A polite creationist writes in, explaining why evolution can’t work

November 24, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Here’s one of the emails I get from creationists, telling me why I’m wrong in saying “Evolution is true.” (Happily, they’re becoming fewer.)

This letter, however, is polite, and about as thoughtful as is possible for a Biblical creationist to be. But it’s also riddled with flaws and misconceptions. I’ve put the email up though I’ve redacted the name of the student. The misspellings and other errors are as they appeared in the email.

I could write REAMS of responses to this email, giving evidence for common ancestry that could not be due to a designer (e.g., similar “dead” genes in similar positions, or genealogies made from neutral DNA sites that match genealogies made from visible characters).  I could talk about predicted transitional forms that have later been found, radiometric dating, and so on.  But I don’t have time.

So once again I’m crowdsourcing. By now most of the readers should be able to point out many of the flaws in the reasoning below. I suggest you pick one assertion and answer it rather than take on the whole email. Or address the student directly (I will send him the link and the comments within a day or two). But above all please be polite. This student, though mired in muddled argument, was polite and thoughtful, and we should be as well. There are of course answers to all of this (including the “moon dust” and “salty sea” arguments), and you could supply the person with some links.

Have at it:

My name is REDACTED.  I am a current college student majoring in zoology.  I hope you are well and healthy in this interesting time.

This year I read your book Why Evolution is True despite being a Christian for all my life and a young-earth creationist for as long as I have thought about the issue.  This was the first full book I have read on the topic from an atheistic/evolutionist stance (though I have read chapters of Dawkin’s The God Delusion and Dawin’s Origin of Species).  I am glad I picked up your book.  Before I can say anything else I must acknowledge that the book is a well-written explanation of evolution and the evidence used to support it.  I admit I was fairly confident in my faith before picking up your book but I’d like to say I did not have a “closed mind” necessarily.  If you are willing to give me a bit of your time I would love to offer a few reasons I still do not accept atheistic humanism as an alternative to my faith in God.  I will start with a couple objections to evolution and then explain why Creationism might explain some of the evidence you present.  Obviously I cannot cover everything you address in your book.

First, my problem with evolution.  I cannot see how natural selection and mutations are enough to explain the evolution of life.  Natural selection, as I understand it, is a process of selecting the fittest of a species.  I would be a fool to deny that natural selection exists or that it can significantly change/improve a species by allowing the fittest to survive and reproduce while killing off the unfit (I am ashamed that there are creationists who do).  But in order to change one kind of animal into another there needs to be, as I understand it, the development of new traits.  How does this happen?  I do not think it can.  To illustrate this problem, let’s say there is a sandcastle building competition.  The judge of the competition decides that only purple sandcastles can win the contest.  Of course, if the competitors can only use sand, water, and a bucket, none of the sandcastles will be purple.  The selection process, then, can’t proceed because the trait being selected doesn’t exist yet.  Now to apply this idea to evolution: I understand how reptiles can evolve into birds if some reptiles have feathers and wings.  But at some point no reptiles had feathers or wings.  How did those desirable traits develop in order to be selected?  Every example of natural selection that is observed in nature involves a trait that already exists in a population.  Take the famous speckled moths.  They didn’t change, they simply died out while the dark moths reproduced.  No new traits developed.  To me, natural selection makes perfect sense.  It is a brilliant theory I give Darwin and Wallace all the credit in the world for discovering.  But in order for evolution to occur, the traits that are selected need to develop.  How does this occur?  I anticipate that the go-to response is mutations.  But beneficial mutations that add a new trait are so rare in nature I am skeptical that they could explain the diversity of life even if given millions of years.  Are there even mutations that we know of that give new traits to an organism that did not exist in the population in any form at all?  Sometimes I feel like “mutations” has become the evolutionist’s version of the “god of the gaps” argument; they explain away evolution’s problems without offering concrete evidence.  Where are the beneficial mutations?  In summary, it takes too much faith for me to accept that the diversity of life can be explained by natural selection, despite the evidence (which I accept!) that natural selection is a very efficient process.  Natural selection is, however, merely a sorting/selection process, not a designer.

Now, here is my explanation of some of the evidence you presented.  I would happily discuss each chapter of your book, but here I will just address the evidence for convergent evolution, homology, and the fossil record.  I think I can explain a lot of the evidence for evolution with this one idea.  Feal free to correct me if I did not do so.

Now, people are designers.  We build and create and produce.  And our creations often have similar designs.  Consider transportation.  People have invented ways to travel across land, sea, and sky.  Our vehicles of transportation vary, but they all have similar elements to them.  Whether it is a plane, car, truck, boat, submarine, or helicopter, it has an engine, a steering wheel, and a way of burning fuel to produce energy.  They all are made of metal and function in a way that allows humans to use them (they have seats, levers, buttons, and other controls).  In other words, they share certain universal features.  This does not mean all these vehicles have a common ancestor.  In this case, it means that they were designed according to the conditions they are meant to exist in.  They vary depending on their “habitat” but they also share similarities because they exist in the same world and perform the same function: transportation.  Knowing this, one could predict that should there be a Creator behind nature, then there would similarly be a variation but also a similarity in design among creation.  Like vehicles, animals inhabit the same planet and so share similar structures like a common bone design in the wing/arm/leg/flipper.  But they inhabit different parts of the world and are thus designed differently (birds have wings, humans arms, horses legs, and whales flippers).  I hope you can see how this could indicate that life was designed by a Creator who had both their universal biosphere and their individual, specific niches in mind.

I find that this is a consistent area in which evolutionists and creationists part was when it comes to interpreting the fossil record.  Evolutionists interpret the evidence with common ancestry in mind, so if you find an extinct species with similarities of two different animal groups, you infer common ancestry, while creationists (having intelligent design in mind) infer a common habitat, or niche, that a Creator specifically designed the creature to inhabit.  Both interpretations require a little faith (since we didn’t see the creature evolve/get created).  Archaeopteryx, for example, was indisputably a reptile with wings.  What if, instead of an extinct evolutionary branch as you proposed in your book (not an ancestor of birds but a relative), “ancient wing” is a creature designed to live on the ground but given the ability to glide to escape enemies?  We see a lot of this in nature (colugos, flying squirrels, etc.).  Instead of convergent evolution, could it be that like our vehicles of locomotion these creatures were designed with intentional similarities because this helps them navigate the world and to thrive better?  I would love to hear your thoughts on why the evidence exclusively supports evolution and leaves no room for a designer.  Thank you.

I’d like to end with a brief challenge.  Every year, the moon collects slightly more dust and moves slightly farther away from earth.  Every year, the oceans get slightly saltier.  If the earth and moon are millions of years old, shouldn’t the moon be much larger than it is today and also way farther from the earth?  And wouldn’t the oceans be more salt than water by now?  Millions of years is an insanely long amount of time.  How is it that we still have a moon and an ocean the way they are?  I hope you don’t see this as an attack but as a genuine question about your interpretation of the evidence we see in the universe.  Thanks for reading!

Once again, your book was very enlightening and left me with a lot to think about, so for that I thank you.  You are a very captivating writer and speaker.  Thanks for your time, and if you do not mind me saying, God bless😊

The Discovery Institute goddies go after determinism again

October 24, 2020 • 11:15 am

Those who claim that hardly anybody believes in “contracausal” free will, in which the human mind alone can affect the body, giving one the ability to make any of several decisions at a single instant of time, forget how deeply embedded contracausal free will is in the Abrahamic religions. After all, if you can’t “freely” choose your religion or your savior, but are at the mercy of the laws of physics, of what use is Heaven or Hell? The whole Christian myth involves your ability to freely choose what to believe.

And if you believe in contracausal free will, then you must reject physical determinism, for physics is the “cause” to which your decision is “contra”. That’s why so many fundamentalist believers reject determinism, and why the creationist Discovery Institute (DI), peopled with true believers, is lately on an anti-determinism kick, going after determinists like me who attribute all behavior and decisions to the laws of physics rather than some immaterial “will” that interacts with matter. (I’m assuming that virtually all the readers here who espouse compatibilism are also determinists.) Since the DI has failed to overturn the teaching of evolution, they’re turning their attention to free will. But their arguments against determinism are no better than their arguments against evolution.

I pretty much ignore the DI’s bloviations on free will, for there’s a religious motivation for their denial of determinism, but when physicist Sabine Hossenfelder made a no-nonsense post and a video arguing that there was no free will because we’re subject to physical law, that was too much for the DI. (See my take on Hossenfelder’s views, with which I pretty much align, here.) The DI, along with many devout believers, absolutely detest that kind of materialism—I call it “naturalism”, but it’s the same thing—and so they’ve been going after both of us. The latest attack came from the DI’s Evolution News site, with a post by David Klinghoffer called “Science as Oracle—where it gets weird“. And they enlisted Cornelius Hunter, DI Fellow, creationist, and adjunct professor at the evangelical Christian school Biola University, to make a 24-minute video going after both Hossenfelder and me. Klinghoffer simply repeats Hunter, so I’ll deal with the video.

