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Worldnutdaily Columnist Waxes Stupid on Evolution

I know it will come as a shock to hear that a Worldnutdaily columnist would say lots of stupid things about evolution. You could have bowled me over with a proverbial feather when I saw it (/sarcasm). But Robert Ringer wants you to know that he approaches the subject from a purely intellectual perspective:

I don’t have a religious dog in the evolution fight, so from a very young age I came at the theory of evolution from an intellectual, common-sense point of view. Even though I was predisposed to believing in evolution, what I found when I began reading up on the subject was that virtually every book began with the premise that evolution was a fact.

To my surprise, however, the more I read, the more evolution sounded like something out of “Aesop’s Fables.” Inanimate matter “evolving” into an animal, and an animal evolving into a human being? It seemed to me to be an idea that required a size extra-large imagination.


First of all, the notion of an “intellectual, common-sense point of view” should provoke much laughter. Secondly, this is little more than the old “goo to the zoo to you” formulation restated — just pretend that the first biological organisms jumped directly to being a kitten and then a kitten jumped directly into a human being. My goodness, how ridiculous! Well yes, it is ridiculous; good thing no one claims any such thing. A classic straw man argument.

This argument, said Murchie, is based on the premise that if you could sit enough billions of chimpanzees in front of computers for enough billions of years, random chance would allow them to write all the great works of literature.

Which is a fascinating thought until you consider the mathematics involved. There are approximately 50 possible letters, numbers and punctuation marks on a computer keyboard, and there are 65 character spaces per line in the average book. A chimp would therefore have one in 50 chances of getting the first space on the first line correct.

Since the same is true of the second space on that line, the chimp would have one chance in 50 x 50, or 502, of getting both spaces right (meaning just the first two letters of the first word of just one of the great works of literature). For all 65 spaces on the first line, the figure would jump to 5065, which is equal to 10110.

How big is 10110? According to physicist George Gamow, said Murchie, it is a thousand times greater than the total number of vibrations made by all of the atoms in the universe since the Big Bang!

One of the telltale signs of a creationist is their ability to ignore natural selection. Everything in evolution must be “random” because that leads to Really Big Numbers when you look at probability. But evolution is not a random process; the inputs are random but they are filtered through an algorithmic process. This isn’t really that difficult to understand.

And then there’s the quote mining. You knew there had to be quote mining, right?

The coup de grace for me was when I read a book in the mid ’90s titled “Ever Since Darwin,” written by Stephen Jay Gould, who was one of the world’s leading paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. Like virtually all pro-evolution authors, in “Ever Since Darwin” Gould discussed evolution in an a priori fashion – i.e., stated as a fact rather than a theory – yet, when he reached the last page of his book, he felt compelled to state the following:

“I hope that … Darwin’s own work will permeate more areas of evolutionary thought, where rigid dogmas still reign as a consequence of unquestioned preference, old habits, or social prejudice. My own favorite target is the belief in slow and steady evolutionary change preached by most paleontologists. … The fossil record does not support it; mass extinction and abrupt origin reign [my emphasis].”

Gould’s admission that all known evidence suggests that most, if not all, species have appeared on earth suddenly stunned me and gave me a great deal of respect for his intellectual honesty. It supported the scientific findings that Cro-Magnon man suddenly and mysteriously appeared, about 40,000 years ago, and populated the earth “like a bolt of lightning.”

*sigh* It’s the old, tired game of creationist whack-a-mole. No matter how many times you show how utterly dishonest it is to quote Gould talking about “sudden appearance,” you can be absolutely certain that some other ignorant git will pop out of a hole and do it all over again. Gould himself made perfectly clear that when he said appearance was “sudden” he was talking about the scale of tens of thousands of years, not “on a Tuesday morning.” And he was talking about how speciation appears to take place in the fossil record because it will almost always take place in peripherally isolated populations with much smaller numbers than the ancestral stock it splits off from.

But, Cro-Magnon’s sudden appearance aside, even if the theory of evolution were ultimately proven to be true beyond a reasonable doubt, there is still the problem of the billions of chimpanzees pecking away at computer keyboards for billions of years; i.e., evolution in a random universe would still appear to be a mathematical impossibility.

This is a lot like the claim that bumblebees can’t fly — even if you see them fly, we’ve already determined that it is impossible. So God did it. Or something.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    …I came at the theory of evolution from an intellectual, common-sense point of view.

