Pharyngula

No! Not the list of stumpers again!

There’s a common tactic used by creationists, and I’ve encountered it over and over again. It’s a form of the Gish Gallop: present the wicked evolutionist with a long list of assertions, questions, and non sequiturs, and if they answer with “I don’t know” to any of them, declare victory. It’s easy. We say “I don’t know” a lot.

Jack Chick’s Big Daddy tract is a version of the creationist list, and contains a fair amount of fantasy as well. You know what they believe will happen: they’ll ask that one question that the scientist can’t answer, and then they’ll have an epiphany, a revelation, and realize that all their science is a lie, at which time they’ll resign from their university position and join a good bible-believin’ church.

It happens to me all the time, too. At one talk I gave, there was a woman at the door who had printed a 5-page, single-spaced list of questions, and she was telling everyone going in to ask me to answer them — I invited her to come in and listen to the talk and ask them herself, and she ran away. I’ve had a Canadian creationist do the same thing, and then I talked to him for several hours in the hallway after the talk. He seemed stunned and angry that I actually had answers for most of his questions. I have been confronted by people with questions (more like ignorant assertions) about biology, who once I’ve answered them and reveal that I’m a biologist, switch to asking me about geology and the Big Bang, to get me into a corner where I’d have to say, “I don’t know.”

Here we go again. The IDiot, Salvador Cordova, has written up his list of 16 questions to challenge scientists. He even has the typical anecdote:

I once gambled a little bit on a weaker question that a creationist biology student should ask her anatomy and physiology professor regarding the evolution of hearts. I basically suggested she ask about how the intermediate plumbing can work if it is not all wired-correctly in the first place.

When that biology junior posed that question, she came back the next week at our ID/Creation meeting beaming. She said, “you’re right, there are no transitionals!” I realized then whatever I said might not be as powerful as what professors are unable to say when asked the right questions!

But we do have intermediates, both phylogenetically and developmentally! People are using zebrafish to study the evolution of the four-chambered heart. How can you conclude that there are “no transitionals” from one question about one feature, asked of one professor? But that’s exactly the illogical conclusion creationists want you to draw.

Here’s how the scam works and gives them the answers they want.

  • Ask questions about wildly different fields: Cordova’s list includes questions about biology, geology, and cosmology. There are few people polymathic enough to know them all; I can handle most biology questions comfortably, but I have to beg off on geology and physics, or give general answers built on the lay knowledge I have of those fields. “I win!” declares the creationist, because Myers hasn’t memorized all the transitions in nucleosynthesis.

  • Ask about obscure phenomena within the evolutionist’s own field. No, I haven’t tracked every fossil discovery in the world; no, I haven’t memorized every signaling pathway; no, I don’t have a complete, step-by-step explanation for the evolution of every molecule in your body. I can look it up later, or I can give you an example of a related phenomenon, but that’s taken as an admission of failure of the whole field of biology, rather than an admission of my personal, limited competence.

  • Rely on the fact that not everyone pays attention to the basics. Most scientists are specialists; we’ve got a narrow set of topics that we know exceedingly well, and a great cloud of generalities that we sort of vaguely accept. Nobel prize winners are rarely the best people to consult about the kinds of things creationists want to know; for that, you’re better off talking to the academic grunt who teaches introductory biology, or the person who has a hobby of following the creationist literature (hey, that’s me!).

  • Ask really stupid questions. They misuse jargon, babble about facts that have been strongly established as if they’re controversial, throw in random bits of sciencey terminology that aren’t actually relevant to the question, but sound impressive to lurkers who are as ignorant as they are. The goal is to get the scientist to screw up their face in a “WTF?” expression, and go silent for a few minutes as they try to puzzle out a diplomatic way to shoo the time-wasting creationist away. That counts as scoring a coup.

  • Lie. Lie, lie, lie. Nobody in the audience will care to double-check creationist claims, except the scientists, and by the time they write up a detailed rebuttal, the creationist will have moved on to the next sucker.

So let’s take a shot at Cordova’s questions. I’ll just fire back as I would in person, without looking things up in a textbook or the internet.

1. How can functional proteins form without ribosomes or ribosome-like machines?

Ribosomes are great big elaborate enzymes…that is, they’re catalysts that enhance the rate of a reaction that would occur naturally. Without ribosomes, you’d still get short peptides forming; to get long ones, you’d need efficient catalysts to get the sequence to be assembled with high probability in a reasonable period of time. Early life would have been relatively inefficient, but they only had to compete with other protocells without the advantage of ribosomes.

