Question from Tomas:
What is your take on Irreducible Complexity? From what I have read, it appears to be Intelligent Design in a new wrapper but it does have some new arguments to it.
Also, it seems like any new religious “hypothesis” on the existence of God (or any god) is an old one that is simply retold to account for any existing argument against it. Isn’t that proof that their “hypotheses” are just efforts to grasp at straws since none of them have held up against any scrutiny?
Why can’t people who claim to believe in God (or supernatural entity) just simply have faith? Why must they try to prove it with facts which ultimately disprove their God?
Answer by SmartLX:
For those who came in late, irreducible complexity is the idea that certain biological mechanisms such as the eye and the bacterial flagellum cannot have evolved gradually, because if they were one step less complex or if they were missing one component then they wouldn’t work at all, which is not beneficial and therefore would not be naturally selected. It’s a specific type of the general creationist argument that evolution can’t have produced something or other.
If something were actually established as genuinely irreducibly complex, then by definition it really couldn’t have evolved. Where it falls over is that nothing has ever been established as such. The mechanisms and physical features which are presented as irreducibly complex invariably have very good explanations of how they likely evolved. These explanations usually (always?) pre-date the idea of irreducible complexity, sometimes by over a century, which means those using the argument haven’t even checked to see if it’s valid for their chosen biological object.
To give you a general idea of the explanations that exist, before we move on, there are a few possible sources of the kind of complexity that can appear irreducible.
– Multiple components can evolve in tandem.
– A slightly less complex version of something might have served an entirely different purpose until one last mutation turned it to its current function.
– A delicate structure might have formed in the presence of other supporting structures which were later dismantled and discarded, like scaffolding.
My series on the Great Big Arguments covers almost every kind of argument for God that it’s possible to make. Even the latest apologetics are heavily based on what has come before, to the extent that after 9 pieces I really don’t know what further Great Big Arguments I can write about. Even the last one was only on a variation. (Folks, let me know if I’ve missed something.)
An apologist would say that just because an argument has not been universally acknowledged as sound doesn’t mean it isn’t dead right, and the fact that people reject the arguments for God doesn’t mean He’s not real (and it’ll be their own problem when they face judgement). I say that just because an argument has been regularly refuted for years, decades or even centuries doesn’t mean it can’t still convince people who don’t know the refutations, and therefore pretty much all of the existing arguments are still useful when proselytising. Some organisations (such as dedicated apologetics ministry CARM) have actually advised against using certain convoluted arguments, but even these archaic rejects still crop up everywhere.
Some believers do keep their faith to themselves; it’s just that since we always hear from the bible-bashers instead, it’s easy to forget about the quiet ones. Those who do try to spread the faith, apart from simply wanting those around them to agree with them, are often commanded to do so by their religious leaders at all levels. It’s certainly easy to interpret most holy texts as demanding followers to recruit. Religions themselves would not have survived so long or become so popular if conversion and assimilation wasn’t an intrinsic part of their lifestyle. It’s a part that some believers reject, but those who embrace the call of the missionary are motivated to do the work for everyone.
Question from EvoE:
What is the proof humans have evolved from a common ancestor? If the scientific method is observation, data collection, internal and external validity and reliability; then how can one observe human evolution?
Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t observe human evolution. Scientists genuinely don’t know whether it’s still happening, and discuss it often.
This means little, because science does not always require direct observation of a past event to confirm that it’s happened. If it did, the police would have to be present at every murder in order to charge any suspects. We can instead observe and collect evidence that humans have evolved from ancestors we share with other animals.
The evidence includes but is not limited to:
1. Comparative physiology
We often say we evolved from apes, but it’s just as correct to say that we are apes. Without even considering genetics, we can be classified as apes using physical characteristics such as our long arms, omnivorous teeth and lack of a large tail. It goes far beyond superficial physical qualities, because our internal organs and body chemistry have countless analogues in other primate bodies. We’ve even got some organs that are practically useless to us but essential to other primates, such as the appendix and the muscles for moving our ears. (These and other human vestigial organs speak loudly against the Intelligent Design proponents’ claim that all the similarities are due to the other animals having the same Designer. Why wouldn’t He just leave out the useless organs, rather than leave them in place to potentially kill us?)
The genes linked to the analogous systems mentioned above can be sampled from each species and compared directly. Now that the whole human genome has been sequenced, it can be compared all at once to the genomes of other animals. The results are as expected: our DNA diverges less than 2% from some species of apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. (By comparison, the most distantly related humans differ from each other by about 0.1%.) As we compare ourselves to other non-primate mammals, reptiles, plants and so forth, the genetic difference rises accordingly, exactly as we would expect if we diverged from these other branches of life earlier on.
Even knowing single comparative facts, like that chimpanzees have one more chromosome than we do, we can predict and discover evidence of very specific biochemical events that happened during our own evolution, such as the mark where two of our ancestors’ chromosome pairs fused to make one of our own pairs, specifically Chromosome 2.
