Pharyngula

15 misconceptions about evolution

Take a look at this excellent list of evolution misconceptions. The entries are very brief, but mostly correct and very common: in particular, #12, “Natural selection involves organisms ‘trying’ to adapt” is one of the most common mistakes in creationist thinking — they completely miss one of the most important insights that Darwin had.

But I have to nitpick a little bit. #6, “The theory is flawed,” gives the wrong answer — it basically tries to argue that the theory of evolution is not flawed. Of course it is! If it were perfect and complete we’d be done with it, and it wouldn’t be a particularly active field of research. The “flaws” that creationists typically bring up aren’t flaws in the theory at all, but flaws in the creationists’ understanding of the science, but let’s be careful to avoid giving the impression of perfection.

#15 is also a pet peeve: “Evolution is a theory about the origin of life” is presented as false. It is not. I know many people like to recite the mantra that “abiogenesis is not evolution,” but it’s a cop-out. Evolution is about a plurality of natural mechanisms that generate diversity. It includes molecular biases towards certain solutions and chance events that set up potential change as well as selection that refines existing variation. Abiogenesis research proposes similar principles that led to early chemical evolution. Tossing that work into a special-case ghetto that exempts you from explaining it is cheating, and ignores the fact that life is chemistry. That creationists don’t understand that either is not a reason for us to avoid it.

#13, “Evolution means that life changed ‘by chance’,” also ducks the issue more than it should. As it says, natural selection is not random — but there’s more to evolution than natural selection. It’s a bit like ducking the question by redefining the terms. Much of our makeup is entirely by accident, and evolution is a story of filtered accidents. Creationists don’t like that — one of their central assumptions is that everything is purposeful — but don’t pander to their beliefs. Go for the gusto and ask them what their god was thinking when he loaded up your genome with the molecular equivalent of styrofoam packing peanuts, or when he ‘accidentally’ scrambled the sequence of our enzyme for synthesizing vitamin C.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Wallis
    February 20, 2008

    Abiogenesis is different from evolution. “According to Hoyle” and others, the seeds of life could have come from off-planet, and then been subject to the evolutionary process. While evolution is the province of biologists who deal with replicating organisms, abiogenesis falls within chemistry. Sure there’s a relationship–any biologist worth her salt figures that organisms came from simpler chemistry–but she doesn’t have to worry about how it might have happened to study the process of evolution. ‘Give me a replicator and I will fill the biosphere’ is the creed of biology.

  2. #2 PeteK
    February 20, 2008

    The misconception could be “Evolution is flawed, and THEREFORE, creation/design is true”, i.e. arguing by elimination…

  3. #3 Matt Penfold
    February 20, 2008

    The problem with Hoyle’s panspermia is that while it would answer a specific problem, that of how life on earth originated, it does not answer the big question of how life originated.

    In addition a number of the hypotheses for the origins of life involve self-replicators, that could not be said to be alive in the sense that is normally meant by that term, being subject to selective pressures.

  4. #4 Jayson
    February 20, 2008

    I once met a guy who actually claimed that our inability to synthesize vitamin C was proof of the story of Adam and Eve, part of our punishment for original sin. Yeah, I laughed, too.

  5. #5 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2008

    Well now, “flawed” could mean “imperfect” or it could mean “undermined by mistakes so as to be invalid or unsound.” In the first sense, the more usual one indeed, MET is flawed. In the second sense–if less common, the meaning that most anti-evolutionists prefer–evolution is not obviously flawed.

    Since they’re fighting anti-evolutionists, who typically misconstrue everything, I can understand why they say that evolution isn’t flawed. Regardless of that, they’d have done better if they’d explained that most theories have issues and, in the lesser sense, flaws, and that these are rarely fatal to these theories.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  6. #6 Michael Bains
    February 20, 2008

    Evolution is about a plurality of natural mechanisms that generate diversity.

    Thank you! Darwin’s proposal of evolution did NOT create the term. It utilizes an ancient concept to describe life. Abiogenesis is simply the start of the life process, as such, is an integral part of evolution.

    Sheesh!

  7. #7 PeteK
    February 20, 2008

    Just as different disciplines have emerged as hybrids of those immediately “above” and “below” – e.g. physical chemistry, biochemistry, cognitive neuroscience, scientists have adopted “the E word”, as Stephen Jay Gould put it.

    But they could demarcate their corner of the evolution of the cosmos, while also allowing for significant overlap – e.g. Big Bang cosmic evolution merges into galactic evolution, merges into nucleosynthetic stellar evolution, merges into planetary evolution, merges into chemical evolution –> biological evolution –> cultural evolution, etc…i.e. one needs the the other(s), to proceed. The other “evolution’s” are subject to many of the same misconceptions that biological evolution is suspectible to…

  8. #8 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2008

    #15 is also a pet peeve: “Evolution is a theory about the origin of life” is presented as false. It is not. I know many people like to recite the mantra that “abiogenesis is not evolution,” but it’s a cop-out. Evolution is about a plurality of natural mechanisms that generate diversity. It includes molecular biases towards certain solutions and chance events that set up potential change as well as selection that refines existing variation. Abiogenesis research proposes similar principles that led to early chemical evolution. Tossing that work into a special-case ghetto that exempts you from explaining it is cheating, and ignores the fact that life is chemistry. That creationists don’t understand that either is not a reason for us to avoid it.

    That PZ continually lumps the two together is a pet peeve of mine. While it’s true that evolution and abiogenesis are hardly completely separate, nonetheless there are processes presumed to occur in abiogenesis which are not part and parcel of evolution itself. Of course the degree to which we separate the two issues depends upon where we draw the line (in terra incognito, no less). However, at some point in abiogenesis we’re dealing with the “random processes” (they’re not completely random, of course, but are not subject to selection) which antievolutionists constantly accuse evolution as being.

    Just because abiogenesis, at least at some point, may involve evolutionary processes does not mean that abiogenesis is evolution. Abiogenesis intersects with evolution, it does not fully coincide with evolution. The random processes involved in abiogenesis, which are not the same as the selectional processes involved in evolution, do set abiogenesis apart from evolution in an important way.

    Simply lumping abiogenesis in with evolution distorts what we mean by evolution, the latter actually not being a matter of random events (even though these do exist in evolution). For abiogenesis is chemistry, at least at the earliest stages, with certain sorts of self-ordering processes occurring which do not include natural selection as such, while evolution is presumably defined as a process which includes natural selection.

    The overlap between the two, as well as the lack of a clear line of distinction between the two, is no excuse for considering the two processes to be essentially the same thing. They are not, abiogenesis at the very least includes what precedes evolution.

    In a Venn diagram, there would be an intersection between abiogenesis and evolution (depending on how we defined both processes, naturally), it would not be a union. Hence, there is no reason why the two should be considered to be the same thing.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  9. #9 Alex Whiteside
    February 20, 2008

    It’s really hard to explain things to people without falling on pathetic fallacies like “the system wants to go to equilibrium”. I mean, in a deep sense, why does a chemical reaction appear to “want” to adjust to counteract perturbations from equilibrium? The problem is that in the case of evolution, somebody might reasonably assume that “it wants to” is not just a metaphor.

  10. #10 Tamar
    February 20, 2008

    I was sorry to see that one of the main misconceptions (in my opinion), which is that evolution is a kind of a chain or a ladder in which one speceis replace the one before it, is not only not refuted but actualy perpetuated in some of the pictures in this web page.
    Homo sapiens did not evolved from Neanderthals, as the skeletons picture seems to hint.

  11. #11 Bad
    February 20, 2008

    Still not with you on #15.

    Whatever abiogenesis turns out to be, its pretty clear that the core mechanisms of natural selection that are so central to biological evolution: i.e. stable “enough” heredity with variation, are probably not going to play a major role. I mean, once you have some form of heredity, you pretty much have life right there and you’re done talking about abiogenesis per se.

    Creationists want to argue that the validity of abiogenetic description of life’s origins and the validity of evolution via natural selection are linked. But they are not, not logically, and not in terms of their mechanisms. They may be linked historically, and as you say, you can probably draw a line through one to the other in terms of chemistry. But you can’t in terms of the particular functional mechanisms, the likelihood and details of which are precisely what creationists are debating.

    In addition, while one can call abiogenesis “evolution” in the same way that Hovind calls stellar formation “evolution,” I think that’s a pretty useless usage of the term. In fact, you could claim that all of abiogenesis and biological evolution is just a particular case of stellar evolution, but I don’t think that would be particularly enlightening.

  12. #12 PZ Myers
    February 20, 2008

    Simply lumping abiogenesis in with evolution distorts what we mean by evolution, the latter actually not being a matter of random events

    Incorrect. Evolution includes all the processes that are also active in abiogenesis, from chance to molecular biases to selection. Go ahead, name one basic property of evolutionary change not present in chemical evolution but there in biological evolution, or vice versa.

  13. #13 pedlar
    February 20, 2008

    #6 “The theory is flawed,”

    I think this involves a fairly simple ‘definition-error’ (like the word ‘theory’ itself).

    Flawed = imperfect, unfinished. Yes, the theory is flawed.
    Flawed = incorrect, wrong. No, the theory is not flawed.

    Not complicated, unless you’re dishonest.

    One further definition explains the problem.
    Creationist = dishonest

    (I see Glenn said it already as I was typing. What’s a little repetition among friends… )

  14. #14 dorris
    February 20, 2008

    Great points to keep in mind when discussing evolution with anybody, not just creationists. There are plenty of atheists out there that are just as vague on the specifics as any christian. Unfortunately, when I specifically bring up the “flaws” in our genome, I get the old fallback position from christian creationists – “Satan did it”. Yep, everything from pilonidal cysts to our appendix to our inability to synthesize vitamin C is a result of Eve listening to a snake and picking some fruit.

    Stupid is as stupid does. These people love them their stupid, and will go to any lengths to hang on to it.

  15. #15 Bob
    February 20, 2008

    Go for the gusto and ask them what their god was thinking when he loaded up your genome with the molecular equivalent of styrofoam packing peanuts, or when he ‘accidentally’ scrambled the sequence of our enzyme for synthesizing vitamin C.

    Wait a second: You mean that five fingers on each hand is not the optimal number?

    AGH!

