Archive for the ‘Science and Pseudoscience’ category

The failure of Intelligent Design

February 18, 2011

“Were there no example in the world of contrivance except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator.  It could never be gotten rid of; because it could not be accounted for by any other, supposition, which did not contradict all the principles we possess of knowledge.[i]

–William Paley, Natural Theology, 1857

“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.  Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple…can be shown to exist…then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.[ii]

– Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859

“By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.”[iii] 

–Michael Behe, 1996.

Charles Darwin refuted the teleological argument from design in 1859.  Apparently Behe didn’t get the memo.  Through his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection, Darwin accomplished what earlier evolutionists could not.  Unlike previous theorists such as Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, Darwin (and Alfred Russel Wallace working with him) provided a working mechanism for evolution. In short, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection replaced Paley’s divine watchmaker with a blind watchmaker; the selective force of nature.  Following the strengthening of Darwinian theory by intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, especially after the development of the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology, evolutionary theory effectively replaced “Design” as a creative force.

Natural Selection, therefore, is able to explain organs and features of organisms formerly relegated to creation by an “intelligent Designer”, or a “divine watchmaker” of sorts.  Regardless of whether it is Paley’s eye or Behe’s bacterial flagellum, evolutionary theory effectively explains the development of these organs and features.  Therefore, the “Watchmaker hypothesis,” in both its historical and modern forms, does not present an effective challenge to the efficacy of evolutionary theory.  Thus, the argument from “Design”, or “irreducible complexity”, is not an adequate tool with which to challenge evolutionary theory.  Both fail to undermine the strength of evolutionary theory on closer inspection.  Although one might ask “what good is 2/10ths of an eye?”, any working “eye” is better than no eye at all.  Even if we are referring to just a few light-sensitive cells that are useful for an organism to detect light or predators, these cells will provide a definite survival advantage compared to organisms that lack these cells. In time, variation and selection can and do build more complex organs through differential survival rates.  In the case of “irreducibly complex” organs, the key flaw in Behe’s argument is the fact that he fails to account for the fact that so-called “irreducibly complex” organs can and do have other uses if a component or group of components are removed from them.  Natural selection works by jury-rigging and adaptation of available features, not by the design of new ones.  Therefore, the “watchmaker hypothesis” fails on all counts.

Another key aspect of modern arguments from design is the “fine-tuning” argument for the existence of the universe. This argument, stated simply, alleges that since the universe appears to be “finely tuned” for the existence of life as we know it (i.e. cosmological constants are exactly what they need to be for life to exist as we know it), that the universe therefore must be designed.  While this argument seems cogent at first glance, it is, in fact, fatally flawed.   In fact, the apparent “fine tuning” of the universe is exactly what one would expect if life evolved.  Natural selection produces organisms that are well-fit to their environment.  If life did, in fact, evolve, it did so in this universe, on this planet, governed by the constraints placed upon it by the existing cosmological constants.  You do not build a vehicle that sinks quickly but has really good wheels if you are only going to be using it in an ocean.  Rather, you construct a vehicle that is well-adapted for oceanic travel.  Natural selection works the same way.  It is governed by physics and chemistry as well as biology and ecology.  Natural selection, in short, is as much a slave to cosmological constraints as organisms are to their dietary requirements.  Thus, the cosmological argument is as much a failure as the “watchmaker hypothesis”.

Another key argument advanced by Intelligent Design proponents can be described in the following manner. The proteins/molecules/cells, etc. that make up life are extremely complex.  It is extremely improbable that they developed through solely naturalistic means. Therefore, these features must be designed.  However, this approach is philosophically and scientifically flawed.  Scientists have done a decent job exploring the origin of life. Even though scientists have not definitively explained the origin of life, they have developed some tantalizing glimpses at possible explanations for this event. This topic is relatively complex, and a bit intensive for a short post, so if you’re interested I’ll refer you to the work of Robert Hazen as a first guide to this topic. See, for example, his book “Genesis“. I will focus on the philosophical flaw with this argument in this post.

The philosophical argument inherent to this portion of the Intelligent Design argument can be re-phrased in the following manner.  A million (pick your favorite large number here, and replace “A million” with it if you’d like) lottery tickets are sold for a lottery. One ticket must win.  Each ticket represents a possible combination of proteins (the building blocks of DNA).  The “winning ticket” is the actual combination generated by nature.  According to the Intelligent Design approach, since a million tickets (possible protein sequences/amino acids) exist, the chances of drawing the winning ticket are extremely low, and therefore no ticket will win.  However, we know this to be false; one ticket ultimately DOES win.  Therefore, as improbable as the development of DNA sequences was, by nature, it was at least possible.  And, in fact, there are possible ways to increase the probability of the development of complex protein sequences (Hazen discusses the possibility of proteins growing within the microstructures of carbonate rocks, a hypothesis which explains the extremely high proportion of “left-handed” amino acids). Therefore, the Intelligent Design perspective once again proves flawed.

Before closing this essay, I will mention a few other key claims/approaches fronted by Intelligent Design proponents. The first is Dembski’s Explanatory Filter, which fails miserably as a tool to supposedly discern design in nature (see critique here). The second is the claim that natural selection cannot “increase information” in a genome.  Here’s a rebuttal for that claim as well.  Finally, perhaps the most ridiculous claim advanced by Intelligent Design advocates such as Stephen Meyer is the claim that the “Cambrian Explosion” somehow undermines evolution.  This is the old “there are GAPS!!!  Gaps in the fossil record!” argument trotted back out to play. Even a cursory glance at modern paleontology proves such a claim irreparably flawed.  A good explanation of why such an argument is flawed can be found in one of my all time favorite books on transitional forms, Donald Prothero’s “Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters“.  For a good online critique of the “Cambrian Explosion” argument advanced by Design advocates, see Keith Miller’s article (part one here and part two).