3. Observed natural and artificial selection (and speciation)
We have watched some species with relatively short life cycles breed and diversify to the point where two populations of the same animal became unable to breed with each other. We’ve conducted breeding programs which have deliberately achieved the same thing, just to see what’s needed for it to happen. These are instances of speciation, or the splitting of one species into two, because part of what defines species is that they can’t produce fertile offspring with other species. There have been billions of years for this kind of thing to happen all over the world without any external help, and there’s no reason to think our own origins are any different.
If you want the rest of the evidence, start at the Wikipedia page for evidence of common descent. It’s not solely concerned with humans, but a lot of it has to do with us. If there’s something specific there that you don’t accept, bring it up in a comment.
Question from Truk:
Evolution directly contradicts Pasteur’s laws, that state life can only come from life, as well as the laws of thermodynamics. Why does evolution, a flawed theory with more holes in it than a sponge, still stand, when it contradicts proven science?
Answer by SmartLX:
If evolution contradicted proven science, it wouldn’t still stand. That’s the whole point of science: if it’s proven wrong, it changes. The biology departments of the universities of the world don’t have the resources to maintain a massive conspiracy to prop up a bogus theory, but they have the evidence to support a sound one.
Thermodynamics first: you haven’t specified which laws you think evolution contradicts, so I’ll assume you mean the Second Law of Thermodynamics. There are several creationist arguments based on this idea, and I’ve addressed two of them here, here and here. If I haven’t covered your specific objection, comment and tell me what it actually is.
Now for the less run-into-the-ground material. Louis Pasteur only produced one “law”, and even that is only tentatively attributed to him: the Law of Biogenesis, which states that life can only come from other life. Pasteur did make such an observation, whether or not he made it official. The competing hypothesis of the day was spontaneous generation, the idea that life springs from non-life everywhere, all the time. People used to think that a bag of grain would spontaneously generate maggots, for instance. Pasteur examined many apparent examples of this, and in every case discovered that life was somehow getting in from outside and propagating.
Pasteur did not demonstrate, nor could he have, that it’s impossible for life to emerge from non-life in any circumstances. He simply established that it does not happen in everyday life, and that the life all around us is far more connected than people once thought. If genetics had been further along at the time he could have known this for certain, because all known life is genetically related and therefore descended from a single organism, a common ancestor.
This fact has an important implication: all life on earth can be explained by a single ancient event of abiogenesis (literally genesis from non-life). This means it’s to be expected that the circumstances in which abiogenesis can occur are incredibly rare, and might not even exist in the present day. However, given a billion years, half a billion square kilometres of surface area and countless different chemical compounds on this planet, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the elements of life came together in just the right way, at least once. Living tissue doesn’t contain any element which isn’t also found in non-living material; it is literally made of the things around it.
Abiogenesis isn’t part of the theory of evolution anyway, because that’s only concerned with what life has done since it came about. Even if a god had created the first living thing, evolution could have occurred from then on without the god’s help, producing all the diversity of life from that single organism. This isn’t important to you though, Truk, because you want to establish that at least some part of the process was impossible without divine help, necessitating the existence of the divine. Abiogenesis, while unlikely in any single moment and circumstance, is not so unlikely that it can’t have happened naturally at all, so a god isn’t needed there either. Better keep looking for a spot to force one in.
Question from Thinkingman (in an unapproved comment last week, rescued from the static archive of the old site:
When “The Atheist” was asked if he believed in evolution he replied, “of course I do” as though evolution was as provable as “gravity”. If that is the case then
1. why are scores of very accomplished scientists moving away from the ‘theory of evolution” toward intelligent design?
2. And how can the “theory of evolution” be considered real science when it contradicts the second law of thermodynamics or “entropy”?
3. And how can evolution be accepted as an immutable fact when there are no fossil links that have ever been discovered indicating one species has morphed into another? There should be tens of millions of such fossil records.
Answer by SmartLX:
Seriously, people, it’s just an archive now. Comments aren’t approved there anymore. I go and check for new ones sometimes, and bring them here if they’re worth answering, but it’s not a reliable way to make yourself heard. Comment here instead.
As is my habit, I’ve added numbers to Thinkingman’s questions for easy reference. All three are classic creationist talking points, and answers to all three in their stated forms are widely available – which means the important thing to Thinkingman is not to find answers, but to disseminate the questions as widely as possible, to help them persuade the uninformed. Unfortunately for that cause, ask [questions] and ye shall receive [answers].