  16. #16 PeteK
    February 20, 2008

    Look, evolution means “change”.. non-living material became living material….simple chemicals had to change into self-replicators, whether via panspermia, proteinoid microspheres, clay crystals, hypercycles, or whatever…

    So, yes abiogenesis is an evolutionary process, but not a biological evolutionary process, since biology be definition is what abiogenesis RESULTS in!

  17. #17 ajay
    February 20, 2008

    our inability to synthesize vitamin C was proof of the story of Adam and Eve

    So eating the Forbidden Fruit led to our punishment – being forced to eat lots of fruit! Of course! How ironic!

  18. #18 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2008
    Simply lumping abiogenesis in with evolution distorts what we mean by evolution, the latter actually not being a matter of random events [(even though these do exist in evolution)].

    Incorrect. Evolution includes all the processes that are also active in abiogenesis, from chance to molecular biases to selection.

    Had you not cut off my parenthetical comment, which I restored in brackets, your comment would have been a non sequitur. Of course evolution includes chance, I said so.

    Go ahead, name one basic property of evolutionary change not present in chemical evolution but there in biological evolution, or vice versa.

    I already did name one, which you blew off to demand from me again:

    For abiogenesis is chemistry, at least at the earliest stages, with certain sorts of self-ordering processes occurring which do not include natural selection as such, while evolution is presumably defined as a process which includes natural selection.

    Depending on definition, abiogenesis might or might not include natural selection. The important point I was making is that at some stage in abiogenesis natural selection is not operative. Arguably, that is the most interesting part of abiogenesis as well.

    And no, I don’t care if abiogenesis is defined to include natural selection at some point (that would be merely a semantical argument). The crucial issue is that at earlier stages it does not include natural selection. That’s why there’s an intersection between evolution and abiogenesis in the Venn diagram, but no union between the two–because abiogenesis involves stages which are without the guidance of natural selection, which means that it doesn’t involve biological evolution (only chemical evolution, which is quite different as normally understood).

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  19. #19 SeanH
    February 20, 2008

    I once met a guy who actually claimed that our inability to synthesize vitamin C was proof of the story of Adam and Eve, part of our punishment for original sin.

    Heh. That’s funny stuff. I’d have had a couple of questions for him: Why did God give the punishment to the other apes too? Why can’t my cat taste sweets? Did the first cat eat His doughnut or something?

  20. #20 Physicalist
    February 20, 2008

    I’m not happy with lumping abiogenesis together with biological evolution either. Of course there are strong connections between the two, but there’s certainly enough of a distinction to be able to draw a pretty bright line between them.

    Would you want to throw in cosmological evolution as well? Yes, a naturalist account of the world is committed to dealing with everything eventually, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t very important distinctions about the type of processes involved at different times and at different levels, and it makes sense to say that we can understand some processes (biological evolution) while we don’t yet understand others (abiogenesis, planet formation, etc.).

    name one basic property of evolutionary change not present in chemical evolution but there in biological evolution

    How about having organisms as the environment for chemical transformations? A separation of the organism from the rest of the environment; having machinery in place for replication of molecular patterns, etc.

  21. #21 Bad
    February 20, 2008

    “Go ahead, name one basic property of evolutionary change not present in chemical evolution but there in biological evolution, or vice versa.”

    Natural selection may not be involved in abiogenesis. Heredity may not be involved in abiogenesis.

    The point is the mechanisms and their respective plausibility. We know a lot about them in evolution. We don’t in abiogenesis, and we have no reason to assume that they are the same, or that the same sorts of effects dominate. Saying that they all involve, well, “chemistry” is not a meaningful connection between the two.

    And the difference in respective plausibility is clear and important. The plausibility of evolutionary change does not rest on the plausibility of any one abiogenetic possibility, and since we have no good idea which abiogenetic process is the right one, we have no idea how to describe it or rate it as more or less plausible given the environment it took place in.

  22. #22 Jit
    February 20, 2008

    “The theory is flawed,” gives the wrong answer — it basically tries to argue that the theory of evolution is not flawed.

    Er – evolution is a fact, not a theory. Natural selection is one theory to explain evolution.

  23. #23 PZ Myers
    February 20, 2008

    I know of no model of abiogenesis that does not include selection.

    All abiogenesis models have a stochastic basis, but so does evolution.

    All abiogenesis models also include intrinsic molecular predispositions, but the same is true of models of evolution that aren’t hampered by the unfortunate bias of many people to equate evolution with natural selection.

  24. #24 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2008

    because abiogenesis involves stages which are without the guidance of natural selection, which means that it doesn’t involve biological evolution

    I should amend that, in order not to give anyone excuse to disagree over a mistaken phrase. This is what I meant:

    because abiogenesis involves stages which are without the guidance of natural selection, which means that these early stages don’t involve biological evolution

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  25. #25 Dorris
    February 20, 2008

    According to my fundie “friends”, not only does Satan’s taint cover the whole earth, affecting every living thing, but the whole visible universe!!! In one discussion, I asked why such violent and destructive entities as supernovas and black holes exist if death and imperfection are caused by Satan’s presence on earth. Not to be outdone, these nimble-minded debaters immediately claimed that what we see “out there” is influenced by our Satan-warped vision. Even the Hubble telescope and all the other technology floating around the solar system is not to be relied upon, since it was all constructed by evil, Devil-inspired scientists. Evil! All evil!!! In other words, don’t believe your sinful eyes, ears, brain – absolutely nothing concocted by the mid of man makes the cut!

    So it’s the devil that made these people stupid…but you have to be stupid to take the Bible literally and believe in a sky fairy…so who made them stupid in the first place?

    The sheer complexity of their logic boggles my mind!

  26. #26 PZ Myers
    February 20, 2008

    Evolution involves stages which are without the guidance of natural selection. Are you going to argue that evolution therefore doesn’t involve biological evolution?

  27. #27 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2008

    I know of no model of abiogenesis that does not include selection.

    And you know of no model of abiogenesis which includes natural selection throughout the entire process.

    Really, quit playing word games. I’ve explained myself well, and you’re ignoring the crucial distinctions that I and others have been discussing, and resorting to the ploy of bringing up the fact that abiogenesis is normally considered to have stages to which natural selection applies. That speaks not at all to the fact that abiogenesis models have stages in which natural selection does not apply.

    Plus, the fact that people conflate evolution and natural selection doesn’t change the fact that evolution is considered by almost all scientists to include natural selection–it is what causes “self-ordering” in biological systems.

    So to conflate abiogenesis, which has non-selectional “phases”, with evolution, which is normally considered to include (though is not wholly coincident with) natural selection, is taking the lack of a sharp distinction too far, by suggesting that there is no distinction at all.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  28. #28 SLC
    February 20, 2008

    Having gotten into a discussion on the subject of the origins of life vs the evolution of life, I suggest that the problem here is what is meant by the origin of life. If one defines the origin of life as the appearance of the first replicators (e.g. RNA), then there is complete orthogonality between origins and evolution. This is obvious because a mechanism like natural selection can’t operate in the absence of a concept such as heredity.

  29. #29 Physicalist
    February 20, 2008

    PZ:

    Tossing that work into a special-case ghetto that exempts you from explaining it is cheating, and ignores the fact that life is chemistry.

    Life is PHYSICS, my friend.

    The relevant question here is whether a good biological account *must* go all the way back to the point in the story where the characters are “mere” chemicals or “mere” sub-atomic particles. I see no reason that, qua the science of biology, it must do so. Remember that the solar fusion of elements is an important form of evolution too. But it’s useful to distinguish this case from biological evolution.

  30. #30 Rey Fox
    February 20, 2008

    “You mean that five fingers on each hand is not the optimal number?”

    Heck no. Four is way easier to draw.

  31. #31 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2008

    Evolution involves stages which are without the guidance of natural selection. Are you going to argue that evolution therefore doesn’t involve biological evolution?

    I would like to know of these stages which are without the guidance of natural selection. I cannot think of any time period long enough to be called a “stage” which would be without natural selection operating.

    But then again, geological evolution involves erosion and deposition. If there is a time period in which a portion of earth’s surface is not undergoing either one, does that mean that geological evolution on planet earth doesn’t entail erosion and deposition? Of course not, these are essential aspects of earth’s geological evolution, regardless of the fact that these may stop between rains, for instance.

    Likewise with natural selection. Even if you really know of stages in which natural selection is not operative, as much as I doubt that you do, that does not change the fact that natural selection is crucial to biological evolution. And not to the earliest stages of abiogenesis.

    I am not going to engage in these word games all day, either.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  32. #32 Donalbain
    February 20, 2008

    Hurrah! PZ agrees with me!
    I am always correcting the idea that evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life. Evolution kicks in as soon as you have imperfectly replicating doo-dahs. Now, it would be surprising if the first doo-dahs would be called “alive”, but there is no doubt that the first cells would be. Somewhere between the two is a spectrum from nonlife to life. And the way that spectrum was travelled was almost certainly evolutionary in nature.

  33. #33 PZ Myers
    February 20, 2008

    I know of no credible model of evolution which includes natural selection throughout the entire process.

    I’m not playing word games. I’m saying that many people have this peculiarly fixed notion that the only kind of evolution that counts is the part that involves natural selection, and then jump further to the unwarranted assumption that all of evolution is about ns. You’re using that logic to try and disqualify abiogenesis from being a subset of evolution. Discard that preconception, and you’re left high and dry in your demand for special status.

    What exactly is the crucial distinction you’re trying to make? That one is chemical evolution and the other is biological evolution? There’s no difference there, either, except in one word. And biology and chemistry (OK, chemistry is physics, too) aren’t as discrete as people seem to think.

  34. #34 Donalbain
    February 20, 2008

    By the way, apologies for my technical language.

  35. #35 PZ Myers
    February 20, 2008

    I’m using “stage” in precisely the same sense you are. What stage of chemical evolution did not involve selection? How long did it last?

  36. #36 Physicalist
    February 20, 2008

    I can’t speak for Glen D., but my point is that one can investigate and understand processes at a higher level (and later in time) without investigating or understanding the underlying lower-level (and earlier) processes. There is a reasonable distinction that one can make between the evolution of biological entities, and the evolution of non-biological entities into biological entities.

