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Yay, Fossils!

October 1, 2009 1 comment

I think fossils are pretty neat. Do you think fossils are neat? You do? Fantastic!

Say hello to Ardi, an Ethiopian find of indeterminate relation to good old Homo sapiens. There are two really notable things about the fossils (for someone like me, anyway; I’m sure a paleontologist could list a lot more than just two); it was actually discovered in 1990, and the media has dutifully commenced misrepresenting it. Hopefully we won’t get anything like the cringe-inducing coverage of the Ida announcement, but the signs are not good. The Guardian article about seems to seriously overstate its relation to modern humans, and the comment thread over there is filled with the usual Creationism insanity as a result. There’s also a pervasive idea that the actual research scientists are somehow involved in the media coverage of a new fossil announcement, which they aren’t. (Well, okay, apart from the damn Ida thing…) If you actually read something written by one of the scientists involved in these things, or somebody else in the field who’s commenting on it, you’ll find them constantly warning their readers that any proposed direct link between fossil X and humans is tenuous at best. Somehow, that never seems to stop the media from loudly declaring that ‘We’ve found the missing link ZOMG!’

And I’m going to cut this one short before it turns into a rant on mass media stupidity. Consider yourselves lucky!

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Categories: Creationism

Evolutionary Misconceptions

August 16, 2009 2 comments

I’m not a scientist, so I usually avoid answering specific Creationist claims about the theory of evolution. I prefer to leave that sort of thing for those more qualified. However, there are certain claims that are easily debunked by almost anybody with even a basic understanding of evolution, and I feel that these should be debunked by anybody who is able to do so. If nothing else, it will help to stem the flood of Creationist ignorance on the blogosphere.

The two areas of scientific research which Creationists target most frequently are genetics and paleontology. These two fields are complex and ill understood by most people – they also provide some of the best evidence for evolution, which may be why those few Creationists who actually do know what they’re talking about go after them with such vigor. In particular, the whole area of genetic mutations has been twisted out of shape by many Creationists to such a degree that a geneticist is unlikely to know where to start when presented with Creationist ‘knowledge’ on the subject. In this post I’ll be examining a small fraction of that ignoble corpus, as found in this post. Go and read it first, since I won’t be quoting the entire thing.

‘Problem’ #1: Mutations Are Bad

First is the problem of mutations themselves. Generally speaking, nature tries to eliminate mutations. Mutations are considered a bad thing.

This is probably the single most common Creationist claim on the internet. Either by accident or by design, the whole issue of genetic mutation has been conflated with the popular idea of a ‘mutant’, with the result that many now firmly believe that all or most mutations must be harmful. The sentence above is particularly misleading. While cells have some self-correcting measures which reduce the instance of mutations, ‘nature’ as a whole is not quite so picky. A neutral mutation will certainly not be noticed by most natural processes, while negative mutations will usually be weeded out by a little process known as natural selection. The phrase ‘mutations are considered a bad thing’ is disingenuous – they’re ‘considered bad things’ by a lot of humans, mostly humans who aren’t scientists, but there is no universal principle by which a mutation will always be considered negative.

Mutations are aberrations in nature. That said, mutations can be an advantage, and I see how that could work with natural selection within a species.

It’s true that mutations are ‘mistakes’ in the sense that they represent a fault in the normal process of genome replication, but as I’ve already said, that does not make them necessarily bad. And why should mutations only work properly in tandem with natural selection within a species? Creationists never to seem to realize that admitting to the possibility of micro-evolution is the same as admitting to the possibility of macro-evolution, for reasons that I’ll go into in a minute. There is not some sort of iron wall between the two.

‘Problem’ #2: Mutations don’t happen often enough/something vague about the age of the Earth

Second is the problem of occurrence of mutations. Exactly how often is it that mutations occur? It’s not like every single creature when it reproduces introduces new mutations into the next generation.

I’m curious: how many mutations are needed for evolution to occur? Can any Creationists give me the cut-off point? I’m guessing not.