    I wonder whether they realize that from an intellectual, common-sense point of view, the earth simply cannot be moving? In fact, to me, it should be much, much harder to accept a moving earth than the common ancestry of all life on earth.

  2. randomfactor42 says

    an idea that required a size extra-large imagination

    Nah, just a brain capable of logic.

  3. Tim DeLaney says

    Whenever a creationist uses the “just a theory” argument, you can be certain that he is willfully dishonest. The word “theory”, when applied to science, has been explained ad nauseam, and is still deliberately misinterpreted?

    Sorry, but anybody who does that is just a liar.

  4. alanb says

    It supported the scientific findings that Cro-Magnon man suddenly and mysteriously appeared, about 40,000 years ago, and populated the earth “like a bolt of lightning.”

    That’s head-bangingly stupid even for a creationist. Cro-Magnon man is defined as the first non-Neandertal European. They didn’t “mysteriously appear.” They wandered in from Asia and the Near East where they had been for tens of thousands of years previously.

  5. The Christian Cynic says

    It requires too much of an imagination to conceive of a natural process by which random mutations could be selected for and result in more and more complex organisms, but it’s not so much to conceive that an omniscient, omnipotent, eternal being created it all merely by speaking? Seriously, creationists?

    (Also, when did having an well-developed imagination become a bad thing? Having a good imagination doesn’t mean that you believe whatever you imagine.)

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    There are approximately 50 possible letters, numbers and punctuation marks on a computer keyboard …

    Number of letters, including minuscules & majuscules: 52. Add 10 numbers and we’ve already gotten past Ringer’s count even before considering punctuation and those other symbols.

    I suspect that Ringer’s mother removes his ability to count beyond ten every morning when she puts his shoes on him in her daily process of dressing him funny.

    Otoh, the Ringer family doesn’t deserve all the pointing & laughing here: after all, our esteemed host’s headline has two words too many.

  7. 386sx says

    This argument, said Murchie, is based on the premise that if you could sit enough billions of chimpanzees

    I knew there would be monkeys in there somewhere.

    I don’t have a religious dog in the evolution fight, but I got lots of monkeys! Oooka!

  8. tubi says

    Since the same is true of the second space on that line, the chimp would have one chance in 50 x 50, or 502, of getting both spaces right (meaning just the first two letters of the first word of just one of the great works of literature).

    Wrong.

    To amend the chimps at typewriters analogy and account for selection, let’s say the first letter the chimp bangs out is a “T”. That is a logical first letter for a sentence to open a great work of literature. To wit:

    “Two households, both alike in dignity…” – William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1594)

    “Tush!” – William Shakespeare, Othello (1604)

    “These are the times that try men’s souls.” – Thomas Paine, The Crisis: December 23, 1776 (1776)

    “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

    “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” – William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

    Etc, etc. But once you establish that “T” works (as a mutation from no letter at all, I suppose), you don’t have 50 options for letter #2. You only have a handful plus. All of the vowels, “H”, “R”, “W”, and “Y”. On rare occasions maybe “L” or “S” or apostrophe, if you’re not opening with an English word. You can discard all the others as unfit. That’s how selection works, as opposed to being completely random, every time, every step along the way.

  9. lofgren says

    (Also, when did having an well-developed imagination become a bad thing? Having a good imagination doesn’t mean that you believe whatever you imagine.)

    Fiction has long been highly suspect in evangelical circles (especially science fiction and fantasy or any “alternate reality” type tales) precisely because you do not necessarily have to believe everything you imagine. If you start imagining the world in different ways, you might accidentally imagine one in which there is no god and Jesus is not Lord.

    And then you might notice that such a world would look a hell of a lot like this one.

    Personally I have never understood non-religious objections to the fact of evolution. I guess it is just because I was brought up with it, having known that birds are really just feathered dinosaurs since I was three (dinosaurs did not have feathers back then). PZ has a post up right now about how evolution is not quite so simple as “Stuff changes and survivors survive,” but the crux of its truth really is that simple. Add a mechanism for that “stuff changes” to be directional rather than totally random (i.e. heritability) and the fact evolution seems so obvious and intuitive you really look like a complete fool for disbelieving it. Even most flavors of creationism accept this formulation of evolution.

