What do creationist/ID advocates want-III?

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today’s one is from March 18, 2005, edited and updated.)

It is time to tackle head-on the notion of what is meant by the ‘materialism’ that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) camp find so distasteful. (See part I and part II for the background.)

The word materialism is used synonymously with ‘naturalism’ and perhaps the clearest formulation of what it means can be found in the writings of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who said in Tempo and Mode in Evolution (p. 76.):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only. (Emphasis added)

Simpson was by not an atheist (as far as I can tell) but he is saying something that all scientists take for granted, that when you seek a scientific explanation for something, you look for something that has natural causes, and you do not countenance the miraculous or the inscrutable. This process is more properly called ‘methodological naturalism’, to be contrasted with ‘philosophical naturalism.’

Despite the polysyllabic terminology, the ideas are easy to understand. For example, if you hear a strange noise in the next room, you might wonder if it is a radiator or the wind or a mouse or an intruder. You can systematically investigate each possible cause, looking for evidence. For each question that you pose, the answer is sought in natural causes. You would be unlikely to say: “The noise in the next room is caused by god throwing stuff around.” In general, people don’t invoke god to explain the everyday phenomena of our lives, even though they might be quite religious.

Methodological naturalism is just that same idea. Scientists look for natural explanations to the phenomena they encounter because that is the way science works. Such an approach allows you to systematically investigate open questions and not shut off avenues of research. Any scientist who said that an experimental result was due to God intervening in the lab would be looked at askance, not because other scientists are all atheists determined to stamp out any form of religion but because that scientist would be violating one of the fundamental rules of operation. There is no question in science that is closed to further investigation of deeper natural causes.

Non-scientists sometimes do not understand how hard and frustrating much of scientific research is. People work for years and even decades banging their heads against brick walls, trying to solve some tough problem. What keeps them going? What makes them persevere? It is the practice of methodological naturalism, the belief that a discoverable explanation must exist and that it is only their ingenuity and skill that is preventing them from finding the solution. Unsolved problems are seen as challenges to the skills of the individual scientist and the scientific community, not as manifestations of god’s workings.

This is what, for example, causes medical researchers to work for years to find causes (and thus possibly cures) for rare and obscure diseases. Part of the reason is the desire to be helpful, part of it is due to personal ambition and career advancement, but an important part is also the belief that a solution exists that lies within their grasp.

It is because of this willingness to persevere in the face of enormous difficulty that science has been able to make the breakthroughs it has. If, at the early signs of difficulty in solving a problem scientists threw up their hands and said “Well, looks like god is behind this one. Let’s give up and move on to something else” then the great discoveries of science that we associate with Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, etc. would never have occurred.

For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon was a well-known unsolved problem for over sixty years after the introduction of Newtonian physics. It constituted a serious problem that resisted solution for a longer time than the problems in evolution pointed to by IDC advocates. Yet no supernatural explanation was invoked, eventually the problem was solved, and the result was seen as a triumph for Newtonian theory.

So when IDC advocates advocate the abandonment of methodological naturalism, they are not trying to ease just Darwin out of the picture. They are throwing out the operational basis of the entire scientific enterprise.

Philosophical (or ontological) naturalism, as contrasted with methodological naturalism, is the belief that the natural world is all there is, that there is nothing more. Some scientists undoubtedly choose to be philosophical naturalists (and thus atheists) because they see no need to have god in their philosophical framework, but as I said in an earlier posting, others reject that option and stay religious. But this is purely a personal choice made by individual scientists and it has no impact on how they do science, which only involves using methodological naturalism. There is no requirement in science that one must be a philosophical naturalist, and as I alluded to earlier, there is little evidence that Gaylord Simpson was a philosophical naturalist although he definitely was a methodological naturalist.

The question of philosophical naturalism is, frankly, irrelevant to working scientists. Scientists don’t really care if their colleagues are religious or not. I have been around scientists all my life. But apart from my close friends, I have no idea what their religious beliefs are, and even then I have only a vague idea of what they actually believe. I know that some are religious and others are not. Whether a scientist is a philosophical naturalist or not does not affect how his or her work is received by the community. It just does not matter.

But what the IDC advocates want, according to their stated goal of “If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings” is to enforce the requirement that scientists reject both philosophical and methodological naturalism. They are essentially forcing two things on everyone:

  • Requiring people to adopt the IDC religious worldview as their own.
  • Requiring scientists to reject methodological naturalism as a rule of operation for science.

In other words, IDC advocates are not asking us to reject only Darwin or to turn the scientific clock back to the time just prior to Darwin, they want us to go all the way back to before Copernicus, and reject the very methods of science that has enabled it to be so successful. They want us to go back to a time of rampant and unchecked superstition.

