Feb 25 2009

Egnor Sinks to New Lows

This is low, even for Dr. Michael Egnor, who has been an active apologist for the nonsensical anti-evolution propaganda over at the Discovery Institute. Egnor cannot seem to resist when he thinks he has caught someone in an error, and so he throws whatever faint whisper of logic or scholarship he has overboard (hardly noticeable, really) and sinks to new lows of intellectual buffoonery.

In this case he is responding to my discussion of the evolutionary tree of life – the fact that the fossil record and genetic evidence support the conclusion that all life is related through a pattern of branching descent. He refers to my summary of the current consensus of scientific opinion as an “astonishing gaffe.”

Punctuated Equilibrium

Egnor is using an old creationist trick – the deliberate misinterpretation of legitimate scientific debate about the details of evolution as if it calls into question the fact of evolution itself. He writes:

The fossil record does not show a “clear pattern of branching descent in the fossil record”, even “to the degree that it is complete.” The fossil record shows punctuated equilibrium, which is stasis in a species for millions of years, then disappearance of the species. New species arise, discontinuous with old species. Even isolated ‘transitional’ forms are rare, and gradual transitions are virtually non-existent.

Here we see that Egnor does not understand even the most basic evolutionary concepts.  New species that arise in the fossil record are not “discontinuous with old species,” unless he means by that the simple fact that they are recognizably distinct species, which makes the statement rather pointless – new species are new species. New species, rather, are derived from older species – they are morphological variations on existing patterns.

For example, vertebrates first arise in the fossil record in the late Cambrian, about 500 million years ago. Later in the fossil record vertebrate fish with jaws appear. Later still land vertebrates appear, with features of one branch of fish. These early terrestrial vertebrates have some features that all later land vertebrates will share. However, within this group of land vertebrates sub-groups appear over time, each with their own set of features that all of their members will have.

This kind of analysis looks at homology – features that are shared because they derive from a common ancestor. Homology is distinguished from analogy – features that look similar because of common function, but are different in the details. Homologous traits, on the other hand, share details that cannot be explained by shared function. Looking at life from this perspective we see a clear pattern of branching descent that follows a temporal sequence compatible with evolution from common descent.

Egnor’s statement that the fossil record does not show branching descent because it shows punctuated equilibrium misunderstands both concepts, the one has nothing to do with the other. Punctuated equilibrium is about what happens between the branching points (speciation events), not about the branching itself. PE states that species will be largely stable, in equilibrium with their environment, for most of their time on earth, but this stasis will be punctuated by relatively rapid (geologically speaking – 5-50 thousand years) speciation events. Darwinian gradualism, on the other hands, states that species are gradually changing throughout their existence. Both views, however, incorporate branching speciation. Both views have the same evolutionary interpretation of the nestled hierarchy of life.

What we do not see in the fossil record, however, is true discontinuity – the type that Egnor is talking about which would call evolution into question. We do not see the appearance of species with radically different body plans, or impossible (evolutionarily) chimeras with homologous traits from distinct branches. Nothing that would falsify common descent. If Egnor believes such a creature exists he should name it and claim his Nobel prize.

The Tree of Life

Not content to butcher punctuated equilibrium and misinterpret the fossil evidence, Egnor next sets out to completely misrepresent a New Scientist article about the tree of life. He writes:

Furthermore, molecular genetics has refuted Darwin’s “Tree of Life”— as Dr. Novella characterizes it, the “clear pattern of branching descent”— unequivocally. The generally pro-Darwinism magazine New Scientist, in its recent cover story, “Why Darwin Was Wrong About the Tree of Life”, pointed out that scientists are abandoning the vertical Tree of Life. Molecular biology is showing deep inconsistencies in Darwinists’ simplistic understanding of similarities and differences in biological structure:

He then gives quotes selected to mislead his readers as to what the article actually says. For example, he give the follow excerpt:

…Many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded. We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality…[t]hat bombshell has even persuaded some that our fundamental view of biology needs to change…The tree of life is being politely buried, we all know that…What’s less accepted is that our whole fundamental view of biology needs to change. Biology is vastly more complex than we thought…and facing up to this complexity will be as scary as the conceptual upheavals physicists had to take on board in the early 20th century…

Beware when Egnor uses “…”  – that usually means he is taking quotes out of context and excluding information that would help the reader understand what is actually being written. Read the full article yourself.

I must say at first that the New Scientist article went for maximal sensationalism and overstated the case. But even accounting for that, Egnor had to go out of his way to completely miss the bottom line.  From reading Egnor you might think there is recent evidence that calls evolution and common branching descent into question. Again – this is the old creationist trick of distorting progress toward a more complex and complete view of evolution with calling evolution itself into question.

The article is talking about the fact that in recent years scientists have discovered that horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is much more common than previously thought. What this means is that species, even after separating, can still transfer genetic material to other species, even distantly related.

Of course, Egnor does not point out that this is primarily talking about single-celled life. He left that bit out. This is crucial because he offered this as a counter to my contention that the fossil record indicates branching descent. There is no fossil record for branching descent among single-celled creatures.

This is also not new. We have known for a long time that bacteria swap genes. Yes, it is more extensive than previously thought, but so what. Like most things in science, nature turns out to be more complex than we at first imagine. Simple models need to be made more complex and subtle, but that does not invalidate the more basic knowledge, it just deepens it.

For example, we now know about epigenetics – factors other than the DNA that influence development. This does not mean, however, that DNA is not the primary molecule of inheritance. We now know about relativity – this does not mean that Newton’s mechanics are wrong, they are just incomplete.

What about multicellular life and HGT? Here is a quote from the article Egnor does not want you to see:

Nobody is arguing – yet – that the tree concept has outlived its usefulness in animals and plants. While vertical descent is no longer the only game in town, it is still the best way of explaining how multicellular organisms are related to one another – a tree of 51 per cent, maybe. In that respect, Darwin’s vision has triumphed: he knew nothing of micro-organisms and built his theory on the plants and animals he could see around him.

With multicellular life there is horizontal transfer – closely related species may mate and swap genes, for example. Also, viruses may pick up bits of DNA from one species and transplant them to another phylogenetically distant species.  This is old news. We are likely to discover more horizontal transfer than was previously known. Again – a big so what? Among multicellular life a vertical tree of branching descent is still the dominant pattern we see.

Further, the degree to which the tree of life is vertical vs a horizontal web of life is irrelevant to the question at hand – is evolution correct. That there are mechanisms of horizontal gene transfer in no way invalidates the fact of evolution. Nature almost always turns out to be more messy than our clean models of it.

Genetic Evidence

Egnor writes:

Molecular biology is showing deep inconsistencies in Darwinists’ simplistic understanding of similarities and differences in biological structure:

You would think that the molecular biology he is referring to is being done by scientists who are not “Darwinists”.  If you interpret “Darwinist” as Egnor does – anyone who accepts the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory, then this is dead wrong. The only thing that is simplistic is Egnor’s straw man of what evolutionists claim. It is evolutionary biologists who are discovering the rich complexity of life at all levels, and furthering our understand of the the complexities of evolution.

But to get back to the genetic evidence for branching descent, I have gone over this before. This is a home run for common descent. Here is a good talkorigins article on this topic, which states:

Humans and chimpanzees have the exact same cytochrome c protein sequence. The “null hypothesis” given above is false. In the absence of common descent, the chance of this occurrence is conservatively less than 10-93 (1 out of 1093). Thus, the high degree of similarity in these proteins is a spectacular corroboration of the theory of common descent. Furthermore, human and chimpanzee cytochrome c proteins differ by ~10 amino acids from all other mammals. The chance of this occurring in the absence of a hereditary mechanism is less than 10-29. The yeast Candida krusei is one of the most distantly related eukaryotic organisms from humans. Candida has 51 amino acid differences from the human sequence. A conservative estimate of this probability is less than 10-25.

Egnor has failed to address this evidence, or even show that he understands it. The dominant pattern within the genetics of various species is one of nestled hierarchies – branching descent. Yes – there are exceptions, which can be explained by horizontal transfer. That is a level of deeper complexity – it does not invalidate the overall evolutionary pattern, which is overwhelming.


