Feb 28 2011

A Creationist Challenge

One of my earlier posts on NeuroLogica was Ten Major Flaws in Evolution: A Refutation, published four years ago. This continues to be a popular post, including an updated version I published on Skepticblog, and still attracts the occasional creationist who shows up to snipe at the post, like this one:

i read this and found it funny. It supposedly gives a scientific refutation, but it is full of more bias than fox news, and a lot of emotion as well.

here’s a scientific case by an actual scientists, you know, one with a ph. D, and he uses statements by some of your favorite evolutionary scientists to insist evolution doesn’t exist.

i challenge you to write a refutation on this one.


Challenge accepted.

The comment itself is fairly typical – it is nothing more than a few logical fallacies. The commenter starts with some ad hominems, asserting that my post is biased and emotional. They provide no evidence or argument to support this assertion. And of course they don’t even attempt to counter any of the arguments I laid out. They then follow up with an argument from authority – he can link to a PhD creationist – so there.

The article that the commenter links to is by Henry M. Morris, founder for the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) – a young-earth creationist organization. Morris was (he died in 2006 following a stroke) a PhD – in civil engineering. This point is irrelevant to his actual arguments. I bring it up only to put the commenter’s argument from authority into perspective. No disrespect to engineers – but they are not biologists. They have no expertise relevant to the question of evolution – no more than my MD. So let’s stick to the arguments themselves.

The article by Morris is an overview of so-called Creation Science, of which Morris was a major architect. The arguments he presents are all old creationist canards, long deconstructed by scientists. In fact I address many of them in my original refutation. Creationists generally are not very original – they recycle old arguments endlessly, regardless of how many times they have been destroyed.

Morris also makes heavy use of the “taking a quote out of context” strategy favored by creationists. His quotes are often from secondary sources and are incomplete. A more scholarly (i.e. intellectually honest) approach would be to cite actual evidence to support a point. If you are going to cite an authority, then make sure the quote is relevant, in context, and complete. And even better, cite a number of sources to show that the opinion is representative. Rather we get single, partial, and often outdated quotes without context.

Evolution is happening now

Morris separates his article into sections, the first entitled: Evolution is not happening now. Here he repeats the “kinds” argument I already dealt with (nature is not, it turns out, cleanly divided into “kinds”, which have no operational definition). He also repeats this canard:

Such variation is often called microevolution, and these minor horizontal (or downward) changes occur fairly often, but such changes are not true “vertical” evolution.

This is the microevolution/macroevolution false dichotomy. It is only “often called” this by creationists – not by actual evolutionary scientists. There is no theoretical or empirical division between macro and micro evolution. There is just evolution, which can result in the full spectrum of change from minor tweaks to major changes.

But Morris does commit another error here – again demonstrating that creationist arguments against evolution are almost entirely premised on their factual misinformation or their own conceptual misunderstanding of the science. Morris wonders why there are no “dats” – dog-cat transitional species. He misses the hierarchical nature of evolution. As evolution proceeds, and creatures develop a greater and greater evolutionary history behind them, they increasingly are committed to their body plan. This results in a nestled hierarchy of groups – which is reflected in taxonomy (the naming scheme of living things).

So once our distant ancestors developed the basic body plan of chordates, they were committed to that body plan. Subsequent evolution resulted in variations on that plan, each of which then developed further variations, etc. But evolution cannot go backward, undo evolutionary changes and then proceed down a different path. Once an evolutionary line has developed into a dog, evolution can produce variations on the dog, but it cannot go backwards and produce a cat.

Stephen J. Gould described this distinction as the difference between disparity and diversity. Disparity (the degree of morphological difference) actually decreases over evolutionary time, as lineages go extinct and the surviving lineages are committed to fewer and fewer basic body plans. Meanwhile, diversity (the number of variations on a body plan) within groups tends to increase over time.

In other words – the kind of evolutionary changes that were happening in the past, when species were relatively undifferentiated (compared to contemporary species) is indeed not happening today. Modern multi-cellular life has 600 million years of evolutionary history constraining their future evolution – which was not true of species at the base of the evolutionary tree. But modern species are indeed still evolving.

Here is a list of research documenting observed instances of speciation. The list is from 1995, and there are more recent examples to add to the list. Here are some more. And here is a good list with references of more recent cases.

