Thursday, April 07, 2005

creationists and their severe misunderstandings

I'm pissed.

When some wing-nut creationist can't make a good argument of his own against evolution, when he can't borrow one from a physicist (not necessarily a good one but they like to play the science authority card no matter how fallacious a move this is), they usually look to evolutionary biologists for help.

Of course looking to evolutionary biologists for help in arguing against evolution is patently...well...silly. Creationists selectively quote some well respected biologist where he or she says something like, hypothetically speaking: "neo Darwinism fails. The slow, gradual accumulation of change ultimately leading to complex adaptation is simply not supported by the evidence."

WOO HOO! They scream...JACKPOT!

However, they fail to realize that there is a serious debate in evolutionary biology about how evolution actually occurs. NOT THAT IT OCCURS or NOT THAT IT IS GUIDED BY SOME INTELLIGENT DESIGNER. In fact, what is known as neo Darwinism or gradualism or even just Darwinism is not now the majority position among most biologists. For example, recent advances in molecular genetics and developmental biology have shown us how naive a view traditional Darwinism truly is, i.e. the gradual sequential accumulation of single mutations that have relatively small phenotypic effects. We now know that single mutations can have dramatic phenotypic effects, for example, and that these mutations have been quite important in major evolutionary trends.

Similarly, creationists continually cite punctuated equilibrium as evidence that evolutionary biologists themselves argue about evolution. This is very much true. Biologists do argue about evolution. BUT...punctuated equilibrium is a theory about the pattern of evolutionary change, not a theory that claims evolution doesn't happen or that it is guided by some intelligent designer.

Here is some creationist's take on punc eq from this site.

"Seeing the problem of gradual evolution with the fossil record, and the obvious abrupt appearances of species, Drs. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge have formed the theory of punctuated equilibria. Punctuated equilibria, is, by example, a bird giving birth to a mammal, thus leaving no transitional fossils in the geological record.

Many top evolutionists disagree with this position. And punctuated equilibria has its problems, too. For instance, in the above case, of a bird bearing a mammal, another mammal of the same kind of the opposite sex must be born at the same approximate time in the same area in order for the new species to continue. The odds of just one organism appearing this way, let alone two fulfilling the circumstances above, are astronomical."

It's really just a terrible misunderstanding of punctuated equilibrium. While it's true that not every biologist agrees punctuated equilibrium is a good theory, it's not because punc eq claims birds literally give birth to mammals. What punc eq posits is that significant morphological changes happen in fits and starts, punctuated by long periods of stasis..."stasis as data, stasis as data". However, life is happening quite normally all the while, i.e. birds are NOT giving birth to mammals. It's just that rapid morphological evolution is constrained during the times of stasis and/or accelerated during the time of change (during allopatric speciation events that have a lot to do with isolate selection and species selection if I remember correctly). The rapid bits of change are only rapid compared to the periods of stasis, for example tens or hundreds of thousands of years as opposed to millions of years, thus it is unlikely that we will find a good sequence of intermediate forms in the fossil record, even though intermediate forms did in fact exist. And I imagine, there have been some good fossil sequences found?

Ok, you may say, this bit is from a clearly uninformed religious wing nut who is not actively engaged in the debates. Well, what do you think of this then?

"But we don't need to look to physicists for such criticisms of conventional evolutionary theory. To see his, consider the following remark by Lynn Margulis, biologist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and critic of neo-Darwinism (the reigning view of biological evolution peddled in all the basal biology textbooks):

'Like a sugary snack that temporarily satisfies our appetite but deprives us of more nutritious foods, neo-Darwinism sates intellectual curiosity with abstractions bereft of actual details—whether metabolic, biochemical, ecological, or of natural history.'

--Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 103."

This is from William Dembski, king of all 'smart and rigorous' creationists himself.

What an idiot.

Clearly this is another case of severely misunderstanding the biological debate. While I'm not sure about Lynn Margulis' current views on the creationism debate (perhaps she went wing nut what with Gaia and all...but I doubt it), regardless, it doesn't really matter. Endosymbiosis, the theory that Margulis contributed greatly to and the theory that she thinks is an important update of neo Darwinism, is pretty much the accepted explanation for the origin of complex eukaryotic cells; indeed, the one "peddled in all the basal biology textbooks". Endosymbiosis certainly does not claim that evolution didn't happen or, more importantly, that the only way to explain the origin of eukaryotic cells is to invoke an intelligent designer who put all the prokaryotic pieces together. Rather, it claims that the prokaryotic pieces evolved all on their own and were then incorporated by primitive eukaryotic cells through completely natural processes. While the theory of endosymbiosis has some problems explaining the origin of the 9+2 microtubule containing flagella (the favorite example of many creationists), there are other good non-endosymbiotic theories of the evolution of the 9+2 flagella...that do not make any reference to an intelligent designer! I think these explanations are oftentimes closely related to explanations of the development of the eukaryotic cytoskeletal system and endomembrane system, a convenient connection that can be troubling for the irreducible complexity arguments concerning the flagella. But this is a topic for another day.

I'm not going to go into the details of endosymbiosis theory. Suffice it to say that there isn't much about intelligent design in there.

Now for a little speculation: it seems like there are two explanations for the creationists' consistent misunderstanding of evolutionary biology:

(1) This is the one I hope is correct because it doesn't make the creationists out to be so evil: They are just plain dumb or uneducated. They don't understand the debates because they either lack the brain power or the education to do so.

(2) This is the one that I suspect is true. This is quite unfortunate because it paints a picture of creationists as manipulators, malicious corruptors of minds: They completely understand the debates and realize that they are misrepresenting them, but also realize that by doing so, and in a clever enough way (note I said clever enough not clever), lots of people will buy what they're sellin'.

These people are probably just malicious liars.

It makes me sad.

-- Matt Dunn


Blogger Jason said...

i totally sympathize with matt's sentiments here. sometimes i just don't understand where the ID'ers are coming from or what their motivations are -- especially the supposedly intellectual ones.

but something . . .

[continues here].

Friday, April 08, 2005 10:56:00 AM  

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