Watch and enjoy! I’ll have a few remarks below. But Hunter really should learn how to pronounce my name. It’s not “Cohen” but “Coyne,” pronounced like “coin.”

 

Hunter goes off on all kinds of antievolution tangents in this video, failing to stick to the promised critique of determinism. That’s probably because his critique can be summed up very simply: “There’s no evidence for determinism—it’s just a weird and bizarre pronouncement of scientists like Cohen, and constitutes “scientism.”

And that’s pretty much it. Hunter considers determinism “anti-empirical” because of the supposed lack of evidence for it, and, curiously, argues that it also “demolishes epistemology”. Why? Because there’s no guarantee that the laws of physics acting on humans would guarantee that we’d find the truth (is he referring to Jesus?). Ergo we’re not only determined by the laws of physics to say that we have no free will, making that claim unreliable, but we’re liable to make all kinds of false statements because the laws of physics have no obvious connection to finding truth.

I can rebut both of these claims very briefly.

There’s no evidence for determinism. This claim is absurd. The response is that everything on Earth, and, as far as we can tell, in the solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy, and in Universe, has uniformly obeyed the laws of physics since the Big Bang. That’s not a speculation, but an empirical conclusion (see here for some of the evidence). And if everything we know obeys physical laws (we need confine our observations only to Earth, since that’s where God’s Creatures live), then there’s no reason to think that our brains don’t as well. End of rebuttal.

What is odd is that these guys attack physical determinism on the false basis that there’s no evidence for it, but then pull ancient mythologies out of their nether parts and not only claim that they’re true, but base their whole lives and belief systems on them. Biola University is founded on unevidenced but comforting Christian superstition from ancient, redacted, and contradictory scriptures. Well, I’m much more comfortable thinking that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same everywhere in our solar system than I am thinking that Jesus rose from the dead.  I find it vastly amusing that people like Hunter are slaves to religious superstition and yet use a supposed lack of evidence to attack determinism.

Oh yes, and Hunter says that there’s plenty of evidence for contracausal free will! What is it? Merely the observation that we make what looks like “free” decisions!  I don’t need to rebut that, because these “free decisions” are illusions; they don’t rebut determinism.

We can have no confidence that we can find truth if determinism be true. The rebuttal of this can be conveyed in two words: natural selection. Animals, including us, could hardly survive if we had sensory systems that didn’t give us a fairly accurate representation of reality: where the dangers lie, where the food is, what happens if we jump off a cliff. But of course we can be fooled as well: I give plenty of examples in Faith Versus Fact of how our evolved sensory systems, or our beliefs, can be fooled by things we didn’t encounter during our evolution. (A lot of people think, for example, that if you whirl an object around your head on a string, it will continue to travel in a spiral when you let go. And of course there are optical illusions.)

After making a few tepid attempts to rebut determinism, Hunter goes off the rails and takes out after evolution instead, giving two examples of convergent evolution: similar toxic peptides in a tree and in some animals, as well as the possibility of the independent origin of synapses and neurons in ctenophores on the one hand and cnidarian/bilaterians on the other.

I’ve put the two articles he cites below so you can see them (they’re free; click on the screenshots).

In one of the more ludicrous claims that Hunter makes (he doesn’t accept evolution), he argues that convergent evolution—the independent evolution of similar features in independent lineages—is not consistent with evolution, for evolution supposedly claims that structures are “lineage specific”. If features evolve several times independently, he argues, we don’t need the theory of evolution. This is arrant nonsense. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that bars similar features from appearing in two or more independently evolving lineages.

Of course he ignores the copious evidence that the independent lineages EVOLVED as independent. For example, marsupials and placentals, which, according to both molecular evidence and the fossil record had a common ancestor, have nevertheless evolved several examples of convergence in their descendants. The marsupial flying squirrel or mole, for example, bears striking similarities to the placental flying squirrel or mole.

In other words, Hunter’s claim about what evolution is “supposed” to do rests on denying evolution in the first place. He also ignores the idea that common ancestors constrain the materials that can be used for evolution in their descendants, as well as the notion that there are physical and biological niches that often evoke similar responses in independent lineages, like the resemblance of shape and fins in three independent lineages: fish, marine mammals like porpoises, and ichthyosaurs.

Finally, in the paper on neurons, Hunter attacks one sentence because it’s supposedly violates evolutionary theory as well:  “animals frequently use different molecular toolkits to achieve similar functional outcomes”. He gloms onto the word “achieves”, arguing that the word implies that evolution has goals, and of course evolution isn’t goal oriented—which is true. But “achieves” in that sentence simply means that natural selection uses different molecular pathways when a similar adaptation arises. The scientists in the second paper are certainly not talking about teleology!

But the connection between free will and evolution is tenuous here, and I’m not sure why Hunter goes off on a siding, with the Numinous Express, apparently bound for Naturalism Town, suddenly takes the track towards Evolutionville.

Hunter’s mask slips at the end when he tries to explain out why so many smart people—I’m flattered that he puts both me and Hossenfelder in that class—believe in weird and bizarre things like determinism. His answer? He cites 2 Corinthians 4, verses 3 and 4, to wit (from the King James Bible):

But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:
In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

Yep, Hossenfelder and I, along with every other physicist and determinist on the planet, have been blinded to the truth of free will because we don’t believe in the Christian God. I’m not sure if Hossenfelder is Jewish—though I suspect from her name she’s of Jewish ancestry—but if she is, well, that explains why both she and I might be particularly blind to the truth of the Gospels, and susceptible to Satan’s blandishments about free will.

Jebus, what an argument! Now since the DI people read this website, desperately wanting to discredit me, they’ll see this post as well. They will have an answer to it, too, for their God has given them the truth, and they can’t let a couple of upstart cultural Jews overturn it.

Jason Rosenhouse discredits new Intelligent Design paper

October 7, 2020 • 10:00 am

Update: Reader Mike below called my attention to a notice about the paper on Retraction Watch (click on screenshot below). It notes that author Thorvaldsen is an advocate and sympathizer to Intelligent design. The Journal of Theoretical BIology has issued the statement below:

The Journal of Theoretical Biology and its co-Chief Editors do not endorse in any way the ideology of nor reasoning behind the concept of intelligent design. Since the publication of the paper it has now become evident that the authors are connected to a creationist group (although their addresses are given on the paper as departments in bona fide universities). We were unaware of this fact while the paper was being reviewed. Moreover, the keywords “intelligent design” were added by the authors after the review process during the proofing stage and we were unaware of this action by the authors. We have removed these from the online version of this paper. We believe that intelligent design is not in any way a suitable topic for the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

Too little and too late!  There’s also a statement by Glenn Branch, head of the National Center for Science Education.

______________

The Discovery Institute and its ID flacks are crowing about a new intelligent-design paper that got published in a reputable journal. The paper is below, and it’s really nothing new: just a reiteration of the supposed unlikelihood of evolving complex biological systems via natural selection (click on screenshot to get the paper, free if you have the Unpaywall app):

I read the paper very quickly, and decided there was really no there there: it’s a reiteration of the work and thought of IDers like Dembski, Axe, Meyer, and Behe, all of whom have claimed that the evolution of stuff like protein structure, protein folding, protein complexes, RNA translation systems, and so on, are so unlikely that they couldn’t have evolved by Darwinian processes. And of course all of this work has been previously and thoroughly rebutted by real scientists, many of whom have pointed out the flawed assumptions, including making probability calculations starting from scratch rather than using previously evolved and less “complex” systems. Sadly, almost none of the critiques by real scientists are even cited in this paper, which appears to be science-y sounding publicity for Intelligent Design. The failure to cite counterarguments alone should have rendered the Thornvaldsen and Hössjer paper unpublishable.

As for “fine-tuning”, that’s what the authors call “improbable appearance”—that is, a system that, they say “is unlikely to have occurred by chance” and also show “conform[ity] to an independent or detached specification”.  It is, in effect, the “irreducible complexity” touted by Behe, and is not the same thing as the “fine tuning” of the physical Universe—involving the supposed specificity of many physical constants—also touted as evidence for a Great Designer.

