May 16 2013
This week I am posting a discussion with Don McLeroy, a young Earth creationist and former chairman of the Texas Board of Education during the recent controversy over the science textbook standards. This is a follow up to an interview I did with him on the SGU.
Don has been traveling a bit this week, so our e-mail conversation has been slow, but we have had a few exchanges. For today’s post I want to simply reprint that exchange and then add a few thoughts, before I go onto new territory, which I will do in tomorrow’s post.
Here is Don’s response to my prior posts:
I do have time for one reply.
First, you keep bringing up creationism while I do not; I am only discussing the evidence for evolution–the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor as a result of unguided natural processes.
This is also the focus of the actual language adopted; they read: “7(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record; “and ” 7(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.” That’s it.
As reported in “Science” back when the standards were adopted in June 2009, Kenneth Miller said these additional standards would give him the opportunity to present the robustness of evolutionary explanations. He does not seem to agree that it would be inappropriate to discuss these in a high school class; he seems to welcome the opportunity. I wonder why more evolutionists do not agree with him.
Next, I believe there are several strong arguments against evolution. Like the Texas standards I will limit myself to the explanations for the patterns in the fossil record and the explanations for the development of the complexity of the cell.
Despite what you have written about the fossil record, it does present major evidentiary problems for evolution. It seems that evolutionists have “moved the goalposts” for what the fossil record should demonstrate. Originally it was an interminable number of “intermediate” (not the modern definition of “transitional”) fossils; now it seems any pattern of fossils will do. “Punctuated equilibrium” is a very convenient explanation.
But for me, the lack of scientific evidence for the evolutionary development of the complexity of the cell–which must underlie morphological complexity–is evolution’s greatest difficulty. Historical science is tested by the evidence–period. It is not tested by “just-so stories” and unsubstantiated statements. I challenge your readers to present specific facts to explain the amazing complexity we find in the cell.
Jerry Coyne and his readers did not even make a dent in presenting evidence for what must be explained.
Kenneth Miller in his text submission, only provides two facts; most of his text is just waving a magic wand. Check out what I have written that is posted on my website.( I am including a copy of his lessons submitted in 2011 to comply with our new standards. You tell me if they are strong or weak.)
I challenge your readers to read my analysis and decide for themselves if the explanations are strong or weak.
Richard Dawkins does no better. Ironically, in his book The Greatest Show on Earth, he fails to present evidence for the development of biochemical complexity. The only detail he cites is a double mutation in E. coli that allows it to digest citrate. Like Coyne and Miller, he offers no evidence for how the process developed initially. He describes the cell as “breathtakingly complicated,” and states “the key to understand how such complexity is put together is that it is all done locally, by small entities obeying local rules.” He also states that some of the features of the cell descended from different bacteria, that built up their “chemical wizardries billions of years before.” These statements are not evidence; they are vain imaginations.
Historical science is tested by evidence. Unlike continental drift, which is basically a division of one part into two parts (for example, Africa and South America), cell mitosis is a dividing of billions of molecules and hundreds of complex organelles. I would argue that you need overwhelming facts to demonstrate how unguided natural processes created the complexity of the cell. The evidentiary requirements to demonstrate evolution are immense; this evidence has not been presented.
Even Jerry Coyne is left speculating about an imaginary common ancestor of sea cucumbers and vertebrates. To get a perspective of how little Coyne’s imaginary common ancestor explains, take a quick look at these “Biochemical Pathways” charts produced by Roche Diagnostics. These charts cover 27 square feet; for evolution to be true, every molecule and pathway would have to be explained by unguided natural processes. The lonely evidence Coyne produces is speculation about a single molecule-fibrinogen!
Finally, this talk summarizes much of my thinking.
I am very careful to argue that I am not saying evolution is false but only that the evidence for it is not convincing; it is weak. This has especially been demonstrated when I search out evidence for the development for the complexity of the cell.
Thanks for the reply. I will address the complexity of the cell in a future post. This one is about the fossil evidence.
You write that for evolutionary biologists now – “any pattern of fossils will do.”
This directly contradicts what I wrote in my post, and strikes me as a straw man. I specifically listed several patterns that would falsify evolution and common descent. None of which have been found. They include
Species significantly out of temporal sequence. Not just slightly out of sequence, forcing a redrawing of lines, but impossibly so from an evolutionary perspective. Horses in the Cambrian.
New body plans emerging out of nowhere without antecedents.
Species containing features that appear to be borrowed from other evolutionary lines entirely – and not simply analogous morphology, but feathered bird wings on a mammal.
There are countless patterns in the fossil record that would falsify evolution. None have been found.
Further, you cannot simply dismiss punctuated equilibrium. 150 years ago, when the fossil evidence was very scant, Darwin thought that change would be continuous and gradual. Not a bad guess, and it is true sometimes, but this turned out to be mostly wrong. Rather we see periods of fast change and periods of slow change, even equilibrium (even within periods of equilibrium some change is detectable, if we have enough specimens). But the larger pattern of sequential change in a proper temporal and geographical pattern with nestled hierarchies of related species is exactly what we have found and continue to find in the fossil record.
Biologists have not “moved the goalpost” (you are misusing that term), they have adjusted the details of evolutionary theory to fit the evidence – adjust at a level of detail that does not call into question the bigger picture of common descent.
