Jul 19 2016

Debunking Islamic Creationism

scaletofeatherAdnan Oktar, who writes under the pen name of Harun Yahya, is an Islamic creationist. He has written several books and his articles now infect the internet.

His arguments are essentially the same as Christian creationists, which raises the question of whether or not he developed them independently or he simply read Christian creationist texts. He references Duane Gish and other similar sources, so it seems that at least to some extent the similarity is through direct copying.

Some of the similarity may also be due to the fact that he is following a similar process, which can best be summarized as “making shit up.” He also likes to quote scientists out of context, a technique he seems to have borrowed from his Christian counterparts.

I also find it very familiar in that he presents himself as an intellectual and yet is breathtakingly ignorant of his subject matter. He appears to have learned about evolution from what Stephen J. Gould characterized as, “secondary hostile sources.” The result is that he tilts at rather simplistic “strawmen,” and never comes close to modern evolutionary theory, which escapes his attacks unscathed. Let’s take a look.

He writes:

For evolutionists, fossil specimens, often hundreds of millions of years old, are all tools they can use in line with their own theories. Evolutionists take a fossil, link it arbitrarily to some present-day species, and then claim that the fossil is the ancestor of the living organism in question.

Using the term, “evolutionists” instead of “evolutionary biologist” is a huge clue that you are dealing with a propagandist for creationism (and you know “Darwinist” is coming), but that is the least of his problems. He completely mischaracterizes the process of science.

Fossils are not tools used in line with evolutionary theory, they are evidence. They are evidence used to test hypotheses about the past, including evolutionary theory. They are also not “linked arbitrarily” to an extant species. Paleontologists take great care to examine specific anatomical features to see where a fossil fits into the tree of life.

One type of analysis they do is to determine if a feature is analogous or homologous. Analogous features look similar because they have a similar function. Homologous features look similar because they share a common ancestor. The difference is that homologous features are similar in details that do not related directly to function, and therefore likely derive from a shared common ancestor.

If you read the paleontological literature (Oktar gives no evidence of ever having done so) it is mostly full of detailed descriptions of minute anatomical structures and arguments for whether those features are analogous or homologous, and why that specimen fits where it does. Oktar might as well have said that elements are placed “arbitrarily” on the periodic table, or that particles are placed “arbitrarily” within the standard model of physics.

There are also some specimens that are not linked to extant species, such as some phyla seen in the Cambrian fauna. They have no modern representatives.

Further, placing a specimen within its proper clade (evolutionary group – essentially one branch and all of its descendants) does not necessarily mean that the species is an ancestor to a modern or extant species or group. Most fossil species are not direct ancestors to any extant species, but rather are just closely related to a putative ancestor. They are cousins or side branches. They may represent a group that is transitional or related to a modern group.

Even after one paragraph, you can tell Oktar does not understand evolutionary theory, or science itself, but that he does have the ability to pack misconceptions densely into his writing. It continues:

If the fossil in question is a fish, for example, they claim on the basis of a few bones that it possesses primitive features, newly developing organs and limbs in the process of undergoing a transition to a “higher” life form.

Oktar does not understand how evolutionary biologists use the term “primitive.” They use it simply to denote an ancestral form relative to a descendant form. You cannot look at a feature and tell that it is primitive. It is only primitive relative to something that evolved from it. Oktar’s misunderstanding will be more evident later, so I will discuss it further after another illustrative quote. Here he also introduces the concept of “higher” form, which he puts into quotation marks himself for an unclear reason. This suggests he is quoting scientists, but they could just be scare quotes.

The concept of one species being evolutionarily “higher” than another is antiquated. All living species are just as evolved as all other living species, meaning that have exactly the same amount of evolutionary history behind them. Further, modern species are not “higher” than ancient species in any meaningful way. They are just different. Species adapt to their niche, they are not ascending to anything. This is a dusty concept that scientists have cleared long ago.

