A crazed creationist tries to take down evolution because it’s atheistic

January 15, 2023 • 10:45 am

I’m not sure who John B. Andelin is, but he appears to be a pathologist in North Dakota. Certainly his 16-minute anti-evolution video below is pathological, for it simply takes quotes out of context, cherry-picks quotes, omits all the really good evidence for evolution, and mocks those Christians, like Ken Miller, who accept evolution. He also uses video clips of me to makes his points, but in the clip he shows (from the British Humanist meetings), I do note that the supernatural was once part of science, but was discarded. In other words, I contest the quote from Lewontin that Andelin uses to open this video.

Now I could go into detail refuting the stuff in the quotes or the data he cites, but why waste my time? I presume that most readers here have read Why Evolution is True, accept evolution, and are smart enough to realize that evolution doesn’t (as Lewontin implied) come from an a priori commitment to atheism. (Darwin, after all, began his studies as someone who accepted the Biblical view of life.) We don’t invoke God in evolutionary studies for two reasons: there is no empirical evidence for a creator God, and because we no longer need God to explain anything. The history of science is one of discarding one God-based explanation after another (e.g., lightning and infectious disease) as we discovered the true, naturalistic causes. Yet there could have been empirical evidence for God, and in Faith Versus Fact I give some evidence that would have convinced me that the Christian God existed. Needless to say, no such evidence has appeared.

The lighting is not good here, as it makes Andelin look somewhat Beelzebub-ish, and his angry demeanor doesn’t help. Oh, and, Dr. Andelin, the name of evolutionist Ernst Mayr is pronounced “Ernst MIRE”, not “Ernst MAYr” with a long “a”.

How many errors or deliberately misleading claims can you see in this 16-minute video? I disagree, however with John van Wyhe’s claim that Darwin’s Origin “didn’t have that much evidence” for evolution. It sure did: read the book for yourself!

To rebut this nonsense, I decided to just leave a comment on the YouTube video site, which I’ve put below (click to enlarge it).  I hope that Andelin is better at diagnosing diseases than he is at understanding scientific data.

h/t: Mark

Intelligent Design nearly down the drain

January 8, 2023 • 9:15 am

The Wedge Document, the manifesto written by the Discovery Institute (DI) to outline the future proliferation of Intelligent Design (ID), was composed in 1998. It was leaked a long time ago, and you can see it here. If you read it, you’ll find that they’ve missed their temporal “goals” by a long shot. Below are the document’s goals for five years after the document (2003) and for twenty years after (2018). We’re  now five years past their twenty-year mark, and, as you see, nothing much has happened. (Bolding is mine.)

Five Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory
  • To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
  • To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Twenty Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science
  • To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts.
  • To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.

Ooops! We’re now 25 years in, and they haven’t even reached their five-year goals! In fact, Intelligent design has been discredited, and in the 2005 Kitzmiller decision in Pennsylvania, Judge Jones declared ID “not science” so that teaching it in public schools was prohibited as an incursion of religion into government. ID pretty much died after that, and there have been no further judicial decisions, so banning ID from public schools is the law. (Fingers crossed that the new, religiously conservative Supreme Court doesn’t change that.) ID sure as hell isn’t “the dominant perspective in science.”

I often wonder if ID’s proponents, like Wells, Behe, Dembski, and Meyer, who still act as if they triumphed, ever lie awake at night and think about how badly theyt failed. For this is science, and the truth will out. But they’re still at it, like a cow walking in circles forever even after it’s been disconnected from the water mill.

Over at The Panda’s Thumb site, ID opponent and biology professor Nathan Lents summarizes a year of dismal failure for ID and the Discovery Institute. If you’ve followed the DI, you’ll know that they founded a “Biologic Institute” to do “research” on ID, but to get their work publicized they not only had to found their own journal, BIO-Complexity, but they hardly published anything. (Most of the articles were written by the editors.)

Lents announces in the article below (click on screenshot), and Matt Young in another Panda’s Thumb post (click on screenshot), that the Biologic Institute was more or less a nothingburger, and has finally closed down (see my post on its fakery here). No more ID research! Oh no—how will they make it the “dominant paradigm in science without research?

First, their “impressive year”, in which the journal BIO-Complexity published a total of three—count them, three—articles

Lents describes a new paper in the journal about how the human ankle is so complex that it must have been designed (ergo Jesus), and makes a few point about that paper and the journal itself. I’ve left out some points, but the indented ones below are in Lents’s words:

 

1). This is just the third and final article published in in the journal in all of 2022. Their original ambitious goal was one article per month (lol), but they have yet to exceed four articles in any calendar year. In 2017, they published just one manuscript in the “research article” category and one “critical review.” This year, the three published articles are in the “critical focus” category, meaning they did not publish a single “research article” in 2022.

2). The article above was written by someone who is also on the editorial board of the journal. In fact, nearly all of the contributing authors in the history of the journal are also editors and most are also Discovery Institute fellows or contributors. In 2010-2011, the journal published a total of seven articles across all article types, four of them co-authored by editor-in-chief Douglas Axe. Of course, it is not unheard of that a journal occasionally publishes original work by someone on the editorial board, but this practice is usually kept to a minimum for obvious reasons.

3). 2022 was exceptional, however, because the three articles published in BIO-Complexity [sic] are all by different authors! In most years, to reach the impressive feat of 3 or 4 articles, they publish multiple articles from the same author or team of authors, essentially by cutting articles into pieces. For example, the entire published work of the journal in 2021 is three articles, all by the same author, with titles ending in “part 1,” “part 2,” and “part 3.” In the year before that, two of the four published articles were by the same trio of authors and cover the same topic. The exact same was true for 2016.

