Evolution destroyed in 5 minutes!

I can’t believe how embarrassed I am for Eric Hovind and John Harris. Eric is, of course, the son of Kent Hovind, which is humiliation enough, and John is the director of Living Waters Europe, so you’d think being shackled to that doofus Ray Comfort would make you reluctant to appear in public, but no, they now appear together in a video that has them capering ludicrously and giggling like maniacs because, oh boy, they’ve got those evolutionists now. They have a knock-’em-dead argument against evolution (it’s always against evolution, because they lack a defensible alternative) that will finally finish off evolution, and it’s so simple they can present it in 5 minutes. Except they don’t. This is a 40 minute video.

Discover “How to Destroy Evolution in 5 Minutes.” Using the lens of mathematics to critically examine the evolutionary timelines from chimp DNA to human DNA renders Evolution, once again, IMPOSSIBLE!

This compelling argument has left evolutionists speechless as they watch their evolutionary science foundation implode.

Join Eric Hovind and John Harris, Director of Living Waters Europe, for an insightful look at one of the most compelling arguments against evolution you will ever hear!

I’m sure they do leave many people speechless. I know I was stunned when I heard it, because it was so appallingly stupid and grossly overhyped. You can skip the first 30 minutes of the video, because it’s just John and Eric patting each other on the back, bragging about how sciencey they are, and rehashing bits of biology 101 (“this is what DNA looks like…”) that are completely irrelevant to their argument, and boasting about how they’ve left people completely convinced that they’ve destroyed science and are now going to church. It’s extremely obnoxious, especially when you get to their actual argument, which is abysmally unimpressive.

It’s Haldane’s Dilemma. It goes in cycles, where very few years some creationist rediscovers this idea, and goes raving looney claiming that they’ve disproven evolution, and then slowly goes quiet as evolutionary biologists look at them funny and then ignore them. It was first brought up by JBS Haldane in 1957. Haldane was a great scientist, not a creationist, and he brought it up as a potential problem in population genetics that needs to be resolved. It was the problem of substitutional load, that for a mutation to go to fixation involved a cost to the population, since replacement of one allele by another involved the virtual death of members of that population over time. So how could we possibly get enough mutations to transform a chimp-like animal into a person, since surely there are a vast number of genetic changes between the two? Haldane didn’t know how many, but must be lots, right?

Very smart people — much smarter than John & Eric, who know nothing about biology or evolution — wrestled with this problem, but the real question was not whether evolution could occur, but where was the error in Haldane’s assumptions or calculations. As molecular biology proceeded onward, undaunted by a theoretical problem, it was discovered that populations were hugely polymorphic, that is, contained a huge reservoir of widespread variation, that was incompatible with Haldane’s Dilemma. Either the premises for the math was wrong, or plants and animals existed in defiance of the natural laws of the universe.

Evolutionary biologists quickly figured out the flaw. Most of that variation is neutral and can accumulate with little cost. Gosh, empirical reality overcomes the theory, especially the relatively primitive theory of the 1950s. Creationists did not get the memo, though, and every few years they bring up Haldane’s calculations as if they were an evolution-stopper, rather than an early step in figuring out the dynamics of population genetics.

You can skip the whole video, though. It’s only appeal is the spectacle of watching two bozos engaged in a 40-minute pratfall. Here’s their ultimate evolution-killing calculation, presented at about the 30 minute mark.

Note that they are bending over backwards to use numbers that will favor evolution, which is why so much of this calculation is nonsense. Humans and chimps differ by 1% of their genome (it’s more like 3%, but OK), which means there are about 30 million base pairs that differ (they neglect the fact that these are two independently evolving lineages so each needs 15 million changes…let’s forget that, since their numbers throughout are so silly.) That means that in 10 million years at the rate of 1 beneficial mutation (an absurd number) every 20 years, the population can accumulate at most 500,000 beneficial mutations. But we need 30 million! Oh noes!

Every lay person will be baffled by the numbers and will be confused. Every evolutionary biologist will look at it in shock and wonder why this idiot is roaming the streets unsupervised.

You won’t be taken aback. You’ll note that the assumption of 30 million (or 100 million, or whatever) beneficial mutations is false, since most of the differences are neutral or nearly so, so we can just throw away the whole estimate. You might also comment on the fact that their formula is very linear, assuming that evolution is a long march forward, steadily adding beneficial mutations progressively to produce us humans, rather than a process of constantly branching diversification. You’ll also acknowledge that sexual recombination allows genes to evolve in parallel and be reshuffled into novel arrangements. Their little demo disproves creationist evolution, which is an entirely different process than biological evolution.

