Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Evolution Versus Creationism

There are far too many people who approach evolution as a theory which opposes most religious creation myths. So I have no choice but to spend some time on the evolution versus creationism debate. There are large books dedicated to making a case for creation science – as if it could ever be considered scientific. Rather than make this a treatise on the evolution versus creationism debate, I’ll stick to the best (yet startlingly inadequate) of the creationists’ arguments against evolution. The first is regarding the so-called “design problem”.

The question is how could evolution by way of natural selection have created such staggering living complexity. How could it create something as complex as a human eye, for example? After all, if evolution brings about changes gradually by acting on the occasional mutation, how could something as sophisticated as a binocular eye have emerged? To answer this, consider the time when the Earth was populated with simple animals – some of them with no eyes. Of course, natural selection was around back then – always finding the fittest animals to create subsequent generations. So the issue with binocular vision is the intermediate steps. What possible value could half an eye confer upon its host? It turns out that natural selection is quite handy at using seemingly innocuous talents to an animal’s advantage.

For example, imagine a population of little slug-like animals. These animals slide along the ground eating bacteria and such. They also happen to be the favorite food of another, more sophisticated crab-like animal. These crabs hunt during the day, gobbling up slugs whenever they find them. Now imagine that one day a slug emerges with a thin patch of cells on its dorsal side. It just so happens that this set of cells is light sensitive. Before your BS detector goes off, remember that evolution has millions of years to work with. Nature randomly explores the range of mutations quite well over that kind of time.

So the imaginary slug has light sensitive cells. When the slug is exposed to sunlight, these cells contract causing the slug to move away from the light. Now selection goes to work. Since the slug’s mortal enemy is the crab and the crab only hunts during the day, the mutated slug will enjoy a reproductive advantage over its contemporaries. During the day, while they’re randomly sliding around looking for bacteria, the mutant stays put in a shady hiding spot. The crabs pick off the others while the mutant is safe. It is easy to see how the mutant would live to make baby slugs. Over time, the population of slugs would be filled with light-sensitive individuals. Now imagine that a new predator comes on the scene.

This lizard-like animal hunts both day and night by using scent detection. The lizard doesn’t see very well so it uses its tongue to detect scent changes in the air. Now suppose that, when a slug feeds, the chemical reactions taking place give off a specific odor. The lizard has the ability to detect this odor. When it detects the scent, it follows it to its origin and eats the slug. So what happens if a new slug mutation causes the light-sensitive patch to be able to detect motion? Those with this new mutation would be able to detect the presence of the lizard and stop feeding. Those without it would continue to feed, oblivious to the threats around them. The continued emission of the odor would attract the lizard to them and that would be that. Again, thanks to selection, this mutation would flourish in the population.

These two just-so explanations are more than plausible given the long periods of time evolution has to work with. We can invent one after another until we arrive at an animal with a very sophisticated visual system. The point is that intermediate stages of design do exist and natural selection makes handy use of them. Moreover, given the choice between an argument that defies all natural explanation and an argument that is plausible, the clear thinker will choose the latter. There really is no design problem.

With the design problem worked out, I’ll turn to the question of transition fossils. Creationists typically do not accept the above explanation of the design problem because they argue that even if the intermediate stages were useful, the fossil record does not show the transitional forms that led to the current designs. They would say that there are no fossils of early light-sensitive slugs so they must not have existed. But this is not exactly true. In fact, the fossil record shows many intermediate designs. The transitional fossils between amphibians and reptiles are so various that it is extremely difficult to tell where one begins and the other leaves off. It doesn’t help matters that the prevailing system of classification of animals is somewhat arbitrary in its assignment of type.

For example, the dinosaur Archaeopteryx is clearly an intermediate between reptiles and birds – even though reptiles and birds don’t seem that closely related when you look at today’s zoological classifications. This is simply because early taxonomists didn’t have access to the information we have today. If we were to now reconstruct animal taxonomy based upon genetic similarity, we’d end up with a whole new classification system. This would be a big change so I doubt it will ever be done. But it doesn’t really matter. Even though this situation is a bit of a thorn in our side, the facts are still the same – there are plenty of transition fossils to lend credence to selection’s role in shaping life on Earth.

Creationists also like to highlight their misunderstanding of thermodynamics in their quest to overthrow evolution. Their argument is that evolution disobeys the second law of thermodynamics. They are referring to entropy, the idea that systems tend toward disorder from order. The order and complexity of living systems, in their view, is something that could not have emerged because systems should be moving toward disorder and simplicity. But this is simply incorrect. For one thing, the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t really deal with order and disorder.