Several readers sent me this paper, apparently wanting me to go after it. I just have said my piece, but this is but a cursory take. I didn’t want to put in the time to refute something that’s been refuted before. As for why a good journal accepted such a shoddy paper, your guess is as good as mine. But the IDers see it as a gold mine, because they’ve gotten a peer reviewed ID paper into a journal!

Well, fortunately, someone has discredited this paper much better than I could. It’s good old Jason Rosenhouse, who dealt with it at The Panda’s Thumb, a site that’s been very quiet lately (probably because ID creationism is on its last legs). Jason’s take on the Thorvaldsen and Hössjer paper is at the site below (click on screenshot). His take isn’t either positive or pretty. He concludes that the paper is bullshit (my words, not his), and that it shouldn’t have been accepted in the journal. He gives reasons for this conclusion. Rosenhouse is a math professor as well as someone who knows a ton about both biology and creationism, and so is well qualified to assess the paper’s claims.

I’ll quote just a few bits from the paper. One of Jason’s main beefs is that “fine tuning” isn’t well defined for these biological systems. Further, biological systems don’t evolve the way the authors say, and if you want to calculate probabilities, you have to do it using the way evolution works: sequentially, acting on pre-existing adaptive systems. But I am characterizing his argument. Let me give a few quotes:

The situation only gets worse when [the authors of the paper above] turn to biology. Here their primary example of fine-tuning comes from so-called “irreducibly complex” systems in biology. They even coin the term “Behe-system” after biochemist Michael Behe, who developed the idea in its modern form. The authors write, “[William] Dembski applies the term ‘Discrete Combinatorial Object’ to any of the biomolecular systems which have been defined by Behe as having ‘irreducible complexity’.” Mimicking the approach taken by Dembski in his book No Free Lunch, they go on to write, “Then the probability of a protein complex is the multiplicative product of the probabilities of the origination of its constituent parts, the localization of those parts in one place, and the configuration of those parts into the resulting system (contact topology).” There then follows a bona fide equation, complete with Greek letters, subscripts, and even a big pi to indicate a product.

This is the point where a legitimate peer-reviewer would have thrown the paper aside, refusing to read any further, because every word is nonsense. Complex systems do not evolve through three distinct phases of origination, localization, and configuration, for heaven’s sake. But let’s leave that aside and play along for a moment.

Yes, the equations are nothing but ways to show how one calculates probabilities. The question, as we know, is whether the assumptions behind the calculations are sound and, if they are, do we have good estimates of the probabilities. The answers are “no” and “no” respectively.

Considering Dembski’s ludicrous assumption that probabilities should be calculated de novo, not using the way evolution works, versus they way they should be calculated—by “imagining the correct configuration arising gradually through a sequence of less effective systems until the modern form appears”—Jason says this:

In No Free Lunch, William Dembski effectively chose the former option in each of these questions, which is why everyone laughed at him. But we obviously need to consider the latter, and we equally obviously have no hope of assigning numbers to any of the relevant variables. Incredibly, the authors even acknowledge this point, writing, “Modeling the formation of structures like protein complexes via this three-part process … is of course problematic because the parameters in the model are very difficult to estimate.” But having just admitted to wasting the reader’s time developing a useless equation, they claim nonetheless that it has heuristic value. It does not, because this three-fold process has precisely zero connection to any real biological process.

Here’s a rule of thumb for you: If an author says he will address the question of whether a complex system could have arisen through evolution by natural selection, and then later says he will use probability theory to address the issue, then you can stop reading right there, because everything that comes next will be nonsense. Probability theory is just flatly the wrong tool for this job because there is no hope of defining a proper probability space within which to carry out a calculation.

But go over to Panda’s Thumb and, if you’re interested in why the new ID paper is garbage, read Jason’s entire review. I must, however, quote his acrid conclusion:

Desirous of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I have focused on what I take to be the absolutely fatal flaw of this paper. The authors claim to have used probability theory to establish a scientifically rigorous and useful notion of “fine-tuning,” but they have failed because we have nothing like the information we would need to carry out meaningful probability calculations. Done.

But I don’t think I’ve adequately communicated just how bad this paper is. The authors are constantly tossing out bits of mathematical jargon and notation, but then they do nothing with them. There is a frustrating lack of precision, as when they variously describe fine-tuning as an object, an entity, a method, and an attribute of a system, all on the first page of the paper. They constantly cite creationist references, with only the most glancing mention that any of this work has been strongly and cogently criticized. They say we should give fair consideration to a “design model” for the origination of complex structures, but they give not the beginning of a clue as to what such a model entails.

In short, it’s hard to believe this paper could have gotten through an honest peer-review process (as opposed to one in which ideology played a big role). Whatever happened behind the scenes, it’s a huge black eye for the journal.

I’m not sure what the Journal of Theoretical Biology will do in the face of objections like Jason’s; clearly other people must have contacted the journal as well. But it is a black eye for the journal, and the paper’s publication should by no means be seen as giving ID any more credibility.

Speaking of which, this is how far ID advocates have fallen. The piece below appeared at the Discovery Institute website Evolution News. (The article also cites the new ID paper.) I find it interesting that that site doesn’t allow comments.

 

Egnor: We need to pray during this pandemic

March 9, 2020 • 11:30 am

Once again the creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor can’t resist scrutinizing my website and trying to find flaws in what I say. I suppose this is because he and his Discovery Institute colleagues, despite their confident assurances of two decades ago, have failed to make progress in getting the scientific community to accept Intelligent Design. So, like a frustrated pigeon pecking at a leaf, he pecks at me.

He’s really surpassed himself this time, though, for in his latest diatribe he claims to show that a.) prayer works during a pandemic, despite my mocking Mike Pence’s coronavirus response team praying together; b). Science’s rejection of gods, or at least its failure to seriously entertain divine actions in science—is circular and wrong; and c.) There’s strong proof that there’s a God.

This article appears in the site Mind Matters, which is run by the creationist Discovery Institute. Its theme appears to be that materialism (what I call “naturalism”) is false and that science can’t explain the material phenomena of the world. The usual guff! Click on the screenshot for a good laugh:

Let’s take Egnor’s three claims in order. Since he’s drunk the Kool-Aid, it’s easy to respond.

1.)  Prayer works in a pandemic. Egnor’s claims are indented.

The wisdom and efficacy of prayer in a crisis depends wholly on one question: is the prayer directed to Someone who is real, or is prayer based on a delusion?

If the Object of supplication is real, then prayer is probably the first thing you want to do in a crisis. A plea to the Boss is a fine preamble to the grunt work of managing a crisis. I’m a neurosurgeon, and I pray before each operation. It really helps.

If there is no real Object of supplication, then prayer is based on a delusion. But it’s interesting to note that, as historian Rodney Stark has pointed out, prayer and Christian faith during ancient epidemics saved lives because faithful Christians stuck around during epidemics. They provided care to afflicted neighbors who would not have survived except that they had kindly courageous friends to nurse them. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital—the world’s leading cancer center for children, was founded because of a prayer. So the focus and compassion evoked by prayer saves lives, whether or not God is there to hear the prayer.

This is Pascal’s Wager applied to prayer.  First of all, what evidence does Egnor have that prayer “really helps” when he operates? And whom does it help? If it helps Egnor operate, fine; a New Ager could also be calmed by rubbing crystals before an operation.

But the true test is whether it helps the patient. I doubt Egnor has any evidence for that, as it would require controlled tests. Do religious neurosurgeons who pray before an operation have better outcomes than nonbelieving surgeons? I doubt it, but the onus is on Egnor to show it. The only really good test of the efficacy of intercessory prayer in healing—the Templeton-funded study of healing in cardiac patients—showed no effect at all of prayer in healing, not even an effect in the right direction. The only significant effect was in the direction opposite to that prediction—intercessory prayer hurt the patients in one measure of healing!

And we don’t need a Christian community now during a pandemic: that’s been replaced by epidemiologists and, most of all, medicine and medical care, all based on materialistic science. 

Finally, has Dr. Egnor asked himself this: if praying to God stops people from dying, so God has the power to cure, why did God allow coronavirus to spread in the first place? It’s not just killing off evil people, you know: it’s taking babies who haven’t even had the chance to do evil, or learn about the salvific effects of accepting Jesus.  In fact, pandemics are one bit of evidence against the existence of any god who is powerful and empathic.

2.) Science’s rejection of God and divine intervention in nature is wrong because it’s circular. This is Egnor’s dumbest argument:

Of course, if God does not exist, Coyne is right to imply that prayer is based on a delusion. But here’s the point: if God does exist, prayer is essential.

So, I ask Coyne, does God exist? Coyne’s answers to the pivotal question have been puerile. His arguments center on an astonishing line of reasoning:

1) [S]cience is about finding material explanations of the world
2) Only materialistic explanations have been found by science
3) Therefore, no non-material explanations for nature are needed.

