AFA Lawyer's ID Nonsense

Brian Fahling, an attorney for the American Family Association, has written a highly dishonest propaganda piece for Agape Press about evolution and intelligent design. I know it's hardly sound sport to fisk these things, but someone's gotta do it. Like most religious right types, he freely combines old fashioned creationist tactics with ID. In particular, he goes for some quote mining that was debunked literally decades ago. The jumping off point is the situation at Kansas University, where a professor was planning a class on ID as mythology until some emails revealed his harshly anti-theistic views and the fact that he frankly wasn't taking the class seriously at all. The buffoon got what he deserved and the class was cancelled. Fahling takes that as an opportunity to say some really dumb things about evolution.

The first claim by the Board is that some concepts in evolution have been challenged by the fossils. The claim is not without significance since transitional forms are an important feature of Darwin's theory which holds that evolutionary change takes place through the gradual, not sudden, change of populations. If true, evidence of transitional forms should appear in the fossil record.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first straw man. Evolution does not require that all change be gradual in the sense of an entire population evolving into a different species; indeed, evolution generally works the other way. I think I see some Gould quotes coming and a lot of nonsense about "sudden" vs "gradual" change. But the argument about transitional forms is something that most ID advocates don't bother to make, primarily because they know it's a losing argument. Fahling is going back to pull a play from the young earth creationist playbook here.

Here's what some of evolution's most prominent supporters say about the fossil record and the challenges it presents to the evolutionary concept of gradualism (a consequence of natural selection).

Niles Eldredge, the renowned paleontologist and Curator in the Department of Invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History, in his book The Myths of Human Evolution, wrote: "He [Darwin] prophesied that future generations of paleontologists would fill in these gaps by diligent search .... One hundred and twenty years of paleontological research later, it has become abundantly clear that the fossil record will not confirm this part of Darwin's predictions. Nor is the problem a miserably poor record. The fossil record simply shows that this prediction was wrong."

Whoop, whoop, whoop - we have our first distorted quotation. Whenever you see creationists quote from Eldredge or Gould (or Stanley for that matter), you can be pretty sure you're dealing with an out of context quotation that makes it look as though they're arguing against evolution when in fact they're only arguing against a particular model of evolutionary change. This distortion has been debunked again and again and again, but it never seems to go away. I will explain a bit more after the next quote:

The late Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps the most influential evolutionary biologist of the twentieth century, in a 1978 New York Times article discussing the fossil evidence for transitional forms as predicted by Darwin, conceded that Thomas Huxley (a renowned contemporary, scientist, and supporter of Darwin) proclaimed the theory incorrect, and, said Gould, "the fossil record still proclaims it false, after more than a century of diligent research for gradual change. Paleontologists have documented virtually no cases of slow and steady transformation, foot by foot up the strata of a hillslope -- not for horses, not for humans."...

In the place of Darwin's theory of gradualism, Gould and Eldridge came up with a new theory, "punctuated equilibrium" (long intervals in which nothing changes, punctuated by short, radical transitions, in which species became extinct and are replaced by wholly new forms), which helps explain the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record.

First of all, the notion that Gould was the most influential evolutionary biologist of the 20th century is one of the silliest statements I've ever come across. He was not, in fact, an evolutionary biologist at all, but a paleontologist. And if he was an evolutionary biologist, he would still be far, far down on the list after names like Mayr, Fisher, Wright, Dobzhansky and many, many others. Second, this quote has the same problem the one before did. Fahling wants you to think that Gould is saying that change happens instantaneously and that there are no transitional forms; that implication is flat false. This distortion was debunked in no uncertain terms by Gould himself nearly 25 years ago:

The third argument is more direct: transitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common--and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution (see next section) but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim. The lower jaw of reptiles contains several bones, that of mammals only one. The non-mammalian jawbones are reduced, step by step, in mammalian ancestors until they become tiny nubbins located at the back of the jaw. The "hammer" and "anvil" bones of the mammalian ear are descendants of these nubbins. How could such a transition be accomplished? the creationists ask. Surely a bone is either entirely in the jaw or in the ear. Yet paleontologists have discovered two transitional lineages of therapsids (the so-called mammal-like reptiles) with a double jaw joint--one composed of the old quadrate and articular bones (soon to become the hammer and anvil), the other of the squamosal and dentary bones (as in modern mammals). For that matter, what better transitional form could we expect to find than the oldest human, Australopithecus afarensis, with its apelike palate, its human upright stance, and a cranial capacity larger than any ape's of the same body size but a full 1,000 cubic centimeters below ours? If God made each of the half-dozen human species discovered in ancient rocks, why did he create in an unbroken temporal sequence of progressively more modern features--increasing cranial capacity, reduced face and teeth, larder body size? Did he create to mimic evolution and test our faith thereby?

Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am--for I have become a major target of these practices.