Egnor concludes:

The evidence is so clear that Darwin’s “Tree of Life” is wrong that now even Darwinists are jumping ship.

So why would Dr. Novella publicly misrepresent the state of the science? Either Dr. Novella’s claim is the result of his ignorance of the relevant science, or it is an intentional misrepresentation.

Dr. Novella should explain his misrepresentation.

It is Egnor who has some explaining to do. He has misrepresented my position. He has misunderstood punctuated equilibrium. He has misrepresented the state of the fossil and genetic evidence. And he grossly misrepresented the New Scientist article.

Egnor should clarify what he actually believes, rather than just playing the creationist game of exploiting a poor understanding of the complexities of evolutionary theory to create the false impression that the fact of evolution itself is in doubt.

Egnor claims he is not a creationist, which is absurd on its face. But he should clarify his position. Does he accept common descent or not.  If not, how does he account for the dominant pattern of branching descent that we do see in the fossil record and the genetic evidence. If he thinks there are problems with evolutionary theory he should make a positive case for a viable alternative.

Of course he can’t. Egnor cannot win with legitimate scientific arguments, so instead he is trying to make this personal, as if my views are somehow aberrant. Rather, Egnor is at odds with the scientific community. He is perfectly at home with his creationist buddies, whose modus operandi is to distort, misrepresent, and selectively quote. Their purpose is not to enhance understanding but to sow confusion.


105 responses so far

105 Responses to “Egnor Sinks to New Lows”

  1. NaonTiotamion 25 Feb 2009 at 8:08 am

    Awesome work, Steve. I’d compliment you more, but I’m sure it just all goes over your head (in the sense that you simply don’t read the praise anymore: there’s simply too much!).

    I’ve been annoyed, as have many, many other people in the skeptical/scientific community, at New Scientist for publishing that featured article like they did. Everyone guessed that it would be taken out of context by the creationist “anti-Darwinist” community, and even the conclusions that were scientifically drawn were sensationalist and over-generalised. It’s stuff like that that really does make me facepalm, probably even more so than the usual creationist blasts of anti-science.

    So, nice work. I hope you eventually triumph over Egnor’s inane arguments, but I fear that day will never come until one of you is dead. Hopefully that day is not soon. ;p

  2. theoon 25 Feb 2009 at 8:53 am

    Yes – I tried to read that article but couldn’t stand the straw man upon straw man. Egnor beclowns himself yet again.

    Egnor shows he is disingenuous, intransigent and in the end, simple minded. I know you like the battle Steve, but sheesh, you getting worn out yet?

  3. Dave The Happy Singeron 25 Feb 2009 at 8:57 am

    This is a brilliant response. It made be ripple with delight like some kind of excited cephalopod.

    My favourite part was your use of my all-time favourite skeptical word: buffoonery. It’s polite enough to say in front of the Queen and yet it means bullshit.

    Stay Happy!

  4. Smedon 25 Feb 2009 at 9:08 am

    How does Egnor not get tired of being so badly embarassed?

  5. mindmeon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:01 am

    A purely rhetorical question (for we all know Egnor’s true audience) but one I’d be curious for Egnor to answer. Who does he think he’s trying to convince? Even on the NPR interview, the science hosts quickly summed up Egnor’s arguments as not science because they were simply not testable. They were not at all convinced of his arguments. He utterly failed.

    If Egnor wanted to chance science’s mind about some surgical procedure in neurology, he’d take it directly to the scientific community in the medical literature. He’d go to medical conferences. He’d present a paper, get feedback from peers, etc. He’d not write about it on a popular blog.

    By way of PZ’s blog, Nick Gotelli summed it up best:


    ||Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren’t members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.||

    I just find it very suspicious when someone who should be intimately familiar with how controversial ideas in one area of science (medicine) are actually debated and become the dominant paradigm actually abandons that when approaching creationism.

  6. Steve Pageon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:30 am

    That was piss-poor, even by Egnor’s standards. He must operate on the principle that his target audience (the IDiotards) will not bother to check any of the articles he references, thus gaining him favour within their community without having to do all of that pesky science to support his position. The man is, at best, woefully misinformed, and, at worst, a brazen liar. He must fit in well at that twathive, the DiscoTute.

  7. Sintesion 25 Feb 2009 at 10:33 am

    “Their purpose is not to enhance understanding but to sow confusion.”

    Truer words never spoken. Another great job Dr. Novella. I know it must get extraordinarily tiresome playing wack-a-mole with these disingenuous creeps but I definitely appreciate your efforts. As a long time listener and reader I’m always picking up something new and interesting from these exchanges.

  8. Doctor Evidenceon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:46 am

    with his Delusional Credentials, Dr. Egnor should get a job at the bank.

  9. Oracon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:57 am

    It is Egnor who has some explaining to do. He has misrepresented my position. He has misunderstood punctuated equilibrium. He has misrepresented the state of the fossil and genetic evidence. And he grossly misrepresented the New Scientist article.

    Dammit, why does Dr. Egnor have to keep embarrassing the surgical profession by his ignorant pontifications about creationism? Geez, I was thinking of doing a takedown myself, but fortunately Steve took care of it before I did. Unfortunately, Generation Rescue has just published a new ad on USA Today, combined it with an article by the crank tag-team of David Kirby and RFK, Jr., and tried to claim that the Vaccine Court has admitted in earlier cases that the MMR vaccine causes autism and that Saint Wakefield was right all along, just for the wrong reasons.

    Just when I thought I was out (for a while, anyway) they have to go and pull me back in (tomorrow, probably).

  10. Steven Novellaon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:57 am

    IMO – the purpose of the blog and Egnor’s posts is not to engage in serious honest intellectual discourse, but to provide intellectual cover for the creationist masses. My purpose is to expose their folly and to learn about the process of pathological logic and science. In that context, Egnor is a great specimen.

  11. mindmeon 25 Feb 2009 at 11:22 am

    Egnor reminds me of HIV denialist Peter Duesberg, although at least Deusberg went a more traditional route. Duesberg published his ideas in PNAS.

    As a member of the national academy of science, Duesberg was allowed to publish in PNAS without peer review, as long as another member vouched for the paper. The editor of PNAS could see Duesberg’s paper was full of holes and asked him to reconsider. Duesberg pressed ahead. The editor had to eventually accept it was Duesberg’s right as a member of NAS and gave up trying to save Duesberg from himself. This generated this wonderful “I throw my hands up” comments by the editor to Duesberg:

    ||If you wish to make these unsupported, vague, and prejudicial statements in print, so be it. But I cannot see how this would be convincing to any scientifically trained reader.||

    Egnor? I would ask you the same question. Why not, at the very least, throw up a poster at a neurological conference?

  12. MBoazon 25 Feb 2009 at 11:22 am

    I am so not applying to med. school @ Stony Brook.

  13. Doctor Evidenceon 25 Feb 2009 at 11:23 am

    assuming that the creationist audience is made up of
    people who are seeking solace in a religion they consider as
    providing hope, integrity and truth, it really is just too
    bad that they are being lead over the cliff by the likes of
    those who display opposite qualities.

  14. RickKon 25 Feb 2009 at 11:27 am

    In the woods behind our house is a tree where two branches appear to have become tangled in earlier years and have fused together.

    I guess by Egnor’s logic, it is no longer a tree.

    Just because a human picks up some DNA from an endogenous retrovirus doesn’t mean the species has changed. Because our earliest, most humble ancestors may have traded DNA or fused into symbiotic relationships (ala mitochondria) doesn’t mean anybody is re-drawing the Tree of Life posters on classroom walls.

    It seems to me that Egnor is prostituting his education and degrees to provide quotes that creationists with less fancy titles can cite with “a leading scientist says…”. Truth appears to have nothing to do with it. It’s all about who makes the most noise with the most repetitive slogans – rather like the advertising industry.

    A surgeon turning his degree into nothing more than a McDonald’s ad – his mother must be proud.

