“The silly things those creationists say” – Pharyngula podcast #2

I lucked out and was able to be one of the participants on biologist P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula video podcast (#2). The subject of this podcast was, as you may have guessed by my post title, creationism. Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience was also there, as were several other people who, while they were new to me, seemed to be hip to the subject. I really enjoyed it and the time just few by. 

My thanks to the other participants and especially to P.Z. for having me!

“The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Creation Science”

The Sensuous Curmudgeon has given us an eloquent exposition on why “creation scientists” are immune to empirical evidence and why there is no science in “creation science”. I highly recommend you give it a read.

[Hat tip to Richard Hoppe over at Panda's Thumb.]

World class projection at the Discovery Institute

Projection being a behavior frequently engaged in by creationists wherein they project their own “…unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people“, namely scientists and defenders of science education.

In this example David Klinghoffer of the Discovery(less) Institute lays the projection on thick in his criticism of a recent article written by Jonah Lehrer in the The New Yorker, which was about the recent Gallup poll showing that nearly half of people in U.S. are still mired in denial regarding evolution.

The problem with this analysis [Lehrer's attempt to explain rampant evolution denial in the U.S. - T.B.] is that we are familiar, from long experience, with a no less impressively obdurate ignorance on the part of Darwin’s believers. No doubt there are plenty of people who reject Darwinism on the basis of a gut response alone, who never have taken the time to probe the evolution controversy and who fail to realize that it has two sides, both of which have a case to make.

But many — no, I take that back, almost all — the public Darwin defenders I can think of give evidence of having meticulously insulated themselves from knowing what the other side says.

Never mind Klinghoffer’s minimization of the level of scientific ignorance amongst creationists (which I can tell you from experience is prodigious), at least he’s admitting it exists. But to try and turn this around and argue that it is we defenders of science (as opposed to the “Darwin defenders” which is just Discoveroid frame-speak, i.e. propaganda) who are not only ignorant of creationist claims but “meticulously” insulate ourselves from them? That is hilarious!

Yes Mr. Klinghoffer, I, a twenty year veteran of defending science and science education from the attacks of creationists like yourself, have “meticulously insulated” myself from your ideas by amassing a collection of creationist literature containing nearly four hundred references (so far), dating from the 19th to the 21st century (never mind the video tapes, DVD’s and audio recordings); by  attending nearly every creationist event I hear about that’s within reasonable driving distance of where I live; and by regularly perusing creationist websites and blogs, like the one you’re posting on.

All that I do just so I can maintain my blissful state of insulation from what your side says.    

On the contrary, it might be justifiably said that I am somewhat obsessed with what creationists (of all stripes) are saying. However despite my obsession I have somehow failed to notice the meticulous ignorance of the subject that Mr. Klinghoffer’s claims to see in my colleagues (whose magazine, journal and blog articles I also obsessively imbibe).

[Who else out there bought the Creation/Evolution Journal collection from the NCSE and read all 39 issues at once like it was one big book? Let's see hands? Anyone? Anyone? Oh, I suppose was that just me? Like I'm the only one who would do that...]

Forget for a moment about who, Darwinists or Design advocates, is actually right. If you took a sample of ID folks and a sample of Darwin people, specifically those who have felt confident enough in their views to write about them for publication, and then quizzed each group about what arguments their opponents offer, there’s no question that those from the ID community would know better what their opposites in the debate say.

I question that. [See how easy that was?] Having observed them for many years I can say that it is vanishingly rare to encounter a creationist who can accurately relay the basics of evolutionary theory and its supporting evidence. They may get this or that part correct, but unvaryingly they go off the rails at some point, mischaracterizing either the theory of the facts (usually both).

Intelligent design “theory” is little more than a litany of antievolution arguments (misinformation, half-truths, logical fallacies, and out of context quotations of actual scientists) that have been floating around the creationist movement for decades (see links below), combined with “positive ID arguments” that are nothing but deliberately veiled versions of “God did it”.