So Coyne uses science that expunges theism to refute theism. In short, he concludes that atheism is true by using a scientific method that presupposes atheism. Oddly, Coyne finds this logic compelling.

There’s no circularity here. Science is perfectly capable of sussing out supernatural explanations for things, as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. If prayer worked, that would be one hint of a god or gods, and you can test that (n.b., it doesn’t work). If only CHRISTIAN prayers worked and not those of Jews or Muslims, that would be even more evidence for a god. And I discuss scenarios in my book which would convince many, including me, that there was a god. It’s just too bad for Egnor that none of this evidence has ever come to light.

In fact, there was a time when the supernatural and religion were part of science: when Newton thought God’s twiddling was necessary to keep the planets in their orbits, because Newton thought their orbits were otherwise unstable. Then Laplace showed that a naturalistic explanation explained the stability. There was a time when everyone thought the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals, as well as their origins, required a divine creator. Then Darwin came along and gave the correct naturalistic explanation. Over the history of humanity, one divine explanation after another for things like lightning, diseases, and plagues have been replaced by naturalistic explanation.

So here’s the lesson, which I’ll put in bold.  Science doesn’t reject divine or supernatural explanations because we rule them out in advance. We reject them because they haven’t been shown to work. (Sadly, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once gave an unwise quote that has served repeatedly as ammunition for creationists who claim that scientists are sworn not to accept any evidence for gods, divinity or the supernatural. We’re not! Science investigates supernatural claims all the time.)

3.) Finally, Egnor says that the arguments for God’s existence are convincing. Here’s how he proves God:

It is noteworthy that Coyne’s efforts to refute the actual arguments for God’s existence consist of his insistence that he really isn’t so stupid and he provides a few links. He obviously doesn’t understand the arguments, nor does he wish to learn them.

If God exists, prayer in crisis is warranted and even essential. The arguments for God’s existence are irrefutable. Aquina’s Five Ways are a handy summary:

Aquinas’ First Way and a Stack of Books

Irrefutable, Impeccable, Inescapable: Aquinas’ Second Way

Aquinas’ Third Way: An Analogy to Moonlight

Evidence for the existence of God, as provided by Aquinas, actually consists of the same logical and evidentiary process as science itself, only with much stronger logic and more abundant evidence than any other scientific theory.

And, as Porky said,

And it is all. If there are going to be arguments for god that are convincing, they will have to be empirical ones, not theoretical lucubrations of ancient theologians.

An IDer answers one (or two) of my questions—or tries to

February 21, 2020 • 1:45 pm

Imagine my shock to see this page at the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News site (click on screenshot; I’ve archived it so the DI doesn’t get clicks).  The author is Granville Sewell, an intelligent-design creationist and a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at El Paso.

A good question? (I swear that they keep banging on about me because I’ll bring them clicks!). What is it?

Actually, it’s a bit confusing because they deal with two questions I asked.

1.)

2.) Here’s another one in the post:

Still, when we argue with atheists like Jerry Coyne, we may become frustrated and wonder why God didn’t just create all species simultaneously 10,000 years ago as some creationists believe, and make doubt impossible.

These are not the same question, though they both bear on whether we see evidence of God’s presence or of his handiwork.  I think Sewell is dealing mostly with the first one in his post, but does answer the second one—sort of:

Actually, the history of life on Earth is very similar to the history of human technology: we also design things step-by-step, through testing and improvements. In fact, as I show in the second part of my new video, the similarities between the history of life and the history of human technology actually extend far beyond this. So if the history of life looks like the way humans, the only other known intelligent beings in the universe, design things, why is this widely considered as evidence against design? Because God “wouldn’t” do things like we do, of course!

But even if you believe that God has to create through testing and improvements for the same reasons we do, and that just because something is designed doesn’t mean it can never go wrong (which addresses the main question in my Epilogue, why do bad things happen to good people), we still have to think that God has intentionally passed up a lot of opportunities to end the debate about his existence and silence all doubters.

In other words, all the species on the planet that have gone extinct simply represented God trying things out and then winnowing out the bad designs (nearly all of them during the end-Permian extinction)! Why did the passenger pigeon fail?

But then where do the new and very different species come from?  If they were created de novo, or tweaked by God somehow using evolution as his method, then we are back to creationism, de novo or gradual. But seriously, even though both God and humans are intelligent, there’s no reason given why God, who is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient, had to “test” the animals and plants and then, if they didn’t pass muster, extirpate them!

That’s a pretty lame answer, but it’s theology, Jake. But on to the Big Question: why is God hiding from us? (Whenever I think of this question, I think of philosopher Delos McKown’s answer: “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”)

To see his answer, Sewell refers us to a previous article of his at Evolution News, “The biggest theological objection to design“, which is far more about theodicy—why does God allow natural and moral evil?—than about why God is hidden.

The issue of theodicy, which Sewell resolves by saying that evil is a necessary byproduct of good, is difficult to read, for Sewell recounts the slow and painful death of his wife (they had two young kids) from nose and sinus cancer. One could ask “well, couldn’t God just eliminate cancer?”, but Sewell uses a Mother Teresa gambit: suffering has its benefits. My response—and I’m not trying to be churlish here—is “Does the benefit of your wife’s suffering outweigh the tragedy of her loss and the fact that your children are motherless? Wouldn’t you rather have your wife back than have her dead but having learned lessons?” I will leave that answer to Sewell.

Does Sewell answer the question of why God doesn’t show himself? He does say that he believes in some miracles, even though he touts the hegemony of natural law (which doesn’t jibe with his approbation of intelligent design and repeated creations):

 I do believe that God has intervened in human and natural history at times in the past, and I would like to believe he still intervenes in human affairs, and even answers prayers, on occasions, but the rules at least appear to us to be inflexible.

But all it would take is ONE BIG MIRACLE, of the type I describe in Faith Versus Fact (p. 119)—a miracle that was taped and documented worldwide—to make me believe in a divine being—provisionally, of course, as it might be due to space aliens or some trick.  Why can’t we at least have that?

Well, here’s the reason Sewell gives why God is hidden:

Why does God remain backstage, hidden from view, working behind the scenes while we act out our parts in the human drama? This question has lurked just below the surface throughout much of this book, and now perhaps we finally have an answer. If he were to walk out onto the stage, and take on a more direct and visible role, I suppose he could clean up our act, and rid the world of pain and evil — and doubt. But our human drama would be turned into a divine puppet show, and it would cost us some of our greatest blessings: the regularity of natural law which makes our achievements meaningful; the free will which makes us more interesting than robots; the love which we can receive from and give to others; and even the opportunity to grow and develop through suffering. I must confess that I still often wonder if the blessings are worth the terrible price, but God has chosen to create a world where both good and evil can flourish, rather than one where neither can exist. He has chosen to create a world of greatness and infamy, of love and hatred, and of joy and pain, rather than one of mindless robots or unfeeling puppets.

The big flaw here is that god could walk out onstage, show us that he exists, and then not take on a “more direct and visible role.” He could just convince us he exists, and then go back to Heaven, put his feet up on a cloud, and quaff a bottle of 1961 Lafitte. This would NOT turn life int a divine puppet show: things would go on pretty much as they did before, but with more religious people and maybe a bit more good behavior. After a while, things would get pretty much back to normal, and science, which depends on “natural law”, would go on as before. Sewell’s point about us being “puppets” is irrelevant here: we could see God and still believe that we have free will and so on.  God could make a cameo appearance, let most of us believe in him (if we’re convinced; Muslims and Hindus wouldn’t be, perhaps), and then bugger off. Presumably that would go a long way to meeting what Christians want to see.

So while Sewell’s second essay explains—though not to my satisfaction—why there is evil in the world, it doesn’t even come close to saying why God remains hidden.

QED

Discovery Institute makes hay of Dawkins tweet, and a geneticist mistakenly says that artificial selection won’t work in humans

February 20, 2020 • 9:45 am

Unless you’ve been in Ulan Bator (and actually, some people in Mongolia do read WEIT), you surely know about Dawkins’s latest twitter kerfuffle, in which he said, correctly, that human eugenics would “work”. That is true in the sense he meant it: artificial selection practiced on human traits would yield a change in mean trait values, for most traits have appreciable “heritability.” People misinterpreted that—most of them deliberately, I think—to excoriate Dawkins as favoring eugenics, something that’s clearly untrue, especially in light of his subsequent clarifications. It’s not clear to me why these people won’t admit that they mischaracterized Dawkins’s tweets. But of course people get stuck in their ideology and are loath to admit error.

