Will this finally kill Jordan Peterson’s career? No, it will not.

That’s quite a list of critics of the Rogan/Peterson circle jerk. All these people with relevant, advanced degrees in climatology are explaining that Peterson is childishly inaccurate and foolish, as if maybe at some point people will wake up and realize that he is a lying incompetent.

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick:

“He seems to think we model the future climate the same way we do the weather. He sounds intelligent, but he’s completely wrong.

“He has no frickin’ idea,” she said.

Dr Gavin Schmidt:

“Guys, for the love of everything holy, please, please, have somebody on who knows what the heck a climate model is!!!”

Schmidt told the Guardian he was reminded of a quote from the famous British statistician George Box.

“Peterson has managed to absorb the first part of George Box’s famous dictum that ‘all models are wrong’ but appears to have not worked out the second part ‘but some are useful’,” Schmidt said.

Prof Steve Sherwood:

Peterson was “making the ancient climate sceptic error of mixing up weather and climate”.

“Anyone who has taken an introductory course in climate or atmospheric science would spot this problem,” he said. “Errors in a weather forecast indeed accumulate such that after a couple of weeks the forecast is useless.”

But with climate, Sherwood said, the models work differently to project how the climate will respond to different factors, such as higher levels of CO2.

“[Peterson’s] argument is like saying we can’t predict whether a pot of water on a flame will boil, because we decide in advance what variables to put in our model, and can’t predict each bubble.”

Prof Christian Jakob:

Peterson’s comments were “ill-informed” and that he’d “mixed up weather prediction with climate projections.

“People are entitled to their opinions, but science and climate modelling isn’t about opinion. If you’re not well informed about how something is done then it’s not right to make comments about it on a large platform.”

Prof Michael Mann:

Peterson’s comments – and Rogan’s facilitation of them – was an “almost comedic type of nihilism” that would be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous.

Peterson’s claim that the climate was too complicated showed “a total lack of understanding of how science works” and could be used to dismiss physics, chemistry, biology, “and every other field of science where one formulates conceptual models”, according to Mann.

“Every great discovery in science – including the physics that allowed Peterson and Rogan to record and broadcast their ridiculous conversation – has arisen through that process,” he said.

Prof John Abraham:

the episode was “a word salad of nonsense spoken by people who have no sense when it comes to climate.”

“To say that climate model errors increase like compound interest is laughable. Jordan Peterson displays a near complete misunderstanding of climate change, and the tools climate scientists use to understand what is happening to our planet.

“It’s as if someone, with zero expertise and knowledge, made comments about something he knows little about.”

You know, people have been blasting this message since he first squelched his way into the public consciousness with his wrong interpretations of an anti-discrimination law, his wrong explanations of gender, his wrong ideas about evolution and neuroscience, his wrong notions of epidemiology and disease, all undergirded by his wrong opinions about religion and supernatural phenomena, and his foundation in the wrong ideas about psychology (his profession!) built on a bizarre Jungian framework. His audience doesn’t seem to care. They just seem to like that he’s blissfully confident about his wrongness, and that’s what they love about him.

Wacked again

Kent Hovind featured me on his wack-an-athest segment last night on YouTube. It was the same ol’. As usual, he never listens to anyone, so he spent a bunch of time telling me that I really do believe I came from a rock, and then he skipped through a few pages of Campbell Biology, reading excerpts from their short history of the Big Bang, nucleosynthesis, condensation of the Earth, etc., to declare that that textbook also says we came from a rock. He also said he’s been in 260 debates, and that he has won every one of them, and that even the professors and atheists all agreed that he had defea-Ted his opponents, while his Igor, Matt Powell, nodded vigorously over his shoulder and his claque jeered in the background.

The man is delusional and insane, and he’s got a cult who believes his every word. He invited me to come on down to his Alabama compound again, but who in his right mind would do that?

I won’t link to him, you’ll have to look it up on YouTube yourself, but only if you’ve been very naughty and feel the need to be punished. Hint: he misspelled my name as Meyers in the title, because of course he did.

Oh, cool. Now Brett Keane is piling on. I’m being dragged down into the slime for sure.

Jordan Peterson is talking out of his ass again

Of course he’s peddling more conspiracy theories. These new COVID variants that require booster shots are apparently the product of convenient whims of Big Pharma.

When is that a variant? How about whenever it’s convenient for the pharmaceutical companies?