    You may be right to say that the same explanatory strategies we use in the case of biological evolution will also serve us in the case of accounting for abiogenesis. But (a) we cannot be nearly as confident of this as we are of facts of biological evolution simply because we don’t yet have a good account of abiogenesis, and (b) even if it were to turn out that the actual explanation were very different from the sort of explanations involved in biology, this would, by itself, be irrelevant to our account of biological evolution.

    Thus it seems to me to be a good idea to draw a clear distinction between the two (while also pointing out that the same sort of chemical processes are going to be involved in the two cases), and then to offer as a hypothesis the suggestion that the explanatory strategies that are successful in biology should also be successful in accounting for abiogenesis.

  37. #37 negentropyeater
    February 20, 2008

    PZ,

    I’m also very confused.

    From the article on Talkorigins, “The Origins of Life”, by Albrecht Moritz (Oct2006)
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/originoflife.html

    “Compared to science of evolution, the science of abiogenesis (origin of life) is still seriously underdeveloped in its explanatory power, despite the recent progress. As science writer Richard Robinson notes in his article: “Give biologists a cell, and they’ll give you the world. But beyond assuming the first cell must have somehow come into existence, how do biologists explain its emergence from the prebiotic world four billion years ago?”

    Indeed, it is one thing that we know all the chemical building materials of life, and that the functioning of life can be fully explained by their collaboration in an extremely complex system. Yet it is another thing entirely how, at the origin of life, they could have formed an initial organization by themselves step by step (via whatever intermediary processes and building blocks). At first glance, evolution from bacteria-like organisms (the last universal common ancestor) to humans may seem child’s play in comparison: it started from an already tremendously complex, entirely self-sufficient, biochemical machinery and bit by bit simply made it even more complex.”

  38. #38 Sastra
    February 20, 2008

    I’ve seen some of these “misconceptions about evolution” used by religious people in support of evolution:

    11. Natural selection gives organisms what they ‘need.’
    12. Natural selection involves organisms ‘trying’ to adapt
    14. Organisms are always getting better.

    Welcome to Theistic Evolution 101, where arguments are made showing why and how God is working His Will through evolution and the Great Chain of Being. These folks may be on the same side politically (“Keep Creationism Out of the Schools”), but seems to me the scientific understanding of evolution still pretty much sucks.

  39. #39 Drekab
    February 20, 2008

    “Go ahead, name one basic property of evolutionary change not present in chemical evolution but there in biological evolution, or vice versa.”

    Self-replicating molecules. Evolution is the propagation of self-replicating molecules, abiogenesis is the formation of self-replicating molecules, whatever they were before evolving into DNA.

  40. #40 raven
    February 20, 2008

    #15 is also a pet peeve: “Evolution is a theory about the origin of life” is presented as false. It is not. I know many people like to recite the mantra that “abiogenesis is not evolution,” but it’s a cop-out.

    Not buying this one at all. So there. You are wrong!!!

    My definition of evolution is, The change in life through time.

    Abiogenesis, life from nonlife.

    These are very simple concepts in almost all 1 syllable words. Suitable for a creationist to understand. You have to realize that these people are a little bit “slow” (I’m being polite, actually they are very stupid) and type as slow as you can.

    Besides which, we have mountains of data about the fact of evolution, 150 years worth.

    For abiogenesis, very little real data about what happened circa 4 billion years ago, scraps of data, some hypothesis, some model systems. For various reasons, this has been a harder problem to study.

    It makes sense scientifically and politically to separate the two subjects. The trend is to do so.

  41. #41 D. Denning
    February 20, 2008

    Off the origins of life topic, but still on the “misconceptions” list (excellent overall, and concise enough for busy teachers to read and use), I think the #1 Misconception wording needs a critical fix:

    1. Teachers Should Teach Both Sides
    There are tens of thousands of different religious views concerning creation.
    It is simply impossible for all of these views to be presented. Furthermore,
    none of the theories are based in science and therefore have no place in
    a science classroom. In a science class, students can debate where a creature
    branched off in the tree of life, but it is not right to argue a religious
    belief in a science class. The “fairness” argument is often used
    by groups attempting to inject their religious dogmas in to the scientific
    curricula.

    We should never call “religious views” “theories”, unless we simultaneously and repeatedly emphasize the difference between “vernacular theory” and “scientific theory”. The word “ideas” in place of “theories” would work here.

  42. #42 Gregory Kusnick
    February 20, 2008

    Coincidentally, I just read a (very brief) interview of William Day by Lynn Margulis in which Day derides abiogenesis as “the origin of food”, not the origin of life. Such “cake mix” approaches (combine the right chemicals, shake and bake) are bound to fail, in his view, because life is not a machine that you can put together from parts and then jump-start. Life is a process, a standing wave in the flow of solar energy, a continuous interchange of energy and matter with the environment. So the origin of life, he claims, is the point where that kind of self-sustaining pattern first began surfing the chemical and energy gradients and never stopped. Genes, replication, and evolution all came later.

    I’m not sure I entirely buy that line of argument, but it’s an interesting alternative perspective.

  43. #43 True Bob
    February 20, 2008

    OK, first, what do you all mean when you say “natural selection”? I thought this meant environmental factors that impact whatever process is being examined (and I don’t see how abiogenesis could be unaffected by environmental pressures).

    Second, @ 30 REEEEYYYYYY!!!

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/02/beelzebufo_best_frog_name_ever.php#comment-755389

  44. #44 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2008

    I know of no credible model of evolution which includes natural selection throughout the entire process.

    I know of no credible model of evolution which can, even in principle, fail to include natural selection at any stage (unless one were to consider labs and “artificial selection” to be exceptions). Unless one is calling a comet strike a “stage,” which, I think, rather strains the meaning of that word. How would natural selection be able to cease within a population, at least within a “natural population?”

    I’m not playing word games. I’m saying that many people have this peculiarly fixed notion that the only kind of evolution that counts is the part that involves natural selection, and then jump further to the unwarranted assumption that all of evolution is about ns.

    I fail to see the connection, above or below, to discussions and definition of abiogenesis, the latter of which operates in earlier stages without reproduction, and thus without the ordering force of natural selection.

    You’re using that logic to try and disqualify abiogenesis from being a subset of evolution.

    I neither said that evolution was all about NS, nor did I use the notion that “evolution is all about NS” as the reason why abiogenesis isn’t a part of evolution. I said that evolution includes NS, that it is crucial, and that stages or phases of abiogenesis do not include NS.

    What are we supposed to do, give up the peculiarities of biological evolution when defining what biological evolution is?

    As an analogy, let’s suppose that Esperanto becomes a living breathing language. While Esperanto’s origin would in that case never be separate from its later evolution, clearly Esperanto was designed, and language evolution does not primarily occur by design (mostly it occurs by a selection of choices and unconscious processes, nothing we’d normally call “design”).

    Or perhaps closer to the point, Hebrew, a dead language, was revived in the state of Israel and remodeled to be able to discuss much that didn’t occur in Bible times. The process of raising Hebrew from the dead, while not separate from later evolution of Hebrew, is certainly something that we can distinguish from it’s stage of resurrection from the dead.

    There are lumpers and there are splitters. In the big picture, we hope eventually to lump everything together, to see the seamless stages of cosmological, planetary, geological, chemical, and biological evolution. However, we come up with good reasons to split up various matters, and evolution and abiogenesis readily lend themselves to such splitting, which is done more for our convenience than because of any inherent differences (after all, natural selection is reducible as well).

    Discard that preconception, and you’re left high and dry in your demand for special status.

    No, you’re far more the realist than I am. I’m more the continentalist, understanding issues like disciplines and species to be constructs than anything having “special status.” That does not mean that I think everything is “really the same” at all, though, rather I can see the value and meaningful conceptual differences that split up the origins of modern Hebrew and the origns of life from their subsequent evolutions, based upon inherent processes involved in each respective case.

    What exactly is the crucial distinction you’re trying to make? That one is chemical evolution and the other is biological evolution? There’s no difference there, either, except in one word.

    Sorry, you of all people should, and indeed do, know the differences between biological evolution and chemical evolution. That the former can be reduced to the latter is of no consequence to my understanding of the worth of the constructions used to differentiate between the two.

    And biology and chemistry (OK, chemistry is physics, too) aren’t as discrete as people seem to think.

    And sociology ultimately reduces to physics as well. What am I to make of that? Am I to tell everybody that their distinctions are unsound, just because one thing reduces to another? No, there are “higher order” designations that we retain because they are very useful to our various ways of conceiving the world. Biological evolution may reduce to quantum physics, in fact, but I will not fault biologists for existing just because of the reducibility of the observed classical “world.”

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  45. #45 CJO
    February 20, 2008

    It makes sense scientifically and politically to separate the two subjects. The trend is to do so.
    Quoth PZ: It’s a cop-out.

    And I tend to agree –politically, or, closer to my heart, rhetorically. In a sense, it’s not really even a scientific question. Is general relativity physics or cosmology? Makes no difference.

    The issue for me is that the knee-jerk “Abiogenesis is NOT Evolution” is rhetorically soft and just sounds evasive. As if biologists don’t envision extending the scope of the theory beyond the first cellular life. Ask yourself this: if we DID have a consensus model of abiogenesis, and it involved replicators ‘all the way down,’ would evolutionary theorists disown it? Of course not. It would be touted as an extension of evolution’s scope and explanatory power.

  46. #46 Sastra
    February 20, 2008

    D. Denning #41 wrote:

    We should never call “religious views” “theories”, unless we simultaneously and repeatedly emphasize the difference between “vernacular theory” and “scientific theory”. The word “ideas” in place of “theories” would work here.

    Although I take your point (different meanings of the word ‘theory’ are being equivocated on and that can lead to misunderstanding), I want to point out that atheistic arguments against the existence of God will indeed seriously consider religious views to be theories or hypotheses which can be supported or falsified by evidence. Scientific atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Taner Edis, Vic Stenger, and PZ Myers take this approach.

    “God” is a failed or unnecessary hypothesis, inconsistent with our discoveries and cluttering up our understanding of the universe.

    If you want to get to this point, then that’s one good reason to call “religious views” “theories.” If you want to protect faith in God from being scientifically shredded (for either personal or political reasons), then yes, you’ll argue against considering religious beliefs about God to be anything at all like theories.