  15. RickKon 25 Feb 2009 at 11:38 am

    Regarding punctuated equilibria – creationists keep using it as an example of “spontaneous” speciation, when in fact it means that speciation happens a different rates under different circumstances, but PE does not in any way suggest the magical appearance of new creatures.

    Does anyone have a really good, simple analogy to counter these idiots – something they can understand?

    “Punctuated Equilibria simply says that you can score more runs in one inning than in another, but it doesn’t change the fact that the runners cross home plate one at a time, in order.”

    Got something punchier?

  16. schafersmanon 25 Feb 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Steve, your response to Egnor was excellent. I read the original Forbes columns by Egnor and his fellow DI Creationists and was suitably appalled. Then I read the exchanges between you and him. Your final reply is a gem. Egnor is biologically illiterate, not an uncommon condition of medical doctors who ignore genetics and evolution in their medical studies, and believes his own rhetoric, which is always cause for alarm.

    I am an evolutionary paleontologist, and your analysis of PE and inferring branching and common descent from the fossil record and molecular systematics is right on the mark.

    Your readers may be interested in my essay on the New Scientist fiasco at http://www.texscience.org/reports/sboe-tree-life-2009feb7.htm. When science journalists publish sensationalistic articles like that one, they give ammunition to Creationists polemicists.

    Thank you for writing your blog.

  17. HHCon 25 Feb 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Evolution News and Views from the Discovery Institute has reviewed a monograph from Richard Weikart’s from “Darwin to Hitler”. Weikart tries to explain religious and racial hatred as a result of Darwinism. That’s too easy. For example the French Catholics in Paris, France still continued to confiscate Jewish property and round up and send French Parisians to their deaths during WWII long after Hitler’s army lost its grip on Paris (Documentation from the Jerusalem Post). Catholism has a long Eurpopean history of Jewish hatred, e.g. Jews were historically equated with wolves and drawings depicted them this way.

    Dr. Egnor thinks informing readers ( Forbes.com) that he is a Catholic is somehow a badge of honor and respectability. Sorry, history blatantly shows its not.

  18. Traveleron 25 Feb 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I also agree that the purpose of Egnor’s blog must be to provide comfort and justification to those who are already creationists. Pastors can point to it and tell their flock, “See! This scientician doubts evolution! Don’t listen to the Darwinists who are trying to fool you!” Whether his blog is accurate and honest makes little difference. Few of the people influenced by it will ever see more than a few excerpted quotes. Fewer still will read the original materials he references — much less understand them.

    I think the really interesting question is what is going through Egnor’s mind when he reads something like the New Scientist article? Does he intentionally just skim the article for useful quotes to mine, or does he really read it with the intention of trying to understand it? And if he is trying to understand it, does his ideology blind him to its true implications, or is he willfully dishonest?

    I wonder if we could tell the difference by doing an fMRI on him while he writes a blog entry?

  19. SDRon 25 Feb 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Egnor has no intellectual honest whatsoever. He dares claim that you misrepresent the science, while HE both misunderstand and misrepresents the science, and misrepresents your position.

    You as a skeptic, not only give scientific evidence, but have written many times specifically not to trust you simply due to your expertise, but to check the veracity of the evidence you give ourselves. Egnore, on the other hand, simply makes claims without any scientific evidence, lies, or misrepresents the evidence, knowing that his supporters, as science haters, will never check his claims for themselves.

    It’s clear who has the ethical authority in this discussion

  20. SDRon 25 Feb 2009 at 5:16 pm

    intellectual honesty*

    That’s what I get for not proofreading before I comment.

  21. tmac57on 25 Feb 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Steve, I am always amazed at your tenacity and capacity to endure lightweights like Egnor. How can he take himself seriously when he has no workable opposing scientific theory as an alternative to a robustly tested and debated theory such as Evolution. All he does is cowardly snipe from the sidelines and insist that due to his own incredulity there must be a designer, and since Evolution hasn’t explained every single detail about life, then it must be wrong! What a hack!

  22. artfulDon 25 Feb 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Egnor never alludes in any way to the possibility that evolution itself is an intelligent process that participates in its own design.
    But then neither does his opponent.

  23. _Arthuron 25 Feb 2009 at 6:41 pm

    I fail to understand the fascination of Creationists with the Cambrian. Yes, most phyla begin to diverge at the Cambrian, but, to me, most of the Cambrian creatures look like worms, no matter what phylum they belong to.

    To anyone with notion of biology, the concept of “phylum” is deeply interwoven with the concept of Common Descent. Obviously, Creationists have a very different conception of what’s a phylum, since they marvel at the “sudden apparition” of so many phyla is so few a hundred million years.

  24. Enzoon 25 Feb 2009 at 7:09 pm

    I was struck by Dr. Egnor’s choice to make this a very personal issue for you, Dr. Novella. It seems this has become a war now, with both of you directly addressing each other in the title of blog entries.

    The title “Darwinist Steven Novella Endorses Darwin’s Discredited ‘Tree of Life’” and the essay itself is outright accusatory. It sounds like the next step in a smear campaign. This is disgusting. Does this man honestly believe you are the leader of some vast conspiracy to lead the public into some unsupported conclusion?

    I’d have difficulty finding a better insult than accusing someone of your intellectual caliber of scientific fraud. I can’t help but notice Dr. Egnor is attempting to set you up as a bad guy to his audience just as he is the bad guy to us.

    Just wanted to say thank you for keeping your response dispassionate, non-accusatory and scientific (as always).

    …..But have you given thought to challenging Egnor to a duel? I believe it’s traditional to slap him with a glove.

  25. tmac57on 25 Feb 2009 at 7:18 pm

    artfulD: Please clarify. I couldn’t parse that sentence.Thanks

  26. tmac57on 25 Feb 2009 at 7:53 pm

    In the ‘Doubting Darwin:Debate Over The Mind’s Evolution’ on NPR , Egnor stated ” that an intelligent designer was involved in producing not only the brain but all living things and certain features of the universe. Without this designer, the brain would be just a meat computer made up of brain cells, he says.”
    I ‘m afraid. I’m afraid, Steve. Steve, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going……Daisy , Daisy…..

  27. artfulDon 25 Feb 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Sorry, but that just won’t be parsible.

  28. tmac57on 25 Feb 2009 at 8:59 pm

    artfulD: touche!!..or is that touchy.. I always forget.

  29. MarkMarijnissenon 25 Feb 2009 at 9:01 pm

    All good intentions to take Egnor as intellectually honest vanish in thin air. Even if Egnor did not understand a slightest bit of the article he quoted, even then Egnor knows he is quote mining. And as if that weren’t enough, he accuses Novella of misinterpreting the article and the current state of science! That is just outrageous – this really is Egnor lower than ever.

    What puzzles me the most and I find absolutely fascinating is why people like Egnor are doing this. Of course, I understand some people have a rock-solid belief in something, and they distort every evidence so it fits their view. But that isn’t the case here – he is just flat out trying to convince his audience – not himself! It seems Egnor can’t stand his “defeat” from Novella and only cares to save his pride by writing some logically twisted how-low-can-you-go rhetoric, failing to realise this too will be set right by Novella…. but Novella has refuted Egnor so many times – he must realise that by now!

    I truly do not get this man – it is fascinating.

    Oh, and another thing: I really appreciate this blog and Novella’s intentions. Egnor is indeed and excellent specimen. When I first started reading Neurologicablog about a year ago, I was a bit shocked at the way Egnor and Novella were adressing eachother. With Steven calling Egnor intelectually dishonest, and so on. However, Novella always convinced me, and during the last year, I have become more and more skeptical. I learned about logical fallacies and other techniques by creationist, anti-vaccine etc that previously we only doubted upon instead of scrutenized and dismissed as wrong.

    It really would be nice if you go through with your idea to create a course in “skepticism” or ” critical thinking”. I guess I just learned it with reading skeptical blog and reading proper reasoning (with no explanation with it – you tend to pick this up when reading this blog, i think). However, it would be nice to become a bit better at this, as of now, I am not confident enough to start writing my own articles and blog – but I would be happy to contribute to the skeptical community.

