Science, Observation and Explanation


Ray Comfort’s latest column at the Worldnutdaily is an attempt to answer questions from atheists and the first one is about evolution. Comfort says he believes in speciation and adaptation, but not “Darwinian evolution.” So here’s the first question and answer:

“Can you please explain to me how ‘Darwinian evolution’ is different than ‘evolution and speciation via the laws of natural selection.”

We all believe in speciation and adaptation. Darwin often spoke if it, and we can see it all around us. Animals, insects, fish and even human beings adapt to their surroundings.

However, he also spoke of a change of “kinds,” or what he called change of “families.” He couldn’t find any observable and testable evidence for a change of kinds in nature or the fossil record, and neither can you. Darwinian evolution – a change of kinds – dinosaurs to chickens, whales to walking amphibians, etc., rests on nothing but blind faith, because it can’t be observed (it supposedly happened over millions of years). If you disagree, give me one example of observable evidence for it (the Scientific Method). Not hundreds of rabbit-trail links, not videos to watch – just one example that can be observed here and now – not over millions of years.

All of this betrays ignorance, both mundane and virulent. Let me count the ways.

1. The word “kinds” means nothing in biology. If he accepts speciation, where is the limit of a “kind”? Genus? Family? Class? He doesn’t say and he doesn’t know. And frankly, I doubt he accepts speciation either; in fact, I doubt he knows what the word means in the first place.

2. The notion that if you can’t actually observe something happen you are stuck with “blind faith” is utterly nonsensical and would rule out much of science. We convict people and put them in prison for their entire lives without actually observing them committing the crime. Why? Because we can logically infer what happened from the evidence left behind. And no one would take a defense attorney seriously if they argued that since no one actually observed it happen, all that’s left is “blind faith.”

Geology would be made pretty much impossible by this standard. When a geologist is studying a given formation, he or she applies what we see around us today and makes logical inferences. For example, we see that when a volcano erupts under water, it forms pillow basalts. So when we see a pillow basalt formation, we infer that it was formed by a volcano that erupted underwater. We can observe how, say, limestone forms today and then infer from that when we see a limestone formation that it was formed under similar conditions. None of this is “blind faith,” it’s entirely logical.

This is a standard trick from creationists, to create a false dichotomy where something is either observed directly and therefore “proven” or it’s purely a matter of “faith.” But it’s only convincing to someone who actually is basing their claims on blind faith.

The text that appears below is what I call my creationist challenge, a simple laying out of the evidence for common descent based mostly on the fossil record.

If you think evolution is false, please try to come up with a compelling explanation other than common descent for the evidence in the natural world. This focuses on one particular line of evidence for evolution, biostratigraphy. As you go up the geologic column, dated both relatively (in relation to younger strata above and older strata below) and absolutely (via hundreds of concordant radiometric dates using a variety of techniques), all over the world, you find the same successional order of appearance.

At the lowest levels you find nothing but bacteria. Even among bacteria there is a specific order, divided into prokaryotes and eukaryotes. That is all there was on the earth for about a billion years. Then the first multicellular life appears in the form of stromatolites and, along with bacteria, are all that there was for over 2 billion years. Then the first metazoic life appears around 600 million years ago, all marine invertebrates. These marine invertebrates become more diversified – trilobites, mollusks, brachiopods, echinoderms, etc, and after 150 million years or so we find jawless fishes, the first vertebrates. Vertebrate fishes become more and more diversified, then the first amphibians appear. Amphibians become more diversified for about 70 million years and then the first reptiles appear. Reptiles become more diversified over the course of about 80 million years and then the first mammals appear in very limited niches. Then the first birds begin to appear after another 70 million years or so. Reptiles dominate throughout this period, especially dinosaurs, and then 65 million years ago they become extinct. After that, mammals suddenly begin to diversify and appear in greater numbers and greater variety. 10 million years later, the first primates appear. Then the first marine mammals.

