Feb 13 2015

Darwin Was Not Wrong Day

Yesterday was February 12th, the birthday of Charles Darwin, who introduced (along with Alfred Wallace) the theory of evolution to the world. Darwin remains one of the most famous scientists to have ever lived, and his life’s work was truly a staggering accomplishment.

There has been an increasing movement to make February 12th Darwin Day in recognition of this great scientist and his work. Skeptics and secularists have been celebrating it for years. Last month Delaware governor Jack Markell declared February 12th Darwin Day for his state. In the US Congress, Representative Jim Himes (D-Connecticut) has sponsored a bill to make February 12th Darwin Day. This will probably die in committee, like previous similar resolutions, but at least someone is trying.

Creationists, predictably, are not happy. Ken Ham want February 12th to be declared, “Darwin was wrong day.” This, of course, is nothing new, but is an opportunity to reveal the thought process of some creationists. Some creationists like to pretend they reject evolution because they disagree with the science. This is transparently not true – the reject evolution because of their religious faith, and then just backfill whatever justifications they can manufacture with motivated reasoning.

Ham reveals this to be the case when he writes:

But those who promote Charles Darwin Day are really promoting an anti-God religion. The evolutionary worldview is an attempt to explain the universe and life without God. It’s a religion of naturalism and atheism. Sadly, many Christians buy into this religion and simply squeeze God into the gaps somewhere. By doing this, it is really no different than the Israelites who adopted the idolatry of the pagan nations and added it to their religious system.

He is against even attempting to explain the world without God. This, of course, denies the world view of anyone who does not share his particular faith.

He also desperately and unconvincingly tries to portray science as a religion, indicating that he does not truly understand (or want to understand) either. Science does follow the philosophy of naturalism. There is no choice – science only works within the framework of naturalism.

This is not a religion, however, because it requires no belief, just methodology. Ham’s real problem with this is that when you follow methodological naturalism (science), it works. Really well. The incredible success of the scientific experiment might lead some to conclude that maybe it works because naturalism is actually true, and not just a convenient method for understanding the world.

Evolutionary theory is just one example of this success. In the past the mystics proposed a mysterious universe we could not understand, ruled by god(s) that we could not fathom. Our only option was to bow down in abject faith and submission. Philosophers and later scientists, however, figured out that the universe actually makes internal sense, follows predictable rules, and therefore could be understood with careful thought and observation.

The scientific approach has worked out fabulously. It can make highly accurate predictions about the universe. Evolutionary theory itself made many specific predictions that have been validated. After Darwin fossil discoveries, and pretty much the entire field of genetics, which could have easily falsified evolution instead verified it. No other human method of trying to understand the world can match science for its predictive power.

This makes Ham and other creationists queasy. On the one hand they make it clear that their real and primary objection to evolution, and any other science which overlaps with their faith, is that it is a successful model of explaining the world without reference to their faith. But then they try to justify their rejection of science with pseudoscience. They make demonstrably false or invalid arguments, and keep making them long after they have been demolished.

For example, in his “Darwin Was Wrong” post, Ham repeats several absurd arguments.

The Law of Biogenesis states that life only comes from other life; life never arises from non-life. There are no known exceptions to this law.

I’m sorry, the law of who, now? There is no such law. Creationists just made this up in a fit of circular reasoning. At one point there was no life on earth. At a later point there was. Life arose somehow. Ham is free to believe that magic man miracled life into existence. Science, however, cannot invoke miracles, because they are unfalsifiable and therefore cannot be the basis of verifiable knowledge about the world.

Scientists are actually making good progress understanding what was certainly a complex process that occurred about 3.8 billion years ago. We are still a long way away from fleshing out the process, but there are several plausible pathways that chemical and early RNA evolution could have taken that would have led to the earliest and simplest forms of life. Once you have anything that can be called life, then biological evolution has a foothold and can take over from there.

Ken’s actual premise is that the development of life from non-life is impossible, which neither he nor anyone has demonstrated to be true.

Ham then goes on to make several tortured arguments about how there is no mechanism for evolution, all of which are completely bogus and have been repeatedly demonstraed to be so. He writes:

Evolution is supposed to largely be driven by natural selection and mutations coupled with lots and lots (and lots!) of time. But evolution requires the addition of new information into the DNA of a living organism that adds new traits. For example, you can’t change an amoeba into a hummingbird without adding a lot of new information to produce new features! New features require new information, and molecules-to-man evolution is all about adding new features. But this is a major problem for evolutionists because there is no known mechanism that can add brand-new information into DNA resulting in new traits that lead from amoebas to hummingbirds!

He goes on to say that mutations don’t add new information. This is patently wrong. By definition a mutation adds new information. Ham and other creationists don’t understand what “information” means. There are also known mechanisms, such as gene duplication, that increases the amount of genetic material. One gene can turn into two, which then evolve in different directions, take up different functions, and there you go – you have doubled the genetic information of the original gene.

This is not just a hypothesis. Analysis of the genetics of many different species demonstrates that genes follow a branching pattern of relatedness, just like species do. We can see how some genes have evolved from others, and how chromosomes have multiplied, fused, and changed over evolutionary time. The evidence is truly overwhelming.

Ham finishes with his argument that (please turn off your irony meters) evolution has held back scientific discovery. His examples are vestigial organs and junk DNA. Ham, however, clearly does not understand what vestigial or “junk” means in scientific terms. He is also highly selective in his reference to the science.

I reviewed the issue of junk DNA here. To quickly summarize, there is strong evidence that at least 80% of our genome is not functional. It is left over evolutionary junk. There are, as always, nuances to this statement, and read my other post for more details (or look up the topic yourself).

Ham essentially argues that more of the genome is functional than we thought, and therefore it may be 100% functional. This is flawed reasoning, and ignores the fact that we have good evidence (not just a lack of a known function) to conclude that the majority of our genome is not functional. The main line of evidence is that this portion of the genome is not conserved at all – it appears to be under no evolutionary pressure. Anything with a function should be under some measurable evolutionary pressure.

Conclusion

While the science of evolution has advanced considerably in the last century and a half, it still amazes me how much Darwin got right. His contributions to our understanding of biology will likely never be surpassed.

No amount of denial and intellectual shenanigans by creationists can ever diminish his contributions.

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