Jul 19 2012

Egnor Tries to Write about Evolution to Humorous Effect

Science makes predictions. That is inherent to the scientific process. It’s what makes hypotheses testable – they make predictions about what will be observed in nature, about the outcome of experiments, and about future trends and events. Scientific theories are really models that allow us to predict the behavior of the world, and they are judged on their utility for making such predictions, rather than whether or not they are objectively “correct” (because we can’t know that).

This was a simple point I was trying to make, with respect to evolutionary theory, in a recent post on feathered dinosaurs. Egnor, who fancies himself an evolutionary gadfly, has tried to counter my arguments but only manages to create a confusing mess. In my original post I made the point:

After Darwin published his theory of evolution one of the early challenges to the idea of evolution, which includes the claim that all life on earth is related through common ancestors, was that there were significant gaps between major groups of living creatures. Birds, for example, seem to be their own group without a close connection to any other group. They are, of course, related to vertebrates. But if evolution were true then there must be fossil evidence connecting birds to another group, such as reptiles.

Evolutionary theory predicted that gaps in the “tree of life” (the phylogenetic tree of evolutionary relationships) would be filled in by fossil discoveries. Birds had to evolve from something, so we will likely find fossils filling in the morphological space between birds and another related group, which turned out to be theropod dinosaurs. I go on to describe how this is exactly what has happened, and in fact we continue to find more and more evidence for feathered dinosaurs and dinosaur-bird intermediates. These discoveries confirm a prediction made by evolutionary theory.

Michael Egnor apparently does not understand that, or he wishes to cast doubt on this obvious conclusion. His post is so confused it is hard to pull an actual argument from it, but I will try. He writes:

But “evolution”– Novella means Darwinism– predicted none of this. I challenge Novella to cite references from evolutionary biologists during the past 150 years predicting that birds rather than reptiles would be found to be related to dinosaurs based on Darwinian principle of heritable variation and natural selection and common descent.

While T. H. Huxley was an early proponent of the dinosaur-to-bird theory, he based his view on morphological similarities and paleontological evidence, not on any insight gained from ‘random variation and natural selection’. And his view was rejected– in favor of the dinosaur-reptile theory– by the Darwinist-monopolized evolutionary community for 100 years.

That’s hardly a successful “prediction made by evolution”.

First, Egnor’s statements are hopelessly confusing – what does he mean “birds rather than reptiles” would be related to dinosaurs? Dinosaurs are not related to reptiles, they are reptiles. Dinosaurs are a superorder in the class Reptilia. The question at the time was whether birds evolved from dinosaurs or some other reptile. T.H. Huxley was an early proponent of the bird-dinosaur hypothesis, and he was joined by a few others, such as dinosaur paleontologist Franz Nopcsa. I’m not sure why Egnor thinks these evolutionary scientists don’t count.

Egnor further demonstrates his poor reading comprehension by completely missing the point I was making. As is very clear in the quote above, I never said that evolutionary theory predicted that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Never. I said that evolutionary theory predicted that something would fill the gap between birds and a related group “such as reptiles.” If evolution were not true, this would not have to be the case. Birds could exist as their own “kind” with no connection to the rest of life on earth. Evolution requires a connection – and now we have a robust one with reptiles, specifically theropod dinosaurs.

It is true I referred to “evolutionary” theory without specifying what aspect of the theory I was referring to – because I thought it was blazingly obvious, but apparently not obvious enough for Egnor. Evolutionary theory includes several components. The first, and the most overarching, claim is that all life on earth is related through common descent. That is obviously the aspect of evolutionary theory I was referring to when I said that it predicts the birds must be connected to another group.

A second and distinct aspect of evolutionary theory relates to the mechanism(s) by which evolution occurs. The current consensus is a modern version of Darwin’s theory of variation and natural selection. This aspect of evolution is independent from common descent, and has nothing to do with the point I was making. A third component of evolutionary theory is a phylogenetic tree or cladogram of which species evolved from which other species. This also is independent from the other two aspects of the theory. Common descent dictates only that there will be a connection – not what those specific connections will be. Morphological, genetic, developmental, and paleontological evidence is brought to bear to flesh out the evolutionary tree of life, and this is an ever-changing puzzle as new bits of information come it.