2. How can natural selection or neutral evolution evolve poly constrained DNA or any poly constrained systems in general?

Classic use of jargon, “poly constrained”, to pretend the problem is a serious scientific one. An enzyme might be constrained in its sequence at multiple points — it needs a specific amino acid at the active site, it needs another amino acid at a specific point to put a particular kink in the shape, it needs yet another specific amino acid at a distant point to interact with a regulatory protein — but that just means substitutions at those locations will occur at a lower rate and have fewer degrees of freedom than other locations.

3. How did the first organism regulate protein expression and cellular development without regulatory elements or developmental mechanisms?

Define “first organism”. Sufficiently primitive protocells probably didn’t regulate everything — they may have produced an enzyme for substrate X even when substrate X wasn’t present. So? But you can also see how, in an organism like that, there would have been a selective advantage to organisms that had a sensor to detect the presence of a substrate, allowing them to conserve a little energy by not producing the unnecessary enzyme. And the word “sensor” is used generously here: it would just mean a protein that could undergo a conformational change when bound to the substrate, and since it has an enzyme that binds the substrate already, it wouldn’t be difficult to evolve.

4. How did any vital organ or protein form given the absence of the organ would be fatal? Absence of insulin is fatal in organisms requiring insulin. How did insulin become a vital part of living organisms? If you say it wasn’t essential when it first evolved, then how can you say selection had any role in evolving insulin without just guessing?

This sounds like a clumsy version of irreducible complexity, which has already been shot down many times before. The organ/protein would not have been vital essentially, but could still have been useful. Look at Thornton’s work on the evolution of receptors: a broad spectrum corticosteroid receptor evolved into two much more specific glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptors. The function only became essential after it was fully integrated into the physiology of an organism.

5. How did DNA evolve in a proteins-first or RNA first scenario?

You do know that the difference between DNA and RNA is simply the presence or absence of a single hydroxyl group, right? Once you’ve got the machinery to build and assemble ribonucleotides, it’s a short step to deoxyribonucleotides.

6. How did amino acid homochirality evolve since the amino acids in biotic soup experiments are racemic, plus homochiral amino acids spontaneously racemize outside of living systems? How about DNAs and sugars? If the expectation value is 50% left, how do 100% left or right forms emerge in pre-biotic soups, and more importantly how is homochirality maintained long enough for chemical evolution to work?

Enzymes are chiral, too. To maintain the synthesis of racemic products, you’d often need two different enzymes. To produce just one chirality, you need one kind of enzyme. Which is easier, to evolve one enzyme, or to evolve two simultaneously, one of which is a mirror image of the other?

7. Don’t dead dogs stay dead dogs and doesn’t Humpty Dumpty stay broken?

I don’t even…

There’s a bit of a difference between incremental assembly of the components of a dog over billion years, where each step is viable and subject to selection, and the instantaneous assembly of a complete dog from a non-viable collection of rotting organic compounds.

8. Describe how a partially functioning ribosomes or any partial implementation of the DNA code could operate in a working cell, and how a such cell can operate without such vital parts.

Didn’t we already address that in #1?

9. Are most laboratory and field observations of evolution reductive rather than constructive of new coordinated functions? For the sake of argument, let extinction can count as reductive evolution. When bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance, what proportion of cases involved evolution of a new complex protein?

Answer to the first part: no. If extinction is “reductive evolution”, then speciation is “constructive evolution”.

Second part: quantitatively, I don’t know. Almost certainly very low. Evolution is largely going to proceed by modification of existing components, and de novo creation of a complex protein is unlikely.

10. Cite an experiment or field observation where a substantially new protein was evolved in real time or is expected to evolve in real time over the next few generations. Nylonase is the most cited example, but that wasn’t a substantially new protein. But even granting that, how many complex proteins are evolving in the biosphere versus those getting lost forever.

Wait, why are you ruling out nylonase? It is a new protein! I notice you’re hedging your question, asking for a “substantially” (quick, define it) new protein, which has to evolve in “real time”, whatever that is, and right away you’re excluding obvious examples. What’s the point of answering this if you’re going to set it up with weasel words and exceptions?

All of the complex proteins in the biosphere are evolving. Since the number of genes in animals, to use one subset, wobbles about in different species but is staying in the same ballpark for the last few hundred million years, I’d have to estimate that gene losses are roughly equal to the addition of new genes.

11. What new trait in human populations do you expect to become genetically fixed in all 7 Billion or so people, and how fast do you expect that trait to overtake the population in how many generation? If you can’t identify convincingly one or a few traits, how then can you argue for evolution of so many traits in the past?