It deals with energy and how it flows in and out of systems. The second law of thermodynamics actually tells us that something complex can spontaneously emerge from something simple if the energy of the complex entity is lower than the energy of the constituents. Ice is a good example. But even if we put that aside, the second law also only deals with closed systems. An open system (meaning energy and/or matter can flow in and out of it) has no such restrictions. The creationist's argument is like saying that a bicycle is impossible because entropy would force the components apart. But this is absurd. In this case, a bicycle is an open system. The energy applied by the mechanic to put it together is all it takes to make a bicycle from its parts. As long as living systems are open systems, the second law of thermodynamics can have no real bearing on their complexity. The inflow of energy and resources from the environment can account for any and all levels of complexity seen in living organisms.

The last major argument creationists tend to make against evolution is the silliest, in my opinion. The Bible lays out a timeline for man that is about 10,000 years long. Adam and Eve were supposedly created 10,000 or so years ago. But archaeologists have found multitudes of humanoid fossils that date back 2 million years. So creationists dispute our current dating techniques. They cite the decay of the Earth’s magnetism and the fallibility of Carbon 14 dating as evidence that the Earth is really only 10,000 years old. The reality is that the Earth’s magnetism is known to have reversed many times in its history. So it may be true that extrapolating the decay into the past indicates that the magnetism changed 10,000 years ago. But that certainly doesn’t lead to the conclusion that the world is 10,000 years old! Furthermore, Carbon 14 dating has been proven accurate countless times. This is just the kind of denial of reality that comes with trying to make facts fit theories instead of the other way around. It doesn’t work.

I've read several books on creationism and I have yet to run across one that puts forth an even remotely reasonable argument. As always, I'm willing to change my mind, but not based upon what's currently out there. Anyone got anything better?


Blogger Michael Gersh said...

I believe that the most recent incarnation of this debate concerns not creationism, but a theory that is called Intelligent Design. You should read a bit on this before you comment further. It does not bother with any of the points that you refute in your post. What this theory concerns itself with is the leap between amino acids - the primordial goo - and the formation of the first cell. Evolution from the first cellular matter and modern humans, as well as the religious timeline, are the concern of a different theory than Intelligent Design.

You are right that a logical and scientific mind finds little to agree with in creationism. There is a much tougher row to hoe when attempting to debunk I.D. It does not even attempt to describe the nature of the intelligence behind the design. It posits a very interesting gap in our understanding, one that science has never addressed in a substantive way. I understand numbers and probabilities very well, but no number of monkeys banging away on any number of typewriters could ever describe how the first cell, with DNA, Mitochondria, nucleic and membranous structures all suspended in protoplasm within a cell wall just fell together by chance. Even the first virus is a long way from a puddle of organic molecules.

Here we go again, with our former argument of the past few days, but your post shows much more of a belief in the fallacy of creationism than an agnosticism towards that which we can not explain. There are many committed atheists and Secular Humanists who attempt to dismiss the ID movement with derision and disdain precisely because it is much harder to refute than creationism. I in no way put you in that category, Caveman, but I do put you in the category of a believer in the fatuousness of religion. It is funny that I am the one who is defending the religious viewpoint in this space, because religion is about as far from the core of my own being as one could get. The idea that an intelligent being created the universe is less likely than attributing creation to random events, but not by much. The fact that I can not even describe whatever else might have been responsible does not stop me from getting a kick out of watching those of you who believe one "truth" or another argue this thing out, as I sit comfortably on the agnostic sidelines.

Admit it, Caveman, it is just as likely that our universe is the failed science fair project of a super being as it is the result of random events. Six days or six thousand years is surely not enough time, but why are so many people so certain that four billion years is sufficient?

1/17/2005 02:41:00 AM

Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

"Admit it, Caveman, it is just as likely that our universe is the failed science fair project of a super being as it is the result of random events."

Of course, I'll admit that. To do so simply means I am acknowledging that evolution can only take you back so far. Eventually, you end up in the first moments of the big bang, when you still have to explain the existence of the matter and energy there. I'm fine with positing a supernatural power running the show at that time - there's no evidence one way or another regarding any competing theories, so one is just as good as another. I leave it in my "unsolved" file and go on about my business.