This order of appearance is the same all over the world no matter where you look. And within each of these groups, you find an equally interesting order. The first amphibians to appear are nearly identical to the shallow marine fish they are thought to have evolved from and as you move forward in time they become increasingly less fish-like, more diversified and better adapted to terrestrial life. The first mammals to appear are virtually indistinguishable from therapsid reptiles and, again, as you more forward in time they spread out, become increasingly less reptile-like and more diversified and more like modern mammals. The first birds to appear are, quite literally, feathered dinosaurs and, once again, as new species appear they become more diversified, better adapted to avian lifestyles, they gradually lose many of the reptilian traits and look more and more like modern birds.

This exceptionless order is a fact that requires explanation. Evolutionary theory provides that explanation. It seems to me that anti-evolutionists have two possible alternative explanations for this. There is the YEC explanation, which is that all of these forms of life lived at the same time and were killed off in the flood, which sorted them into this order (the hydrological sorting position put forward by Morris, Gish, et al). This explanation is astonishingly ridiculous when you compare it to the evidence. There is no difference in the hydrodynamic properties of eukaryotic bacteria vs prokaryotic bacteria, yet the flood somehow managed to sort them perfectly into the same order all over the world? Raging flood waters managed to sort trilobites by the suture pattern on the insides of their shells or by the number of lenses in their eyes? Marine mammals somehow got sorted toward the top while marine fish got sorted toward the bottom? Not to mention that if all of the microscopic life whose bodies make up the vast chalk and limestone formations around the world lived at the same time the oceans would have been so thick with them that you wouldn’t have had to be Jesus to walk across it. Or that we find surface features at every level that could not have been formed in the middle of a flood (nesting sites, terrestrial sandstones, trackways, burrows, mudcracks, etc). How anyone with any knowledge of geology can take such an explanation seriously is beyond me.

The second explanation is that God created each of these life forms and did so in exactly the order that evolution would predict, putting them in exactly the right anatomical and temporal order so that it appears in an obvious pattern mimicking what one would predict if life evolved. Or perhaps that he was expirementing, creating new life forms trying to get to something novel and different until he got it right. Perhaps all of those hominid species that fall into the temporal and anatomical order evolution predicts to draw a line between the miocene primates and modern humans, with the signature human traits of brain size, dentition and bipedality gradually becoming more human-like over time, really represents a creator tinkering, making a series of almost-humans until he was happy with one of them and decided he had gotten it right. Needless to say, most anti-evolutionists can’t stomach the idea of a trickster God or a limited one trying to get it right.

So the challenge is this: what possible non-evolutionary explanation is there for the successional order of appearance noted here?

Comments

  1. Trebuchet says

    So the challenge is this: what possible non-evolutionary explanation is there for the successional order of appearance noted here?

    Goddidit, of course. He put all those clues there to test your faith. You’ve obviously been found wanting.

    Does Comfort seriously think science says whales evolved to walking amphibians? He’s a bigger joke than I thought.

  2. jaxkayaker says

    “There is no difference in the hydrodynamic properties of eukaryotic bacteria vs prokaryotic bacteria, yet the flood somehow managed to sort them perfectly into the same order all over the world?”

    What are eukaryotic bacteria? Bacteria are prokaryotes.

  3. phytophactor says

    The accompanying observation that requires explanation are shared characters that form nested sets. Species are grouped into genera based on shared characters, similarities. More general shared characters result in genera grouped into families, families grouped into orders, and so on, until finally all life shares a genetic code, the same 20 amino acids, and so on. Evolution explains shared characters as evidence of common ancestry thus inferring what Ray wants you to have observed first hand. Don’t think there is a creationist explanation of shared characters, the data accumulated and analyzed by the field of taxonomy.

  4. matty1 says

    You’re going to want to fix this

    Even among bacteria there is a specific order, divided into prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

  5. mck9 says

    As jaxkayaker pointed out, all bacteria are prokaryotes by definition. A eukaryote has a nucleus and a prokaryote (such as a bacterium) does not.

