useful for locomotion. We see forms like this:


    Which one is supposed to be “incomplete”? Yet we can clearly see a pattern of change in this lineage from fish-like fins to amphibian limbs.

  • Biology doesn’t work the way creationists imagine it does: there isn’t some blueprint in the genome with a spot where the right hindlimb is sketched in. It’s all much more abstract, with a general to specific array of tissue specification that is dependent on interactions between cells and their environment. What we have in development is, for instance, an early establishment of bilateral symmetry, so that an operation that occurs on one side of the embryo will be mirrored on the other. It actually takes special additional mechanisms to break that symmetry; pairs of limbs are the default. This symmetry was established well over half a billion years ago, and we see its maintenance in modern organisms.

    Similarly, the metazoan lineage established a pattern of positional information along the axis using Hox genes, and within the vertebrate lineage some animals established anchors for serially repeated limb development, setting up fore- and hind-limbs. That pattern is also very hard to break; we have inherited a constraint that commits us to a tetrapod body plan.

    Sullivan’s line of argument here is a familiar one. It’s the same as Pinkoski’s, which compounded his misconceptions about symmetry with the bizarre idea that evolutionary changes were an act of will.

  • The notion that evolution can ever be “complete” is false. Evolution is not about progress towards some goal, but about near-constant change to circumstance. It doesn’t stop, and it hasn’t — we’re still changing, slowly. Are we now incomplete because future generations will differ from us?

  • The Cambrian Explosion is not troublesome, it is interesting. It suggests some concordance in the evolution of disparate lineages; within a broad span of time (millions of years), we see many metazoan forms expanding in size and developing harder and more easily fossilized body parts. There are plenty of transitional forms here, and what’s interesting is that many disparate phyla are changing in similar ways at roughly the same time, which suggests that there are coordinating macroevolutionary processes at work.

    But let’s not forget something else that’s important: the Cambrian Explosion seems to be a phenomenon of most importance to one group of organisms, the animals. One narrow group of organisms diversified at this time, but others, like the bacteria and plants and fungi, were doing their own thing. The fascination with the Cambrian is in part a selfish interest in our personal history.

See what I mean? The creationist has his own weird little fantasy version of what evolution predicts, and he has made what is actually to his mind a logical conclusion: that because the real world doesn’t look anything like what his version of evolution predicts, scientist’s version of evolution (which, of course, is nothing like his) must be wrong.

The hard part in addressing that complaint is that it requires going in and systematically dismantling his freakishly false version of evolution first, and then trying to build up a more accurate model in his head. It takes education — the kind of education poor Mr Sullivan should have been given in grade school, before his ideas calcified into this strange nonsense.


  1. #1 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 29, 2007

    If we didn’t have parasites, would we have to change the theory?

    I think so. A complete absence of parasites would be quite mysterious.

    Does the existence oof tall, weak, healthy, yummy plants challenge the current body of knowledge?

    It would, if there were any. :-)

    Since the YECs have condensed 3.6 billion years of life into 6,000, presumably in their model it should have taken a few weeks or months a few thousand years ago.

    Nah. One day at most (the fourth).

    (Never mind the complete lack of Cambrian birds…)

    but then I remember that I would pass out if I had to dissect something.

    All I ever had to dissect was an earthworm and a cricket. And I had to watch the dissection of a rat (which means, its abdominal cavity and its chest were opened). And I had to draw what became visible*. That’s all. Only bones and stones afterwards — though that’s because I’m a paleobiologist…

    * It won’t surprise you to see that, on the inside, the only difference between rat and man is size.

    Evolution in Action! Take that[,] Sullivan!

    Pish and tosh, sir! There are four-legged chickens, that makes six limbs!

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 29, 2007

    A question. Are the drawings of the lineage above real or imagined? Or hypothesized?

    Hypothesized. They are the simplest explanation that currently exists for our observations.

    Now, you probably think “hypothesized” and “imagined” means the same, but it doesn’t.

    I know you think me stupid

    I think that assumption isn’t necessary. You seem to have drawn entirely logical conclusions from premises that happen to be completely wrong because they are based on ignorance instead of on knowledge. But I haven’t read your blog post :-)

    the obvious number of massive changes in the underlying protein machinery needed to go from one species to the next

    I don’t know what you mean. No matter which of the at least 25 definitions of “species” you choose, very small changes suffice. For example, although it never seems to have been tried, I’d bet real money that we can’t produce fertile offspring with a chimp. Why? Because two chromosomes have fused in the human line, resulting in our chromosome 2. A hybrid would have real trouble doing meiosis, just like a mule, which has the exact same problem AFAIK.