Therefore, as demonstrated, upon closer inspection, the arguments against evolution advanced by Intelligent Design proponents consistently fail to withstand scrutiny.  I consciously avoided arguments from social ills in this post (“well evolution influenced Hitler, or communism, or what have you”) due to the extremely flawed nature of this type of argument.  What is more important is attacking so-called “science” of Intelligent Design.  As I’ve shown here, even a cursory critical glance at the pseudoscientific structure of Intelligent Design reveals massive and irreparable flaws. Therefore, Intelligent Design fails as a science.

Works Cited:
Behe, M.  Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to evolution. Free Press, New York. 1996.

Darwin, CR. The Origin of Species.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge.  First Ed. facsimile, 2002 (1859)

Paley, W. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected From the Appearances of Nature. Gould and Lincoln, Boston, 1857

evolution in action: ceratopsians and the paleontological evidence for evolution

September 24, 2010

Nearly everybody familiar with evolutionary theory and anti-evolution movements is familiar with the old refrain claiming that “the fossil record does not support evolution.”  However, such claims are extremely misguided, and stem from a major misunderstanding of what the fossil record does, in fact, show.  While one could pick any one of hundreds of fossil lineages to examine, we’ll look at one that most people are familiar with, the ceratopsian dinosaurs. To get a partial idea of the diversity of this group, I’ll post some pictures before continuing.

chasmosaur skull on display at AMNH

triceratops on display at AMNH

Protoceratops display at AMNH

While I’ve only shown a few specimens here, the ceratopsian lineage itself is far more diverse.  However, for the sake of ease and sanity, we’ll only look at a few key ceratopsians for our comparison.  For some basic paleontological background, ceratopsians are a Cretaceous group, thus existing towards the end of the reign of the dinosaurs.  The group as a whole was relatively successful, with a distribution throughout Western North America, Asia, and possibly Australia and South America as well.  They were herbivores, and tended to live in large groups.  In phylogenetic terms, the ceratopsians shifted from a relatively lightly built, at least partly bipedal, basal form such as Psittacosaurus, through slightly more robust forms such as Protoceratops, and ultimately towards larger forms such as Triceratops. Now I don’t want to speak in terms of “progress” or “orthogenesis” here; I’m not trying to imply that there was something inevitable about how these forms developed. Rather, it’s just the way it happened. Selective pressures pushed towards that direction, and natural selection responded by building larger, more robust forms.  Let’s take a quick look at the basic sequence:

psittacosaurus on display at AMNH, public domain pic from wikipedia

another psittacosaurus picture, this time on display in Copenhagen. Also from wikipedia.

Protoceratops on display at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, from Wikipedia

Triceratops at AMNH, from Wikipedia

With these specimens, you can get a pretty good idea of how body plans shifted during the phylogenetic history of the Ceratopsians.  However, don’t get the wrong idea here; it isn’t necessarily so that Psittacosaurus evolved into Protoceratops evolved into Triceratops. This isn’t how the fossil record works.  Rather, an organism like Psittacosaurus evolved into an organism like Protoceratops, and so on.  These specific examples show us a basic picture of the transition that occurred. They aren’t the full story.  We’re looking at over a hundred million years between us and them.  We don’t have the full picture.  Look at today’s biodiversity, and compare it to what’s available in the fossil record.  The fossil record itself is like trying to understand a person’s life by looking at a photo album, most of the pictures missing, with a picture of an individual, we’ll call him Bob, as a toddler, then as a highschooler going to the prom, then maybe as a middle-aged man with another younger man (perhaps his son?), then a funeral announcement.  We can get a basic idea of how his life unfolded, but there are many, many things that we can’t answer about his life.  This is the way the fossil record works. In order to understand how evolution operates over time, one has to look at the basic patterns visible in the fossil record. Sure, you can’t get a complete, full, exact picture of every species-to-species transition, but you can get a pretty good idea of what actually did happen in an evolutionary sense.

Another thing to note about evolution, something which is often overlooked, is the fact that evolution can, in fact, transform entire bodies as a whole. The transmutation in body plan visible in our ceratopsian lineage is a complete one, with changes in cranial anatomy (just look back at some of the ceratopsian skulls shown to see it), body size, stance, and (as we’ll look at in a minute), sacral (a fancy word for the region of the backbone that runs through the pelvis) anatomy.  What you’re looking at is not natural selection working on just one trait at a time, but rather many traits, all interacting with each other, all being tweaked slightly through the differential reproductive success of different individuals, not as distinct parts, but as a whole.  People far too often think of natural selection as acting on just one trait at a time.  Sure, it can happen like that in rare cases, but a more full understanding of evolution implies that it is the body as a whole which is acted upon by natural selection.  Yes, individual traits play key roles in reproductive success. But it is the entire body, not merely one trait, which is the agent of reproduction.  Sure, you might have a reproductive edge because you have bigger horns than your opponent.  But you ultimately get to mate because you’re a complete organism, not just one sexy part.  Now that I’ve gotten your attention by talking about reproduction, let’s look at some hips:

psittacosaurus sacrum at AMNH

If you’re having trouble finding the sacrum in this picture, look to the right of the “gastroliths” arrow, right between the little guy’s (not sure if it’s male or female, but I digress…) hind legs. It’s the bone structure shaped more or less like this: )I(