[UPDATE: Dawkins reiterates what he meant on a comment on yesterday’s post: here.]

One commenter noted that most of the pushback seemed to come from the Left or from the woke. That may be true, for many of them hate Dawkins for being “the wrong kind of atheist”: seen (wrongly) as shrill and uncaring about oppression. But I have to note that the Right has been making hay about Dawkins’s tweet as well—especially the religious, who tend to be on the Right. That goes double for creationists, including those who are wasting their lives at the Discovery Institute.

And so, on the DI “Evolution News” website, David Klinghoffer, an Orthodox Jewish ID creationist, has evinced some glee about Richard’s tweet. To see it, click on the screenshot below (it goes to a Wayback Machine link that I’ve archived so that the site itself doesn’t get clicks):

Klinghoffer takes two approaches to denigrating Dawkins.

The first is to cite geneticist Dave Curtis’s recent Twitter thread arguing that eugenics wouldn’t work. (Curtis is an Honorary Professor in the Division of Biosciences at University College London.) Curtis’s tweets have cited widely to show that Dawkins was wrong, but, sadly, I think Curtis himself is wrong. Dead wrong. I’ll give a few of his tweets and briefly explain why.

Here’s the first one, and the assertion that “eugenics simply would not work” is not at all supported by human data, as I document below.

I’ve indented Curtis’s subsequent tweets (only the ones I see as relevant). My own comments are flush left.

I work on human genetics and am honorary professor at the UCL Genetics Institute. I’m the editor-in chief of a journal which used to be called Annals of Eugenics. I just wanted to say that we now know from the latest research that eugenics simply would not work.

This is not true at all. The up-to-date data we have suggests strongly that artificial selection on human traits would “work” in the sense of changing mean trait values in the direction you select. Moreover, it would work in this way for nearly all human traits (see paper below). By saying eugenics would “work”, of course, I am, along with Dawkins, not at all saying it should be practiced. While a limited form of selection in humans is acceptable—for example, preventing a couple who are carriers of a recessive genetic defect or disease from producing an offspring with that condition—the kind of wholesale and directed selective breeding of humans suggested by the word “eugenics” is immoral, and I don’t favor it at all.

On to more tweets. In this one, Curtis flaunts his expertise, but that doesn’t make the data showing him wrong any less convincing:

I have published hundreds of scientific papers on human genetics including on intellectual disability, mental illness and the predictive ability of genetic. You can view the list here: scholar.google.co.uk/citations?hl=e

On to his objections:

Animals are bred in controlled environments and have short generational times with large numbers of offspring. In these circumstances selective breeding can produce desired changes in a small number of specific traits such as milk yield or racing performance.

There are a number of different kinds of reason why eugenics would not work. One is that humans have long generational times and small numbers of offspring. This would make any selective breeding process extremely slow.

Well, “controlled environments” doesn’t mean that selection wouldn’t work, any more than saying selection wouldn’t work in nature because the environment in nature is variable. Artificial selection in animals is successful even in variable environments: I could, for example, select for more bristles on Drosophila flies, even while changing the type of food they get every generation and letting them experience variation in room temperature. We’d still get an increase in bristle number over time. If you think otherwise, I’d bet you a lot of money that you’re wrong.

The “long generation time” of humans isn’t a barrier to getting a result with artificial selection. It only means that, in terms of years (not generations), getting a response would be slower. But not infinitesimally slow!

For example, if you have a trait like height, which appears to show a heritability of about 0.8 (80%), then if you breed only from a group of humans whose average height is 5 inches above the population mean, in the next generation (ca. 20 years later), the response to selection—the average height of the selected group’s offspring when mature—would be 5 X 0.8, or four inches above the mean. That is, you would have raised the height of the population by four inches. That’s a big change in one generation: you’ve gone 80% of the way to your goal. It all depends on the heritability of the trait (which is usually appreciable) and how strongly one selects.

The “breeder’s equation” for this kind of calculation is simply response to selection = heritability of the trait in that population X the strength of selection practiced. And in fact this experiment is performed in miniature every day: tall couples produce tall offspring, short ones produce short offspring. That is really a form of artificial selection performed because couples tend to mate assortatively by height. Each couple mating gives us an idea of how much variation in that trait is genetic.

Finally, the low number of offspring doesn’t matter so long as you can keep the population going after selection. Note that offspring number doesn’t figure in the breeder’s equation.

As for the statement “selective breeding can produce desired changes in a small number of specific traits such as milk yield or racing performance”, that’s extremely misleading. As I’ve said before, I’m aware of only two artificial-selection experiments, out of hundreds practiced on genetically variable populations, that failed to yield a response, and both of those experiments were mine. (I was selecting on “directional asymmetry”, a trait with very low heritability.) “Small number of specific traits” is the misleading bit here. Better that he said, “selective breeding can produce desired changes in almost any trait.” After all, remember what Darwin said in The Origin, a conclusion based on breeders’ results before evolution and genetics were accepted or even understood:

 “Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organization as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please.”

That, of course, means that animal traits have substantial heritability, for it is that heritability that make animals (and plants!) quite plastic. And so it is with humans, for we have evidence that natural selection has altered several human traits in the past 10,000 years or so, and in populations that are relatively small.

Another tweet by Curtis:

Another reason is that humans are exposed to very different environments, so most of trait variation is not due to genetic factors but to differences in environment. One consequence is that it makes it hard to identify subjects who have desirable genetic characteristics.

Here Curtis is again being misleading. What we do know from studies of heritability in our species is summarized in the article below (click on screenshot). The article shows that virtually all human traits have appreciable heritability (“selectability”), with none having zero heritability. And is it really hard to identify humans who are taller than others, or have higher IQs or better teeth? Yes, there is often substantial environmental variability contributing to the trait variation (diet and education in the cases I’ve cited), but this doesn’t mean that selection wouldn’t work.

Here’s the paper’s summary, showing that most traits have a substantial heritability (49% means that about half of the variation among individuals in a population is due to “additive” genetic factors). Further analysis suggests that (shared) environmental influences aren’t overwhelmingly important in these twin studies. Other studies of both identical and fraternal twins reared together and apart also show a substantial heritability and lower environmental effects than expected (see here, and here, for example). Further studies using not twins but identity by descent (e.g., here) also confirm heritabilities derived from the twin studies.

And from the paper’s discussion (my emphasis):

We have conducted a meta-analysis of virtually all twin studies published in the past 50 years, on a wide range of traits and reporting on more than 14 million twin pairs across 39 different countries. Our results provide compelling evidence that all human traits are heritable: not one trait had a weighted heritability estimate of zero.

That means that virtually all human traits would change when subject to artificial selection.

More of Curtis’s tweets with my responses.

We can now measure genetic potential directly from genetic markers and what we know from this is that these genetic predictors perform extremely badly. We can also tell that there are many important, very rare genetic variants which we will never be able to identify. 9/n]

Individual genetic markers are largely irrelevant here; what is important in judging whether selection would “work” is the heritability of the trait in the population, which reflects variation at all relevant genes, not just one or a few genetic markers. Again, using one or a few genetic markers is not the way to change traits. The way to change them is to select for or against certain trait values.

“We should bear in mind that harsh selection pressures have been acting on humans up to the present and that there may be very little scope for overall improvement. In any event, we can confidently say that selective breeding to improve desirable traits is not practicable.

Here Curtis is saying something not supported by the data. We know that there is still substantial genetic variation in humans from the heritability studies above, which directly contradict Curtis’s claim that “there is little scope for [change].” The average heritability at present is nearly 50% among all traits, which means that there is huge scope for “overall improvement” (I prefer “change”, as I don’t know what would constitute “improvement” in humans.) Of course it’s not “practical” to perform such broad-scale selection as a form of eugenics because of moral considerations, but that’s separate from whether that kind of selection would change the mean of a population.

With a recessive disease it may be possible to eliminate cases of the disease from the population using a combination of carrier testing, prenatal screening and selective termination. However this is not eugenics because the variants are still present in the population.

Of course that kind of selective breeding (termination of genetically afflicted embryos) is eugenics! Some variants would remain in the population, but their frequency would be reduced. That is a response to selection! And that involves “terminating” (a euphemism) genetically defective embryos. Just because calling selective elimination of embryos “not eugenics” doesn’t make it not eugenics.

Again, using one or a few genetic markers is not the way to change traits. The way to change them is to select for or against certain trait values.
TLDR: People who support eugenics initiatives are evil racists. Also, modern genetic research shows that eugenics would not work. 19/end

The first part of the statement is true in a qualified sense. However, “eugenics” practiced as “elimination of cases of disease from the population,” as Curtis mentions above, are certainly “eugenics initiatives”, and most of us support such practices. That doesn’t make us evil racists. What does make us evil racists is selective breeding practices on entire races or populations with an eye to differentiating races.