4.)  The article above was written by someone who is also on the editorial board of the journal. In fact, nearly all of the contributing authors in the history of the journal are also editors and most are also Discovery Institute fellows or contributors. In 2010-2011, the journal published a total of seven articles across all article types, four of them co-authored by editor-in-chief Douglas Axe. Of course, it is not unheard of that a journal occasionally publishes original work by someone on the editorial board, but this practice is usually kept to a minimum for obvious reasons.

It’s hilarious that ID “research” is coming out in only one to four articles per year, but also that there were seven articles in 2020-2011, four of which were couthored by the “journal’s” editor Douglas Axe, who, as you see below, was the only employee of the Biologic Institute. Most of the other articles were written by journal editors, which of course shows that ID research is not taking over the field, but is limited to a small band of God-fearing zealots.

The second post, put up in May of 2021 by Matt Young, announces the closing of the Biologic Institute, and also gives some interesting info from its tax returns. (The last paper they list under their published research came out in 2014.) This is from Young’s piece:

The blogger known as the Sensuous Curmudgeon reported yesterday that the Biologic Institute, supposedly the research arm of the Discovery Institute, is closing:

Appears the Biologic Institute [An enterprise of the Discovery Institute] is history, green screen and all. On their 2019 990, Director Axe will no longer draw a salary, but will be a prof at Biola “Univ.” Office space is for rent. Location is listed as “permanently closed.” Their final 990 showed a loss of $133,000. [Emendation in original.]

I checked Guidestar for their latest IRS Form 990-EZ, which is dated 2019 and covers the fiscal year 2018 (Charity Navigator is a year behind). Sure enough, it contains the following statement on line 28:

DR. AXE ENTERED INTO AN AGREEMENT WITH BIOLA UNIVERSITY TO SERVE AS THE MAXWELL VISITING PROFESSOR OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY DURING THE 2018/2019 ACADEMIC YEAR, WITH REGULAR VISITS TO CAMPUS. IN AUGUST 2019, DR. AXE BECAME THE MAXWELL PROFESSOR OF MOLECULAR BIOLOGY AT BIOLA, WORKING FULL TIME ON TEACHING AND WORKING TO HELP BUILD A COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH ENVIRONMENT AT BIOLA THAT INCLUDES ADVANCED UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS. ALTHOUGH HE NO LONGER DRAWS A SALARY FROM BIOLOGIC INSTITUTE, DR. AXE CONTINUES TO SERVE AS THE DIRECTOR AND IS EXPLORING WAYS IN WHICH BIOLOGIC CAN PARTNER WITH BIOLA.

The “Dr. Axe” in question is Douglas Axe, the president of the Biologic Institute. His salary of $133,333 in 2018 was the bulk of the total expenses of $201,873. Revenue was $68,600, leaving a deficit almost exactly equal to Dr. Axe’s salary. Inasmuch as Dr. Axe “no longer draws a salary from Biologic Institute,” it seems safe to say that they are effectively out of business, even though he “is exploring ways in which Biologic can partner with Biola.”

Biola University,” of course, used to be known as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, and is an evangelical Christian school. It’s also the Elephant Burying Ground for all moribund IDers, including Eric Hedin, who left Ball State after they refused to let him teach religious ID in his science class.

In view of this, I feel that I can declare that the Wedge Strategy has failed, that Intelligent Design’s influence in the scientific community, rather than having become the “dominant paradigm”, has shrunk to a nearly invisible nubbin, and that the Discovery Institute no longer produces research but spends its time attacking evolutionists like me (Michael Egnor seems to be obsessed with me).  Since Egnor and his confrères are reading this, I’m going to give them a big fat raspberry and ask them “Where’s the beef?”

Evolution falls on hard times in Turkey

November 17, 2022 • 12:15 pm

Although Turkey is a member of NATO and is one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East, its government is becoming increasingly conservative and, since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as President in 2014, increasingly Islamicized.  By law it’s a secular state, but with 95% of the population Muslim and President Erdoğan seemingly devoted to bringing back religious values, secularism is under siege. One object of religiously-inspired government animus is evolution.

This came clear to me when the late Aykut Kence, perhaps the most famous evolutionist in Turkey, invited me to give a talk at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara on Darwin Day in 2008. Never have I seen a more enthusiastic group of students, professors, and the public (the lecture I gave against creationism had 1200 attendees!). They loved evolution, and one reason is because every student who loved evolution was pretty much drawn to this school, for evolution wasn’t widely taught. METU is also one of the best and most selective schools in Turkey.  I was inspired, but little did I know that evolution was soon going to be squeezed by the government.

In an eLife article (click on screenshot below), anthropologist N. Ezgi Altınışık, at Hacettepe University (also a very good university in Ankara) recounts the increasing marginalization of evolution in Turkey.

It began in the Seventies when conservatives in the government tried to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. They lost—for a time. Then, slowly, creationism crept into government and schools. 

The infamous Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) published his Atlas of Creation, a series of glossy and expensive-to-produce books that were sent to nearly every biologist in America. Then in 2009, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, the government banned an issue of the science magazine Bilim ve Teknik devoted to Darwin:

For me, the breaking point came in 2009. To mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, the science magazine Bilim ve Teknik decided to dedicate its front cover and several articles to the famous naturalist. The government banned the issue: the cover was changed, the articles were removed, and the editor-in-chief (one of Turkey’s leading archaeologists) was fired. I still remember my outrage when I heard the news. Bilim ve Teknik is run by TÜBİTAK, a state agency that grants scientific funding. For a long time, it was the only science magazine widely accessible in Turkey. Many people in my generation, myself included, first encountered science through its pages. Massive demonstrations were held across the country in solidarity with the editor. My friends and I visited every professor in our department, encouraging them to join the protest outside of our university. Thousands of young people eagerly attended events that encouraged the defence of the theory of evolution. It was so exciting to see.

That in turn led to organized “protests,” including translating Berkeley’s “Understanding Evolution” website into Turkish, and a series of conferences named after Aykut Kence, who died in 2014. (Tthey continue, and I’ve been invited to participate.)