  47. #47 Hank Fox
    February 20, 2008

    To me, the worst misconception is the one that says that humans are the peak of evolution, that it was somehow aimed at perfect US, and that we’re the best and greatest it could ever hope to achieve. Since we were the goal, since we’re better than everything else, the rest of the ecosystem can all be carelessly sacrificed for our continued well-being.

  48. #48 Shygetz
    February 20, 2008

    I disagree with PZ regarding abiogenesis. The key distinguishing characteristic of abiogenesis is the study of how non-replicators become replicators. You cannot have evolution without replicators, be they chemical or biological. Abiogenesis is the study of what the initial replicators were and how they came to be.

  49. #49 Glen Davidson
    February 20, 2008

    I’m using “stage” in precisely the same sense you are. What stage of chemical evolution did not involve selection? How long did it last?

    Um, really, I don’t know how you’re using “stage,” for I know of no stage of biological evolution in which natural selection isn’t operative. Maybe if you really went in with a conceptual microscope and looked at the peacock strutting before the peahen, you’d say that natural selection isn’t operating (except that sexual selection is believed to involve the fitness of the, in this case, male bird, so whether you’re really rid of natural selection there is in question, but arguable). Yet is that a “stage”? I would not think so. The whole population is what evolves (as we normally understand it), and it is difficult to leave out sexual selection’s incorporation of aspects of natural selection at the stage of reproduction.

    Chemical evolution did not involve selection at the stage of the production of the precursors of the biochemicals. The Urey-Miller stage of abiogenesis, so to speak. Indeed, that is the stage that we understand the best, even though many questions remain even in that area.

    Polymerization of larger molecules also does not initially involve natural selection, although it is possible that very soon thereafter natural selection begins to factor into the equation. However, both production of the precursors and polymerization are important, for they are the grist which later stages of abiogenesis grind finely. Was RNA able to form early on from the chemical soup, or did some earlier stage lead up to the RNA world which appears to have left vestiges in today’s life?

    Getting to the stage where natural selection can occur remains a substantial unresolved issue within abiogenesis, for once natural selection takes hold things do not seem so difficult any more (at least not to me). Problems of the stability of RNA remain, so that people are working on variations of RNA which appear to be more stable.

    As far as I know, it is yet resolved whether or not replicators are going to be called “life,” or if replicators might still not count as life (viruses have often not been called life, due to their lack of metabolism when not infecting cells. But the recent tendency is to see these evolving replicators as life–few, if any, deny that viruses are subject to biological evolution). I have seen some call any replicators life, while others demur.

    Anyway, at some point the issue of what “life” is does become murky, no question. As I understand it, though, abiogenesis is generally split off from evolution due to the fact that it involves life coming from non-life, which implies that biological evolution isn’t occurring at some stage of the process at least, since imperfect replicators will be subject to natural selection.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  50. #50 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    I once met a guy who actually claimed that our inability to synthesize vitamin C was proof of the story of Adam and Eve, part of our punishment for original sin.

    I didn’t know the guinea pigs were so evil…

    Big Bang cosmic evolution merges into galactic evolution, merges into nucleosynthetic stellar evolution, merges into planetary evolution, merges into chemical evolution –> biological evolution –> cultural evolution

    Of these, only the last three should be called evolution because only they involve (pardon the pun) replication and inheritance, and the last one is so lamarckistic that calling it “evolution” is bound to lead to misconceptions, too.

    Languages evolve, though.

    I mean, in a deep sense, why does a chemical reaction appear to “want” to adjust to counteract perturbations from equilibrium?

    Use the gravity metaphor then: once it’s in equilibrium, it requires an effort to go anywhere else, so when that effort — energy — is unavailable, it doesn’t go anywhere.

    Look, evolution means “change”

    No, “change” means “change”. “Evolution” means “descent with modification”. There’s replication, inheritance and mutation hidden in that definition.

  51. #51 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    I once met a guy who actually claimed that our inability to synthesize vitamin C was proof of the story of Adam and Eve, part of our punishment for original sin.

    I didn’t know the guinea pigs were so evil…

    Big Bang cosmic evolution merges into galactic evolution, merges into nucleosynthetic stellar evolution, merges into planetary evolution, merges into chemical evolution –> biological evolution –> cultural evolution

    Of these, only the last three should be called evolution because only they involve (pardon the pun) replication and inheritance, and the last one is so lamarckistic that calling it “evolution” is bound to lead to misconceptions, too.

    Languages evolve, though.

    I mean, in a deep sense, why does a chemical reaction appear to “want” to adjust to counteract perturbations from equilibrium?

    Use the gravity metaphor then: once it’s in equilibrium, it requires an effort to go anywhere else, so when that effort — energy — is unavailable, it doesn’t go anywhere.

    Look, evolution means “change”

    No, “change” means “change”. “Evolution” means “descent with modification”. There’s replication, inheritance and mutation hidden in that definition.

  52. #52 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    “You cannot have evolution without replicators, be they chemical or biological.”

    Toothbrushes don’t evolve?
    Mountain ranges don’t evolve?
    Indeed solar systems don’t evolve?

    Evolution does not require replicators…only processes, ultimately guided by thermodynamics.

  53. #53 T_U_T
    February 20, 2008

    Dunno. But I consider “evolution” anything after the first self-replicating critter, and “abiogenesis” anything before it. Obviously, replicating things can do one thing that non- replicating things can’t – spread their traits . And that is quite a huge difference… I would say.

  54. #54 Ritchie Annand
    February 20, 2008

    That there is something qualitatively different between what we know as the theory of evolution and abiogenesis comes down, perhaps, to a matter of genealogy. We can trace back the ancestry of everything surviving on earth only so far, to a relatively limited set of LUCA (last universal common ancestor) organisms.

    Abiogenesis steps beyond that realm. We have no outgroups with which to do genealogical analysis, so it ends up in the could realm instead of the did realm. While inspired by current life and extant Precambrian geology, unless there ends up being some strong chemical or geological implications from one of the abiogenetic hypotheses, what we may end up with are merely ways life can form. Such theoreticals may end up informing astrobiology.

    It may not even tell us that life started here. Hoyle’s vision of panspermia was somewhat reality-challenged, but more realistic scenarios where even semi-burnt husks of extremophiles gave life here a boost are still possible, though of utterly unknown probability.

    I suppose what we’re really trying to point out here is that evolution works even when totally devoid of a proven abiogenetic hypothesis. That enters into the evolution-creation melee because “you can’t explain the origin of life” is a constant, repeating theme, and the implication is that if you include abiogenesis in evolution, then you’re at the very least teaching children something far from proven if you teach them evolution. This leads to either special pleas for things that are “just as unproven as abiogenesis” (intelligent design, pick your poison) or just to further lambast it as a materialist fairy tale.

    At the very least, from the point of view of education, since we are teaching children the scientific consensus, a separation between the very confident parts of evolutionary theory and the very speculative is required, even if the speculative gets a pedagogical mention (so long as it is presented as being speculative).

    As far as research goes, then sure, blur the walls, since speculation and research in all of its mixed ratios goes together very well.

  55. #55 abu el banat
    February 20, 2008

    Take a look at this excellent list of evolution misconceptions. The entries are very brief, but mostly correct and very common:

    Same s**t, different day….

    You guys crack me up…ROFLMAO!! You just seem to make this stuff up as you go along.

    And you have the balls to call it SCIENCE?

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=c3coSfks4rQ

  56. #56 firemancarl
    February 20, 2008

    So Glen /PZ,

    Wadda we say to the IDiots when they start carping about evolution and how life began. I was telling them that evolution was about how life evolves and abiogenisis was the study of how life began.

  57. #57 Fatboy
    February 20, 2008

    David Marjanovi?, I usually enjoy your comments, and I rarely comment myself, so I hate to do so just to correct you, but, evolution does indeed mean “change.” The word’s been around a lot longer than Darwin, and is still used in other senses fairly commonly – maybe not as much as “descent with modification,” but enough that you can’t insist that that’s the only common definition for it.

  58. #58 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    Toothbrushes don’t evolve?
    Mountain ranges don’t evolve?
    Indeed solar systems don’t evolve?

    No, no, and no, respectively.

    You just seem to make this stuff up as you go along.

    It certainly seems that way to you — because you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  59. #59 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    Toothbrushes don’t evolve?
    Mountain ranges don’t evolve?
    Indeed solar systems don’t evolve?

    No, no, and no, respectively.

    You just seem to make this stuff up as you go along.

    It certainly seems that way to you — because you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  60. #60 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    “Evolution” means “descent with modification”.

    No. Not really. This is spinning the argument. It can mean that, but only in a narrow view of the term.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evolution

  61. #61 Physicalist
    February 20, 2008

    @ #51:

    Mountain ranges don’t evolve?
    Indeed solar systems don’t evolve?

    They certainly do not evolve by consisting of imperfect replicators (where these imperfections interacting with the environment drive a transformation of the group).

    Language is messy. We need to stipulate how we are using a term such as “evolution.” We have a pretty clear account of what’s involved in biological evolution. There are important similarities and important differeneces with other types of evolution, including abiogenesis. I suggest that the best way of avoiding confusion is to make distinctions by using different terms.

  62. #62 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    This is basic stuff here David Marjanovi?. It is pointless to argue the mundane fact of the definition of evolution and all it encompasses. I don’t respect your authoritative dismissals, and I don’t think anyone else here does either.

    http://www.lpi.usra.edu/education/timeline/

  63. #63 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    Never, never, never cite a general dictionary on the meaning of a technical term.

    Yes, the word “evolution” has been around for longer than Darwin, Lamarck or Buffon. All the way to Darwin’s time it meant what is today called “development” in English — ontogeny, that is. (That’s because it literally means “unwrapping”, which is what ontogeny was thought to be: the unpacking of the homunculus in the sperm.) That certainly has changed. But it’s still a technical term. We biologists own it — we get to decide how it should be used, not Merriam-Webster. I didn’t say “the only common definition”, I implied “the only correct definition”.

    Sorry to go all prescriptivist on you, but I really do think that technical terms are owned by those that work in the discipline in question.

  64. #64 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    Never, never, never cite a general dictionary on the meaning of a technical term.