  30. RickKon 25 Feb 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Is there a comments section or discussion forum in the Discovery Institute blog? There doesn’t seem any way to comment on their blog postings.

  31. artfulDon 25 Feb 2009 at 9:28 pm

    tmac57: This is about as parsimonious as I can make it:

    All creatures learn, to at least a minimal extent, from their experience. That experience has a noticeable effect on their survival and their adaptation. In the process of adaptation these learned behaviors somehow morph into heritable instinctive or pre-learned reactions to similar environmental situations that are then supplemented by further learning in succeeding environments by succeeding generations.

  32. daedalus2uon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:10 pm

    AD, you have described Lysenkoism quite well.


  33. daedalus2uon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Mark, my hypothesis for the reason that people like Egnor do things like this is pretty simple (and actually pretty good evidence that the mind is only in the brain and is purely material.)

    People like Egnor and the rabid creationist zealots simply do not understand the science because their brains do not have the neural structures that can support the ideas. They are incapable of understanding the science because they don’t have the neural structures to represent the concepts with. They are incapable of accurately think about the ideas, which is why they cannot accurately articulate them, only the crude straw-men that they construct using their own religious beliefs as a structure. That is why they rail about Darwinism. They don’t have the ability to conceive of any belief structure that is not ordained by a charismatic leader. The concept of figuring something out is anathema. “Knowledge” comes from God, through Revelation to charismatic leaders, then those leaders reveal that to the followers.

    This is actually a reasonable argument for beliefs and thoughts only being instantiated in a material brain that is only plastic via materialistic changes (which take time and effort). That time and effort is what it takes to acquire an education. Years and decades of learning to modulate your brain structure so that the ideas that are learned can be understood. Presumably an immaterial mind would have greater plasticity and would have a wider range of possible thoughts and would not need to be remodeled to understand simple concepts like evolution. If humans used an immaterial mind to think with, all humans would be able to understand the same things and the time constant for learning those things would be the same time constant as the plasticity of the immaterial mind (presumably faster than that of the brain). That Egnor can’t understand Dr Novella’s arguments sufficiently well to re-articulate them is a pretty good argument that he doesn’t have an immaterial mind.

  34. daedalus2uon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:19 pm

    AD, sorry, I confabulated Lysenkoism with Lamarckism. It is Lamarckism that you described very well, but Lysenko was an adherent of Lamarckism.


  35. artfulDon 25 Feb 2009 at 10:26 pm

    daedalus, the above dissertation is simply nonsensical. You haven’t a clue as to how the brain structure really functions or evolves, and that applies to your Lysenkoism remark in particular.
    Take you out of whatever protective cocoon you have been afforded by the kindness of strangers and you’d be a goner.

  36. DarwynJacksonon 25 Feb 2009 at 11:37 pm

    Egnor seems do reduce his credibility with the scientific community every time he speaks out. This is just the worst recent example.

    Is he considered legitimate even within the medical community? I don’t mean to call into question his skills as a surgeon, but rather, do his scientific misunderstandings compromise his standing among other physicians?

  37. Gary Goldwateron 26 Feb 2009 at 1:52 am

    Thorough, awesome, and convincing slapdown of Dr. Egnor’s blog.

    Your series with Dr. Egnor is good for my science education because he gives an organized presentation of the self-congratulatory thinking common in denialist circles. And you make sure your responses are thorough so that the reader can understand both Dr. Egnor & your points in a transparent and honest format.

    This series is also an adult version of the Elmer Fudd vs. Buggs Bunny series. Dr. Novella as the wabbit and Dr. Egnor as Elmer who is always out trying to hunt Buggs down only to be put in his place once again.

  38. QuestionEverythingon 26 Feb 2009 at 3:10 am

    The great thing about the position we take as skeptics versus the position “they” take as creationists can be summed up in Dr Novella’s ongoing jostling with Egnor. We care about the truth, we care about science, we aren’t attached to any one view because if it were proven wrong tomorrow we would follow the evidence. We tend to know more about logical falacies and are able to spot them as we read/listen.

    Contrast that with: don’t care about facts, distort facts and evidence to fit prior beliefs, argue from emotion, distrust science, litter arguments with logical fallacies and not care, in short – be intellectually sloppy.

    No human being can justify belief – as creationists/fundamentalists do – with such certainty and unshakable conviction. It is, frankly, dishonest and so closed minded as to be stifling the genuine wonder we should all feel about scientific knowledge.

    Thank you Dr Novella for promoting the wonder and brilliance of science while exposing the noxious weeds of the world, Egnor being a great example.

  39. PaulGon 26 Feb 2009 at 6:02 am

    QE said… “Contrast that with: don’t care about facts, distort facts and evidence to fit prior beliefs, argue from emotion, distrust science, litter arguments with logical fallacies and not care, in short – be intellectually sloppy.”

    Distrust science? This is what I have a really hard time understanding about somebody like Egnor. The guy is a practising scientist. He knows the methodology, he really does know how to be a scientist – read his professional work in publications like the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics.

    Yet he wilfully ignores established evidence in astounding ways when it comes to evolution. I know it’s not his specialty, but the guy knows how to judge evidence.

    I just find this kind of “wilful ignorance” so hard to grasp.

  40. sonicon 26 Feb 2009 at 7:48 am

    A few points-

    1) Newtonian mechanics is wrong. It is always wrong. It is useful in that the answers are correct enough for many applications, but Newtonian mechanics is wrong 100% of the time.

    2) The tree of life does not exist for life- that includes animals-

    From New Scientist-
    “More fundamentally, recent research suggests that the evolution of animals and plants isn’t exactly tree-like either. “There are problems even in that little corner,” says Dupré. Having uprooted the tree of unicellular life, biologists are now taking their axes to the remaining branches.”

    Also from the article

    “Syvanen recently compared 2000 genes that are common to humans, frogs, sea squirts, sea urchins, fruit flies and nematodes. In theory, he should have been able to use the gene sequences to construct an evolutionary tree showing the relationships between the six animals.
    He failed. The problem was that different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories. This was especially true of sea-squirt genes….
    The most likely explanation for this, he argues, is that tunicates are chimeras, created by the fusion of an early chordate and an ancestor of the sea urchins around 600 million years ago.
    “We’ve just annihilated the tree of life. It’s not a tree any more, it’s a different topology entirely,” says Syvanen.

    Notice that Syvanen has ‘annihilated the tree of life’ by studying animals.

    3) Nothing will ever falsify ‘evolution’ as it is currently defined. Evolution is defined as ‘things change’. This is obviously true. Please stop worrying about that. Nobody can ‘disprove things change’ because they would have to change something to accomplish that.
    Due to the way the word is currently defined the question becomes- how do things change-what are the methods.
    I am aware of many possible answers to that question.
    It is clear we don’t have all the answers.

    4) Please note that none of the scientists above have complete theories to replace the theories they are showing to be incorrect.
    When it was clear that Newtonian mechanics was false, there was no theory to replace it for many years.
    There is still a problem in that we know there is something wrong with our current theories in physics.

    Stating that Egnor must replace the theory he is questioning or he is somehow doing a disservice to science is therefore not reasonable.

  41. Frankiemouseon 26 Feb 2009 at 8:46 am

    after reading Egnor’s post all i have to say is that he did not read the same article that i did.

  42. PaulGon 26 Feb 2009 at 9:12 am

    I have a problem understanding how somebody like Egnor can ignore the informed consensus of opinion, that has accepted – and worked to expand and develop – Darwin’s original observations for more than a hundred years.

    I often think that they must recognise their own fallacies in the privacy of their thoughts.

    Often however, somebody truly ignorant or misunderstanding of the majority of the evidence crops up. This is a fault in our education system.

    I suppose it comes back to something a great man once said, “”How can two mathematicians come to different conclusions? Well, one of them’s a dick.”

    How can two experienced scientists view the same evidence and come to such, incredibly different, conclusions? Well, one of them’s Egnor.

  43. RickKon 26 Feb 2009 at 11:14 am


    Newtonian mechanics isn’t “false”, it’s incomplete. Most of Newtonian physics is a subset of current physics, and as you said, for most of the applications it was addressing, it made successful predictions.