My own breaking point, at least in fighting the incipient Turkish theocracy, came in 2017, when the government entirely banned the teaching of evolution in secondary schools. A I wrote at the time:

There is no doubt why this is happening: it’s part of the increasing Islamicization of Turkey by the theocratic strongman Erdoğan, who is increasingly demolishing the secular government set up by Kemal Atatürk in favor of Muslim habits and strictures. Besides arresting 50,000 perceived opponents, arrogating more power for himself, imposing more restrictions in alcohol, and reintroducing religious (i.e., Islamic) education in schools, Erdoğan’s now attacking science education.

Since the Qur’an states that humans were created like this:

And certainly did We create man from an extract of clay
Then We place him as a sperm-drop in a firm lodging
Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and we made [from] the lump bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah, the best of creators.

. . . and because many Muslims believe the Qur’an should be read literally, teaching evolution can be seen as anti-Islam, and few Muslim-majority countries teach it in secondary schools. (I once had a Turkish cab driver lecture to me about evolution and how the Qur’an says that humans were created, though he didn’t know I was an evolutionary biologist.)

And so a Turkish student can go all the way through high school and not learn a word about evolution—the central organizing theory of biological diversity. It is banned, and since the alternative is Islamic creationism, that’s the default option. Fortunately, the ban doesn’t apply to public universities—the Turkish government is smart enough to know how that would look.

Altınışık ends on a note of hope, but the best hope for evolution in Turkey is to get rid of Erdoğan and his government, which isn’t a likely prospect. In the meantime, we in the West will continue to visit and help the local scientists fight the good fight. 

As we dream of a better country, we continue to resist. Following meetings at the ministerial level, board members of the Society have managed to get some basic evolutionary concepts reinstated to the curriculum. Volunteers have been organising the Aykut Kence Evolution Conference for over 16 years now, passing it on from one generation of students to the next. It attracts over a thousand attendees every year; when they invited me as speaker, I was amazed by the ambitions of those in attendance. Together with my peers, I still join and organise online and on-site events to promote scientific thinking and enlightenment to students and the public – for example, an online series on human evolution has already received several thousand views and is still getting attention. We also do not limit ourselves to evolutionary biology anymore. As in other parts of the world, anti-vaccine movements rose in Turkey during the pandemic, aided by the recent decline in basic science education. Communicating scientific thinking is more important now than ever.

As a scientist, I believe I have a responsibility towards the people whose taxes funded my education and now fund my research. I am indebted to those who have guided me in the dark as a young student, and to those who cherish the dream of becoming a scientist in Turkey one day. I cannot say that our careers as evolutionary researchers have all been easy, but they may not have been as difficult as one could think. My journey has taught me that when oppressed people stop being alone, they also stop being afraid. To those who need hope and believe in the idea of change, you are not on your own. Our stories will also be your story.

In which I meet a woman at Botany Pond

August 26, 2022 • 9:15 am

Yesterday I had a strange encounter at Botany Pond. Two of us were giving the ducks their breakfast (we’re cutting down the food, preparing for the mallards’ departure), when a middle-aged woman and two young children came by, pulled out some crackers, and were about to feed the ducks and turtles.

I told her that crackers were bad for the animals, and, as I often do in these cases, offered her and the children—they turned out to be her grandchildren—a handful of duck food so they could feed them the good stuff.

She asked me if I worked at the University, and I said “yes” but that taking care of the ducks was an avocation, not a job. I then asked her if she was affiliated with the U of C, and she said no, that she had driven several hours to visit her husband in the hospital. I won’t reveal his ailment, but let me say that it wasn’t a good one, and when I asked her if he was okay, she shook her head “no” in an immensely saddening gesture.  (I’ve met several people who come to the pond to seek respite when they have relatives in the nearby hospital.)

I then showed her and her grandchildren one duck that we were taking special care of, G. G. (“Gritty Gertie”), a hen that had a badly injured leg and couldn’t walk or swim well when she flew in about two weeks ago. (The good news is that extra feeding has gotten her and her leg in better shape, though she still limps when she walks.)

I’ll try to reconstruct the conversation from there:

Woman: What do you teach?

Me:  I’m retired, but I taught biology—evolution.

Woman: Well, I don’t believe in evolution.

Me (stifling myself since there was no point in arguing) It’s not really a matter of believing in it, but accepting it. You know, I wrote a book about the evidence for evolution, which did pretty well. It’s called “Why Evolution is True.”  If you read it and still reject evolution, well. . . .

Woman: No, I’m just a good old-fashioned creationist.

At that point I decided to let matters be, But she continued:

Woman: You know, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in creation or evolution. What’s important is that you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. That’s the only way you’ll get to Heaven.

Me: Well, I was brought up Jewish, so I’m doubly damned. No, actually, now I’m an atheist, so I guess I’m triply damned.

This was all conducted civilly, like a normal conversation. Then the woman came out with a line I’ll remember until I die:

Woman: Well, you know we love our Jews, which is why we don’t want them to burn in hell.

At that point I went back to the ducks. The phrase “our Jews” made me feel like these evangelicals regard Jews as pets. And they love us, but they think we’ll bake for eternity if we don’t choose the right Savior.

I told her and her kids goodbye (her daughter was sitting nearby in a stroller), and they all left. All day I thought about this conversation, and wondered if her husband would find solace in his religion as he neared the end. I also wondered if the kids would grow up to be creationists, which would probably be the case.

But the one thing that lingers is that last sentence: “Well, you know we love our Jews, which is why we don’t want them to burn in hell.”

The faithful write in about my post on Intelligent Design

July 17, 2022 • 9:30 am

Nothing gets me more angry comments or emails than when I write about transgender women in women’s sports or take apart creationism or intelligent design. In the latter case, the faithful are out there in droves, and of course 81% of Americans believe in God. If you attack their arguments for God, they see it as you attacking both them and God Himself.