The man is firmly in Joe Rogan territory. We recognize variants by their genetics and by their phenotypic effects on their host, things that we can actually measure. The pharmaceutical companies can’t just conjure up new strains of a virus that is already infecting millions of people.

Peterson is a fucking idiot.

By the way, he’s putting on a show in my backyard, at the State Theater in Minneapolis, on my birthday. Tickets are in the $200-$400 (absolutely astonishing), and I want you to know…that would be quite possibly the very worst birthday present I could imagine getting. Fortunately, no one on Earth hates me enough to inflict that on me.

Don’t try to tell me creationism isn’t a science stopper

Oh boy, Answers in Genesis has published their assessment of the James Webb Space Telescope. They’ve already decided that it’ll be great for taking pretty pictures of stars, which they’ll no doubt use to illustrate their beliefs, but it’s bad, fallacious science. It’s secular, naturalistic, and saturated with evolutionary thinking!

So obviously, there are some awesome observational science aspects (observable, testable, repeatable) to this mission, such as observing and studying the farthest regions of the visible universe that were previously hidden to us. However, as seen from the many news reports published by the media (especially from NASA), the overall objectives for JWST are saturated in evolutionary (and really naturalistic) thinking. For example, NASA states on one of their websites, “The primary goals of Webb are to study galaxy, star and planet formation in the universe. To see the very first stars and galaxies that formed in the early universe, we have to look deep into space to look back in time (because it takes light time to travel from there to here, the farther out we look, the further we look back in time).”

You must understand the binary distinction that AiG makes about science. Good science is “observational” science: the work that just describes what you see right now, that doesn’t draw any inferences about cause and effect, past or future. It’s fixed and static. That leaf is green. That rock weighs 80 kilograms. The temperature right now is -24°C.

Bad science they lump into a category called “historical” science, because, as we all know, historians don’t draw any conclusions from the past, don’t make inferences about causes, don’t see any kind of links between historical events, ever. It’s all lists of dates and battles and kings, you know, kind of like what you see in the book of Genesis, which is good “observational” science. All that stuff about hypothesis testing, and induction, and experiment, and theory, and interpreting and predicting connections between events, the tools that scientists have relied on and found productive since at least the days of Francis Bacon…well, that’s just bad, with only occasional exceptions.

Note, these objectives fall into the category of science that’s called historical science (making assumptions about the past based on evidence in the present), which, by the way, can be useful in certain applications (like in forensic science when analyzing crime-scene evidence) but only when used through a biblical “lens” and logical worldview.

OK, so you’re allowed to use historical science, but only to solve murders. And all murders must be viewed through a biblical “lens”! I think that means they’re all committed by witches.

In case my sarcasm is obscuring this fact, no, these distinctions that AiG makes between observational and historical science are total bullshit. They make this bogus dichotomy all the time — it’s practically the first thing they tell you in the entranceway to their Creation “Museum” — but all it really is is a way for them to throw out otherwise totally unremarkable scientific ideas that they find objectionable because they reveal that their interpretation of the Bible is false. They don’t like that we can look at the universe and see that reality contradicts their biblical version of events.

Therefore, the JWST is a priori wicked and false.

However, in this instance, these statements for the JWST are clearly secular (and unbiblical), which inevitably means they’re also fallacious (this is the result of every unbiblical worldview). Notice the claim of “looking” back in time (when looking at objects deep in space) in order to see how everything in the universe began through cosmological evolution (i.e., the big bang). But note that when making this claim, they’ve already merely assumed cosmological evolution (by assuming star/planet formation occurred in the early stages of galaxies) in order to prove cosmological evolution (via “looking” back in time). This is a logical fallacy called begging the question.

Wrong. Science builds on prior observation and experiment to build models of how the world works, which are then continuously tested with further observation and experiment. The space telescope is built on a body of science and technology, driven by the fact that there are things we can’t observe now with existing technology. It was lofted into orbit to see phenomena that we were unable to see before, and that’s the entire point: if we could just assume that we already have all the answers, then there would be no need to spend $10 billion to make a better telescope. Astronomers will use this tool to test their predictions about what lies out there.

It may generate new theories, or it might provide further confirmation of cosmological evolution. That’s what the creationists actually fear, that this OBSERVATIONAL science will provide even more information showing that their HISTORICAL interpretation of biblical history is petty and silly, and that the “science” in their book of Genesis is nonexistent or false.