Now – do you see what Egnor did? He states: “But “evolution”– Novella means Darwinism– predicted none of this.” Egnor arbitrarily decided that by evolutionary theory I specifically meant Darwin’s theory of variation and natural selection, when it should be obvious that I was talking about common descent. He constructed a ridiculous straw man and then proceeded to dismantle his own creation (in a confused and factually challenged manner).

From reading Egnor’s post it seems that he has no problem with the notions of common descent, or that birds are related to dinosaurs. His boogeyman is the mechanism of evolution – natural selection. He prefers to believe that the mechanism is magic (meaning his personal supernatural beliefs) rather than any naturalistic process. So he sees his boogeyman everywhere, and will rant against it no matter the actual subject of the post he is attacking. The result is incoherent.

In a separate post Egnor claims that “survival of the fittest” is a tautology. This is an old creationist canard, long deconstructed, which never seems to bother creationists. He writes:

The theory about the causes of changes in populations over time (Darwin’s theory) asserts, when you strip away the pretentious junk-science and thinly disguised ideology, that life is explained by survival of fitter individuals, whose fitness is defined as their survival.

Wrong. Fitness is defined by a host of characteristics (strength, fecundity, acuteness of senses, attractiveness to the opposite sex, a functional immune system, etc.) that allows individuals to survive and reproduce.

Conclusion

Once again Egnor demonstrates that creationists in general, and he in particular, do not understand evolutionary theory or the arguments in its favor. He appears to work backward from his desired result – to rant against variation and natural selection as a major mechanism of evolutionary change over time. My original article had absolutely nothing to do with the mechanism of evolution, but Egnor managed to insert that claim just so he could have something to rant about.

Meanwhile, common descent is a solid prediction made by evolutionary theory (including Darwin himself) and the paleontological evidence for the evolution of birds from dinosaurs remains a shining example of the vindication of common descent.

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15 responses so far

15 Responses to “Egnor Tries to Write about Evolution to Humorous Effect”

  1. shalliton 19 Jul 2012 at 8:35 am

    Egnor reasons as follows:

    Insane religious conservatives doubt evolution.
    I am an insane religious conservative.
    Therefore…

  2. Kostason 19 Jul 2012 at 8:45 am

    Arent you accusing him of doing the same mistake you made by saying that birds are related to vertebrates?

  3. BillyJoe7on 19 Jul 2012 at 9:12 am

    Kostas,

    “Arent you accusing him of doing the same mistake you made by saying that birds are related to vertebrates?”

    Oops. :D
    Don’t you hate that when it happens.
    I ‘m sure you will see a correction, but don’t hold your breath waiting for Egnor to do likewise.
    (Though I suppose you’d have to be capable of understanding that you are wrong)

  4. Kostason 19 Jul 2012 at 9:23 am

    I dont doubt Steve understands these issues very well (probably better than me) but this is exactly why you have to be extra careful. Egnor will see this and will focus on it (even if just inside his head)
    When i am having a conversation and i make a small mistake or use a relatively weak link in a long and robust syllogism thats pretty much the beggining of the end. It complete derails it

  5. Steven Novellaon 19 Jul 2012 at 9:30 am

    Kostas – not really, it all depends on context. For example – bird are dinosaurs. They are now included in the clade dinosaurs, as I pointed out in my original article. But, when searching for what group birds belong to it is not unreasonable to state the hypothesis that birds are related to dinosaurs.

    Similarly, when dinosaurs were first discovered it was reasonable to ask if they were related to reptiles or, for example, mammals.

    My criticism of Egnor is more that, at the time we are talking about it was already known that dinosaurs were reptiles. It was not a prediction that they would be found to be related to reptiles. I wasn’t trying to be a pedant about “related to” vs “belonging to’ but to show that Egnor clearly does not have a command of the basic facts.

  6. Kostason 19 Jul 2012 at 9:46 am

    Thats not what i meant. I agree that his mistake was crucial to his argument while yours wasnt. But still its the same mistake isnt it ? And I think when it comes to science you can never be too pedantic! (as you put it)

  7. Steven Novellaon 19 Jul 2012 at 10:01 am

    In a technical paper specific terminology would be used – as you say, as pedantic as you can get, and that’s appropriate. When translating these ideas to common vernacular it is important to be as clear and precise as possible, and I am all for approrpriate pendantry.