    The lineage that you offer actually seems to require massive numbers of changes for what you portray as a simple and obvious lineage.

    Mind you: it is not a lineage, it is a tree. It branches. There should be an arrowhead on each end except the bottom one.

    Massive numbers of changes require massive amounts of time. These are available. The diagram represents at least 30 million years, from the last stage of the Middle Devonian to the end of the Late Devonian (scroll around at this page).

    Also, it is not complete. It only shows the most completely preserved fossils, the ones that are most photogenic and can tell us the most. The lineage simply labeled as “Eusthenopteron” actually looks like this. Somewhere close to Panderichthys there is Parapanderichthys, and even closer to Tiktaalik, Acanthostega and Ichthyostega there should be Elpistostege and Livoniana. Closer to Acanthostega and Ichthyostega than Tiktaalik is, there are Elginerpeton, Obruchevichthys, Ventastega, Metaxygnathus, and probably Densignathus, Sinostega, and Jakubsonia. And what is simply shown as Ichthyostega could be up to three species.

    And the tree continues in both directions. See here and here. Especially, google for Tulerpeton, an animal with 6 fingers per hand and 6 toes per foot that lived in the sea.

    When I look at it I see perhaps millions (maybe thousands. I don’t know) of needed genetic mutations to go from one species to the next. And it would seem there would be perhaps thousands of clear cut steps in between with many of those changes being useless as most mutations are.

    To be honest, this sounds to me like you haven’t looked at it. You should get one of those humongous, expensive textbooks of molecular biology and learn some genetics. Actually, much of that knowledge is online, so a few days spent in Google should give you good basic knowledge.

    And it would seem there would be perhaps thousands of clear cut steps in between with many of those changes being useless as most mutations are.

    So what? As long as they aren’t actively harmful, natural selection won’t do anything against them. It can’t.

    These kinds of lineages, offered for proof of evolution, always seem so simplistic to me and yet held out as absolute proof that evolution “did it.”

    Talking about “proof” will only give you mild smiles. Science cannot prove, only disprove.

    If a hypothesis fails to fit an observation, it is disproven (…even though a very similar hypothesis might not be). But if this does not happen, we can’t say the hypothesis has been proven; we can only say it hasn’t been disproven so far.

    Sure, science could prove a hypothesis by disproving all alternatives. But who says we’ve even imagined all alternatives? Science can prove beyond reasonable doubt, sure, but there is no definition of “reasonable”.

    I hope to have been of help!

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 29, 2007

    A question.

    I just sent a long comment. It contains plenty of links, so it is being held for approval and will show up directly above this one. Maybe very soon, maybe tomorrow.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 29, 2007

    Oh my god! Is this

    Yes, it is, and my upcoming comment lists dozens of… more gaps.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 29, 2007

    Most mutations controlling morphology are thought to be regulatory mutations in developmental pathways.

    Yep. For example, there is a master switch in limbed vertebrates… if you press it — one mutation –, the forelimbs never develop. The snakes have found it, as was figured out a few years ago. Sometimes it gets discovered by other animals, too.

  6. #6 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 29, 2007

    (I clicked “post” too early…)

    Most mutations controlling morphology are thought to be regulatory mutations in developmental pathways.

    Yep. For example, there is a master switch in limbed vertebrates… if you press it — one mutation –, the forelimbs and shoulder girdles never develop. The snakes have found it, as was figured out a few years ago; that’s why there are fossil snakes with tiny but fully formed hindlimbs, and why the pythons & boas have remains of hindlimbs, but why snakes never have any trace of forelimbs or shoulder girdles. Sometimes it gets discovered by other animals, too.

  7. #7 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 29, 2007

    I just sent a long comment. It contains plenty of links, so it is being held for approval and will show up directly above this one.

    It has now.

  8. #8 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 30, 2007

    So, it is hypothesis, not actual fact? The best guess scientists have so far?

    I can tell you didn’t click the link. Here is it again. Please read that page — or you’ll never understand what I’m talking about.

    I have no idea about the Ohio congress. I’ve only ever been to the USA for a few days.

    pat flat out stated on his blog:

    My observations don’t require “a science background.”


    Making the slightest sense of his observations does require a science background. Lacking that, he can only make arguments from ignorance and from personal incredulity.

    A hypothesis can be thought of as an immature theory – predictions have been made but not enough have been tested to justify calling it a theory.

    Well… a theory is also bigger than a hypothesis; it explains a broader scope of observations. But of course neither of these terms is so strictly defined that you could always tell if a set of ideas is a theory or a hypothesis.