This is not a good idea.

What do creationist/ID advocates want-II?

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today’s one is from March 16, 2005, edited and updated.)

We saw in an earlier posting that a key idea of the creationists is that it was the arrival of the ideas of Darwin, Marx, and Freud that led to the undermining of Western civilization.

The basis for this extraordinary charge is the claim that it was these three that ushered in the age of materialism. These three people make convenient targets because, although they were all serious scientific and social scholars, they have all been successfully tarred as purveyors of ideas that have been portrayed as unpleasant or even evil (Darwin for saying that we share a common ancestor with apes, Marx with communism, Freud with sexuality).
[Read more…]

What do creationist/ID advocates want-I?

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today’s one is from February 24, 2005, edited and updated.)

In an earlier posting, I spoke about how those who view Darwin’s ideas as evil see it as the source of the alleged decline in morality. But on the surface, so-called ‘intelligent design creationism’ (or IDC) seems to accept much of evolutionary ideas, reserving the actions of a ‘designer’ for just a very few (five, actually) instances of alleged ‘irreducible complexity’ that occur at the microbiological level.

This hardly seems like a major attack on Darwin since, on the surface, it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the major ideas of the Darwinian structure such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no discontinuities), the multiplication of species, and natural selection.

So where does IDC fit into this attack on evolution? Its role is explicitly outlined in the document that has been labeled the ‘Wedge Strategy’ or the ‘Wedge Document’ put out in 1999 by the Center for Science & Culture of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which is the well-funded ‘think-tank’ that funds and supports the work of intelligent design creationists.

In the document it becomes clear that IDC is seen as kind of the shock troops that establish the beachhead on the fields of science, prior to the rest of the creationist army coming behind and occupying the entire landscape.

Here is an extended passage from the introduction of the document that outlines the issues as seen by them:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.

A little later in the document one comes across the “Governing Goals” of the movement, which are:

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

So there you have it. In a nutshell, the argument is:

  1. The greatest achievements of Western civilization are largely due to the idea that human beings were created in God’s image.
  2. Things were just peachy until a little over one hundred years ago.
  3. Then Darwin, Marx, and Freud dethroned this idea and instead introduced materialist ideas that spread into all areas of science and culture.
  4. Everything pretty much fell apart after that.
  5. If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings.

This is a pretty sweeping line of reasoning. Such broad-brush analyses of society are inherently suspect since the way societies function and form is highly complex and claiming all the good for one belief structure and all the bad for the opposing side is to oversimplify on a massive scale.

I discussed in the previous posting some of the problems with this kind of reasoning.

But what is clear is that the ultimate goal of this movement is to eliminate ‘scientific materialism’ and bring back God into all areas of life. Getting IDC into the science curriculum is just the first step, hence the name ‘wedge’ strategy.

This is the first of a series on this topic. I will look more closely into what ‘scientific materialism’ is and the implications of this strategy in future postings.

POST SCRIPT: Misheard lyrics

Ever wondered who the people are in first line of the Rolling Stones’s Street Fighting Man when they sing “Everywhere I hear the sound of Martin, John, and Leroy”? Or what the Beach Boys meant when they start their song Help Me Rhonda with “Since you put me down, there’s been owls sleeping in my bed”?

Those are just two of the vast number of lyrics that people think they hear when they listen to these songs. Now there is a website called Misheard Lyrics that tells you what the actual words are.

Although I think that Lulu singing “I’m a shy girl” still makes more sense than the actual “I’m a tiger.”

Evolution and moral decay

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today’s one is from February 24, 2005, edited and updated.)

In a previous posting, I discussed why some religious people found evolutionary theory so distressing. It was because natural selection implies that human beings were not destined or chosen to be what they are.

While I can understand why this is upsetting to religious fundamentalists who believe they were created specially in God’s image and are thus part of a grand cosmic plan, there is still a remaining puzzle and that is why they are so militant about trying to have evolution not taught in schools or undermining its credibility by inserting fake cautions about it. After all, if a person dislikes evolutionary theory for whatever reason, all they have to do is not believe it.

I have had students who, after taking my physics courses, say that they cannot believe the theories of the origins of the universe that I taught them because those theories conflict with their religious beliefs, specifically their belief about a young Earth. I don’t try to get them to change their views. I tell them that they are perfectly free to believe what they want and that it is not my duty to try and force them to agree with me. I believe that the purpose of science courses is to teach students the scientific paradigms that scientists use so that they will be able to use them in their own work. All I ask of my students is that they demonstrate to me that they understand how the scientific paradigms work and know how to use them within the scientific contexts in which they apply. I do not require them to swear allegiance to the theories themselves.

