Discussing common descent with Jonathan Sampson

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A few days a number of us here at the Panda’s Thumb, as well as some other “defenders of evolution” around the country, received an email from someone named Jonathan Sampson. Sampson’s email said he was interested in seeing examples of concrete evidence that would possibly falsify evolution (and by this he meant common descent).

Now I know that a common creationist argument is that evolution is unfalsifiable - that the theory is so flexible that it can accommodate any evidence. Often I do not respond to such unsolicited emails, but I did this time both because it was addressed to me at my Panda’s Thumb email address (and we are a a forum for defending evolution and reporting on anti-evolution news) and because I had just had my conversation about common descent with Jerry Agar. (See my previous post on this encounter here)

As this discussion progressed we found out that Mr. Sampson is the webmaster for and radio co-host with Kent Hovind (Dr. Dino), and that he was collecting responses with the idea of writing an article. After some discussion, Mr. Sampson and I agreed that we were not granting permission to each other to posts each other emails.

Here’s a report on how my exchange with Mr. Sampson went.

The approach I took in my responses was similar to my approach with Jerry Agar: I offered the point that evidence for special creation (the immediate materialization of organisms - creation ex nihilo) would be at least open up the possibility that something other than common descent was possible.

This didn’t satisfy Mr. Sampson very much. In a couple of further emails, he made the point (similar to the one made by Jerry Agar) that “alternative theories” were irrelevant to his question. He wanted “natural conditions,” not theories of “possible divine intervention.”

At this point, I changed my perspective a bit. I pointed out that there were two ways to interpret his question:

1) Evidence that might appear now that might “falsify” common descent.

2) Evidence that might have appeared over the last 150 years, but didn’t, that might have led science to reject common descent.

I also tried to explain that scientific theories are seldom “falsified” in one fell swoop, but are rather supported or rejected based on an accumulation of evidence.

In respective to 1) above, given that common descent is so well established now, it would take extraordinary evidence to overthrow its widespread acceptance: again, an observation of special creation in action would be such a piece of evidence.

On the other hand, in respect to 2), we can think of dozens of things that might have been, but weren’t: just take the evidence that we did find and imagine that that evidence had been radically different. However, such speculation is really idle and proves nothing (other than supporting the contention that the evidence we do have does support common descent.)

Our email conversation deteriorated a bit towards the end, at least in part because Sampson was looking for answers of a different kind than I was willing to give him. One of the acrimonious points concerned his intention to publicize in some way his responses (a point that he did not immediately make clear.) Therefore, for the record, I want to post the exchange here: short summaries of his emails and my complete responses.

Email 1

Sampson asked for potential evidence that might falsify common descent.

My response was,

Hi Jonathan.

Here is one simple, quick answer.

In the world of the here and now that we observe, all new organisms are born of parent organisms (either sexually or asexually). Also, we clearly see from the fossil record that that species that now exist did not at one time, and species that are somewhat like existing species lived in the past.

Therefore, the current species must have come into existence at some point in the past. If these species didn’t arise through a chain of biological parent-child relationships (that is, through common descent), then the question must be “how did they arise?” If someone could demonstrate some direct evidence that organisms could come into existence in some other way than being born, then that would be evidence that common descent might not at times be true.

As far as I know, the alternative to common descent is occasional special creation. However, there is no evidence that organisms can arise ex nihilo - such an event would totally circumvent the laws of physics, and we have no evidence that such is at all possible, much less have we seen evidence of this happening. Given that we do know of mechanisms that can produce variation and change from generation to generation, common descent is the accepted conclusion - there is no alternative supported by any evidence

So, in summary, evidence that new organisms can come into being in some way other than being born of a parent organism would be substantial evidence that something other than common descent might be possible.

Also, note that this would be evidence against the idea that there were unbroken chains of common descent going back to earliest life, but it would not “falsify” common descent. There would still be the question of when and how often, if at all, there were actually breaks in the chain of common descent. But evidence that organisms could arise by something other than parent-child relationships would at least make it plausible to look for evidence that this had indeed happened in the past.

Thanks for asking. Feel free to reply, if you wish.

Jack Krebs Vice-president, Kansas Citizens for Science Contributor at the Panda’s Thumb

Email 2

Sampson repeated the question, and asked me to refrain from discussing alternative theories, saying they were irrelevant to his question.

My reply was,

Thanks for the discussion, Mr. Sampson. I am sure you are getting other answers, so I want to stick with elaborating on my response.

You write, “Please refrain from discussing alternative theories to life’s origin, as they are irrelevant to my question.” But in science, possible alternative hypotheses are never irrelevant. Science looks for the best possible answer to a question given all that we know at the time. The fact is that we know of no other way for organisms to come into existence except for “birth” from a parent (with due understanding that asexual and sexual reproduction have some differences in his regard). This makes common descent the default starting hypotheses.

If someone were to show that organisms could come into existence in some other way, then that would significantly change the situation. This would not “falsify” common descent, as we would still have the question as to when common descent had operated and when this other new “other way” had operated, but it would certainly change the nature of the discussion.

Let me also point out that your question is about much more than “life’s origins.” When we talk about common descent , we are talking about evolutionary chains of biological relationships at all times: the evolution of different species in Hawaii during the last 1000 years, the evolution of humans from pre-hominids during the last few million years, the evolution of mammals during the last 65 million years, and so on, clear back to the beginnings of life.

So, to summarize, the absence of any known alternative means of organisms coming into existence very strongly supports common descent; and therefore evidence of some other means of organisms coming into existence would provide a significant challenge to common descent.

Jack Krebs Vice-president, Kansas Citizens for Science

Email 3

Sampson asked for a “natural condition,” not “possible divine intervention.’

My reply:

Hi.

I understand that I am not answering your question in the way you are looking for, but I do think my answer is quite relevant when taken along with all the evidence that supports common descent.