See: “Expelled’s intelligent design theory – this IS your daddy’s creationism”, Part I & Part II

Just look at ENV as a convenient illustration. We strive to keep up with toughest challenges, such as they are, from evolutionists. Now look at the competing Darwin blogs. Guys like PZ Myers & Co. concentrate their fire on naïve young-earth creationists.

Actually I haven’t noticed this either. However if there is any small truth to this it might be because, unlike ID creationists, young Earthers (YEC) occasionally attempt to make testable claims for their views (i.e. arguments for a young Earth or Noah’s Flood). Whereas ID has been deliberately stripped of such things in an attempt to avoid conflicts with the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, leaving only the aforementioned attacks on evolution and untestable “God did it” assertions.

Are there old Earth, progressive creationists among the ID ranks? Sure, but they’re still creationists and a significant proportion of their target audience (the people in the pews) are good ol’ YEC (see the results of the Gallup poll Lehrer was lamenting).

Jerry Coyne and his colleagues in the Darwin-defending business are careful to stay unaware of the very serious challenges to Darwinism from ID.

Klinghoffer is sort of right about this one. We defenders of science are completely unaware of any “very serious” scientific “challenges to Darwinism evolutionary theory”; there are however theologically motivated, scientifically non-credible, political challenges that are a very serious danger to the future of science education in the United States. Of those we are all too aware.

Of that large portion of the media that remains committed to Darwin and never misses a chance to lash out at doubters, most are so utterly ignorant of the terms of the debate that that they cannot even distinguish intelligent design from creationism and use the terms interchangeably. You can point out their error again and again, but they never seem to understand.

Right. I’ve got two word for ya Mr. Klinghoffer: “Cdesign Proponentsists“. A refusal to countenance deceit is not a failure to understand it.

It’s common sense that human beings are hobbled by prejudices of all kinds. You didn’t need a study in a scientific journal to tell you that. The beginning of wisdom, surely, is to recognize your own ill-founded preconceptions and areas of stubborn ignorance. To that project of self-enlightenment, the community of Darwin defenders is uncompromisingly resistant.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?


Reference

Klinghoffer, David (2012) “The Stubbornness of Their Ignorance“, Evolution News and Views (blog), downloaded on 6-10-2012

“Gill slits” by any other name…

Charles Darwin once said that he thought the evidence from the comparative anatomy of embryos was “by far the strongest single class of facts” in favor of common descent (Darwin, 1860) and while it has since been eclipsed by genetics, it remains one of most compelling subsets of evidence for evolution. And perhaps the single most striking detail of the comparative embryology in vertebrates, are the structures colloquially known as “gill slits”.  

Embryonic “gill slits” or “branchial clefts” (branchia is Greek for gill) or more properly pharyngeal clefts (grooves, folds, etc.) are part of what is called the “pharyngeal apparatus” found in front (ventral) and sides (lateral) of the head/neck region of all vertebrates in the “pharyngula stage” of development. In “fish”, and the larva of amphibians, these develop into respiratory organs used to extract oxygen from water while in amniotes (“reptiles”, birds and mammals) they are modified into other structures.

Before I go on, a brief digression about “fish”. Throughout this article I will often use “fish” in the generic sense; but it should be noted that the term as it is commonly used—to refer to any vertebrate that swims in the water, has fins and gills—is not a valid scientific classification. This is because the three main types of animals commonly called “fish” —the Chondrichthyes (sharks, rays, skates and chimaeras), the Actinopterygii (ray fined fish, which constitutes the majority of living fishes), and the Sarcopterygii (lobe fined fish, the group from which four legged land animals, i.e. tetrapods, evolved)—are not a monophyletic group. That is they are not very closely related to each other despite some of their outward similarities (like gills). For example the living Sarcopterygii, lung fish and coelacanths share a more recent common ancestor with us (and all tetrapods) than with the other “fishes”.