The rate of mutation is something that Creationists attack surprisingly infrequently, even though it seems like a soft target. It isn’t enough for a mutation to occur anywhere in the body – in order to be passed to the next generation, it must occur either in the gametes (the sex cells – sperm for males and eggs for women) or the ‘germ cells’, which will eventually become gametes themselves. I admit that makes the whole thing sound quite implausible, but those who make it their business to study this kind of thing don’t seem to think so. Besides, we’re not talking about a short space of time here. Evolution occurred over the course of millions of years and has involved hundreds of billions of individual organisms – there are plenty of mutations to go around.

Which brings us to…

But for macroevolution to be true, mutations absolutely must be happening at a ridiculously high rate, otherwise the time needed to get from the supposed origin of life to a human would be monstrously huge. Interestingly the age of the earth continually increases. In 1897, it was thought to be 20-4o million years old. Now we’re sitting at about 4.55 billion. Some of this is due to further research in astronomy and background radiation, but it’s hard not to see a correlation that shows as evolutionary theories progressed and needed more time, so too did the age of the earth get extended.

First of all, there is no reason to say ‘from the supposed origin of life to a human’, for two reasons. It should be humans, plural, since one individual human did not evolve, and it should be ‘from the origin of life to modern life’. Humans are not the ‘most evolved’ organisms on Earth. We are not the end result of evolution, or the top of the evolutionary tree. Nor are we particularly ‘unlikely’, unless somebody would like to propose an objective standard by which to measure the likelihood of a species evolving. This is pure anthropocentrism.

Secondly, and more seriously, there is no Darwinian conspiracy to overinflate the age of the Earth. Creationists frequently categorize science as a whole as existing in order to be a sort of life-support mechanism for ‘Darwinism’, and by extension, atheism. This isn’t just dishonest, it’s downright insane. The entire reason for increasing our estimates of the age of the Earth has been advances the fields involved in dating it, especially those related to radioactivity. This potent force of nature was not discovered until 1896, and it was some time before it was taken advantage of to date our planet. Prior to modern dating methods, scientists were essentially groping in the dark for an answer. Now they have extremely powerful tools that let them know with a high degree of certainty how old the Earth is.

‘Problem’ #3: The Power of Mutations

Third, mutations’ ability to cause change seems vastly overrated. Exactly what kind of mutation can cause a wing to grow when before there was none?

None. Nobody has ever suggested that a single mutation can cause a wing to sprout where there was none before. Mutations largely modify what already exists, and wings are no different – they are modified forms of other appendages, not something wholly new that simply popped into existence with one mutation.

To look at say, a dinosaur, and imagine that it progressed into a bird seems a little far-fetched genetically speaking.

What kind of dinosaur are we talking about here? Because the proposed evolutionary lineage of modern birds is full of dinosaurs that look an awful lot like proto-birds (and proto-birds that look an awful lot like dinosaurs). And according to a strictly cladistic view, modern birds are dinosaurs. Seriously, look this stuff up – nobody is suggesting that some hulking allosaurus morphed into a bird over the course of a few generations.

The biggest problem people seem to have with evolution is that they don’t believe it can produce enough change to bring us from a dinosaur to a bird, to use one example. Of course, they’re usually comparing a generic pop culture ‘dinosaur’ – large, with tiny arms, vaguely T. rex-like – with something like a seagull. Or they pick a completely nonsensical coupling and ask how an ant could evolve into a horse, despite the fact that nobody is suggesting that it ever could. If you’re serious about studying evolution, look at what evolutionary biologists actually say. Yes, it all seems pretty far-fetched if you’re using a cartoonish argument like ‘how could a bacteria evolve eyes and a brain and become a human?’, but the actual evidence is far stronger than that kind of caricatured nonsense.

Imagine a fish that has a mutation to give it leglike fins. This makes it slower in the water, and it can’t escape to land because it doesn’t have lungs (which would have to be another series of mutations). Thus, due to natural selection, that fish get’s eaten. That means the first step towards a fish that can go on land is eliminated. How many of the same mutations must occur so that there can finally be a generation of fish that have the first step of legs without getting completely destroyed by natural selection?

Population genetics is too complex an issue to get into here, and anyway I’m hardly qualified to talk about it, so I’ll direct your attention an excellent book on the subject of the evidence for evolution: Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne. Another excellent one is Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins, which specifically adresses the kind of argument I’ve quote above. (Ignore all of the 1-star reviews, they’re from Creationists with an axe to grind. Here’s my favourite quote from one of them: ‘Using our “obfuscation gauge”, it seems “grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious” that Darwinism must have tremendous problems if one of its chief proponents must go to such lengths to prop it up.’ Yes, because that argument always works.) Seriously, these two books alone would cut the number of Creationists in half if they weren’t such an ideologically driven bunch.