    The term “prokaryote” has been outmoded for years anyway. Bacteria are now categorized as either eubacteria or achaebacteria, based on a number of characteristics such as the kinds of lipids used in the cell membrane. Archaebacteria are generally regarded as more primitive than eubacteria, as the name suggests, although in some respects they seem more closely related to eukaryotes like us.

    However the differences between archaebacteria and eubacteria are not the sort of thing that show up well in the fossil record. It would a stretch to rely on fossils to assert that archaebacteria came first.

    It would also be a stretch to refer to stromatolites as a multicellular life form. They are communities of bacteria, especially cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae), that stick together in a layer of mucus. Over time they may become mineralized by calcium carbonate and turn into layers of limestone.

    Apart from these technical cavils, your larger point is spot on. Creationists have no plausible way to account for the exquisite temporal consistency of the fossil record. Wake me up when they find rabbit bones in the pre-Cambrian.

  6. Doc Bill says

    And all this time I thought it was pro-karaoke and amateur-karaoke.

    In any case, Last Thursdayism solves all these problems.

  7. marcus says

    “…a change of kinds – dinosaurs to chickens, whales to walking amphibians, etc.”
    Bwahahahahahahaahahah

  8. Stacy says

    Bacteria are now categorized as either eubacteria or achaebacteria

    Not anymore. “Archaebacteria” is an outmoded term. Archaea aren’t bacteria–they’re not even in the same domain.

    Per the Pffft Of All Knowledge:

    In the past Archaea had been classed with bacteria as prokaryotes (or Kingdom Monera) and named archaebacteria, but this classification is regarded as outdated.[1] In fact, the Archaea have an independent evolutionary history and show many differences in their biochemistry from other forms of life, and so they are now classified as a separate domain in the three-domain system.

  9. mck9 says

    Stacy:

    I don’t know what you mean by “not anymore.” Or what your point is.

    When the Font of All Knowledge uses the term “outdated” it’s referring to the notion of “prokaryotes” as a taxon, and emphasizing the more modern distinction between the eu- and the archae- varieties. Just like I said. Far from refuting me, the Font agrees with me.

    To the extent that you have a point, it appears to be to assert that the term “bacteria” should be restricted to eubacteria. Meh. Semantics. The very term “archaebacteria,” on its face, implies that archaebacteria are bacteria. On the other hand, sea lions aren’t lions.

    I neither know nor greatly care what the official terminology is this week. One might treat “bacteria” as a synonym for “eubacteria,” or as a synonym for “prokaryotes.” Either way it’s redundant, but an audience of non-specialists is not going to be so familiar with the term “prokaryotes.”

    The main point is that Ed got his taxons garbled.

  10. wpjoe says

    Suggested edit for “At the lowest levels you find nothing but bacteria. Even among bacteria there is a specific order, divided into prokaryotes and eukaryotes.”
    At the lowest levels you find nothing but single-celled organisms. Even among single-celled organisms there is a specific order, divided into prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

    Suggested edit for “There is no difference in the hydrodynamic properties of eukaryotic bacteria vs prokaryotic bacteria, yet…”
    There is no difference in the hydrodynamic properties of eukaryotic vs prokaryotic single-celled organisms, yet…”

    I am a bacteriologist. Although Ed was likely thinking of archaea when he wrote “eukaryotic bacteria,” for this argument it would probably be better to just not mention them specifically and let them be lumped in with the prokaryotes, since most people have never heard of archaea.

  11. suttkus says

    Fun fact, while the fish did diversify before the amphibians, they didn’t diversify into modern groups for the most part. In fact, the vast majority of modern fish belong to a group called the Teleostei, and they didn’t even appear until the Mesozoic, well after the development of the reptiles (which aren’t considered a coherent group anymore either).

    Today, teleost fish occur at every level of the oceans, from the very depths of the deepest ocean trench to the streams of mountains. If there are fish, there are teleost fish.

    Evolution inside groups really confuses creationist attempts to explain fossil sorting. They can invoke ideas like “faunal zones” to explain why fish are found below amphibians, but why not a single teleostei appeared until after the mammal-like reptiles is far harder to explain.