So it was initially puzzling to me why some people were objecting to the teaching of evolution. Why not let students learn it as best as they can so that they can function effectively in the world of science? After all, evolutionary theory is one of the cornerstones of modern science and to reject it as a framework for research is, frankly, to declare oneself to be anti-science.

It is true that some students will like the theory and accept it. Other won’t. But that would be their individual choices. What would be the harm in learning a theory that one does not personally believe in? For example, I have learned enough about the theory of dark matter to appreciate what it is all about, even though I am skeptical as to whether it is the correct theory to explain the anomalous velocity distributions of the stars in the spiral galaxies. It is not at all uncommon for scientists to learn in great detail about theories they disagree with. In fact, it is essential to do so if they are to develop newer and better theories to replace the ones they dislike,

But my conversations with the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people revealed that they have a much darker view of what evolution implies, and it is this that leads them to oppose any attempts to teaching it. Let me try and summarize as best as I can their line of reasoning.

Their position is that America is currently in a state of deep moral decay. They look back on the past and see a time when the country was much more morally wholesome and they see the cause of the degeneration as due to people moving away from religious doctrines and towards a more secular outlook. They see this shift as coinciding with the introduction of widespread teaching of evolution in schools. They argue that teaching evolution means teaching that human beings are not God’s special creation and that this inevitably leads to atheism and hence to moral decay.

They believe that you cannot have a moral sense unless it is rooted in the Bible. Not having the Bible as a basis for absolute moral standards means that there are no absolutes and what is a right or wrong choice is determined by the context. They see this as a repugnant moral relativism.

So the fight against the teaching of evolution is seen as a fight for America’s very soul and this explains the passion that is expended by them against what, to the rest of us, might seem to be just another topic in the science curriculum. It also means that the ultimate goal of the movement is the complete elimination of any teaching of evolution, and that the current push to introduce IDC as merely an “alternative theory” to it is just the first step in a longer-term strategy.

While this line of reasoning can be criticized on very many different levels, I was impressed with the sincerity of many (though not all) of the people at the IDC meeting who made it. They are doing what they do because they care about the souls of all of us, and are trying to save us from ourselves. But some of the leaders and spokespersons of the IDC movement are not as straightforward as their followers. They hide this broader agenda and try to portray what they are doing as purely an issue of science and that they would be satisfied if IDC was accepted as an alternative to evolution. (This is the so-called ‘wedge strategy’ to be discussed later.)

The battle over IDC is not just a fight over the science curriculum. It is a proxy for a much broader battle for the soul of America.


Chris Rock back in 2004 had some insightful observations on politics and the war, again illustrating how comedians directly speak their minds, while the Very Serious Pundits obfuscate. Caution: Rock uses strong language. (Thanks to This Modern World.)

Can we ever be certain about scientific theories?

(I am taking some time off from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today’s one is from February 17, 2005.)

A commenter to a previous posting raised an interesting perspective that requires a fresh posting, because it reflects a commonly held view about how the validity of scientific theories get established.

The commenter says:

A scientist cannot be certain about a theory until that theory has truly been tested, and thus far, I am unaware of our having observed the evolution of one species from another species. Perhaps, in time, we will observe this, at which point the theory will have been verified. But until then, Evolution is merely a theory and a model.

While we may have the opportunity to test Evolution as time passes, it is very highly doubtful that we will ever be able to test any of the various theories for the origins of the Universe.

I would like to address just two points: What does it mean to “test” a theory? And can scientists ever “verify” a theory and “be certain” about it?

Verificationism as a concept to validate scientific theories has been tried and found to be wanting. The problem is that any non-trivial theory generates an infinite number of predictions. All the predictions cannot be exhaustively verified. Only a sample of the possible predictions can be tested and there is no universal yardstick that can be used to measure when a theory has been verified. It is a matter of consensus judgment on the part of scientists as to when a theory becomes an accepted one, and this is done on a case-by-case basis by the practitioners in that field or sub-field.

This means, however, that people who are opposed to a theory can always point to at least one particular result that has not been directly observed and claim that the theory has not been ‘verified’ or ‘proven.’ This is the strategy adopted by ID supporters to attack evolutionary theory. But using this kind of reasoning will result in every single theory in science being denied scientific status.

Theories do get tested. Testing a theory has been a cornerstone of science practice ever since Galileo but it means different things depending on whether you are talking about an experimental science like electrochemistry and condensed matter physics, or a historical science like cosmology, evolution, geology, and astronomy.