One thing I don’t miss from Salt Lake City

Yikes, there’s something off about the whole story

Really, it’s a lovely place to live, and it’s usually easy to overlook the Mormons. The Salt Lake Tribune is also a good newspaper, except…they have a tendency to soft-pedal Mormon absurdity. Case in point: their coverage of Mormon archaeology. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the Mormon religion was founded by a 19th century con artist who wrote this pretentious, long-winded piece of fan fiction about the lost tribes of Israel colonizing North America and creating, out of whole cloth, a pseudo-history of pale-skinned people building cities and fighting wars all across the continent. There’s no evidence for any of this nonsense. But the Salt Lake Tribune reports it as if this is legitimate history and archaeology, and the religious kooks digging around for support for their myths are heroic.

Forget Indiana Jones. Try Iowa John.

Yes, John Lefgren and other supporters of the Heartland Research Group aren’t hunting for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, but they are searching high and low — in this case, really low — for archaeological evidence supporting the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

Right now, they’re on a quest to find Zarahemla … in southeastern Iowa.

They’re using light detection and ranging sensors — along with carbon dating, magnetometry and other technological tools — to pinpoint the ancient Nephite capital, which they believe is waiting to be discovered underground just outside of Montrose.

Nope. There were no Nephites. There was no Nephite nation. There was no Zarahemla. Montrose, Iowa happens to be just across the Mississippi from Nauvoo, Illinois, where Joseph Smith and his followers fled to after they were chased out of Missouri — Smith just incorporated anywhere he found himself into his fantasy fictional history. So they’re digging in a random spot and claiming any evidence of human habitation supports the Book of Mormon.

The Heartland Research Group thinks it may have found the site of Zarahemla—a notable city in the Book of Mormon—outside of Montrose, a small southeast Iowa town located on the banks of the Mississippi River.

John Lefgren of the Heartland Research Group said in his faith, Zarahemla would be comparable to Jerusalem for Christians. The exact location of Zarahemla has not been verified, so being able to pinpoint it would be a milestone.

“Iowa is an important place,” Lefgren said. “In the fourth century, Montrose, Iowa, had the largest city in North America.”

According to Lefgren, in its heyday of AD 320, Zarahemla had a population of about 100,000 and it was the largest city in the Americas.

Nope. Nauvoo/Montrose are on the Mississippi, about 200 miles from Cahokia. This was the heartland of the Mound Builders culture, which actually existed, and was thriving at the time the Mormons claim there was an entire Hebrew civilization living in the same place, riding horses and wielding iron swords, somehow replacing the real human beings who lived there. They’re going to misinterpret everything they find.

One method they hope can help verify Zarahemla’s location is by finding fire pits. The group theorizes that with a population of about 100,000, there would be one fire pit for every 10 residents within a mile or so of the city center.

“We’ve gone down into the ground with core sampling to get charcoal/carbon from fires that are 1,700 years old,” Lefgren said. “It’s all serious stuff; all serious stuff right here in Iowa.”

The samples will be sent to the Vilnius Radiocarbon Laboratory in Lithuania for carbon-14 dating to determine the age of the recovered charcoal.

Let’s just pretend there wasn’t a thriving American Indian culture right there 1700 years ago, and that those people cooked their food in their villages along the banks of the Mississippi. They’re going to find ashes and declare victory, they found proof that Joseph Smith’s grand con was true.

And the Mormon newspapers will go along with it.

Hovind gets banned! Hovind rises from the dead! Hovind is still a mindless zombie.

I noticed that Kent Hovind wasn’t posting any videos on YouTube lately — apparently, he’s been banned, for how long I don’t know, but it’s about time. If you’re going to police misinformation on your social media site, Hovind is one of the worst offenders.

Unfortunately, these bannings are just for show and have no teeth to them. For a while, he was getting his videos hosted by Matt Powell (if you don’t know who he is, consider yourself lucky — he’s a young Hovind wanna-be), but now Hovind has created a whole new channel and resumed his cartoonish, ignorant ways. The good news: he has plummeted from having a channel with 190 thousand subscribers and each video getting tens of thousands of views to one where he has fewer than 200 subscribers and his videos get a few hundred views. He’s down in my territory now! Although I suspect he will grow fast as he is rediscovered, at least until he gets banned again.

Sorry, I’m not linking to him, if you must you’ll have to search a bit to find his new, pathetic channel, same as his old, pathetic channel.

