So I was on a panel discussion about micro vs. macroevolution…

Several weeks back I get an email from Phil Calderone, a member of one of the local atheist/agnostic/freethought groups (I.E.A.A.), asking if I would like to act as a fill in on a (then) upcoming “believers vs. non-believers” panel discussion on the subject of micro vs. macroevolution. Apparently, one of the persons originally invited was not going to be able to participate and he needed a fill in and was pointed towards me by Dr. Brad Hughes, who many years ago I had helped (along with others) prepare for a debate with “Dr.” Kent Hovind.

After some trepidation—due to having never done any public speaking before—I agreed to participate as long as it was understood that I was unlettered and neither a paleontologist or biologist but rather a mere amateur naturalist who has had a bit of experience in the creation/evolution debate. 

The format of the discussion was meant to be a relatively informal back and forth between four people with two on each side. One the “believers” side there was a gentleman named Kelly Clemensen, of something called the Areopagus Project, and Dr. Paul Giem of Loma Linda University (see also Giem’s web page here). On the non-believers side was myself and Phil Calderone who was to moderate but had to fill in the second non-believers chair for another person who couldn’t make it.

I will not go into any more description of the event as it was recorded on video and you can watch the proceedings for yourself below. However, truth and honesty before all I will be addressing at least two places where I know I screwed up in the discussion below the video.

Please feel free to point out any other mistakes I made, or address the many points made by the creationists that went unaddressed by either Phil or me during the discussion. I know there are whole bunches of things that our opponents said that was missed or deserved more in depth dissection.

Now that you have, hopefully, watched the video there are two places that I realized I messed up pretty much right after the debate. One was minor memory failure, misattribution about punctuated equilibrium. The other was a more significant—at least in my opinion—point were I brought up a group of fossil organisms that was really something of a red-herring—though I committed the fallacy out of partial ignorance—and should have known better from other statements I myself had made at other points in the same discussion!

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There’s something fishy about that fish

Institute for Creation Research President Dr. John Morris has taken to recycling; in this case he’s dusted off some nonsense from an article he wrote 3 years ago titled “Evolution’s Biggest Hurdles” (Morris 2008) and repackaged it as “The Biggest Problems for Evolution” (Morris 2011).

As I usually do I started out writing a point by point re-rebuttal to Morris’s new article; even though I already wrote a fairly extensive rebuttal to the earlier version. However, as I was writing, and as it got longer and longer, I realized that I was going to bury the lead way too deep. So, I am dropping most of the rehashing and jump to the new issues I want to address.

First though just a little of the lead in for context:

Morris: Even though the gaps in the fossil record are found between each basic animal type, there are two huge gaps in particular that should be emphasized. The evolutionary distance between single-cell organisms and the vast array of multicellular, highly complex marine invertebrates precludes even rapid evolution.

Oh boy, this is déjà vu all over again.

From earlier context (see below) the “rapid evolution” he is referring to here is supposed to be punctuated equilibrium, however P.E. about apparent, geologically, “rapid” transitions (say a few tens of thousands of years) and concerns species level transitions (like those necessary to evolve horses and zebras from a common ancestor) not multicellular organisms from unicellular ones. Again, I’ll have more on his use of P.E. below.

As for the gap between unicellular and multicellular organisms the (really) short answer is: choanoflagellates (colony forming single celled organisms that are strikingly similar to cells found in sponges called choanocytes). Again, see my earlier post You can tune a piano but you can’t tunicate” for more.

Morris In the supposedly 600-million-year-old layers of rock designated as Cambrian (which contain the first appearance of varied multi-cell life), sponges, clams, trilobites, starfish, etc., are found without the required evolutionary ancestors.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I covered this before as well.

1) There are fossils of multicellular organism in Precambrian strata (the Ediacaran biota for example).

2) Amongst those Precambrian multicellular organisms are sponges and jellyfish.

3) “Clams” (bivalve mollusks) are known from the Cambrian but only from few tiny extinct types.

4) Starfish or sea stars (Class Asteroidea) fossils do not appear in the fossil record until the Ordovician.

Morris: The gap from marine invertebrates to the vertebrate fish is likewise immense.

Again, Dr. Morris doesn’t want you to know about invertebrate chordates or the evidence for a relationship between chordates and echinoderms. I’ll have more on this in a few moments.

OK, now we get to it:

Morris:  To make matters worse for the evolutionists, fish fossils are also found in Cambrian strata.

If we define the colloquial term “fish” in the usual way (in reference to all aquatic, gill bearing, vertebrates) then yes, a few genera of “fish fossils” have indeed been found in Cambrian strata.

However the word “fish”, is not a scientific term, so the question must be; exactly what sort of “fish” has been found in the Cambrian strata? Dr. Morris does not grace his readers with any further comment on this question; there is however a prominent illustration of a fossil fish that accompanies the article. Here is a screen shot of the page the article appears on:

And here is a larger version of the fish fossil picture:

I think it is fair to say that most people who are not particularly familiar with vertebrate phylogeny and paleontology—including most of Dr. Morris’s readers—might assume when they read in his article that “fish fossils are also found in Cambrian strata” that the large centrally displayed picture of a fossil fish might in fact be one of the Cambrian fish Morris is referring to.

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One more time with Biele

Creationist Arthur Biele responded to my response, to his response of my critique of something he wrote on horse evolution [inhales abruptly].

Thankfully he respected my wishes that he not post another book length set of arguments in the comments to my post. He has of course taken this as a blanket refusal on my part to allow him to respond:

Biele: Since you refuse me a full response to your article…

Mr. Biele, I only asked that you not post another extremely lengthy response, in the comments section of my blog and indeed this is a rule of mine, one not restricted to you. If you look at my comments policy you’ll see that this is a  request I make of everyone who comments on my blog. Still, I welcomed you to respond to one or two specific points, which we could then discuss further; something which I think would be a more productive way to continue our debate.  And I also specifically mentioned other options you could take if you wanted to respond at length.