There’s little point in engaging with anyone presenting this level of ignorance and misinformation. Just pat them on the head, give them a lollipop, and encourage them to stay in school.

There are limits to how much creationists can deny

Here’s a headline for you: H5N1 virus in latest human case has mutated, officials say. This is not a surprise. This is the lesson we are thoroughly familiar with in biology, that everything changes over time. Of course H5N1 is evolving.

Testing of the latest human case of bird flu has revealed a “notable” mutation in the virus, officials have said.

The case, which was identified this month in a dairy worker in Michigan, marks the second human infection linked to the multi-state H5N1 outbreak among US cattle.

Genomic sequencing has now found a change in the virus compared to an earlier infection in a dairy worker in Texas, raising concerns that the virus is evolving to better infect humans.

The slight change in the virus’s genetic makeup is “associated with viral adaptation to mammalian hosts,” the Centre for Disease Control said in a statement published on Friday.

Mutation and adaptation are inevitable. We ought to be teaching that with a heck of a lot more confidence, because some people don’t get it. Answers in Genesis is in the business of spreading doubt and confusion, and they have their own stupid opinions about bird flu.

However, many media outlets and health authorities have expressed the fear that the virus could “mutate” to a form which is capable of directly spreading among humans. The 1918–19 “Spanish flu” outbreak, which swept the world and killed more than 20 million people (more even than the just finished war, and than the Black Death in 14th century Europe), is believed to have possibly started in birds and spread to humans.

They are very fond of scare quotes.

Unfortunately, the words being used to describe the feared change in the virus, such as “mutate” and “evolve” carry with them all sorts of Darwinian baggage. This will become especially pointed if the dreaded change does eventuate. Viruses, like actual living things, do mutate (the term is properly applied) and change. The issue is, as always, not to be misled by the “psychological link” between such terms and the idea that pond scum has turned into pelicans, palm trees and politicians.

Eventually, even the ignorant turdlets at AiG are compelled to admit that organisms actually do mutate, and change, and adapt, they have to desperately insist that that does not mean that viruses will evolve into human beings. Yeah, we know. No one has predicted that they would. You can use as many quotes as you want, but you’re still forced to admit that life “mutates” and “adapts” and “evolves.”

Evolution is a real and ongoing process, and that’s why we should be concerned about H5N1.

A Carboniferous arachnid

This week has been a good one for chelicerate evolution. Here’s another fossil, Douglassarachne acanthopoda, which was creeping around in the forests of Illinois in the late Carboniferous.

Douglassarachne acanthopoda n. gen. n. sp., holotype and only known specimen FMNH PE 91366; for interpretative drawings and scale, see Figure 2. (1) Part, detail of distal femur and more-distal podomeres, showing nature of curved macrospines on lateral edge of distal podomeres, bases of macrospines on dorsal surface of femur; (2) counterpart, detail of posterior opisthosoma showing bilobed structure at base of anal tubercle.

What is it? I don’t know. The authors are unsure. It’s an arachnid, but it could be in the spider lineage or the harvestman lineage, or it could be its own weird thing. It’s spiderish, anyway.

Douglassarachne acanthopoda n. gen. n. sp., reconstruction of the possible appearance of the animal in life.

An Ordovician ancestor to spiders

On this Memorial Day, I’m going to have to have a discussion with my spiders about their distinguished, noble ancestry. It was kind of Nature to publish a study of their many-times-great grand uncles, an ancient euchelicerate named Setapedites abundantis, a common fossil found in Moroccan sediments that are about 478 million years old, which puts it right in the middle of the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, a key moment in the evolution of modern taxa.

This is not a spider, though. It belongs in the euchelicerata, the large systematic group that includes spiders, scorpions, ticks, horseshoe crabs, sea scorpions, and other extinct groups. As you might guess from the name, a key feature is the presence of chelicerae, anterior appendages that in spiders carry the venomous fangs. It also has a common feature we see in both spiders and horseshoe crabs, the fusion of the anterior segments to form a prosoma, with posterior segments forming the abdomen or opisthosoma.

While it’s a cool looking little dude, it’s marine and pretty remote from modern chelicerates. From the dorsal side, it looks like an undistinguished little crustacean, of a type that was probably swarming in Ordovician seas.