    My article on fossil sorting: http://evolutionwiki.org/wiki/Fossil_Sorting
    http://evolutionwiki.org/wiki/Henry_Morris%27_Fossil_Sorting_Predictions_in_%22Scientific_Creationism%22

  12. eric says

    He couldn’t find any observable and testable evidence for a change of kinds in nature

    This is a fool’s game, because folks like Comfort simply reject such intermediates when they appear. Tiktaalik springs to mind. There is on such thing as an intermediate that will convince a die hard creationist because there is no evidence period that will convince a die hard creationist.

  13. says

    Reminds me of Philip Henry Gosse’s 1857 book, ‘Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot.’

    Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot is a book by Philip Gosse, written in 1857 (two years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species), in which he argues that the fossil record is not evidence of evolution, but rather that it is an act of creation inevitably made so that the world would appear to be older than it is. The reasoning parallels the reasoning that Gosse chose to explain why Adam (who would have had no mother) had a navel: Though Adam would have had no need of a navel, God gave him one anyway to give him the appearance of having a human ancestry. Thus, the name of the book, Omphalos, which means ‘navel’ in Greek.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omphalos_%28book%29 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39910/39910-h/39910-h.htm

  14. lofgren says

    The word “kinds” means nothing in biology. If he accepts speciation, where is the limit of a “kind”? Genus? Family? Class?

    This is begging the question. Modern taxonomy is based on an assumption of shared ancestry, so you can’t ask Comfort to define kinds based on a system that would make no sense according to his theory. In addition, the process of adopting the modern system from the old Linnaean system (based on convenience) is incomplete, so the question is meaningless for any species whose ancestry is not sufficiently mapped. Finally, the ancestor (or, more accurately, collection of ancestral traits) that determines a taxonomic rank is entirely subjective, especially for the order-genus levels where presumably Comfort would make most of his distinctions. It would be perfectly reasonable for Comfort to say that one Kind encompasses an entire family, while another only a single species.

    Of course, none of this excuses Creationists from having NO functional definition of “Kind” to work with.

    Unfortunately, Comfort has a convenient backdoor so that he can avoid ever being forced to give a workable definition of Kind. By accepting speciation but rejecting the fossil record, it’s impossible to know how much variation is possible within a “Kind.” Without actually going back in time to the Ark and seeing the progenitors of our modern species, we can never know what initially defined a Kind. Any transformations that are witnessed from now on are by definition within a Kind.

  15. Ichthyic says

    Ray Comfort’s latest column at the Worldnutdaily is an attempt to answer questions from atheists

    Here’s my only question for Ray Ray:

    Just how many atheists do you think READ Worldnut Daily?

  16. Ichthyic says

    whales to walking amphibians

    O.o

    yes, good thing we don’t find any transitional fossils for that one. That would indeed be a problem if we did.

  17. martinc says

    Ed, if you are going to cut-and-paste your creationist challenge and use it again, can I suggest two edits?

    1. “expirementing”. I’m assuming this is a typo and not a portmanteau word meaning to “experiment by observing what expires”.

    2. “Reptiles dominate throughout this period, especially dinosaurs, and then 65 million years ago they become extinct.” For clarity, change to “Reptiles dominate throughout this period, especially dinosaurs, and then 65 million years ago the dinosaurs become extinct.”

  18. says

    At this point, Comfort is willfully making these mistakes. He is lying for his lord because his entire life is defined by being a Christian street preacher. Yes, he appears to be dumb as a rock, but he’s been making this stupid crocoduck argument for years. He’s been told repeatedly that evolution doesn’t work that way and yet he persists.

  19. Jim says

    As a Christian who sees evolution as the most sensible explanation for the diversity of life, and deep time as the most sensible explanation of the Earth and the cosmos, I’m constantly confronted by people who think like Comfort.

    Ed, the most common response I hear to the stratigraphic evidence is that there are very few places in the world that have all of the geologic strata in evidence and in order.

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