Ovid (publius_ovidius) wrote,
Ovid
publius_ovidius

Evolving Human Stupidity

I'm not going to talk about intelligent design proponents. I'm going to call a spade a spade and refer to them as creationists. Let's just get this straight: there is no "intelligent design". There are creationists who explicitly embrace God and ID proponents who lie and pretend that religious zealotry is not what's behind their campaign of deceit. Of course, I'm sure that God doesn't mind a little intellectual dishonesty to prop him up, right? Clearly the ID folks have realized that faith ain't enough, praise the Lord!

This is not to say that all who believe in Creation are liars. There are many well-meaning people out there who sincerely and devoutly believe in the story of creation and there are more folks who are swayed by the creationists arguments because the creationist campaign of lying and their very selective use of information has created a propaganda machine that politicians can only envy. However, when you look closely at the creationist claims, most of it boils down to one thing: evolution supporters don't know everything, therefore they're wrong, praise the Lord!¹

It's tough to find a better example of how far we are willing to go to lie to ourselves. It's tough to find a better example of the self-deceit we are willing to engage in when we can accept such a specious argument. And it's tough to keep a straight face while listening to it. So I won't. Praise the Lord!

The Evil, Mad Scientists Are Out to Get You!

First off, let's make one thing clear: science is not evil. Science is just people asking why things work. That knowledge is used often used to help people. That's all it is. Yes, some of the knowledge we have attained has been used for evil, but to use that to claim science is evil is to claim that religion is evil because many evil things have been done in the name of religion.

You would not only not be reading this if it were not for science, you would probably not be alive. I would have died as a baby were it not for a complete blood transfusion when I was a few days old. I would have died as an adolescent due to my asthma. I would have died as an adult due to a cholesteotoma. Carl Sagan once recalled a dinner where he asked his assembled guests how many of them were alive only because of science. All of the guests raised their hands. Evolution instills in us a sense of self-preservation. If you think it's OK that we die, kill yourself. Let me know how it turns out.

Everyone Knows the Earth is Flat

One of the most ignorant "rebuttals" I hear about evolution is an attempt to refute the weight of the vast majority of scientists who accept evolution. The basic argument is something along the lines of "yeah, but everyone once believed the earth is flat." That is not true. In all probability, the vast majority of folks likely didn't give the issue any thought, but for anyone who cared to pay attention, it was abundantly clear that the earth is round.

Long before Christ, Greeks realized the earth was round due to the spherical shadow it cast on the moon during lunar eclipses. Many of them even came up with fairly accurate estimates of the earth's circumference. Anyone watching ships sailing to sea would notice the hull disappearing before the mast. In other words, once humans had the technology to consider the situation, the truth became apparent. Even today, many folks erroneously believe that Columbus sailed to the Americas to prove the earth was round. That's not true. He knew the earth was round, he simply argued that it was smaller than most others believed.

Arguing that "just because many people believe something doesn't make it true" is certainly correct. Many people believe in the Christian god and many people do not. One of those groups is certainly wrong (with many shades of grey in between). However, that means that if the truth of a proposition is important to us and we are disinclined to believe the massive amounts of researchers who cite anatomical, genetic and geological evidence for evolution, then we need to consider this evidence ourselves. So let's do that.

The Stupid Watchmaker

So you're standing in a warehouse and there are parts of a Boeing 747 lying around. All of a sudden, a huge wind whips through the warehouse, picking up the parts and miraculously assemble them into a 747. This, clearly, is so highly improbable as to be viewed as impossible. In fact, this very argument is used repeatedly by creationists. They claim that this argument refutes the Big Bang theory. They claim that complexity doesn't arrive by random chance. If you find a watch on the ground, you can reasonably infer the existence of a watchmaker.

Sounds compelling, doesn't it? This is basically a retelling of the Irreducible Complexity argument. The basic argument has two points, one ostensibly following from the other. First, some things are so complex that they cannot be broken down into simpler things. Second, if something is irreducibly complex, it must have been designed.

Now as it turns out, the first point is rather tough to prove or disprove. It's clear that we can design things which appear to be irreducibly complex. Whether or not such things occur in nature is the sticking point. As it turns out, scientists frequently agree that organisms with irreducibly complex features exist. A perfect example stems from the pesticide pentachlorophenol (PCP). This pesticide, created in 1935, is highly toxic. However, several bacteria were discovered which had developed the ability to break down this chemical and consume it. One of the most famous, sphingomonas chlorophenolica, uses three enzymes in succession to break down PCP. Remove one of those enzymes and the PCP kills the bacteria. Thus, we have one of many irreducibly complex systems found in nature. Praise the Lord!

