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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

More Arguments about Darwinian Evolution

Another set of thoughtful objections to my arguments against Darwinian evolution.

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An emailer wrote:

A couple of quick notes regarding your letter. ?Clearly you’ve done far more research in this area than I have, but I feel there are a few things I need to point out. 

First, in regards to the choice of words like “sprang into existence” and “suddenly”, I think that we all need to agree that these are relative terms. ?In the terms of the history of the earth, when we say things like “The dinosaurs suddenly just died out,” we’re still talking anywhere from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of years. ?That’s a virtually unfathomable length of time and a LOT can happen given a few million years.

As a quick estimate, Jesus lived about 2000 years ago. ?That’s quite literally ancient history, maybe 100 generations of humans. ?Yet, in a million years, we get to pass that amount of time 500 times, or 50,000 generations of humans. ?In ten million years, that’s half a million generations or 5,000 times that two-thousand year span.

As another anecdotal reference, how many times have you heard folks comment “People were smaller/shorter back then.” ?“Back then” was maybe 200, maybe 400 years ago? ?And yet, already the American gene pool has seen enough change that even lay-people notice it.

So, when we say things happen “quickly” in geological terms, for generations of animals (who spin off new generations much faster than the 20 years or so it takes humans), that’s actually a lot of time for change.

As for the “gaps” in the fossil record, there are a number of explanations. ?If the conditions aren’t right, the right kind of silt, the right pressure, the right animal in the right place at the right time, we get nothing. ?If any fossils that do develop are destroyed by geological activity, we get nothing. ?If the movement of the earth over a billion years pushes the fossil bed into the depths of the ocean, we get nothing. ?Any fossil that gets brought to the surface and eroded or paved over for a local shopping mall is lost. ?Truthfully, any fossil we do find is a happy accident and something to be cherished.

And, as I’m sure you’ll agree, the lack of proof of the existence of a thing clearly does not constitute a disproof of that thing.

As far as the general stagnation of species development, with sudden “outbreaks” of new species, it really makes sense when you think about both evolution and the history of the earth.

As we look at the geological evidence, we see that the earth tends to have long periods of stability punctuated by global climactic change. ?Any student of complex systems can tell you that most complex, changing systems follow similar patterns. ?These changes actually do occur quickly, even by our standards, and in the blink of an eye in geological time, sometimes happening over the course of hundreds of years.

It only follows then that as the world was stable, the species were stable, and when the world changed, the dominant species changed and adapted to the new situation.

(This gives a weird, sci-fi image of dogs suddenly sprouting wings or developing flippers to swim in the icy glacial run-off, but we’re talking the changing of a species over a period of time, where those that can’t survive don’t reproduce, and those that have the advantage, by necessity or happenstance, continue their lineage.)

As for boulders evolving into bricks being a ludicrous suggestion, I would suggest in a way, they did. ?In the early days of human habitiation, we lived in caves to shelter ourselves from the elements, possibly behind or beneath boulders. ?As time went by, we learned to use tools, and perhaps we stacked boulders together to make our own caves (pure speculation on my part). ?Then we realized that little stones were easier to move and stack than big stones, and we could seal them with mud. ?Then we saw that we could fire the mud and make our own stones that had the exact size and shape we needed.

You see, to position evolution as some sort of mystical wizardry that alters the form of an existing object isn’t quite correct. ?Evolution is about the choice of a more effective thing over a less effective thing. ?In the case of building materials, bricks are clearly more effective than boulders, and hence, the use of boulders as a building material “died out” over time, as the climate for making these choices changed.

Whether you believe life evolved or not, the fact of evolution itself is incontrovertible. ?Companies evolve as they struggle to maintain relevance ?in the marketplace. ?Cars evolve as the landscape of technology, trade and consumer demand changes. ?Everything evolves. ?Effective things stick around, uneffective things “die out”.

On the flipside, speaking on your conjecture that asserting limbs formed from fins is a tremendous leap of faith, I believe we’ve since found several fossil examples, and even a “living fossil” (the Ceolocanth) of fish with digits. ?And we’ve all seen pictures or video of walking catfish and mudskippers. ?In any case, it’s not that large a leap for me to imagine a creature that managed to stay a while on land having a distinct advantage (bountiful food supply with no competition and no predators) over those that didn’t, to the point where eventually some of their kin just stopped going back to the ocean at all. ?So, at the time Mayr was talking about possibilities, but we’ve found fossil evidence that suggests he was right.

