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On August 14, William Dembski spoke at the Computations in Science Seminar at the University of Chicago. Was this a sign that Dembski’s arguments for intelligent design were being taken seriously by computational scientists? Did he present new evidence? There was no new evidence, and the invitation seems to have come from Dembski’s Ph.D. advisor Leo Kadanoff. I wasn’t present, and you probably weren’t either, but fortunately we can all view the seminar, as a video of it has been posted here on Youtube.

It turns out that Dembski’s current argument is based on two of his previous papers with Robert Marks (available here and here) so the arguments are not new. They involve considering a simple model of evolution in which we have all possible genotypes, each of which has a fitness. It’s a simple model of evolution moving uphill on a fitness surface. Dembski and Marks argue that substantial evolutionary progress can only be made if the fitness surface is smooth enough, and that setting up a smooth enough fitness surface requires a Designer.

Briefly, here’s why I find their argument unconvincing:

  1. They conside all possible ways that the set of fitnesses can be assigned to the set of genotypes. Almost all of these look like random assigments of fitnesses to genotypes.
  2. Given that there is a random association of genotypes and fitnesses, Dembski is right to assert that it is very hard to make much progress in evolution. The fitness surface is a “white noise” surface that has a vast number of very sharp peaks. Evolution will make progress only until it climbs the nearest peak, and then it will stall. But …
  3. That is a very bad model for real biology, because in that case one mutation is as bad for you as changing all sites in your genome at the same time!
  4. Also, in such a model all parts of the genome interact extremely strongly, much more than they do in real organisms.
  5. Dembski and Marks acknowledge that if the fitness surface is smoother than that, progress can be made.
  6. They then argue that choosing a smooth enough fitness surface out of all possible ways of associating the fitnesses with the genotypes requires a Designer.
  7. But I argue that the ordinary laws of physics actually imply a surface a lot smoother than a random map of sequences to fitnesses. In particular if gene expression is separated in time and space, the genes are much less likely to interact strongly, and the fitness surface will be much smoother than the “white noise” surface.
  8. Dembski and Marks implicitly acknowledge, though perhaps just for the sake of argument, that natural selection can create adaptation. Their argument does not require design to occur once the fitness surface is chosen. It is thus a Theistic Evolution argument rather than one that argues for Design Intervention.

That’s a lot of argument to bite off in one chew. Let’s go into more detail below the fold …

The scare quotes are my gloss, but that is the headline of a credulous Dallas Morning News article on the “research” being conducted at the Institute for Creation “Research.” The article quotes Pat Robertson to the effect that it is silly – or, rather, looks silly – to deny the clear geologic record, but mostly the author appears to take the “research” seriously. Indeed, he makes the point that Charity Navigator gives ICR a 3-star rating, which, to my mind, means only that they waste contributions efficiently.

Buried at the tail end of the article, no doubt for “balance” (using a lot of scare quotes today; sorry), the author interviews Ron Wetherington, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University. Professor Wetherington observes, correctly, that ICR puts the cart before the horse:

The problem is, they’re not scientists. They cherry-pick data in order to use it to justify the Genesis account of creation.

Sure enough, the ICR scientists claim that spiral galaxies, ocean salinity, and the (surprising) existence of soft tissue in dinosaur bones are clear evidence against what they call evolutionary naturalism. Real scientists, notes Prof. Wetherington, constantly test their hypotheses, rather than simply “line up facts to support a hypothesis.”

Professor Wetherington is careful not to disparage anyone else’s religion, which I suppose is a laudable position. But frankly when a scientist’s religion teaches something that is contrary to known fact and by his own admission prevents that scientist from getting a real job in a real research laboratory, then maybe it is time to admit that it is the religious view, not the science, that needs drastic modification.

Acknowledgment. Thanks are due again to Alert Reader for providing the link.

By David MacMillan.

8. New perspective. I think there are several different varieties of creationism activists. Some are obsessed with the presumed negative effects of evolution and secular humanism. Some are driven by suspicion for science and the certainty that a conspiracy must be afoot. Some use creationist apologetics to make themselves feel smarter and better-informed than the general public. Some are genuinely interested in science and want to know the truth.