Once again, you are free to start your own blog (they’re free) or web page and post as long a response to me as you like. Alternatively you could post your comments to the Talk Origins Newsgroup (or some other similar open forum), and simply leave a link in my comments as to where your response could be found (and then I might respond further here).

So it is really your choice.

Now, despite your complaints, you did in fact make a comment of a limited nature about punctuated equilibrium which I am happy to respond to.

Biele: …the PE’s views that theory is not at all complementary to Darwinisn evolution, but was meant to replace it.

Yes, I am aware that this is the caricature of punctuated equilibrium that antievolutionists like you believe in; the problem is it is a caricature, not reality. You see, Mr. Biele, for someone who has some understanding of both the neo-Darwinian synthesis and PE (and who has read the relevant literature), your portrayal of the situation is nonsensical.

Biele: In the plaeontologists views, evidence for Darwin’s gradualistic theory of evolution is refuted by the fossil record.

In some paleontologists’ views, the evidence for what Eldredge and Gould referred to as “phyletic gradualism” is refuted by the fossil record. Not Darwinian evolution as a whole, just what they termed its supposed phyletic gradualism. Furthermore, there are many, including myself, that think that Eldredge and Gould fashioned a bit of a straw-man in their characterization of the main-line synthetic theory.

Biele: The PE theory was a means to save The General Theory of Evolution by proposing a new means by which evolution occurs. Of course that theory of evolution also has its’ critical faults too.

[Sigh] I’m sorry Mr. Biele, but this is simply nonsense. Once again, Stephen Jay Gould:

Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists continually rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim.  If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am – for I have become a major target of these practices.

I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, change of pace.  In 1972, my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium.  We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record —geologically “sudden” origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis) — reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years.  This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond.  It represents much less than one percent of the average lifespan for a fossil invertebrate species – more than 10 million years.  Large, widespread, and well-established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much.  We believe that the inertia of large populations explains the stasis of most fossil species over millions of years.

We proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium largely to provide a different explanation for pervasive trends in the fossil record.  Trends, we argued, cannot be attributed to gradual transformation within lineages, but must arise from the differential success of certain kinds of species.  A trend, we argued, is more like climbing a flight of stairs (punctuations and stasis) than rolling up an inclined plane

Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists – whether through design or stupidity, I do not know – as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms.  Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.  Yet a pamphlet entitled: “Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution Is a Hoax” states: “The facts of punctuated equilibrium which Gould and Eldredge . . . are forcing Darwinists to swallow fit the picture that Bryan insisted on, and which God has revealed to us in the Bible.” – Gould (1983) “Evolution As Fact And Theory” in Hen’s Teeth and Horses Toes, pp.253-262, (Emphasis mine)

And now, 27 years later, Arthur Biele continues the distortion.

Biele: I was preparing a reply in my mind as I read each of your arguments and noting the many sophistical defenses you used in your long awaited reply. A long reply deserves an equal response, And it would have taken me a few days due to my busy schedule. But as you told me what amounts to be ‘take a hike’, that your site is reserved for your own views and accolades, I will honor your wishes. I indeed do plan to actually ‘take a hike’ as it would be good for my health.

As I said it’s your choice. You have several options open to you to give as long a response as you might like to my previous post, and of course you are welcome to respond on the more limited issue of PE discussed here in the comments below, just keep it concise.

If not, it’s no sand off my beach.

We need creationists lecturing us on evolution like we need another fenestra in the head

The Institute for Creation Research has presented the world with another taxonomic turd from the cat box of creationist wisdom. This time it comes from ICR’s “Senior Science Lecturer” Frank Sherwin. However before I get to the main event, I want to take a closer look at the litter in which Mr. Sherwin’s little jewel is nestled.

In the February (2010) issue of ICR’s monthly Acts & Facts Mr. Sherwin (whose background is in parasitology) graced us with an article titled “Darwinism’s Rubber Ruler” in which he argues that descent with modification is untestable and that “any and all scientific evidence” can be “stretched to fit” the theory.

The first thing that comes to my mind when reading this is to ask: if this is so, then how is it that I could have in my personal collection literally hundreds of books and pamphlets, many of them originating from Mr. Sherwin’s organization, that purport to contain absolutely scads of evidence that contradict evolutionary theory?

How about Dr. Duane Gish’s (the emeritus vice president of ICR) books Evolution the Fossils Say NO! (1978) and the update Evolution: the fossils STILL say NO! (1995)? How can the fossils say “no” to evolution if any scientific evidence (in this case fossils) can be “stretched to fit” the theory?

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Epic Horse Exhaust

OK, it took me a while to get to it but I am, as promised, responding to creationist Arthur Biele’s lengthy comments left in response to my criticisms of his writings on horse evolution. For those interested I suggest you go back and read Mr. Biele’s article and my original critique first. Those that do I think will find that his response didn’t really answer any of my original criticisms. Instead what he did was dump a new load of barely coherent nonsense on me.

A warning though, this goes on for quite a bit (it sure felt like it while I wrote it), which is of course due to the well known fact that accurately and substantially responding to horseshit takes considerably more time and effort than it does to spewing it.

Biele: With regard to Eohippus, If you knew anything about the actual fossil record, Eohippus finds are many and that category has been a dumping ground for certain archaic partial skulls that defy any specific classification, nor are they known to be ancestors of any known ‘evolved’ descendants, and they are mostly from Europe.

While apparently attempting to impugn my knowledge of the “the actual fossil record” Mr. Biele clearly demonstrates his own ignorance of the subject at hand. Let’s break this down in order:

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