Now onto the next specimen, Protoceratops:

Protoceratops sacrum, AMNH

Look in the same place on this one, right between the hind legs. I apologize about the crappy images with the last two pictures. I took both of them a few years ago, without this purpose in mind.  But I have them, so might as well use them as examples.  Now let’s check out a Triceratops sacrum:

Triceratops sacrum, AMNH

With these three sacrums, you can see how evolution has shaped one specific body part over time. However, after looking previously at the full bodies of these dinosaurs, its much easier to view this for what it is, natural selection tinkering away at one body part as it shapes the whole body.  Regardless, this series of sacrums at least helps to illustrate the relationship between these organisms.  But keep in mind, once again, that it is the entire body that evolves, not just one part.  What paleontologists look for in the fossil record is not “transitional forms”, but “transitional features”, such as our sacrum example, when trying to define evolutionary lineages (phylogenies).  This happens precisely because superficial traits (size, weight, etc) are relatively fluid.  In order to fully understand an evolutionary lineage, it is necessary to look at specific traits which are carried throughout a sequence.  While our sacrum example is not a perfect one, we can at least roughly view how one might find such a trait.  Yes, you can see it change through the lineage, but it is also possible to build a relatively complete picture of how the sacrum has changed throughout its evolution.  Therefore, it could be used to help understand phylogenetic relationships between ceratopsians. Thus, while natural selection does operate on entire bodies, specific traits are also extremely important in defining exact evolutionary sequences.  Both angles are necessary in order to fully define an evolutionary sequence.

Anyway, let me shut up before I make this post any longer/more painful to read.  So what exactly does our quick look at ceratopsians do?  Besides being a (relatively dull) way to kill a few minutes, it also provides an often overlooked example of an evolutionary lineage.  So read up on your ceratopsian evolution (I’ve tried to stay away from the boring, terminological stuff for the sake of a quick introductory glance; Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters has a really good discussion of ceratopsian evolution, and would make an extremely good starting point for looking at evolution in the fossil record in general), and be ready next time someone tries to explain away the basic examples of paleontological evidence for evolution like Tiktaalik, Ambulocetus, or Archaeopteryx.  Provide an example of a full lineage such as the ceratopsians, rather than one “transitional form” in a vacuum.  It’ll provide a much stronger proof if you’re ever trying to explain evolution to someone with an open mind that doesn’t know much about the subject.

Ray Comfort, A Creationist’s worst nightmare

December 5, 2009

Well I’m back in the swing of things after celebrating Thanksgiving with the traditional holiday consumption of everybody’s favorite derived theropod, and I finally got my hands on the Ray Comfort version of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I could hardly wait to read through it!  Comfort added a fifty page Creationist introduction to Darwin’s classic text and handed copies out for free at multiple college campuses in the United States.  I figured I might as well share the wealth, and discuss the introduction on here!

Comfort’s introduction begins with a short biography of Darwin.  This biography is surprisingly good, compared to the rest of the text. Perhaps this is because this segment was “borrowed” (I’ll be nice here and won’t use the term “stolen”) from Stan Guffey.  A story on the NCSE website today described these allegations, which if true, are pretty bad.  Here’s the NCSE story.  Here, we’ll focus on the parts that are definitely (as far as we know for now) written by Comfort.

First, (9-13), Comfort describes alleged “difficulties” for evolutionary theory caused by DNA.  Comfort implies that DNA is so complex that it necessitates the creative actions of a creator.  However, Comfort’s stance assumes that given an extremely unlikely event A, that A, or an event equally as unlikely as A, would never happen.  This is patently false.  If you have 1 in 23521532352535235 odds (randomly selected number) of something happening, this means that one of 23521532352535235 possible outcomes WILL occur.  If you were to claim that probability based arguments rule out the possibility of DNA being formed without Divine intervention, you would be committing a logal fallacy, as demonstrated here. Just because the odds of something happening are extremely low does not mean that it is impossible for said thing to happen.  This line of reasoning also assumes that DNA came into existence in one fell swoop, without steps along the way.  However, we do have models which do not work in this way.  For example, Robert Hazen (among others) has suggested that amino acids could have grown and replicated on a crystalline framework (i.e. on rocks).  The nice thing about this model is it provides a mechanism for explaining the left-handed bias among amino acids in life.  This line of logic also ignores the relatively common nature of amino acids; they pepper comets like candy in a 5-year-old’s bedroom.  Given such models, the odds against DNA coming into existence are far smaller than one would think if one were to argue that DNA came into existence all at one magic moment.

Even if the DNA argument put forth by Comfort (that DNA necessitates a Creator), that does not undermine the validity of Darwinian natural selection.  Darwin’s theory does not seek to explain the origin of life; it can, by nature, work only on already existing lifeforms.  Therefore, the origin of DNA does not seem to be a problem for Darwinian theory, even if one could not offer a plausible scientific explanation.  Therefore, Comfort either misunderstands evolution or is intentionally conflating Darwinian theory with abiogenesis.  Either way, doesn’t bode well for the strength of his introduction!