It’s not surprising, then, that when I critiqued the intelligent-design creationist Stephen Meyer in a recent post, “Stephen Meyer in Newsweek: Three scientific discoveries point to God. As usual, his claims are misleading.” the faithful came for me—this time in the comments. Here are three that you won’t see on the post but that I’m highlighting here. I’ll let the writers know that this post is up, and you can reply below if you wish. (But please be courteous.)

Oh, and remember that Meyer’s three arguments for God from science are not new; they are the old chestnuts of the Big Bang, the “fine-tuning” of the laws of physics, and “intelligently designed features of organisms”—the old Behe argument—whose appearance apparently requires a miracle to explain.

Misspellings, poor grammar, and so on are from the original emails and aren’t typos.

Comment #1 from “Mike Cohen”:

Hmm. I wonder what caused these atheists to find it a life ambition to argue against the existence of G-d against the absence of an explanation of what caused the Big Bang. When they can prove that it is not G-d that caused the Big Bang, I will take them more seriously.

I have a Ph.D. In science and engineering, mastered thermodynamics, theoretical physical and the depth of mathematics from tensors to matrixes, to abstract mathematics. I believe in a power that causes the Big Bang. We are still in the process of reaching an equilibrium and life as G-d has designed is a transient of the process. Even people like Albert Einstein who is much smarter and more intelligent than I am by orders of magnitude believed in G-d.

To the atheists, please donate to Tom Cruises nonsense, or maybe you do belong to his church pimping a young and attractive money grabber.

My response:

Dear Mr. Cohen,

You are exaggerating when you think that atheists make it a “life ambition to argue against God and about what caused the Big Bang”. Sure, I spend time arguing about that, but only because creationists like you try to delude people with bogus arguments. Turning your words back on you, I will take you more seriously when you prove that it is God (why are you leaving out the “o”?) who caused the Big Bang? And, you know, we don’t prove anything in science; we make the best inference that we can from the evidence. That’s in contrast to religious people like you, who think God is proven because somewhere along the line they were either taught it or find the idea of God irresistible. As for your Ph.D. and lists of your studies, that don’t impress me much; they make you no more credible as a witness for God.

As for Einstein, he believed in God as a metaphor for the laws of the universe. As I show in my book Faith Versus Fact, he didn’t believe in a personal god at all, and certainly not the Yahweh you are touting above. Einstein said as much. Do a bit of research!

Finally, Scientology. It’s just another form of unevidenced delusion, like Judaism. And the beliefs of Scientologists, from Xenu on down, are just as ludicrous as the claims of the Old Testament. I’m not sure what you mean by “pimping a young and attractive money grabber,” but it’s a gratuitous remark—even a rude one if you’re implying that any atheists here belong to the Church of Scientology. I sure don’t. I’m assuming you’re a Jew, and my belief is that your own religion’s tenets are no more credible than those of Scientology.

Yours,
Jerry Coyne

**********

 

Comment #2 from “Constance”:

I found the smug responses illogical. I’m not a churchgoer, but since science can’t explain where the anti-matter is (and it’s the scientists that insist it has to exist) that opens the door for alternative explanations. Waxing poetic about how Genisis (a book written by a bunch of guys a couple thousand years ago) doesn’t perfectly match the Big Bang as evidence of no God is beyond silly.. First, that asserts that God is Christianity or bust, second it assumes humans having any concept of God has to match what God really is.

Pro & Anti based on this kind of illogical tripe may win a published article, but serve no one.

My response:

Dear Constance,

The responses were not “illogical” (where are the violations of logic?); I simply gave alternative and plausible naturalistic explanations for observations that Meyer says are irrefutable evidence for God. The mistake you’re making is arguing that when scientists don’t understand something, our ignorance must be evidence for God. That’s not a good argument, for the history of science shows, starting with evolution, that many once-enigmatic phenomena or processes that were once seen as evidence for God were found to have plausible (and, in the case of evolution, true) scientific explanations.  (Look at lightning, microbial infections like Black Death, and so on.) So I’m not particularly bothered by not knowing “where the dark matter is”. I trust that some day the physicists will figure it out.

As for the Designer being identified with the Abrahamic God or Christian God in particular, you obviously aren’t aware that I was responding to Meyer’s claim in his article that it’s not an “intelligent designer” but God himself who made the flagella spin and the blood clot. And Meyer, being a Christian, is clarly touting the Christian God. Further, As I noted in the post, Meyer mentions one scientist saying that the Big Bang and a “divine creation” matches the Bible as a whole:

Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who helped make a key discovery supporting the Big Bang theory, has noted the obvious connection between its affirmation of a cosmic beginning and the concept of divine creation. “The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses…[and] the Bible as a whole,” writes Penzias.

Finally, you say we don’t know what God really is. You are correct, but I’d go further. We don’t have any evidence that God exists. Until we do, I prefer to group him with leprechauns and Santa Claus as appealing myths supported by—nothing. As Wittgenstein said, “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” Meyer can’t say anything about the nature of God, and he should have kept his gob shut in Newsweek. Because he didn’t, I replied to his fatuous arguments.

By the way, “Genesis” is spelled with one “i”, not two. Have you read your Bible lately?

Yours,
Jerry Coyne

**********

Comment #3 from “Lars”:

I am a fan of vigorous debate and I enjoyed reading the article. I am not a fan of name calling. When the author called the other side “wing nuts”, I truly thought that his name calling hurt his argument, as individuals from the other side would be alienated immediately by his words, and truly if the author is trying to make a point, one would hope he would try to convince the other side rather than insulting them.

My reply to Lars:

Dear Lars,

First of all, I did not call Meyer a wingnut. Here’s what I said:

Meyer has managed to con the right-wingnuts at Newsweek into publishing the article below. . .