Part of my concern is that I think that the request for “a natural condition that would sufficiently falsify universal common descent” misrepresents how science is done. There are many lines of evidence that support common descent, and it is unlikely that any one piece of evidence (except for maybe the one that I have offered) would by itself be enough to “falsify” common descent. The support for common descent has been building for decades, and therefore it would take substantial amounts of new and unexpected evidence to cast strong doubt on common descent.

My guess is that you have a motive, or at least a perspective, in asking this question that you are not making explicit - it is a common anti-evolutionary claim that evolution (and in this case, common descent) is “unfalsifiable.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The easiest way to think about what could falsify common descent is to look at all the evidence ***for*** common descent, and then imagine that all that evidence were different - I can think of dozens of examples for which, if the evidence were different than it is, then common descent would be not so strongly supported or even rejected; and so can anyone conversant with that evidence.

What I imagine you mean, however, is given all the evidence we do have already, what evidence could now come along that would be so strong as to overturn, or throw into an entirely new light, the prevailing theory of common descent. And my answer to that question is as before - evidence that something other than birth could bring a new organism into being. Common descent is unlikely to be “falsified” not because it is immune from evidence but because there is so much evidence that supports it, and because there is no evidence for any other mechanism for bringing new organisms into being - no viable alternative explanation.

Thanks,

Jack Krebs Vice-president, Kansas Citizens for Science

Email 4

Sampson repeated his question. However, by this time I had found out about his connection with Hovind, and about his emails with other about publicizing the responses he was getting.

Therefore, I wrote,

Hello Jonathan.

Here are two comments, which may bring our correspondence to a close.

1) It has come to my attention that you are associated with Kent Hovind as his webmaster and co-host of his radio show. It seems to me that you have been somewhat deceptive in not mentioning this when you introduced yourself.

Also, I have heard from another one of the people you emailed that you might be intending to write something based on your correspondence - again something that perhaps you should have made known in your original email. I’d like to make it clear that my emails to you have been private correspondence, and that you do not have my permission to publish them.

2) It has become clear to me from our discussion that do not have an accurate understanding of how scientific knowledge is verified, revised, or rejected.

Let me try one last time: the evidence for the theory of evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life has been accumulating for over 150 years. To “falsify” the theory now, in the sense of convincing the world’s scientists that there have been discontinuities in the chains of common descent between living organisms and those in the past, would take extraordinary new evidence - as I have said, the most telling being some evidence that organisms could come into existence by some other means than birth.

On the other hand, it is easy to think of lots of evidence that could have been discovered in the last 150 years, but wasn’t, that might have led away from a theory of common descent and towards some other theory. However, speculating on evidence we might have found but didn’t is pretty idle work.

The truth of the matter is that before the theory of evolution the world believed in special creation. Looking at this as a purely scientific question, divorced from any religious attachments, these two hypotheses have been tested by countless pieces of evidence and the scientific community has come to accept, based on that evidence, the theory of evolution and reject special creation. If the theory of evolution, in the sense of common descent, were to have been “falsified” (that is, rejected due to being unsupported by the evidence) that would have happened long ago.

Thank you for the discussion. However, I urge you in the future to be more honest with your correspondents about your position and intentions.

Jack Krebs Vice -president, Kansas Citizens for Science

Email 4

In his last email, Sampson wrote me a rather scathing reply.

I replied,

Mr. Sampson, I have not avoided discussion with you at all, and certainly not because of who you are associated with. What I did say was that I thought you should have been more upfront about your position and intentions in your original correspondence, but I said nothing at all about not discussing this issue with you because of that.

I have sent you four responses to your question. You have made it clear that you are looking for some different type of response than what I have given you, so I felt that it was time to draw the conversation to a close.

However, I will comment on your closing remark, where you wrote, “You have not provided any evidence that evolutionary theory is falsifiable, but instead you have given me the most humiliating response of the 47 - congratulations.” The first part of this sentence is false: I have offered an extremely pertinent example of a piece of evidence that would seriously challenge common descent - evidence for some other means of organisms coming into existence other than birth. I have also made a distinction, which you have not responded to, between evidence that might arise now that would challenge common descent versus evidence against common descent that we might have discovered in the past, but didn’t. And third, I have pointed out that scientific theories are usually rejected because of accumulated evidence against them rather than being “falsified” by some “smoking gun” piece of evidence. (Although I assure you, an observation of an organism instantaneously arising into existence would be such a piece of evidence.) These have all been reasonable points, and you have offered nothing in response to them. Therefore, I see nothing “humiliating” in my responses to you.

Jack Krebs Vice-president, Kansas Citizens for Science

Reflections

Some of my friends here at the Panda’s Thumb believe that those of us who responded to Sampson should have known better. However, I think it was an instructive exchange. First, Sampson’s implicit argument that common descent is unfalsifiable is a common anti-evolutionary claim, and I got some practice in addressing it. Secondly, I got another opportunity to see what kinds of things the anti-evolutionists don’t want to talk about - despite the talk of teaching “other theories,” they really don’t want their “theories” subjected to any scrutiny even though scrutinizing little bits and pieces of evolutionary theory is what they want to do. I was quite clear with Sampson that I wasn’t playing the game he wanted to play, and he didn’t like it.

54 Comments

One thing about falsifiable/unfalsifiable theories is that a true theory will appear unfalsifiable because it agrees with all the evidence available already.

Excellent work, Jack, as always.

As Euan underscored with his comment, the charge of “unfalsifiability” will nearly always lead to a rebuttal that is likely to be deemed “humiliating” to the creationist apologist because at this rather late date in the history of biology the only evidence capable of overturning the evolution apple cart is evidence that will turn over most of the world’s apple carts.