Any scientific theory is always more than an explanation of prior events. It also must necessarily predict new observations and it is these predictions that are used to test theories. In the case of experimental sciences, laboratory experiments can be performed under controlled conditions in order to generate new data that can be compared with predictions or used to infer new theories.

In the case of historical sciences, however, observations are used to unearth data that are pre-existing but as yet unknown. Hence the ‘predictions’ may be more appropriately called ‘retrodictions’ (or sometimes ‘postdictions’), in that they predict that you will find things that already exist. For example, in cosmology the retrodictions were the existence of a cosmic microwave background radiation of a certain temperature, the relative abundances of light nuclei, and so forth. The discovery of the planet Neptune was considered a successful ‘prediction’ of Newtonian theory, although Neptune had presumably always been there.

The testing of a historical science is analogous is to that of the investigation of a crime where the detective says things like “If the criminal went through the woods, then we should be able to see footprints.” This kind of evidence is also historical but is as powerful as those of futuristic predictions, so historical sciences are not necessarily at a lower level of credibility than experimental sciences.

Theories in cosmology, astronomy, geology, and evolution are all tested in this way. As Ernst Mayr (who died a few days ago at the age of 100) said in What Evolution Is (2001): “Evolution as a whole, and the explanation of particular evolutionary events, must be inferred from observations. Such inferences must be tested again and again against new observations, and the original inference is either falsified or considerably strengthened when confirmed by all of these tests. However, most inferences made by evolutionists have by now been tested successfully so often that they are accepted as certainties.” (emphasis added).

In saying that most inferences are ‘accepted as certainties’, Mayr is exaggerating a little. Ever since the turn of the 20th century, it has been accepted that scientific knowledge is fallible and that absolute certainty cannot be achieved. But scientists do achieve a remarkable consensus on deciding at any given time what theoretical frameworks they have confidence in and will be used to guide future research. Such frameworks have been given the name ‘paradigms’ by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).

When scientists say they ‘believe’ in evolution (or the Big Bang), the word is being used in quite a different way from that used in religion. It is used as shorthand to say that they have confidence that the underlying mechanism of the theory has been well tested by seeing where its predictions lead. It is definitely not “merely a theory and a model” if by the word ‘merely’ the commenter implies a theory that is unsupported or untested.

So yes, evolution, like all the other major scientific paradigms, both historical and experimental, has been well tested.

POST SCRIPT: Dick Cheney in 1994

It turns out that many of the arguments made by those opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq were anticipated by (of all people) Dick Cheney in 1994. Who knew?

Thanks to This Modern World

Evolution-21: Why evolution speeds up with time

(Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

One of interesting things about evolution is that it seems to be speeding up with time. Earth was formed about 4.7 billion years ago and it took about a billion years for the first single-celled life to appear about 3.5 billion years ago. It then took another 2.5 billion years for the first multi-cellular life form (like sponges) to appear. So everything else, all the insects, animals, and birds, came into being within the last one billion years or so.

One reason that things seem to be speeding up is that once complex organisms appeared, selection advantages increased due to more sophisticated competition among them. For example, when you have a predator-prey relationship, the prey species will have a huge selection advantage for those qualities that enable it to elude the predator (such as the ability to run faster or climb quicker or hide better or hear and smell better) while the predator will also have a huge selection advantage for those features that make it better able to capture prey (run faster, jump higher, and more acute vision, hearing and smell.) It is like an arms race. Two nations that are locked in a battle for supremacy are more likely to rapidly develop sophisticated weaponry than a nation without enemies.

Such factors, along with things like sexual selection, speed up the evolutionary process considerably, by increasing the selection advantage.

But new discoveries keep coming in and just this year, researchers have found that bacteria and viruses are also speeding up the process of evolution. Scientists at Rice University report that “the speed of evolution has increased over time because bacteria and viruses constantly exchange transposable chunks of DNA between species, thus making it possible for life forms to evolve faster than they would if they relied only on sexual selection or random genetic mutations.” Theories like this support suggestions that there is a selection advantage for those organisms that are more adaptable to change. In other words, evolution favors those organisms that evolve more readily, leading to ever-increasing rates of change.

In fact, the problem with the evolution of species is not (as some religious people would have you believe) whether it occurs at all but that it is impossible to stop it from occurring. Almost invariably, when some members of a species get isolated from the rest for whatever reason, they begin to diverge. This is why the isolation of islands makes them excellent breeding grounds for new species. All the islands smaller than New Guinea account for one-thirtieth of land surface but contain about one-sixth of the total number of known species (Almost Like a Whale, Steve Jones, p. 345). In the Caribbean, for example, different lizards have different kinds of legs suitable for the kinds of vegetation that they climb on. In 1977, when lizards from one island were moved to another that had no lizards and only plants with thin twigs, within ten years their legs had evolved to meet the needs of the new vegetation by becoming stubby (Jones, p. 96).