OK, so the “pharyngeal apparatus” consists of a series of paired pharyngeal arches and fissures which develop on the exterior with a corresponding set of pharyngeal pouches on the inside of the throat, separated from the external fissures by a thin membrane (more on the details in a moment). And in fact the possession of these structures at some point in development, along with a hollow dorsal nerve cord, a notochord and a post anal tail, are the defining characteristics of the phylum chordata to which we and all other vertebrates belong.

Copyright © 1999 McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Please note that the above illustration is diagrammatic and not intended to be photographically accurate (I have to say that lest I be accused of by creationists of conveying a fraud). Below are actual photographs of both a skate embryo and a human embryo for comparison. Also note: the gill structures in the embryos of Elasmobranch fishes—the subdivision of Chondrichthyes which contains sharks, rays and skates—are much less derived that in other “fishes” and therefore generally more similar to those of amniote embryos than the corresponding structures in the bony “fishes” (which are significantly modified).

(Gillis et al 2009, p.5721)

The first of the arches, the mandibular arch, forms the jaw in all jawed vertebrates (Gnathostomes). Most vertebrates develop a total of six arches but the full complement is usually only retained into adulthood by hexanchiform sharks. Hexanchiformes are very plesiomorphic which means that they are more like earlier types of sharks.  Some species of hexanchiformes even develop a seventh arch. Likewise the extant jaw-less vertebrate, the lamprey, also have seven gill openings.

Read on»

Does intelligent design “theory” lack a mechanism?

No, says the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture’s resident attack Chihuahua Casey Luskin (and, yes, I’m stealing that John), who reports that he was recently confronted with this question at a talk he had given:

Last month I spoke at the University of Arkansas, and during the Q&A, a skeptic complained that ID theory lacks a “mechanism.” I explained that intelligent agency itself functions in that role, serving as a known cause / mechanism which produces high levels of complex and specified information (CSI).

[Snip a bunch of slides with various quotes from Luskin's fellow Discoveroid (stealing that too) Stephen Meyer that don't add anything to this discussion.]

[...] Intelligent agency, therefore, is a mechanism which we can observe and understand in the world around us, and from those observations we know it alone is capable of producing high CSI. But the skeptic wasn’t satisfied with this argument. He insisted what ID lacks is a mechanism that, at the direction of an intelligent agent, could be capable of instantiating information, or design, in the real world.

And this unnamed skeptic was correct. Intelligent design creationists prattle on endlessly about “complex specified information” in nature and how they think that “an intelligence” is required to explain it but they never explain how this “CSI” gets from the mind of their “designer” (wink, wink) to the features of the natural world it is supposedly intended to explain. In other words, even if we were to grant their source of “CSI” they’ve got nothing to offer on where the rubber actually hits the road.

As we spoke after the talk, I asked him, “Why should it be so hard to believe that intelligent agents can implement their designs in the real world? After all, we see intelligent agents manipulating the information in DNA all the time.”

Yes we do Casey. Intelligent agents who are physical beings with physical brains, physically manipulating physical DNA with physical tools.

As the skeptic was a philosopher, he was apparently unaware of the burgeoning field of genetic engineering, where biologists manipulate the information in DNA to produce new biological functions. Unfortunately, this hardened ID critic was probably still not convinced after I explained that it’s easy to believe intelligent agents might have ways of implementing their designs in the natural world — since we see it happening, reported in the scientific literature on a regular basis. This new research discussed in Nature News shows exactly how intelligent agents can manipulate information in DNA to create new structures and functions. There is no reason, in principle, why an intelligent agency must lack a mechanism for implementing designs in the natural world.

And if we ask these physical genetic engineers what mechanisms they use to manipulate physical DNA they won’t respond by merely pointing out that they are intelligent agents and that that fact should tell you all you need to know about the process.

This is the same fallacy that ID creationists engage in when they liken their ideas to the SETI (Search of Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) program. “SETI is looking for signs of intelligence” they say, “we’re doing the same thing.”. But just as with the genetic engineers we are talking about physical ET’s, ostensibly with physical transmitters, sending out signals propagated via some part of physical electromagnetic spectrum.