Evolution happened in the past

Next Morris tries to convince the reader that there is no evidence for evolution in the past, focusing on the fossil record. He repeats the false claim (again, which I already dealt with) that there are no transitional fossils:

Even those who believe in rapid evolution recognize that a considerable number of generations would be required for one distinct “kind” to evolve into another more complex kind. There ought, therefore, to be a considerable number of true transitional structures preserved in the fossils — after all, there are billions of non-transitional structures there! But (with the exception of a few very doubtful creatures such as the controversial feathered dinosaurs and the alleged walking whales), they are not there.

This is so factually incorrect, and so often thoroughly refuted, that it is difficult to characterize it as anything other than a lie. I deal with this question at length here, pointing out that there are numerous transitional fossils for the evolution of terrestrial vertebrates, mammals, whales, birds, turtles, and yes – humans from ape ancestors. There are many more examples, these are just some of my favorites.

Much of what follows (as you can see it takes far more space to correct the lies and distortions of Morris than it did to create them) is classic denialism – misinterpreting the state of the science, and confusing lack of information about the details of evolution with lack of confidence in the fact of evolution. Here are some examples – he quotes Niles Eldridge:

“It is a simple ineluctable truth that virtually all members of a biota remain basically stable, with minor fluctuations, throughout their durations. . . .

So how do evolutionists arrive at their evolutionary trees from fossils of organisms which didn’t change during their durations?

Beware the “….” – that means that meaningful parts of the quote are being omitted. I happen to have the book (The Pattern of Evolution) from which Morris mined that particular quote. Here’s the rest of it:

(Remember, by “biota” we mean the commonly preserved plants and animals of a particular geological interval, which occupy regions often as large as Roger Tory Peterson’s “eastern” region of North American birds.) And when these systems change – when the older species disappear, and new ones take their place – the change happens relatively abruptly and in lockstep fashion.”

Eldridge was one of the authors (with Gould) of punctuated equilibrium theory. This states that, if you look at the fossil record, what we see are species emerging, persisting with little change for a while, and then disappearing from the fossil record. They theorize that most species most of the time are at equilibrium with their environment, and so do not change much. But these periods of equilibrium are punctuated by disequilibrium – periods of change when species will have to migrate, evolve, or go extinct.

This does not mean that speciation does not take place. And if you look at the fossil record we see a pattern of descendant species emerging from ancestor species over time – in a nice evolutionary pattern. Morris gives a complete misrepresentation of Eldridge’s point – once again we see intellectual dishonesty in his methods of an astounding degree. His other points are all similar.

The Genetic Evidence

Morris next tackles the genetic evidence, writing:

More often is the argument used that similar DNA structures in two different organisms proves common evolutionary ancestry.

Neither argument is valid. There is no reason whatever why the Creator could not or would not use the same type of genetic code based on DNA for all His created life forms. This is evidence for intelligent design and creation, not evolution.

The genetic evidence is an overwhelming home-run for evolution. As good as the fossil evidence is, the genetic evidence is much better. Here is an excellent summary of the multiple lines of molecular evidence for evolution. Basically, if we look at the sequence of DNA, the variations in trinucleotide codes for amino acids, and amino acids for proteins, and transposons within DNA we see a pattern that can only be explained by evolution (or a mischievous god who chose, for some reason, to make life look exactly as if it had evolved – a non-falsifiable notion).

Here is one example. The genetic code is essentially comprised of four letters (ACGT for DNA), and every triplet of three letters equates to a specific amino acid. There are 64 (4^3) possible three letter combinations, and 20 amino acids. A few combinations are used for housekeeping, like a code to indicate where a gene stops, but the rest code for amino acids. There are more combinations than amino acids, so most amino acids are coded for by multiple combinations. This means that a mutation that results in a one-letter change might alter from one code for a particular amino acid to another code for the same amino acid. This is called a silent mutation because it does not result in any change in the resulting protein.

It also means that there are very many possible codes for any individual protein. The question is – which codes out of the gazillions of possible codes do we find for each type of protein in different species. If each “kind” were created separately there would not need to be any relationship. Each kind could have it’s own variation, or they could all be identical if they were essentially copied (plus any mutations accruing since creation, which would be minimal). But if life evolved then we would expect that the exact sequence of DNA code would be similar in related species, but progressively different (through silent mutations) over evolutionary time.

This is precisely what we find – in every protein we have examined. This pattern is necessary if evolution were true. It cannot be explained by random chance (the probability is absurdly tiny – essentially zero). And it makes no sense from a creationist perspective. This same pattern (a branching hierarchy) emerges when we look at amino acid substitutions in proteins and other aspects of the genetic code.

Further, the picture of the relationship among species that emerges from genetic analysis matches nicely with the morphological and fossil evidence.