    (I say “fact” of evolution as opposed to “theory” of evolution because of course the theory of evolution contains a lot more practical details and technical explanations for how and why and how often and where all of that “stuff changing” and “survivors surviving” occurs exactly. These details are subject to change as the theory is perfected, but are not critical to a layman’s understanding of evolution nor acceptance of its occurrence.)

  10. 386sx says

    Personally I have never understood non-religious objections to the fact of evolution.

    He’s not being entirely straightforward when he says it’s non-religious. He’s got his own handy dandy name for it. “Conscious Universal Power Source.” Since he’s got his own religion, and his own handy dandy catchy name for his god, and he makes money selling his thoughts to people, you can betcha he plans on making money off of it.

  11. cptdoom says

    I also find it really interesting that we have at least one really good example of “abrupt origin” in most American homes – the domesticated dog. IIRC, research by scientists jailed in Gulags in Siberia demonstrated that the primary difference between wolves and dogs is a difference in fear and timidity. Dogs are less nervous and fearful around humans than wolves are, which is likely why they were able to bond with humans and become, in terms of numbers, much more successful than wolves.

    The Siberian research was on foxes, I believe, and the scientists kept breeding the most timid foxes, those that behaved most like dogs, with one another through several generations. They found these descendants had much less adrenaline in their bodies than “normal” foxes and they posited the same was true for dogs. What was really interesting is that the reduction in adrenaline allowed many more genes to be expressed and the foxes began to develop the kinds of physical traits (e.g., floppy ears) we associate with dogs. It turns out the drop in adrenaline levels was enough to produce much of the diversity among dogs that we don’t see in wolves (of course human breeding also helped that process along).

    So, “abrupt origin” of traits doesn’t even take a big change in a species, because those traits may be genetically possible, but just not expressed.

  12. lofgren says

    cptdoom, I think some of your description of the fox breeding experiment is not entirely accurate. For example as I heard it the scientists were actually able to remain free to pursue their experiments when other scientists were being jailed for reject Lysenkoism was because their experiment conveniently produced an incredibly valuable byproduct: silver fox furs. Although they could not publicize their research the scientists were able to continue studying foxes in the traditional evolutionary model.

    Additionally, although the foxes do display low adrenaline, this is only theoretically the cause of their behavioral changes. In addition to low adrenaline, the foxes remain in a late-juvenile state their entire lives. Although they attain sexual maturity they otherwise do not appear to progress out of adolescence – or what would be adolescence for wild foxes, but appears to be the adult form of domesticated foxes. It’s not entirely clear whether the stalled maturation causes the low adrenaline or vice versa. The physical traits that you describe, floppy ears and curly tails, are traits of pups that foxes normally outgrow when they become sexually mature.

  13. lofgren says

    Oh, I should say I don’t think any of my post was related to cptdoom’s actual point, which is a good one. I just thought the experiment was really cool. In about ten years when my pup passes on I think I will be looking into getting me a Russian silver fox.

  14. Rob Monkey says

    Minor pedant lofgren, but I don’t think the scientist (it was largely just Dmitri Belyaev) was given more free reign because he was producing fox fur. Rather, he was kicked out of some important position (university prof or somesuch) for advocating evolution instead of Lysenkoism, then went into breeding foxes under the pretense of studying animal physiology. The evolutionary aspects of his research were very much kept secret if I remember correctly, especially given his previous history with getting in trouble for not toeing the line. Hey, we should have a cool name like Lysenkoism for creationist “science” so we don’t have to pollute the lovely name of science with the disgraceful “creationist.”

  15. Rob Monkey says

    Oh, and just cause I think it’s interesting, there was basically one trait that the foxes were selected for: how close you could get to them before they ran away. Just selecting for that one seemingly random behavior could produce the massive differences in just a few generations. Oh science, you rock my world.

  16. lofgren says

    I did not mean that they were able to publicize the results of their experiments, just that the CPSU was happy to not look too closely because the project was a moneymaker.

  17. Rob Monkey says

    But, but, lofgren, we all know they were TEH DIRTY COMMUNISMZ! Moneymaking? Such a thing could never have existed in the Soviet Union before Ayn Rand freed them all from Socialism!!! /sarcasm

    I’m also seconding your opinion that they should send some here, you can have the first one I’ll take #2.

  18. lofgren says

    I remember once reading a great opinion piece by a Russian scientist who fled the USSR to escape punishment for studying evolution and criticizing Lysenkoism. He was responding to Expelled, which compared evolution to Lysenkoism.