He’s still doing his whack-an-atheist schtick, to a much smaller audience, though. His latest target is Emma Thorne, and you will notice…I do link to her. Notice also that he’s still condescendingly stupid, he’s still reciting the same tired cliches (“you believe you came from an amoeba!”), and he’s still totally wrong (no, we didn’t descend from a complex, specialized protist like an amoeba). You don’t need to watch any new Hovind, or Powell, videos — he’s still parroting the same tired lies and jokes he was doing thirty years ago, and he hasn’t learned a thing.

Matt Ridley’s steady descent into dangerous British loonhood

Matt Ridley is definitely a smart guy, and he also writes well. I enjoyed some of his earlier books, like The Red Queen and Genome, but I became less appreciative as he became more openly libertarian, and espoused a Whiggish view of the world that was only a rationalization for why he was so wealthy and privileged (he’s kind of the British version of Pinker, only worse). He’s the 5th Viscount Ridley, don’t you know, he is to the manor born (Blagdon Hall, Northumberland, specifically), he’s a member of the House of Lords, he endorsed Brexit, he owns coal mines, he used to own a bank, but he ran it into the ground and it was taken away from him and nationalized. On climate change, he’s argued that global warming is going to be a net benefit, increasing rainfall and the growing season, and that human ingenuity will overcome any minor disruptions. He even coauthored a book with Anthony Watts and Bjorn Lomborg and a host of the usual denialist suspects, Climate Change: The Facts 2017, which ought to alarm anyone who wants to think he’s just being objective. I guess that comes of owning coal mines and being an enthusiastic endorser of fracking — when your prosperity is a product of spewing as much fossil carbon into the atmosphere as you can, your very smart brain will work very hard to find excuses.

That doesn’t explain why he’s become such a dedicated proponent of the lab leak “theory” for the origin of COVID-19, though. He’s not an epidemiologist, and it shows, but now he’s authored a book, with a post-doc, Alina Chen, titled Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19. Unfortunately for him, it has been dissected by the formidable Lindsay Beyerstein.

The lab leak theory, for the uninitiated, is the notion that the Covid-19 virus that has now devastated the globe is not of purely natural origin but rather escaped from a lab after it was harvested from the wild or engineered by Chinese scientists. It’s not actually a single theory but, rather, a grab bag of possible scenarios by which the virus might have been unleashed on the world—all of them implying some level of shady or incompetent behavior by Chinese scientists. And in trying to take each of these scenarios seriously, Viral’s authors have unintentionally exposed the entire farce of the lab leak discourse—showing both the exceptional flimsiness of the lab leakers’ narrative and also why this very flimsiness makes the lab leak conspiracy theory so hard to eradicate. By relying on an ever-growing arsenal of seemingly suspicious facts, each pointing in a slightly different direction, lab leaker discourse renders itself completely unfalsifiable.

Like I said, Matt Ridley is a smart guy, and he knows he can’t take a strong stance on any idea, whether it’s climate change (he calls himself a “lukewarmer”) or this lab leak nonsense, where he practices a performative neutrality. It’s his evasiveness that reveals his biases — he tries so hard to dodge around his beliefs that the shape of them is recognizable.

The book is structured around a set of themes, which I hesitate to call arguments because the authors decline to argue for anything in particular. (In this sense, the book aligns perfectly with what academics have been saying about conspiracy theories for years: that the theories rely on people poking holes in the official narrative without committing to a single plausible alternative.) First, the authors attach great importance to a mysterious pneumonia outbreak linked to the abandoned Tongguan mineshaft in Mojiang, China, in April 2012, which lab leak theory adherents see as a critical episode in the history of Covid-19, because researchers with the Wuhan Institute of Virology later found the bat virus RaTG13 in that same cave, and RaTG13 was briefly the closest-known wild relative of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. Second, the authors focus on the purported evidence of “preadaptation” of Covid-19 to human hosts. Finally, they examine gaps in the epidemiological record that purportedly call into question the current scientific consensus that the pandemic began in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, following a “spillover” event in which the virus passed from a live animal to a human.

That’s a good tell for recognizing that you’re dealing with a conspiracy theorist — they spend all their time trying to find errors or inconsistencies in good theories, which they can use to claim their unsupported, extremely wobbly, speculative alternative must be the correct answer, an illogic that they never quite grasp. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s exactly what creationists have been doing for decades. Intelligent design creationism, in particular, relies on Ridley’s strategy. They’re not about to give you positive evidence for what they’re claiming, they trust that finding gaps or even errors in modern biology will give their supporters sufficient excuse to lapse into what they’re biases predispose them to believe.

