What? You mean creationists lie about the scientific literature?

I had to look at what they were saying about these beautiful animals, and <shock, horror> they are lying about their evolution. Oh well, it gave me a chance to compare ID creationists to YE creationists. There is a little difference there.

Script below the fold for all of you who hate watching videos.

Hey, friends —

Happy New Year!

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post critiquing an article by the intelligent design creationists that tried to claim that spiders are intelligently designed, which, as you must know, is a claim I’m not going to let stand. I’ll include a link to the blog post down below, but just to give you a quick overview, here are the main points I made.

ID creationists have one argument, and only one, which they constantly resort to. That argument is that X is too complicated to have evolved, therefore X must have been designed. You can substitute anything for X: the cell, the flagellum, the blood clotting pathway, or in this case, the spider web. It gives short shrift to the kind of chaotic complexity that evolution can easily generate, and also over-rates the power of human engineering. In this case, the creationist says,

“Despite great effort, humans have yet to produce anything functionally equivalent to silk,” that human “attempts to duplicate it have been made without success,” and yet, this is evidence that spider silk is the product of “advanced engineering”.

You can’t have it both ways. Does it look engineered, or is it incapable of being engineered? It looks to me like the score is engineering 0, evolution 1.

That’s their argument, and then what they try to do to validate it is to butcher legitimate scientific papers. A lot of Intelligent Design “research” consists of searching the scientific literature for fragments of sentences, even just word, that they can then cherry-pick to pretend good science supports their bad science.

Here’s an example of their tactics for supporting their claims: the ever-useful and ever-obvious quote-mine. So the author quotes William Shear, a legitimate arachnologist and evolutionary biologist, as conceding that “a functional explanation for the origins of silk and the spinning habit may be impossible to achieve,” period. That’s from an article title “Untangling the Evolution of the Web,” and it doesn’t end with a period in the article. It actually continues:

“A functional explanation for the origins of silk and the spinning habit may be impossible to achieve, but the evolution of silk-spinning organs has been studied, and debated, extensively. Revealing evidence has come from the histology of silk glands — the details of their cellular construction — and from the embryological development of the spinnerets themselves. Histological evidence allows us to draw connections, or homologies, between silk glands in different spider groups, and embryology shows clearly that the spinnerets are paired abdominal appendages, with the silk issuing from modified setae, or hairs. So much information is available on the anatomy of the spinning apparatus, in fact, that the traditional view of web evolution rests heavily on a classification derived from the form and position of spinnerets.”

The whole point of the article is that we do have good evidence for phylogeny of spiders and spider webs! Shear even included a clear, simple phylogenetic tree illustrating his point! How could the creationist have missed it? Well, that’s easy to explain: it was intentional and dishonest.


That’s how intelligent design creationists handle the science that conflicts with their beliefs, by contradicting themselves and misrepresenting the evidence. In an idle moment, I wondered how the classical creationists — you know, the ones who openly state that they won’t believe it if it isn’t written in their bible, except when they invent excuses to prop up the authority of their bible — so I decided to look on the Answers in Genesis website for their articles about spiders.

Sadly, there aren’t many. I guess spiders are awkward for Biblical creationists. For one thing, they have to ignore that approximately 80,000 spider species had to arise in the 4500 years since the planet-wide extinction event called Noah’s flood. For another, spiders are obligate carnivores, they are all, with one exception I know of, predators who live by killing other animals and sucking their fluids out — their fangs and mouthparts are a hallmark of the group. They’re chelicerates! Look at that face! Does that look like the face of a vegan? According to their interpretation of the bible, all animals were vegetarians before the fall, which is a bit problematic if spiders were in the Garden of Eden. So they don’t have much to say.

They do have a longish article asking whether insects were on the ark, which I’ll link to down below because it’s hilarious (invertebrates don’t have blood or flesh or lungs (not true, spiders have all three), and they apparently all breed in swarms with a queen (false)). It’s a terribly stupid article which I won’t address here.

I did find one spider article on the AIG website: “Spectacular Spider Fossils—How Do We Explain the Evidence?” Spoiler: they don’t. They try to explain it away.

Young Earth creationists do take a different angle than Intelligent Design creationists. One significant difference is that for YECs complexity isn’t the issue — God can make things as complicated as they need to be after all. For these guys, the main concern is fitting everything into the compressed, young earth chronology. What they have to do is explain away any dates that scientists have measured, and then reconcile the observations to a catastrophic flood. The particular paper they’re going to try and wave their hands over is a fairly mundane one, in the sense that it’s just a set of observations of fossil spiders — spectacular fossils! — but even the basic facts of these animals is enough to disrupt their whole biblical model, so they’ve got to struggle to bury the observations.