But it just gets worse:

When a living thing emerges in the same form it was known to have existed in millions of years ago, it of course demolishes all the evolutionist fables told about it. Its simple presence demonstrates that a living organism that—according to Darwinists’ claims—should have undergone considerable evolution after the course of millions of years, somehow remained immune to the process. Moreover, it proves that at a time when, again according to evolution, only primitive forms of life were in existence, fully developed life forms with complex features and their own unique structures were already thriving.

Oktar has focused much of his attention on the “living fossil” argument. He published a book called the Atlas of Creation, which is just pictures of living species and fossil species allegedly showing that they are identical. They aren’t. As a demonstration of his scholarship, however, some of the biologist he sent his book to noticed that some of the pictures include fishing lures, not actual species.

In any case, this is good time to bring up punctuated equilibrium. This is the theory of Gould and Eldridge that characterizes the overall pattern seen in the fossil record. They argue that most species most of the time are in equilibrium with their environment. During such times selective pressures would actually serve to keep the species more or less optimally adapted to their niche. There would be no pressure for directional change. They may drift in ways that do not affect their adaptation, but they will remain a largely unchanged species.

To add a further layer, species will spread out over a range that represents different environments. Local varieties therefore evolve, adapted to the local conditions with some genetic drift thrown in. One of these subpopulations may then predominate if the environment changes, or they may undergo a burst of directional evolution if they significantly change their niche. They may, for example, start using a different food source, or they may face a new predator not present in other parts of their range.

The static equilibrium is therefore punctuated by geologically rapid evolution to a new equilibrium. We call these equilibria species – they tend to survive on average for about 2 million years, which is long enough for some of their specimens to make it into the fossil record. The periods of rapid evolution, however, tend to occur in small populations in a limited range over thousands of years – not long enough for even one let alone multiple samples find their way into museum drawers.

Gould and Eldridge argue that this scenario fits well with the fossil record, which seems to jump from species to species. It is best to think of this as the resolution of the fossil record. We still see species evolving over time into descendant species in a web of evolutionary relationships, just not in the arbitrarily fine gradations imagined by Darwin.

All this means that Oktar’s claim that any evidence of a static species in the fossil record disproves evolution is wrong. Scientists have already accounted for such stasis. What Oktar and other creationists leave out is that stasis is punctuated by evolutionary changes.

Even worse, Oktar clearly believes that “primitive” forms mean that they are partially formed.  To emphasize this he later writes about transitional forms:

Since these creatures were in a process of transition, they must have been deformed, deficient and flawed.

Wrong. No scientist believes this, and it makes no theoretical sense.  This kind of statement betrays a complete misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and natural selection. All creatures are, in a way, transitional. Every step of the way, however, they are fully functional in their current form. A transitional wing is not a half wing, it is a fully formed something else. The vertebrate eye was never a half eye – it was fully functional every step of the way.

Oktar’s position is similar to believing that 15th century farmers were dragging around half a tractor to plow their fields, rather than a fully formed and functional plow.

Of course, if you believe that “transitional” and “primitive” means you have some ridiculous chimera like something out of The Thing, then there are no such creatures in the fossil record. But that is not what evolutionary theory predicts.

Even with this childish notion of what a transitional fossil is, Oktar still has to basically lie in order to claim that there is not a single transitional fossil in the record. He specifically claims there are no connections between major groups, like fish and amphibians, or reptiles and bird.

He must simply ignore Tiktaalik, which is a fish – land vertebrate transitional species that was found because paleontologists predicted where it would be (it would be in strata of a certain age). He also ignores the now numerous species of feathered dinosaurs that are clearly transitional between theropods and birds. He even has a silly graphic of scales morphing into feathers, ignoring the fact that we actually have an evolutionary sequence documenting much of the evolution of feathers. Again – primitive feathers were not half feathers, they were fully formed structures that served other functions, such as insulation, display, or trapping insects.

Conclusion

Oktar’s “debunking” of evolutionary theory is largely fact free, and is based on his own simplistic misunderstanding of evolution supported largely with misstatements of facts, straw men, and quotes taken out of context.

In other words, Islamic creationism is no different than Christian creationism.

(Note: I understand that there are different aspects to evolutionary theory and different flavors of creationism, but for convenience I am simply referring to evolution denial as a general phenomenon.)

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