But Darwin also proposed that one did not need actual physical separation like islands for speciation to occur. Diversity could arise within the same geographical area as organisms adapted to fit different niches in the same environment. Just yesterday it was reported that new evidence suggests that the two species homo habilis and homo erectus lived side by side at the same time, challenging the earlier idea that there was a linear progression from homo habilis to homo erectus to us, homo sapiens. The news report of the findings says that “The fact that the two hominid species lived together in the same lake basin for so long and remained separate species, Meave Leakey said in a statement from Nairobi, “suggests that they had their own ecological niche, thus avoiding direct competition.” “

Zoos face this problem with trying to preserve rare species. Although the zoos are trying to preserve the animals that are being lost in the wild, the very fact that zoo animals breed within a small group paradoxically causes them to actually accelerate their evolution into new forms. (Jones, p. 47)

As a result of all these factors favoring evolution, “Over the past five hundred million years, through all its ecological alarms and excursions, new kinds appeared at an almost constant rate. A survey of tens of thousands of marine animals over that time gives a rate of four hundred and fifty new species a year.” (Jones, p. 231)

This is the last post in this series on evolution. To be frank, I had not expected it to be this long when I started but the breadth and scope of the subject just kept drawing me in deeper. While I will definitely return to this topic many times (because it is inexhaustible and new and interesting discoveries keep popping up), the planned and sequential nature of these posts will cease. My goal was to move the discussion of the theory of evolution away from a high level of generality and show that evolution is not just a good idea but that, like quantum mechanics and relativity, it is a theory that has been developed in great detail and its ramifications explored using a wide array of scientific tools.

The mathematics of evolution has played an important role in substantiating its claims and advancing our understanding of how it works. Charles Darwin would have found this highly amusing because he had great difficulty with mathematics as a student, struggling with even elementary algebra. Because of the complexity of biological systems, the probabilistic nature of the processes, and the interplay of organisms with other organisms and the environment in general, modern biological calculations use advanced mathematics, computer simulations, and game theoretical techniques in addition to the more conventional differential equations. There is even a new game by the creators of the Sims series that enables you to manipulate the conditions of evolution and see what happens. You can “determine the evolution of a species, from an amoeba to an inter-stellar race.”

This is how science works and how we build up knowledge. People with different skills and expertise bring them to bear on complex problems, publish so that it can be checked by others, and over time we create reliable knowledge. This does not mean that scientific knowledge is infallible by any means. It is not uncommon for people to find that new data or a different set of assumptions lead to quite different results, and so scientists continually probe for weaknesses.

But such revisions and critiques are of a very different class from those of people who reject scientific ideas as absurd simply because it conflicts with their intuitions or because they seem unimaginable, without looking into the details. Such people are doing the same thing as those who reject quantum mechanics and special relativity because the results seem so weird to them.

POST SCRIPT: Pampered elites

Jason Jones of The Daily Show has a very funny piece on how the very rich in this country don’t want to allow even the slightest thing to disturb their lives. People like the Kennedys, who vociferously support environmental causes everywhere else, turn against eco-friendly projects when those might have an infinitesimal impact on their own neighborhoods.

Petitions and politics in science

In a recent discussion on a listserv for physics teachers, someone strongly recommended the book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science by Tom Bethell, saying that it exposed how mainstream science was suppressing some ideas for non-science reasons, in particular how the great weaknesses of evolutionary theory were being hidden.

I had not read this book myself but these kinds of arguments are familiar to me and Bethell had written an article describing his own book. It struck me as extraordinarily shallow, rehashing arguments that have long been discredited, and invoking misleading (and old) chestnuts about evolution occurring only by chance, and missing transitional forms, etc. In fact, he seemed to have drawn his arguments against evolution from the playbook of the intelligent design creationists, in particular Jonathan Wells’ book Icons of Evolution.

He even made the argument that the only thing that has been seen is ‘microevolution’ (small changes within species) and not macroevolution (change from one species to another). But the distinction drawn between micro- and macroevolution is untenable, since it has long been realized that there is a large overlap between varieties within species and between species as a whole, making the drawing of such distinctions difficult. Darwin himself pointed this out in his On the Origin of Species (chapter II), where he emphasized how difficult it was for even experts to classify whether animals were varieties within a single species or different species.