They fail, of course. It’s not even a good effort.

Here’s the paper: “A diverse new spider (Araneae) fauna from the Jinju Formation, Cretaceous (Albian) of Korea” by Park, Nam, and Selden. I’m going to summarize it accurately first, then we’ll see how Answers in Genesis mangles it.

It’s a good descriptive paper. Basically, it’s a small part of the vast body of evidence that describes the history of life on Earth; Park and associates are characterizing a number of fossils extracted from a specific fossil bed, the Jinju formation of Korea. The Jinju formation is about 800 meters thick, spanning about 4 million years of layered accumulation of sediments in the Cretaceous, about 110 million years ago.

What they find in layers and layers of dark slate slabs are compressed fossils — organisms that were flattened over long eras of geological time. The site is the location of an ancient basin near the sea, that was primarily filled with fresh water but there were also occasional incursions of marine organisms. The mechanism of fossil formation is that this was often a site of stagnant ponds where the water was hypoxic, with a slow drift of very fine sediments. So an invertebrate would be blown into the water to drown and settle into the soft silt at the bottom, and be covered with a fine thin layer of sediment. It would be slow to decay because of the lack of oxygen, and would be compressed by years and years of building sediments. Eventually it would be reduced to a compressed, nearly 2 dimensional sheet of mineralized stone. I’ve been fossil hunting in slate deposits in Utah, and they’re cool — you tap the slate with a rock hammer, and it splits neatly along a bedding plane and you end up with a part and counterpart. Same here in Korea. They find diverse invertebrates, plants, and fossilized microbial mats, or stromatolites, but the paper here focuses on just the spiders.

Aren’t they lovely? These are squashed flat, but the detail is preserved, right down to the hairs on their limbs. They also found good evidence of tapeta in some of the fossils — the tapetum is a reflective layer at the back of the eye that bounces light back through the retina, increasing the sensitivity of the eye. They’re quite common in nocturnal mammals; cats and deer and raccoons, for instance, have eyeshine, eyes that reflect back any light shined on them. Humans, unfortunately, lack a tapetum. The Parasteatoda spiders I raise in the lab have a tapetum on just the posterior median eyes. This fossil assemblage reveals that spiders at least 100 million years ago also had them.

What does Answers in Genesis make of this paper? There’s not much they can do with it. The fact that the fossils are over 110 million years old — that’s just the “conventional dating”, you know. Of course, those dates are confirmed by multiple lines of evidence and are concordant with other dated fossil beds. but they’re going to just ignore that. The creationists frequently make the argument that they’re all looking at the same evidence, they’re just interpreting it differently. That is a lie: they actually ignore most of the evidence and only talk about the excerpts they can warp to fit their terrible model of origins, which is actually falsifed by the bulk of the evidence.

Here’s the only attempt made to justify believing these fossils are only a few thousand years old. “To propose that this level of fine detail could be preserved 110 million years strains credulity.”

Why? Is there a time limit on how long a rock can be stable? Do they have evidence that it is impossible for mineral structures that are a few tens or hundreds of microns to persist for millions of years? They’re just trying to sow unwarranted doubt with this quote, rather than trying to address all the evidence that says this rock is 100 million years old.

But even that is not their most desperate straining of the truth. The fine structure of these fossil spiders are extraordinarily well preserved. From the scientific point of view, this tells us that they were preserved by the gentle deposition of very fine sediments, in a hypoxic environment that slowed the rate of decay. The creationist argues that these small, fragile arthropods are so well-preserved that they had to have been buried “catastrophically and immediately”, in a colossal world-wide washing machine of a storm, a cataclysm so great that it tore the continents apart, gauged deep canyons, destroyed forests, threw up thousands of feet of rock, yet somehow it simultaneously gently laid down a lot of spiders in basins that somehow avoided the churning chaos of the flood to remain calm, static, and oxygen free. That’s pretty much the standard kind of contradiction that emerges from any attempt to shoe-horn 4.5 billion years into 6000 years, and worse, trying to argue that all the major features of planetary geology were generated in a one year long event about 4000 years ago.

The irony that they note is that stromatolites, or bacterial mats, were fossilized in layers 10-25 meters above the spiders. Somehow they think this indicates a large catastrophic event — how? I don’t understand! Did the flood sort everything into tidy layers? — or that the stromatolites “formed much later”. Yeah? You think?

Both the article from the Discovery Institute and the one from Answers in Genesis are deeply stupid and dishonest, and I can’t find any redeeming quality in either one. So what did I learn from this exercise? That the scientific literature is far more honest and detailed, and also just plain more interesting. I found some differences in the approach of the Intelligent Design creationists, like the Discovery Institute, and the Young Earth creationists, like Answers in Genesis, though.

