Explore Evolution gets another drubbing

If you’ve been following the creationist strategy lately, you know that one of their efforts is to push a new and awful textbook, Explore Evolution, in conjunction with the various political bills to endorse a “strengths & weaknesses” theme in the public school science curriculum. Explore Evolution is the type specimen for that teaching technique; it contains nothing but imaginary problems in biology presented in a dueling opinions format, with creationists writing sloppy distortions of biological ideas coupled with creationists writing laudatory explanations based on Intelligent Design creationism. The book has been reviewed (that is, panned) before, but now we have another review published in Evolution & Development. The reviewer is not impressed.

Even as the Discovery Institute’s Stephen C. Meyer was trying to convince the Texas state board of education of his scientific bona fides, the antievolution textbook he coauthored was receiving a scathing review in a top scientific journal. Reviewing Explore Evolution for Evolution & Development (2009; 11 [1]: 124-125), Brian D. Metscher of the University of Vienna described it as “159 glossy pages of color-illustrated creationist nostalgia,” adding, “All the old favorites are here — fossils saying no, all the Icons, flightless Ubx flies, irreducible flagella, even that irritating homology-is-circular thing. There are no new arguments, no improved understanding of evolution, just a remastered scrapbook of the old ideas patched together in a high-gloss package pre-adapted to survive the post-Dover legal environment. The whole effort would be merely pathetic if it did not actually represent a serious and insidious threat to education.”

Of course, most schoolboards will completely disregard the informed assessment of experts in the field to rely instead on the petrified dogma of their local preacher.

Science is a source of virtue

An essay by Dennis Overbye makes an important point: if you want a source for good values, look to science.

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

I’d broaden it a bit and use that fine phrase Jerry Coyne used, “secular reason”, instead of the narrower term of “science”, but this is exactly right. And the antithesis of that virtue is faith and dogma, which teaches deceit and self-delusion, certainty, credulity, mystery, fear and guilt, and intolerance.

Another embarrassment to the medical profession

We have another M.D. spouting off against evolution using bogus creationist arguments. Jeffrey Dach may also be embarrassing lefty-liberal types, since his page is hosted on Salon. It’s very confused and poorly argued.

He first says that he believes in evolution, but that Darwin’s ideas are outdated, and the new evidence suggests new theories of evolution, because Darwin’s theory can’t answer some big questions. OK, I thought, there are many unanswered questions…but then I read his four questions and realized he didn’t have a clue about the subject.

1) How does random change (mutation) in the genome add information to a genome to create progressively more complicated organisms? It Doesn’t.

It Does. Errors in DNA replication and recombination can produce DNA strands that are longer and contain more information than the parent strand. This is trivial.

2) How is evolution able to bring about drastic changes so quickly? An example is the Cambrian Explosion. It Can’t.

His example of “quickly” is a span of about 15 million years. This may be news to some creationists, but that is a long, long time. If you’re a young earth creationist, it’s a period of time approximately 2,000 times longer than you believe the whole earth existed.

Dr Dach needs to review some population genetics. We have nice algorithms that can be used to estimate how long it takes genetic changes to sweep through populations.

3) How could the first living cell arise spontaneously to get evolution started? It couldn’t.

It didn’t. The first living cell would have been the product of millions (quick!) of years of chemical evolution. It did not arise spontaneously.

4) The Human Genome Project showed that only 1-2% of Human DNA codes for proteins, or about 25,000 genes. These are not enough to account for the complexity of the organism. What is the other 98% of the genome’s function? We don’t know.

This is fast becoming one of the most popular assertions by creationists. Exactly how many genes would be sufficient to account for the complexity of a human being? Show your work. How many genes do we need to have to make you happy, and why should your sense of self-worth be a reason for us to have more?

Less than 25,000 genes is simply the number. It’s what has been counted in analyzing the genome. I don’t quite get the point of complaining that it’s not enough, becaust obviously, it is enough, or we wouldn’t be here.