The reason for all this obtuse deflection about genetic engineers (and aliens) and tedious repetition about “CSI” is that the actual answer to the question of what the mechanism for intelligent design is that it is magic.

Their “intelligent designer” is God (everyone knows this); and God implemented his designs through unknowable miraculous means, end of story.

However, if they were to divulge this they know would lose their pretense of doing science and would be admitting to the fact that what they are actually engaging in is apologetics.

Reference

Luskin, Casey (1012) “Responding to the Challenge that Intelligent Design Lacks a “Mechanism”“, evolutionnews.org (blog) downloaded on 5-27-2012

[Hat tip to The Sensuous Curmudgeon.]

Is the human knee joint “irreducibly complex”?

This is a re-post, in slightly modified from, of one of my Talk Origins Archive feedback responses (from back when the Archive had a feedback section, specifically March of 2002)


Luke asked:

Please email me your response if possible. I don’t want to categorize myself as a evolutionist or creationist. I was visiting the other website I think it was creationist or similar, your guys arch enemies; anyways I was trying to find proof to support modern man evolving from ape, and they had an extensive article written about the human knee and how it has sixteen parts and minus just one and its useless. Apes have non locking knees and because of their makeup you aparently can’t evolve it into a locking one you have to start from scratch. Evolution and mutations from what I’ve read only allow for small changes no mutation can allow for the formation of a complex organism with sixteen moving parts? The knee would have to be built all at once it couldn’t evolve or it would have no use. How do you suggest that apes dumped their knees and immediately mutated new ones with sixteen brand new parts? I would like to believe it could happen just seems far fetched?

This argument originates from an article (Critical Characteristics and the Irreducible Knee Joint) published in the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal (Vol. 13, No. 2, 1999) by a British engineer named Stuart Burgess.

From my reading of the article it seems to be highly flawed, especially in its almost total lack of discussion on the comparative anatomies of living non-human apes (gorillas & chimps etc.), extinct hominins (australopithecines, early Homo) and modern humans. This lack of attention to comparative anatomy (and physiology) is typical of anti-evolutionists and it leads them to continually talk about the anatomy/physiology of various organisms as if they exist in a vacuum (examples: The woodpecker or The bombardier beetle). They focus on some extreme example of organ or system in a particular species as if it is totally unique to that species. The fact is that when one looks at other closely related species one usually finds that there are variations on the extreme example that the anti-evolutionists have focused upon.

For instance the bombardier beetle that anti-evolutionists often cite is just one species of a whole group of beetles (“Ground beetles”, Family Carabidae) many of which have some variation on a chemical defense mechanism, using the same basic chemicals (which exist in many beetles in varying amounts), but used in differing ways. The specific example that anti-evolutionists cite sprays an explosive mixture out of its abdomen in a fairly well aimed stream at its attackers, however there are other Carabid beetles that spray with less accurate aim, and others that merely excrete bad tasting chemicals out of their abdomens when attacked. There is a whole spectrum from fairly simple to fairly complex defense mechanisms. Anti-evolutionists only talk about the more complex variant.

This discussion of the human knee is another example of this sort of argument in a vacuum.

While I am not an expert in the comparative anatomies of the living non-human apes and humans, as far as I am aware there is no material difference between them. That is, every bone, muscle, ligament, tendon, and cartilage in the human knee has its corresponding representative in the knee of chimpanzees and the other great apes (and presumably in the knee of their concestor). Yes they are shaped somewhat differently. Yes they are proportioned differently. But as far as I know all the same parts are there (if there are any primatologists or physical anthropologists out there, please correct me if I am wrong). [Note: see the 2nd Lovejoy quote provided by Adam Benton in the comments section below.]

As for fossil hominins, the knees of more derived types like Homo erectus (which are either “fully human” or “just apes” depending on what anti-evolutionist you talk to) seem to be virtually identical to those of H. sapiens. As for the knees of the more basal species of Homo (H. habilis) and the australopithecines these become increasingly like those of living non-human apes the farther back in time one goes. Exactly the sort of thing one would predict if humans evolved from an “ape-like” ancestor. The knee of Australopithecus afarensis (which most anti-evolutionists say is “just an ape”) retains a number of “ape-like” features but also has characteristics like those of later hominins including H. sapiens. In other words it is an intermediate form in this regard.