I’d be lying if I said my motivations for arguing creationism were firmly in the last camp. I wasn’t much of a conspiracy theorist, but I certainly believed that there were inevitable negative consequences from the acceptance of evolution. I was definitely stuck-up about my “special” expertise. But deep down, I really did want to know the truth about the world. I loved being right, but I loved learning new things more.

By David MacMillan.

7. The religion of evolution.

The final set of creationist misconceptions about evolution surrounds its supposed religious, moral, and ethical implications. These objections prove difficult to address, simply because they have little or no objective basis and are almost purely philosophical or religious. This section will concentrate mostly on explaining the relationships and connections between these arguments, as systematically refuting them would delve deep into philosophy and theology and is far beyond the scope of a single post.

Michael Zimmerman reports today in the Huffington Post that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has declined to endorse the Clergy Letter Project and declare the second Sunday in February to be Evolution Sunday. Specifically, Reverend John Shuck, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and his congregation are longtime supporters of the Clergy Letter, and Reverend Shuck proposed that the General Assembly of the church vote to support Evolution Sunday. A subcommittee voted the proposal down by the astonishing margin of 47-2. Why am I not surprised?

While searching for the source of this cartoon, I ran across the website of Samuel Varg, a Swedish magician and skeptic. Mr. Varg has posted an interview with Kenneth Miller on YouTube and promises interviews with Candida Moss and John Safran.

Mr. Varg and his colleague Anders Hesselbom were unusually well prepared. Professor Miller, in turn, was an excellent spokesperson for theistic evolution, though I had to take issue with his claim that the universe is “overflowing” with the possibility for life. His position seems to me to be very close to deism, but you can listen to the interview and decide for yourself.

By David MacMillan.

6. Genetic evidence.

Revised July 4, 2014.

Perhaps one of the clearest and most obvious confirmations of evolution is the convergence between the evolutionary paths of descent determined by fossil evidence and the phylogenetic tree generated by algorithms analyzing genetic information. Because the tree of universal common descent is real, not invented, it leaves the same fingerprint in every part of nature that life touches. Matching trees can be found in global fossil distribution, in analysis of skeletal morphologies, in chromosome length, count, and banding, and in numerous common genetic sequences.

Not every genetic sequence yields a perfect branching tree. Evolutionary theory would not predict perfect branching trees, because random mutations scramble the relationships over time. Even though mutations provide the variation needed for diversification, their accumulation throughout that diversification can eventually obscure the evidence needed to reconstruct those relationships.

A follow-up on the Nye-Ham debate in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education: Andrew J. Petto said it wasn’t a real debate, which is sort of true, but the most interesting observations, to me, were those made by John W. Patterson. Prof. Patterson, an engineering professor, correctly gives Ken Ham credit for not obfuscating, for not pretending that creationism is based on anything but his interpretation of the Bible. He thinks that other creationists may fault Mr. Ham for his candor, but he argues that

there will be far less public confusion about the distinctions between legitimate evidence-based science and the faith-based biblical varieties so successfully propounded by creationist debaters. In contrast, Ham’s approach lays bare what’s really behind all creationism, from the young-Earth biblical literalism to the more inchoate ‘intelligent design’ models.

By David MacMillan.

5. Evolution of evolution.

Most creationists believe that the theory of evolution was developed out of an ideological commitment to explaining life apart from God. Explanations of the history of evolutionary theory often point out personal struggles in the lives of prominent scientists – Darwin most often, of course – in support of this belief. “Secular scientists wanted a way of explaining a world that didn’t require God, so they invented this ridiculous theory.” To creationists, this foundation offers an easy way of dismissing all the theoretical and observational bases of evolution. If evolution is just wishful thinking born of anti-theistic extremism, then all the “evidence” is reduced to ad hoc speculation.

Because of this misconception, creationists rarely understand the actual history of how geology, paleontology, and biology built upon each other to provide us with our understanding of the world. Mainstream geology emerged significantly ahead of Darwin’s work; many early geologists were Christians. Studying the distribution of rock layers around the globe allowed geologists to construct a complete geologic column and begin appreciating the incredible amount of time the column represents. Moreover, the regular progression of extinct species fossilized throughout the geologic column had been well-catalogued.