The second part of the statement—that artificial selection on human populations wouldn’t work—is just wrong, and dead wrong. I’m surprised that a man of Curtis’s expertise would make a statement like that. His Twitter thread should not be used as evidence against Dawkins’s claim for the efficacy of artificial selection in humans.

**********
Klinghoffer’s second approach is to cite Behe’s claim that while artificial selection may create some success changing species, it can’t effect big changes. It can create breeds of dogs from wolves, for instance, but can’t change a wolf into a puma. This is an old creationist trope. Quotes from Klinghoffer and Behe are indented:
In an email, a geneticist friend notes the irony. Darwinian evolution is a massive extrapolation from selective breeding in animals. Of course animal breeding “works,” up to a point. Darwin in the Origin of Species cited the efforts of pigeon fanciers. In a New York Times book review, Dawkins once taunted Michael Behe with the successes of dog-breeding. But there are limits. Dogs can’t be bred to become cats, nor pigeons into bats. There appear to be set limits.

There appear to be set limits. Why? Behe has noted the problem that dog-breeding, canine eugenics, is accomplished largely by breaking genes:

Popularizers of evolution said if we can breed dogs that are so different from each other and only do it in the past few hundred years, how much better could nature do? But again, we didn’t know what was going on in the biology of these dogs. In the past 10 years, the entire genomes of many different dog breeds have been sequenced. And again, it turns out if you want a Chihuahua, you can break one of the genes involved in growth. If you want French poodles with curly hair, you break a gene involved in hair growth. If you want a dog with a short muzzle, you break a gene involved in facial shape development.

I and others have already refuted Behe’s claim (see also here and here) that selection for new features is ineffective because it involves broken genes that eventually stop selection in its tracks. And besides, the kind of changes that racist eugenicists proposed in the past (and again, I don’t favor them) are small-scale changes of the type involved in other forms of artificial selection. They didn’t propose turning humans into pumas!

Klinghoffer goes on:

Dave Curtis’s well informed observation is that even given the success of animal breeding, the analogy with humans is mistaken. But that leaves evolution…where? The extrapolation from dogs or pigeons to macroevolution fails because building genuine biological novelties, not just a Chihuahua as distinct from a poodle, requires more than merely breaking stuff, aka devolution, as Behe has shown in his book Darwin Devolves. If the many wonders of the animal world could not have proceeded from Darwinian blind shuffling alone, then human evolution, which can’t even stand on the shaky ground of human eugenics, all the more cannot have done so. 

As I’ve showed, Curtis has no data supporting him, and considerable data contradicting his claims. But in the end, this whole kerfuffle has nothing to do with macroevolution: it’s about microevolution. Even noting that, I’ll argue—but not here—that the IDers’ supposed “unbreakable barrier” between microevolution and macroevolution is totally bogus.

Creationist to lead Brazilian higher education agency

January 29, 2020 • 1:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Science Insider reports that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has appointed Benedito Aguiar, a creationist, as head of CAPES, an agency which oversees graduate training in Brazil and funds thousands of graduate students. According to Science Insider, he is

. . . an electrical engineer by training, previously served as the rector of Mackenzie Presbyterian University (MPU), a private religious school here. It advocates the teaching and study of intelligent design (ID), an outgrowth of biblical creationism that argues that life is too complex to have evolved by Darwinian evolution, and so required an intelligent designer.

And, he takes his creationism seriously:

Aguiar Neto was recently quoted in an MPU press release as saying that ID should be introduced into Brazil’s basic education curricula as “a counterpoint to the theory of evolution,” and so that creationism could be supported by “scientific arguments.” He made the comments prior to the second Congress on Intelligent Design, which was held at Mackenzie in October 2019. The event was organized by Discovery Mackenzie, a research center created by MPU in 2017 to mirror the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which also promotes ID.

Evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Bolsonaro, and this is the second active creationist he has appointed. (The other is the minister of family, women, and human rights.)

Evolutionary biologists in Brazil are protesting. Evolutionary biology has long been an active area of research in Brazil, going back at least to the era of scientific exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the country’s great biodiversity was documented. These discoveries, in turn, had an important influence on the biogeographic and systematic evidence for descent with modification. Beginning in 1943, Theodosius Dobzhansky began influencing and collaborating with Brazilian geneticists, helping to develop evolutionary genetics as an ongoing discipline in Brazil, and studies of biodiversity continue to be a strength. (One of the leaders in the latter, the herpetologist Paulo Vanzolini, whom I knew, was also one of Brazil’s greatest samba composers!)

h/t: Brian Leiter

A creationist writes in espousing the Argument from Incredulity

December 20, 2019 • 12:30 pm

Here we have, from San Diego (of course), an email from a man who is an ardent exponent of the Argument for God from Incredulity. I’ve omitted his name so as not to embarrass him.  I appear to have been the sole recipient of the email, but given its salutation, it was probably sent to other scientists considered as deluded as I. The theme of this screed is the claim that some animal behaviors are so complex that they could not have evolved by a Darwinian step-by-step process.  Ergo, God did it. (You will recognize this argument as the basis for Intelligent Design.) On top of this is laid the idea that an animal, when performing an adaptive act, has to “know” what it’s doing, and animals just don’t have brains like that.

This is a longish email so I’ll briefly discuss only two examples, parasitic larvae keeping their hosts alive by eating only non-essential organs, and the archerfish, which spits water at prey above the water (mostly insects) and is amazingly accurate. In both cases I’ll propose an adaptive pathway that eliminates the necessity for invoking divine intervention.

The email (the bold bits are mine):

To Those of Evolutionary Bent:

This is the story of a wasp (Pompilidae) and a spider (Ctenizidae), or the trap-door spider. The two have a peculiar relationship: the wasp uses the spider as a larder for its young, laying its eggs (or one egg) on or inside the living spider, placing the paralyzed creature back inside its burrow until the wasp larva can hatch out and consume its still-living host.

But this is no easy task. First, the wasp must find the well-camouflaged spider residence. A very good sense of smell, and observation of possible spider burrows from the air or on the ground, depending on the habits of the particular wasp specie, are certainly necessary to the work. Still, considering the area that must be reconnoitered by the wasp to find a spider ensconced in a camouflaged hole in the ground, it is a task that would put many military intelligence workers to shame.

Then the wasp attacks: sometimes is merely pulls on alarm-webbing that surrounds the burrow. This will bring the spider out into the open, expecting a ready-made meal. If the wasp is quick enough, it can sting the spider, perhaps in the midsection, before the creature can react. The spiders, for their part, boast long, deadly (to insects) fangs, dripping with paralyzing poison. The spider may recognize the danger and duck back into its fortress. If it successfully closes the trapdoor, the wasp will be shut out; the spider can hold the door shut with two or four legs, and hold on to its home’s wall with the other four. No problem: the wasp merely chews off the door’s hinges, and comes face-to-face with an angry spider! Then, we have a problem: how the wasp will deal with the spider head-on. Some wasps have a talent for hypnosis; they appear to stroke the spider with their antennae, putting it into a restive state. In other cases, the wasp merely turns her back on the monster Arachnid, and stabs it in the head with her formidable stinger: end of combat. But the beginning of a paralyzed end for the spider.

Then, the wasp can lay its egg; sometimes on and, for other species, inside the spider. Then we have another question: how does the larval wasp, when hatched, know to eat only non-essential parts of the paralyzed spider, in order to keep it alive until it can pupate and become a living, flying wasp? For it certainly eats everything except the vital organs, leaving the best ’til last, when it can gnaw its way to freedom and spread its wings to find a mate and then go spider-hunting.

So all this, the wasp, the unfortunate spider, and their dueling interactions, were brought about by Biological Evolution, a la Charles Darwin or some other foolish inquisitor. Really? You’ll excuse me in my dubiousness. We must add this paradigm to many others: the construction of the mammalian eye and function of the rods and cones; the need for the brain to turn the upside-down image transmitted to it, right-side up. Then there’s the Archerfish (Toxotes), which can “shoot”, via spitting jets of water at its insect prey from an underwater perch, compensating easily for the water’s refraction, even at odd angles. And the Cleaner Wrasse fish (Lambroides dimidiatus) that pops into the mouths of large and dangerous predator-fish to clean them of parasites and dead tissue, even excess mucus; and can “service” up to 2000 “customers” in a four-hour feeding period. Yet, they remain uneaten by sometimes hungry patrons visiting the “cleaning station ” on the reef.