The other brand of humiliating evidence involves, e.g., the appearance of the Indian deity Ganesh, simultaneously on every TV set in the world (including those that had previously been turned off), informing every one simultaneously in their own language that the Hindus have it right, life didn’t evolve, and put down your hamburgers NOW.

I suppose the least humiliating evidence is the return of the anonymous mysterious alien beings in their golden ships, piloted by cats a la the revelatory descriptions of Cordwainer Smith. Or perhaps the surprising discovery that starting January 11, the genome of every as-yet unsequenced creature we attempt to sequence consists of a chemical other than nucleic acid.

One way to help the creationists understand the difficulty of answering their question in 2005 by posing another question: what evidence would falsify the theory that the moon rotates around the earth because the earth has the larger mass by far?

Yes, evidence that some organisms’ biochemistry or genetic code is radically different from the common one would be evidence against common descent.

Another piece of evidence would be that one species gave birth to a completely different one (say, birds coming out of lizard eggs). This is still “common descent”, strictly speaking, but it would be a tough one for the present model of evolution.

organisms can arise ex nihilo – such an event would totally circumvent the laws of physics

Really. So the poliovirus created in a lab in 2002 circumvented the laws of physics?

So the poliovirus created in a lab in 2002 circumvented the laws of physics?

No. Look up the meaning of ex nihilo; the poliovirus was not created ex nihilo.

Jack,

Excellent post as usual, but why do you avoid the word “abiogenesis” and grant them the weasel word “special creation”? Why not at least get them to define “special creation”? Does it mean assembly of molecules into a cell? For sexually reproducing species, is it a gamete or zygote, or perhaps something later in development. Or, does new (not previously existing) matter arise specifically for these “blessed events”? When pressed, some anti-evolutionists admit that it’s not likely the latter. But the point is to get them to explain what they mean, or at least show their evasion tactics more clearly.

These two brave (but misguided) souls at least attempted to define and support “special creation.”:

http://home.wxs.nl/~gkorthof/korthof56.htm http://home.wxs.nl/~gkorthof/korthof58.htm

I find it fascinating how “standard” anti-evolutionists (creationists and IDers) rarely mention those authors. The few references I saw misrepresented them.

DaveScot prehaps you should brush up on your latin. “ex nihilo” means “from nothing” the manufacturing of a virus or even the creation of a Thylacine embro from man does not effect evolution. I’ve long said, and most scientists would probably agree, that we will be able to create life in the future. Heck we already create new “kinds” of life from via genetic engineering. Building a life from scratch will happen if we don’t wipe are selves out. That doesn’t effect evolution. Just because we can do it doesn’t effect history.

Now life being created “from nothing” is another matter. This implies we had nothing to do with it. Thus some unknown “designer” or force must be at work. That would make us look at things a bit differently. But in the end we still see evolution occuring before our eyes.

I think those scientist at the University of New York would have a big laugh at you if you really thought that they created the virus “from nothing”

Much as some may not like to hear it, there is some ambiguity as to how scripture is to be interpreted with respect to ex nihilo. In one interpretation, nothing existed at all, and God created space, time, matter, energy, forces and whatnot in a kind of ‘micromanaged big bang’ scenario. But a more careful reading describes all these things not as nonexistent, but as disorganized. There was chaos, rather than ‘nothing’, and God did not make the heavens and earth from nothing, but rather differentiated them out of what was previously all glommed together. So the first creation story (Genesis has two, mutually contradictory, but you can’t be a True Believer without taking the mutually contradictory literally, right?) at least is one of increasingly fine differentiation. Even Adam was created from dirt, and Eve created from Adam’s rib. Not from ‘nothing’.

So either DaveScot’s position is supportable and the formation of a virus from something else counts, or else God Himself did not create ex nihilo but rather fabricated from raw materials already available to Him. The Genesis account doesn’t necessarily violate modern physics.

Back to the OP, there is some indication (we don’t see Sampson’s side in any detail) that the notion of ‘falsifiable’ isn’t understood the same way by both sides. On the scientific side, it means that in principle, it is possible to find evidence paradoxical to the theory; something the theory says is impossible. To the creationist, ‘unfalsifiable’ means “a term we can level at evolution because we have learned that it means ‘unscientific’. We can then reject all proposed examples as unsuitable because they are hypothetical and not real.”

I was one of the 47, too, and my response was to ignore him. I think that was the best idea, since he was clearly just trolling for material that he’d cut and paste into a mangled misrepresentation, but aside from that, your answers were excellent. Posting them publicly is also good strategy, since if Sampson does try to play games with your words, there will be an open record for comparison.

I’ll also be interested in seeing if Sampson links back here with his article. Given the creationist track record, I suspect not – they like to control what their readers see too much.

You’ve probably seen it before, but the Talk Origins Archive has an excellent article that includes many examples of evidence that could falsify common descent and evolution by natural selection. (Warning: it’s rather long.)

Excellent exchange, Jack.

Although many readers probably already know this, let me add that the accumulated evidence prior to the publication of “Origin” was already pointing in the direction of common descent. Darwin and Wallace were simply the first to have laid out a clear mechanism to explain it. If the truth had had nothing to do with common descent, it seems unlikely that Darwin and Wallace would have proposed natural selection. It would have been falsified while still in an embryonic hypothesis state. Because Darwin waited to publish until he had overwhelming evidence to guide his thinking, he assured himself of giving birth to a healty theory. I think that makes Darwin one of the most credible scientists to have ever lived.

Jack’s exchange illuminated the tactics of the IDC promoters of avoiding any critical analysis of their “theories”—which follows logically from their being theological in origin. Jack noted that he got to

” … see what kinds of things the anti-evolutionists don’t want to talk about—despite the talk of teaching ‘other theories,’ they really don’t want their “theories” subjected to any scrutiny.”

