An Open Letter to John C. Bilello, or More Data for the Salem Hypothesis

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I attended part of a talk by creationist John C. Bilello in Waterloo, Ontario recently. I’m not a biologist, but even with my amateur’s understanding of biology I could tell it was the usual nonsense, consisting of misinformation, misconceptions, and quote mining. Every argument he presented has been refuted dozens of times. Probably yet another refutation of this tired nonsense is pointless, but at least I can document Bilello’s presentation here.

I was unable to stay for the entire talk because I had another commitment, and missed the question-and-answer session. But I doubt he was effectively challenged because at the beginning of his talk he asked who had actually read Darwin’s Origin of Species, and I was the only one out of the approximately 100 people in attendance who raised his hand.

The talk I attended was the second of two. The first, entitled “The Bible and Physics” was attended by Canadian Cynic, and you can see his pre-talk announcement here: http://canadiancynic.blogspot.com/2[…]peaking.html .

Bilello is an emeritus professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. See http://msewww.engin.umich.edu/peopl[…]ulty/bilello for more details. His talk provides more data for the Salem Hypothesis, which observes a correlation between engineering as a discipline choice and creationism.

I have phrased my description of his talk as an open letter I have sent to Dr. Bilello. Let’s see if he replies.

Dear Dr. John C. Bilello,

I attended part of your talk, “Darwin vs. Genesis”, at the Waterloo, Ontario Community Centre on Saturday, April 30, 2005.

I found your talk filled with misconceptions and misrepresentations, most of which could be easily corrected by taking an undergraduate course in evolutionary biology. I know you will want to correct these mistakes in future talks.

1. You claimed that scientists do not know the mechanism of how DNA changes. This is simply false. Point mutations, for example, can be due to tautomeric shift (a movement of hydrogen atoms that changes the properties of bonding). Radiation, including ultraviolet and gamma rays, are other causes of mutations. This is taught in undergraduate biology.

2. You claimed that changes to the genome do not result in new species. Again, this is simply false. For example, new species of garden flowers are routinely created through polyploidy. For more examples of speciation events, see http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq[…]ciation.html .

3. You seem to not understand what “neo-Darwinism” is. In your talk you said that Stephen Jay Gould was one of its leading proponents, and you implied that neo-Darwinism had a close association with punctuated equilibrium. In fact, “neo-Darwinism” (also called the “Modern Synthesis”) is simply evolutionary theory as it has developed in light of modern genetics and population biology. Neo-Darwinism includes genetic drift as a mechanism of evolution. It also says that characteristics are inherited discretely, as genes. You can read more about what biologists understand by “neo-Darwinism” by reading a biology textbook, such as Futuyma’s _Evolutionary Biology_ or by following this link: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/mod[…]nthesis.html .

4. You claim that “laboratory experiments have not verified neo-Darwinism”. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean. Are you denying the gene theory of inheritance? Or that genetic drift is an evolutionary mechanism?

You then presented a number of “arguments against evolution”. These arguments, although frequently presented in creationist literature, are not taken seriously because they have been refuted again and again by genuine scientists. Let’s take each in turn:

1. “If survival of the fittest is the rule, why are lower forms of life still present?” This illustrates two misconceptions. First, modern biologists do not claim that one form of life is “lower” or “higher” than another. Second, “fittest” here refers to reproductive success in their environment. We do not see many people at the bottom of the ocean because man is not “fit” in that particular environment. Many organisms thrive in environments where man cannot.

2. “Where is the fossil evidence for all the intermediate life forms?” You claimed that only one intermediate was known, and even that was under dispute. This is an outrageous misrepresentation. Literally thousands of intermediates are known, and you could have verified this with even the most cursory examination of the literature. For example, see Kathleen Hunt’s “Transitional Fossil FAQ”: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq[…]itional.html

3. “What is the mechanism for spontaneous mutation of DNA to adapt to new conditions?” Here you seem somewhat confused. The genome changes all the time through the processes of mutation, sexual recombination, etc., but it does not do so in order to adapt to new conditions. The changes are random, and natural selection weeds out the forms that are less suited as conditions change.

4. “If the population of humans goes back several million years there should be tens of billions of humans right now.” I am amazed that an engineer with mathematical training should make such a silly argument. Some bacteria can double their population every hour. Let us assume the earth is 6000 years old. Then there should be approximately 2^{50,000,000} bacteria currently. But there aren’t! Clearly the reproductive success of individuals is limited by access to scarce resources. All the available evidence suggests that the size of human populations were fairly small for most of man’s history.

