Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Afternoon Teaching Science on Townhall: Answers to Common Misconceptions about Evolution

Over at Townhall I actually got into a discussion on evolution that just might open some eyes, and in a cockeyed sort of way, I've got Don "I ain't come from no monkey" McLeroy to thank for it. Here are the more interesting excerpts:


There are two common misunderstandings several of you are operating under with regard to evolution that is leading to poor conclusions. The first is that, if evolutionary theory is true, then we should have detailed explanations of each and every aspect of all of biology. This is not true of any science. Astronomy cannot yet explain 100% of what we see in the sky, geology cannot yet explain every formation, and evolution cannot yet explain every tidbit of every creature. What do you think research scientists are doing in all these fields? They are looking for the answers we don't yet have.

The key point is that there is nothing known in biology or any other area that looks as though it is IMPOSSIBLE to explain via evolutionary theory. If there were, that would be a serious problem, and a legitimate issue for evolution doubters. The irreducible complexity arguments are somewhat on the right track, but so far all have failed scientific scrutiny. But find something like a Pegasus, with a completely unique body structure unlike anything else alive, or a creature with an internal structure nothing like the DNA everything else has, and you'd have your evolution killer. Until then, having unanswered questions doesn't mean evolution is in trouble. It just means mankind has a long way to go before it knows everything

The interesting question of abiogenesis is not untouched, it is just 1) a different field of study and 2) is very immature as a science, due to the immense difficulty of gathering evidence.

To illustrate why abiogenesis is so different from evolution, think of a row of dominoes falling. One can think of evolution as the theory of how one domino is caused to fall once previous dominoes are in motion. Contrarily, think of the theory of how the very first domino fell (akin to abiogenesis). Is it not clear this is a much more difficult question, with many possible solutions which might bear little resemblance to the already-falling theory?

Evolution deals with how life changes ONCE THERE IS ALREADY LIFE. Getting the first life: much different question.

As for whether humans differ from apes in kind or degree, neither. Anatomically speaking, humans ARE apes. Genetically, there is more difference between a rat and a mouse than there is between a human and a chimp.

Another common misconception I've noticed in many of these comments goes something like this:

"We interpret what we see through our philosophical blinders. An atheistic scientist sees commonality among species and says 'evolution did it'. A christian sees the same information and says 'God did it'. Both are merely reporting their biases, neither righter than the other."

Unfortunately, this is not how scientists operate. They don't stop at a hypothesis based on observation. They then infer a conclusion based on that first observation, and then gather evidence to test that conclusion. For example, as Ken Miller (Catholic) finely explains here:

Humans supposedly descended from the apes, yet we have 23 pairs of chromosomes, whereas all the great the apes have 24. Now for a creationist this is no big deal, God just chose to make us that way (this is also why creationism is not science, because that's the answer no matter what we find). But for evolution it posed a real problem - where did the other chromosome go? Well, the only nonlethal solution was that two ape chromosomes must have fused into one, and so if we compare our chromosomes with the apes, we should find that one of ours is two of theirs fused together. Watch the video above for the details of how they found that this was indeed the case.

The key point is to note the difference in methodology. Science did not simply look at something and say "well, it must have evolved". It said "if it evolved, certain things must be true, let's go see if they are". No ideological blinders necessary. A scientists presumptions may effect how he sets up a test, but it can't make evolution pass the test. Yet evolution has been passing tests like this for 150 years, and that is why it is held in such high esteem in the scientific community. It's earned it.

Rich D. said: "[The interesting question of abiogenesis] is untouched here, which is what the context is. It's also why people are talking past each other - one side is dealing with origins, and the other change."

Exactly, but here is the crucial point. The subject here was evolution, not abiogenesis. The Texas BOE Chairman was booted because of his views on evolution, not abiogenesis, and it was those views I was addressing. Yet the creationists here on TH introduced abiogenesis into the discussion, which consistently does nothing but muddy the waters and, as you correctly point out, cause people to talk past each other. In fact, if you pay close attention to evolution/creation debates all over the web, the pattern is the same. Those desiring to talk about evolution always find themselves in waters muddied by creationists who try to change the subject to abiogenesis. Why do you suppose that is? I say its because 1) it's a common tactic when losing an argument to chance the subject, and 2) to creationists, the appearance of man and the appearance of the first life have the same source and are therefore the same topic. They have great difficulty separating the two. But if they are going to have intelligent conversations about the subjects with scientists they are going to have to learn to.