We’ll move on to something that actually could be problematic for evolution, if Comfort’s allegations were true.  Comfort implies (13-14) that the fossil record does not support evolution, since there are, as he would have usbelieve, no transitional forms present in the fossil record.  He obviously hasn’t gotten the memo on this one:

While I include an image of one of the well known ancestral forms of modern whales (this guy on display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum), I could have just have easily included one of hundreds of other known “transitional forms”.  However, according to Comfort, we don’t KNOW that whales evolved, so this doesn’t count as a valid transitional  form.  Comfort also heavily emphasizes two fraudulent “transitional forms”, including the classic favorite among antievolutionists, Piltdown Man.  Of course, a few fraudulent finds do not discredit an entire science.  Comfort is building strawmen here, and is apparently hoping that his audience does not do enough further research to catch on.

Comfort also makes the glaring error of calling the recently published fossil Ida “THE” ‘missing link’.  Comfort’s statement implies that scientists are working with only one transitional form, or “missing link”.  It’s an obviously flawed semantic statement, and also an extremely scientifically naive one.  We have hundreds of transitional forms and features.  Why do we absolutely NEED Ida to be “the missing link”?  As it is, there is currently debate going on over the implications and relationships of Ida. However, the semantic problem is not Comfort’s alone.  At least part of the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the press.  However, Comfort should have done his homework on this one first.  For further discussion about Ida, click here.

Next (18-20), Comfort discusses the Cambrian Explosion, claiming (18) that “virtually all the major animal forms appeared suddenly without any trace of less complex ancestors“.  This is utterly and patently wrong.  Many paleontologists today describe the Cambrian “Explosion” as actually occurring relatively slowly.  Even if it was “sudden” in geological terms, by “sudden”, paleontologists mean happening over hundreds of thousands or a few million years.  Comfort’s rhetoric would imply that it happened in a few days.  Comfort therefore misrepresents scientific data on the tempo of the Cambrian “explosion”.  Comfort also ignores, or is not aware of, the presence of “simpler” organisms pre-dating the Cambrian “Explosion”, such as the small shelly fauna. The small shelly fauna DO provide some possible ancestral forms to organisms that Comfort would have us believe arose out of nowhere. Therefore, Comfort once again  drops the ball when trying to discuss science.

Since I’ve demonstrated the lack of scientific validity of Comfort’s claims, I will not waste any more of your time or mine describing  Comfort’s further scientific errors. We’ll move on to his historical ones.  First, p. 31, Comfort implies that Darwin is responsible for “Social Darwinism”, when anyone that knows about the history of scientific racism will immediately tell you that this type of mentality pre-dated Darwin’s work by decades.  Any attempt to blame Darwin for the misuse of his work in this pre-existing racist construct is rediculously flawed.  Once again, Comfort has either failed to do his research, or is attempting to obscure the real story.

Along these lines, Comfort makes a big fuss over Darwin’s views on race.  Apparently, we should be appalled when Comfort tells us of Darwin’s belief that Black people are somehow less intelligent than Whites.  I am appalled, but for the wrong reasons (in Comfort’s eyes).  First, Darwin was a racial moderate for his day (see an earlier post on my blog that essentially debunks any attempt to describe Darwin as a racist).  Second, Darwin actually learned taxidermy from a freed Black slave.  Therefore, it is likely that Darwin viewed Blacks as both intelligent and able.  Comfort then makes a fuss about a statement made by Darwin that implies that women are less intelligent than men.  After quoting (relatively out of context) Darwin’s reasons for marriage, Comfort makes the following statement :

Darwin believed that women were not as competent as men, and less intelligent than men, but they were better than a dog.” (35).

So wait a minute….Comfort is condemning Darwin because he was a British Victorian man?  Of course Darwin is going to seem racist and sexist by today’s standards, especially when selectively quoted.  But Comfort is attempting to judge Darwin by today’s standards, rather than the standards of the Victorian Era.  Darwin lived 200 years ago; even a child should be able to see the underlying problems with Comfort’s approach here.  It both saddens and disappoints me to see such an error made by a grown man, and even worse, get overlooked by editors.

Next (35-37), Comfort attempts to blame Darwin for Hitler’s actions.  There are numerous problems with this approach.   First, even if Hitler did warp Darwinian theory to fit his own agenda, this does not mean that Darwinian theory is inherently genocidal.  Hitler also utilized inherently Christian terminology at times.  Does this mean that Christianity is the real cause of Hitler’s agenda?  Of course not!  So even if Hitler did utilize Darwinian theory, you cannot implicate the theory in Hitler’s crimes.

However, Hitler’s views on evolution were inherently non-Darwinian in many ways.  Hitler sought a biological basis for a Nazi master race, one that pure Darwinian theory could not provide.  Hitler utilized “Social Darwinism”, that old racial pseudoscience that predates Darwinian theory at a far deeper level than he utilized pure Darwinian theory.  If Hitler was so sold on evolutionary theory, then why did the Nazis ban the writings of Ernest Haeckel, the prominent German champion of Darwin? Seems like the Nazis had some issues with pure Darwinian theory.  This thought is confirmed in the article previously linked in this paragraph.  In a quote from a Nazi document on banned books, the following statement is included as a criterion for banning texts: “writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism” (again, from here).  While it is difficult to grasp what the text means by “primitive Darwinism”, one can assume that it likely includes Darwin himself, being the founder of Darwinism.  It seems that yet again, Comfort has failed to do his homework.