It is amazing that in this day and age people like Bethell still bring up Haeckel’s embryos. Modern biologists don’t take Haeckel’s misleading sketches seriously anymore since his theory was discredited more than a hundred years ago and only intelligent design creationists (IDC) keep bringing it up repeatedly to argue that scientists falsify things in order to buttress the case for evolution. In the documentary A Flock of Dodos IDC advocate John Calvert talks about how biology textbooks use Haeckel’s figures to mislead children but when asked to show this, thumbs through some textbooks and cannot find any examples. He had simply accepted this folklore uncritically. What use Haeckel has now is purely pedagogical.

The Haeckel case is analogous to someone finding that the Bohr model of the atom is still being taught in middle school science textbooks, “discovering” that Bohr’s model violates Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism, and thus concluding that quantum mechanics is wrong and that children are being misled into accepting it. Quantum mechanics has come a long way since the Bohr atom and does not depend on it, just like evolutionary biology and Haeckel’s embryos. To keep bringing it up is a sign of desperation

Bethell’s argument about the fact that no one has seen half-bats and that therefore step-by-step evolution could not have occurred, reminds me of those people who say that it is absurd that an electron can go through two slits or that twins age differently based on their speeds. After all, has anyone actually SEEN an electron go through two slits? Has anyone actually SEEN twins age differently? If we haven’t seen such things directly, they must not occur, right? I have described earlier how incomplete the fossil record is, because fossilization is extremely unlikely, and how arguments that depend on the existence of gaps in the fossil record can never be satisfied because new gaps can always be created.

As I have said in this series on evolution, to really appreciate the theory one has to get beyond the simple minded rhetoric of the kind that Bethell indulges in and look at the underlying details and the mathematics. The question of whether evolution is a “fact” is a red herring. “Theory” and “fact” are fluid terms in science. What is true is that the fully developed theory of evolution, known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis, is the most productive and useful theory in biology today, and forms the basis of almost all research in that field.

People who dislike the theory of evolution often point to the petition that the Discovery Institute (DI), the main driver of Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC), put out signed by 700 people that says: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” Such people cite this as evidence that the theory is weak and then ask: “Why are so many scientists jumping off the evolution band wagon?”

But scientists are taught to be skeptical and to examine carefully the evidence for any theory. And if a theory (like evolution) challenges their religious beliefs, they are likely to be even more skeptical of it. That is a natural human tendency. It does not take any effort for a mathematician or physicist or philosopher to say she is skeptical of evolution, just as it does not cost any biologist anything to say that he is skeptical of the big-bang. After all, in each case, they are not personally working with that theory and are unlikely to know anything about it in any detail and thus can let other factors have a greater influence. As of the time when there were 400 people who had signed on, about 80% were not even biologists. (The story of one religious scientist who signed on to the Discovery Institute statement and only later realized what was going on can be read here.)

Another problem with the petition wording is that although Darwin proposed the mutation and natural selection mechanism, developments since then have added other mechanisms such as gene flow and genetic drift, so even a biologist who sees no problem with evolution would agree that mutation and natural selection alone are not sufficient.

I personally am skeptical of ANY theory in ANY field as being the last word (or the ‘truth’) on the subject because the history of science teaches us that scientific theories have always been provisional. So for me the DI statement itself is nothing more than a platitude. The fundamental issue is whether the biological community feels that evolution is in a crisis, and as far as I am aware, the biological science community does not think so and continues to use that theory as the foundation for their work. So these kinds of statements are just meaningless. When biologists start using alternative theories to generate predictions and start getting positive results, then we can take those other theories seriously.

It is important to realize that despite so many years of pushing intelligent design creationism, the people at the Discovery Institute have not been able to generate even one prediction, let alone do any experiments to investigate their theory. What they are doing is not science, it is lobbying and public relations.

Statements like the ones put out by the Discovery Institute on evolution are, however, useful as indicators of what people desire or yearn for.

For example, I am skeptical of the idea of dark matter as the explanation for the anomalous velocity distribution of stars on the arms of spiral galaxies. Why? Mostly for aesthetic reasons. It seems a bit contrived to me and the idea of huge amounts of matter surrounding us that we cannot detect reminds me uncomfortably of the arguments for the ether before Einstein’s theory showed that the ether was a redundant concept.

I am hoping that a nicer theory than dark matter comes along and I know I am not alone in feeling this way and that other card-carrying physicists share my view. So if someone handed me a petition saying that I was skeptical of the theory of dark matter and would like the evidence for it to be examined carefully, that statement’s content would not be objectionable to me. I would totally agree.

But I would not sign because it is pointless. I have not done any real work to support my misgivings. I have not developed an alternative theory, generated hypotheses, made predictions, or explained any existing data. Physicists who actually work on the spiral galaxy problem (even if they were completely outnumbered by the people who sign a petition dismissing dark matter theory) would be perfectly justified in ignoring me and any other physicists who sign such a petition in the absence of any substantive counter-theory.