They always seem so dismayed that humans have that number — it’s never shock that mice or birds have that many, or that flies have about half as many. It’s apparently a very personal issue to them, sort of like how many millimeters long their penis is. Come on, creationists! Be proud of your 25,000 micrometers!

They also seem to take it as a personal insult that so much of their genome is junk. We do know what a lot of the non-coding DNA does: a small percentage of it is regulatory, and most of it does nothing at all. It really doesn’t detract from the importance of the tens of thousands of genes to see that there’s also a lot of filler surrounding them. Perhaps they think there is a secret stash of super-special hidden genes to fluff up the mere 25,000 they find so inadequate?

He throws in another problem for evolution: the lack of transitional fossils. You know you’re dealing with a rube when they make a paleontological argument against evolution and simultaneously reveal that they’ve never looked at the paleontological data.

All right, so what are his “new theories of evolution”? Now it’s my turn to embarrassed: tossed into his superficial list of alternatives is evo-devo. No. Evo-devo is cool, but it isn’t driven by any of his unanswered questions. We don’t have any argument with the idea that mutations can add information, or that they can spread through populations “quickly”, we don’t dabble much in the issues of abiogenesis, and no, evo-devo does not create new jobs for long stretches of junk DNA, nor does it postulate any additional secret genes.

But then, all he is really doing is tossing about a few ideas he’s heard about, but knows nothing about, simply to give the impression that he’s fairly assessing the possibilities. We can all guess where he is really going with all of this:

This brings us to the “Intelligent Design” argument and the question of “is there a creator of the universe?” This is an obvious question raised from biology, which reveals DNA, the genetic code, and complex life forms in the world. All life forms share the same underlying genetic code which translates base pairs into proteins. The existance of a code, or “alphabet” is a language which implies an underlying intelligence for its creation. Coded messages do not happen by random happening. This DNA code was either designed by an intelligence, or not. I will leave it up to you to decide for yourself.

My Own Opinion

My own opinion is that Life did not happen by itself. It is self evident that everything in the Universe is the product of an intelligence, which can be considered as “the creator”. This may not be self evident to everyone, however.

Ho hum. The genetic code is not simply the product of ‘random happening’, nor do we need to invoke a designer to create it. It certainly is not self-evident that the universe is the product of intelligence — that is a conclusion derived from the abundant ignorance Jeffrey Dach demonstrates in his argument.

What happened to Conservapædia?

You can’t get to Conservapædia right now — it seems to have been taken offline. It’s not clear why, exactly, but there is a curiously hideous article that was posted there, as noted on Wonkette.

The Constitution provides that if a senator is unable to complete his or her term then the governor of the state will appoint a replacement Senator. Below is a list of Senate Democrats from States with Republican Governors. Currently the Democrats hold a 58 seat majority in the Senate. If these Senators were unable to complete their terms and were replaced by qualified Republicans by their Republican governors, the Republican Party would regain a commanding majority in the Senate sufficient to prevent Barack Hussein Obama from socializing medicine, nationalizing the financial and auto industries, and creating a socialist wealth redistribution scheme.

What follows is a list of all the Democratic senators in states with Republican governors. It’s very difficult to read that without seeing it as a hit list.

Conservapædia issued a disclaimer, saying that the article was an act of vandalism, but a little detective work by Tony Sidaway shows that the author seems to have been a long-term wiki editor with a history of writing stuff that is fairly typical of Conservapædia.

I’m trying so hard not to cry for the poor babies at the site.

An ugly debate in Edmonton

Kirk Durston is a cunning wretch. How did he open his part in the debate here in Edmonton? By claiming that atheism was an amoral philosophy that led to the corruption of society, and to prove it, he cited a political scientist named Rummel, who he claimed, had shown that cultures built around a core of atheism had killed the most people in all of history.

If you actually go to Rummel’s site, Freedom, Democide, War, you’ll discover that he said no such thing. His thesis is that democracy is the critical factor in reducing war and the slaughter of civilians. This, of course, I could not do during the debate.

