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An Old Exchange With Ellis Washington

Michael Heath reminded me of an exchange of emails I had with Ellis Washington, a columnist for the Worldnutdaily who falsely pretends to have been the editor of the Michigan Law Review (truth: he was a fact and footnote checker when he was an undergrad; he did not attend U of M law school) back in 2010. I’m going to reprint that exchange here. He challenged me to provide evidence of common descent, which I did — and the response was simply hilarious. Actually, let me reprint the full exchange.

After I’d criticized him for making some really stupid statements about evolution in a WND column, including his usual act of taking quotes wildly out of context, he sent me the following email:

Just one question: How can you have such faith in the theory of evolution when Darwin himself said his theory was a ” mere rag of an hypothesis” and full of holes?

I’d be happy to debate you on this or on any subjects you feel comfortable debating any time, Mr. Brayton.

And this is the email I sent back to him:

I do not have “faith” in any theory. I judge all scientific theories in exactly the same manner, by their ability to explain the data and predict the nature of new data before it is found. The theory of evolution explains a vast range of data exceedingly well and has made thousands of successful predictions over the last 150 years. As for your quote from Darwin – standard issue creationist quote mining – you can’t even get the source right. It is from a letter to TH Huxley, not Asa Gray, a letter that was written shortly before On the Origins of Species was published. It is typical of Darwin to downplay the importance of his work, and it’s certainly true that he initially harbored doubts about the validity of the theory he had invented. But we now have 150 years of research that confirms the basic outline of this theory (varation plus natural selection = common descent), while negating other minor aspects of his theory.

One insecure letter written in 1859 does not define the validity of evolution, for crying out loud. Even if Darwin had never existed, we would still today have the same theory that we have now (Alfred Wallace came up with essentially the same theory working separately). If Darwin had not existed, we would today be referring to Wallacian evolution instead of Darwinian evolution. But the modern theory of evolution would be the same and the vast amount of data we have that can only be explained by common descent would also remain.

As for your challenge to debate, I will consider it – if you can give a coherent answer to the following question:

Can you provide a coherent, consistent explanation other than common descent for the patterns of appearance of endogenous retroviruses in vertebrate genomes? Francis Collins, the Christian geneticist who headed up the Human Genome Project, lays out much of the data on ERVs in his book The Language of God and argues, quite correctly, that it simply cannot be explained without common descent (which is, of course, the theory of evolution).

Good luck to you.

And here is the full text of the post wherein I reprint his reply to that challenge:

After a couple weeks of silence, Ellis Washington finally replied — in a manner of speaking — to my challenge to him about endogenous retroviruses and evolution. Which is to say that he ignored the challenge, admitted he doesn’t know a damn thing about evolution, and tried to change the subject — just as I predicted he would. And along the way, he makes some truly funny arguments. The subject line of his email really sets the stage perfectly for what was to follow:

I don’t know much about ERVs, but I know a lot about Reason and Veritas

This perhaps requires some translation. By “veritas” he means “the Bible, as literally interpreted by me.” And by “reason” he means “simplemindedly declaring that anything that conflicts with the Bible must be false, so I don’t have to actually make a substantive argument about any subject I just have to refer to the Bible.” This is Kirk Cameron-level idiocy. He begins:

Thank you for your response which didn’t really get to the heart of the matter:

Believing in a “theory” that the creator (Darwin) of such a theory knew before and after he wrote, “The Origin of Species” was full of holes, unbelievable and unsustainable, for you to follow such a man is like following a cult leader. Your position ipso facto (inherently) indefensible.

Here he shows his complete lack of reading comprehension skills. Like most fundamentalists, he thinks that everyone must think like him — meaning everyone must base their beliefs on appeals to authority and infallibility. Rational people, of course, do not base their beliefs on such things and therein lies Washington’s problem — he simply doesn’t understand how one makes a rational argument.

In my original reply to him, I had already explained to him that his misattributed and out of context quote of Darwin, upon which he is basing so much, has precisely nothing to do with the validity of evolution. Here is what I wrote, which is as valid and unanswered now as it was when I wrote it:

I do not have “faith” in any theory. I judge all scientific theories in exactly the same manner, by their ability to explain the data and predict the nature of new data before it is found. The theory of evolution explains a vast range of data exceedingly well and has made thousands of successful predictions over the last 150 years. As for your quote from Darwin – standard issue creationist quote mining – you can’t even get the source right. It is from a letter to TH Huxley, not Asa Gray, a letter that was written shortly before On the Origins of Species was published. It is typical of Darwin to downplay the importance of his work, and it’s certainly true that he initially harbored doubts about the validity of the theory he had invented. But we now have 150 years of research that confirms the basic outline of this theory (varation plus natural selection = common descent), while negating other minor aspects of his theory.