That reminded me of the public disavowal of the DI for the curriculum policy assumed by the Dover Area School Board. I agree with the points made in that thread that the DI sees the Dover situation as less than ideal for a court test and would dearly love to see the Dover Board rescind their move. I’d previously attributed the DI concerns to the many comments made by board members during their public debate that clearly cast their motives as religious. From the DI’s legal viewpoint, that may be the case’s greatest weakness. But jumping off from Jack’s exchange there is an equally salient point, that, although offering, perhaps, little legal traction, may be just as important to the DI—that the Dover policy statement requires that students be made aware of the gaps/problems in ID. To wit the Dover policy reads …

“Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to Intelligent Design. The Origins of Life is not taught.”

Read it carefully. The policy calls for students being “ … made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and other theories … including … Intelligent Design.”

That opens ID up to the critical analysis that heretofore the DI has sought to be directed solely at evolution and not ID. If ninth grade students could handle it and most high school biology teachers had the knowledge of evolution and ID to teach lessons to that effect, critical analysis of both evolution and ID in the classroom would totally destroy ID. I think the DI is concerned for both legal and pedagogical reasons. The ACLU lawyers could destroy ID in the courtroom and the Dover board has unwittingly given their faculty broad license to demolish ID in the classroom. Subjecting ID to critical analysis in front of students is not part of the wedge strategy.

Keanus Wrote:

Read it carefully. The policy calls for students being “ … made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and other theories … including … Intelligent Design.”

I did read it carefully, and still found it ambiguous. Caveat: I’m no grammar expert, so if it unabiguously means that gaps/problems in ID will be discussed, I stand corrected. Either way, I still have no response from the Dover board:

http://makeashorterlink.com/?M3432363A

Read it more carefully. It doesn’t call for students being made aware of gaps/problems in other theories of evolution. It calls for students being made aware of other theories of evolution. You left out an important ‘of’.

“…made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories…including…Intelligent Design.”

Rewriting the sentence to make the meaning more clear:

Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory, and students will be made aware of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to Intelligent Design.

Wrote:

“Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to Intelligent Design. The Origins of Life is not taught.”

Keanus Wrote:

Read it carefully. The policy calls for students being “ … made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and other theories … including … Intelligent Design.”

It might be nice if they had made that mistake, but they did not. Keanus, you have dropped the “of” in your quote, thereby changing the meaning of the original sentence. According to the original language, students will be made aware of two things: 1. “gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory” 2. “other theories of evolution including, but not limited to Intelligent Design”

The sentence is carefully crafted to force the teaching of gaps/problems with Darwin’s Theory, but to avoid forcing the teaching of any such gaps or problems with other theories. The text is grammatically unambiguous in this regard (yes, just the absence of the word “of” in the second clause would change the meaning dramatically). Many years ago, my English teacher said that “a good author carefully considers every single word he writes”. We all laughed, but he was right.

Stergios

Dear Jack,

Great post!! Thanks for taking the time to do the dirty work in the trenches.

I have one question if I might. If all organisms come into existence by being born, then isn’t it still logically possible that life originated in two distinct places on earth and extant organisms descend from either primordial organism #1 or primordial organism #2? Just because all organisms are born from genetically related parents simply means that they are descended from an ancestor, but not necessarily a common universal ancestor.

Let me give an example (this example is pure rubbish by the way). Let’s say that protostomes are all descended from a protostome ancestor that can be traced all the way back to some conglomeration of events during the origin of life and the deuterostomes can also find their origins in a separate group of events that occurred at about the same time frame. Protostomes are all related because they have the basis of their evolutionary lineage in Event A whilst the deuterostomes are all related, but have their genesis in Event B. The protostomes and deuterostomes make new protostomes and deuterostomes by means of giving birth, but the two groups would not be related.

It seems to me that we need to go beyond just making progeny via giving birth, but show that the whole of like is 1) made of the same basic stuff (L-amino acids liked together with peptide bonds to make proteins, nucleic acids for information storage molecules and phospholipids for membranes) and 2) do business in about the same way (common glycolytic pathway, fatty acid biosynthetic pathway, citric acid cycle, beta oxidation, polysaccharide biosynthetic processes, ad infinitum). These biochemical commonalities, which are simply too strong and coincidental to ignore, form the “gotta” argument for common descent, at least as I see it. Just making progeny by giving birth is, at least in my opinion, not quite enough.

Sorry for troubling you,

MB

euan:

One thing about falsifiable/unfalsifiable theories is that a true theory will appear unfalsifiable because it agrees with all the evidence available already.

I would disagree with that, but I’m not sure if our disagreement is substantial or just semantic. Even a true theory should be ‘potentially falsifiable’. Would that adjective clear up our differences? Otherwise I couls substitute “testable” for “falsifiable”. In addition to explaining the available evidence, a good theory should make predictions. We can test those predictions in an attempt to falsify the theory. If the theory passes those tests, it certainly should not be thought less of as a result.

This is missing the point. Evolution is considered unfalsifiable by creationists NOT because no contradictory evidence can be found in principle, but because every time scientists learn something new and unexpected (and everything new is at least a little unexpected), they keep modifying the theory to fit the evidence! And obviously, this means the theory can’t possibly be falsified – it is infinitely malleable. But this also means it can’t possibly be truth, because truth cannot be modified. If it could, it wouldn’t have been true! Therefore, anything that changes as evidence changes is not true. Anything not true is false. Therefore, evolution is false. Each new piece of evidence causes scientists to say “well, evolution wasn’t as true as we wanted, so NOW it’s true” – until the next time.

For a creationist, this is exasperating, maddening! Find some legitimate reason why evolution is false, and they just change the rules, modify what evolution means, and even though obviously evolution was false (otherwise they wouldn’t have had to change it), it is STILL evolution. You falsified it and they still claim it’s true! Like cutting a head off the hydra, only to have two new ones grow back.