    I would say the diagram depicts a (very well-supported) hypothesis, and evolution is at the upper end of the range of “theory”.


    truth machine, why all this copying and pasting? IMHO you could have stopped after your first line, maybe making it a link to your first comment on his blog.

    I’ve been writing software for over 40 years.

    Wow. I’m astounded. From your counterproductive behavior, I’d never have guessed you were above my age of 25.

    I don’t think this is correct. When I point out that 4 wheeled cars didn’t evolve from 3 1/2 wheeled cars, he changes the subject to “everything we see requires a designer”. His response strongly suggests that he knows that his claim is ridiculous, or that he just doesn’t care –

    I think he thinks your analogy is wrong, because cars are designed. He’s still making an argument from ignorance, but I really don’t think he knows that, let alone why, his argument is in fact ridiculous, nor do I think he doesn’t care.

    IMHO you should have first established that there really is no design in evolution — unless he is prepared to accept the hypothesis of Stupid Design. Tell him to compare his eyes to a squid’s. Tell him to ponder the fact that the pathways for air and food cross in his neck. Tell him to think about his kidneys — first they let everything water-soluble pass, and then they expend lots of energy fishing the valuable stuff out of the primary urine. Explain how his feet aren’t good for anything except playing soccer, and even that’s dangerous. And so on for hours.

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?
    October 30, 2007

    But it’s not just misunderstood by them, it’s misundersood by some on “our side” too, such as the comment above about “stupid design”. We do see “stupid” designs in biology, but we don’t see species (as opposed to birth defects) with 3 1/2 legs — there’s a huge and important difference between these.

    And I never implied there wasn’t. My point in bringing up stupid design was that that’s what I would use to cut the discussion short by deliberately changing the topic: Sullivan thinks life is obviously designed — but the evidence is only compatible with stupid design and with evolution, but not with intelligent design. I don’t like arguing with someone before making sure they’ve got their premises right. After that, we can return to the topic, or to what’s left of it.

    A lot of human design is “stupid” too, for the same reasons — because old systems are adapted.

    Bingo. Even though your trademark attitude tends to mask it, you are most often right :o)


    BTW, thwaite, if you really see ç (c with cedilla) instead of ? (c with acute accent), you aren’t using the right encoding to view this page. That might mean your browser doesn’t recognize the right one automatically.

  10. #10 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 30, 2007

    Intelligent design is unfalsifiable

    Only for people who go to the additional step of declaring the Designer ineffable (as Jim did in the “Wells lies. Again.” thread — you remember). As long as that argument isn’t made, it remains perfectly falsifiable
    — and falsified, unlike stupid design.

    So you would emulate him by moving the goalposts?

    Read my comment again: I would try to make sure he gets his premises right.

    As for “cutting the discussion short”

    Once he gets the premises right, chances are much better he won’t draw invalid conclusions anymore.

    Offending his — exaggerated — sensibilities will stop him from considering the whole matter. I can’t see how it helps.


    thwaite, now it works. I correctly guessed you were using an ancient browser! :-)

  11. #11 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 31, 2007

    Ah, so Ken Miller, who testified on the stand at Dover that ID isn’t falsifiable, and the other scientists informed folk who have argued likewise, are wrong and you are right because … you have proposed a test by which we can falsify it?

    Apparently taking the extra step of making the Designer ineffable is common. Once an IDiot does that, he takes ID out of falsifiability and thus out of science.

    BTW, compare posts 127 and 128. How many people are you exactly? I have trouble wrapping my mind around the concept that one person can make a long, calm argument (with which I incidentally agree) one moment and then totally lose their temper 2 (two) minutes later.

    Your poor memory certainly isn’t anyone else’s fault.

    Nope, but you can remedy it, so why don’t you?

    The underlying assumption of the question is that, if monkeys (or correctly, our common ancestors) turned into humans, they all did.

    The idea is to explain why not all of our common ancestors turned into humans; after all, creationists assume that, when given the chance, all of them should have — merely saying they didn’t won’t easily convince them.

    And the reason why there are still monkeys is because 1) the old environment didn’t go away, and 2) because “monkeys” fit it better, not worse, than humans. This is analogous to how MW radios 1) still have their environment and 2) are, I guess, cheaper than others. Isn’t it?

  12. #12 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 31, 2007

    So, instead of either accepting my invitation to come back (in the Orac thread) or answering it on his own blog, Pat Sullivan closes the comments, writes another post which shows (see quote below) he has never heard of exaptation, and closes the comments before any have been made.