You will quickly discover that Rummel does not talk about this strange “atheist core” to murderous societies like Stalinist Russia or the Pol Pot regime. It’s nonsense; atheism is not the core of Marxism, for instance, and these were autocratic societies with a tyrannical cult of personality. It requires a distortion of history to make this argument, and imposing a personal bias on the data to make up this correlation. Pol Pot was a monster who killed millions, including religious people, in a reign of terror; Mao exterminated any institution, including the religious, to secure a monopoly on power; when I pointed out that Hitler was Catholic and Germans were Catholic and Lutheran, Durston replied that he might have been formerly a Lutheran (?), but he was an atheist. Why? Because anyone who was not doing as Jesus taught was not a true Christian. It’s an interesting piece of circular reasoning. It’s also an interpretation of his own.

He just ignored the fact that the only time in history when you could even describe any society as atheist was in the 20th century, coinciding with the emergence of industrialized tools of mass destruction. There are smart takedowns of the amoral atheist claim, but I was not prepared at all to deal with Durston’s simultaneous poisoning of the well and argument from consequences.

Durston is not stupid. He studiously avoided discussing any biology in his major points. Most of his argument for a personal god consisted of 1) atheists are bad people, 2) cosmology requires a beginning, and that beginning had to have been a god, and 3) the truth of the biblical accounts of Jesus. Would you believe he actually claimed the Flavian testimony of Josephus was valid historical evidence for the divinity of Jesus?

He’s a good debater, because he relies on a powerful tactic: he’ll willingly make stuff up and mangle his sources to make his arguments. I’m at a disadvantage because I won’t do that.

The lesson for me is to pin these guys down much more tightly on the precise subject of the debate. This one was all over the place, especially since Durston consciously avoided any topic on which I might have some expertise.

There is some confusion about what my argument in the debate was. Here’s my first slide, which outlines the two points I tried to make in 20 minutes.

Do gods exist?

  • There is no evidence of intervention by any supernatural force in the history of life on earth, and god-based explanations are inconsistent and incoherent.

  • Every biological phenomenon that we have examined in sufficient detail has been found to be explainable by purely natural causes.

Therefore, probably not.

I picked this approach because it does address the question in the debate (about the existence of an interventionist god), it was actually relevant to the major arguments for intelligent design creationism that Durston has a reputation for making, and I thought it would be a way to introduce some real evolutionary biology into the discussion. Contrary to the assertions of others, I did not open with any insults to Durston at all — it was to be a discussion with some actual evidence.

It was Durston’s first words that were insulting and illogical — a shot at calling atheists evil. I suppose if I’d opened by announcing that Christians were all stupid, we would have had equivalency…but I did not.

And yes, we talked past each other the whole time. The debate topic was far too broad, I thought we were going to argue about the evidence for design, but Durston wiggled away and talked about anything but.

You will be stupider after watching this

A hint: Glenn Beck. James Dobson. Together. This will rot your mind.

They are complaining about a court decision that ruled that a ‘moment of silence’ rule in a public school was a veiled attempt to introduce sectarian religious belief into the classroom. Nobody is afraid of prayer; kids can pray all they want, however they want, whenever they’ve got the free time. However, you don’t get to tell my kids that they have to contemplate your god — do me that favor, and I won’t insist that the schools force your kids to stop whatever they’re doing and think about the nonexistence of same.

By the way, Dobson, you confused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. Our constitution is a secular document that says nothing about the endowment of rights by a creator.

Seattle! Get off your butts!

Lucy’s skeleton is on tour, and is currently on display at the Pacific Science Center — a lovely and interesting place even when the most famous australopithecine in the world isn’t holding court. Here’s the surprising news: Pacific northwesterners are not flocking to the museum. The science center is losing big buckets of money on the exhibit, and other museums around the country are hesitating about booking it — it may close after its Seattle run, and I won’t get to see it!

I can’t believe this. You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a wonderful relic of our ancient history, and you’re staying home?

You still have time. It closes on 8 March. Go!