Unfortunately for the creationists, it's already well-understood how this irreducibly complex behavior could occur naturally. As it turns out, the enzymes necessary for breaking down PCP already served other roles. Their adaption for breaking down PCP was fairly straightforward.

Ah, but that's not fair! If the pieces were already there, that's cheating, right? Well, let's take a look at the number one claim for irreducible complexity that creationists like to use: the bacterial flagellum. They beat this to death. They proudly cite this as an example of why creationism (ahem, ID) must be taught in the classroom. They use the flagellum as a logo on their web sites. They write books about it. The flagellum, they proudly claim, is the death knell of evolution.

The argument works like this. The flagellum is comprised of three part, the motor, the rotor, and the paddle. None of these parts functions without the others and unlike the enzymes which break down PCP, none of these parts serve any other purpose. Given how complex all three of these parts is, it's inconceivable that they would spontaneously appear via random chance. Thus, evolution cannot explain the flagellum.

Being wrong doesn't mean they're right

Before I deal with the creationist misconception about the flagellum, it's worth stepping back a moment and looking at the big picture. If, in fact, the creationist arguments about flagellum are true, does this prove there is a god creating and guiding life? As it turns out, no. Proving that evolutionists are wrong about one point does not mean that their conclusions are false. Let's use a simple syllogism as an example.

  1. Premise: all cats are fish.
  2. Premise: all fish are animals.
  3. Conclusion: all cats are animals.

This is one of the first forms of syllogism we learn when we study logic. All A are B. All B are C. Therefore, all A are C. This form of a syllogism is considered valid. That is to say, the premises necessarily lead to the conclusion. In this particular case, the conclusion happens to be true. However, the first premise is false. Therefore, while the premises necessarily lead to the conclusion, the fact that the first premise is false means that we cannot use it to support the conclusion, though few would argue that cats are not animals.

This is a very important point to keep in mind. In fact, it's just as fair to point out that if creationist premises turn out to be false, it does not mean that there is no god or that this super being does not have a hand in the creation of life. In fact, I always wonder why creationists are willing to accept that some invisible super-being is easier to accept than the idea of self-organizing systems -- the latter of which we can observe -- but that's a discussion for another day.

The main crux of the creationist argument is the flagellum is irreducibly complex. Remove any part of the flagellum and it ceases to function. As it turns out, this is not true. One of the fascinating aspects of evolution is how things which are used for one function are often co-opted for another. Remember the enzymes which break down PCP? They're a classic example. In the case of the flagellum, it turns out that the basal body (the "motor") is closely related to type III secretory systems (TTSS -- discovered in 1994). TTSS allow bacteria to inject proteins into cells. With relatively little modification, we have a relatively simple portion of the flagellum serving a completely different role. The complexity of the flagellum does not appear to be as irreducible as creationists claim.

Regrettably for creationists, further research in flagella evolution is providing more evidence that it's not as irreducible as first thought. Amusingly, after discovering that the flagella are not irreducibly complex, some creationists are now arguing that the components which comprise the "irreducibly complex" systems are themselves irreducibly complex and therefore biologists have an even more systems to explain. It's turtles all the way down, baby!

Before we turn away from the irreducible complexity argument, there's a final point to make. So far we've found many supposedly irreducibly complex things which, upon further inspection, are reducible. But what happens if we find something that is irreducibly complex? Interestingly, we have, but not the natural world.

In the early 1990s, a scientist named Chris Adami decided to create a system which could test how evolutionary processes worked. He devised a system which basically rewarded digital creations for how well they could perform basic math operations. In the process, this software has been used to examine irreducible complexity.

The researchers set up an experiment to document how one particularly complex operation evolved. The operation, known as equals, consists of comparing pairs of binary numbers, bit by bit, and recording whether each pair of digits is the same. It’s a standard operation found in software, but it’s not a simple one. The shortest equals program [Charles Ofria, the director of the Digital Evolution Laboratory], could write is 19 lines long. The chances that random mutations alone could produce it are about one in a thousand trillion trillion.