    Current gravitational theory makes highly accurate predictions about planetary movements, but questionable predictions about the total mass in the universe. Does that mean gravitational theory is false? Or does it mean it is incomplete?

    Current evolutionary theory is not “false”, the tree of life is not “false”. We make successful predictions all the time with current evolutionary theory. Because some of the branches fused in the past does not mean that the tree of life metaphor is useless as a predictive mechanism.

    I take exception to your overly broad definition of “evolution”, and the statement that evolution is “unfalsifiable”. If we can look at the fossil record and at the geologic record, identify a gap between two species, identify when and where the intermediate species would have lived, go to that part of the world today, dig down, and find the previously unknown species, then we have a pretty good predictive model. The model can be easily falsified if we (1) don’t find the intermediate (allowing for limitations of the fossil record); or (2) find something completely different than expected. Similarly, evolutionary theory is easily falsified if we find dramatic divergence in the molecular biology of closely-related species. The thousands of species we find every year each represent an opportunity to falsify evolution. I can point you to a long list of ways to falsify evolution.

    Because there is a gap or an unknown in a scientific theory does not make that scientific theory false. Only the scientifically illiterate (and the religiously-motivated science denialists) say that.

    Besides, if the tree of life metaphor was false, we wouldn’t have so much documented detail in the Tree of Life that people are working on a Google Earth interface to navigate the data.

    And, obviously, finding gaps in evolutionary theory does not add one iota to the argument that Egnor’s creationism is true.

  44. RickKon 26 Feb 2009 at 11:16 am


    “How can two experienced scientists view the same evidence and come to such, incredibly different, conclusions? Well, one of them’s Egnor.”

    credit to Perry :-)

  45. PaulGon 26 Feb 2009 at 11:43 am


    Of course – didn’t think it needed to be said…

    Likewise, didn’t think I needed to point out what was meant by my third paragraph.

    Ad hominem? I can’t even spell it.

  46. Eric Thomsonon 26 Feb 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Shakespeare knew about Egnor:

    It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

  47. tmac57on 26 Feb 2009 at 6:52 pm

    daedalus2u: I have a hunch that Egnor understands more than he lets on. I would guess that his brain is in full cognitive dissonance meltdown whenever he has to debate someone like the good Dr Novella , who has a firm grasp of the current science of Evolution.
    True, he will probably never own up to it, but it tickles me no end to imagine him reading one of Steve’s latest rebuffs and holding his fist to the sky screaming “Novellaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!” Stephen Colbert style .

  48. CKavaon 26 Feb 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Just wondering am I the only one noticing Sonic’s descent into pec-dom?

  49. Clic_bron 26 Feb 2009 at 8:42 pm

    I don’t think it is up to me to address the second and third points, which I think were well covered already.
    But regarding your first point; that Newtonian mechanics is never right, I must say it is ludicrous! For instance, one of the earliest tests Einstein did with his theory was to recover Newton’s law in the appropriate limit. That is one of the first test a theory has to make in order to be viable: generalize earlier theories that held in certain regimes. So, as Dr Novella said, it is correct in its own dominion, or regime (of small Planck const, high speed of light and low curvature of spacetime). As to your view of “correctness of a theory” it has long been abandoned. It was Popper that remarked that we may never know the ultimate “correctness or not of a theory”, since tomorrow one could discover other phenomena not covered by the latest model. So all science has to offer is “correct in a certain dominion”. Take it or leave it.

  50. MNIceon 27 Feb 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Egnor also can’t link properly. Here is the correct link to the New Scientist article:


    Dr. Novella, thanks for the skepticism!

  51. MNIceon 27 Feb 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Oops. Over zealous linking.

  52. HHCon 28 Feb 2009 at 12:57 am

    When arguing with Creationists, I would suggest that you consider this fact given to me by a kind and elderly nun. She reminded me that the only book that she had available to her to read was her bible, and she had no other exposure to other books. She was impressed with the world of books that she was now free to read. Your freedom in thinking is only limited by your willingness to be open to ideas and comprehend them.

  53. DevilsAdvocateon 28 Feb 2009 at 2:04 pm

    RE: Why does Egnor do it? Does his creationist audience value him?

    Egnor is not a scientist, he is a public relations man for the Discovery Institute and creationism.

    Bear in mind that the Egnors of the world represent the BEST in creation science and let that chilling thought simmer. Now consider the creationist laypeople to whom he preaches, er, teaches; consider their level of understanding of science and their likely abilities to discern crap from crayola.

    With that in mind, skim the following quotes from Egnor. The whole quotes iterate what Egnor says. I have CAPITALIZED the parts that are actually heard and remembered by his unscientific, creationist audience:

    “Furthermore, molecular genetics has REFUTED DARWIN’s “Tree of Life”— as Dr. Novella characterizes it, the “clear pattern of branching descent”— unequivocally. The generally pro-Darwinism magazine New Scientist, in its recent cover story, “Why DARWIN WAS WRONG About the Tree of Life”, pointed out that scientists are abandoning the vertical Tree of Life. Molecular biology is showing DEEP INCONSISTENCIES IN DARWINists’ simplistic understanding of similarities and differences in biological structure:”

    “Molecular biology is showing DEEP INCONSISTENCIES IN DARWINists’ simplistic understanding of similarities and differences in biological structure:”

    “The EVIDENCE IS SO CLEAR that DARWIN’s “Tree of Life” IS WRONG that now even DARWINISTS are JUMPING SHIP.”


    I don’t exaggerate. If you haven’t already, speak with a religious layperson who believes in creationism and ask why. Few will automatically cite the Bible. Most will tell you they “read something” or “heard something” where some guy – a doctor! maybe – said that Darwin had been refuted, that Darwin was wrong, that there are deep inconsistencies with evolution theory, that the evidence was so clearly wrong that even evolutionists were abandoning Darwinism and evolution.

    This is the level and sort of intellectual involvement of most people who believe in creationism. This is their ‘scientific’ evidence acquisition methodology.


    $5 says Dr. N could deliver a better Sunday morning sermon than Egnor could deliver a scientific paper or presentation.

  54. HHCon 28 Feb 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I’m glad Lamarckian psychology has been discussed and hypertexted. Some like Lysenko would kill off their scientific competitors

  55. artfulDon 28 Feb 2009 at 9:41 pm

    In case this is a reference to the remarks I made earlier, the context was neither Lamarkian or Lysenkoist. They had to do with a very common evolutionist view about the development of instinctive behaviors.


    If anything, my remarks bore a kinship to the Baldwin effect, and had nothing to do with Lamarkian ideas about the direct alteration of the phenotype.

  56. sonicon 01 Mar 2009 at 4:29 am

    Rick K, Clic_br,
    I could tell you that electricity is water and that wires are really tiny pipes. Using this analogy would be good enough to wire a house.(I know, I used it with my friends to do just that)
    Given the workability in this field (you could fix a TV if there was the right kind of problem)- I could say “electricity is water is a good theory- it is correct in the fields where applicable.”

    But electricity is not water.

    Newtonian physics is a useful approximation in many applications. It gives an false picture of the universe we live in everytime.

  57. artfulDon 01 Mar 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Would that be completely false or potentially false or reliably false or conditionally false or metaphorically false or maybe just comparatively false?

  58. sonicon 01 Mar 2009 at 8:29 pm

    Yes, reliably all of the above.

  59. daedalus2uon 01 Mar 2009 at 10:59 pm

    AD, your understanding incorrectly puts the effect before the cause. The “causes” of phenotype changes occur before they are selected for. Instinct is a property of a phenotype.

    Changes are not inherited because “learned behaviors somehow morph into heritable instinctive or pre-learned reactions”. Rather organisms with the changes survive and the genotype that expresses that phenotype is passed on.

    The Baldwin effect is phenotype plasticity. That plasticity already exists in the genome before it is expressed in the phenotype.

  60. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 12:51 am

    daedalus, you’ll grasp at any straw that supports the continued deliberateness of your ignorance of anythng about biology that smacks of purpose.
    “Organisms with the changes survive” because experience was instrumental in effecting those changes. Scientists (other than yourself obviously) are learning more every day about how this might be happening. You look onto your black box and cry that no such thing is possible if you can’t see it in that darkness.