You have also not connected the dots here – how does the pattern that we find in the fossil record in any way call into question common descent or evolutionary change over time? It only contradicts absolute gradualism, which is no longer the accepted theory.
Further – give me a theory that better explains the fossil record or predicted what we would find.
To which Don further replied (sent from a mobile device, so I assume he is still traveling):
You are right on the “any pattern;” that was not fair. I noticed that on the plane.
Change it to “now the requirements to demonstrate evolution seem alot weaker.”
I stand by the rest of my comments.
The key is like I argued in the interview; the evolutionist and the skeptic make their case–may the strongest evidence prevail.
Any my final response:
Thanks for the clarification. I know you are traveling so I want to give you time to respond, no rush. For the purpose of furthering this discussion, can you answer the following questions:
- Can you explain how punctuated equilibrium is “weaker” than gradualism? These are just different tempos, how evolutionary change proceeds over time. They don’t even address common descent (the sequential and nestled hierarchy pattern in the fossil record).
- How do creationists account for the temporal sequence in the fossil record? Were there thousands of mini creations over time? Why does the sequence match an evolutionary pattern? To clarify exactly what I mean by that -
- The fossil record shows a pattern in which new species arise from older species that appear morphologically related. Entirely new body plans or even body parts do not arise from nothing.
- The fossils do not occur out of temporal sequence – no horses in the Cambrian or elephants living with dinosaurs. In fact there isn’t a single dinosaur fossil seen above the K-T boundary.
- Fossil and living species are geographically distributed by apparent evolutionary relationships also. Why are Marsupials clustered in the southern continents, for example?
- As we discover more and more fossils, we discover more species clearly transitional between major groups. We have not filled in all the gaps, but new fossils seem to be filling in an evolutionary picture, not occurring at random. We now have feathered dinosaurs, walking whales, reptile-mammals, and ape-men. Aren’t these stunning predictions of evolution that have been verified?
You seem to want to confine your comments to criticizing evolution, rather than defending a positive case for creation. I know this approach was necessary for the textbook standards for legal reasons, but would you be willing to address evidence for creation (not just against evolution) in this discussion? If so, then
- What would creationism predict we should see in the fossil record and why?
- Is that what we see?
Regarding your comment about Kenneth Miller and having the opportunity to present the evidence for evolution, I think you are missing the point of scientists’ concern over standards like these. The concern is that they will be used to politically pressure textbook publishers to include creationist talking points in their textbooks, watering down coverage of evolution, or confusing students as to the nature of science or the current findings of science. Of course, if we have to live with the standards we will try to make the best of it – that doesn’t meant the standards are not a problem.
The scientific community should be free to determine what is science and what the evidence currently says. Political interference never turns out well. But let’s continue with the discussion above. That will make my case stronger than anything – your points are simply not scientifically valid. That is why they don’t belong in the science classroom. If you disagree, than let me have it.
As you can see in the exchange, Don wants to stick to criticisms of evolution, rather than being put in a position where he has to defend evidence for creationism. This is a typical denialist strategy, and also matches the current political strategy of creationists – they cannot mention any religious belief in public school standards, so they have to be content introducing “weaknesses” of evolution. However, these “weaknesses” are imaginary.
Don’s weaknesses so far can be put into two categories – patterns in the fossil record, and the complexity of the cell.
Regarding patterns in the fossil record, he has acknowledged that there is an evolutionary temporal sequence in the fossil record. He has also now acknowledged that not any pattern of fossils is compatible with evolution, but the one we find is.
He argues, however, that the fossil record also shows periods of stasis, and this weakens it as evidence for evolution. This is simply not true – relatively short periods of stasis in some (not all) species does not weaken the larger pattern of progressive change over relatively longer periods of time. This pattern simply replaces absolute gradualism (which was a guess, and never based on evidence) with punctuated equilibrium, which fits the later-discovered evidence better.
Don also points to “sudden” appearance. I have already pointed out that “sudden” is confusing as it refers to geologically sudden, not biologically sudden. Geologically sudden is still thousands of years.
A commenter also reminded me of another point that evolutionary biologists make – speciation events likely tend to occur in fringe populations, not in large outbred populations. By statistics alone we would expect to find few fossils from small fringe populations. Most will likely be from the large stable population. Therefore, speciation events likely won’t be well documented in the fossil record.
In other words, the “sudden” appearance of new (but derivative) species in the fossil record is an artifact of the fossil record, not a reflection of actual suddenness.
All of this also applies to Don’s other example of “suddenness” – the Cambrian explosion. This first emergence of multicellular life (actually the second, after the Ediacaran fauna, but that’s another story) took millions of years to unfold. The suddenness (meaning millions of years) here is also an artifact of the first emergence of hard parts, which fossilize much better than soft parts. So of course, as soon as hard parts are evolved the fossil record suddenly “turns on.” There is evidence, however, for three billion years of life prior to the Cambrian, just relatively little (because of lack of hard parts to fossilize).
In short, Don’s “stasis” and “suddenness” arguments simply do not hold up under scrutiny.
His next “weakness” of evolutionary theory is the complexity of the cell. He thinks this is his stronger case. He has made his case above, with links to longer articles. I will address this point in tomorrow’s post.
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