One in a thousand trillion trillion. Think about that. One in a thousand trillion trillion. How many years would a thousand trillion trillion seconds be? A trillion seconds is 31,688 years. A thousand trillion seconds is far, far older than the age of the universe. Initial results had 23 out of 50 trials able to produce "equals". In later experiments a researcher decided to limit the resources available to the "organisms". Limited resources, of course, force greater competition for those resources. In these experiments, not only did all trials develop the ability to produce "equals", they did so much faster. Creationists were not happy with the results and have tried to find flaws with the methodology. They've actually done a great job of finding bugs in the software and improving it.

Does this prove evolution? No. Instead, it shows that the math works. Ridiculously improbable things somehow become probable with evolution. Read the article. It's fascinating.

The software, by the way, is open source and available for download. Have fun with it.

Chaucer the Creationist

Like Chaucer intimating that gap-teethed women were sexually promiscuous, so too do creationists somehow think that gaps in the fossil record are somehow meaningful. Wouldn't it be fun to point an AK-47 at one of them and say "hey, you can't see the bullet, therefore it's not there"?

Regrettably, fossils are somewhat harder to come by then bullets. You don't have to wait for a bullet-beast to die, get covered in mud or sand, and slowly have their bone replaced with lead and get stumbled across millions of years later by some right-wing militia nut. No, we're not so lucky. Organic matter has a nasty habit of decaying. Seriously. Sacrifice a puppy to your God, leave it on your kitchen counter and tell your friends to check on the corpse every few million years. It helps if you don't tell 'em where the kitchen is.

This creationist argument is so silly that it's almost a waste of time to refute it. Plenty of evolutionary steps in mankind have been found. The archaeopteryx is a classic example an intermediate step between dinosaurs and birds. We even have fossil evidence suggesting that whales indeed were land animals which returned to the sea. Of course, evidence is not proof and whenever researchers uncover more evidence, the creationists either deny it or demand more.

Ignoring the links

One key piece of evidence that creationists have been oh so smug about is the lack of clear evidence of the first water-dwelling creatures evolving to live on land. Despite the existence of lungfish, amphibians, and plenty of other creatures today which seem to have crossover characteristics, the creationists have demanded even more evidence. Well, once again it appears that scientists have found it, even though they weren't specifically looking for it. The recently discovered tiktaalik appears to have lived over 300 million years ago. Despite apparently having gills and being a fish, it also appears to have had lungs and functional limbs, right down to the wrist joint. There were several fossils of tiktaalik discovered, thus giving scientists plenty of evidence to work from.

So have creationists been persuaded by the presentation of yet more evidence they've demanded? Of course, not. John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research says it's just a variety of fish. Curiously, said institute's Web site is strangely silent on the subject of tiktaalik. I would think that if Mr. Morris knew enough about the subject to dismiss tiktaalik as "just a variety of fish", he'd be happy to trumpet that news on his Web site. I expect a curious article on the subject soon.

And since we're on the subject of John Morris and his institute, why don't we read what he has to say about missing links:

If you still don't know what a missing link is, don't worry. No one knows what a missing link is, because they are missing! We've never seen one. They're still missing. Evolution depends on innumerable missing links, each of which lived in the unobserved past and have gone extinct, replaced by their evermore evolved descendants.

So you can see their basic strategy. If a missing link is found, deny that it's a link. Then point to gaps and say "see! It's missing!" I wonder if he makes this stuff up with friends at late-night beer fests. They have to be laughing their asses off.

Conclusion

Of course, an entire book could be written on this topic. When stuff like this is written, if creationists stumble across it they often point out that while A, B, and C are covered, the author didn't cover D. "What about D, huh? Huh?" Or they'll go toe to toe and try and pull out more research which seems to contradict a point or two. That's their strategy: change the subject or resort to a death by a thousand cuts. They'll deny that the fossil record presents any serious evidence. They'll deny statistical DNA studies which support evolution. They'll deny anatomical features support evolution. They even sometimes claim that more and more scientists are abandoning evolution (they aren't). They ignore the fact that there's broad scientific consensus about the overall basics of evolution and instead pick on niggling little details where scientists disagree. They misuse and misunderstand how science works and they prey on our scientific ignorance and overwhelm us with anecdotes which they claim support their beliefs.

All things considered, it's the anecdotes which worry me. There is so much evidence in support of evolution that there are naturally tons of gaps which we haven't filled. There are little bits and pieces that we can't make fit. The creationists stand in front of the evidence and point to the gaps. This dishonesty is astounding and if there is a God, I'm sure he's hanging his head in shame.


1. I suppose I could reply with "Creationists don't know anything, therefore they're wrong", but I'm a better man than that. Barely.

Tags: philosophy, pseudo-science, religion, science, technology, writing
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