I was referring to the editors at Newsweek who were conned, not to the “other side”, i.e., ID creationists. Can you read? Second, I made a number of arguments against Meyer’s claims, not calling him names at all. The people I was writing for are not those on “the other side,” as IDers and creationists don’t usually change their minds. I was writing for those on the fence, or those who need to know how Meyer’s arguments for God can be refuted by science. Those are the people for whom I wrote Why Evolution is True.

Finally, you’re clearly looking for any excuse to dismiss my article. Saying that I hurt my argument by calling the editors of Newsweek “right wing nuts” is a pathetic attempt to dismiss the many naturalistic arguments I advance in my post.  People who say, “His argument is bad/worthless/loses force because of name calling” are people looking for an easy way to dismiss something. I am sorry I hurt your tender feelings by using a bit of sarcasm, but you got its object of that sarcasm wrong anyway. And does our withholding of sarcasm also include Donald Trump, too, when people are attacking his policies? If so, then nearly every liberal op-ed columnist in America should get a letter from you. Get busy writing them!

Yours,
Jerry Coyne

Jason Rosenhouse’s new anti-ID book

June 28, 2022 • 11:00 am

I may have mentioned Jason Rosenhouse‘s new book before, but I just finished it and wanted to give it two thumbs up. The image below links to the Amazon site:

This book is a withering critique of the so-called “probabilistic” arguments against evolution promoted by Intelligent Design advocates like Michael Behe and William Dembski. Jason is ideally equipped to write about them as he’s both a professor of mathematics at James Madison University and a diligent reader of creationist and ID literature. An earlier book of his, Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, describes his many visits to creationist meetings and gatherings and his attempt to suss out the psychology of anti-evolutionists without being judgmental.

In this book, though, Jason pulls no punches, analyzing and destroying the arguments the evolution simply could not have occurred because the probability of getting organisms, proteins, or “complex specified information” is too low to be explained by materialistic processes. Ergo, the ID arguments supposedly point to the existence of the Intelligent Designer, who we all know is God. (IDers like to pretend that it could be a space alien or the like, but it doesn’t take much digging to descry the religious roots of ID, sometimes described as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”.) The real target of ID is not just evolution, but naturalism or “materialism”, as they sometimes call it. Their ultimate goal is to sneak religion into public schools and into mainstream science. But they’ve already lost.

Still, the religious motivations aren’t important when the calculations are wrong—or rather, can’t be made. Jason’s main point in this book is that although complex-looking mathematics is often invoked to show the improbability of naturalistic evolution, IDers lack information about probability space to plug into their equations, so they can’t come to any mathematically-based conclusions. (And when we do have information, like that bearing on the claim that evolution violates The Second Law of Thermodynamics, or that the evolution of chloroquine resistance to malaria is impossible, that evidence doesn’t support the IDers’ and creationists’ claims.)

In the end, all IDers do, argues Jason, is throw sand in the layperson’s eyes with fancy equations, and then simply assert, without actually making valid calculations, that evolution by natural selection is too improbable to have occurred.

Other arguments that are less mathematical, for example that bacterial flagella could not have evolved in an adaptive, step-by-step process, are also discussed, and Jason shows how they’ve been refuted.

Another admirable aspect of the book is that Jason writes very clearly and elegantly, so it’s easy to read. Here are two specimens of his prose that also make his main point:

What about specificity? Dembski’s theoretical development of this concept essentially required graduate-level training in mathematics. He helped himself to copious amounts of notation, jargon, Greek letters, and equations. Anyone unaccustomed to wading through prose of this sort could easily come away thinking it represented work of depth and profundity just from the level of technical detail in its presentation.

However, when it came time to discuss the specificity of an actual biological system, the flagellum in this case, all of the technical minutiae went clean out the window. For all the use Dembski made of his elaborate theoretical musings, they might as well never have existed at all. He just declared it obvious that the flagellum was specified and quickly moved on to other dubious claims. At no point did he attempt to relate anything in reality to the numerous variables and parameters he included in his mathematical modeling.

As Jason shows, the lack of parameters needed to show that evolution is too improbable to have happened in a Darwinian way is a ubiquitous problem for iD. One more quote:

This pattern, of introducing difficult mathematical concepts without ever really using them for any serious purpose, is ubiquitous in anti-evolution discourse, and this fact goes a long way to explaining why mathematicians an scientists are so disdainful of it. Professionals in these areas strive for the utmost clarity when presenting their work. Used properly, the jargon and notation permit a level of precision that simply cannot be achieved with more natural language. This might seem hard to believe, since a modern scientific research paper will be unreadable for anyone without significant training in the relevant discipline. But the problem is not a lack of clarity in the writing. Rather, it is just that the concepts involved are difficult, and experience is needed to become comfortable with them.

. . . In section 2.6, I remarked that anti-evolutionist arguments play well in front of friendly audiences because in that environment the speakers never pay a price for being wrong. The response would be a lot chillier if they tried the same arguments in front of audiences with the relevant expertise. Try telling a roomful of mathematicians that you can refute evolutionary theory with a few back-of-the-envelope probability calculations, and see how far you get. Tell a roomful of physicists that the second law of thermodynamics conflicts with evolutionary theory, or a roomful of computer scientists that obscure theorems from combinatorial search have profound relevance to biology.

You will be lucky to make it ten minutes before the audience stops being polite.

If you want a clear and convincing response to IDers’ (and earlier creationists’) claims that evolution could not have happened without God or a Designer because it’s simply improbable via naturalism, read this book.

It will convince you, as Laplace supposedly tried to convince Napoleon about astronomy, that science—in this case, evolution—has no need of the God hypothesis.

I get (creationist) email

June 3, 2022 • 8:30 am

I don’t trash many comments at the outset unless they’re either obtuse, uncivil, overly religious, or creationist. This one falls in the last class.  Actually, there were two attempted comments from someone with the handle “See Noevo; both were aimed at the thread after the post, “The intellectual vacuity of mathematical arguments against evolution.”  See was responding to an exchange with another commenter about Michael Behe.