Indeed, there are hundreds, if not thousands of such stories, each more mysterious than the last: all pointing to a Creator, certainly not One Who would use a “dog-eat-dog” process like evolution. But certainly One Who left His fingerprints on all of His work in the creation as we have come to know it.

And what of the variations that occur in the known species, as Darwin himself pointed out in the birds of the Galapagos Islands? Is this, too, “evolution”? Different colors, different beaks, different diets, different sizes and breeding habits– these are all adaptations afforded them for their continued survival in a world where “climate change,” earthquakes, volcanoes, and man’s activities can cause conditions to change. No one so far has noted Darwin’s birds changing into other species or non-avian creatures. Not very likely, I think.

The fact is, that Biological Evolution, of whatever description or fancy, is a Scientific dodge to avoid calling for the creation– and the Creator– in their theories and hypotheses. It is a gigantic academic hoax, that in fact has played a major role in political axioms like Nazism, Communism, and Fascism which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions human beings. And I challenge these scientists who insist that it “must be true” to answer the facts presented here or by numerous other critics to give evidence in support of their positions. We seek the truth of the matter, not mere theories, hypotheses, or suppositions. So far the Scientific World has been unable or unwilling to come up with it.’

Name redacted

Let’s take the larval wasp first.  The way to address the incredulity argument is to postulate a plausible step-by-step process in which each step is adaptive. And then couple that with variation in the trait under consideration—variation due to mutation. If the nonadaptive variants leave no offspring, but the adaptive variants do, then you get evolution by natural selection. There’s not necessarily any “knowing” here on the part of the animal, at least in the cognitive sense—just different behaviors that can be performed automatically. A microbe doesn’t “know” to move towards a food source: to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, it’s just evolved that way.

In the case of the wasp, all that is required is that different larvae have different propensities to eat the organs of the spider. How could this happen? Well, presumably the different organs of a spider can be perceived differently by the larval wasp, either by their location or, more plausibly, by the fact that they “taste” different. If different wasps prefer different “tastes” (or internal locations), and some of that variation is based on variation in genes, then the problem is solved. That’s because those wasps with a taste for the vital organs, or for indiscriminate eating, will kill their hosts early and stand less of a chance of surviving (if you kill your spider host too early, it decays and will not constitute good, fresh food, so that you may die or be malnourished).  On the other hand, those larvae having less of a taste for the vital bits of the spider host, and thus which eat those bits last, will be the ones most likely to survive and leave offspring.  Over time, this results in the evolution of a behavior in which all wasps eat the nonessential organs first, only finishing up with the vital ones when they’re about to pupate. Note that there is no conscious “knowing” here: all that’s required is variation in how you eat your host, and you need no cognition for that—only an attraction to eating some organs more than others. And this is not implausible.

That takes care of the wasp. How about the archerfish? Well, all you need is a starting behavior that can be improved and refined so that fish can not only spit water at prey above the water, but do it accurately. Of course that seems implausible because it requires that one envision fish that have some tendency to spit water in the first place, and of what use is that?

First, let’s look at how these amazing animals operate:

 

How could that evolve? While it’s not difficult to see that once you can acquire food by squirting insects and knocking them into the water, natural selection will then improve your aim, enabling you to judge distance, compensate for refraction, and so on. In fact, not just evolution (which involves no “knowing”), but there is also real learning here, as, if you do a bit of Googling, you find that young archerfish are pretty lousy at knocking down their prey, and have to improve their skills with practice. That may be real knowing.

But how did the whole scenario get started? A little more Googling shows that at least some archerfish use a similar technique to displace silt beneath the water, uncovering hidden prey.  That’s pretty easy to explain, as you’re not really aiming but foraging, and you already have the equipment to do that: producing jets of water outside of your mouth, which is apparently common in fish. The New Scientist article that I found in about a minute of Googline says this (I’ve put a possible “solution” in bold):

To their surprise, the researchers found that the archerfish were able to alter the length and type of water blast to suit the type of sediment. Their shots were shortest if the sediment was coarse-grained and increased in length as the sand became finer.

“The big question is: how did they know beforehand which type of silt was which, and so how long they should blast it for?” asks [Stefan] Schuster. The answer might be that they are adept underwater shooters in the wild, too.

Which came first – aerial or underwater shooting – also remains to be established.

“Perhaps some tendency to produce underwater jets might have been there first, because this is widespread among fish,” says Schuster. Triggerfish use jets to turn round sea urchins to get access to their soft parts, for example, and lionfish use jets to orient small prey fish for easier swallowing.

“Many other fish and invertebrates forage by disturbing the ground, and this is probably the ancestral condition,” says Alex Kacelnik of the University of Oxford. “Archerfish probably thus started with this ordinary skill then transitioned to targets probably at, or narrowly above, the surface and this created new selective pressures to focus and aim water jets at ever higher targets.”

“It’s a lovely example of the incremental and interactive process of evolution of complex traits through natural selection,” he says.

Schuster says the two techniques might have evolved in parallel, with the fish building on and adapting their skills according to their habitat.

So here we have an initial condition whose evolution isn’t hard to understand. Once you squirt at the silt below you to uncover prey, selection would improve that ability, as would learning, and maybe you’d start homing in on things that you see in the sediment.  You then have the ability to be a living squirt gun. If a mutant fish then simply squirted at an object it could see, but one at the surface or above the water, a successful squirt would bring you food, and, importantly, reproduction. You might in fact get more food than other individuals in the population who aren’t aiming at insects directly but just foraging willy-nilly, with most of their squirts being fruitless. And if that were the case, both selection and learning (apparently fish can learn!) would work together to improve the ability of archerfish to squirt at prey above the water. The compensation for refraction, intensity of squirt, and so on, would then be honed by both selection and learning.

Now I don’t know if this scenario really happened, or if both types of squirting evolved together (which is also plausible given that there’s a general advantage to squirting), but we can envision the first steps in the evolution of archerfish behavior—adaptive steps. And the rest, as they say, is commentary (i.e., improvement by selection). No need to default to God.

The rest of the email, including the claims that we see microevolution but not macroevolution, and that Darwinism begat Nazism, Communism, and so on, doesn’t deserve rebuttal here; I’ve done that many times before.  And I’m not going to write a personal answer to this fellow (yes, he’s male), as that would mire me in a back-and-forth exchange that would be totally unproductive. I just wanted to give some examples of how the Argument from Incredulity, which of course is the basis for Intelligent Design Creationism, can be addressed by thinking of plausible and adaptive intermediate steps in the evolution of a trait.  If you can do that, then there’s no need to posit a God, since ID and the kind of creationism espoused above require that one cannot conceive of an adaptive pathway for the evolution of a trait. If you can, then the whole ID/creationist enterprise, which of course requires the additional postulate of a complex Designer for which there’s no evidence, becomes unparsimonious and superfluous.

Ohio House passes bill apparently allowing students to give wrong answers if those answers are based on religious conviction

November 15, 2019 • 10:45 am

Here we go again. It’s fairly normal procedure for evolutionary biologists to tell their creationist students that they don’t have to accept the evolution they’re taught in class, but they must at least regurgitate the correct answers on exams. But the House part of the Ohio state legislature has apparently gone further—they’ve passed a bill mandating that students cannot be penalized (or rewarded) for giving answers on tests or assignments that comport with their religion.

Read this report at Cleveland.com (click on screenshot):

From the site:

The Ohio House sent to the Senate on Wednesday a measure that would prohibit public schools from penalizing students for some work that contains religious beliefs.

Critics have called the bill unnecessary or valuing religion over secularism. One critic said under the bill, if a student turned in homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old – a belief held by some creationists — they couldn’t get docked in their grade. However, the bill’s sponsor said it was more nuanced than that.

House Bill 164 passed the House 61 to 31.

Now I can’t access the bill since the ship won’t let me, but I’m trying to get a copy from someone. In the meantime, you can read it for yourself, and I’ll rely on a summary given by the site. (UPDATE: I’ve now been able to see the bill and have added a few more of its stipulations.)

HB 164, known as the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019:

  • Requires public schools to give students the same access to facilities if they want to meet for religious expression as they’d give secular groups.
  • Removes a provision that allows school districts to limit religious expression to lunch periods or other non-instructional times.
  • Allows students to engage in religious expression before, during and after school hours to the same extent as a student in secular activities or expression.
  • Prohibits schools from restricting a student from engaging in religious expression in completion of homework, artwork and other assignments.

It also specifies a daily “moment of silence for all students”: “for prayer, reflection, or meditation upon a moral, philosophical, or patriotic theme”, but adds that no student will be required to participate. But a student who doesn’t remain silent will surely be demonized, so this is bizarre. Its purpose, though, is clear: it’s a Christian ploy to get students to start the school day with a prayer. 