    Yes, the word “evolution” has been around for longer than Darwin, Lamarck or Buffon. All the way to Darwin’s time it meant what is today called “development” in English — ontogeny, that is. (That’s because it literally means “unwrapping”, which is what ontogeny was thought to be: the unpacking of the homunculus in the sperm.) That certainly has changed. But it’s still a technical term. We biologists own it — we get to decide how it should be used, not Merriam-Webster. I didn’t say “the only common definition”, I implied “the only correct definition”.

    Sorry to go all prescriptivist on you, but I really do think that technical terms are owned by those that work in the discipline in question.

  65. #65 Fatboy
    February 20, 2008

    Regarding the evolution/abiogenesis debate, I agree with the people saying that there should be a fuzzy line separating the two. After all, the entire history of the universe is a series of ongoing interrelated processes, so where we distinguish some theories is bound to be somewhat arbitrary, and the evolution/abiogenesis boundary seems as good as any.

    On the other hand, I never play it up in debates with creationists, because it’s pretty much a moot point. Most people who accept evolution also accept that there was some kind of abiogenesis (even accounting for panspermia, life had to start somewhere). Arguing the semantics of it doesn’t change the actual history of events that occured on our planet.

  66. #66 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    It is narrow to assume that evolution does not occur outside of organic/biological spheres. That’s not just what I say, that’s the state of our understanding today.

  67. #67 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    “Never, never, never cite a general dictionary on the meaning of a technical term.”

    What?!

    “We biologists own it”

    Again – What?!

    Here’s my prescription to you. Try decaf.

  68. #68 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    It is narrow to assume that evolution does not occur outside of organic/biological spheres.

    Indeed. Languages evolve, too. Perhaps even universes do. And evolution can be simulated in computers.

    That’s not just what I say, that’s the state of our understanding today.

    That’s not a matter of understanding, it’s a matter of definition. What mountain ranges and solar systems do can be compared to development, but not to evolution. Individuals don’t evolve, populations do, and when there’s no population, there’s no evolution.

  69. #69 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    It is narrow to assume that evolution does not occur outside of organic/biological spheres.

    Indeed. Languages evolve, too. Perhaps even universes do. And evolution can be simulated in computers.

    That’s not just what I say, that’s the state of our understanding today.

    That’s not a matter of understanding, it’s a matter of definition. What mountain ranges and solar systems do can be compared to development, but not to evolution. Individuals don’t evolve, populations do, and when there’s no population, there’s no evolution.

  70. #70 RascoHeldall
    February 20, 2008

    PZ wrote:

    “”The theory is flawed,” gives the wrong answer — it basically tries to argue that the theory of evolution is not flawed. Of course it is! “

    How long will it be before the quote-miners get hold of this one, do ya reckon?

  71. #71 mothra
    February 20, 2008

    @Raven- force the creos to think! The division of ‘life from nonlife’ is a blurred area. If we talk ‘replicators’ , then the lattice of montmorellinite (smectite group) clay qualifies (remember the ‘false positives’ from Viking? Even the lattice of ice provides a staging area for groups of amino acids to come together. If replicating RNA is the definition, then precursor chemicals and model systems require research and our definitions possibly modified. I am disagreeing only to the point of getting across to creos that evolutionary biology, anymore than physics is complex and not a ‘debating society’ [other terms available when I am on my home computer] for underschooled (and often morally malnourished) flacks.

  72. #72 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    I never drink coffee. It smells better than it tastes and sticks to the entire oral cavity… very uncomfortable. Currently I drink tea once every few months… I don’t drink Coke or anything similar (can’t stand the gas or the incredibly low pH).

  73. #73 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 20, 2008

    I never drink coffee. It smells better than it tastes and sticks to the entire oral cavity… very uncomfortable. Currently I drink tea once every few months… I don’t drink Coke or anything similar (can’t stand the gas or the incredibly low pH).

  74. #74 Fatboy
    February 20, 2008

    Never, never, never cite a general dictionary on the meaning of a technical term…

    Sorry to go all prescriptivist on you, but I really do think that technical terms are owned by those that work in the discipline in question.

    In the comment you were originally responding to, the poster said, “Look, evolution means ‘change,’” using it in the non-technical sense. He even followed up by referring to “biological evolution,” stressing that his initial reference wasn’t technical. In that case, since the word was not being used in a technical sense, a dictionary should be the place to look it up.

  75. #75 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    “Individuals don’t evolve, populations do, and when there’s no population, there’s no evolution.”

    More generally speaking, systems evolve. No biology or biologists required.

  76. #76 Physicalist
    February 20, 2008

    @ Alex:

    I’m with DM,OM on this one: “Never, never, never cite a general dictionary on the meaning of a technical term.”

    We all speak English here, and we know what terms generally mean. What we’re interested in are the concepts that the term is supposed to capture, and the dictionary is no help with this. You need to offer reasons why your proposed way of carving things up should be preferred.

    In this case, what we’re arguing about is whether the case of biological evolution is sufficiently similar to a naturalist account of abiogenesis for it to be useful to subsume the two under the same label. PZ thinks they are. Several of us disagree.

  77. #77 Gregory Kusnick
    February 20, 2008

    We biologists own it — we get to decide how it should be used

    Somehow I don’t think geologists and cosmologists are going to abandon their concepts of evolution on your say-so. Just because Darwinian evolution (i.e. evolution by replication, variation, and selection) is the only biologically relevant kind doesn’t mean that biologists get to ban other pre-existing uses of the word.

  78. #78 Physicalist
    February 20, 2008

    @Fatboy (& Alex, & GK): OK, fair enough. But I still agree with DM,OM that the common usage of the term is simply irrelevant to the discussion here. The issue is whether the technical, biological concept of evolution ought to be extended to (e.g.) abiogenesis.

  79. #79 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    @ Physicalist

    No, we were talking about evolution – the general term. I am not carving up anything. My disagreement is with certain posts that somehow segment biological evolution as the ONLY kind or “real” evolution.

    See #69 and #72 for redundant clarification.

  80. #80 Scott Hatfield, OM
    February 20, 2008

    I know many people like to recite the mantra that “abiogenesis is not evolution,” but it’s a cop-out.

    It’s only a cop-out if you want to dodge the big picture or conflate different senses of the word ‘evolution’ for rhetorical effect. I am not a skeptic where abiogenesis is concerned, PZ, but it makes sense to distinguish between things which are theories and things which are speculative research programs. Otherwise we look as if we’re trying to pull a ‘bait-and-switch.’

  81. #81 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    Clearly biological evolution can not be extended to non-biological systems. Those systems however, i.e. the non-biological ones, still evolve, and some even evolved into biological systems. So it is NOT irrelevant to the discussion, or, to the main point.

  82. #82 raven
    February 20, 2008

    @Raven- force the creos to think! The division of ‘life from nonlife’ is a blurred area.

    The point about abiogenesis isn’t that there is a fuzzy middle ground and drawing a line beween life and nonlife is likely to be hard. It is the extremes, on one side we have nonlife, the other side is life. Where the line is drawn is far less important.

    The hard core creos won’t think. I see very well educated people shooting down crackpot’s fallacies and their points are just ignored. I doubt the HC-creos even bother to read them.

    Something to be said for making concepts simple. The basics are simple. A lot of people especially kids get intimidated if they think something is hard and never bother to try to get it.

  83. #83 pedlar
    February 20, 2008

    Alex @ #60

    This is basic stuff here David Marjanovi?. It is pointless to argue the mundane fact of the definition of evolution and all it encompasses. I don’t respect your authoritative dismissals, and I don’t think anyone else here does either.

    You’re pretty new here, aren’t you , Alex? David is possibly the most respected commenter on this blog, in terms of both knowledge and learning.

    That’s all. Dismissed.

  84. #84 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    So wait…because you don’t think I’m a regular here or in your words “new”, you think that my points (along with other posters) regarding the definition and reality of evolution outside of biology are incorrect?

    Interesting.

  85. #85 Fatboy
    February 20, 2008

    @Physicalist, #73,

    I agree. My original comment and link to M-W were in response to one specific comment, where I thought the original poster was using a non-technical meaning, as I explained above in comment #69. I wasn’t trying to start a pissing contest.

    In regard to the evolution/abiogenesis debate, I already put in my 2 cents in comment #62. While I agree that they should be considered separate fields, I also think it’s a moot point, since as I already said, “Arguing the semantics of it doesn’t change the actual history of events that occured on our planet.”

    So, I guess I technically disagree with PZ’s original posting about evolution & abiogenesis, but agree with him in spirit, in that it’s not something I’d be including in a list of common misconceptions about evolution.

  86. #86 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    Pedlar at #78.

    I just found it unacceptable that David unequivocally stated the “No” solar systems do not evolve. That is incorrect. Solar systems, mountain ranges, and toothbrushes DO evolve. He dismissed the point, initially, outright and unjustifiably.

    People do make mistakes. David may well be very respected on the blog and I am not trying to diminish any of that respect. I was debating a very mundane point. That is all.

  87. #87 steve zara
    February 20, 2008

    I am glad that PZ has picked up on the abiogenesis issue. The specific mechanisms of Darwinian evolution aren’t going to be involved in abiogenesis, but it is probable that there isn’t going to some magic point at which that mechanism appears, and before which, all is random. Chemical and physical systems can be self-sustaining and self-regulating, and can dominate over alternative systems in a given environment, effectively competing for resources (precursor compounds for example). Metabolic cycles can appear and compete. At some stage, nucleic acids could become involved, and eventually take over control of things. This may not be the way things happened, but it illustrates how evolutionary principles could go all the way back to the earliest stages.

    We should not confuse “evolution” with “Darwinian Natural Selection” and so leave ourselves open to assuming that there was some major issue about low probabilities of abiogenesis. There may well have been a small “Hill Improbable” (to misuse Dawkins’ term) up which relatively simple chemical systems could climb to get recognisable life.

  88. #88 CJO
    February 20, 2008

    Not the point, Alex. Your points regarding “anyone else” here, and how they might view David’s “authoritative dismissals,” are the ones called into question by your perceived lack of prior experience with Pharyngula commenters.

    Don’t prop up a straw man to knock down an ad hominem.

  89. #89 Fatboy
    February 20, 2008

    Oh, and I forgot my standard disclaimer – my opinions, especially when it comes to the details of the science, are worth a hill of beans considering I’m not a scientist, myself.