    “Related to” is a vague term that can never be precise enough to stand in for a specific technical term, so its use will never be technically precise. But sure, the phrase, “birds are related to vertebrates” is problematic. It would have been better to say, “related to other vertebrates”, which is what I meant. “Belongs to the vertebrate group’ would also work.

    My point, however, is that this is not the mistake I was pointing to with Egnor. He made it seem like there were two competing theories – dinosaurs are related to reptiles, vs dinosaurs are related to birds. This is not true. Dinosaurs were known to be reptiles at the time (so in a sense dinosaurs are related to both birds and reptiles- these are not competing hypotheses) The competing hypotheses were – birds are related to dinosaurs vs birds are related to some other reptile group. In this case “related to” means “evolved from” or even “is a subgroup of” (in cladistic terms). In fact, this should be stated as “most closely related to” since all life is related to all other life – the question really is how closely different groups are related. So that can be considered another “mistake” (imprecise use of language).

    My point is – it’s not the “same mistake” with different implications. It’s a different mistake entirely.

  8. locutusbrgon 19 Jul 2012 at 10:23 am

    “He made it seem like there were two competing theories – dinosaurs are related to reptiles, vs dinosaurs are related to birds. This is not true. Dinosaurs were known to be reptiles at the time (so in a sense dinosaurs are related to both birds and reptiles- these are not competing hypotheses) The competing hypotheses were – birds are related to dinosaurs vs birds are related to some other reptile group.”

    I will give Egnor some credit, and assume that he is aware that this argument is fallacious. For the average person in the US, with poor understanding for evolution, this makes a lot of sense. What some people know about the evolution of dinosaurs they learned from Jurassic park. This very popular movie would tend to give a under-educated person the impression that once we thought dinosaurs were reptiles and now we think that they were birds. Also that you can clone from fossil insects. Never mind it was fiction.
    I think you don’t give him enough credit Steve. I think that this a “know your audience” type of mistake. Works in every other mode of pseudoscience. A little truth twisted just the right way so that others will say’ You know he has a point”. You are like Houdini watching a magic show. you have no problem seeing such an obvious trick you think it it was a obvious mistake. Or maybe you are just being generous and assuming there is no deception self or otherwise.

  9. elmer mccurdyon 19 Jul 2012 at 3:24 pm

    “I am all for approrpriate pendantry.”

    I cloudn’t argee more.

  10. DOYLEon 19 Jul 2012 at 4:13 pm

    At the core of any creationist argument is the seed of a bad bargain.If you can lift your theory off the ground with a fraudulent deciet then you can continue to build and buttress that initial intellectual bargin.Anyone with a self serving agenda needs certain positions taken as gospel.The further away and more complicated one is from that original concession,the more difficult it is to show it as an abject lie.

  11. steven johnsonon 19 Jul 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Yes, Egnor erected a straw man, then still got confused while attacking it. But some of the confusion seems to be about prediction, testability and explanation.

    The principle of common descent would in another time or field of science would probably have been called a “law.” Scientific laws are commonly described as descriptions or generalizations about how things work in nature. Common descent was established on a mass of observations from morphology and embryology, and later confirmed further by genetic data. Scientific laws may be refined or possibly even wholly refuted by later observations. For instance, lateral gene transfer in bacteria seems to justify a refinement in the doctrine of common descent. There are antecedents to this principle, for instance, the cell theory, which implicitly requires that all changes in descent be physically possible for cells to carry out. And there are consequences too, such as that new species must come from old species. But is it really useful or enlightening to call these predictions?

    Natural selection, on the other hand, is what some would call a theory, a scientific explanation, although I gather others would define “theory” as an algorithm(or verbal/conceptual equivalent) for generating predictions. In that case, this link says that Popper’s claim is that natural selection, equating adaptation to fitness, is non-predictive because all organisms must be adapted to their environments, else they would be extinct. The rebuttal is that 1) the unfit are extinct 2) physically impossible changes will not occur along the chain of common descent and 3) new species descend from old species.