Comfort then tells us that Darwinian theory is embraced by atheists, and implies that it is an inherently athiestic idea (see, for example, pp. 39-41).  However, Comfort fails to tell us about such Christian evolutionists such as Kenneth Miller.  One wonders why…

Finally, we get to the most entertaining part of the introduction.  I have to admit that I never expected to open a copy of the Origin of Species and find a passage warning me about the fires of hell.  Yet this is exactly what one does find near the end of Comfort’s introduction.  However, we are lucky enough to have an explanation from Comfort himself on how to be saved from Hell.  Here’s what he tells us:

To receive the gift of eternal life, you must repent of your sins (turn from them), and put on the Lord Jesus Christ as you would put on a parachute—trusting in Him alone for your salvation. (49)”

Then, to conclude his introduction, Comfort presents the following paragraph:

Please don’t toss this book aside.  If it’s been helpful to you, pass it on to someone you care about—there’s nothing more important than where they will spend eternity.  Thank you for reading this. (49)”

The implications of this statement are clear.  After Comfort devotes nearly 50 pages to telling us why Darwinism is a racist, atheistic, bankrupt science, Comfort is then offering us salvation through his specific interpretation of Christianity.  Comfort is implying, either intentionally or unintentionally, that accepting evolution will likely lead one into the fires of Hell.  One might be tempted to quote Judge John E. Jones III of Kitzmiller v. Dover (“breathtaking inanity”) in reaction to Comfort’s introduction. Comfort has misrepresented both science and history at the most basic level in an attempt to push his own religious views on others.  Worse yet, he has tarnished one of the most important and elegant texts in the history of scientific thought in the process.  While Comfort’s claims do nothing to undermine the strength and validity of Darwin’s work, they do  show an inherent disrespect both for science and for religion.  Comfort forces a wall between evolution and Christianity, which in Comfort’s model, cannot be breached.  However, as I have demonstrated in Gould’s Hopeless Monster, while science and religion may need to make compromises in order to coexist, they ultimately can coexist in some fashion.  Comfort’s model rejects this possibility.  What worries me most is that some people might not research beyond Comfort’s claims, and as a result may actually believe him.  Luckily, the National Center for Science Education has provided protection against Comfort’s patently false claims in the form of a bookmark (available here to print out).  Share one with somebody you care about, especially if they have recieved a copy of the Ray Comfort edition of the Origin of Species.

Defending William Jennings Bryan

August 18, 2009

I recently watched (once again…it’s a film I’ve watched many times) the classic film interpretation of the Scopes Trial, Inherit The Wind.  While I have a deep appreciation for the film as someone with an interest in evolution and anti-evolution movements, the portrayal of Bryan in the film is problematic.

Throughout the film, we see Matthew Brady (the character representing Bryan) portrayed in a wholly alien way to someone familiar with William Jennings Bryan.  Brady was a Young Earth Creationist, convinced that the Earth was created in 4004 BC (as given by the Ussher chronology).  The real Bryan held a rather different view, which was compatible with an old Earth (the “day-age” interpretation of Genesis).  While many people instantly think of Young Earth Creationists when the term “Creationist” is mentioned today, Bryan’s position was a relatively common one in his day.  It may seem like I’m jumping on minutia here, but there is a key difference between Brady in the film and Bryan in real life in this area.

One other extremely blatant misportrayal of Bryan within the film comes near the end of the film, when Brady states his desire for a much harsher penalty than the Scopes character recieved.  In reality, Bryan was not trying to ruin Scopes.  In fact, Bryan offered to pay Scopes’ fine.  Thus, Inherit the Wind portrays Bryan in a negative light compared to what he actually was like during the trial. 

A final note: Bryan was not some defeated buffoon come the end of the trial.  He did not give up on the anti-evolution movement.  In fact, Bryan was preparing to expand it before his death(Larson 198-199).  While he was upset by the trial, and   clearly took a beating at the hands of Clarence Darrow, he was not broken.  And the trial was clearly not a victory for evolutionists.  How could it have been?  The trial ended, and Scopes was found guilty.  Scopes fine was eventually discarded on a technicality, thus preventing the defense from challenging the ruling in a higher court.  Evolution would continue to be excluded from classrooms for years to come.

Therefore, when watching a film such as Inherit the Wind, remember that the work is inherently a work of fiction.  Bryan really wasn’t as bad as they made him out to be.  Inherit the Wind, while a classic film, has its own historical problems, as I have partially demonstrated.  However, the film does much to expose the public perception of a battle between science and religion, a battle that is not always necessarily present.  This concept is an old myth, popularized by the likes of Draper, through the conflict thesisInherit The Wind offers a good illustration of this myth, thus making the film worth watching even with its historical errors.  While events such as the Scopes Trial certain had religious and scientific influences and consequences, the perception that science and religion are always necessarily at each other’s throats is inherently and deeply flawed.  Let us remember that when we see Bryan portrayed as a religious zealot yearning for the crucifixion of a science teacher who overused his right to think.  As we have seen, this is not the case at all. Yes.  Social factors were at play in the Scopes Trial.  But this was not a simple case of Science VS. Religion.

 

Works Cited:

Larson, EJ.  Summer For The Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.  Basic Books, New York, 2006

Kitzmiller V. Dover (pt. 1 of 2)

June 12, 2009

And now for my first deep consideration of legal fights in the Creation-Evolution struggle.  I’ll discuss Kitzmiller v. Dover here, and then delve into other key trials in future posts.  Kitzmiller v. Dover, fought over a Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s decision to read a disclaimer in classrooms in the school district claiming that evolutionary theory “has gaps” and referring students to copies of the textbook supplement Of Pandas and People to learn about intelligent design, which is proposed as an alternate theory to Darwinian evolution.  The text of the disclaimer is as follows:

“The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolutionand eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact.  Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence.  A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. 

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.  The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. 