Ridley’s mistake here is that he gave away enough of his own beliefs that holes are being poked in them in turn. There is a heck of a lot of work being done on bat viruses now, which Ridley has no competence to address.

A series of recent discoveries, however, has undermined Viral’s central themes: Newly discovered wild bat viruses from Laos have proven not only more genetically similar to the Covid-19 virus than any previously known to science, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s RaTG13 sequence, but also directly infectious to humans via the same mechanisms that the Covid-19 virus uses to infect human cells. These findings make Viral’s breathless speculation about the Mojiang mine and the origins of RaTG13 completely obsolete. This discovery also suggests that whatever “preadaptation” was needed to make Covid-19 infectious to humans could have happened in the wild over many years of natural selection. The Laos bat preprint was published in mid-September, by which time it may have been too late to address it in the book.

Meanwhile, a reanalysis of early Covid cases published in November in the journal Science has confirmed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as the likely site of a zoonotic spillover event. Another paper, which gets a brief discussion in the book, established beyond a reasonable doubt that, contrary to Chinese government denials, live wild-caught animals that could be prime viral vectors were illegally sold at the Huanan market through November 2019—including raccoon dogs, hog badgers, and Siberian weasels, all members of the carnivorous mustelid family, which is known to be susceptible to SARS-like coronaviruses.

Every time Ridley opens his mouth on the pandemic he exposes his own ignorance. Back in the fall of 2020, Ridley was arguing against basic health measures.

It is counterintuitive but the current spread of Covid may on balance be the least worst thing that could happen now. In the absence of a vaccine, and with no real prospect of eradicating the disease, the virus spreading among younger people, mostly without hitting the vulnerable, is creating immunity that will eventually slow the epidemic. The second wave is real, but it is not like the first. It would be a mistake to tackle it with compulsory lockdowns (even if called ‘circuit breakers’), whether national or local. The cure would be worse than the disease.

If you cannot extinguish an epidemic at the start, the best strategy is for the healthy to get infected first. Lockdowns ensure that the vulnerable and the healthy both get infected with similar probability.

Yeah, similar reduced probability. Ridley endorsed that lump of Libertarian poppycock, the Great Barrington Declaration, a massive bit of misguided stupidity that killed people.

The alternative to lockdown is not ‘letting the virus rip’, as Boris Johnson puts it. The Great Barrington Declaration, signed by over 20,000 doctors and medical scientists (but disgracefully censored by Google’s search engine), calls for focused protection: help the elderly and vulnerable stay at home, but let the young and invulnerable go out and achieve immunity for us all, while earning a living. The extraordinary truth is that a student catching Covid might be saving Granny’s life rather than threatening it.

In support of that claim, he cites the example of Sweden, which refused to enforce any lockdowns. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see what a mistake that was: Sweden has had more cases and deaths than neighboring Scandinavian countries.

Ridley doesn’t have to worry, though. He still has plenty of high profile supporters.

That man just keeps embarrassing himself. I wish he’d stop.

The Panglossian Paradigm thrives in the Intellectual Dork Web

I knew A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein was going to be a bad book just from the title alone, and so I haven’t read it and won’t read it, unless it becomes inexplicably popular and I need to start addressing its arguments. I’m on the fence about whether that will happen. On the one hand, the reviews have been scathing and the excerpts I’ve seen have been infantile; on the other hand, infantile bullshit of the evolutionary psychology type seems to be popular on the Right. I have to be grateful to people like Stuart Ritchie, who has read the book and wrote one of those scathing reviews that I hope will kill a bad book a-birthing.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that modern society really is terribly bad for us (although, given vast increases in life expectancy, we shouldn’t). How do we know which parts of human nature are the ones we should take better account of? Heying and Weinstein’s answer is essentially everything. If it is something complex, costly (in terms of energy or materials), and has been around for a long time in evolutionary or cultural history, it’s probably an adaptation – there for a reason, and not a mere accident.

This does readers a disservice. The debate over “adaptationism” in biology is long-running, and is not going to be solved by glib reasoning like this. Heying and Weinstein lunge clumsily at evolution’s Gordian knot, fail even to nick it with their blade, yet still smugly tell their audience that they have sliced it right in half.