The ID creationists are frustratingly vague about the mechanism of their alternative to evolution, instead just insisting that evolution is wrong, therefore we must accept their useless and poorly defined and nonexistent design mechanism. The Young Earth creationists, on the other hand, insist instead on an absurd timeline that is contradicted by all of the available scientific evidence, which we’re expected to accept because the bible says so.

What they have in common, though, is that both are incompetent at reading the scientific literature, which rather blunts their criticisms. It may be that proponents of those irrational views are simply failing to understand and interpret the evidence, but I more charitably interpret their behavior as the work of intelligent human beings who are intentionally misrepresenting the evidence to rationalize their untenable ideas. So don’t read their work, it’s worthless, even if I do cite it below. Instead read the legitimate work which I also cite — good, interesting papers that tell us something true about the real world.

Also, spiders evolved.


  1. DanDare says

    That’s a passionate insight PZ.
    The science glows. The stupid throws.
    Another difference that is worth mentioning is how hard it is to get alternate points of view in front of their captive audiences.

  2. Walter Solomon says

    If I know YECs, and I’m pretty well-acquainted with them, then I’m sure they’ll use the existence of that one exceptional, herbivorous spider as “proof” spiders could live in Eden without eating other animals.

  3. Derek Lactin jon says

    AIG doesn’t care about the truth, only about reinforcing the misunderstanding that they have instilled in their readership! All they will see is the AIG lie, accept it as truth, and and that will be good enough… for AIG.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Nomdeplume @ 2
    And we strive to be green kryptonite to the claims made by the (term redacted to avoid summoning elder gods).

    BTW I was just called a cuck for the first time when responding to a misogynic meme at Facebook.
    I want to print it out and have it framed!

  5. birgerjohansson says

    Goddam it! I was referring to the smbc entry about number theory and politics, from a couple of days earlier than what is shown at the link. Never mind. Jokes that require explaining get ruined.

  6. says

    So, even though these ID creationists are pulling something out of their ass just like spiders, Spiders produce somehting wonderful that way, while ID creationists just create crap!
    Also, is seems so silly that the spiderman cartoon/movie character shoots silk out of his hands instead of bending over and shooting it out of his ass.

  7. mandrake says

    According to the bible there were eight people on the arc, four men and four women. It’s probably safe to assume that given the cultural standards of that period of time and place that those four men sported some pretty impressive beards by today’s standards (notwithstanding the possibility of any or all of those men suffering from Alopecia universalis, what with the story’s narrator failing to go into that much detail and all). So, I propose that 80,000 spider species could comfortably cohabitate for a mere year’s time among the four hoary beards on the ship, safe and warm from the raging chaos outside and from being trodden on by a seasick allosaur. It’s a rather simplistic theory and light on details but it should fit within the existing biblical paradigm. Hey, it could happen!

  8. birgerjohansson says

    shermanj @ 13
    I hate what Spider-man might look like if he had anatomically correct spider silk glands.
    But it might work with a Japanese kaiju film, those critters look pretty crazy anyway.
    Oh, shit. The taliban have just banned female mannikins.

  9. whheydt says

    And in news about another liar… Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal Twitter account has been permanently suspended for spreading false stories about COVID-19. She still has her “official” account as a congresscritter. One might well wonder how long that one will last…

  10. dstatton says

    A born again coworker once told me that evolution was absurd. OK, whatever. But he then went on the claim that more and more scientists were abandoning the theory altogether. Yes, he lied.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    A bloke with a name that rhymes with “bland” and “haul” just wrote “Democrats will steal the election by getting people to vote”. He included the information that it was legal, but still used the word “steal”. Because …I dunno, colored voters? Or is the word “election” intellectual property?

  12. Derek Lactin jon says

    @dstatton: Your post reminds me of an incident while I was in grad school. A JWitness came to my door and showed me a pamphlet that claimed to show several papers by prominent scientists who denied Evolution. The citations gave authors, dates, journal and page numbers, but omitted the titles. At the time I was writing a review for an 800-level course in Evolution, and had several of the papers on my desk. I don’t remember all of them, but one was the Eldredge and Gould paper that proposed Punctuated equilibrium (“Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism”). I showed it and the others to her, and pointed out that IF the titles had been included, the claim (‘denied evolution’) would have been obviously false, and therefore, that the author of the pamphlet had intentionally omitted them. and therefore was lying, and was asking her to perpetuate the lie. I truly hope that she left the cult.

  13. davidc1 says

    @15 Yeah,and they poured 3,000 litres of alcohol into a canal.
    Wonderful to think about all those Great big bloody bastard spiders walking from
    Mount Ararat all the way to Australia,without a map,chortle ,chortle.

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