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families.  As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.” (in Kitzmiller v. Dover memorandum opinion, p. 1-2.  for link, click here).

The adoption of this disclaimer followed a 6-3 vote in which it was decided that:

“Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught” (Kitzmiller v. Dover memorandum Opinion p. 1).

These statements set up the controversy.  Here, we have a school district deciding to challenge the teaching of evolution.  With the development of the classroom disclaimer,we have a strategy.  However, there is more to Dover than the adoption of standards challenging evolution.  In this instance, we have the documentation to provide a good look at the forces governing this decision.

The decision to challenge evolution in Dover’s classrooms was pushed heavily by schoolboard member Bill Buckingham and fellow board member Alan Bonsell (as described in detail in Lebo 2008, Chapman 2008, and Humes 2007). Buckingham, during the course of debating the teaching of evolution, is quoted as stating “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross.  Can’t someone take a stand for him?” (Numbers p. 392).  This statement, by a leader of the push to challenge evolution in Dover’s classroom suggests a religious rationale for this challenge.  Other sources of information (for example, the fact that the Thomas More Law Center, the self-declared “sword and shield  for people of faith” offered legal protection if the school board were to challenge evolution around July 2004; the vote to challenge evolution passed October 18, 2004, and the disclaimer was published November 19th 2004 (see here for general background)) confirm this suggestion.

However, the Dover school board was not unanimous in their decision to challenge evolution, as suggested by the 6-3 vote over changing the district’s standards.  Following this vote, the three board members who moved against the measure  (Jeff Brown, Casey Brown, and Noel Wenrich) resigned (Humes 98-99).  Casey Brown’s resignation statement can shed some more light on the religious tensions present on the Dover school board in 2004:

“Sometimes in order to fulfill the requirements of our office, we must put aside our personal feelings and beliefs.  It is not always an easy thing to do—but it is what we must do in order to properly perform the duties and responsibilities of our office.

In the past year, regretfully, there seems to have been a shift in the attitudes and direction of this board.  There has been a slow but steady marginalization of some board members.  Our opinions are no longer valued or listened to.  Our contributions have been minimized or not acknowledged at all.  A measure of that is the fact that I myself have been twice asked within the past year if I was “born again.:  No one has, nor should have the right, to ask that of a fellow board member.  An individual’s religious beliefs should have no impact on his or her ability to serve as a school board director, nor should a person’s beliefs be used as a yardstick to measure the value of that service.  However, it has become increasingly evident that is the direction the board has now chosen to go, holding a certain religious belief is of paramount importance.

Because of this, it is quite clear that I can no longer effectively function as a member of this board…” (quoted in Humes 99)

This statement confirms the importance of religious belief with regards to the operation of the board. Ironically, had the school board not been taken to court, it is entirely possible that social studies curriculae in the district would have been altered to challenge the separation between Church in State in America (Humes 100, Lebo 60).  Largely as a result of this separation, the Dover School Board lost Kitzmiller v. Dover.

Following the passage of the anti-evolution measure, with teachers refusing to read the statement and parents such as Tammy Kitzmiller unwilling to have their children’s education compromised (Lebo 48-53), in cooperation with the National Center for Science Education, the ACLU, attorney Eric Rothschild, and others, filed suit… 

Works Cited:

Chapman, M.  40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, oxyContin, and other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania.  Collins.  New York. 2008

 Humes, E. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul. HarperCollins.  New York. 2007

Lebo, L.  The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America.The New Press, New York, 2008

Numbers, RL.  The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006

Archaeopteryx, cladistics, ghost taxa, and anti-evolution movements

May 18, 2009

Archaeopteryx is perhaps the best known “transitional fossil” in the sense of public recognition.  First discovered in Germany in 1861, 2 years after the publication of the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, it has been hailed as a transitional phase between reptiles and birds ever sense.  Darwin himself was aware of the existence of Archaeopteryx, and addressed this fossil in later editions of the Origin.  Consider the following passage from the 6th edition of the book:

“[A]nd still more recently, that strange bird, the Archeopteryx [sic], with a long lizard-like tail, bearing a pair of feathers on each joint, and with its wings furnished with two free claws, has been discovered in the oolitic slates of Solenhofen.  Hardly any recent disc overy shows more forcibly than this , how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world.” (Darwin 1859:444  see 6th edition here).

While Darwin at least mentions the existence of Archaeopteryx here, it is in a letter from paleontologist Hugh Falconer to Charles Darwin, from Jan. 3, 1863, where we begin to see the true significance of the find:

You were never more missed—at any rate by me—for there has been this grand Darwinian case of the Archaeopteryx for you and me to have a long jaw about…You are not to put your faith in the slip-shod and hasty accoutn of it given to the Royal Society.  It is a much more astounding creature—than has entered into the conception of the describer” (Falconer, 1863 in Correspondences vol. 11 p.5)

Falconer’s statements here tell us a number of things.  First, that he saw Archaeopteryx as a valid “transitional” fossil, or as evidence in favor of evolutionary theory.  Second, it is obvious here that Falconer had a large amount of respect for Charles Darwin as a scientist.  It is worth noting here that Falconer discovered stasis in the fossil record as a valid trend over a century before Eldredge and Gould’s 1972 work on Punctuated Equilibria, thus rendering Eldredge and Gould as a re-discovery, rather than a discovery, of stasis.  But I digress. 