And finally, lots more replies to specific Creationist claims can be found here. I’m not aware of any Creationist research that even approaches Talk.Origins in terms of completeness or clarity. And no, Answers in Genesis doesn’t count.

Categories: Creationism

Ben Stein is a Martyr Now?

August 14, 2009 Leave a comment

You may have heard that Ben Stein, he of Expelled infamy, was recently fired from his columnist job at the New York Times for sponsoring a rather shady credit rating company.

Sorry, I meant to say that he was fired from the New York Times for daring to criticize the global Darwinist conspiracy:

Ben Stein probably thought he could do his work on the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and not himself endure the kind of personal attacks that, in the film, he defended Darwin critics against. In fact, what he found was that Darwinism is at the root of the worldview of the materialist Left and even the materialist Right. You can’t say or do anything to offend them. You can’t even advocate academic freedom.

The people who demanded free speech in the 60s and shouted down figures of authority are now the tenured faculty and newsroom editors of the Establishment. And now they are disallowing any criticism at all.

This is absolutely insane, assuming it’s actually serious. Who exactly does Chapman think is the one who made the call to axe Stein? Is there some cabal of evolutionary biology professors somewhere, or did Richard Dawkins himself storm the NYT offices to demand that Stein be fired? Hell, given the feverish imagination at work here, maybe we should assume it was a newly resurrected Darwin. Chapman refers to Stein’s actual reason for dismissal only long enough to call it ‘a joke and an insult’, and that’s it – there’s no evidence here, just delusional nonsense.

So about what you’d expect from the Discovery Institute, in other words.

Categories: Creationism

Why I’m an Atheist – Part Four: The Teleological Argument

August 14, 2009 Leave a comment

Following on from my previous post in this series, here are some of my thoughts on the infamous Teleological Argument for the existence of God. Now, for a lot of people the word ‘teleological’ is synonymous with ‘Creationism’, which is an unfair way of looking at it. So here’s a quick history lesson:

‘Teleology’ is usually thought of in terms of design, but it’s more frequently used in the context of a ‘final cause’. This is how the ancient Greek philosophers thought of the concept, and it’s how the word is more frequently used. Think about it in relation to historiography; if an historian says that WWII started because of (among much else) German dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles, they are using a non-teleological approach. This is how historians are supposed to think these days, and it’s also how scientists think – they explain an event or phenomenon with the events that took place before it. On the other hand, saying that WWII started because of a pre-ordained plan for the history of the world would be a teleological approach, because in this scenario WWII occurred in order to move towards a final cause. For obvious reasons, this kind of explanation isn’t used by serious historians today.

William Paley’s famous ‘watchmaker argument’ is also teleological, but conflates the ides of a final cause with that of design. In his Natural Theology, he makes various arguments for the existence of a cosmic Designer (God) based on the complexity of living organisms. The most well-known of these is a comparison between nature and a pocket watch:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

-William Paley, Natural Theology (1820) [From Wikipedia]

This might seem like something William Dembski would write, but comparing Paley to the luminaries of the modern Creationism movement isn’t entirely fair. Paley’s argument no doubt seemed far more reasonable in his own time than it does now, and he was most definitely not anti-science. This is an important point to keep in mind; Paley was looking for evidence of God in what he assumed was a divinely-created world, whereas modern Creationists attempt to undermine the entire business of science because it contradicts the idea of a divinely-created world in the first place. Paley was also not the inventor of this kind of argument, but was rather following in the tradition of other Christian apologists.

The most obvious reply to the watchmaker argument is that the theory of evolution renders it impotent. We now know where complex organisms came from, and it would be difficult to argue today that nature as a whole has any sort of discernible ‘purpose’ that isn’t driven by completely blind natural processes. We do not need to invoke the supernatural in order to explain the complexity of the Universe.