    That is really peculiar behavior. I’ll try to send him an e-mail suggesting he learns about exaptation.

    So every single change towards a new species must somehow work and thus is irreducibly complex.

  13. #13 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 31, 2007

    I rather suggest you not bother and just continue to post your responses here (which were just fine), as if he were listening to them.

    But what can I reply to when he’s not here?

    I can try the following, but it seems not to work:

    Do not the variance/diversity of evolving traits changed within many different unrelated species to take advantage of new opportunities and survive new perils and cope with the danger of other rapidly ‘advancing’ species who may temporarily posed competitive threat look a lot like the vista of the role of perception in consciousness that Goethe put out there and got his (um) handed to him for even suggesting?

    Maybe it’s because it’s 2 at night over here, but I don’t get what this long sentence is supposed to mean. Please explain.

    A global non-linear set of relationships existing in the form of potential interlaced together with other potentials which physical forms and memes struggle to identify in order to obtain survival advantage?

    Here, however, I can tell that this doesn’t mean anything. Have you played with the pomo generator?

    Due to the ever changing set of environmental relationships and thus potentials that effect genes and memes[,] [subject missing] serve only within finite limits and yet certain symmetries (super-symmetries of superior potential) do serve optimally well it appears for the most ‘successful’ species.

    Postmodernism again: supersymmetry is a technical term of physics. You can’t simply slap it on “superior potential” and throw the result into biology. If you’re trying to say something, please try again.

    With regards to Memes and niches; does there not exist an eerie similarity between genetic manifestation within a set of variable potentials and that of ideologies and ideas establishing preeminence in favor of others?

    Why “eerie”? Genes mutate and spread. Memes mutate and spread, too.

    If you see the similarity: Then why not an evolution of consciousness and a real ablity to come to percieve strong relational ‘super-structures’ outside the linear dominated layout of this comes after that into this in a line?

    You keep inventing technical terms and expect us to understand them. Unlike a postmodernist, who would expect us to not understand them and to admire him as a deep thinker.

    Or wait…

    Again: if you’re trying to say something, please try again.

    The correlates of potentia and sets of relationships functionally exist on a plane that works in a non-linear fashion to affect living finite forms that move from point a-b and finally die.


    I mean think of the research Bell did involving time series and communication and the direct implication of the effect of possibly very real non-linear process in the role of perceiving the past, future, and the now.

    Who is Bell, and what did he do?

    And you keep using that word “nonlinear” like a postmodernist. I don’t think it means what you think it means.



    I do not dismiss the concept of an outside Telemetry.

    Telemetry? Measuring distances? What?

    I too believe in the scientific approach.

    “Believe” is an unfortunate choice of words.

    So could it be that we are complete – now just the way we are and yet at the same time in seeking out the Truth of reality within the confines of space and time and identification of superstructural affairs is what it is all about

    As scientists, we are not “seeking out the Truth of reality”. We are seeking out reality. That’s enough. Everything else is not testable.

    and when we see this we ‘evolve’ and move into a new ‘relationship’ with this ‘deeper-reality’ and come to know what we must do.

    You do have understood that “evolution” and “progress” are not synonyms, haven’t you?

    Scary, I know:

    Sorry, I’m not capable of being afraid of something I can’t even begin to understand.

    What about Goethe’ and the antlers developing on disseperate species of deer?

    All I understand about this is that Goethe, having a smooth forehead, does not end in an apostrophe.

    BTW, that abbreviation you tried to use is etc., and it stands for et cetera “and the remaining ones”/”and the rest”.

  14. #14 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 31, 2007

    the thinking that creationism uses in generating a world-view.

    Creationism doesn’t generate a worldview. It takes a ready-made worldview and tries to shoehorn reality into it.

    And… what video are you talking about? The one on how to evolve a watch?

  15. #15 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 31, 2007

    Oops, sorry, you mean the video in comment 144, right?

  16. #16 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 31, 2007

    There is actually something more I understand: antlers did not evolve “on disseperate species of deer”. They evolved in the ancestral deer species, once, and have been inherited by all deer that are alive today.

  17. #17 David Marjanovi?, OM
    November 1, 2007

    Hm. Comment 153 makes sense (except for still not explaining what “super-structural” means) up to here:

    Information possesses no energy and involves successful ‘reception’ to communicate with a subject. Changes in the environment only become available for those forms best suited for taking this advantage. It requires responding to a changing set of variables and in higher organisms the ‘decoding’ of change by means of receiving information about new developments of possibility available, yet maybe not visible to contemporaries.