  90. #90 Physicalist
    February 20, 2008

    @ Alex (# 74): No, I’m not quite going to buy that. We’re quibbling over minutiae here, so I’m going to drop it after this, but here’s how I see it. PeteK suggested that we can solve the problem by just equating ‘evolution’ with ‘change’, and we can speak more precisely of ‘biological change’. On the one hand, I’m OK with this suggestion; it’s more or less what I advocate myself.

    On the other hand, DM,OM is quite right to point out that when we’re talking about ‘EVOLUTION’ (either here on this site, or in the Florida hearings), we have something far more specific in mind than some broadly defined term used in a variety of contexts. The term is given specific meaning by the substance of biological science — and that substance is not captured by the term ‘change.’

    As I see it, there are two worthwhile points to pursue: (1) the scientific/conceptual issue of whether the explanatory framework of biological evolution should also crack the nut of abiogenesis. (2) The political question of whether we ought to be careful with our words so that we don’t make things easier for those who attack science.

  91. #91 CortxVortx
    February 20, 2008

    Re: #25

    … Satan’s taint cover the whole earth …

    To paraphrase President Skroob: “Why didn’t someone tell me my ass was so big?”

  92. #92 Alex
    February 20, 2008

    Physicalist @85. In agreement.

    CJO @83. I have been frequenting (reading and posting) this blog for well over a year. This changes nothing, especially my opinion, which was stated as my opinion, that nobody here appreciates authoritative dismissals.

  93. #93 aporeticus
    February 20, 2008

    I like to think of abiogenesis as the basis and evolution as the inductive step.

  94. #94 Geoff
    February 20, 2008

    Regarding the nitpick of #6 (as it’s mostly a semantic argument) but I wouldn’t use the word ‘flaw’ at all. I think PZ is doing exactly what creationists do by defining a ‘flaw’ as a gap in knowledge.

  95. #95 Spaulding
    February 20, 2008

    The tricky thing in this discussion is whether we’re discussing abiogenic processes or an abiogenic event. PZ, you’re absolutely right that we should expect any abiogenic process to use evolutionary processes; however, it’s worth clarifying the following point: evolutionary processes do not require an abiogenic event.

    E.g. Even if some diety poofed life into existence, heritable traits that lead to differential reproduction mean that there is biological evolution.

    E.g. We can make computer software that involves heritable traits that lead to differential reproduction – meaning that there is evolution in that system as well.

    And yes Alex, evolution is a technical term. Mixing its colloqual meaning (“change”) in a technical discussion leads to poor communication. Same with “theory”, etc. Science, like many fields, has jargon that doesn’t always match colloquial use. And that confuses some people. But in a technical discussion, we can’t each make up our own meanings for terms.

  96. #96 Drekab
    February 20, 2008

    Clearly biological evolution can not be extended to non-biological systems.

    Um, not so clear actually, thats what we’re all arguing about. I’m sorry if you missed that, but all your prattling on about different definitions of the syllables “e-volve” is annoying and completely beside the point. Biological evolution is what we’re talking about, which should be perfectly clear from the context.

  97. #97 negentropyeater
    February 20, 2008

    Hopefully one day, there will be a well established “Theory of Abiogenesis”.

    This means that one day, one will have a precise explanation of how inert matter and energy, under specific conditions (thermodynamic, climatic, …) have evolved to become the first live replicators, on this planet (or on other ones). This will also include a precise description, of what those first replicators were.

    For the moment, there are a certain number of hypotheses, models, that will need to be validated, through experiments. It is also possible, that new, not yet formulated, hypotheses, be required.

    In my view, it is fair to acknowledge, the fact, that the fundamental question of the first origin of life on this planet, is still a gap, in our understanding.

    Having said this, this is not a valid argument, to accept that, therefore, “Goddidit”.

    The reason is because, rational, well educated, human beings will not anymore be satisfied with “Goddidit” as an explanation, nor will a gap in our current knowledge, be considered evidence, for God’s existence.
    This is because, quite simply, unless one can clearly define what or who this God is (today there are only wild speculations that range from pure infinite energy to sky bearded daddy), and how he did it, there is now way to know, if God really did it.

  98. #98 D. Denning
    February 20, 2008

    Re: #46, #41, comment to Sastra and others who worry about offending people’s faith in God.

    Sastra #46:
    (Attributed to PZ and others): "God" is a failed or unnecessary
    hypothesis, inconsistent with our discoveries and cluttering up our understanding
    of the universe.

     If you want to get to this point, then that’s one good reason to call "religious
    views" "theories”.   If you want to protect faith
    in God from being scientifically shredded (for either personal or political
    reasons), then yes, you’ll argue against considering religious beliefs about
    God to be anything at all like theories.

    It sounds like you are making my argument (about being very clear that religious creation beliefs are not scientific theories in any sense) but suggesting it’s a way to protect people with faith in God from having to look at that aspect of their lives critically. It sounds like you think PZ and others would prefer to equate “religious beliefs” and “scientific theories” so that the science can destroy the religious belief. I personally agree completely with the “failed and unnecessary hypothesis” analysis, but I don’t see this as a campaign against religious faith, but a campaign for rational thought based on observable evidence. If faith in god gets challenged, then so be it. Just don’t take the irrational approach of suggesting that a ridiculous mythology or a politically motivated pseudo-scientific attack of science, is any kind of scientific theory. Every time religious ideas are equated in any way to real scientific theories … any time this particular misconception (often it’s just an outright lie from people who know better) is not challenged … then it just gives fodder to the politico-religious attackers of science, and the indoctrinated masses who resist thinking about these issues, who prefer school science classrooms to be places of religious indoctrination.

  99. #99 Carl Schmidt
    February 20, 2008

    I have never heard evolution described as ” a story of filtered accidents”. I like that so much I am going to steal it for use in my genetics class.

  100. #100 Rob
    February 20, 2008

    Wow, we better be careful or we’re going to clog up the Internet’s tubes with all this banter! I disagree with PZ simply because at the start of this post, we were talking about a list of misconceptions about evolution. We can probably all assume that this list is mostly directed at those of us who might be discussing evolution with someone who totally disagrees with it. Now while we can probably all see where PZ is coming from in regards to abiogenesis being a part (or at least colliding with) biological evolution. The problem is, when we’re talking to creationists, it’s a hell of a lot more useful to say, “Well, that’s a separate field of science called abiogenesis. It has some theories and some interesting experiments, but it’s still in a theoretical phase for the most part. Biological evolution, i.e., what we’re talking about teaching in schools, is a well-supported fact, with experimental and naturalistic data of an immense magnitude.” One more little point: right now we have no really good model of how evolution might work on other planets, if only because we have yet to find a planet with life, or the remnants thereof. If we do, the explanations for their evolution will be a part of the theory of evolution. Right now, however, these theories are intelligent speculation at best, or the pot-hazed ramblings of Bio majors at 2 am at worst (hey, don’t judge me, I got out in 4 years!). My point is, if a creationist were to say that evolution is flawed because it doesn’t have a good model for life on some other planet, how would you reply? And no, a test tube rack to the face doesn’t count as an intelligent response. Cheers.

  101. #101 Ichthyic
    February 20, 2008

    I personally agree completely with the “failed and unnecessary hypothesis” analysis

    well, as used in science, as a hypothesis deism never even rose to the level of “failed” to begin with. To fail as a hypothesis means that it actually had been tested experimentally.

    Deism has never made it past the “conception” stage. Which of course, is why derivatives like “Intelligent Design” also never make it past the conception stage.

    I think the better comparison is that the scientific method, as a whole, has shown deism to fail utterly in comparison as a method for explaining the world around us.

    If somehow, or someday, the deists could demonstrate actual explanatory and predictive value to deism, then we would have an actual place to start an argument.

    they haven’t, and (IMO) never will. I’m happy to be proven wrong though. If some deity/alien/unicorn deigns to show up and explain how it acted in the natural world to cause specific events, I’ll be happy to step up with some experiments to challenge.

  102. #102 Ichthyic
    February 20, 2008

    My point is, if a creationist were to say that evolution is flawed because it doesn’t have a good model for life on some other planet, how would you reply?

    we have workable models for life on other planets?

    who knew.

    I must have missed the announcement of confirmation of life on other planets.

    damn.

    of course, there is no reason to suspect that the mechanisms of selection would apply differently… anywhere. That’s the beauty of it.

    now, the hypotheses of drift and mutation (and other sources of variation) apply only to species we have actually observed. quite likely that that the sources of variation in biological organisms could differ from planet to planet, just as they do between different population of the same organisms here on this planet.

    so might evolution work differently on some imagined ecosphere somewhere else? sure, but why speculate randomly, when we have working models of what we can actually observe?

    oh wait, that’s right, creationists do indeed like to speculate randomly, so a better question would probably be:

    what’s the point?

  103. #103 Owlmirror
    February 20, 2008

    I’m not a scientist either, but I have been pondering the whole issue of communicating science. So I’ll throw some thoughts out there, and you-all can bash on them a bit:

    1) “The theory of evolution is flawed” As noted above, this contains a conflation, perhaps deliberate, of two different meanings of “flawed”. I think the best way to deal with it is to avoid the ambiguity of the word “flaw” and assert that “The theory of evolution is incomplete, but it is not incorrect. Makes sense?

    Actually, it might make sense to point out that all of science is also “incomplete”; that’s why we continue to do science; to study and increase our knowledge. Its incompleteness is part of the point.

    2) One of the areas where the theory of evolution is incomplete is in regards to abiogenesis. My own notion is that it ought to be emphasized that non-life becoming life happens all the time — during metabolism, of course. No, this isn’t “abiogenesis” — but it helps makes way for the next point: Everything we know about life is that organisms can be reduced to cells, which in turn reduce to biochemistry, which in turn reduces to organic chemistry. Therefore, abiogenesis is a reasonable inference and hypothesis based on the evidence of that reducibility.

    3) Finally, regarding the definition of “evolution” itself: Rather than “descent with modification”, how about “any reproduction with variation”?

    The word “descent” suggests sexual reproduction, whereas the word “reproduction” alone, I think, is more applicable to what viruses and bacteria and computer data operated on by evolutionary algorithms undergo, which I don’t think ought to be excluded by the definition.