Regardless of how well-drafted or ill-drafted is the statement from the Dover school board, it is certain that the advocates of “intelligent design” would cringe to see several lesson plans drafted by good educators and experts which point out the flaws and problems with intelligent design as science, and especially as a competitor to Darwin.

Here in Texas the state standards require that anything proposed as a theory in science have its downside explored, too. Consequently, advocates of intelligent design were careful to avoid having ID proposed as a hypothesis – I suspect to avoid exactly that sort of scrutiny.

My experience is that lesson plans are readily available to introduce all the creationist/ID shibboleths about Darwin into a classroom. A teacher who wishes to stick to the science, however, does not readily find expertly-crafted lesson plans that point out the errors, flaws, gaps and misses of ID.

Such a lesson plan might cause a school board member who still has a functioning synapse to rethink the idea of putting ID into the classroom.

Wasn’t it Twain who said, “First God made idiots. That was for practice. Then He made school boards” ?

Flint,

No one ever said that Evolutionary Theory is TRUTH! By definition a Theory is never done… it only exists to explain the observations, and as more evidence and observations come along, the Theory will be modified.

It’s the anti-evolutionists that want someone to declare… OK it’s done!

Don

DonM:

The creationist mentality is foreign to you, eh? Do you want YOUR children being taught Truth, or falsehoods? So evolutionary theory is not true? You said so yourself! So your children are being taught falsehoods, deliberately, by atheists! You are HAPPY with this? Are you daft?

Ed writes

A teacher who wishes to stick to the science, however, does not readily find expertly-crafted lesson plans that point out the errors, flaws, gaps and misses of ID.

Such a lesson plan might cause a school board member who still has a functioning synapse to rethink the idea of putting ID into the classroom.

Of course, “experts” are not needed to show that “ID theory” is dead on arrival, nor to illustrate why those who peddle it are some of the most shameful human beings walking the planet right now.

That said, a well-written plan would be a magnificent tool to help teachers teach the “gaps in … other theories, including ‘ID theory’”. And it could be readily certified by many large organizations of widely respected scientists.

I also recommend including a description of the enterocraftic theory for the diversity of life on earth, which is guaranteed to appeal to the average high school student and generate great interest and excitement in the classroom. There is no reason to teach “ID theory” without teaching enterocraftic theory alongside it.

I was also one of the 47 he sent it too. I gave him one possible bit of evidence that could falsify evolution and in three successive emails, he distorted what I said three times in three different ways. At that point I realized that the chances of him actually giving an accurate and honest portrayal of what was said to him was about equal to the chances of me being elected president. PZ was right, we should have ignored him in the first place.

Flint: I’m not sure you mean for your last commment to be taken seriously, as it really is a bizarre thing to say. Are you familiar at all with modern physics? The physics taught in high schools, for instance, is ‘Classical’ or ‘Newtonian’ physics, a theory which was supereseded by special and general relativity and quantum physics nearly a hundred years ago (both of which are probably also not completely correct). Like all good scientific theories, it is quite useful (used to build bridges, etc…), and in some sense appoximates a correct description of nature. Nonetheless, it is literally false, in that nature is just not how the theory says it is. So it is, I suppose, strictly speaking a ‘falsehood’- but would you ask physics teachers (some minority of whom may be, *gasp* atheists or agnostics) to stop teaching it? That hardly seems reasonable.

As has been mentioned, Evolution, like all scientific theories, is a method for describing reality in a manner which approximates truth and is useful for a variety of purposes (I won’t list these- but living as I do not far from CDC in Atlanta, epidemiology comes to mind). The appropriate predicates for complex scientific theories are probably more like ‘truer’ or even ‘truest’ than literal capital-T ‘Truth.’

SeanD:

Yes, I know all that. I was trying to show what the issue looked like through creationist eyes. Remember that the creationist believes in absolute truth, as revealed through authoritative texts written by God. To the creationist, absolute truth cannot change. It is not based on evidence, but on faith and the Word of God. This Word is to be taken literally and not to be questioned, because once you question anything, nothing stops you from questioning everthing. The result of that terrifying process is immorality and dissolute living, trust me! (I’m still the Voice of the Creationist here, OK?)

And so scientific theories are suspect BECAUSE they are subject to change, and obviously Truth is never subject to change, without becoming false. In admitting that their theories are subject to improvement, scientists are admitting these theories are FALSE! To the creationist, this is smack-your-forehead obvious.

William Dembski has written that “any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out must be deficient…the conceptual soundness of a scientific theory cannot be maintained apart from Christ. A scientist, in trying to understand some aspect of the world, is concerned with that aspect as it relates to Christ.”

What Dembski is telling you is where Truth comes from, and how it must be respected. We may disagree with him, but we’d be foolish not to listen.

Flint,

All I can say is WOW! We are trying to communicate where no common language exists.

Please give me an example of an Absolute Truth, that we can all agree on.

Don

Flint: Sorry- should have looked at some of your other comments more closely and realized that you were playing devil’s advocate. That last observation (“we’d be foolish not to listen”) is a good one, and I think that considerations you’ve brought up in this thread point to an interesting question- clearly more and better science education is needed- but is that all? It seems to me that the issues discussed here point to a need for more and better (largely secular, by which I mean not specifically ‘anti-religious’ but rather ‘areligious’) philosophical education as well (I shoud disclose that I am a graduate studet in philosophy that would like a job someday- *ulterior motives*). For instance, while some scientists continue to use falsification as a criterion for ‘sciencehood,’ a broad consensus of professioanl philosophers of science have rejected this principle for more than 50 years.

I am not certain why philosophy is no longer taught in high schools (it does, I suppose, often dicuss controversial subject matter), but however it is accomplished, it seems to me that better public awareness of these sorts of metascientific issues would significantly improve the quality of public discourse regarding policy issues relating to science (certainly science education policy, but also climate change and other scientific controversies).