By David MacMillan.

4. Transitional fossils.

One of the most common and most frustrating creationist objections to evolution is the claim that there are no “missing links” or “transitional fossils” required by evolution. This claim is made without qualification, particularly in presentations to lay or church audiences. As unthinkable as it might seem, creationists really do believe that transitional fossils simply do not exist. On this basis, they conclude that evolution must be false.

They maintain this completely erroneous view by consistently misrepresenting what a transitional fossil actually is. Creationists don’t deny that Archaeopteryx, Pakicetus, Tiktaalik, Australopithecus, and similar prominent examples of transitional fossils exist; they rather argue that these are not “true” transitional fossils.

By David MacMillan

2. Variation and adaptation

The majority of modern creation science freely admits the existence of biological variation, adaptation, and speciation. Indeed, the recent-creation model – particularly the belief that all extant life descended from a small group of “kinds” present on Noah’s Ark which diversified into all families on Earth after a global flood – requires enormous adaptive variation and near-constant speciation. Creationists estimate that fewer than 10,000 pairs of land-dwelling, air-breathing animals on the Ark diversified to represent all families alive today. There are around 6.5 million land-dwelling species today, so millions of speciation events would have needed to take place over the past 44 centuries since their global flood.

In this short series, David MacMillan explains how misinformation and misconceptions allow creationists to maintain their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A former creationist blogger and writer, Mr. MacMillan earned his BS degree in physics from the University of North Alabama and now works as a technical writer when he isn’™t frequenting the PT comment boards. Since leaving creationism, he has written several columns discussing the public dialogue between creation and evolution. This series will outline the core beliefs creationists use as the basis for their reasoning while pointing out the challenges faced in re-educating against creationist misconceptions.

Note added July 16, approx. 4:30 p.m.: I have added links to all the articles subsequent to this one at the bottom of the page.

1. Introduction and overview: Philosophy of pseudoscience

During my tenure as an active young-earth creationist, I never once heard other creationists accurately describe what evolutionary theory is or how it is supposed to work. Nor did I understand it myself. Creationists often seem familiar with a lot of scientific terminology, but their understanding is filled with gross misinformation. Thus, a host of misconceptions is believed and taught throughout creationist circles, making it almost impossible for actual evidence to really sink in.

There are plenty of comprehensive lists of creationist claims with exhaustive refutations, such as the TalkOrigins archive. Rather than try to replicate those, I will attempt to explain why creationist claims persist in the face of contrary evidence, even when individuals are otherwise well-educated. To do so, I’m going to go over the major areas where creationists get the science itself completely wrong. My list doesn’t represent all such misconceptions, of course. These are the misconceptions I personally recall hearing or using myself. I’ve chosen not to provide specific examples of each misconception from the creationist literature, though they are all easy to find. Citations for my explanations can be found online by anyone who wants to see them; this series is not about any particular facts so much as it’s about how false beliefs are used to support false conclusions.

Apparently not at Bryan College (yes, that Bryan) in Dayton, Tennessee (yes, that Dayton), according to an article in yesterday’s Times. The college, founded in 1930, requires faculty to sign a statement agreeing to certain reactionary views on creation and evolution, including, “The origin of man was by fiat of God,” according to the article by Alan Blinder.

Several months ago, the college added a “clarification” to the effect that Adam and Eve “are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms,” according to Blinder. There is a ray of hope, however: “Hundreds” of students out of a student body of approximately 700 petitioned the trustees and opposed the clarification. Two faculty members filed a lawsuit, arguing that the college charter does not permit the trustees to change the statement of belief. A biology professor, Brian Eisenback, called the clarification “scientifically untenable” and accepted a position at another Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee.

Others argue that a college is not a church and should not prescribe doctrine, but the trustees are determined to enforce their policy. The president, Stephen D. Livesay, noted

But this is Bryan College, and this is something that’s important to us. It’s in our DNA… [my italics].

I trust that I am not the only one who finds that allusion uproariously funny.