  61. daedalus2uon 02 Mar 2009 at 11:38 am

    No AD, your attempts to impute “purpose” in the natural world are solely your own projections of your own psychological needs onto the natural world. Other humans have the need to impute “purpose” too. That doesn’t make it so. That humans anthropomorphize their environment and impute human motivations onto non-human objects and entities is well known. That is a property of humans, not a property of the objects that humans impute to be human-like.

    How does an experience change the genotype? How does an experience affect the DNA in the germ cells and so become heritable?

    Without a mechanism by which this could happen, and without an example where it has happened, it remains an ad hoc made-up idea with no supporting evidence and (to me) near zero plausibility.

    Lots of people put lots of credence into made-up ideas with no supporting evidence. I am not one of those people. I prefer the ideas that I think with to be supported by evidence and traceable back via logic to facts.

    If you could find a reference where an organism’s experience modified its genome in specific ways so as to incorporate specific adaptation to that experience in its genome I would be very interested. I don’t think there are any. That is an extraordinary claim, and requires extraordinary evidence. I don’t think there is even ordinary evidence or even any evidence at all.

  62. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Purpose and the purposive are everywhere in the natural world. We didn’t invent purpose, any more than we invented intent. These are words that describe our conceptions of the interactive forces of all life, which after all IS the natural world most of us are concerned with. But there’s a level of abstraction in the concept of purpose in particular that seems beyond your ken.

    I’ll try to simplify the concepts a bit for you: Anything which contributes to a structure, and therefor acts as a force within it, is purposive in that its contribution serves a purpose within that structure. And even though its being there was not in any way a matter of that object’s own intent, its absence would necessarily – yet again without intention – change the nature of the structure. And this doesn’t require an assumption that the structure resulted from some first and purposeful cause. It only requires a recognition that that these concepts of purpose and intent are of some utility in understanding the evolution of life. To put it mildly.

    You talk abut the necessary use of logic to understand how evidence connects to and establishes the factual. We have developed no logical system that doesn’t require the use of these concepts.

  63. Steven Novellaon 02 Mar 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Sonic – I hate to get into semantic arguments, but that happens a lot here.

    We may actually be saying the same thing but getting caught on the word “false”. I do think that in some cases “incomplete” is a more accurate concept, and it is meaningful to distinguish a scientific concept that is incomplete from one that is false.

    For example, if I said that the boiling point of water is 212 degrees F, is that statement true, false, or incomplete (or something else)? I think it is misleading to say that it is false or that it is true. It is incomplete. The boiling point of water at 1 atmospheric pressure is 212, but it varies directly with surrounding pressure. We could also clarify further that we are talking about water of a certain purity.

    Newton’s laws of mechanics are true but incomplete, just like saying that the boiling point of water is 212 is true but incomplete. Newton’s laws are not an analogy, like your water analogy for electricity. They are a special case of a more complex and complete mathematical description, relativity. Relativity itself is also true but incomplete, and eventually we will need a theory of quantum gravity that includes relativity and newtonian mechanics but goes even deeper.

    It is probably true that most if not all scientific theories are incomplete. They are models that approximate reality. They are judged by how well they predict observation, they make internal logical sense, and they agree with other scientific models (consilience).

  64. daedalus2uon 02 Mar 2009 at 4:34 pm

    AD, I understand the concepts I just find them to be wrong. For something to have a “purpose” implies intention on the part of the entity that generated the something. People do talk of things having a “purpose”, for example the “purpose” of a giraffe’s long neck is to be able to eat leaves on tall trees. That is sloppy terminology. Usually scientists understand that it is sloppy terminology and is not meant to imply intention on the part of an entity that created giraffes. The problem with sloppy terminology is that people who don’t understand the underlying science misinterpret what is being said and meant and make extrapolations and conclusions that are wildly wrong, or that are not even wrong.

    From the statement “the purpose of a giraffe’s long neck is to eat leaves on tall trees”, people (erroneously) infer that the statement means that the Intelligent Designer of giraffes purposefully gave them long necks so they would fill the niche that He created by eating the leaves on the tall trees that He created for them to eat. An equally wrong statement is that evolution purposefully gave giraffes long necks so they could eat the leaves on tall trees. There is no “purpose” behind evolution. The evolution of long necks by giraffes was not “purposeful”. There are many herbivores that did not evolve long necks. If the evolution of long necks was purposeful, why didn’t evolution confer long necks on every herbivore?

    Every trait of every organism or of every object could be said to be “purposeful”. With that meaning, the term loses any specificity and becomes useless and a term that only causes confusion, not understanding. According to your definition (as I understand it), there can be no trait or object without a “purpose”. Everything must exist for a “purpose”, nothing can just exist.

  65. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Correct. There is no trait or object that does not serve a purpose by the very nature of its place in the structure of the cosmos. No intent needs or begs to be inferred as to the nature of other purpose that might benefit from its presence. The task of determining the nature of any such intent is a purpose best ascribed to scientific methodology.

  66. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Let me add something that someone else wrote in this regard:
    “It is the nature of human curiosity coupled with non-conscious inference to ask what is or was some object’s purpose, when what we really should be asking is what purpose did or does that object serve.”

  67. daedalus2uon 02 Mar 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Could you give me a definition of “purpose”? The way you are using it doesn’t seem to have a meaning for me.

  68. cwfongon 02 Mar 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Once you understand that, you might ask yourself, what purpose does a calculative apparatus serve? Might one serve its human operator’s purpose in some fashion? Then you might ask, what purpose does the simplest calculative apparatus of any organism serve? Could it possibly be serving some purpose initiated by the organism within which it has that very function?

  69. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 6:48 pm

    Well I suppose that would be one way to define it.

  70. daedalus2uon 02 Mar 2009 at 6:48 pm

    What is the “purpose” of a photon?

  71. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 6:51 pm

    What purpose do you think it serves?

  72. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Check this out in the meantime:

  73. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Then just when you think you are beginning to get it, check this out:


  74. tmac57on 02 Mar 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Whew! Could someone please write a declarative sentence here?
    I have never seen such verbosity in my life.
    It should not be that difficult to clearly explain an idea . ArtfulD is a very apt pseudonym . Sorry.
    It’s no wonder that there is a lot of talking past one another on this forum.
    Take a lesson from Dr Novella. Here is a well educated , very intelligent person, and his blogs are very easy to follow and understand because his thinking is straightforward and clear.
    Sometimes less is more.IMHO

  75. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 8:08 pm

    tmac57, I declare that there had been nothing in your previous posts that would indicate you had any point to offer as their purpose, although there was every indication you had that as your intent.

    Try explaining purpose to daedalus and see if you can do better.

  76. daedalus2uon 02 Mar 2009 at 8:12 pm

    According to ArtfulD, a thing’s “purpose” is determined by what it accomplishes. ArtfulD’s comments make no sense to me; therefore their purpose must be to make no sense.

  77. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 8:44 pm

    That requires a premise that you had sufficient sensory apparatus to begin with.

  78. tmac57on 02 Mar 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Well ,I gave it a shot. That was my purpose I guess.

  79. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Now you have finally ilusrated a point – that most people understand intent but can only guess at its purpose.

  80. daedalus2uon 02 Mar 2009 at 10:12 pm

    The “purpose” requires a premise? So depending on the premise you use, the “purpose” is different?

    As far as I can tell, the only “purpose” of the purpose you impute on things is to satisfy your need to impute a purpose on things.

  81. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Your “this therefor that” stab at logic would rest on a mutually understood premise that you had the brains to know sense when you saw it. Which you clearly don’t or you would have read the supporting Wikipedia article that I suggested. Unless you also felt that Wikipedia’s purpose was to make no sense to you as well.

    Or maybe it’s an NO level issue. That will be my response to you from here on in.

  82. HHCon 02 Mar 2009 at 11:02 pm

    If everything has a purpose, then its existence is predetermined.
    This sound similar to predestination and Calvinist thinking.