Well helloooo, Dr Pangloss. This is pure panadaptionism, which also happens to be the foundation of evolutionary psychology.

My easy argument against universal optimization in evolution is the mammalian scrotum. Our body temperature is around 37°C, but the various enzymes involved in maturation of sperm, as well as the proteins for motility, are optimized for 33°C. Place mature sperm in a test tube at 37°, and they break down and lose all motility within hours, while sperm at room temperature (20°) remain happy little wigglers for nearly a full day. (Don’t panic at the nightmare that comes to mind with that fact — out of the test tube, dessication and bacterial action kill them quickly. Toilet seat impregnations are virtually impossible.)

The average mammalian solution to this problem is an adaptation, evolved with good reason to solve a real problem. Dangle those baby-makers out in the cool breeze! Does that mean we must regard it as a good solution? No. It’s more of an ad hoc, jury-rigged answer, a bad temporary fix that has become permanent because it’s easier to keep doing the same old thing rather than going in and adapting the sperm production facilities and now relocating the factory to a safer spot.

And we know it’s not the only possible solution. Birds have high body temperatures, too, and their testicles are tucked deep into their bodies. I guess they managed to evolve biochemical processes that could cope with their standard body temperatures. Marine mammals use water cooling, wrapping internal testicles with vascular networks that first cool blood by passage near the skin surface before arriving at the gonads. Some mammals, like elephants and rhinos, retain the basal condition — internal testes — and evolved changes to testis metabolism that allowed them to function internally at the same time their cousins, our ancestors, struggled with the incompatibility in optimal temperatures and committed to the duct-tape-and-baling-wire solution of letting the testes flap in the wind.

So yeah, panadaptationism is a crock. It doesn’t take into account the fact that adaptations can have secondary consequences, and that dismantling a temporarily successful solution can be more expensive than doing the job right in the first place. There are multiple adaptive peaks, and some of them are separated from a more thoroughly adaptive solution by deep valleys.

The biggest problem with panadaptationism, though, is that it leads to rampant and ridiculous rationalizations of whatever bogus preconceptions the authors have in their heads. If something exists, it must have an adaptive reason for it, therefore all you have to do is point to something like fascism, and since it definitely exists, there must be some virtuous cause that has lead to that solution. Heying and Weinstein are not quite that blatant, but they do indulge in quite a bit of pseudoscientific invention.

Not that the authors do much better when they engage with studies. They make alarming pronouncements based on flimsy data, such as when they say that water fluoridation is “neurotoxic” to children based on one reference to a “pilot study”. They lazily repeat false information from other pop-science books, such as the “fact” that all known species sleep (some, including certain amphibians, don’t!). The final chapter, in which they embrace the bonkers “degrowth” movement, contains what might be the single stupidest paragraph on economics ever written (claiming, bizarrely, that the invention of more efficient versions of products such as fridges would bring the economy to its knees).

But maybe what’ll make this book totally irrelevant, sparing me any need to read it, is that Heying and Weinstein are just bad writers. I’ve listened to some of their podcast, and their arrogance shows there, too.

Above all, Heying and Weinstein are really annoying. Their seen-it-all, know-it-all attitude is grating from around page five, and becomes increasingly irksome as they pontificate their way through each chapter. If only you knew as much about evolution as they do, you would know how to organise society. You would know to “steer clear” of genetically modified food (the millions of lives saved by such food apparently don’t warrant a mention). You’d know not to have casual sex. You’d know not to look at your smartphone so much. And so on.

And they haven’t merely solved the central questions of biology. They are also, apparently, the best teachers imaginable. Without embarrassment, they quote a student describing their classroom as “an ancestral mode for which I was primed, but didn’t even know existed”. Their towering self-regard gives them the false belief that all their arguments – including the book’s premise, which is just a repackaging of 18th-century Burkean conservatism with a faux-Darwinian paint job – are staggeringly innovative.

One can hope their obvious incompetence kills their message, but I said the same thing about creationists and Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro. At some point, expertise and actual knowledge are the things that become irrelevant, if the message is what your audience wants to hear.

This cannot be tolerated: creationists lying about spider evolution

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. The Discovery Institute has turned it’s puerile, feeble attention to spiders now, and it’s as pathetic as you might imagine. It’s written by a guy, Eric Cassell, who felt it important to mention that he had an undergraduate biology degree, which he earned at least four decades ago, before committing to work in — take a wild guess — engineering, of course. Much as I respect many engineers and their work, it sure tends to breed inappropriate teleological attitudes in the brains of its practitioners.