Nye-Ham debate an hour away

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And you may watch it here on NBC or here on WCPO, Cincinnati.

Piers Morgan will interview the debaters on CNN at 9:45 EST, and MSNBC will interview Bill Nye during the 10:00 hour, EST. C-Span will rebroadcast the event Wednesday, February 19 at 8 p.m. EST, according to WCPO.

If you cannot wait till the end of the debate, you may leave comments below at any time. I suggest that we allow comments from (many of) our creationist trolls, as long as they are coherent. I will not allow comments that are merely insulting.

Dan Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, will participate in an “extended interview” with Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis. The participants will discuss the question, “Is teaching creationism harmful to children, society?” at 11:00 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, Thursday, January 30, on WEKU of Richmond, Kentucky. It looks like you can get it streaming. I will refrain from noting that modern journalism thinks there are two sides to every question, even when there are not.

Does any reader know of any other, similar warm-ups or “extended interviews”?

By David MacMillan. The author has a B.S. in physics from the University of North Alabama and once wrote a very positive review of the Creation Museum.

It’s rare to see a prominent scientist or educator agree to a public debate with someone from the creation science movement. Giving equal time to both sides might be a foundational principle of American dialogue, but it paints the issue as more of a controversy than it actually is. That’s why it surprised a lot of people when Bill Nye, science educator and TV personality, agreed to debate the president of Cincinnati’s Creation Museum, Ken Ham.

Evolution Weekend

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EvWeekendLogo.jpg

The Clergy Letter Project has announced the ninth annual Evolution Weekend, February 7-9, 2014. Their theme this year is Different Ways of Knowing/Asking Different Questions, and they say,

Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. An ongoing goal has been to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries. Rather, they look at the natural world from quite different perspectives and ask, and answer, different questions.

They go on to note that many religious people recognize evolution as “sound science” and furthermore that “mischaracteriz[ing] evolution for partisan gain” has real (and I would add, uniformly negative) “consequences for society.” Read their statement for yourself, and by all means bug your clergyperson to address evolution from the pulpit or to develop some special program for that weekend – even if you have to prepare that program yourself! I certainly intend to bug my rabbi, who last year very graciously helped me put together a program on the trolley problem, and see what we can do this year.

The bad news: Only 67 % of Democrats accept evolution. The worse news: Only 43 % of Republicans accept evolution. The very worst news: The Republicans are down 5 % from 4 years ago. This, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, as reported by CBS news in an article entitled “Republicans’ belief in evolution plummets, poll reveals.”

More precisely, Pew asked whether “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, or humans and other living things have evolved over time.” You may see the report, “Public’s views on human evolution,” here.

Pew reports a number of “key findings,” such as organizing the data as a function of religion; no surprises there. Approximately 1/3 of all adults agree “that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution [was] due to natural processes,” whereas approximately 1/4 of all adults believe that “[a] supreme being guided evolution.” 4 % “don’t know,” so altogether 60 % of adults accept evolution. The breakdown by religion was equally unsurprising. Interestingly, however, across every demographic, slightly more people think that “[nonhuman] animals have evolved over time” than that “humans have evolved over time.”

Finally, I use “accept” evolution, rather than Pew’s and CBS’s “believe in,” because evolution – descent with modification – is a scientific fact and not a belief.

That is the headline of a press release printed unedited in the Sacramento Bee. The movie, by Ray Comfort of banana fame, is an excruciating 35 minutes of quote-mined sound bites, mostly from undergraduate science majors, but also from PZ Myers and a handful of other scientists (Gail Kennedy, Craig Stanford, and Peter Nonacs).

An interview with Francis Collins was published in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. The most interesting quotations, from our point of view, were possibly,

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Considering my own stance on the satisfying harmony of science and faith, you might be surprised to find on my shelves nearly everything written by Richard Dawkins (including “The God Delusion”) and my late friend Christopher Hitchens (including “God Is Not Great”). One must dig deeply into opposing points of view in order to know whether your own position remains defensible. Iron sharpens iron.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

As an atheist evolving to agnosticism, and seeking answers to whether or not belief in God is potentially rational, my life was turned upside down 35 years ago by reading C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity.”

No further comment!

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