A, B MGL.102899 and interpretative drawing, articulated specimen in dorsal view. C, D MGL.102828 and interpretative drawing, articulated specimen in dorsal view. E, F MGL. 102872 and interpretative drawing, articulated specimen in dorsal view. Abbreviations: btg, bipartite tergites; mr, median ridge; pl, pleura; pr, prosomal rim; saxn, sub-axial node; sr, sunken region; t1–11, tergites 1–11; t, telson; tk, telson keel. Scale bars, (A–F) 1 mm.

Where it gets interesting is when it’s flipped over, and you get a glimpse of the mass of limbs.

A, B YPM IP 517932c and interpretative drawing (counterpart), articulated specimen in ventral view. C, D YPM IP 517932c and interpretative drawing, chelicerae, and labrum anatomy detail. E, F Close-up of the prosoma of MGL.102934 and interpretative drawing, in dorso-lateral view. G, H Close-up of the prosoma of MGL.102634 and interpretative drawing, in ventral view. I, J Close-up of the prosoma of MGL.102800a under alcohol and polarized lighting, and interpretative drawing, in ventral view. Abbreviations: 1–6, podomeres 1–6 of the exopod; ptp, pretelsonic process; bs, basipodite; bst, brush-like setae; che, chelate podomere; db, doublure; lb, labrum; ss, single setae; st, pair of setae. Chelicerae are highlighted in gray, endopods in blue, exopods in green, opisthosomal appendages in red, and the pretelsonic process in purple. Scale bars, (A, B) 1 mm; (C, D) 100 µm; (E–K) 500 µm.

In front of the jaws proper (labrum, lb) it has a pair of small chelicerae (che). These have since evolved into the massive, sharptoothed chompers you can see my tarantula using to turn a mealworm into macerated mush.

Setapedites wasn’t such a fierce predator. Here’s what it looked like.

Illustration by Elissa Sorojsrisom.

Cute, right? I don’t know why it’s drawn as a swimmer, though — with that anatomy, it looks more like a benthic organism.

The final bit of interesting information is that they mapped out the correspondences in the segmentation of this animal with other, similar fossils and the extant Xiphosurians.

Simplified extended majority rule tree of a Bayesian analysis chronogram of euchelicerate relationships, based on a matrix of 39 taxa and 114 discrete characters, showing the position of Setapedites abundantis within Offacolidae. Lineages extending after the Silurian are indicated with arrowheads. Schematic models of the body organization in Habelia, Setapedites abundantis, Dibasterium, Offacolus, and Xiphosurida illustrate the origin and early evolution of euchelicerate uniramous prosomal appendages and tagmosis. Roman numbers designate somites. Prosoma somites are highlighted in blue, pre-abdomen somites in yellow, abdomen somites in brown, and the possible anal pouch or post-ventral structure (pvs) in purple. Black dorsal lines indicate tergites and cephalotorax. Schematic model of Xiphosurida Offacolus, and Dibasterium from 45, Habelia

Also of note: Setapedites had biramous appendages, a feature that is mostly kind of lost in modern arthropods — the outer branch got adapted into gills and lungs and even wings.

I can’t help but notice that domestication and artificial selection turns wolves in little yapping Pomeranians, but natural selection turns shrimp into tarantulas.

Everyone is talking about Homo naledi now

Since I mentioned the fun time I had in class getting students to wrestle with the claims of Homo naledi‘s superpowers, it was a nice coincidence that Gutsick Gibbon made a video about the very same conversation, right down to the same papers I gave my students to read.

I did have a moment of concern — am I pushing graduate level content on first year undergrads? Nah, they handled it fine and even came up with some of the same points mentioned in the video.

Burying the dead

If you have a subscription to Netflix, you might want to watch Unknown: Cave of Bones, about the discovery of Homo naledi in the Rising Star cave system. It’s spectacular.

On the other hand, if you’re claustrophobic, you might want to skip it. I’m not particularly, but I watched the video of those women wriggling their way down a narrow crack to reach the Dinaledi Chamber gave me a rising sense of panic. There’s no way I could put myself in that position without having a screaming heebie-jeebie fit.

If you can get past that, though, it’s worth it to watch the adventure of science.

Dear god I hate this

This is terrible. All that graphics arts skill gone to waste as someone tries to illustrated something they don’t understand.

Evolution as a linear path towards a particular, narcissistic goal (of course, it’s all about us!) The implications of a teleological purpose. The self-centeredness. The trimming of diversity. Notice how everyone under genus Homo is stereotypically male — all the prior stages may have been masculine in the artist’s mind, too, but it’s hard to tell. This is going to fuel so many continued misconceptions.