    The word “modification” has perhaps a whiff of teleology about it; there might the mistaken inference that there is some force or entity performing the modification.

    In addition, the word “variation” is more general, and I think is more applicable, especially since it can be pointed out that exact replication is hard to do.

    I realize that I’m just quibbling over details, but perhaps the right detail can provide better communication.

  104. #104 windy
    February 20, 2008

    PZ: “Go ahead, name one basic property of evolutionary change not present in chemical evolution but there in biological evolution, or vice versa.”

    Common descent :)

    “Evolution is a theory about the origin of life” is not completely wrong but at least wrongly phrased. “Evolution is a theory about the origin of eukaryotes” (or any other group) would sound a bit weird too. Rather, evolutionary theory includes more or less detailed theories/hypotheses about the origin of specific groups, and “all life on Earth” is one such group.

    David:

    I never drink coffee. It smells better than it tastes and sticks to the entire oral cavity… very uncomfortable. Currently I drink tea once every few months… I don’t drink Coke or anything similar (can’t stand the gas or the incredibly low pH).

    I never drank coffee, either, before the write-up of my thesis…

  105. #105 Gregory Kusnick
    February 20, 2008

    #98:

    My own notion is that it ought to be emphasized that non-life becoming life happens all the time — during metabolism, of course.

    Only if you define life as matter. It’s trivially true that nonliving matter routinely becomes incorporated into living matter — and vice versa: living matter is constantly shedding wastes in the form of nonliving matter. This is precisely Day’s point (see post #42) about life as process. The stuff of which life is made is not the interesting part. What’s interesting is the process by which flows of stuff become organized into self-sustaining systems — and to our knowledge that’s happened only once.

  106. #106 Owlmirror
    February 20, 2008

    This is precisely Day’s point (see post #42) about life as process. The stuff of which life is made is not the interesting part.

    Well, it may not be “interesting” to scientists who are studying abiogenesis — but I was thinking that an awful lot of Creationists who come arguing, and even non-Creationist na´ve laypersons who may just be uninformed about biology — tend to think of “life” as being special or holy; they have not yet wrapped their minds around the simple fact that science has studied life all the way down and found no evidence for vitalism.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think it’s a rhetorical tactic worth trying.

  107. #107 negentropyeater
    February 20, 2008

    Owlmirror,

    “Everything we know about life is that organisms can be reduced to cells, which in turn reduce to biochemistry, which in turn reduces to organic chemistry. Therefore, abiogenesis is a reasonable inference and hypothesis based on the evidence of that reducibility.”

    you can go all the way down to the standard model of particle physics, but this reductionist argument is not sufficient. If the other guy argues that one does not know if life is only an emerging property of matter, that one does know how complex a problem it is. Or that one doesn’t know if the standard model is complete, and there are still to be discovered matter particles. Or when you say a reasonable inference, how reasonable ?

    What’s your reply ?

  108. #108 RamblinDude
    February 20, 2008

    Well, it’s been an interesting and thoughtful thread, and I’ve learned a good deal. As a layman, I can see both sides, although I’m still tending to view abiogenesis as a part of evolution that we don’t understand yet. But I must say I’m especially disappointed in David Marjanovi?: you don’t drink coffee?! Oh, sigh… A cup of perfectly made espresso is one of the real pleasures in life. You’ll want it to stick to your oral cavity! : O

    And the best part is–making it just right is a real science!

    (The secret is to grind the beans finely enough to get about a 25 second draw time for 1 oz. Starbucks has great espresso beans for this, although they don’t make it that way, unfortunately, in their coffee shops.)

    I tend to agree about the soft drinks, though. One every once in a while is enough.

  109. #109 Owlmirror
    February 20, 2008

    What’s your reply ?

    Well, for one, I would emphasize that it’s a reasonable based on the evidence. You know, that stuff that we can observe and test? It’s up to them to come up with anything else.

    Another point to emphasize is that evolution, as in reproduction with variation and selection, works on things that are manifestly not alive, such as electronic circuits and computer data.

    Ultimately, my point is to provide arguments to help the uninformed or confused with the way they think about what science has discovered. If someone wants to argue that no, there’s still something hidden that we can’t find that really makes it all work, well, there’s not much I can do about it other than repeat myself a few times, and try to think of better ways to rephrase and communicate the facts as they are known.

    When I was very young, I had a substitute teacher who suggested that even water was alive. I didn’t know then how to rebut that, even though it sounded very wrong. I also didn’t know what to make of the fact that his eyes seemed really, really bloodshot. Hm.

  110. #110 Owlmirror
    February 20, 2008

    If someone wants to argue that no, there’s still something hidden that we can’t find that really makes it all work, well, there’s not much I can do about it other than repeat myself a few times, and try to think of better ways to rephrase and communicate the facts as they are known.

    And, I must admit, if it’s obvious that they’re completely unreachable, I can simply walk away. And if they’re really persistent and rude, like some of the trolls that have stomped onto the Pharyngula comments to blather and spew, I can amuse myself in mocking their silliness.

  111. #111 windy
    February 20, 2008

    If the other guy argues that one does not know if life is only an emerging property of matter, that one does know how complex a problem it is. Or that one doesn’t know if the standard model is complete, and there are still to be discovered matter particles. Or when you say a reasonable inference, how reasonable ?

    You (or this fictional guy) are confusing a couple of things here. We do know that life is “only an emerging property of matter”. Life could have originated by magic and this would not affect our conclusions about current life. There is no vitalist principle operating (if someone still doubts, wait until Venter completes his synthetic organism). The “reasonable inference” part is about the abiogenesis event that originated Earth life, where we have to rely on inference.

    And undetected particles of matter would hardly falsify our conclusions that life is about matter.

  112. #112 defaithed
    February 20, 2008

    It’s a useful list, but I think it falls short of “excellent”. My quibbles:

    1. The (much debated!) shortcomings which PZ points out.
    2. Some of the refutations are awfully abbreviated. #2, for example, on “Might makes right”, fails to mention at all that the Theory only addresses observation of nature, not prescription for societies.
    3. There are no links to supporting references or more detailed explanations.
    4. There’s some clunky writing in there (like “a child will begin to behave like another creature when they discover that they are related to them”).
    5. I can think of at least one big misconception about evolution left off the list: the Giant Brain misconception, which says that evolution has us humans inexorably headed toward the bulbous brains of “advanced” sci-fi creatures. (And it’ll remove our pinkies in the process, because “we don’t use them”.) Refutation #14 could address this, but doesn’t. (The best refutation I know of on this point, the origin of which I forget, is the wonderfully pithy “evolution has no momentum”. I think I’ll write a bit about this at my site.)

    No intent to nitpick on the writer’s much-welcome list, but I’d enjoy seeing it redone by PZ or another qualified expert!

  113. #113 ifeelfine
    February 20, 2008

    Just curious . . . was it the author of God’s Politics and The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis, that made that first comment?

  114. #114 Thanny
    February 20, 2008

    Good grief. Saying that the origin of life is outside the scope of evolution is exactly the same thing as saying that the origin of language is outside the scope of linguistics.

    If you want to believe that both of those statements are true, go right ahead. You’re wrong, though, and should stop “correcting” people who see the issues more clearly than you do.

  115. #115 Kagehi
    February 20, 2008

    Seems some others have said the same thing, basically. Yes, abiogenesis is the most probable and likely means for evolving life to have started, there being no other viable candidates at this point that don’t beg more questions. Mind you, there is a lot of pre-life material in space, so I don’t think its 100% impossible for something like panspermia to have happened. Its also fairly irrelevant, since you can’t answer, as this point, where it came from, any more than you can answer how it happened here exactly. I also think that if it was true, the *lifeform* that would have survived to do that would be so simplistic by comparison to anything we see now that there might not be much difference between a life precursor from an asteroid or a mud puddle. Strictly speaking, the only thing we do know for certain is that a) it was chemical “duh”, b) very simple, and c) once things start evolving, artificial OR biological, it keeps on doing so, even if you don’t want it to. Its like arguing that all of cosmology is **dependent** on some unknown and currently unknowable state that existed just “prior” to the moment the big bang started. In reality, while we would like to know, its completely irrelevant, regardless of what did or didn’t exist in that moment. Same with abiogenesis vs. any other idea. Even if someone found proof that every rock in space contained some mix of obscure compounds that had a 98% change of producing life if they landed on a planet without it, and had the right conditions, it wouldn’t change a damn thing about anything else that follows, and isn’t a *necessary* or, until successfully tested, even *relevant* part of evolution. Even if we did get that, it would still be one idiotically minor moment in the chain, important only in what it said about the odds of life existing some place else, while saying exactly *zip* about how anything evolved after.

  116. #116 Fernando Magyar
    February 20, 2008

    Life is a process, a standing wave in the flow of solar energy, a continuous interchange of energy and matter with the environment.

    If one might be allowed to propagate this meme with a slight modification through dissent, I do happen to have a quibble with “Solar” energy. I also believe that self replication, is a sine qua non, part and parcel of the basic definition of life. It could conceivably bring the two generally non overlapping magesteria of Biology and Physics closer together. After all there does seem to be a bit of chemistry between them ;-)

    Life is a process, a series of self replicating standing waves in the flow of energy, a continuous interchange of energy and matter with the environment.

    Isn’t that the another way of saying E=MC^2? Maybe Einstein was in essence really just another biologist.

  117. #117 windy
    February 20, 2008

    When I was very young, I had a substitute teacher who suggested that even water was alive. I didn’t know then how to rebut that, even though it sounded very wrong. I also didn’t know what to make of the fact that his eyes seemed really, really bloodshot. Hm.

    I guess he was talking about the “water of life” (uisce beatha, eau de vie…)

  118. #118 Shirakawasuna
    February 20, 2008

    Well, abiogenesis may have very similar properties as evolution (although we do not know precisely what they were, obviously), but the question is whether abiogenesis being true/false/unsupported/supported has anything to do with whether evolution is true. That would be a valid distinction given the implicit argument creationists usually use: if evolution is true, what was the first organism? Sure, it doesn’t make a ton of sense, but we still treat these as somewhat separate issues, as once life exists we can use evolutionary principles more easily, such as heredity, etc.