You’re asking me to do something that evolution does not claim to be able to do: evolution is not deterministic, involves a great deal of chance, and even selection is contingent on interactions with a changing environment, so it is impossible to predict the future fate of a single allele.

We can see it retroactively. A third opsin gene arose early in primates, and is basically now fixed in the human population, giving us trichromatic vision; we’re seeing lactose tolerant variants arising in humans within the last 10,000 years, not reaching worldwide fixation yet, but rising in frequency rapidly. That one could reach fixation, if dairy products become universally available and popular.

12. If a species has a population of 10,000, how can selection act in a particulate manner on 4 giga bases of DNA individually? Wouldn’t such a large genome relative to small population size result in lots of selection interference, hence wouldn’t most molecular evolution be neutral of necessity as Kimura asserted?

Most molecular evolution is neutral. Done.

13. Do geological layers involving permineralized fossils or other kinds of well-preserved fossils require rapid burial? If the burial process is rapid, does it really take millions of years then to make that particular layer that has fossils? If you find C14 in Cambrian fossils not the result of contamination or lab error, does that mean the fossil had a more recent time of death than 500,000,000 years? Given the half lives of DNA and amino acids or other decay processes of biological organisms, how can we account for preservation of these biotic materials for far longer than indicated by their chemical half-lives?

Now we get into geology and physics, outside my domain of expertise. I would either pull a convenient expert into the conversation, or admit I can only speak in generalities at this point. I would say, for instance, that 14C is produced by the interaction of high energy particles with nitrogen, so we wouldn’t expect it to be simply zero in all ancient specimens — just much, much lower than the amount produced by high altitude cosmic ray interactions with our atmosphere. Also, the life of an organic chemical is going to be dependent on the presence of other chemicals in the environment. It’s not going to be clocklike, like radioactive decay.

14. Can geological strata form rapidly? What about the university experiments and field observations that show strata can form rapidly? If they can form rapidly, and if fossil presence demands they form rapidly, doesn’t that suggest they formed rapidly?

What do you mean by “geological strata”? I think you mean just layers. Layers can form rapidly or slowly. They can be modified by processes that take long periods of time, and geologists look at the totality of the events that led to the feature they’re looking at. I’d say your question is very silly and it sounds like you’re about as ignorant of geology as I am, or worse, so talk to a geologist.

15. If redshifts in the Big Bang model are discovered to be possibly caused by other mechanisms than relative motion, wouldn’t that put the Big Bang in doubt? Wouldn’t that also raise questions about stellar distances?

Physics now? There is much more evidence for the Big Bang than just redshifts. Talk to a physicist. Are you seriously trying to suggest that the stars are significantly closer than has been measured by, for instance, parallax? Is this a question about the age and size of the universe? Because you’re really drifing into abysmally stupid territory here. Would you also like to argue that the sun orbits the earth and that the earth is flat?

16. What is the farthest astronomical distance that can be determined by parallax or very long base line interferometry, and what fraction is that detection distance relative to the claimed size of the visible universe relative to the Big Bang? How do you account for Super Nova by stars not inside galaxies? If so, doesn’t that mean there is a higher probability of Super Nova in a star outside a galaxy by a factor of hundreds of billions if not more? If so, why should this be?

I am not an astronomer, but I do happen to have a vague idea of the answer to the first question: it depends entirely on the accuracy of the instrument used to measure parallax. I think we’ve got parallax measurements out to around 500 light years? I’m sure an astronomer will correct me.

This question is so far outside my field I’m more curious to know what your intent in asking it might be. Are you really playing at being an intelligent design creationist, and are actually a young earth creationist at heart? Are you really bothered by the immensity of the universe, and are desperately trying to justify shrinking it down…happily contradicting all the physical evidence? How small does the universe have to be to make you content?

Ah, well. That’s Salvador Cordova for you. I think he’s competing with Casey Luskin for the title of Dumbest ID Creationist of Them All.

Comments

  1. […] By PZ Myers […]

  2. #2 mordicai
    April 10, 2014

    I like the “don’t dead dogs stay dead dogs” thing particularly because hey, at least we’re at honest questions, the kinds of questions a kid with no science background could ask. & it is a nice illustrative answer: “well, I dunno, what happens when the maggots come & eat the dead dog & turn that dead dog into…flies? Or when you bury it & the decay of the dog becomes fertilizer for plants? Is it still a dead dog, or is it a tulip?”