One insecure letter written in 1859 does not define the validity of evolution, for crying out loud. Even if Darwin had never existed, we would still today have the same theory that we have now (Alfred Wallace came up with essentially the same theory working separately). If Darwin had not existed, we would today be referring to Wallacian evolution instead of Darwinian evolution. But the modern theory of evolution would be the same and the vast amount of data we have that can only be explained by common descent would also remain.

Washington ignores all of this and simply repeats the same claim that was already debunked. As I used to like to tell high school debate students when I was coaching and judging, repetition does not equal refutation — especially when one is repeating an argument that has already been refuted.

You have built an entire worldview on quicksand. Lenin referred to true believers like you and your fellow bloggers “useful idiots.”

Actually, Lenin didn’t say a word about me and my fellow bloggers; he died long before we were born. And in fact, this is mostly an urban myth. No one has ever found this phrase anywhere in Lenin’s writings or speeches. It does not appear anywhere until nearly 25 years after his death, and then it’s in an article about Italian politics.

And even if it was valid, I would suggest that being a useful idiot is, at the very least, better than being a useless one. If all you have to offer is this kind of substanceless and inflammatory rhetoric, you are, indeed, useless.

I am not scientist, but a philosopher and an intellectual so the way I approach all bodies of knowledge is from reason and veritas (truth). We could argue back and forth on Darwin’s theory all day, but let’s cut to the chase. How can you rationalize and compare your humanist and atheist ideas in relation to St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome? Particularly Romans: 1:18-23.

Again, this requires some translation:

“I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to evolution. I know it’s not true, but I don’t know anything about it, so I’d really rather change the subject and base my arguments solely on an axiom that you do not share, the perfection of the Bible.”

Well Ellis, here’s my answer. How do I rationalize evolution with Paul’s letter to the Romans? I don’t. Why should I? Paul didn’t know a damn thing about science or evolution. His views on that or any other matter are as irrelevant as any other man who lived that long ago. The Bible says a great many silly things that are contradicted by the evidence and inconsistent with reason (a term you use repeatedly but are clearly incapable of actually engaging in).

And here things take a turn to the truly bizarre:

Your issues about where humanity came from is not so much a problem of your head (brain) but your heart (soul). Until repent and ask Jesus to come into your heart you will always be confused and wrong in your worldview which will disallow you, I and your fellow bloggers the ability to have a rational discussion based on the syllogism that was the foundation of Western civilization:

If A = B, then A + B = C

*scratches his head* That formula is the basis of Western civilization? Really? It isn’t even a coherent hypothetical. It all depends on whether C actually does equal A + B, which is only true if one defines it to be. But since you have nothing but variables here and C is not a controlled variable, one can easily imagine instances where the formula is clearly false. For example:

Four = four. Four plus Four = Five. Oops, that’s not right, is it? Of course it’s not. Because C is not a controlled variable. If this is the “foundation of Western civilization” then we are in deep trouble indeed. You say you know a lot about reason, but you seem entirely unfamiliar with the basics of classical logic.

Christianity is based on faith but there is a rational and logical aspects of this philosophy that your atheism and social Darwinist ideas forbid you to ascribe to that simple yet profound idea.

Presumptuous much? When did I say anything at all about being an atheist? Or about social Darwinism, an idea I consider barbaric? Like most zealots, you seem to enjoy arguing with the straw man in your head — what you presume someone to be — rather than with their actual positions.

When we all breathe our last breath in this world, I hope that you and your fellow bloggers will be ready for the next world.

Does this kind of thing ever actually convince anyone? “You’re going to hell” is not a disproof of any scientific theory. Only a rank idiot would think that it was.

Big Bang explosions, theories of unremarkable naturalists, ERVs and “billions of years” cannot make the complexity of an eye, nor explain the incomprehensible diversity and richness of creation. That suit you are wearing on your blog was well as the teeth in your mouth did not explode into place. I learned in science that explosions destroy things not create things.

I don’t think you’ve ever learned anything about science at all. Your arguments on the subject are, quite literally, at about a 4th grade cognitive level.

P.S.: One word about “common descent”; Does that comply with the Bible in Genesis 1:24: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth The living creature after his kind, and everything that creepeth upon the ear after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” Does the Bible’s repeated refrain “after his kind” comport with Darwin’s “common descent” theory? If not, where did he get that idea from?

Again you invoke the Bible. I simply don’t care what the Bible says on this or any other subject. It is no more relevant to the validity of evolution than the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad Gita or the script for West Side Story. Scientific theories are validated by their ability to explain the data and make accurate predictions, not by whether they “comply” with the views of an iron age tribe that didn’t know anything at all about the natural world.