So, is that it? Well, not quite. There is one other criticism of the watchmaker argument that I’m sure was probably advanced in Paley’s own time, but here’s my take on it. Every single watch in human history, we can be reasonably certain, was designed and built by humans. Nobody has ever known a watch to spring into existence unaided, or to give rise to other watches – thus, we can be reasonably certain that watches are designed. But living organisms are different, in that they always come into being without any obvious intervention by a designer. If there is a designer at work every time a new living entity comes into being, then it must be so subtle and invisible that we have yet to be able to detect it. We can also know, with relative certainty, that a watch was made for a purpose. Indeed, the purpose of a watch is self-evident, and even if it wasn’t we could simply ask the person who designed it why they did so. The same is not true of nature, in which any perceived purpose is likely to be a figment of human imagination and nothing more. The comparison between nature and a watch is therefore a very poor one.

So, that’s the watchmaker argument out the window. It isn’t taken seriously by most philosophers any more, as far as I can tell, but it still gets bandied about by the likes of CARM. (If you’re looking for something humorous to read, their pages on atheism and evolution are hilariously stupid. Their article on atheistic morality in particular is wonderfully condescending.) But although the watchmaker analogy is flawed, its general methodology definitely isn’t. It is reasonable to assume that we could know whether not the Universe was designed by examining some aspects of it, and philosophers have put forward extremely refined versions of the Teleological Argument in recent years. Their reasons for doing so are obvious. As I said last time, something like the Cosmological Argument on its own doesn’t even come close to proving that the Christian (or Islamic, or Jewish, or what have you) God exists, but if you could prove that the Universe had an uncaused cause as its beginning and that it appears to have been designed for the purpose of sustaining life…well, then you’re a lot closer to philosophically establishing a basis for belief in God.

Next time I’ll be covering the Fine-Tuning Argument, which is probably the most popular modern variant of the Teleological Argument.

Categories: Atheism, Creationism

Getting a Master’s Degree with William Dembski

August 11, 2009 Leave a comment

So, you may have already heard that William Dembski will give you an undergraduate ‘degree’ in Intelligent Design if you go and troll on pro-evolutionist blogs and websites. Well, that’s not entirely fair – you also have to take an exam and write a 3,000 word essay. (Wow, 3,000 words? Don’t strain yourselves, guys!)

I’m currently getting ready to go into my second year of an undergraduate degree (a real one), and the idea of getting credit for writing comments on a blog is utterly ridiculous. Getting an actual third level education is a difficult ordeal, as spending even a few months at a genuine university will reveal, and I’m frankly insulted that Dembski is conning people into thinking they’re doing something worthwhile with this.

As bizarre as the undergraduate requirements are, however, they pale in comparison to the ‘Master’s degree’ on offer:

This is the masters course. You have four things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 30% of your grade); (2) write a 1,500- to 2,000-word critical review of Francis Collins’s The Language of God — for instructions, see below (20% of your grade); (3) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 30% of your grade); (4) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 3,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade). (Source)

A book review? On The Language of God?

In my country at least, there are two ways of attaining a Master’s degree in the humanities: by examination, in which case you’ll usually still be required to write a relatively substantial essay (upwards of 10k words) or by minor thesis, in which case you’ll also usually have to take a less rigorous exam. In both cases, there’s an element of continuous assessment in that students are usually required to write two or sometimes even three 5k word essays throughout the year, assuming the MA course is one year in length (most of them are). A 2,000 word ‘critical review’ of a single book is the kind of thing I did in my first few weeks in university. I had to do more work than Dembski’s students just to pass a single module of my course, let alone the entire undergraduate degree. By Dembski’s standards, then, I would presumably have already done enough work to be halfway or more to a Master’s degree.

A third-level education is an enormously valuable thing, both in terms of personal development and in terms of what good education adds to society as a whole. Degree mills like this are slap in the face to everybody who actually works hard for what they learn. Worse, the syllabus for this pseudo-course makes it clear that students are being indoctrinated rather than education. Surely there’s nothing wrong with that, though – they’re enrolling of their own free will, after all, and anybody who seeks out this kind of ‘education is almost certainly going to be very sympathetic to Dembski’s views already. That’s one way to look at it. Another is to point out that passing cheap indoctrination off as real knowledge is as detrimental to the educational establishment as passing quackery off as medicine is to the medical establishment.