Because these lines of reconstructing the evolutionary past are imperfect and incomplete, they do not match precisely in every instance. They match well-enough that they are consistent with evolution, but get progressively fuzzy at finer and finer levels of detail. This is pretty much what we would expect. But Morris uses the denialist tactic of using fuzziness at the fine levels of detail to call into question the big picture (again by taking quotes out of context).

Morris does not seem to grasp the actual science. Instead he just quote mines for snippets that seem to support the conclusion he has already formed.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics? Really?

Yes, Morris goes for the second law of thermodynamics again – in the exact way that I already addressed. He responds to scientists correctly pointing out that the Earth is an open system, by writing:

This naive response to the entropy law is typical of evolutionary dissimulation. While it is true that local order can increase in an open system if certain conditions are met, the fact is that evolution does not meet those conditions. Simply saying that the earth is open to the energy from the sun says nothing about how that raw solar heat is converted into increased complexity in any system, open or closed.

The fact is that the best known and most fundamental equation of thermodynamics says that the influx of heat into an open system will increase the entropy of that system, not decrease it. All known cases of decreased entropy (or increased organization) in open systems involve a guiding program of some sort and one or more energy conversion mechanisms.

Energy has to be transformed into a usable form in order to do the work necessary to decrease entropy. That’s right. That work is done by life. Plants take solar energy (again – I’m not sure what “raw solar heat” means) and convert it into food. That food fuels the processes of life, which include development and reproduction. Evolution emerges from those processes- therefore the conditions that Morris speaks of are met.

But Morris next makes a very confused argument:

Evolution has neither of these. Mutations are not “organizing” mechanisms, but disorganizing (in accord with the second law). They are commonly harmful, sometimes neutral, but never beneficial (at least as far as observed mutations are concerned). Natural selection cannot generate order, but can only “sieve out” the disorganizing mutations presented to it, thereby conserving the existing order, but never generating new order.

The notion that evolution (as if it’s a thing) needs to use energy is hopelessly confused. Evolution is a process that emerges from the system of life – and life certainly can use solar energy to decrease its entropy, and by extension the entropy of the biosphere.

Morris slips into what is often presented as an information argument. (Yet again – already dealt with. The pattern here is that we are seeing a shuffling around of the same tired creationists arguments.) It is first not true that most mutations are harmful. Many are silent, and many of those that are not silent are not harmful. They may be neutral, they may be a mixed blessing, and their relative benefit vs harm is likely to be situational. They may be fatal. And they also may be simply beneficial.

But mutations are not “disorganizing” – that does not even make sense. It seems to be based on a purely creationist notion that species are in some privileged perfect state, and any mutation can only take them farther from that perfection. For those who actually understand biology, life is a kluge of compromises and variation. Mutations are mostly lateral moves from one chaotic state to another. They are not directional.

But they do provide raw material, variation, for natural selection. Natural selection cannot generate variation, but it can select among that variation to provide differential survival. This is an old game played by creationists – mutations are not selective, and natural selection is not creative (does not increase variation). These are true but irrelevant, because mutations increase variation and information, and selection is a creative force that results in the differential survival of better adapted variation.

And all of this has absolutely nothing to do with the thermodynamic argument – it’s a giant misdirection.

Evolution is Science

Morris finishes with a long rambling argument that evolution is religion.

Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion — a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality . . . . Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.

Morris ties evolution to atheism, which, he argues, makes it a religion. This assumes, of course, that atheism is a religion. That depends on how you define atheism and how you define religion – but it is mostly wrong. Atheism is a lack of belief in one particular supernatural claim – that does not qualify it as a religion.

Nor is acceptance of evolution equal to lack of belief in god or the supernatural. There are many scientists who accept evolution who also have faith (like Kenneth Miller).

Morris is confusing (he did that a lot) philosophical naturalism with methodological naturalism. Science requires methodological naturalism. The methods of science can only work within a framework of testable cause and effect. The supernatural cannot be falsified (because it functions like magic) and so is incompatible with science. This is not a choice, it’s not a belief, it’s not religion – it is a logical imperative of the methods of science. Practitioners of science are free to believe whatever they want, but the methods of science must follow methodological naturalism.

Morris also fails to recognize that his argument would apply to all of science, not just evolution. But it doesn’t matter because his entire argument fails from faulty premises and logic.


The point of Morris’s diatribe is to convince his readers that evolution is an atheist conspiracy, not a legitimate science. Unfortunately, for his target audience – his form of misdirection, misinformation, and slippery logic is effective.

I found nothing new in his article, which was comprised entirely of recycled creationist arguments that have long been demolished by careful examination.

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