See Noevo’s Comment #1: not posted.

My prediction is that one day evolution will be shown to ALL to be perhaps the greatest embarrassment and shame in the histories of science and of rational thought.

But I have to ask about
“An alternative approach is to flip all 100 coins, leave the ones that landed heads as they are, and then toss again only those that landed tails.”
I thought evolution was constant. Why is Mother Natural Selection keeping the heads as heads for, well, forever?

To explain: the metaphor was one way Jason Rosenhouse explained how a random process can be winnowed by a nonrandom process to produce the appearance of “design”. The randomness (mutational variation) was represented by the tossed coins, while the nonrandom process involves keeping the heads and re-tossing the tails.  Eventually you get to all heads, which is the analogy to an adapted organism.

My best interpretation of this comment is that “See Noevo” is pointing out out that evolution is always occurring, so the heads won’t be kept forever. Some of the coins will get turned over when evolution occurs over the long term. Ergo a seeming contradiction; ergo God Did It.

But DUH! We’re talking about the short-term build up of the appearance of design, not the fact that any one gene sequence will remain the same until the end of time. Nobody believes that.

At any rate, this evolution critic apparently doesn’t know what he/she/they are talking about, and I didn’t allow that ambiguous and obstreperous comment to appear.

But I did allow this comment to appear, and even answered it.

Here’s “See Noevo”‘s comment #2, posted:

In reply to whyevolutionistrue.

To whyevolutionistrue:

Do all first-time commenters have their post put into “awaiting moderation”?
How long should they expect to be in this state?

My response:

In your case, forever.

But he did get his say above. However, that’s the last thing he will post.  (I’ll assume “See Noevo” is a male.)

The intellectual vacuity of mathematical arguments against evolution

June 2, 2022 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE: Somehow I missed that Jason has a new book that expands on this problem (I didn’t see it on the Amazon site). Here’s the cover, and click on it to go to the site:

*****************

Jason Rosenhouse is a professor of math at James Madison University in Virginia and also a friend. Besides teaching and researching in his field, he’s also written a lot about applying math to popular culture, including books on Sudoku and the perplexing Monty Hall Problem. But to me his biggest contribution has been his series of books and writings about creationism. Jason has not only immersed himself in creationist culture, attending lots of meetings to suss out the psyche of anti-evolutionists, but also written about it in both books and articles (see his 2012 book Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line).

He’s just come out with an article in the Skeptical Inquirer (see below) in which he summarizes how Intelligent Design creationists use mathematical arguments to show that evolution is impossible, and then Rosenhouse debunks the tactics they use. Jason writes very well and very clearly, so this article is accessible to the layperson. It’ll give you a strarter background on the creationists’ arguments (yes, IDers are creationists), and why those arguments re misguided.

Click to read (it’s free).

Jason explicates and then demolishes two ID arguments against evolution. Quotes from Jason are indented, my own prose is flush left.

1.) The probability of evolution producing complex features, like bacterial flagella, is almost nil. 

The ID argument rests on the idea that if the probability of an amino acid in a protein, say tyrosine, being in a specific position is small, then the probability of getting a protein of 100 amino acids with tyrosine in the right position and the other 19 amino acids in the other right positions is effectively zero. (They simply multiply probabilities for each site together.) But, as Jason shows, that’s not the way that evolution works. Proteins are built up step by step, with each step adopted only if it incrementally improves fitness. The probability-multiplying argument is so transparently false that I’m surprised people believe it, but of course most people don’t have a decent understanding of probability.

Jason:

However, this argument is premised on the notion that genes and proteins evolve through a process analogous to tossing a coin multiple times. This is untrue because there is nothing analogous to natural selection when you are tossing coins. Natural selection is a non-random process, and this fundamentally affects the probability of evolving a particular gene.

To see why, suppose we toss 100 coins in the hopes of obtaining 100 heads. One approach is to throw all 100 coins at once, repeatedly, until all 100 happen to land heads at the same time. Of course, this is exceedingly unlikely to occur. An alternative approach is to flip all 100 coins, leave the ones that landed heads as they are, and then toss again only those that landed tails. We continue in this manner until all 100 coins show heads, which, under this procedure, will happen before too long. The creationist argument assumes that evolution must proceed in a manner comparable to the first approach, when really it has far more in common with the second.

That’s a very good explanation.

IDers, however, have made the argument a bit more sophisticated:

Let us return to coin-tossing. Suppose we toss a coin 100 times, thereby producing a chaotic jumble of heads and tails. It was very unlikely that just that sequence would appear, but we do not suspect trickery. After all, something had to happen. But now suppose we obtained 100 Hs or a perfect alternation of Hs and Ts. Now we probably would suspect trickery of some kind. Such sequences are not only improbable but also match a recognizable pattern. ID proponents argue that it is the combination of improbability and matching a pattern that makes them suspect that something other than chance or purely natural processes are at work. They use the phrase “complex, specified information” to capture this idea. In this context, “complex” just means “improbable,” and “specified” means “matches a pattern.”

As applied to biology, the argument goes like this: Consider a complex, biological adaptation such as the flagellum used by some bacteria to propel themselves through liquid. The flagellum is a machine constructed from numerous individual proteins working in concert. Finding this exact functional arrangement of proteins is extremely unlikely to happen by chance. Moreover, they continue, the structure of the flagellum is strongly analogous to the sort of outboard motor we might use to propel a boat. Therefore, the flagellum exhibits both complexity and specificity, and it therefore must be the product of intelligent design.

That is, natural selection, say critics like William Dembski, can’t create “complex specified design”. But we have no idea what organismal features would imply intelligent design (“specificity”) rather than selection. Further, as for “complexity”, Jason says this:

The argument likewise founders on the question of complexity. According to ID proponents, establishing complexity requires carrying out a probability calculation, but we have no means for carrying out such a computation in this context. The evolutionary process is affected by so many variables that there is no hope of quantifying them for the purposes of evaluating such a probability.