  83. daedalus2uon 02 Mar 2009 at 11:15 pm

    If I don’t understand the premise, then the premise cannot be mutually understood.

    Wikipedia is written by people. People sometimes do things for purposes. The people who wrote the wikipedia article did so for their own purposes. If those people were asked, they probably could articulate what those purposes were.

    I understand how people can have and can do things for purposes. I don’t understand how an inanimate object has a purpose, other than to have one imputed by an intelligent agent. Such an imputed purpose is not about the inanimate object, but about the agent who has imputed the purpose.

    I understand that you want to impute purpose to everything. That tells me something about you, it does not tell me anything about the objects you want to impute purposes to.

  84. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 11:19 pm

    I said everything ‘serves’ a purpose. There’s doesn’t have to be a first cause or first purpose to support the concept of purpose.
    This weakness in understanding the concept in general is what gives the ID people a wedge to use against their adversaries. They deliberate promote their misunderstanding of purpose in nature with the knowledge that people such as yourself have no clear understanding of the concept and therefor no way to strike back at what in essence is the ID advocate’s Achilles’ heel.

  85. artfulDon 02 Mar 2009 at 11:28 pm

    That last answer was to HHC’s comment. I have NO answer to the intervening gibberish. Unless it would be N2O.

  86. medmonkeyon 03 Mar 2009 at 12:56 am

    Maybe dictionary.com can help:

    Purpose: the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.

    Post-hoc: In or of the form of an argument in which one event is asserted to be the cause of a later event simply by virtue of having happened earlier: coming to conclusions post hoc; post hoc reasoning.

  87. HHCon 03 Mar 2009 at 1:23 am

    artfulD, The definition you just gave is the philosophy of teleology. Creationists would make you believe in teleological theology.

  88. artfulDon 03 Mar 2009 at 2:09 am

    “The explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.” That’s a definition of teleology. But I specified that there doesn’t have to be a teleological purpose, and the definition of purpose itself is not an explanation of phenomena, either in the particular or the general. So I made no attempt to explain phenomena by either purpose or cause, although on the other hand, phenomena cannot exist without automatically serving some purpose.

    That’s in fact one definition of existence. As noted in a post above, we presume a reason exists for any phenomena without knowing in advance what it is. Reason equates to purpose. Without such an assumption of reason or purpose, there would be no scientific quest for their determination.

    Someone may now chip in with the comment that this is all simply about semantics. If so, then creationism is also a simple matter of semantics. Except that it isn’t.

    Anything I might say from this point on would just be repetitious, so I’m done here.

  89. sonicon 03 Mar 2009 at 5:00 am

    Allow me to be more specific.

    Newton was brilliant. His work is very useful for engineers. His work has had a horrible impact on philosophy and his fundamental ideas are in the way of a scientific understanding of the universe we inhabit.

    Newton claimed the universe is made up of “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable moveable particles.” Further these were seen to act on each other by direct contact. (There was a problem with gravity, but…)

    “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
    –Richard Feynman

    Newton was wrong and his mechanics describe a universe we do not live in. His mechanics do not match experiment. His theory of gravity never accurately matched the observations (of Venus for example). His ideas have been upgraded by relativity and quantum mechanics.

    That is what I mean when I say Newton was wrong.

    (Please don’t think I’m not in awe of his greatness and genius.)

  90. daedalus2uon 03 Mar 2009 at 9:16 am

    If “everything ’serves’ a purpose”, then what ever was the “first thing” had to have a “first purpose”. Your statement that “There’s doesn’t have to be a first cause or first purpose to support the concept of purpose.” cannot be correct. The first thing had to have a first purpose (according to your definition of “purpose”).

  91. mindmeon 03 Mar 2009 at 3:10 pm

    ||“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
    –Richard Feynman||

    But it does agree experimentally when used at the correct scale.

    By way of example, C14 testing is not wrong if used at the correct scale.

  92. artfulDon 03 Mar 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Daedalus2u: Actually, applying your logic to your previous statements, the first thing known to have had a purpose would have been human. Which is quite in line with creationist beliefs in humans created separately from other beasts, and especially with Egnor’s beliefs in mind and soul being separate from brain.
    Add this to “whatever was the first thing” and you reveal your belief that there WAS a first thing. Further, you said, “I understand how people can have and can do things for purposes.” So if there was a first thing, and humans can have purposes, could that first thing not have had a purpose?
    This is where your kind of simple minded logic allows creationism to remain in play. You can conceive of humans having purposes (your word), but not of biological forms in general having purposes.
    Even worse, in your particular case, you seem to believe that in the case of your first thing, its options would be to either have a purpose or have no purpose, with ‘serving’ a purpose not an option. And if it was granted option one (perhaps by the first turtle that preceded your first thing), it had the power to effect its purpose from day one to eternity. Purpose and intent always being exactly in concert with the results in your world view. Intelligent design thus the plan from the birth of the first thing.
    Either that or purpose can’t exist at all in your world. Because in that world it ‘cannot be correct’ that: “There’s doesn’t have to be a first cause or first purpose to support the concept of purpose.”

    Oh and the “First Thing” church group called to ask when you would be paying your dues.

  93. daedalus2uon 03 Mar 2009 at 8:26 pm

    AD, it is not my world view that makes no sense, it is yours. Your hypothetical turtle that preceded the first thing? Nothing can precede the first thing, because then what ever preceded it would be the first thing.

    Your idea that all things have a “purpose” and yet there is no “first purpose” is incompatible with simple logic. You can’t make it compatible with “logic” by making a new “logic” that is more complicated and has the arbitrary properties that you want it to have so your ideas are “logical”. You can’t make it compatible by redefining terms to have multiple and different meanings. The problem is your concept of “purpose”. I have no idea what you mean by the term, and by how you talk about it I don’t think you do either. You can’t redefine “logic” and by doing so make your ideas “logical”, any more than you can redefine “science” and by doing so make ideas “scientific”.

    That is the problem when you try to apply anthropomorphic-type thinking to reality. Reality doesn’t conform to standard human-language-type thinking patterns. That is why we need formal languages to describe reality in terms that are more precise than standard-human-type languages allow. Those formal languages include logic and mathematics. In those formal languages terms have precise meanings and can be manipulated in precise ways to achieve precise results. This is the only way that precise ideas can be formulated and thought about. Precise ideas require precise terms with precise definitions connected via precise rules to form precise statements. Ambiguity and imprecision in any part of the statement makes it imprecise. The precision cannot be regained later by tacking on some sciencey-sounding words.

    I appreciate that the concept of a precise idea is difficult to understand in terms of natural human languages because natural human languages are not precise. It is like trying to describe the concept of number to an individual who is innumerate. If one does not have the concept of number, then one cannot do arithmetic. One cannot add a precise number to many and get a precise number as an answer. The person who understands numbers and arithmetic understands that. The person who is innumerate does not. You cannot make a nu-math where you can add many to a precise number and get a precise number as the answer. If you do, then your nu-math is simply wrong. Because I understand arithmetic, I understand that nu-math is wrong. The innumerate individual does not.

    You cannot add ill-defined and subjective terms such as “purpose” to formal and well defined statements and end up with a formal and well defined statement. Formal and well defined systems are very powerful. Arithmetic is very powerful too. It has been said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. To the innumerate individual, arithmetic is indistinguishable from magic. The innumerate individual is unable to understand that a precise number can not be added to many and achieve a precise result.

    This is the problem that non-scientific individuals have trying to think in scientific terms. They tend to think in anthropomorphic terms where an invalid premise can be thrown in and someone can be tricked into agreeing. That isn’t how formal systems and science work.

  94. artfulDon 03 Mar 2009 at 8:57 pm

    But clearly you are deluding yourself that you are a scientist. You don’t have sufficient capacity for the use of the logical inference that the effective practice of science requires.
    Nothing can precede the first thing? Your formal logic would then dictate that before there was a first thing, there was nothing. Is it now the scientific consensus that something came from nothing?