    No, not at all. It doesn’t require decoding anything. Natural selection is inescapable: some will have more surviving offspring than others due to inheritable reasons, and which ones these are is determined by the environment.

    “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”

    Like the first microorganisms that eventually produced an eye-spot. At (starting blind) some point they would move outside of their comfortable range of activities and seek in a way that would make the development of just such an eye-spot advantageous.

    Not necessarily. Figuring out where the light comes from can help in staying inside the comfortable range of activities: if your food is where the light is, knowing where the light is helps you not dying by helping you not to wander off into the darkness.

    In the case of microorganisms that lack brains they do however possess a precursor to our intelligence. The reception, decoding, memory-referral (of some sort) and a physical response to change when it takes place.

    Well… no.

    The way bacteria follow concentration gradients of attractants and repellents has been figured out in detail. It is 100 % mechanistic. When an attractant binds to a receptor on the cell surface, the shape of the receptor changes, triggering a chemical change in a protein inside the cell, and so on, and in the end this assures that the flagella rotate in one direction (forgot which one) so that the bacterium “tumbles” and doesn’t move away. If no attractant is bound, or a repellant is bound, other changes happen, leading to the flagella rotating in the other direction, so that the bacterium swims in a straight line. The more often it encounters an attractant molecule, the less will it move in sum. In this respect (at least), bacteria truly are machines.

    Research on time-series and information indicate a non-linear relationship between our past and future.

    This is utterly trivial. Please explain what you mean by “nonlinear” — you don’t seem to have understood that word.

    Indicated that Truth itself was of some divine order for being beyond the

    What do I care. Goethe was a philosopher. I am a scientist. I’m concerned with reality, that in which argumenta ad lapidem work, that which does not go away when we stop believing in it.

    and that though our relationship to Truth changed our perception of truth create a meta-structure within


    the mechanisms at work on earth to foster advantage by virtue of the one best suited to attain the closest and thus ‘perfect’ relationship to it.

    Why do you say “Truth” when you mean “environment”?

    And the word you’re looking for instead of “telemetry” is “teleology”. But you don’t need it anyway: there is no evidence for a goal in evolution.

    Even though a dogma such as Creationism simply denies evidence of factual process within evolution; does that demand the ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ with regards to a possible extension to mans purpose in relation to immediate evolutionary process?

    “Man’s purpose”? Huh?

    Considering the nature of information itself and the work Bell did regarding the relationship between objects not recognized by our linear models as being in contact with eachother. When seen as a whole this relationship then can access non-linear modes to affect change in the other. Non-linear transmission requires recognition of a sort of unity with the whole and the unified whole directing the activities of the parts and by this means also possessing direct and complete access to the information contained within those parts.

    This is complete nonsense because it misuses the terms “linear” and “nonlinear” in ways that are impossible to figure out.

    And what is an “information process”?

    Does anyone think that the height of evolution resides within the identification and delineation of linear models no matter how useful to industry and modern understanding they may be?

    There is no such thing as “height of evolution”. Therefore, asking “Does anyone think that the height of evolution resides with” anything is exactly analogous to asking why Napoleon crossed the Mississippi.

    Are we the height of universal perfection?

    There are two possibilities for explaining the despicable mess that we are:
    1) Stupid Design.
    2) Evolution.

    Does Conscious Evolution strike anyone as a likely scenario?

    No. Firstly, it is unnecessary: Utterly Dumb Evolution suffices to explain everything we see in biology. Secondly, it probably isn’t testable.

    Afterall it does appear that most of our physical evolution has come to an end unless self-directed by technology.

    That is not true. 10,000 years ago, the average European was lactose-intolerant, for example.

    Would it be likely that the limits of the space in our skulls would require rather than more forward development; instead that we use the forward development to access relationship within how we organize our cognitive process in relation to these changing variables?

    I think I gather that you believe evolution is progress. You are making a huge mistake. For example, read S. J. Gould’s book Full House.

  18. #18 David Marjanovi?
    November 2, 2007

    I mean when the eyes are removed and even large portions of the brain that process sight is damaged beyond repair: where does the phenomenon of ‘blind-sight’ arise from?

    What do you mean?

    What if evolution were a ‘pattern’ or process that applies to any number of areas within which we learn, live, and define?

    “Pattern” is what we call the result of a process, something we can observe and infer a process from.

    Evolution applies (inevitably) to everything that reproduces and inherits. Very few “areas within which we learn, live, and define” fall within this range: organisms (including viruses) do, languages do, and that is about it.

    Science requires less speculation

    I disagree. What it requires is that every speculation be testable, and sooner or later tested.