Flint: Sorry- should have looked at some of your other comments more closely and realized that you were playing devil’s advocate. That last observation (“we’d be foolish not to listen”) is a good one, and I think that considerations you’ve brought up in this thread point to an interesting question- clearly more and better science education is needed- but is that all? It seems to me that the issues discussed here point to a need for more and better (largely secular, by which I mean not specifically ‘anti-religious’ but rather ‘areligious’) philosophical education as well (I shoud disclose that I am a graduate studet in philosophy that would like a job someday- *ulterior motives*). For instance, while some scientists continue to use falsification as a criterion for ‘sciencehood,’ a broad consensus of professioanl philosophers of science have rejected this principle for more than 50 years.

I am not certain why philosophy is no longer taught in high schools (it does, I suppose, often dicuss controversial subject matter), but however it is accomplished, it seems to me that better public awareness of these sorts of metascientific issues would significantly improve the quality of public discourse regarding policy issues relating to science (certainly science education policy, but also climate change and other scientific controversies).

Don:

Don’t ask me, ask a Believer. He can stuff you with a whole Bible full of them.

My personal philosophy is that the objective universe is what it is, and that therefore it is in principle possible to make absolutely true statements about it, but that in principle we can never know for sure what those statements are. YMMV.

I am really enjoying and appreciating this conversation, and hope to have some time to respond to a number of points that have been made.

But here I’d like to say that I think Flint is trying to show us what things look like from the creationist point of view - not because he wants anyone to adopt that viewpoint but rather because it is important to understand some of the underlying psychological and metaphysical differences between us. Creationists (of at least some stripe) are profoundly unsettled by the unsettledness of science, so to speak, and we might improve the conversation with htem by speaking directly to that point.

Flint,

Yes, I realize what you are pointing out, but it was Sampson who approached the “scientists” in this group wanting to discuss evolution, not the denizens of PT asking to discuss Absolute Truths.

If a Creationist wants to debate Science he has to do it within the scientist’s framework and if a Scientist intends to debate Truth he must do it within the Believer’s.

I think that you have answered my question… there is no such thing as an Absolute Truth that we can agree on.

Don

I think e-mail 1 contains one of the post simple and logical cases for common descent I have read, and I congratulate you for that.

Well, I’ll admit I only took two years of Latin in school. I’d guess that’s two more years than most of y’all here but I could be wrong.

The “ex nihilo” I referred to was not used in a vacuum (pun intended). It was used in reference to an organism i.e. creation of an organism ex nihilo.

Ex nihilo in that case refers to creation of an organism where no organism existed. It doesn’t mean creation of an organism where nothing (vacuum) existed before.

Therefore creation of an organism (polio virus) ex nihilo is quite true. There was no organism prior to the creation event, there were only non-living chemical precursers where strung together in a gene splicing machine according to a predetermined sequence and presto an organism where none existed before.

Intelligent design is a proven possibility for creation of organisms ex nihilo as well as for unnatural tampering with the genome of existing organisms. The question is thus not if ID is possible but rather the date of the first time it was done. Popular consensus puts that date in the Holocene epoch. Popular consensus is often wrong.

Anthropocentricity evidently didn’t die when we discovered the earth wasn’t the center of the universe…

DaveScot brags (again): “Well, I’ll admit I only took two years of Latin in school. I’d guess that’s two more years than most of y’all here but I could be wrong.”

I took 3, at the same time I was taking English and French. Not that I consider that a fact that strengthens my argument, unlike you do.

“Ex nihilo in that case refers to creation of an organism where no organism existed. It doesn’t mean creation of an organism where nothing (vacuum) existed before.”

OK, so every time a child is conceived, there is creation ex nihilo, according to your definition. After all, there was no organism before (or do you consider sperm and ovules organisms? in which case, what’s the difference between starting with those as opposed to other complex chemicals?).

In fact ex hinilo means “from nothing” - literally from no components (no chemicals, no materials, no energy. Nothing). If you want to mean something else, come up with a new word. Privately changing the meaning of a word is not appropiate for discussion.

“Therefore creation of an organism (polio virus) ex nihilo is quite true. There was no organism prior to the creation event, there were only non-living chemical precursers where strung together in a gene splicing machine according to a predetermined sequence and presto an organism where none existed before.”

And there was no child before the conception, only complex chemicals incapable of self-reproduction or even virus reproduction. Yes, if you put them together just right, you get a child - but then, as demonstrated, if you put the chemicals together just right you get a virus.

“The question is thus not if ID is possible but rather the date of the first time it was done.”

Actually, the question is *if* it happened. You have yet to give proof of that. You might start by specifying who, when , where in a testable hypothesis. Or admit that you have nothing and that you’re just using an argument from incredulity.

“Popular consensus puts that date in the Holocene epoch. Popular consensus is often wrong”.

Scientific consensus, however, tends to be right on the money at most points. Since we find traces of life after that point, I’d say that at the latest that’s when life started.

Tell you what, find a case of your invisible intelligent creator creating these days (or do you say that it only happened once?). That would be a very nice boost to your hypothesis - maybe even turn it into a theory. Until then, admit you have no proof, thank you.

Hope that helps,

Grey Wolf

I love this line:

“Intelligent design is a proven possibility”

This has to be among the most meaningless phrase I have ever read. Heck its a proven possibility that Elvis is still alive and performing in Vegas, but I’m not buying tickets.

It might be interesting to check on what others think they mean by creation ex nihilo:

Is the traditional Christian belief in creatio ex nihilo, God’s creation of the universe out of nothing, one that is inherent to biblical doctrine or one that is simply compatible with it? Is creatio ex nihilo nothing more than a defensive theological reaction to Gnosticism? Moreover, does the well-accepted Big Bang theory confirm the allegedly biblical doctrine of creation out of nothing? Is it solely up to science rather than Scripture to point us toward the nature of God’s creation - whether it is finite or eternal?

