Feb 10 2009

Creationists are so unimaginative

Recently, a creationist blogger left the following comment on a recent thread here. He is very long on rhetoric and very short on facts and logic.  He does not raise any new points that have not already been demolished many times over (hence the title of this post). But, this week I want to blog about creation and evolution since it is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.

Here is the comment, posted under the name “truthseeker” but who blogs under John Andrew.

Dr. Egnor addresses you guys as “Darwinists” because there’s no better name for you. Darwinists are really atheists who justify their atheism by attributing everything but the kitchen sink to Darwin. What other explanation could there be for the manic pursuit of a dogma that is attributed to a mere human being. Darwin was not a god, yet he is revered as such by you guys. As a mere man, he erred. Yet you geniuses seem unwilling to acknowledge that as a possibility. You are unreasonable, and unreasoning. You are incapable of respectful dialogue with those who have differing views. There’s a saying that if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Could that be the reason the evidence SEEMS to stack up in your favor?

I am not a scientist, but I have read a bit, and I am very much interested in evaluating all ideas according to their merit. I have uncovered questions and challenges to the scientist/naturalist/atheist/whateveryouwanttocallyourself dogma. I wrote a series on my blog, and I was challenged a few times. Yet each time I responded with calm reason, asking questions that seemed to challenge Darwinian dogma, my challengers simply disengaged. All they seemed interested in was yelling, cursing, deriding and name-calling. Once I challenged them to defend their positions rationally, they simply disappeared.

Drop on by and take a look. See if you can answer my questions in the spirit of truth-seeking. That means reason with me. If you think I don’t get it, explain it to me. http://andj4613.wordpress.com

Always be suspicious of those who try to grab the mantle of “truth.”  It seems to be a reliable red flag for nonsense.

Before I get to some of the meat of  John’s claims, I want to point out his hysterical propaganda above. He claims that he is only interested in a calm and respectful dialogue, but that those who leave comments on his blog just want to rant and then disappear when challenged. Reading the blog and comments, however, leaves me with the impression that John’s confirmation bias is bordering on delusional.

The very content of his comment here is not calm and rational. He spends most of his time constructing pathetic straw men against which to rant. To him scientists who accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution are dogmatic, worship Darwin (for whatever reason) and are just desperately trying to justify their atheism. He does not appear to have made any attempt to understand evolution, its history, or the arguments for it. This is not the comment of someone who wants a serious dialogue with those who understand evolution, and who seeks the “truth” whatever it might be.

The points that he thinks are so devastating against evolution and from which “Darwinists” run are just recycled old arguments that have already been exposed. In fact, just yesterday I reposted at SkepticBlog an updated version of my answers to “Ten Major Flaws of Evolution.” John’s points are mostly covered here – and John does not seem to be aware that his points have already been refuted, and he has no answer to those refutations.

I am not going to cover yet again the points I addressed yesterday – that post will serve as part of my response to John. For example he repeats (this one never ceases to amaze me) the claim that there are no transitional fossils.

But I did want to focus on two points – the first is the Cambrian Explosion (because this is not covered in my other post). John says on his blog:

The infamous “Cambrian Explosion” shows large numbers of new and much more complex species appearing within a very short period of time, seemingly out of nowhere.  And it was accompanied by a major diversification of other organisms, including animals, phytoplankton, and calcimicrobes.

John does not say what a “very short period of time” is. When talking about something that happened 540 million years ago, and about evidence that exists in the geological record, a little clarification is in order. The Cambrian “explosion” was only sudden in geological time scales. It lasted from 10-50 million years, depending upon how you break it up. But even at the low estimate – 10 million years – that’s a long time, sufficient to allow substantial evolutionary change. But by using the term “short period of time” without any context or clarification, John attempted to create a false impression.

What the Cambrian really represents is the first appearance of hard parts that can fossilize in multicellular life. This is consistent with what we expect – multicellular life arose at some point from single-celled ancestors. Those first multicellular creatures would not have fossilized well. When the adaptation of shells and other hard elements occurred, then such creatures start to appear in the fossil record.

But we would then predict that there might be trace evidence of pre-Cambrian multicellular life, before hard parts appeared. And in fact there is – coprolites, worm casings, and other secondary trace evidence has been found. Just last week, in fact, scientists published evidence of chemical traces of multicellular life from 635 million years ago. Again – this is what we would expect – multicellular life was evolving for tens of millions of years before they evolved hard parts that can fossilize.

The second point I want to cover is that of common descent. He writes:

Universal common descent was a huge leap of faith he (Darwin) made that connected two other observations – that species seemed to appear in the fossil record without explanation, and that species tended to become more complex over time.

There is so much wrong with this. From a historical point of view, common descent did not originate with Darwin.  It was recognized long before Darwin that life seemed to fit into a tree of relatedness. Lamarck spent his career trying to discern the structure of that tree, starting with the hypothesis that it would show a directional trend revealing the inherent force driving evolution. What he found, rather, was a chaotic tree of branching descent with no direction – just adaptation to local environments. To his great credit he changed his thinking in response to this evidence.

Since Darwin the evidence for common descent has only grown, and is now overwhelming. It is perhaps the most supported scientific fact there is (it’s at least one of the most supported). Multiple independent lines of evidence, from anatomy, the fossil record, geology, developmental biology, and genetics – not only support common descent, but the same picture of common descent. This is a remarkable consilience of evidence.