What the DI petition on evolution tells us is that there are about 700 people who wish and hope that a theory more congenial to them than evolution comes along. That’s fair enough but hardly major news. They have every right to feel that way and to say so. But it is by no means a measure of the merits of the theory, however many people sign on to it, and it is dishonest of the Discovery Institute to make such a claim.

Bethell’s thesis that the scientific community is conspiring to suppress the truth about the weaknesses of evolution is silly. Given that the US has high levels of religiosity and public skepticism about evolution and widespread unease that evolution is undermining religious beliefs, any scientist who found good evidence for special creation would be deluged with funding from both government and private sources and receive high visibility and acclaim. Furthermore, such a discovery would open up vast new areas of research. In such a climate, why would any scientist not publish findings that provided evidence for special creation?

People like Bethell are trying to achieve by public relations what they cannot do using science. They are not the first to try to do this and will not be the last. But they will fail, just like their predecessors.

POST SCRIPT: The insanity of the employer-based health care system

This question posed at a Democratic presidential candidates forum illustrates perfectly why we need a single-payer, universal health care system.

Evolution-20: How selection advantage arises in evolution

(Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

In the mathematics of evolutionary change, the selection advantage is a key mathematical quantity that determines the rate at which a favorable mutation spreads through the population. The selection advantage is a quantification of the net result of advantages that a variety of a species gains by virtue of its fertility and fecundity and longevity. As we saw before, even a small selection advantage can lead to rapid spread of the mutation.
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Fun and games in the world of religion

Nation magazine journalist Max Blumenthal has developed a nice little niche in political guerilla video journalism, going to right wing meetings and asking participants awkward questions. Although he is soft-spoken, always polite, and has the credentials to attend, he usually ends up getting thrown out by the organizers.

His latest visit was to the annual meeting of CUFI (Christians United For Israel) where he manages to get highly amusing but also disturbing and creepy footage. The CUFI is one of those rapture-ready groups that believe the second coming is due any day now and are strong supporters of Israel, even though they think that non-Christians have to convert on rapture day or be slaughtered. This group gets a lot of money from the true believers, enabling its leader John Hagee to live in lavish style. The group is also supported by some Jewish organizations like the Israel lobby group AIPAC. The former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold and Senator Joseph Liberman also attended the meeting, with the latter receiving a very warm welcome and reciprocating during his speech by comparing Hagee to Moses. (Of course, since there is good reason to think that Moses never existed, I am not sure of the value of this comparison but I am sure it was meant as a compliment.) It looks like these right-wing Jewish groups seem to be willing to overlook the CUFI’s nasty expectations for Jews because the CUFI supports the most extreme and reactionary policies of the Israeli government and settler groups. What seems to bind these extremists together is their hatred of Muslims.

Meanwhile, some time ago I linked to a video of protestors (see the post script) shouting during the opening prayer in the US Senate when a Hindu was invited to do the honors. The reason protestors gave for choosing the Hindu day for protesting is because Hinduism is polytheistic.

But actually, Hinduism is monotheistic and the other deities that one finds in that religion are the manifestations of the one god. You would think that Christians would understand this because their religion is very similar. The doctrine of the Trinity says the same thing: that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also manifestations of god, and that all three should be worshipped equally.

So on the basis of their criticism of Hinduism, Christianity is also polytheistic and therefore, at the very least, in violation of the first of the ten commandments.

The doctrine of the Trinity has always been a nightmare for theologians, tying them up in knots trying to explain the mathematical impossibility of 1=3. I remember in my religion classes in school and later in theology classes for my ordination as a lay preacher, discussing this question and the clergymen never really being ably to answer it, except for saying it was one of the great mysteries of the church that could be understood only through the eyes of faith, thus conveniently taking a weakness and making it your fault. If you couldn’t understand, it was because you did not have enough faith.

I wonder what would happen if someone sued, not to get rid of ‘In God We Trust’ on the currency or ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, but to replace them with ‘In Gods We Trust’ and ‘Under Gods’, since the existing formulation excludes two of the three members of the Trinity.

If someone sues on these grounds, perhaps we could settle this thorny issue of what the Trinity means once and for all, with the US Supreme Court making a ruling on whether there is only one Christian god or three.

Now that would be a court case worth following.

Evolution-19: The Boeing 747 in the junkyard

(Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

As I have emphasized repeatedly in this series, the hardest thing to appreciate about evolution is how a cumulative sequence of very tiny changes can lead to big changes. The problem is that our senses can only detect gross differences between organisms and our minds can only comprehend short time scales and to appreciate evolution requires us to overcome those limitations. This is why skeptics need to actually study the details and convince themselves that it works.