The funny thing is that I fully expected Washington’s response to be idiotic, but he still managed to do even worse than I imagined he would.

Comments

  1. matty1 says

    Brilliant, I love this.

    Does the Bible’s repeated refrain “after his kind” comport with Darwin’s “common descent” theory? If not, where did he get that idea from?

    Because we all know ideas can only come from the Bible or from Satan no other source is possible.

  2. lofgren says

    I think maybe the syllogism he was thinking of was:

    If A=B
    and B=C
    then A=C

    It’s interesting that he didn’t notice how utterly senseless his own version was on his own. This leads me to suspect that he was taught at some point that some syllogism is the basis of civilization, and even though he misremembered it in such a way that makes no sense, he did not feel that it was his place to question it. This is what happens when people have no critical thinking skills. They can only parrot authorities, and fail to even properly understand what those authorities are trying to teach them.

  3. DaveL says

    Until repent and ask Jesus to come into your heart you will always be confused and wrong in your worldview which will disallow you, I and your fellow bloggers the ability to have a rational discussion based on the syllogism that was the foundation of Western civilization:

    If A = B, then A + B = C

    I can’t believe I must have missed this the first time around. This is pure comedy gold!

    First, it isn’t a syllogism. It only has one term, or two if you’re charitable and construe the consequent in his conditional statement as a conclusion.

    Second, it isn’t valid. There is not system of formal logic I’m aware of under which the “conclusion” would necessarily follow from the premise.

    If you submitted an argument like this for a freshman philosophy class, the professor would first take a couple of headache pills, chase it with a shot of whiskey, and then quietly take you aside and gently suggest that perhaps higher education is not for you.

  4. slc1 says

    Well, so moron Washington also denies the big bang, along with evolution. I always find it amazing how clowns like him can, “speak so knowledgeably from such a vast fund of ignorance” (by the way, this is a quote from John Voelker, Michigander and former associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court).

  5. says

    You got suckered, JT. This was no debate, this was Washington trying to see if, in his Bible-axiomatic point of view, you either agreed with him or were an idiot. There was never an option that he might be the one who was incorrect.

  6. Randomfactor says

    When someone quotes Romans 1 at me, I generally refer them to the 33rd verse…if they can find it.

    It so neatly refutes their argument that the Bible editors had to take special pains to hide it.

  7. oranje says

    I read that as “Yes, yes, yes, you’ve got all of this meaningless information, but my book here says you’re wrong. You’re wrong. How can you be so wrong? Didn’t you read the same book?”

    This fits my working theory that these people are willfully lying to people, they really believe this crap. I think that scares me more.

  8. Sastra says

    Your issues about where humanity came from is not so much a problem of your head (brain) but your heart (soul). Until repent and ask Jesus to come into your heart you will always be confused and wrong in your worldview which will disallow you, I and your fellow bloggers the ability to have a rational discussion …

    In addition to the senseless “syllogism,” this statement also contains Plantinga’s theory of the Sensus divinitatus, put into plain language. There is no common ground to reason from if one person HAS divine ESP and the other person doesn’t. That’s what they mean when they talk about the problem with our atheist “hearts.”

    “The hardening of the atheistic mind-set occurs through cognitive malfunction due to two principal causes. First, atheists suffer from paradigm-induced blindness, as their worldview inhibits their ability to recognize the reality of God that is manifest in creation. Second, atheists suffer from damage to the sensus divinitatus, so their natural awareness of God is severely impeded. Both of these mechanisms are aspects of the noetic effects of sin [the damaging effects of sin on cognitive and thought processes].” — – Prof James Spiegal

    THIS is the sort of garbage which causes me to shake my head in confusion not only over the faithful who use it, but over all those atheists who say things like “I have no problem with religion as long as believers stay out of trying to find scientific or empirical evidence for God and just admit that their belief is a matter of faith. That’s fine. I’m fine with that, because they see no sense in the two of us arguing.”

    Really? Really? It’s okay for them to say we must have evil, defective, damaged HEARTS — as long as they grant that we can otherwise reason well enough? There’s no argument — and that is better?

    No, I think this is worse. A creationist who is at least trying to debate the issue using science is granting us far more respect than bozos like Plantinga and this guy, who blithely refuses debate and dismisses Ed as a worthless opponent because Ed’s got a damaged sensus divinitatus and broken-down heart. There can be no rational discussion between equals because without faith to unite people onto the same elevated level there is no equality.

    Worse. Not better.

  9. says

    oranje – I agree. Willfully disregarding reality because it disagrees with your position is irrational. Irrational people are frightening because it is difficult to predict what they’ll do.

    There isn’t really a fundamental difference between. “But the book SAYS plants were made before light sources.” and “But the book SAYS I was right to murder all those people.”