Moving back to a discussion of Archaeopteryx, the genus was held as a transition between lagosuchids and birds for the first half of the 20th century.  This was largely due to a gappy lagosuchid and dinosaurian fossil record; upon more fossil discoveries, the Lagosuchid line was shown to be  too specialized to be ancestors of birds.  In fact, largely as a result of the work of John Ostrom on Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx, dinosaurs were suggested as the ancestors of birds (for more info on this, see Bakker 1986: 298-322).  With the discovery  of more fossils, especially feathered dinosaurs from China, the dinosaur-bird connection has become well-accepted among paleontologists (for more info, click here).

So why are dinosaurs accepted as bird ancestors by scientists today?  As early as the latter half of the 19th Century, TH Huxley noted similarities between dinosaurs and birds.  However, to fully appreciate the modern state of Archaeopteryx, one must look at recent publications.  While there is some debate as to the exact place of birds within the classification of Theropods (bipedal, often predatory, dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex), birds are almost universally accepted among paleontologists as a form of derived theropod, generally within the maniraptorian segment of the group (see Benton 1992 p. 22). Looking specifically at Archaeopteryx, let’s consider some of the traits that suggest that birds evolved from dinosaurs.  The skeleton of Archaeopteryx is so similar to dinosaurs that the first specimen discovered was initially mistaken for a Compsognathus (a small type of theropod).  Archaeopteryx, as well as other theropods and birds, had a relatively unique mesotarsal joint (a part of the ankle), a half-moon shaped bone in the wrist (the semilunate carpal), gastralia, an s-shaped curve in the neck, and feathers.  Some more dinosaurian features of Archaeopteryx include conical teeth (similar to those of other early birds such as Hesperornis and Icthyornis), claws very similar in structure to those of dinosaurs such as Deinonychus, and a long bony tail (for more discussion, see Prothero 2007 p. 260). These similarities, among others (such as similarities in hip structure), suggest that birds did, in fact, evolve from dinosaurs.

 However, Archaeopteryx’s status as a “transitional fossil” is often attacked by anti-evolutionists. One of the most popular approaches to Archaeopteryx from this angle is to denigrate Archaeopteryx as a “mosiac form”, and compare it to the platypus (see Johnson1993:80-81).  This approach assumes that the shared characteristics between Dinosaurs, Birds, and Archaeopteryx are of little consequence, just like the bill of a platypus (after all, a platypus has a bill and lays eggs, but nobody calls it a bird!).  However, this approach showcases a large-scale misunderstanding of how paleontology and comparative anatomy work.  Archaeopteryx is not considered a “transitional form” solely because it has some bird-like features and some dinosaur-like features.  It is significant because some of its features are shared ONLY by Theropod dinosaurs and Birds.  A cladistics-based approach to Archaeopteryx will place Archaeopteryx between other “birds” and “dinosaurs” as a “transitional form” (for more on cladistics, click here). This is due to the fact that many features are shared only by Archaeopteryx, Theropods, and other birds, not because Archaeopteryx just “shares some charisteristics” with birds and dinosaurs.  Anti-evolutionists (either ID advocates or Creationists) are fond of using this “mosiac form” approach to fossil proofs of evolution, even though (as demonstrated) it illustrates a misunderstanding of paleontology and cladistics. 

One other objection often raised to the status of Archaeopteryx is the argument that since the dinosaurs that are claimed to be Archaeopteryx’s closest relatives were contemporaries of Archaeopteryx in the Jurassic period, Archaeopteryx cannot be a valid “transitional form”.   However, this argument is also weak.  Using the concept of ghost taxa, or taxa inferred in a cladistic tree from unique shared characteristics, scientists can infer the characteristics of “transitional forms” between Archaeopteryx and the dinosaurs it evolved from, for example.  While this approach assumes the validity of evolutionary theory, this is not a problem, due to the fact that evolutionary theory is uniformly accepted by biologists and paleontologists.  Biologists see natural selection operating on a daily basis, and paleontologists continuously find an ordered, linear sequence within the fossil record.  Combining these two lines of evidence (among many others), one can infer that evolution does, in fact, work.  Therefore, the assumption of evolution as a scientific fact does not present a serious problem.

If Archaeopteryx’s status as a “transitional fossil” is so well-accepted by scientists (note that by saying Archaeopteryx is a traqnsitional form, I am not saying that it necessarily evolved into birds, but rather that it showcases features unique to birds and dinosaurs, which illustrates that dinosaur-bird evolution has taken place, either through Archaeopteryx or some other closely related group of early birds), then why are people still trying to destroy it’s status?  Archaeopteryx is not the problem here.  Evolution itself isn’t even necessarily the problem.  The problem is often that Archaeopteryx, evolution, and a 4.6 billion-year-old earth are seen, at least by some, to threaten the percieved “special place” of humanity in nature. This conflict is the root of the percieved conflict between science and religion.  What is at stake here, from the perspective of Creationists especially, is not science, but rather humanity’s special place, elevated above the rest of the natural world.

Works Cited:

Bakker, RT.  The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction. Citadel Press Books, New York, 1986

Benton, MJ. Origin and Interrelationships of Dinosaurs, in The Dinosauria, edited by DB Weishampel, P. Dodson, and H. Osmolska.  University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.  p. 11-30.

Darwin, C.  The Origin of Species. 6th edition, reprinted by Castle Books, Edison, 2004. First edition originally published 1859.

Falconer, H. letter of Jan. 3, 1863 to Charles Darwin.  In The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 11, edited by F. Furkhardt, DM Porter, SA Dean, JR Tophan, and S. Wilmot.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

Johnson, PE.  Darwin on Trial.InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1993

Prothero, DR.  Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.