    Maybe evolution should be rebranded as a symbol of American freedom and capitalism.

    WHO’S GOT ADORABLE FLOPPY-EARED FOXES. NOT THE COMMIES, BITCHES.

    By the way, one problem that they have with domesticated foxes is that they love humans so much they often piss all over the place whenever they see one.

    Of course, so do some dogs.

  19. meg says

    Well, I’ve learnt a new one today – and that’s an honest thanks. I had no idea about Lysenkoism. Just so I can clarify I’ve understood it properly, it’s an evolutionary theory that doesn’t rely on natural selection, but that traits are breed to increase survival?

  20. Tim DeLaney says

    Ringer claims:

    I don’t have a religious dog in the evolution fight…

    But his own words later in the piece show this to be a lie:

    That being the case, a religionist has no reason to fear evidence that supports evolution, for it is almost certain that evolution, if there really is such a thing, is not powered by randomness, but by a Supreme Power Source that we can never hope to understand.

    His opening paragraph implies that he has actually read about evolution, but the rest of the article shows that he has no understanding of the topic whatever.

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    meg @ # 21: Lysenkoism… an evolutionary theory that doesn’t rely on natural selection, but that traits are breed to increase survival?

    Not quite. You can look it up fairly easily, but the gist is that Trogim Lysenko tried to apply Communist thinking to biology, claiming for example that wheat plants seeded much more densely than usual would not compete with each other but would develop “solidarity” and grow more abundantly in mutual support.

    This makes no sense agriculturally, but it persuaded Stalin, who ordered it be made part of Soviet orthodoxy, instantly crippling biological science and farming. The USSR set its own science back by a generation, and the resulting crop failures produced widespread famine.

  22. vmanis1 says

    Ringer’s inability to tell 50 and 63 (the number of alphanumeric characters on a keyboard, plus the space) apart reminds me of the story that Gamow opens `One Two Three Infinity’ with. He told it about Hungarians (because he was Hungarian), but you can tell it about any group widely felt to be several coupons short of a blender. I’ll tell it about creationists. Two creationists are sitting looking out from a mountaintop, and they get to discussing infinity. One says `I bet I can think of a number bigger than any you can think of.’ The other agrees, and the first says, `OK, Three’. The second ponders for about 20 minutes, and finally says, in frustration, `you win!’.

    The best take I’ve ever heard on the monkeys and typewriters story is Bob Newhart’s comedy sketch on the subject. It takes less than a minute, and is most definitely not random! (I’d disagree with Ed, natural selection isn’t an `algorithmic’ process in any real sense. Rather, it’s a somewhat stochastic, but statistically biased process that itself changes over time (e.g., as the composition of the atmosphere, or the size of prey populations, change).

  23. meg says

    @ Pierce

    Thanks. Wiki was confusing me a little – that actually explains a lot in terms of Soviet history. I never did the agriculture aspect in depth, just knew it kinda failed. . . . And I should have worked it out, given the attempt to ‘communise’ all aspects of life.

    plants acting in solidarity? urgh. . . I think I’m just going to leave that alone. . .

  24. lofgren says

    My understanding is that Lysenkoism has very little scientific coherence, so it’s a little unfair to compare it to legitimate scientific theories. But basically I think it is a theory of evolution that merges Lamarck (acquired traits are passed on to and exaggerated by offspring) with standard 1930s communist boilerplate. The story mentioned in the column I read was of people starving to death because they were told to plant several crops in the same field because the seeds would learn to work together and thus become stronger and produce more. Of course instead they just competed for resources and produced almost no yield. And if you were a botanist and you pointed out that thousands of people were going to starve to death as a result of this policy, you would be put to death or sent to the gulag.

    Lysenko was what we might call today a “quack,” and like all frauds the precise hypothesis he was advocating was very difficult to pin down and thus rigorously test.

  25. Aquaria says

    Common sense is a misnomer. It’s extremely rare, and getting rarer.

    Or as my grandmother liked to put it, “Common sense usually ain’t either one.”

    She may have had only an 8th grade education, but she was no idiot.

  26. Aquaria says

    Hey, we should have a cool name like Lysenkoism for creationist “science” so we don’t have to pollute the lovely name of science with the disgraceful “creationist.”

    Why go to all that trouble when we have a word that’s already in common use, and describes the phenomenon perfectly:

    Stupidity.

    Sheesh. Sometimes you don’t need to re-invent the wheel.

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