This article, The Miracle of Spiderwebs, is typical of the type. First, talk about how freakin’ complicated spider webs are, then declare that they don’t understand how they could have evolved, which therefore means it could not have evolved. Never mind that spiders have been dependent on silk for their survival for 350 million years and there has been constant selection for more effective functionality, some old guy with negligible background in biology can’t understand it! Furthermore, it can’t possibly be because he’s an ignorant ass, he has to misrepresent the current science to make his case.

Despite great effort, humans have yet to produce anything functionally equivalent to silk. Through genetic engineering, attempts have been made to duplicate it without success. The main challenge is replicating the sophisticated and information-rich protein molecules found in the silk produced by spiders and other silk-producing arthropods such as silkworms — proteins that are nearly double the size of average human proteins. Smaller proteins do not have the strength or flexibility of spider silk. Given the advanced genetic and manufacturing technologies available today, it is remarkable that spider silk still cannot be duplicated. This illustrates just how advanced the engineering design of spider silk is.

No, he’s wrong. The silk molecules tend to be long, but not particularly “information-rich”, whatever that means. They are made up of long stretches of highly repetitive amino acid sequences, interspersed with special purpose regions. The strength comes from the repetition — they fold into crystalline bricks made of beta-pleated sheets. The length of each molecule is an obstacle to synthesizing them, of course, but there’s nothing magical or incomprehensible about the genes.

Rather, what makes them difficult to replicate is the silk production apparatus. The silk gland stores a large quantity of the fluid suspension of the silk molecules, but to make a silk fiber requires passage through a long duct that physically compresses and stretches the fibers as it extracts water and acidifies the environment, causing a controlled phase transition that makes the silk molecules align and precipitate to build a continuous fiber. That’s the hard part. It’s the gene (relatively easy) plus the specific mechanical and chemical processing that makes the silk. It is not at all remarkable that we can’t duplicate that process, but there’s nothing divine about it.

But that’s all there is to this article. Gosh, it’s amazing what biology can accomplish, says the guy who thinks it’s all about engineering.

Various spiderwebs, even among spiders of the same species, are far from identical. The most obvious reason for the differences is that each is tailored to its specific location. As the Goulds explain, “Every set of initial anchor points is different; the number of radii is contingent on opportunity; the beginning of the sticky spiral depends on where the longest several radii turn out to be. In short, each web is a custom production.” The Goulds postulate that spiders have a form of mapping ability that enables them to implement general design principles in a wide variety of circumstances. This is demonstrated, for instance, by spiders successfully making repairs to damaged webs.

And…? So…? The reason every web is a custom production is that nature is not uniform. A spider has an algorithm for navigating a variable environment: an orb weaver lays down radial lines from a central point to convenient anchor points, then walks a spiral, laying down sticky threads. The process builds a recognizable, functional sheet that varies depending on structures in the neighborhood. What is the miracle here?

Providing credible evolutionary explanations for the origin of silk and web design has proven problematic. Several theories have been proposed for the origin of both, but none have been generally accepted. Biologist and spider specialist William Shear concedes that “a functional explanation for the origins of silk and the spinning habit may be impossible to achieve.” One complicating factor is that the webs of some spiders that are more distantly related are nearly identical. Shear writes, “It appears probable that several web types are the product of convergent evolution — that is, that the same web has evolved in unrelated species that have adapted to similar environmental circumstances.” But as I will argue in Chapter 6, that is an unconvincing explanation for the origin of complex programmed behaviors.

For someone cited by a creationist, WA Shear sure has a lot of publications on the paleontology and evolution of spiders and other invertebrates. It looks like his work might have been mined to extract a misleading quote, and yep, he sure has.

That brief quote is taken from an article titled, “Untangling the evolution of the web,” and surprise, surprise, surprise, the creationist has left out the bulk of the context. I know, a creationist lies about the scientific literature? Say it ain’t so! But here’s the full and accurate quote from the paper. It starts, “A functional explanation for the origins of silk and the spinning habit may be impossible to achieve”, but then there’s a goddamn COMMA.

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.