It is generally agreed that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo - that God created all things out of nothing - is taught implicitly rather than explicitly in Scripture. Genesis 1:1 tells us that it was God who created the world in the beginning. The question of what the cosmos was made from is not one that this verse was intended to answer.(9) However, at least one prominent modern Old Testament scholar has argued persuasively that the verse speaks of an absolute beginning and therefore creation ex nihilo.(10)

Perhaps DaveScot could go argue this with these folks and tell them they’ve got it all wrong. Then he could come back here and report on what they decide to agree upon in the end. I think we can spare a few centuries for that to happen.

Your email contained the line:

However, there is no evidence that organisms can arise ex nihilo – such an event would totally circumvent the laws of physics

This is highly amusing, for I am reasonably certain that many of you believe that the entire universe was created ex nihilo. If not, please tell me what you believe was around prior to the big bang.

But as to your reply, is it a fair paraphrasing to say that (a) only a supernatural creation of a new species would overthrow common descent and (b) even such a miracle wouldn’t really overthrow it, because we don’t know if it was used for every new species.

David Heddle wrote,

I am reasonably certain that many of you believe that the entire universe was created ex nihilo. If not, please tell me what you believe was around prior to the big bang.

Many people who are theists believe that the universe was created ex nihilo, but that is a belief that is beyond scientific investigation - both the “created” part and the “ex nihilo” part. However that is not what this thread is about.

David also asks,

Is it a fair paraphrasing to say that (a) only a supernatural creation of a new species would overthrow common descent and (b) even such a miracle wouldn’t really overthrow it, because we don’t know if it was used for every new species.

I don’t think either (a) or (b) is exactly what I think.

What I said was that evidence that organisms could come into existence by some type of instant materialization (or special creation or creation ex nihilo or whatever you want to call it) would certainly open up the possibility that there were breaks in the chain of common descent created by biological parent-child relationships. However, if such an alternative means were discovered, it would still be an open question as to when such things had actually happened in the past, and such a question might be difficult to investigate or answer.

Part of the problem here is that I don’t know exactly what David means by “overthrow”, but I don’t think that “a supernatural creation” is the only means by which the theory of common descent might be substantially challenged.

Jack Krebs wrote:

Many people who are theists believe that the universe was created ex nihilo

but that is hardly interesting, what is interesting is that many atheists believe in ex nihilo creation, for the standard big-bang model is exactly that. Anyway, your comment that ex nihilo creation violates the laws of physics is technically wrong. Quantum Mechanics does allow for something from nothing.

I still don’t see a definitive answer about how evolution could be falsified, other than demanding a special creation counter example. I don’t consider that a flaw necessarily, but it does seem as if you guys want to deny the unfalsifiable criticism without getting specific.

To me, as a non expert, evolution does seem to be almost infinitely adaptable. I think the junk DNA is a good example. And the hoaxes that have been perpetrated. It always reminds me of a physics cartoon where an experimentalist takes a plot of new data to a theorist. The theorist looks at the plot and says “that’s easy to understand.” He then provides a lengthy, condescending explanation. The next day, the experimentalist comes back and says, “Sorry, I showed you the plot upside down,” to which the theorist replies, “Of course you did.”

On the other hand, ID (as it is used on this site) is just as adaptable, since any commonality can be ascribed to the divine reuse of a pattern.

David,

I still don’t see a definitive answer about how evolution could be falsified.

I hope you are not simply being disingenuous here. Certainly evolution makes a great number of predictions as to the type of observation that CANNOT be made. For example, while evolution can’t predict what might be found in a given stratum, it predicts what will NOT be found there.

This is not an “infinitely adaptable” prediction. A rabbit in the Cambrian would do such insult to the current theory that whatever replaced it would necessarily be drastically different. The discovery of an organism without any (probably without *most*) of its genes to be found in similar or identical forms to other organisms (in other words, an organism not genetically related to any other known organism) would cause nearly equal reconstruction of the theory.

But as I think you imply, observations like these would need to be damn airtight. The Cambrian rabbit would have to be further above suspicion of a freak geological occurrence (or fraud) than Caesar’s wife. The “no genes in common” creature better not be some space alien.

Quantum Mechanics does allow for something from nothing.

Does Quantum Mechanics allow for organisms arising from nothing? If not, then I don’t see why you should find the comment that However, there is no evidence that organisms can arise ex nihilo – such an event would totally circumvent the laws of physics is so “highly amusing.” (Sorry, but I think you’ve given us a calssic example of what is called “equivocation.”)

This is a rabbit trail not worth persuing–but yes, technically QM allows for for anything to be created from nothing. But enough said. I only found it amusing because the majority of theists and atheists AGREE that the universe was created ex nihilo.

This is a rabbit trail not worth persuing–but yes, technically QM allows for for anything to be created from nothing. But enough said. I only found it amusing because the majority of theists and atheists AGREE that the universe was created ex nihilo.

We are diverging (perhaps not?) from the topic, but atheists would not agree that the universe was created ex nihilo, if by created one means that therefore a creator was involved.

Also, I’m not sure that the claim is that the universe arose from nothing, but rather that whatever it arose from, if anything, was (is?) something of a different sort than what is in the universe now.

To some extent this is a semantic problem that reminds me of the Taoist saying that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” If we define “something” as things in our universe, then does that mean that things “outside” our universe (included some hypothetical cause of our universe) are “nothing”? Not necessarily. We just don’t know what they might be like, because whenever they impose or manifest themselves in our universe (if they do), they become something other than what they were (or are) before they manifested.