    Note that 1) is merely a restatement, not a prediction while 2) & 3) are trivial “predictions,” because they are not unique to the theory of natural selection. At this point, the link goes on to explain that fitness is defined causally, functionally, statistically a posteriori, not logically and semanticaly a priori. And besides that, fitness is not determininistic but dispositional. What is not clear is how fitness being those things makes it possible to make predictions. There have been a number of experiments that have successfully tested predictions about natural selection’s effects on gene frequencies but it seems that the difficulties in defining fitness in a way that you can predict/control makes them the exception rather than the rule in evolutionary science.

    The thing worth thinking about, is that Darwin provided masses of evidence in favor of natural selection decades before experiments that teased out a prediction could be performed. Science since has provided masses more. But they weren’t predictions.

    You can use natural selection to explain vestigial organs. An organ is no longer adaptive, nature selects agains the waste of resources for it. The mechanics of genetics may not permit an easy way to simply erase the organ, but the slow increment of genetic changes diverts resources from the less fitting organ, it gets smaller and smaller, that is, vestigial. As the resources diverted become less cumbersome, however, the intensity of selection pressure becomes less and less. The vestigial organ can then survive indefintiely until the vagaries of genetic change do possibly succeed in erasing the last trace. Natural selection (particularly gene-selection) says traits are adaptive, increase fitness. We can explain fitness-decreasing vestigial organs as above, using supplementary hypotheses and contingencies that explain away the violation of this prediction.

    We cannot predict which organs will become vestigial; we cannot predict which will finally disappear; we cannot predict for which a new function might be found; we can not statistically predict incidence of vestigialization, time for vestigialization, rates of vestigialization or intensity of natural selection against vestigial organs. But, rather than throw up our hands, isn’t the real clarification, not that natural selection is scientific because it is predictive, but, because it is explanatory of massive amounts of data. Charles Darwin made a convincing case for natural selection before the experiments. And the kind of evidence he presented has only been added to.

    Even more to the point, if there are experiments confirming predictions of natural selection about speciation (instead of change in gene frequencies,) they are a well kept secret. I suppose it is likely that eventually science will find a way to conduct such experiments. But even if no one were ever ingeniuous enough to find the way, we already have quite a bit of evidence showing that natural selection is a major factor in novel speciation, and overwhelming evidence it is the major factor in maintaining species morphology (the forgotten aspect of speciation?) Is throwing out a lot of straw about predictions inviting the Egnors to make straw men?

  12. bachfiendon 19 Jul 2012 at 7:03 pm

    It’s difficult to pin down what Michael Egnor actually believes.

    His Favoured theory of evolution appears to be Thomistic dualism and teleology, so he’s basing a lot of his idea on Thomas of Aquinas. And whatever he knew of biology.

    His evidence for teleology is convergent evolution, which is just evidence of convergent natural selection.

    He also deliberately misunderstands Punctuated Equilibrium, thinking that it means that speciation by natural selection is disproved. If a common widespread marine invertebrate with a shell is replaced by a similar common widespread marine invertebrate in a short time on geological time, then that means that God decided to let the first species go extinct and replace it with a similar species.

    Or as Ken Miller puts it, God as a serial incompetent creator.

    I’m prepared to make a prediction. Michael Egnor will start yet another thread based on Steve’s latest one. And proceed to get everything wrong.

  13. Davdoodleson 19 Jul 2012 at 8:48 pm

    “Once again Egnor demonstrates that creationists in general, and he in particular, do not understand evolutionary theory or the arguments in its favor.”

    Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963), “Proper Studies”, 1927

    Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices, but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence and fulfills the duty to express the results of his thought in clear form. Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), quoted in New York Times, March 19, 1940

    So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence. Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

    There are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, and the third is useless. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), The Prince

  14. DanRoyon 21 Jul 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Egnors post makes a little more sense if you presume that he, crazy as it may sound, did not know that dinosaurs are reptiles and birds are dinosaurs.

    I believe Egnor thinks that “First there were dinos, and they evolved into either reptiles or birds.

    I said a little more sense, which amounts to not a whole lot.

  15. DragonsSlipperson 25 Jul 2012 at 12:39 am

    Steve,
    Glad to hear you had a good time at TAM. Thanks for doing the phone interview with me on short notice. Again, I hope to meet you in person someday. You are a major inspiration.
    ~Kristin

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