In summary, any anti-evolutionist argument based on probability theory can simply be dismissed out of hand. There is no way to carry out a meaningful calculation, and adding “specificity” to the mix does nothing to improve the argument.

2.) Because mutations are degrading processes, much more likely to make DNA coding for a protein less adapted to the environment than more adaptive, there is no way that new genetic information can be created. Ergo, complexity, much less adaptation, can’t increase. rgo God—the Creator of Complexity. In some ways this resembles the old Second Law of Thermodynamics argument against evolution: entropy must increase, and evolution appears to violate entropy by making matter less random.  Thus we need God to get the entropy down.

The problem with that is, of course, the Second Law holds only in a closed system, but evolution occurs in an open system: the Earth in its surrounding universe. Evolution is fueled by radiation from the Sun, which involves an increase in entropy, and any decrease in entropy produced by evolution is more than compensated for by the increased entropy produced by generating evolution’s fuel: solar energy.  Ergo, in the whole system, the Second Law is obeyed.

There’s already one way known whereby new genetic “information” can increase: gene duplication.  Sometimes due to errors in replication, a gene is duplicated, and we have two copies instead of one (there are always two copies in a diploid genome, but I’m talking about what happens when a gene on one chromosome duplicates in addition. When this happens, there is an opportunity for that new copy of the gene to diverge in function from the old one, for the old one’s still around doing its thing. The new copy can do a new thing. Ergo, new information.  This in fact has happened a gazillion times in evolution: all of our globins, for instance (alpha, beta, fetal hemoglobin, and myoglobin) were produced by gene duplication and subsequent divergence. In Antarctic fish, an enzyme used to digest food has, after duplication, evolved into a blood antifreeze protein to allow them to inhabit waters below the freezing point.

Jason mentions gene duplication (I’m just giving examples), and then goes into the “No Free Lunch” ideas of Dembski and others, showing that these ideas irrelevant to the possibility of evolution.  I’ll let you read that part for yourself (read the whole thing!), and will just give two more quotes from Jason:

Even if we accept everything Dembski and his coauthors are saying about these theorems, this whole line of attack simply amounts to nothing. Most of us did not need difficult mathematical theorems to understand that Darwinian evolution can work only if nature has certain properties. The search problem confronted by evolution arises ultimately from the laws of physics, but it is well outside biology’s domain to wonder why those laws are as they are. Dembski and his cohorts argue that the fundamental constants of the universe encode information of a sort that can arise only from an intelligent source, but they have no more basis for this claim than they did for the comparable claim about genetic sequences.

He finishes like this:

Everyone agrees that complex adaptations require a special sort of explanation. Scientists argue that actual biological systems show copious evidence of having resulted through evolution by natural selection. Anti-evolutionists reject this claim, but the ensuing debate, such as it is, has nothing to do with mathematics. This makes you wonder why anti-evolutionists insist on padding their work with so much irrelevant and erroneous mathematical formalism. The answer is that their literature has far more to do with propaganda than it does with serious argument. Mathematics is unique in its ability to bamboozle a lay audience, making it well suited to their purposes. But for all its superficial sophistication, anti-evolutionary mathematics is not even successful at raising interesting questions about evolution.

Jason knows whereof he speaks, as he knows both math and evolution.

A good anti-creationist tee shirt

May 19, 2022 • 9:15 am

While I’m writing a post on free will (up next), I thought I’d show you one of my favorite tee shirts that I chose to wear today. I can’t remember where I got it, but I’m sure you can still order them. It’s a funny one that makes fun of fundamentalist creationists, and I’ll let you figure out what it’s saying. It’s not hard!

“Teach the controversy” was, of course, the mantra of creationists after they failed to get creationism taught in public schools, either as Biblical or “scientific” creationism. They then started saying this mantra, hoping that teachers would think there was a real scientific controversy about whether evolution was true or not. Like all their other machinations, that one failed too.

I’ll leave the rest to you. This is the first time I’ve worn this shirt. I have an aversion to wearing new tee shirts, for fear that they’ll begin to wear out. But that’s stupid because I’m 72, have a gazillion tee shirts, and won’t be around before my collection even begins to wear out.

Anyway, enjoy. Maybe you’ll want one of these:

Eric Hedin beefs about being “canceled” at Ball State by the FFRF and me, but forgives me, showing a cat leading me to Jesus!

May 7, 2022 • 12:15 pm

You’d have to be a long-time reader of this site to remember the story of my interaction with Eric Hedin, a physicist at Ball State University (a public college) in Muncie, Indiana. It’s recounted in many posts here going back 2013 (see here and here, for instance).

In short, Hedin, a deeply religious Christian, couldn’t bring himself to leave God out of his non-major’s honors course at Ball State: “The Boundaries of Science”. I got hold of his syllabus, did some investigation, and realized that Hedin was teaching his students a form of Intelligent Design in a public university.  Much of the course was directed, as the title suggests, at showing why phenomena in nature could not be explained by science, naturalism, or materialism—implying that a supernatural God was responsible.

Now the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, argued in a federal district court in Pennsylvania, ended in a ruling by John Jones (a Republican judge!) that intelligent design, being taught in the school, was “not science”. ID was instead, ruled Jones, a disguised form of religion whose teaching violated the First Amendment.

As Wikipedia notes,

On December 20, 2005, Jones issued his 139-page findings of fact and decision ruling that the Dover mandate requiring the statement to be read in class was unconstitutional. The ruling concluded that intelligent design is not science, and permanently barred the board from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring ID to be taught as an alternative theory.