Anyway, we’re not fortunate enough to have a complete fossil history of the entire world. ?Were making due and coming up with theories to explain how and why things happen. ?Then, as time goes by and technology improves, we learn a little more, and the theories that pass muster and fit with what we know continue on, and those that don’t quietly expire. ?(Hey, that’s evolution!)

We know evolution exists; it just does. ?Things evolve: creatures, cars, computers, ideas, even religions. ?I have yet to see anything biologically that can’t be rather simply explained by evolution (and a LOT of time), and I have to say, I’m predisposed to choose the simplest solutions. ?I don’t need to construct a mystical diety out of whole cloth to explain to myself how I got here.

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My reply:

You are, of course, entirely correct that geologic age reflected in the fossil record is vastly greater than our minds can readily grasp.  “Sprang into existence” and “suddenly” are relative terms.

Again, you are correct that there has been a lot of time for evolutionary change.  Nonetheless, looking at the known rates of random genetic mutations and the billions of random genetic mutations, most of them undoubtedly false starts, required to produce all the known species, it appears that there has not been enough time in the entire life of the cosmos for it. 

Mr. Bogos (whose emails I have yet to answer directly) quotes Professor Morowitz’s testimony:

“To do the probabilistic calculations, we would have to know all the kinetic and mechanistic details by which the processes have come about, and, therefore, we would then be able to do the calculations. ?We are simply lacking the information to do the calculations now, so to present them on the basis of the random model is somewhat deceptive.” 

Mr. Bogos takes this as a refutation of my earlier references to writings by Professor Morowitz concluding that the likelihood of accidental generation of life from inorganic chemicals was so small that the estimated five-billion-year existence of the cosmos would have allowed insufficient time for it to have occurred.  There is no inconsistency between the two.  One relates to the origin of life, the other to presumed evolution of all life forms.  In both cases, Professor Morowitz is saying that probabilities are not in favor of the Darwinian hypothesis.

The remainder of the statement quoted by Mr. Bogos is:

“In general in the creation science literature, they start out by assuming, by making statements about the complexity of living systems. These will generally be fairly accurate statements about the complexity of living systems.

They then proceed on the basis of probabilistic calculations to ask, what is the probability that such a complex system will come about by random. When you do that, you get a vanishingly small probability, and they then assert that therefore life by natural processes is impossible. But the fact of the matter is, we do not know the processes by which life has come about in detail.”

I direct your attention to a critical part of that statement:

“But the fact of the matter is, we do not know the processes by which life has come about in detail.” 

In other words, Darwin’s hypothesis about the origin, and therefore the development of life forms, is not based on knowledge.  It is simply an interesting speculation.  It’s entirely conjecture, no more than, “could have been,” or “might have happened this way.”

By the way, my scientific friends tells me that I have been incorrectly using the term theory in connection with evolution.  The proper term for Darwinian evolution, they say, is hypothesis.

A theory is an hypothesis that has been borne out by scientifically valid evidence.  It must provide an accurate description of things or processes found in nature; it must provide an explanation for those things and events; and it must be able to predict what will occur in different sets of circumstances, in accordance with the theory.

For instance, when the periodic table of chemical elements was first envisioned, there were gaps where certain chemicals ought to have been, but had not been found in nature.  Subsequently, the missing chemicals were found to exist, as predicted by the table of elements.  Similarly, Einstein’s theories of relativity seemed plausible, but were open to question by the scientific community until the famous sighting in which, as Einstein predicted, a distant star appeared in the wrong place, when its alignment with the earth was nearly occluded by another distant body with sufficient mass and gravitational field to bend light from the star. Einstein’s theories also famously predicted the basic ideas for nuclear weapons.

In contrast, the Darwinian hypothesis can not be used as a basis for any sort of prediction.  It’s a tautological, circular piece of quasi-logic.  Darwin says that natural selection determines what will live or become extinct, therefore whatever life forms have survived prove the theory. 

Regarding the many gaps in the fossil record you offer a typical Darwinian response: “there are a number of explanations.”  But that is not a basis for scientific theory.  It’s simply “might have been” speculation. 