Oh, and there’s a doctorate course on there as well. It involves making a Sunday-school lesson plan.

Yes, really.

Categories: Creationism

Ken Ham Is Here to Take Names and Kick Ass

August 11, 2009 Leave a comment

The atheist and pro-evolution blogospheres are currently abuzz about the now infamous ‘Creozerg’, during which PZ Meyers and over 300 students from the Secular Student Alliance descended upon the Creation Museum. (Which, I feel obligated to point out, has a really lovely website. Seriously, that background image is fantastic.) Anybody who’s even remotely familiar Ken Ham’s monstrosity will already know what Meyers and co. discovered there – a monument to Christian fundamentalism that has nothing to do with scientific evidence and everything to do with anti-scientific dogma. For an example of what I’m talking about, see here, here and, most amusingly of all, here. I trust that the dioramas of dinosaurs and humans living side-by-side require no added commentary.

So, the trip itself wasn’t particularly illuminating (although I’m sure it was hugely enjoyable for those involved), but the fallout is already priceless. Ken Ham is understandably outraged that anybody would point out how incredibly stupid his museum is, and he’s taking his ire out on PZ Meyers. The first volley came after PZ correctly pointed out that their method of supposed repopulation after the Noachian Flood is batshit crazy, while the second has to do with PZ’s accusation that the museum peddles a racist ideology in teaching the Hamite theory of racial origin.

Now, Creationists tend to be truly hilarious when they get angry, and Ken Ham is no exception. In this blog post he constantly implies that the University of Morris Minnesota should fire PZ for, and I’m assuming he’s being completely serious here, being a shoddy researcher. Er, right. The rest of the post is an astonishingly weak attack on evolution and atheism, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from somebody who runs Answers in Genesis. But the following two paragraphs go beyond mere ineptness and descend into accidental humor:

I publicly challenge this professor to document with photographs and actual scripts that the Creation Museum teaches “that black people in particular were the cursed offspring of Ham”!! Not only do we not teach such an absurd idea (that sadly has been used by some to promote racism and prejudice against dark skinned people), we teach against it. In our book Darwin’s Plantation, I particularly deal with this issue, pointing out that dark skinned people (“black” people) are certainly not “the cursed offspring of Ham.”

Well, it’s good to know that Ham is able to think sensibly on race issues, even if he is completely, irredeemably wrong about virtually everything else he talks about.

Oh, hang on…

In fact, it is only one of Ham’s sons who was cursed (and not Ham himself)—the younger son Canaan—who gave rise to the Canaanites and people of Sodom and Gomorrah—judged for their sexual immorality. And this “curse” of Canaan has absolutely nothing to do with skin shade! We do not teach that “all races stemmed from the children of Noah”—as we explain, there is only one race biologically of human beings (as we are all descendants of two people, Adam and Eve)—different people groups, but not different “races.”

I love that first line. “A-ha, got you! Only one of Ham’s sons was cursed! You’re going down now, you atheist scum.” And what the hell is a ‘people group’?

Categories: Creationism

We Live in a Geocentric Universe (Apparently…)

August 10, 2009 Leave a comment

Young Earth Creationists, while undoubtedly deluded, are fairly run of the mill these days. Unfortunately, it’s no longer unusual to hear somebody proclaim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old or that ‘there are no transitional fossils’ – we simply accept that some people are immune to the evidence. For a long time I thought YECs had cornered the market on pseudo-scientific insanity and was resigned to the fact that the bottom of the barrel would slowly become ubiquitous throughout society. That was before I discovered that are still real life, honest-to-God geocentrists.

I realize that the evidence for the likes of evolution is overwhelming, but I also understand that a lot of people find that evidence confusing and difficult to grasp. I can excuse Creationists, at least until they’re presented with the evidence in an easily understandable manner and still refuse to accept it. What I can’t excuse is the kind of dogged closed-mindedness needed to genuinely believe that the Earth is the center of the Universe.

We have sent probes into space. We can see that the Universe does not turn around the Earth. If you believe that the Bible is telling you otherwise, then either you or it are flat-out wrong. As always, props to AndromedasWake for taking on the absolute stupidest segment of the fundamentalist population – I certainly wouldn’t have the patience for it.

Categories: Creationism