Another happy ending: all eight of the school board members who had approved the use of an ID textbook in the Dover High School lost their election bids to candidates who opposed the teaching of ID. Further, the Dover Area School district had to pay over a million dollars in fines. Faced with similar outcomes and bankrupting of schools, no more cases like this were adjudicated. The defendants indicated they would not appeal, and since then teaching ID in public schools has been a legal no-no.

So, eight years later, when I saw that Hedin was teaching ID at a state University, I wrote to his chairman (and, as I recall, his colleagues), calling attention to this violation. I was blown off, but then the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) got involved (Ceiling Cat bless them). Note that at no time did I call for Hedin’s firing or desired to damage his career; I simply wanted the school to stop teaching creationism as a form of science.

The FFRF wrote one of its official (and implicitly threatening) letters to the President and officials of Ball State, them that Hedin’s course was violating the Constitution. The President launched an investigation, and it transpired that Hedin was ordered to stop teaching that course. A rare victory for good science!

Hedin was later promoted to associate professor, a promotion I supported so long as he didn’t drag religion into his teaching. Still, he beefed all the while that he, a “young assistant professor”, had been hounded and harassed by the likes of an established professor (me) and the FFRF.

Hedin eventually gave up his job at Ball State and moved to teaching physics at Biola University in Los Angeles (the name comes from its former one: The Bible Institute of Los Angeles). There he apparently found a congenial niche, since it’s a private religious school and he can drag God and Jesus into any science course he wants. (I weep for the poor students subjected to this nonsense.)

Then Hedin went public with his “story”—the story of how a assistant professor just trying to do his job was canceled by the FFRF and a well- known professor. The implication was that the FFRF and I were trying to destroy Hedin—to “cancel” a man.

But he wasn’t canceled—his course was. The man was promoted, for crying out loud!

Hedin recently published a whole book about this dustup: Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See, published in February of 2021 by the Discovery Institute (presumably no reputable publisher wanted it). It didn’t sell very well, hardly got any reviews, and is way down there in the rankings of creationist books, many of which have sold well in the past (e.g. Darwin’s Black Box, and Signature in the Cell; the books, I suspect, are snapped up by the many anti-evolution and religious Americans who seek confirmation of their views).

I also suspect that the poor sales and lack of reviews of Canceled Science are the reason that the Discovery Institute continues to flog the book on its website (e.g., see here, and here), at the same time denigrating the FFRF and me for trying to “cancel” Hedin. I have to laugh when I see this campaign; nobody got canceled, for it was all about the separation of church and state. But it’s too late for Hedin to beef, as nobody’s interested, and his 15 minutes of fame are up.

Here’s the book:

Recently, the Discovery Institute taped a 45-minute lecture by Hedin on his book and his persecution (he sees himself in the tradition of Christian martyrs tortured for their faith), and I put the video below. Its YouTube notes:

Eric Hedin, author of Canceled Science, explains how he was canceled by the scientific establishment and reflects on the lessons he learned during the experience. He also discusses scientific evidence which points to a Creator. This talk was presented at the 2022 Dallas Conference on Science and Faith in January 2022.

You can listen to it if you want, though the “evidence” for ID, filtered through a physicist rather than a biologist, is even more risible than usual. The reason I’m putting it up is because reader Beth sent me the video link adding, “Eric Hedin drew a cartoon for you, showing you with a cat being invited by Jesus to “come Home” (22:47 in the video).”  Now how could I resist that?

Actually, it was Hedin’s wife who drew the cartoon, as a “picture for Jerry Coyne” as well as “offer of forgiveness” for me (in good Christian tradition, Hedin forgives all of us who “persecuted” him). And the cartoon is below, captured from a screenshot of a slide:

LOL! Well, I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Hedin, but I ain’t coming home to Jesus, and neither is any cat: it’s well known that all cats are atheists.

Now that you’ve seen that, you may, if you wish, listen to Hedin’s talk, heavily larded with references to God, Jesus, and the Bible. (As I said, he’s found a good home at Biola.)

If you want to skip the self-serving and humble beginning, I’d listen to the last 20 minutes, beginning at 24:40 (before The Picture), and listen to Hedin tick off the things that science can’t ever explain and therefore prove Jesus.

Here are a few of Hedin’s “failures of naturalism”:

  • It can’t explain the beginning of the Universe, and thus of space and time, using principles of physics within space and time. You have to go outside that stuff—i.e., you have to invoke God.
  • The existence of complex living things can’t be explained by naturalism. Hedin apparently sees evolution as a “random” process, and has forgotten about natural selection, which acts to order random changes in the DNA into well adapted organisms.
  • Materialism can’t explain the “information barrier”: the suggestion that if there are more ways for a process to go wrong than right, then the process will go wrong. Thus there can be no increase in “information” under evolution. No anteaters, dandelions, or humans. That takes God. But this is wrong. Of course there can be an increase in information over evolutionary time; there’s just no decrease in entropy. 
  • Materialism can’t explain the ability of humans to think rational thoughts.

I won’t waste my time rebutting this all in detail; Google is your friend here. All I can say is that, as a physicist, he makes a damn poor critic of evolutionary biology. Years ago I wrote a critique of ID, “The case against Intelligent Design,” which appeared in the New Republic and is now reprinted on the Brockman Edge site. If you want my views on ID, see that.

One of the most telling statements by Hedin occurs at the end of his talk, when he confesses that his Christianity is based not on evidence, but on “faith”, euphemistically called “the witness of the spirit”:

“I’ve written a lot more about evidence for design in my book and I’ve even made the connection with my own faith there. I believe that what we see in nature can strengthen our faith, but that my faith is really based is really based on my relationship with God: through the witness of the Spirit in my inner being.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, here’s the video of Dr. Hedin, a man of soft manner and amiability, showing how he’s become the modern equivalent of Christians thrown to the lions. (I’ve recently read, however, that the Roman scenario of lions and Christians is false.)

Start 24 minutes in, and then you have to listen for only 20 minutes:

h/t: Amy