Of these independent lines of evidence the genetic and molecular evidence is the strongest, because it is the most statistically rigorous. In fact daedalus2u (a frequent commenter on this blog as well) pointed this out in the comments to John’s blog – in direct contradiction to John’s own characterization above.

To summarize the main points – proteins are chains of amino acids. There are many different possible arrangements of amino acids that can result in a functionally identical protein, because many amino acids (out of the 20 that make up life) are interchangeable. In addition, there is a redundant genetic code – three base pairs code for each amino acid, and there are several 3-base pair combinations for each amino acid.

To be clear, what this means is that there are potential differences in the sequence of base pairs and in the sequence of amino acids that make absolutely no difference to the final protein -none, zipp, nada.  Combine this with the fact that point mutations (changes in a single base pair) happen at a roughly regular rate over evolutionary time. Those mutations that do not make any functional difference are invisible to natural selection – they cannot be selected against. Therefore they should randomly accumulate over evolutionary time.

Evolution makes a specific prediction about what we would therefore see when we look at protein and genetic information in various species. If common descent is correct then we would expect to see that the closer two species appear to be (by morphology, fossil record, etc.) the fewer random mutations they will display between related proteins. The hemoglobin in a chimp should be more similar to the hemoglobin in a human than a gorilla’s, which will be more similar than a horse’s, which will be more similar than a lizard’s, which will be more similar than a fish – etc.

You should therefore be able to reconstruct the tree of life from looking at any protein that is broadly distributed. Also, you should construct the same tree of life no matter what protein you look at. This is exactly what we find – and this represents overwhelmingly powerful confirmation of common descent. This pattern could not have occurred by chance.

John does not seem to understand this argument. He writes in response:

I want to say, first of all, that I appreciate the calm, instructive tone you took. As a non-scientist, I admit I did not fully appreciate much of your comment, but it seems that you attribute the similarity of DNA design to common descent. Although that seems possible, you have not addressed whether those same design features could have been attributed to a common designer, rather than a common ancestor – or whether they descended from a common ancestor which itself was created by a single designer. Could they?

John’s question is the common response to the evidence for common descent – how do we know life does not look similar because of the common designer?

But this misses the point (and even though daedalus2u explains it further, John never gives any evidence of grasping this evidence).  It’s not just that the proteins look similar – the pattern of similarity reveals branching descent – and the same branching descent for every protein.

If a designer created species roughly as they are, what would be the pattern of differences in genes and proteins? Creationists don’t have an answer for this, and that is why creationism and ID are not testable – they refuse to put their nickle down on any prediction that can falsify their beliefs.  But that point aside, what might we predict from a designer?

Well, once a designer created a functional hemoglobin there would not be any reason to change it, so we might expect that every species with hemoglobin would have the exact same amino acid and base pair sequence as every other. Remember, you cannot say that this is necessary for function – we are talking about changes that have no effect on function. We do not see this.

Or you might say that they would be nearly identical, but that point mutations since creation have created differences. In this case, however, every species would be just as different as every other species. If you compared any two species you would find roughly the same number of mutations different between them – since all species are the same distance from creation. We do not see this pattern, however.

Or you could say that the designer wanted to give each species their own special version of hemoglobin, and that is why they are all slightly different. But then there would be absolutely no reason for there to be any relationship between the apparent degree of evolutionary relatedness and the degree of molecular relatedness. In some protein horses might be more similar to humans than chimps, while in others humans might be closer to the puffer fish. But we don’t see this.

What we see is a pattern of relatedness that is exquisitely evolutionary. It is only compatible with common descent. The only other logical possibility is that a designer specifically varied every gene and protein to create the impression of common descent – an unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific proposition.

Therefore, either creation makes no prediction (not science), or it makes predictions that have been falsified (in which case it is simply wrong, which is a step up from not being science at all). Meanwhile, evolution makes specific predictions that have been validated to such a degree that to deny it would be perverse.

In John’s fantasy world – which is distressingly similar to most creationists I have encountered – I and scientists in general accept evolution because we dogmatically and mindlessly worship Darwin. Never mind that scientists have thoughtfully debated every angle, brought up numerous objections, and searched for highly detailed evidence that could have falsified evolution many times over. Never mind that on this very blog I have constructed many detailed and evidence-based arguments for exactly why I accept evolution as the best theory to date to explain life.  To John and his ilk he can dismiss it all as “dogma”, while simultaneously whining about the dismissive attitude of “Darwinists.”

You might say that I am picking on some random creationist blogger (ignoring the fact that he came to my blog to challenge me) and his views are not representative of the best creationists have to offer. However, this is simply not true. John’s arguments are retreads of the same arguments the creationist community – including the best and brightest among them – have been harping on for decades.

So here is an open challenge to John (and any other creationist). Set aside your self-serving rhetoric about dogma, and answer the evidence I have just laid before you.  I say this is a home-run for common descent. I challenge you to demonstrate that you understand the evidence and offer another viable scientific explanation for it other than common descent.

Either that or admit, at least as far as the scientific evidence is concerned, common descent is the only currently viable conclusion. Then we can move on from there.

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