This is a rabbit trail not worth persuing—but yes, technically QM allows for for anything to be created from nothing. But enough said. I only found it amusing because the majority of theists and atheists AGREE that the universe was created ex nihilo.

As Mr. Krebs said, “created” might not be the best choice of words. But let’s say the majority do agree, sort of.

1. Evolution is not a theists versus atheists issue.

2. Theists and atheists agree about lots of things. Do you find those things are also highly amusing? :-)

I agree strongly with 1. and 2. - except I don’t think I know what the amusing part here is.

Flint,

I am not trying to be disingenuous – in the question of falsifiability I am probably easier on you guys than you are on yourselves.

I don’t like the rabbit in the Cambrian example–its like saying we can test classical mechanics by firing a bullet at a tissue, if the bullet bounces back, then classical mechanics is wrong.

I like the non-similar genes organism, but it still leaves me with the taste in my mouth that there are no real tests other than “if something really outrageous shows up, then we know we are wrong.”

In other words, there are no subtle tests, similar to the slight anomalies in Mercury’s orbit that tested relativity.

As I said, I don’t think that’s a flaw, but more of the fact that biology isn’t like physics, and vice versa.

I do think it provides you with the opportunity to adapt to almost anything (apart from something really weird) – it’s just the nature or your business.

David said: “I don’t like the rabbit in the Cambrian example—its like saying we can test classical mechanics by firing a bullet at a tissue, if the bullet bounces back, then classical mechanics is wrong.

I like the non-similar genes organism, but it still leaves me with the taste in my mouth that there are no real tests other than “if something really outrageous shows up, then we know we are wrong.”

In other words, there are no subtle tests, similar to the slight anomalies in Mercury’s orbit that tested relativity.”

David, I don’t think you realise that you’re asking for two different things. Think of it like this: the “rabbit in Pre-Cambrian” is to “bullet rebounding on tissue” like “anomaly in Mercury’s orbit” is to “evidence of puntuated equilibrium”. You ask for a falsifiable test of evolution, and as an example put the falsifiable test of a slight change in physics. The extremelly small anomalies (they look big because they happen to huge things) that Newton’s physics couldn’t predict in heavenly bodies were subtly altered by the introduction of the Theory of relativity. Equally, the changes in the rate of evolution that weren’t predicted (I think) by Darwin’s evolution were slightly changed by the introduction of puntuated equilibrium.

So what do you want? A falsifiable test for *all* of evolution? Find out that creatures don’t, in fact, reproduce imperfectly. Or find that some of the creatures of the world are not DNA-based (that would kill common descent only, though). Yes, it is as unprobable as falsifying Newton’s physics - because the evidence is so huge that it is a fact by now that they were both right. You might be able to show that some small part of it is wrong. After all, that’s what the modern scientists amuse themselves with: the little details. But it has been obvious for 100 years and more that Darwin had the general picture correct.

Or, in the “comparison that will be taken too far” department, you can discuss if the small picture in the corner is a duck or a dog, but the picture will remain a farm.

Hope that helps,

Grey Wolf

David

I don’t like the rabbit in the Cambrian example—its like saying we can test classical mechanics by firing a bullet at a tissue, if the bullet bounces back, then classical mechanics is wrong.

Hilarious. It’s really too bad that you “don’t like” the example, David. But evolution, like Newtonian physics, is so well-established at this point for the vast majority of scientists that only the sort of evidence that Flint describes is going to suffice to force scientists to reconsider it.

In other words, there are no subtle tests, similar to the slight anomalies in Mercury’s orbit that tested relativity.

Baloney, to the extent there is any meaning whatsoever in that claim.

Grey,

I understand your point. You see, I don’t think the kind of tests the creationists demand are possible. The Mercury experiment, in a sense, demonstrated that Newtonian mechanics was absolutely wrong–although a practical approximation. It effectively falsified Newtonian mechanics. I don’t think there is a similar experiment for evolution, and I’m not asking for one.

David Heddle Wrote:

In other words, there are no subtle tests, similar to the slight anomalies in Mercury’s orbit that tested relativity.

There are plenty of tests, subtle and otherwise, that have been done and that continue to be done. It would be perverse to discount a theory because it has already passed a great number of tests. Every newly-sequenced genome that comes out is a test of common descent.

The Mercury experiment, in a sense, demonstrated that Newtonian mechanics was absolutely wrong—although a practical approximation.

Maybe this observation is worth examining. ALL scientific theories are approximations. They are attempts to take large bodies of related evidence and find some central, organizing factors to explain all the evidence. Reality being a messy place, theories overlap one another, there are always anomalous data, observations are always imperfect, etc.

And so, by your principle, you could say that EVERY scientific theory is absolutely wrong, and always will be. But the need for absolute truth is not a scientific need. The scientific need is for “as close as currently possible”, with the understanding that as investigations proceed, approximations will get ever closer, never reaching “absolute truth”.

Your goal is a religious goal.

Science seems to be largely about developing a theory that can accurately explain the mean and variance of some set of data and hopefully tie the result into other existing theories. Creationist often take the approach that finding some anomaly way out in the tail of the distribution somehow invalids the mean and variance.

The mean and variance are established from a large set of data, so the anomaly can have no effect. There is no such thing as invalidating the distribution thus constructed. It may well be that the anomaly is very interesting in its own right, and will lead to some new theory that explains it. An example I can think of is creationist attempts to discredit radioactive dating methods with the anomaly of young volcanic rock samples from Hawaii. The anomaly was indeed worth investigating, and good science produced an answer.

Jack Krebs: I agree strongly with 1. and 2. - except I don’t think I know what the amusing part here is.

I was just trying to understand why Mr. Heddle would things amusing that are rabbit trails. His rabbit trails, mind you.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Krebs published on January 10, 2005 3:09 PM.

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