"...but your post shows much more of a belief in the fallacy of creationism than an agnosticism towards that which we can not explain"

Not true. I am completely open to any evidence that supports non-natural theories. My belief in the fallacy of creation stems from a crucial aspect of critical rationalism, which states that we should prefer evidence against assertions to evidence for them. There is A LOT of evidence against creationism, while the evidence against evolution is specious, at best. So, I PREFER evolutionary theory. If it comes off as dogmatic belief, I don't know what to tell you. How many times can I say I'm open-minded?

As for the intelligent design argument, thanks for reminding me. I actually wrote this post a while back, before I ammended researched ID. I'll do it justice with another post. For now, know this - it's a red herring.

Read Stuart Kauffman's book, At Home In The Universe. He lays out a plausible way to get from a non-living chemical soup to living cells. The key is a phenomenon called self-organization, which is closely related to chaos theory. In short, when things get complex enough, it is possible for systems to transform into entirely new systems...ALL AT ONCE, in a sort of phase transition. Once a network of reacting chemicals reaches this transition, they can become catalytically closed, which is a major component of any good definition of life.

To boil this discussion down to its salient points in 1000 words or less will, no doubt, challenge my writing skills significantly. But hey - no one said this would be easy. As Drudge says, "Developing..."

1/17/2005 12:57:00 PM

Blogger gtrude said...

I find it frustrating that those who attempt to discredit Darwin, have actually never read any of his writings. He states very clearly that he is not attempting to answer the question of how life on earth arose. Rather, he observed that life evolves from one form to another (something that's hard to argue against for anyone who has even seen a dog show), and his theory proposes to answer the question of 'how' it does this.......which is the theory of natural selection.

The basic problem is this......If there is a question that science cannot answer, it leaves it standing until further evidence is discovered on the subject. For example; the scientific answer to "How did life begin" would be; We simply don't have enough information to determine that; while the ID answer would be, it must have been created by an intelligence. It's a sort of filling in of the "why" questions that are left after applying darwin's theories. (EC wrote a bit awhile ago about human's need for definitive answers, which seems very appropriate on this subject)

So although ID proponents (or creationists), see this as an attack on their ideas. The scientific community is simply saying, "you're not following the scientific method of discovery". Which is to collect the available information; study it; then come up with the best explanation that fits. You cannot look at the gaps in the evolutionary theory to come up with an answer, for you'll never find it; you have to first examine the data that IS there. And of this, there is little to nothing the IDists can come forward with.

I find ID to be an interesting concept for a theology, or perhaps philosophy class; but it just is not how science works. And without a short course in "Scientific Method 101", IDists will never understand this.

1/17/2005 01:08:00 PM

Blogger Mephistophocles said...

It's interesting to note how often this question is used to validate some method of control. This may be because it is so often a religious question, and religion is the world's oldest and most effective method of oppresion and control. Still, I wonder if it has to be a religious question. What is it about us that assumes that if we were created, that we owe our creator any allegiance? Why do we assume that if we were created, then our creator must have some say in what we do from day to day? And above all, what is it about us that makes us assume that this creator loves us? If there is a god, and this god did in fact create mankind, and then in all probability, he or she or it hates us. If he (or she, or it) didn't hate us, it would in all probability not leave its existence up to speculation.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to the idea of a god or gods. But if any god exists, then I have absolutely no evidence of that god's existence, no evidence of that god having ever manifested itself to any human being, and above all, absolutely no reason to believe that god gives a flying flip about me or any other human being. Therefore, any attempt by another human being to get me to follow this supposed god's laws and directions is a method of control - not by a god or gods, but by my fellow human being(s). All this to say - there could in fact be an intelligent, powerful being who created the universe and mankind, and then who lost interest, or died, or whatever. The point is, we had to have started somewhere. Everything does, and nothing starts ex nihlo (from nothing).

In my mind, there's only one other possible scenario, and this one is just as difficult to prove. It's possible that existence itself is circular. What if there was no beginning or end? There are several cultures that have similar beliefs (reincarnation being one). It's possible that we simply forget where we've been - the record simply isn't written down or passed on, or it's destroyed, or there just simply isn't a medium that could hold the record long enough to go through a complete cycle, and time itself simply never began and will never end. I guess my point is that it just simply isn't known. The equation is unsolvable.