I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change. In 1972 my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record--geologically "sudden" origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis)--reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond. It represents much less than 1 per cent of the average life-span for a fossil invertebrate species--more than ten million years. Large, widespread, and well established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much. We believe that the inertia of large populations explains the stasis of most fossil species over millions of years.

We proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium largely to provide a different explanation for pervasive trends in the fossil record. Trends, we argued, cannot be attributed to gradual transformation within lineages, but must arise from the different success of certain kinds of species. A trend, we argued, is more like climbing a flight of stairs (punctuated and stasis) than rolling up an inclined plane.

Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists--whether through design or stupidity, I do not know--as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups. Yet a pamphlet entitled "Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution Is a Hoax" states: "The facts of punctuated equilibrium which Gould and Eldredge...are forcing Darwinists to swallow fit the picture that Bryan insisted on, and which God has revealed to us in the Bible."

So much for that nonsense. When Mr. Fahling can explain the difference between sympatric and allopatric speciation, then he's got a shot at understanding the distinction between gradual and non-gradual transitions that Gould and Eldredge are speaking of. Until then, he's speaking out of pure ignorance. Which is pretty much demonstrated by the rest of his article anyway:

Molecular biologist Michael Behe (an intelligent design theorist) has presented a significant challenge to the evolutionary concept of gradualism. In his book Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Behe sets the stage by quoting Darwin, who wrote: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down."

Behe, like any good scientist, took Darwin's challenge. And his research suggests Darwin's theory may indeed be breaking down, and at a minimum, his findings confirm the Kansas Board of Education's claim that there is a challenge to evolutionary concepts from molecular biology.

Behe's research? What research would that be? If he's done any research that casts any doubt on evolution, he hasn't bothered to tell anyone about it. His book contained no reports of any research he has ever done on the subject, nor has he ever published any in any scientific journal. The closest thing to research he has done on irreducible complexity is his 2004 paper with David Snoke based on a computer simulation, and he admitted under oath in the Dover trial that this paper strongly undercuts the notion of irreducible complexity even after being rigged to do the opposite.

The only "research" Behe did was looking at a small portion of the scientific literature on blood clotting, the immune system and the bacterial flagellum (and he admitted at the Dover trial that there are hundreds of such books and articles he didn't bother to read). Based on that, he decided that there was no good evolutionary explanation for the development of those biochemical systems, then leapt to the entirely illogical and ahistorical conclusion that there would never be a good evolutionary explanation for them, and then leapt again to the equally illogical conclusion that therefore God must have made them from scratch.

But, maybe Behe is wrong; then again, maybe he is right.

How, though, can we expect science to honestly investigate the matter if only those irretrievably committed to the theory of evolution are permitted to conduct the investigation while all others are sent packing to the religious studies department?

Balderdash. Nothing is preventing Behe from doing such research. He is a tenured professor with a lab and he is fully capable of doing such research. The only thing stopping him from doing it is that his idea makes no predictions that could be confirmed or disconfirmed experimentally. Perhaps that's why at the Dover trial he admitted under oath that he has no intention of performing any tests of his ideas.

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But, maybe Behe is wrong; then again, maybe he is right.

How, though, can we expect science to honestly investigate the matter if only those irretrievably committed to the theory of evolution are permitted to conduct the investigation while all others are sent packing to the religious studies department?

The Moon is made of green cheese.

Maybe I'm wrong; then again, maybe I'm right.

How, though, can we expect science to honestly investigate the matter if only those irretrievably committed to the theory that the Moon is made of rock are permitted to conduct the investigation while all others are sent packing to the nuthouse?

On another note, what is it with lawyers that attracts them so to intelligent design? I can understand engineers, but lawyers??

Molecular biologist Michael Behe

I know molecular biologists, and Michael Behe is no molecular biologist. He is a biochemist who has gotten in way over his head.

On another note, what is it with lawyers that attracts them so to intelligent design? I can understand engineers, but lawyers??

Considering how poorly we're designed, I'm shocked that engineers would be drawn to ID in the first place.

And I'm afraid Behe is a molecular biologist. Didn't he gain his tenured position through serious and substantive work on molecular structure?

By FishyFred (not verified) on 03 Dec 2005 #permalink

FishyFred:

Considering how poorly we're designed, I'm shocked that engineers would be drawn to ID in the first place.

I know what you're saying, but we aren't designed. We adapt ourselves to our environments. On the other hand, we have adapted our environments to our desires.

That's not just a characteristic of humans, it is also a characteristic of other animals. And that is one reason why I reject the nature/nurture dichotomy that some people try to raise. Nature begets nurture and nurture begets nature. And so on.

With any luck the eagerness of the Christian Right to jump into bed with the Discovery Institute is going to backfire on them as more and more people realise what frauds the DI are and ID is.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 05 Dec 2005 #permalink