The facts are, first, that Darwin predicted many thousands of intermediate forms, with one species imperceptibly merging into a new species, ad infinitum, up to humans, and, second, nothing like this has been found in nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years’ searching in the fossil record.

That led Stephen Jay Gould and others to postulate something called punctuated evolution, in which, for unknown reasons, random mutations produce no effect for eons, then abruptly, for inexplicable reasons, make huge leaps into completely new life forms of vastly greater complexity.  The other explanation is Carl Sagan’s thesis that extraterrestrials periodically came from outer space and brought these new life forms to earth (I’m not kidding; this is one “scientific” evolutionary hypothesis).  Even if Professor Sagan were correct, it still leaves open the question of how and why these life forms occurred elsewhere.  Moving the locus of intelligent design or Darwinian evolution does nothing to alter the basic questions.

I don’t disagree with your statements, “As for boulders evolving into bricks being a ludicrous suggestion, I would suggest in a way, they did. ?In the early days of human habitiation, we lived in caves to shelter ourselves from the elements, possibly behind or beneath boulders. ?As time went by, we learned to use tools, and perhaps we stacked boulders together to make our own caves (pure speculation on my part).”

What must be noted, however, is that such evolution is the product of a conscious design by human minds.  The Darwinian evolution hypothesis, in contrast, denies any agency other than random chance.  It specifically rejects intelligent design and control, which is what you describe with regard to evolving human habitations and tools.

A second point to be noted in that connection is the teleological argument, which posits that life forms came into existence for a purpose, that is by master design.  Humans did things of the sort about which you speculate because they had very conscious and specific aims.  Darwinian evolution denies the possibility of any such aims.

No result of Darwinian evolution has to be useful in any human sense.  It’s simply whatever survives.  People like Richard Dawkins insist that Darwinian evolution could take life forms in any direction, creating creatures that might strike us today as utterly fantastic, provided that environmental conditions at that time made it more probable that their progeny would survive in larger numbers than progeny of other life forms.  As you noted, “This gives a weird, sci-fi image of dogs suddenly sprouting wings or developing flippers to swim in the icy glacial run-off, but we’re talking the changing of a species over a period of time, where those that can’t survive don’t reproduce, and those that have the advantage, by necessity or happenstance, continue their lineage.”

I will agree with another of your statements: “Whether you believe life evolved or not, the fact of evolution itself is incontrovertible. ?Companies evolve as they struggle to maintain relevance ?in the marketplace. ?Cars evolve as the landscape of technology, trade and consumer demand changes. ?Everything evolves. ?Effective things stick around, uneffective things “die out”.”

That statement, however, has no applicability to the Darwinian hypothesis, again, because it deals with consciously designed and directed products of the human mind, of intelligent design. 

With regard to my assertion that there is no scientific basis for assuming fish fins evolved into legs because of their rough similarity in appearance and function, you say, “In any case, it’s not that large a leap for me to imagine a creature that managed to stay a while on land having a distinct advantage (bountiful food supply with no competition and no predators) over those that didn’t, to the point where eventually some of their kin just stopped going back to the ocean at all.”

Granted it may not be a very large leap to imagine such things.  A fatal weakness in the Darwinian hypothesis is that it is based solely on such imaginative conjecture.  It’s simply no more than what Darwin imagined might have happened.  Neither Charles Darwin, nor anyone since, has presented a single piece of evidence that such is in fact what happened.  Nor can anyone, on the basis of the hypothesis, predict what will happen in any given set of conditions.  It’s about as scientific as going to Las Vegas because you “might win the jackpot.” 

Darwinians say that whatever happens is “proof” of the hypothesis.  In short, Darwinian evolution is an hypothesis that “explains” everything in general, without providing a specific explanation of anything in particular, other than adaptive mutations within a single species, e.g., bacteria developing immunity to antibiotics.  It merely asserts that natural selection, coupled with random genetic mutations, could have produced all species of life from a puddle of inorganic chemicals. 

When, on rare occasions, Darwinian advocates try to answer the manifold inconsistencies and improbabilities of their hypothesis, they usually end up declaring that Darwin HAS to be believed, because it’s the only hypothesis available to deny a cosmic intelligence, i.e., God.

Posted by Thomas E. Brewton on 12/01 at 01:24 AM
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