    You speak of humans having purpose. Did that purpose arise with the first thing? If so, what was that purpose? If not, from where and whence did humans acquire that quality? Was it in any respect a product of evolution? Are these in any respect trick questions?

    You can’t answer any of those questions, can you? What does that say about your scientific acumen?

  95. daedalus2uon 03 Mar 2009 at 10:31 pm

    The scientific consensus is that at the moment of the big bang space time came into existence. There is no “before” the big bang because time did not exist before then. “Before” the big bang is an undefined term, similar to the place that is 100 miles north of the North Pole.

    “Purpose” as you are using it is an undefined term. Define it precisely and I will manipulate it logically for you. Until you can define it precisely it cannot be manipulated logically. That is not a defect of logic, it is a feature.

    Natural human languages can be used to make statements that do not have a precise meaning, or that do not have a meaning at all, such as the example I used of a place 100 miles north of the North Pole. There is no such place, and there can be no such place.

    It is said that it is a poor workman who blames his tools. A good workman chooses the appropriate tool for the task he is trying to accomplish. A good workman knows the limits of his tools and uses them only for what they are useful for. Language is a tool. If you are unable to be understood, perhaps you should define your terms more clearly and in more simple terms so that simple people such as myself can understand them.

  96. artfulDon 03 Mar 2009 at 11:06 pm

    daedalus2u: Scientists now believe that there was both space and time in the cosmos before the big bang, and that in any case the big bang did not create its own matter with that bang. And this beginning of time only means that there was thought to be no measurable changes in the universe prior to the bang. Time, in effect, was standing still. Although as it turns out, there is evidence to the contrary.

    So you failed that question and have ducked the rest with babble and gibberish.

    You spoke authoritatively of purpose, but can’t define what you meant by it? Then your use of the word was meaningless and you had no standing to even offer your initial opinion on the subject.

    Your brain was an inappropriate tool to choose for that purpose.

  97. cwfongon 03 Mar 2009 at 11:17 pm

    AD: You were contending earlier that if humans can have a purpose, while at the same time there were other life forms that cannot, then the purposes of those forms that have it would need to have been got from a creator, whose intent was to carry out such creator’s own purpose.

    And thus Daedalus, in offering such preconditions initially, has confirmed he views things almost exactly from the creationist perspective?

    Isn’t this the same Daedalus that argued with me that lower life forms could not have expectations?

    But then would this Daedalus also have us believe the creationist dogma that since the beginning there have been no consequences that were ultimately unexpected?

    Go figure.

  98. daedalus2uon 04 Mar 2009 at 9:49 am

    “Purpose” is not my term, it is AD’s. I don’t know what AD means when he uses the term beyond the normal dictionary definition of it. It is not a precise term. There are multiple dictionary definitions of it. The term “purpose” presumes the intent of an intelligent entity. Applying the term “purpose” to an object does not demonstrate that an intelligent entity created that object. That is a defect of the term “purpose” when applied in a non-anthropomorphic setting.

    AD, show me a link where “scientists believe” there was time before the big bang.

    This exchange is illustrating a point that was made in another thread that it is impossible to “debate” people who are not arguing honestly and in good faith. It is impossible to reason with people who don’t have the objective of trying to reason together and understand something. Not sure what your objectives are.

  99. medmonkeyon 04 Mar 2009 at 12:24 pm


    It’s my understanding that the majority of scientists and physicists still “think” that time/space began with the big bang. However, there are legitimate physicists who are either on the fence on the subject, or maybe leaning toward time-before-time theories.

    Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, CalTech, blogs about these issues among others. He seems like a good resource to me, but my knowledge in this field is addmittedly lacking. In a blog about The Lopsided Universe, he writes,

    “…I wanted to impress upon people that the origin of the entropy gradient in our everyday environment could be traced back to the Big Bang, and that conventional ideas about inflation did not provide straightforward answers to the problem, and that the Big Bang MAY NOT have been the beginning of the universe.” (emphasis is mine)


    Here is another blog entry about current state of understanding on the big bang:


  100. medmonkeyon 04 Mar 2009 at 12:39 pm

    I should add that this has nothing to do with purpose! Giving purpose to inanimate objects is clearly a post-hoc rationalization by intelligent beings. Purpose can closely be tied to interests, and interests require a nervous system.

    Another use of the word purpose is to talk about an inanimate object’s function. For example, the “purpose” of a hammer is the drive nails. This definition of purpose has little to do with the above dialogue since the purpose purported on the hammer is done so by an intelligent being. It has nothing to do with intention – the hammer does not intend to drive the nail, just like a gene does not intend to mutate.

  101. daedalus2uon 04 Mar 2009 at 1:28 pm

    medmonkey, I have no difficulty discussing ideas that may be wrong or that are on (or beyond) the limits of our understanding.

    There is a big difference between an open discussion and an exchange meant to demean and put-down an opponent irrespective of the content of the ideas. The latter approach I have no use for and won’t willingly participate in. That is the essence of the ad hominem attack. There is a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that comes to mind:

    Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

  102. artfulDon 04 Mar 2009 at 1:53 pm

    “Purpose can closely be tied to interests, and interests require a nervous system.” This is exactly what Daedalus2u was denying about biological entities. And he wasn’t trying to debate the issue as he claims, he was authoritatively denying this in the name of science, which it turns out he’s not that much of a authority in after all.

    And when I used the phrase “serve a purpose” repeatedly to try to explain how we have in fact abused the meaning of the term, he repeatedly restated that phrase as “having a purpose.” When I said purpose was a human concept, he said it was anthropomorphic in that it implied inanimate objects had human attributes.
    I tried several ways to demonstrate how the word is used to describe an object’s function, whether it be of animal or mineral, and he couldn’t grasp that for something to serve a purpose, that something didn’t have to intend to.
    He seemed to think I was simply out to trick him in some non-scientific fashion. Then when asked to answer some non-tricky questions about the nature of his own understanding, he had a meltdown.
    My goal initially had been to explain that one can’t be an evolutionist without understanding or at least hypothesizing about the role that purpose plays n the process. Without such understanding we leave the field to those who deliberately misstate the role of purpose to serve their own ends.
    As far as we know now, “a gene does not intend to mutate”, but it is important to understand more about the purpose that it serves when it does so.

  103. artfulDon 04 Mar 2009 at 2:05 pm

    An attack on someone’s false clams of authority is not the fallacious use of ad hominem, which means to the person. You can’t duck the responsibility for making authoritative pronouncements by invoking some ad hominem immunity. The argument from authority is the fallacy that more aptly applies to this situation.

  104. HHCon 09 Mar 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Correction to comment posted 25 Feb. 2009 at 3:11pm. Article referred to is available in the archive of the Jerusalem Report.

  105. martin_hethon 11 Mar 2009 at 2:47 am

    Evolutionists and their theo(il)logical illk always get me theorising about what the psychological motive is for what they believe, similar to the feeling one of my girlfriends gave me in wanting to believe she could cast spells….maybe she’d miss out the word ‘wanting’, but there is a question of the subjective drive of people to brainwash themselves into a worldview(would feel rather pompous using the term weltanschauung, though one could) which simply cannot be born out analytically….what drives this guy to believe this, or galvanises him into this anti-belief, what’s the problem (and one intuitively grasps that at some point Egnor has been a rather upset fellow after reading a well-reasoned piece of scientific writing), well, I would go for Egnor and those whom he considers supporters as being cognitively inferior, and/or possessed of a weak constitution.
    This type of exchange maks me feel the ‘evolutionist’ is revelling in attention that isn’t worth giving to him or her.
    Here’s something a little different as a statement: a man who had been a top-secret weapons technician in Rosyth Naval Dockyards north of Edinburgh informed me thus: “I had had to knowthat….that….you know that explosion over Siberia in….in….quite a while ago….”
    “What, that Tunguska explosion in 1908?” You knew instantly he felt he was going to say something quite…..contradictory to one’s extant conception of what-is-possible…..
    “Yes, that. I had had to knowthat that was an incoming extra-terrestrial craft.”
    Can go into much more detail regarding how that little datum came to be confided, but as a basic statement, that’s good enough for now. Let’s see how the religious sorts deal with that.

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