5. “The suddenness with which major changes in pattern occur and virtual absence of any fossil remains.” Again, this illustrates more misconceptions. When paleontologists talk about “suddenness” they are referring to changes over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Geological suddenness is not human suddenness. Second, it is simply a lie to claim that there is a “virtual absence” of “fossil remains”. I would like you to take a trip to Hungry Hollow at Arkona in Ontario. There are so many fossils you can literally just pick them off the ground.

The fact is that organisms fossilize only under certain specific conditions. Some fossils are commonplace because the conditions under which the organisms live were conducive to fossilization. Others, such as fossil bats and birds, are extremely rare because the conditions were not conducive.

6. “The suddenness of many extinctions.” It was not clear why you regard this as a problem for evolution. Catastrophic events (for example, meteorite impacts) can clearly have a dramatic effect on environmental conditions and could well result in widespread extinctions.

7. “Repeated occurrence of changes calling for numerous coordinated innovations, such as the eye.” What evidence do you have that the eye required “coordinated” innovations? The more we study biological systems, the more we see how they are “cobbled together” from previously existing systems. The “coordination” you see is illusory.

8. “Variations in the speed of evolution.” Again, it is not clear why you regard this as an argument against evolution. If you claim that evolution occurs at different speeds, you are already conceding that evolution takes place. More puzzling is why you think evolution should take place at a certain rate. Evidently selection pressures in some environments will be stronger than in others. Furthermore, when we simulate evolution in silico, as in artificial life simulations, we see that evolution can sometimes take place rapidly and sometimes slowly.

9. “No new phyla have appeared; neither have new classes or orders appeared.” Again, this illustrates a significant misconception. Classes, orders, and phyla are simply human-imposed classifications and do not have any existence in themselves. If these categories are determined based on phylogeny, then it is easy to see why no new phyla have emerged– it is because our assignment of organisms to phyla are determined by early branches in the bush of life.

10. “Parallel and convergent evolution.” Again, it is not clear why you regard this as an argument against evolution. If you claim that evolution has resulted in similar forms, you are already conceding that evolution takes place. But in any event, why is it the least bit puzzling that similar selection pressures should result in similar organisms? This can be seen, for example, by comparing the Miocene fauna to today’s African savanna dwellers.

11. “Organs, once evolved, sometimes come to be lost.” Again, it is not clear why you regard this as a problem for evolution. Organs typically come with a heavy energy burden, and may be selected against if changing environmental conditions dictate that they are not as useful as before.

12. “Failure of some organisms to evolve at all.” Here you are confusing genotype and phenotype. What evidence to you have that the genotype of such organisms has not evolved? Almost certainly it has, since, for example, changes to non-coding regions of DNA are common. As for phenotype, the persistence of certain forms is not surprising if environmental conditions are fairly constant. Simulation of evolution in silico, for example, shows long periods of stasis followed by abrupt change.

I am sorry I was not able to stay for your full talk or for the question-and-answer session at the end, or I would have brought up these points. As I said, I know you will want to correct these misconceptions and misrepresentations in future talks. Please let me know when you have done so.

Yours sincerely,

Jeffrey Shallit

7 Comments

“As I said, I know you will want to correct these misconceptions and misrepresentations in future talks. Please let me know when you have done so.”

I hope you are not holding your breath about this.

[Hi Jeff. David UCB Math PhD 1977]

Reminds me of “Satan created evolution.”

It would still be real, then, wouldn’t it, regardless of who created it?

Perhaps something attributable to the Evil One should demand even more intensive study. We wouldn’t want Old Scratch to be up to something we can’t understand, would we?

Would Satan count as an Intelligent Designer?

You bet. Come to think of it, that would explain a lot of things, wouldn’t it? Spina bifida, smallpox, anencephaly, multiply-resistant staphylococcus, Britney Spears. Dang, I’ve been blaming the wrong Guy for those things!

meh, six ‘o one…

Please tell me that John C Billelo is not pro-crating! Maybe he could attempt to mate with a Wolverine… If I were at U of M I would burn him in effigy and start a movement to deny tenure, but that’s just me… What a stunning indictment of a school! What’s next? “Hail To The Sphinctor”?

The article text states that Bilello is Professor Meritle… er, Emeritus.  This means that he’s semi- or completely retired.

As a Michigan engineering grad myself, I would be happy to light a match under his effigy.  The man is an embarrassment.

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This page contains a single entry by Jeffrey Shallit published on May 4, 2005 10:08 AM.

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