1/17/2005 04:23:00 PM

Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

Right on, Meph. Einstein, and later Stephen Hawking, theorized that time is a loop, like a piece of paper rolled into a tube - no beginning, no end. Then, of course, you have string theory and the idea that there is an infinite number of "possible" universes and that ours is the only one that unfolded with three-dimensional life forms. If you check out a book called, Just Six Numbers, by Martin Rees, you'll see that so many factors of our world are dependent upon natural constants being exactly what they are. Any little deviation and the universe implodes or doesn't support three-dimensional entities at all. Really cool.

Bottom line - theories that seek to explain life abound. Some have their basis in natural evidence, and some are admittedly questionable. Others, such as religious ones, have their basis in nothing valid from a scientific perspective.

The problem with religious explanations for the origins of life are that their proponents always try to coopt naturally occuring phenomena as evidence of their assertions. This is where the battle is joined, and it is a battle of logic, not ideology. If you say the 2nd law of thermodynamics proves the existence of a supernatural deity and simultaneously disproves evolution, I will ask you to show me the evidence. Illogical and ill-informed arguments are not persuasive, so you can't expect me to embrace these kinds of views. I'm open-minded, not gullible.

1/17/2005 04:40:00 PM

Blogger ajs said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/17/2005 10:10:00 PM

Blogger ajs said...

As a scientist, I find the whole debate philosophy, and balk at how often the term "science" gets thrown around. If you can't prove it under very controlled, observable, and above all else, reproducible conditions, you can't call it science, and you certainly can't conclude anything using the scientific method. Modern physicists (string theorists) would fight me tooth and nail on that statement, but I think an overwhelming majority of the science community would agree.

To comment on a few specifics:

Gersh: "Even the first virus is a long way from a puddle of organic molecules."

In an experiment (I believe) performed in the late 1950's, Dr. Sidney Fox successfully shoved a bunch of amino acids in a beaker, and heated it up. Out came a protein. While this may be a step from mitochondria or a cell wall (but certainly not proteoglycans or glycoproteins, which are a major substituent), prions are nothing but a tiny strand of protein.

Gtrude: “The basic problem is this......If there is a question that science cannot answer, it leaves it standing until further evidence is discovered on the subject.”

Even with more evidence, you can’t really call it “science,” just forensics (see above). (I know it’s often referred to as “forensic science,” but I don’t think this application of the definition is very rigorous.)

Caveman: "Eventually, you end up in the first moments of the big bang, when you still have to explain the existence of the matter and energy there. I'm fine with positing a supernatural power running the show at that time - there's no evidence one way or another regarding any competing theories, so one is just as good as another."

You have to, because there is no way for us to take all the mass in the universe, compress it to an infinitely small size and with infinite energy, and see what happens. And if you can think of way, you'd drive a very fancy car (but not for very long).

Mephistophocles: "What is it about us that assumes that if we were created, that we owe our creator any allegiance? Why do we assume that if we were created, then our creator must have some say in what we do from day to day?"

The answers to that are found on every page of this blog in the left sidebar. They're two fundamental aspects of human nature, although we need not force ourselves to abide by them.

1/17/2005 10:15:00 PM

Anonymous Robvert Landbeck said...

COMPLETELY UNEXPECTED. A real monkey wrench is about to hit both sides in the ID vs Evolution debate and particularly religion is in for difficult times. For a wholly new interpretation of the teachings of Christ, contained within the first ever religious claim and proof that meets all the criteria of the most rigorous, evidential, testable scientific method, is published and circulating on the web. It is titled The Final Freedoms. An intellectual, religious and political bombshell!

It is described as a single Law and moral principle, offering its own proof, one in which the reality of God confirms and responds to an act of perfect faith, by a direct intervention into the natural world, providing a correction to human nature including a change in natural law [biology], consciousness and human ethical perception [proof of the soul], providing new, primary insight and understanding of the human condition!

So while proponents of ID may have got the God part right, if this development demonstrates itself to be what it claims, and the means exist to do so, all religious teaching, tradition and understanding of ID are wholly in error, while the proponents of evolution who have rightly used that conception to beat down the credibility of religious tradition, but who have also used it to deny the potential for God, are in for a very rude shock.

However improbable, the impossible now looks all too possible. No joke, no hoax and not spam. The implications defy the imagination!

Pre publication review copies of the manuscript, The Final Freedoms, are a free pdf download at www.energon.uklinux.net and http://thefinalfreedoms.bulldoghome.com

1/10/2006 04:16:00 PM


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