This is one of those things about the creationist literature that makes me thoroughly furious: they unethically misrepresent and actively distort the work published in the credible scientific literature to pretend they are scholars. They aren’t. They’re liars. And they spin their lies out into collections of self-reinforcing nonsense. I note that the creationist here seems to think that convergent evolution is somehow an unacceptable explanation for the origin of multiple kinds of webs, and cites his own goddamn book, authored by a creationist engineer with no qualifications at all in this field, and ignores the fact that his source, WA Shear, goes on to give a summary of the evolution of diverse webs. That’s not a book worth reading, obviously.

Also, that Shear article contains a simple, clear illustration of the pattern of evolution that this creationist twit thinks can’t exist.

Phylogenetic tree shows how some families of spiders may have arrived at similar and different web designs. The Mesothelae are generally believed to have evolved first from the common ancestor of all spiders, followed by the Mygalomorphae and the “true spiders”, the Araneomorphae. The monophyletic hypothesis of orb-web origin (which is incorporated into this diagram) holds that the orb-web was invented by an araneomorph, the common ancestor of araneoid and uloborid spiders, that had a cribellum. The cribellum was acquired by a spider that was the common ancestor of all araneomorphs, including the araneoid superfamily and the uloborids. The araneoids lost the cribellum, and some araneoid families later lost the orb. Among the uloborids and their close relatives, the dinopids, are many species that have modified the orb.

But wait! There’s much more, all conveniently left out of Cassell’s stupid mangling of the article. We do have good models for the evolution of spider webs, all based on, as Shear notes, the evidence from taxonomy and histology and molecular biology.

Hypothetical pathways of spider-web evolution form a tangled web of their own, with the question of the orb’s origin, and its role as a possible precursor to other webs, at the center. In several cases it’s not clear which web is ancestral; it is possible that some aerial sheet webs preceded the orb web, whereas others developed from the orb. Pathways that are less likely are indicated by light-orange arrows; for some of them there is no direct evidence.

Oh look. Someone had the proper respect for the evidence and was happy to talk about the strengths and weakness of the support for their model, and it wasn’t Eric Cassel.

I’ll also note that Cassel is relying on a generalist article from 1994 which incorporates little of the evidence from modern molecular phylogenies. He didn’t understand the 27 year old article, there’s little hope he could grasp a modern analysis, in which the details of evolution have been strengthened. Here’s an example from 2012, Early Events in the Evolution of Spider Silk Genes:

Spidroin gene tree is based on a ML analysis of the carboxy-terminal encoding region with gaps coded as binary characters and monophyly of some groups constrained (see Methods). Numbers next to nodes and terminals correspond to numbers in supplementary Tables S1 and S2 showing support values, alternate rootings, and continuous character data. Spidroins are colored according to the taxonomic group from which they were characterized: purple = Mesothelae, blue = Mygalomorphae, green = Araneomorphae. Gray squares indicate duplication events inferred by reconciliation. Hash marks on branch indicate arbitrary shortening of branch for figure quality purposes. Brackets indicate clades with the following abbreviations: AcSp = Aciniform, TuSp = Tubuliform, PySp = Pyriform, MaSp = Major ampullate, MiSp = Minor ampullate, Flag = Flagelliform.

A more fundamental challenge for those seeking to provide a detailed, causally credible explanation for the origin of silk and spiderweb architecture is the number of genes involved in producing silk, and the complex genomes of spiders. After decades of failed attempts to provide a causally adequate explanation, one can be forgiven for concluding that we have no compelling reason to assume that a step-by-step evolutionary pathway to such an information-rich substrate actually exists. And as we will discuss later, there are now some positive reasons to consider that such information-rich systems have for their source something other than a purely blind material process. Here, suffice it to say that the behaviors and functions associated with both silk and web spinning exhibit many characteristics of human engineering, and engineering of a very high order.

Repeat after me:

Complexity is not evidence of design.

Complexity is not evidence of design.

Complexity is not evidence of design.

Also repeat after me:

My ignorance is not evidence of design.

My ignorance is not evidence of design.

My ignorance is not evidence of design.

Biologists have provided causally adequate explanations for the origin and evolution of diverse spider webs, Mr Cassell is simply intentionally and maliciously ignoring them, and further, lying about the content of the scientific literature to make a claim that arachnologists are as ignorant as he is. He’s also logically contradictory.

If, Given the advanced genetic and manufacturing technologies available today, it is remarkable that spider silk still cannot be duplicated, how can you then turn around say that webs exhibit many characteristics of human engineering, and engineering of a very high order?