Rich D. again: "[in reference to my domino analogy] Not a good analogy - where did the dominoes and gravity come from?"

It's irrelevant, because it's beyond the scope of the analogy, which was to demonstrate that the explanation of a process in motion can be very different from an explanation of how that motion got started, and that one can easily have one without the other. Choose any source for the dominoes and gravity you like, the analogy still holds.

Incidentally, the video explaining the 23/24 chromosome pair problem I referred to earlier is here:

I highly recommend it as a look into how scientists test evolution.

As for Chris, he said: 'Science Avenger, if you can say "matter has always been", then I can say "God has always been" with equal assurity.'

Uh, no you can't, for the simple reason that you can't say with certainty that God has been just now, where I can do so for matter. You've got an epistemological burdon I lack, and a big one.

"Where did the original pre-big bang matter come from? For that matter where did space-time come from? These questions are un-knowable."

Unknown perhaps, but unknowable? I'm not sure how that can be known, especially with questions so poorly defined (through no fault of yours). For instance, how do you even know any of these things came from anywhere? What does that even mean? It borders on gibberish.

"Evolution, on the other hand, requires unlikely things to happen routinely - and THAT violates the laws of statistics."

No, it does not. In the first place, there are no laws of statistics to violate. Second, there has never been a rigorous peer-reviewed mathematical proof of this claim, and indeed, the vast majority of those known (ie Hoyle's junkyard 747) make fundamental errors that would have made my intro-to-statistics prof cringe, like assuming all events are independent, or simply wallow in meaningless jargon (Dembski's CSI). None gained any traction with those experts, and for good reason.

And step back a moment. Mathematicians and physicists are smarter than biologists (just ask them). If there were a problem with evolution in their fields, no force on earth could shut them up about it. Yet no physics or math journal has ever come out against the theory of evolution. In short, all those arguments are bunk.


parakeet said...

"The key point is that there is nothing known in biology or any other area that looks as though it is IMPOSSIBLE to explain via evolutionary theory."

How about "VERY IMPROBABLE"? Isn't that the key point?

"But find something like a Pegasus, with a completely unique body structure unlike anything else alive, or a creature with an internal structure nothing like the DNA everything else has, and you'd have your evolution killer."

I'm not convinced about that. I think that the journals would very quickly explain how these radically different plans diverged very early in the evolutionary history.

ScienceAvenger said...

"How about 'VERY IMPROBABLE'? Isn't that the key point?"

No, because everything is "very improbable" when viewed as a unique event, and that's given the giant leap that we can properly assign probabilities to the various relevant events in the first place. Every attempt I've seen from the evolution-deniers on this score would have flunked them out of beginner's probability, not least because they never show any math, at least none that isn't laughably wrong. They just toss out figures yanked from their posterior.

"I think that the journals would very quickly explain how these radically different plans diverged very early in the evolutionary history."

And your evidence for this would be what exactly? Without evidence, there can be no explanation.

parakeet said...

I think this sort of discovery would be a killer of a widely-held, PARTICULAR ASPECT of evolutionary theory, not a killer of evolution en toto.
(not yelling)
I hope this explains what I meant better.

ScienceAvenger said...

It does, perhaps we are in agreement that it would certainly destroy the universality of evolutonary theory. It might still hold just fine for everything but the pegasus, but obviously with at least that one sample something additional or different is going on. I used to look at monotremes in a similar vein.

alex said...

A Royal Flush of spades is just as likely as a 2 of spades, 6 of hearts, 7 of diamonds, a jack of spades, and an Ace of Spades, right? Of course. And the probably of getting not even a pair is greater than 50%. Let us make an analogy of the appearance of life to poker. The "not even a pair" hand represents "life not forming" whereas "a pair or better" hand represents life forming. (To be honest, we probably need a full house or better for life to form.) Your argument above, that "this" pair is just as likely as "that" pair, fails to take into account that life is here!!

ScienceAvenger said...

No Alex, YOUR argument fails to take into account that life is here, since you're the one trying to claim it is too improbable to happen.

What's your basis for saying "'not even a pair' hand represents 'life not forming' whereas 'a pair or better' hand represents life forming? Where's your math to show these probabilities are in any way realistic?

Making shit up isn't evidence. If you are going to make a mathematical argument, you have to actually do some math, and explain why you chose your paramters the way you did.