  3. #3 bobh
    April 10, 2014

    For most people asking this list of questions I think answering a question with a question would probably make them shut up pretty quickly. For instance “1. How can functional proteins form without ribosomes or ribosome-like machines?” Answer, “What is a ribosome-like machine and what is an example of one?”

  4. #4 Tom Nelson
    Minneapolis, MN
    April 10, 2014

    Why is it only creationists get to ask questions? Why not say, “I’ll answer your 10 questions if you answer mine”? We can start with, if evolution is false and only God creates change, what’s the implication of drug-resistant bacteria?

  5. #5 JimG
    April 10, 2014

    Or what intelligent designing dimwit typed out the gentic code for the Ebola virus, cystic fibrosis, the small pox virus, etc.? And what’s up with them random retroviral inserts and how they “just by chance” fit so nicely into modern classification systems? And how do snakes talk, guys live in the belly of whales, virgins give birth and a loving invisible God intentionally kill all the innocent organisms on the planet (with a low tech flood) except of course for those very few critters that would fit on a boat (as opposed to God simply snapping his fingers and just recreating them from scratch, like he did in the first place). And why did he stick his star creations (us) on some small insignificant dot in one of billions of galaxies, in a remote solar system? And why did he give creationists the ability to think critically yet prevent them from doing so?

    No wonder creationists are so busy bashing science, if they stop talking they will be left to defend the absolute nonsense they assume without reason or even a hint of a fact to be true.

  6. #6 MobiusKlein
    April 11, 2014

    Re: parallax – new announcement just today or so – up to 10,000 Light Years.

    http://www.sciencecodex.com/nasas_hubble_extends_stellar_tape_measure_10_times_farther_into_space-131602

    So, 500 LY is old news.
    That’s what cool about science – not content with last year’s data, ever.

  7. #7 Nunov Yurbiznez
    April 11, 2014

    “long list of assertions, questions, and non sequiturs, and if they answer with “I don’t know” to any of them, declare victory.”

    Oh, you mean like atheists’ lists of stumpers about God, the Bible, etc. where if Christians answer “I don’t know” to any of them, you cry, “Aha! You see? That proves your fairy tale is phony and your mythical man in the sky doesn’t exist! We win!”

    Hypocrites.

  8. #8 Ambidexter
    April 12, 2014

    Nunov Yurbiznez @7

    If you actually talked to atheists about your god, you’d find we’re more likely to ask questions like “got any evidence for that?” When you guys answer “no” then we tell you that your collection of myths doesn’t make sense. If you provide some evidence that your sky pixie is something other than a figment of the imagination then we’ll accept that you and your fellow goddists aren’t talking out of your asses.

  9. #9 Chris Cogan
    United States
    April 13, 2014

    To Nunov Yurbiznez:
    The problems with God and the Bible are far deeper than the lack of knowledge: The Bible is full of outright contradictions and idiotic (and often vicious) nonsense, not mere ignorance or the failure to include some piece of factual information. How a particular protein evolved is a technical and scientific question that might be answered by research. But, the Genesis stories, taken literally, cannot be made rationally respectable in any way. It is not merely that you theists lack some specific piece of information; it’s that your claims are intellectual shit-blizzards. While you are nitpicking some incidental and mostly irrelevant question (as far as the basis for evolution is concerned), your own theory doesn’t have any evidence for even its most basic claims, let alone trivial incidentals.

  10. #10 Nunov Yurbiznez
    April 14, 2014

    I rest my case. “Got any evidence of that?” = stumper. Claimed contradictions (which vanish under scrutiny and study) = stumpers.

    It’s cute how you both resorted to being vulgar, though. Typical.

  11. #11 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    April 15, 2014

    Newsflash: when people use words you were told not to use, that doesn’t mean they’re resorting to anything.

  12. #12 Nunov Yurbiznez
    April 21, 2014

    Newsflash: when people cannot respond intelligently and logically to something, they always resort to vulgarities and insults. Then when they are called on it, they resort to retorts that amount to nothing more than childish “nuh-uhs!”

  13. #13 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    April 21, 2014

    Newsflash: when people cannot respond intelligently and logically to something, they always resort to vulgarities and insults.

    When people use vulgarities and insults, however, that does not mean they cannot respond intelligently and logically. Indeed, it does not even mean they are not responding intelligently and logically.

    “Got any evidence of that?” = stumper.

    what

    How is that a stumper if you actually have evidence for it? How do you manage to believe that something is true in the absence of evidence?

    Claimed contradictions (which vanish under scrutiny and study)

    Please tell me what, according to the New Testament, is necessary and what is sufficient for salvation.

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