I have the same problems when it comes to teaching modern physics topics like quantum mechanics or special relativity. Our senses and intuition have evolved to enable us to deal with objects that are on a human (or ‘classical’) size scale and traveling at speeds that are not too great. But the effects of quantum mechanics only become manifest when describing the very small, subatomic level of particles that we cannot see, and there our intuition completely breaks down. Similarly, the effects of special relativity become manifest only for objects traveling close to the speed of light, which we do not encounter in everyday life and again our intuition is incapable of dealing with it. So when physicists talk about a single electron simultaneously traveling by many different paths from a single initial starting point to a final point, or twins aging at different rates depending on their speed of travel, these ideas initially seem preposterous.

When teaching these subjects, I warn my students that their intuition is quite likely to lead them astray, that what their gut feelings tell them is reasonable or unreasonable is undependable, and that they have to constantly check those intuitive reactions by doing calculations to convince themselves that these counter-intuitive results drop out naturally from a coherent theory

The same thing is true for evolution. Mutations are too small to be visible and time scales are too long to comprehend, so one should not depend upon what seems reasonable to make judgments. Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works 1997, p. 163) points out that: “A hypothetical mouse subjected to a selection pressure so weak that it cannot be measured could nonetheless evolve to the size of an elephant in only twelve thousand generations.” This is quite an amazing result. It is not at all intuitive and is hard to convince oneself that this could be possible unless one does the calculations, or trusts those who do the calculations.

But people who want to throw doubt on evolution exploit this breakdown of intuition by making statements of broad generality. For example, one often hears that the evolution of life as described by natural selection is as likely as a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and spontaneously assembling a Boeing 747 airplane. This analogy was initially proposed by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle in his 1983 book The Intelligent Universe. Hoyle and his co-worker Chandra Wickremasinghe used this example to support their alternative theory of panspermia, that life originated elsewhere in the universe and arrived on Earth from outer space via meteors.

Neither Hoyle nor Wickremasinghe are creationists and have their own reasons to want to discredit natural selection, but intelligent design creationists seized on this vivid image of the 747 in the junkyard and exploit it heavily in their anti-Darwin crusade, and Wickremasinghe has even appeared as a witness for them at some court trials.

To counter this analogy, one needs to look at exactly what natural selection says and compare it with what its opponents portray it as. Jerry Coyne (a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago) in a devastating review of intelligent design creationist Michael Behe’s new book gives a nice example using the familiar example of throwing dice.

Take for example, some adaptation of a gene that, starting from the original organism, requires twenty mutations at twenty different locations for the desirable new feature of the organism to appear, with the mutations occurring in a specific order so that each mutation confers a slight selection advantage to the organism. Suppose that the random mutations are represented by the throw of a die and the required mutation at a particular site occurs when you throw a six. This means that it will take an average of six throws for the first mutation to occur. Recall that evolution is a step-by-step process that builds on past successes and I have already described how even a slight selection advantage is sufficient for a single mutation to become universal in the population, so this mutation will be stable. It will then take another six throws for the second advantageous mutation to occur, and so on, so that it will take an average of 120 throws for all twenty mutations to occur. If the dice is thrown at the rate of one a second, that means it will take about two minutes for all twenty mutation to have gone into effect.

What the Boeing 747 analogy does is to assume that you have twenty dice and throw them all at once and that all twenty must come up six simultaneously for the new feature to appear. The odds against this are astronomically high. At the same rate of one toss per second, this would take more than one hundred million years. As Coyne says, “This sequential way of getting twenty sixes is infinitely faster than Behe’s method. And this is the way natural selection and mutation really work, not by the ludicrous scenario presented by Behe.”

Arguing by analogy and example is often necessary when trying to explain esoteric points, but is also tricky and has to be done with care. No analogy is a perfect replica of the actual process and you have to make sure that the analogy you select corresponds accurately to the phenomenon being analogized as far as the crucial elements are concerned. In the case of evolution, the key point to bear in mind is that a sequential series of changes, each of which is beneficial and stable, takes much less time (i.e. is far more likely) to occur than for them to occur simultaneously. This is why intelligent design creationists try to desperately find examples of systems that (they argue) could not have occurred by sequential changes. But they have failed.

POST SCRIPT: If FDR had been like George Bush. . .

Jacob Sager Weinstein says that he “got tired of right-wingers saying, “If the media had been as hard on FDR as they are on Bush, we’d have lost World War II.” So I started wondering. . . What if FDR had run his war like GWB?”

Here is the video that resulted from his musings.