The knee bones of a modern human, an australopithecine and a chimpanzee.

See The ICR and Lucy: Bearing False Witness Against Thy Neighbor for more comparative photos, or refer to any good text on human evolution for comparative illustrations.

Burgess does mention living apes briefly but only to dismiss them as being poor bipedal walkers. However this is a problem for his argument for irreducible complexity (IC), at least as I understand Michael Behe‘s (the person responsible for the recent popularity of this term) definition of the term, in that while the knees of living non-human apes are slightly different in form, and are not as efficient for use in bipedal walking as those of humans, they do work, and they can walk bipedally.

Note: please remember that evolutionary theory does not postulate that humans are descended from other living apes, like chimps or bonobos, rather we share a common (ape) ancestor with those species.

So, assuming that knee joints of the ancestor of later hominins was essentially the same as those of the living non-human apes and could, like them, walk in a bipedal manner at all, then it would be possible for there to be a selective advantage for any slight modifications in their descendants which lead towards an increase in efficiency of bipedalism.

The human knee seems to me to be a poor example of an IC structure.

Some of Burgess’ other arguments just seem nonsensical to me. For example he states:

The knee joint presents a major challenge to the evolutionist because it is unique, and because there are no intermediate forms of joint between a condylar joint and the other two limb joints found in animals and humans – the ball and socket joint and the pivot joint. (Burgess, 1999)

I fail to understand Mr. Burgess’ challenge here. Knee joints did not evolve from elbow, shoulder, or hip joints. Rather knee joints have been knee joints since their origin in the first tetrapods. The same applies to the other types of joints. So why would we expect to find “intermediate forms” between them? That Burgess even posses this as a supposed problem for evolution demonstrates a significant lack of understanding about evolutionary theory and the fossil record.

Ichthyostega; an early tetrapod and its hind leg bones. Its “knee” was the joint between the femur and the tibia and fibula.

It is a curious thing that Behe’s principle of IC as an argument for design turns the traditional argument from design on its head. It used to be argued that those features of organisms that seem perfectly sculpted to suit their needs, or seem well designed from an engineering point was evidence for design. Now, under Behe’s IC principle of design, it doesn’t matter how clunky, ungainly, and poorly designed from an engineering point of view something is, it only matters that it is supposedly irreducibly complex.

Apparently the “Designer” under this new design “theory” is a (supernatural) cosmic Rube Goldberg.

Related Links

Pay no attention to the creationists behind the ID curtain!

Dr. Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University (AKA “Evil, evil woman“), who testified to devastating effect during the 2005 intelligent design trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover (Pennsylvania), has written a scathing expose of the recent shenanigans that intelligent design proponents have been up to in Louisiana (and Tennessee) which I highly recommend you read.  It seems that once again the ID proponents are having difficulty keeping their creationist petticoats from showing.

I’m shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

See: Discovery Institute to LA Family Forum: “Repeat after me: ‘The LA Science Education Act is *NOT* a creationism law.’”

Is that what it takes?

Now I have no illusions about my blog being another Pharyngula or anything but with at least a couple hundred views a day, from around the world, you’d think I’d be getting few more comments.

Where are all the would-be “creation scientists” eager to show me the error of my ways? Here I am writing post after post spanking the heck out of their intellectual leaders and rather than reasoned defenses or even primal screams of rage I get:

Fine, let’s try Chuck & Beans advice:

inteligent design ain’t science!

Now I know this might seem like little more than a blatant cry for attention (which of course it is) but I am honestly curious about the seeming lack of comments around here. Is there a ‘visits per day’ threshold that one has to cross in order to overcome some sort of comment inertia? Has there been any research on this?

Oh, and hat tip to Scott Weitzenhoffer for the cartoon.