At least the conclusion mentions that “Humans are still evolving,” but they should have shut up with that, rather than making predictions. Why should we all converge on a “‘Great Averaging’ where continuous, international mixing will create an average of all current physical differences”? Will drift and mutation stop? Will all population structures break down? Do chance and varied environmental pressures disappear, to favor one pattern of humans being “taller, more lightly built, and less aggressive with smaller brains”? Well, maybe the “smaller brains” is a reasonable extrapolation from our current experience.

I see the creator has “two Master of Science degrees (one in Geochemistry/Astrobiology, another in Biomedical Communications).” I can tell evolutionary biology wasn’t one of them.

It takes multiple mechanisms to drive evolution

I went through high school thinking that evolution was pretty neat. I read all the popular treatments — those Time/Life books, National Geographic, science magazines, etc. — and they made it sound like Darwin had got everything right in 1859. I could go along with that.

But then, in 1975, I went off to college and had access to a university library and started reading the real hardcore stuff. I was just mainlining PNAS & Science & Nature & Evolution & the Journal of Embryology and Experimental Morphology and soaking in all this exciting stuff, and that’s when I discovered the concept of genetic drift (specifically, thanks to Lewontin). My mind was blown. Suddenly, questions I had never even thought to ask were answered with clarity. Certainly nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, but likewise nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of neutral genetic drift.

I guess Holly Dunsworth had the same revelation, and also noticed the sad gap in public education.

In the USA, K-12 evolution education standards are missing GENETIC DRIFT as well as the word NEUTRAL.

(see here: https://www.nextgenscience.org/topic-arrangement/hsnatural-selection-and-evolution)

I don’t know how to understand life’s perpetual change without those fundamentals.

If students know about meiosis (which *is* in the standards), then they know about genetic drift. It’s just a matter of linking meiosis to evolution.

Genetic drift is a very simple concept and makes natural selection make a whole lot more sense!

I shout about this on Twitter and I get “just be happy anyone teaches evolution in K-12 at all” and “teachers don’t know about drift” in response. But evolution without genetic drift is not evolution, and if teachers knew about drift, then they’d be more comfortable teaching evolution. I guarantee it!

Without drift, it’s too easy to just replace God with natural selection. And that habit of narrating evolution by giving agency to natural selection is super-duper weird for non-believers let alone for believers! (This a no hatred of religion, faith, or creationism zone.)

Genetic drift paves the way for thinking about and then narrating evolution as the constant change that life/nature/biology is. Everyone gets that time is just constant change and they will get that nature/biology/life is too. They embody it themselves, being different from their parents.

Plus, continuing to teach evolution as only being natural selection (which is what the standards are doing), is also dangerous. That selection-obsessed mindset is tied to racism, sexism, essentialism… all the stuff that we have to remove from our species’ shared origin story. Darwin only had selection (not drift, etc) to work with and look what his imagination did with evolution: racism, sexism, essentialism

Oh wow, yes. I’ve got to stand up and cheer at that. Also specifically the bit about meiosis, because I’m teaching genetics right now and am constantly emphasizing the role of chance in inheritance. We’re built on a platform of coin flips and die rolls and long shots in heredity, yet somehow in our public education, that all vanishes and is replaced with something close to fixed destiny (in higher ed, that isn’t true, fortunately. Usually.)

Also, drift nicely bridges all those gaps in comprehension the creationists love to inflict on us.

Fire, 250,000 years ago

The experts are now explaining that Homo naledi almost certainly used fire to explore caves & cook food. This isn’t huge surprise, because how else could they have maneuvered through the pitch black darkness of an elaborate cave system?

Last August, Berger climbed down a narrow shaft and examined two underground chambers where H. naledi fossils had been found. He noticed stalactites and thin rock sheets that had partly grown over older ceiling surfaces. Those surfaces displayed blackened, burned areas and were also dotted by what appeared to be soot particles, Berger said.

Meanwhile, expedition codirector and Wits paleoanthropologist Keneiloe Molopyane led excavations of a nearby cave chamber. There, the researchers uncovered two small fireplaces containing charred bits of wood, and burned bones of antelopes and other animals. Remains of a fireplace and nearby burned animal bones were then discovered in a more remote cave chamber where H. naledi fossils have been found.

This is where the creationists are going to have to get creative in their excuses, because many of them (including Answers in Genesis) have declared that H. naledi was just an ape. Joel Duff explains the conundrum they face.

But don’t worry, they’ll just invent some improbable impossible ridiculous bullshit to justify whatever conclusion they want.