Teach the Controversy? Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design in America

May 4, 2009

A few days ago, I was standing in line at a local bookstore waiting to buy a copy of Matthew Chapman’s 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Dover.[1]  It was a long line, so I soon found myself engaged in conversation with some of the other people waiting to buy books.  One woman saw the book I was carrying, and once she realized it discussed evolution at least partially, proceeded to instruct me that “evolution is just a theory; it isn’t proven yet.”  She seemed to be a well-meaning, intelligent person, but by implying that evolutionary theory is somehow weak since it is “just a theory”, it was clear that she had been misled.

She is not alone.  As evidenced by recent events, many Americans feel the same way about evolutionary theory.  In 2005, in Cobb County GA, for example, the local school board moved to place warning stickers in biology textbooks that read:

“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

Clearly the Cobb County school board also misunderstood the meaning of the term “theory” in a scientific sense.  But what is a scientific theory? Unlike the everday usage of the word “theory”, which generally refers to a guess or hunch, the scientific usage of the term “theory” means something along the lines of “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence,” according to an article by the National Academy of Sciences.  Luckily for science, the Cobb County stickers were eventually declared unconstitutional and removed from textbooks as a result of Selman v. Cobb County.  While the situation in Georgia has ended, the anti-evolution movement has kept going.

For example, Senate Bill 2396, which attempted to require a critical presentation of evolution in Florida schools, recently died in committee.  This bill sought to teach “the other side” as well, as stated by Stephen Wise, the senator who authored the bill.  Judging from NCSE and other sources, Wise also supports teaching intelligent design in schools, a practice strongly condemned in Kitzmiller v. Dover.  Bills such as Wise’s imply that there is some level of controversy in the scientific arena when evolution is considered.  However, as Stephen Jay Gould has argued, the only controversy surrounding evolutionary theory is a perceived controversy, fueled by rehashed Creationist arguments. 

While evolutionary theory is a vibrant theory, some groups still argue against evolution.  These arguments are often political or ideological (rather than scientific) in nature.  For example, many Young Earth Creationists argue that if we teach our kids that they came from monkeys, they will act like monkeys (to use an oft-repeated refrain). Answers in Genesis, a leading Young Earth Creationist website, alleges that “By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.” in their Statement of Faith.  The Discovery Institute, major backers of Intelligent Design, have stated in a fundraising memo that they seek “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” (pdf p. 2). The author of the Wedge Strategy, the strategic plan laid out in the Wedge Document, is Philip Johnson.  Johnson seeks to attack the “naturalistic” philosophical underpinnings of evolutionary theory in an attempt to replace them with a framework that allows supernatural causation to become a key part of scientific investigations. Jonathan Wells, prominent Intelligent Design proponent, has implied that he is on a religious mission to “destroy Darwinism“.

Groups such as the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis provide the basic foundation for a percieved “controversy” within science over the validity of evolution.  While the scientific credibility of these groups is virtually nonexistent, they have touched a nerve within the American public.  They argue that science is “naturalistic” at its core, and therefore atheistic.  However, while science cannot use God as an explanation in its current form (God is supernatural, and therefore not scientifically testable.  Science can only test natural cause explanations), it also cannot refute the possibility of God existing.  Certain scientific facts may fly in the face of certain religious beliefs (such as the geologic timescale contradicting a specific interpretation of Genesis that proclaims a 6000 year old Earth), but this is not by design.  However, groups such as Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute have latched onto the idea that science is out to exclude God from the picture. In a relatively religious nation, it is easy to create an imagined controversy using this approach.  It is far easier for many people to accept a “scientific” idea that confirms their religious beliefs than one that refutes them.  While authors such as Stephen Jay Gould have argued that science and religion can coexist because they occupy “separate realms,” in some cases, this coexistence is impossible.  If a person believes that the Bible says that the Earth is 6000 years old, they are likely to accept ideas such as Flood Geology which, while being scientifically flawed, seem to confirm their belief system. This is why Answers in Genesis survives.  Not because they are a reputable scientific organization, but because they seem to provide people with confirmation for their beliefs.

So if anti-evolution arguments tend to operate on a political or religious playing field, why do they bother scientists?  According to Kevin Padian, the attempt to single out evolution in classrooms in Dover for special treatment (“evolution is only a theory”) has the effect of making kids stupid by confusing them about science (PDF p. 41). In the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  Evolutionary theory is the keystone of biology in general, and is supported by mountains of evidence.  Teaching religious challenges to evolution not only will confuse students about the nature of science, but also violates the first ammendment establishment cause in the US Constitution.  Therefore, it is necessary to refrain from teaching “Creation Science” or “Intelligent Design” (which has been shown to have Creationist roots) in science classrooms, not only for religious reasons, but also for educational ones. People tend to accept the presence of a “controversy” surrounding evolution especially if evolution is perceived as a threat to their own religious beliefs.  However, the science classroom is not the place to provide religious guidance.  We need to embrace evolution, both in the science classroom and in the lab, if we hope to remain competitive as a nation in the scientific realm.  This is why anti-evolution movements are dangerous. Not because they somehow threaten evolution, but rather because they confuse the public about science, and also threaten the American scientific standing on an increasingly globalized playing field.


[1] An entertaining, irreverent, and all-around enjoyable text dealing with the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, which struck down an attempt by a Dover, PA school board to have a paragraph read before science classes calling evolution a theory with major gaps, and referring students to copies of Of Pandas and People for another perspective (the intelligent design perspective).