  119. #119 Sigmund
    February 21, 2008

    Abiogenesis is evolution for adults.
    There is one major problem with stating that evolution is what happens after the first cell appeared – it gives ammunition to creationists when they state the probability arguments. All of these probability arguments basically boil down to one thing – the fact that there is basically zero probability of a single functional protein spontaneously arising, never mind the hundreds or thousands needed for a basic bacterial cell. Modern science answers this probability problem by stating that the cell is really the result of a long evolutionary process rather than the beginning. Proteins, the catalytic powerhouses of cells look like they are late-comers to the show with much simpler molecules, RNAs etc, being the original biological catalysts – molecules that have a much higher probability of arising compared to proteins, indeed the structure of the ribosome indicates that RNA most likely preceded proteins. Problems still exist with the mechanism that led to RNA but these are really geochemical pathways that will sooner or later be uncovered.

  120. #120 negentropyeater
    February 21, 2008

    Windy #106,

    In my view, what you are saying weakens the argument.
    You cannot state that we know something, when we can only say that it is a plausible assumption.
    Saying that Craig Venter will solve the central issue of Abiogenesis is ridiculous, as he is not dealing with Abiogenesis, but trying to engineer a synthetic lifeform (M.Laboratorium) making use of a pre-existing lifeform (from M.Genitalium).

    As R.Robinson explains in this article in Plos Biology (http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0030396&ct=1),

    “Give biologists a cell, and they’ll give you the world. But beyond assuming the first cell must have somehow come into existence, how do biologists explain its emergence from the prebiotic world four billion years ago?
    The short answer is that they can’t, yet.”

    Of course the key is in the “Yet”, but stating that we know things, when we don’t, yet, weakens your point, and in my view, it is best to acknowledge this, but turn the argument around, as I have suggested in my post #92.

    (my point about “matter”, I should have added, “matter as described by the Standard Model”)

  121. #121 Matt Penfold
    February 21, 2008

    One point I think needs to be brought up is that of when life can be said to have begun.

    I imagine all here accept that life arose from some rather specific, and quite possibly pretty unusual, chemical processes. There must have been a stage where these processes went from acting on things we would not consider alive to acting on things we do consider alive. Now unless we think that this was an instant process, in that one generation was not life, and the next was life then where do those who propose abiogenesis is a quite different thing to evolution propose the change from one to the other happened ?

    An analogy can be made to speciation. We all know that speciation happens, and we all know that it is not always clear just when two populations can be considered different species. I suggest that a similar situation occurs with regards the beginning of life. Were we to go back and observe the process then I imagine we would have a hard time telling where exactly abiogenesis finished and evolution began.

  122. #122 Ichthyic
    February 21, 2008

    the fact that there is basically zero probability of a single functional protein spontaneously arising

    oh? I’d say the probability was 1.

    prove me wrong.

    show your work, eh?

  123. #123 Ichthyic
    February 21, 2008

    … i trust you get the point of the problems of implying there are calculable probabilities to begin with?

    otherwise, you can argue with Dembski all day long about what the mathematical probabilities were.

  124. #124 negentropyeater
    February 21, 2008

    Matt,

    I don’t think people here have suggested, that the two don’t overlap.
    All people have said is that it is important to distinguish what is a well established theory, which is supported by a huge amount of evidence (Evolution), and what is still at the stage of hypothesis building, modeling, and not yet experimentally, or observationally, verified (Abiogenesis).
    Moreover, nobody has suggested that some of the natural processes that are fundamental to one scientific domain of investigation (eg Natural Selection), will not be fundamental to the other one.

  125. #125 Peter
    February 21, 2008

    Regarding #15
    PZ, You’re of course correct that the principles of natural selection extends beyond cell/DNA based life, but you comment missed the point. “Evolution” and “Abiogenesis” ARE different in one important issue, which is that we KNOW Evolution to be a fact and we don’t know the facts about abiogenesis.
    You got to remember what creationists are arguing against in the first place. They argue that (say) that humans and chimps are not related. We know for a fact that they are and what ever the answer we find to the abiogenesis problem, it won’t change that. It’s two seperate issues, when the question is whether we are related to chimps.
    But creationists would much rather lump them together so they can point at the unsolved abiogenesis problem and say that “evolution” is unproven, “only a theory” and pure guesswork.
    … and your comment about #15 is already being abused on creationist sites the world over to do exactly that.

  126. #126 Sigmund
    February 21, 2008

    I think some people are mixing up the term ‘evolution’ with the term ‘natural selection’. There is a difference and a very important one when we begin to discuss abiogenesis.
    As for Ichthyic #117 and #118, perhaps I should clarify, I meant spontaneous arising protein with some capability of heritability. Remember, this is what Dembski and chums are referring to. They posit a strawman that proteins cannot arise from the actions of non-replicating predecessors and then present the probabilities against this. Its the strawman that I disagree with, not the mathematics.

  127. #127 windy
    February 21, 2008

    You cannot state that we know something, when we can only say that it is a plausible assumption. Saying that Craig Venter will solve the central issue of Abiogenesis is ridiculous, as he is not dealing with Abiogenesis,

    I didn’t say that he was. I said that we shouldn’t confuse abiogenesis with the statement “life is an emergent property of matter”. We don’t need to know how abiogenesis happened to know that life is material.

  128. #128 Grimalkin
    February 21, 2008

    One of the things that bugs me the most about Creationists is the language they use. “So then the fish looked at the land and decided to start walking.”

    They are so accustomed to a worldview where there is a conscious agency behind every action that they assume there must be one behind evolution too. Looking at it from this perspective, evolution looks idiotic. I can’t look at the pool, think “man, I could really use some fins!” and they will just sprout so that I can take a good swim.

    Even if we explain to them that the process takes millions of years, it still doesn’t make sense. Just because I want to be a better swimmer in the pool and think about having fins doesn’t mean that my kids, grand-kids, or even great-grand-kids will have them. Creationists look at the sky and think it would be awesome to fly and, since they want to fly, obviously others have also wanted to fly – so why don’t humans, in our “6000 year history,” have wings yet?

    That’s the catch – the automatic acceptance of agency behind everything. This isn’t just about God, but about people too. These same people often reject many theories in psychology because it “takes away free will” by positing that we are a product of our environment and our genetics and that our decisions are based on wee electrical signals in our brains. They want to believe in an exterior agency, in a “real me” that makes decisions, in a personality that transcends the physical. It makes sense, it’s hard to think of yourself as impermanent. When you really love your kids, it’s hard to imagine that a bump on the noggin’ could make you completely forget who they are.

    Creationists want to believe in external consciousness. But it’s more than that, they accept the idea of an external consciousness automatically, without any critical thought. It just is. To teach these people about evolution, we must first challenge the idea that evolution is something that is “decided.”

  129. #129 Tulse
    February 21, 2008

    Saying that the origin of life is outside the scope of evolution is exactly the same thing as saying that the origin of language is outside the scope of linguistics.

    Nonsense. First off, evolution is not the whole of biology, just a specific aspect of that discipline, so the analogy is structurally flawed — abiogenesis could be within the scope of biology but not evolution.

    Second, if you look at how non-human communication is studied, it is often not by linguists, or at least not those without some sort of cross-disciplinary training. In other words, although the origin of language not be outside the scope of linguistics, it is also part of multiple disciplines (e.g., ethology, anthropology, biology, neuroscience), and informed by those.

    In the same manner, unlike the evolution of current organisms, abiogenesis as an area of study is informed not only by biology, but by chemistry and geology (and various other disciplines) as well. In that sense, it is in practical terms very different than “evolution”, as the theoretical mechanisms and physical processes are qualitatively different from current organismic evolution, despite whatever formal similarities it might have.

    And that I think is my problem with PZ’s position. Sure, it may be that the processes involved in the origin of life have formal qualities similar to modern evolution (such as imperfect replication and selection), but the way those qualities were instantiated is likely to be far different in a physical sense from modern organisms (just as it is in, for example, “mutating” computer viruses), and requires various disciplines not usually incorporated into modern biology to study (as would the study of the “evolution” of such computer malware). As a result, it is quite reasonable to say that, as a practical matter, abiogenesis is quite separate from evolution.

  130. #130 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    February 21, 2008

    PZ ,yes!
    Not content with muddying the waters with his non-evidence god -talk in his otherwise fine book, Kenneth Miller now proposes to put design in evolution-talk. We see patterns rather than minded-designs. Evolution is dysteologic- it did not plan us while Miller begs the question of design and thereby putting teleology into evolution, putting the future before the past, the effect before the cause, negating time. That is backwards causation and has no place in the study of evolution whatsoever!
    Science does show no god need apply for work in evolution[ or anywhere else]. Selection is its own boss. It has no plans while this god has plans- a contradiction!

  131. #131 Robert
    March 1, 2008

    Science is a religion. Just face that one fact and every thing makes sense. Science is just the government backed religion. Science makes its assumptions and use them as the basis of proof just like religions.
    Don’t believe me, see how far you get when you don’t assume that gravity will continue to work the same tomorrow as it does today, even when we don’t truly understand what gravity is and how it works. We know the effect that we call gravity and we it is still a mystery to us as to what gravity is.

    We see records that we date based upon assumptions about ratios of isotopes and we make assumptions on what happened in the past based on extrapolation of things that we have observed. So, how is your scientific faith, welcome to the new religion.

    If there is a God there is no reason for Evolution, if there is no god then there must be an alternative theory to replace it. The new religion.

  132. #132 Mark
    March 13, 2008

    Robert, you’re smoking crack.

  133. #133 Ichthyic
    March 13, 2008

    Just face accept that one fact projection and every thing makes sense.

    we know, Robert.

    we know.

    Now you just need to know it too.

  134. #134 Rey Fox
    March 13, 2008

    “Don’t believe me, see how far you get when you don’t assume that gravity will continue to work the same tomorrow as it does today, even when we don’t truly understand what gravity is and how it works. We know the effect that we call gravity and we it is still a mystery to us as to what gravity is.”

    In other words, you got nothing.

    “If there is a God there is no reason for Evolution”

    Says who?

    “if there is no god then there must be an alternative theory to replace it. ”

    We got a pretty good one. Actually, we got quite a suite of interlocking theories to explain quite a lot of things. You got nothing.

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