  10. Randomfactor says

    Lots of people have a “sensus divinatus” and because of it belong to religions other than Christianity. Equally valid choices therefore, right?

    Or if the Hindu sense of god can be wrong, why couldn’t the Christian as easily be wrong? His FEELINGS have nothing to do with truth.

  11. says

    Randomfactor – egotism plus circular reasoning. He knows he’s not wrong because he feels god, therefore everyone else who feels god(s) in a different way is obviously broken.

  12. Captain Mike says

    This post perfectly demonstrates one of the major problems I have with arguing with people who don’t use reason. They can fart out “arguments” at a furious pace, which the honest debater must take time to refute. They can ignore any points you may make, then trot out more garbage, which you then have to take to pieces all over again. It gets very tiring.

  13. Randomfactor says

    But remember the value of debate is not to persuade the other guy. Speak to the audience, and point out that your opponent is lying to them.

  14. Sastra says

    Many times, the appeal to faith is what philosopher Stephen Law calls an “immunizing strategy.” That’s an excuse which is not inherent to a claim, but only trotted out when a fair test fails. Had the dowser been able to detect water under double blind condition, you’d never hear about why “science can’t show dowsing works, even though it does.” Seems we were pretty sure science could indeed show such a thing, back when we signed up for the Randi challenge.

    People who believe in God or other forms of supernatural/paranormal phenomenon all seem to expect that, one day, the skeptic will be confronted by evidence which is so overwhelming they’ll have to admit that yes, they’ve been in error all along. “What a mistake I have made! How blind I have been — now I stand before God.” Or “now I see how Armaggeddon has come after all.” Or some other condition, some set of circumstances which cannot be explained away as natural and will succeed in changing the unbeliever’s mind.

    If this is what they expect, then it’s highly disingenuous for them to talk about how faith is some sort of necessary, magic condition. No it’s not: it’s only a back-up plan of last resort. Science, empiricism, and reason ought to be sufficient. Had Ed meekly backed down when Washington provided his evidence that even the theory’s creator admitted his theory was “a mere rag of a hypothesis” and full of holes, there would have been no need to bring in an immunizing strategy to protect his claim that evolution was a lot of nonsense.

    “Yeah, well … no evidence would have been good enough for you anyway.”

    Yeah, right.

  15. footface says

    I still don’t get how these people decide what to believe.

    Damage to the senses divinitatus, the noetic effects of sin, blah blah blah.

    Yeah? Says who? And how did they know?

    Is just assertions and/or turtles all the way down.

  16. imthegenieicandoanything says

    Obviously, and depressingly, there is fairly good money in being a certain kind of Xian asshole. It certainly seems to be steady work.

    Of course, it means having an empty, stupid life, filled with pettiness and lies, which you become more and more aware of as your addiction to them grows beyond your power to break them.

    I wouldn’t wish EW’s life on anyone, even him! Hang a damn albatross on him, already: he’s done!

  17. martinc says

    The “sensus divinitatus” sounds a bit like B Kliban’s cartoon labeled ‘The Unjump Muscle’. The first frame showed a man standing with the word ‘Flexed’ underneath, the second frame showed the man jumping, with the word ‘Relaxed’ underneath.

  18. coryat says

    I’m a little disappointed with Washington. When he really gets going he manages to mention Nietzsche in his screeds; you can usually detect the degree of madness in his WND pieces by the frequency of references to Nietzsche and their disconnection from any sane context.

    A+B ≠ C You can’t explain that.

  19. yoav says

    I don’t think you’ve ever learned anything about science at all. Your arguments on the subject are, quite literally, at about a 4th grade cognitive level.

    I find this statement to be offensive to 4th graders anywhere, based on the example of Mr Washington’s “reasoning” you provide he’s several orders of magnitude below lobotomized earthworm cognitive level.

  20. pocketnerd says

    “If A = B, then A + B = C”

    Wow. Just… wow.

    Sounds like Mr. Washington is accustomed to using the “baffle ‘em with bullshit” strategy when preaching to the converted. I’d wager ten bucks he’s said that same thing a dozen times before and never been challenged on it; the wingnut base has a studied incuriosity for evidence and reason. If GOP pundits say it, it’s correct, period. If anybody else says it, it’s suspect.

    But that gets to the whole heart of the problem, doesn’t it? For the reality-based community, it’s about what the evidence says, but for the wingnuts and fundagelicals, it’s only about authority — “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” I think that’s why they feel like they’ve struck a blow against eeevilution when they point out Darwin sometimes doubted himself, or married his cousin, or was an agnostic: if they can undermine the authority of the Great Prophet Darwin, then evolution is false and the evidence is irrelevant.

  21. Captain Mike says

    @ Randomfactor: I don’t doubt that it has value. Nevertheless, it’s very tiring.

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