The bill is worrisome because of course the second and fourth parts are clear violations of the First Amendment. None of us have problems with schools giving religious groups the same rights as secular groups, which in fact is required by the First Amendment. Religious expression during instructional times impedes student education, and where there’s a conflict like this between religious wishes and governmental requirements, it’s almost always resolved in favor of the government (religious exemptions for vaccinations, allowed in many states, is an exception). Rendering unto Caesar is standard practice.

The fourth bit—the subject of this post and the Ohio bill—is especially worrisome, because it allows students to give wrong answers if those wrong answers comport with their faith. That, too, is inimical to the public welfare, and to the duty of public education, in the service of religion. While the bill is said to be more “nuanced” than that, I don’t know how, and even the bill’s supporters aren’t sure.

Here’s what that bit says in the bill:

Sec. 3320.03. No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school established under Chapter 3314. of the Revised Code, governing body of a STEM school established under Chapter 3326. of the Revised Code, or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

You can see the ambiguity here. On the one hand the code permits students to use religious expression to do homework or answer test questions, and to do so without penalty (or reward); on the other hand it says that assignments will be graded “using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” That gives no guidelines about what to do when a student says that the Bible says that the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that all animals and plants were created within a day or two because that’s what Genesis says. This is a bill that’s simply begging for a lawsuit.

How do the sponsors justify such a ridiculous incursion in public education—an incursion that, if legal, would presumably apply not just in secondary schools, but in state colleges and universities? Here’s the justification:

Children these days face pressures over drug use, student violence and increasing rates of depression and suicide, said bill sposnor Rep. Timothy Ginter, Youngstown-area Republican.

“We live in a day when our young people are experiencing stress and danger and challenges we never experienced growing up,” he said.

Ginter said he’s convinced that allowing religious self-expression would be positive.

Well, there’s plenty of chance for religious self-expression after school or in church. And there’s no excuse for impeding students’ education by giving them credit for religious answers that are wrong—or failing to tell them that they’re wrong, even if you don’t penalize them. If you want religious answers to be acceptable, have your kids home-schooled—or send them to religious schools.

But would the bill allow students to get credit for wrong answers that buttress their faith? It’s not clear; that might depend on the results of later First-Amendment lawsuits. The Cleveland.com website says this:

ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels called HB 164 a mixed bag. On the one hand it removes some restrictions on students’ religious rights.

I think Daniels is a bit off the mark here. Those “restrictions on students’ religious rights” are already prohibited by the First Amendment (first and third points above). So what’s new?

Here’s the ambiguous bit:

On the other hand, Daniels said that if a student submitted biology homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old, as some creationists believe, the teacher cannot dock points.

“Under HB 164, the answer is ‘no,’ as this legislation clearly states the instructor ‘shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work,” he said.

Well, that’s confusing! If you can neither penalize nor reward students for arguing that, for example, the Earth is 10,000 years old, what can you do? If you give them credit, you’re rewarding them. If you give them no credit, you’re penalizing them.

Amber Epling, a spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, said that in an analysis of the bill by the legislature’s nonpartisan staff, “they cannot be rewarded or penalized for the religious content in their assignments.”

She believes the bill could result in teachers accepting assignments that fly in the face of science.

But I think it’s more likely that teachers would avoid this whole issue by not asking questions that could lead to religiously-inspired answers. But that means no evolutionary biology at all, and not many biology teachers want to avoid teaching evolution, even in the American South. To deprive students of this wondrous (and true!) theory by catering to students’ faiths would be to do them a profound disservice. After all, is religion so different from other unsubstantiated faiths like Holocaust denialism? Does Scientology and its crazy claims about Xenu and thetans get “respected” too? That way lies madness.

And here’s some more madness. Sponsor Gintis says that the bill’s “nuances” prohibit students from getting credit for wrong but religiously-inspired answers, but then undermines what he said by asserting that Moses was a historical figure and you could get credit for writing about Moses as if he existed.

But Ginter, the bill’s sponsor, said that the student would get a lesser grade in a biology class for an evolution assignment. Even if the student doesn’t believe in evolutionary theory, the student must turn in work that accurately reflects what is taught.

“It will be graded using ordinary academic standards of using substance and relevance,” he said.

However, if students were assigned a report based on historic figures, they could turn in a paper on a historical figure, such as Moses or Mohammed, Ginter said.

What, exactly, is the extra-Biblical evidence for the historical existence of Moses? It’s exactly as thin as extra-Biblical evidence for the historical evidence for a Jesus figure—i.e., NO evidence.

If you’re an Ohio resident, please read the bill and then, if you object (and I’m guessing you will), write to your state senator and your governor. Though the bill has already passed the state House by a 2/3 majority, it must still pass the state Senate and then be signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine.

h/t: Woody, Fred, Kit

Why theological challenges to science resemble conspiracy theories

October 2, 2019 • 10:00 am

My friend the philosopher Maarten Boudry called my attention to a fairly new paper by Taner Edis, a professor of physics at Truman State University and frequent critic of religion and creationism. I’ll let Maarten tell you about it in this post. His take is indented, and we’ll both give you links and ways to read the paper.

COSMIC CONSPIRACIES

Maarten Boudry

My long-time collaborator, the physicist Taner Edis, has a cool new paper in which he draws analogies between religions and conspiracy theories. In dealing with challenges from modern science, theologians have often resorted to conspiracies, involving both the “scientific establishment” and God himself (or Satan). As Edis writes in the abstract:

“Theological responses to scientific challenges can usefully be compared to conspiracy theories in order to highlight their evasive properties. When religious thinkers emphasize hidden powers and purposes underlying a seemingly material reality, and claim that these hidden purposes are revealed only through special knowledge granted to initiates, they adopt conspiratorial attitudes. And when they charge mainstream science with corruption or comprehensive mistakes, so that science becomes a plot to conceal the truth, the resemblance to a conspiracy theory deepens. Theologically conservative denial of evolution often exhibits such features, but some liberal theologies also border on conspiracy theories. Intelligent design creationism, however, is sometimes less conspiratorial.”

In some respects, according to Edis, the responses to evolutionary theory developed by liberal theologians are MORE (not less) conspiratorial than those of their conservative, fundamentalist counterparts. Since liberal theologians want to evade conflicts with science as much as possible, their conception of God tends to be that of a “Deus absconditus”, a God who choses to remain hidden and does not interfere with the natural order. For example, liberal theologians like John Haught believe that God is secretly meddling with quantum processes to bring about the right DNA mutations needed to fulfill his creative plan. All biological evidence points toward processes of pure chance and necessity, but in reality, according to Haught and others, God is tweaking atoms and molecules in statistically undetectable ways. It’s like a casino operator who cheats, but only very rarely, as Edis writes. This is nothing less than a giant, cosmic conspiracy in which God, for whatever inscrutable reason, is pulling the strings behind the scenes, though always making sure to cover his tracks.

More conservative theists, by contrast, want to attack certain parts of modern science head-on. As a result, they tend to believe in a God who massively interferes with the natural world. Young-earth creationists, for example, believe that the evidence for Biblical miracles such as the Flood and the Resurrection of Jesus is all around us. Or take the infamous example of ID creationist Michael Behe, who claims that he has found empirical evidence of design in the ‘irreducible complexity’ of the bacterial flagellum and the blood-clotting process. This is not a God who covers up his tracks, but one who leaves his fingerprints everywhere in plain sight.

Initially, ID creationists were also less likely to invoke conspiracies involving the scientific establishment (the other type of conspiracy discussed by Edis). They believed that scientists were just wrong or misguided, but not that they were actively hiding some truth. As a result, ID advocates were also pretty optimistic about the prospects of Intelligent Design in the scientific world. After all, they found irrefutable evidence for design! It was only a matter of time before Darwinism would be toppled. As the scientific community turned against them, however, and no cracks appeared in the Darwinian paradigm, ID creationists resorted to conspiracy theories to explain their defeat. It was all part of a secret plot by “dogmatic materialists” to keep God out of science.

This is what often happens when a belief system is threatened with counterevidence. Even though many pseudosciences did not start out as conspiracy theories, sooner or later many believers resort to conspiratorial thinking as an immunizing tactic, to explain away defeat or to evade confrontation with reality.

The paper’s link is in the screenshot below, and if you aren’t a member of ResearchGate, judicious inquiry will yield you a copy.

And I’m told the paper is in this book that was published last December (click to go to Amazon link). The book has no reviews on Amazon yet, perhaps because it costs £120!