1. Yes, scores of accomplished scientists reject the theory of evolution by natural selection and embrace the hypothesis of intelligent design or ID. (For those who criticise evolution as being “only a theory”, remember that ID isn’t even that.) “Scores” is fairly accurate, because it literally means multiples of 20 (“four score and seven years ago” means 87). The Discovery Institute’s famous 2001 petition A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism collected the names of just over 200 biologists, while the other 500-600 signatories were in unrelated fields (making their “accomplishments” largely irrelevant). Even in the United States, where acceptance of evolution is badly affected by a high rate of religiosity, about 0.01% of biologists appear to oppose it. The scientists in relevant fields who do reject evolution remain statistically insignificant, and their numbers do not seem to be growing in relation to the total.
2. The theory of evolution does not contradict the second law of thermodynamics because, despite the creationist assumption, the second law of thermodynamics does not completely prohibit the emergence of order from chaos. This law merely requires that any new order in a physical entity is balanced out by an increase in chaos or entropy in another entity connected to it by a transfer of energy. Our sun is a raging, barely-contained nuclear wildfire which bombards us with energy, so there’s no problem.
3. So-called transitional fossils are largely a matter of definition. It can be argued that fossils of any species no longer living are transitional fossils, because they capture the species in the process of changing from whatever they were previously into whatever they became.
What creationists generally expect to see in a transitional fossil (and celebrate when it isn’t found) is the properties of a hypothetical trans-genus hybrid, or chimera. The commonly ridiculed example is Ray Comfort’s crocoduck, which demonstrates the unreasonable assumption most often made: that a transitional fossil should show one modern animal “morphing” into another. Modern creatures are distant cousins of each other, not ancestors and descendants, so one would never become another.
Regardless, comparable processes of pronounced physical change have occurred over geological time, and they are very obvious in certain fossilised animals. Here are the two most famous examples:
– Ambulocetus, literally a “walking whale” with identifying characteristics both of modern whales and of the quadrupedal mammals from which they evolved.
– Tiktaalik, a creature partway through the process of evolving from a fish into a four-legged amphibian. (For more detail on Tiktaalik and much more evidence for evolution besides, read Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin.)
This is all basic, well-known stuff, but I’m of the opinion that it benefits the cause of reason to increase the rate at which supposedly rhetorical “challenge” questions are accompanied by straightforward responses when they appear. The above does just that.
Question from Jack (reproduced from a comment in the archive):
I’ve spent some time reading about evolution and creation. I’ve read several pages about entropy and I can’t seem to find one that makes sense. Can you explain entropy to a poor retard like myself?
Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a difficult concept, and most of us have to make do with an approximation, so here’s mine.
Imagine the process by which objects with some physical order (structure, symmetry, smoothness, etc.) break down over time (decay, melt, crumble, evaporate, rot) into substances which do not have that initial order (powder, gases, liquids, mush). They’re moving from an ordered state towards a more and more unordered state. Entropy, as a quantity, is the extent to which this has already happened at any given time. About the closest thing to a synonym for it is “loss of order”.
If entropy increases, order has been lost. If it decreases, order has emerged or been created. The point of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is that entropy can’t decrease without increasing by at least as much in some connected object or area. In other words, it can’t decrease overall in a closed system.
The corrupted version of this law used by creationists is effectively that entropy can’t decrease at all without divine help. Alternatively they accept the law, but claim that the Earth is a closed system and any fresh order on it must be gods’ work. The response to the latter is to point out that the sun is part of any closed system which includes us. The thing runs on explosions, causing massive amounts of entropy. It sends some of the resulting energy our way as light, heat and radiation so that we might undo a tiny fraction of that entropy. That’s the connection.
A more general response is that if you think entropy is decreasing in a closed system, it’s likely that the system is not really closed.
“In summary, we have a very old document which gets many things wrong as well as right, and contains no details which indicate that the things it got right were anything more than intuitive guesses, except for various passages which have been broadly interpreted millenia later in terms of what we now know.”
Question from Antonia:
I was debating some days ago with some (Orthodox) Christians and at some point of the conversation I was asked something rather puzzling and I wasn’t sure how to answer: We have evidence that the Book of Genesis was written at about 500-450 BC or at least before 150 BC (since the oldest manuscripts of the book of Genesis are the 24 fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and they are dating between 150 BC – 70 AD). The book talks about the creation of the world describing the events in the exact same order as scientists have confirmed in very recent discoveries; I am talking about the order in which water, land, the first animals and human appeared on earth. How can that happen? How can a book so old describe these events since the technology and science of that time was not as advanced as it is today? Of course they can only explain it as a word of God but I’m wondering if there’s some other explanation…
Firstly, I have no problem with that rough estimate of when the Book of Genesis was first written. The point of the emphasis on that is to establish simply that it was written before the emergence proper of astronomy, geology, biology and paleontology. That’s pretty obvious.
The reason such an early document can describe the events – not in that much detail, really, but at least in roughly the right order – is that in many cases they seem as if they couldn’t have happened any other way. Humans eat meat and plants, and animals eat plants, so animals must have come after plants and humans after that. There had to be earth (the Earth, which incidentally they thought was flat and had “corners”) for water to settle on, and the water had to be moved aside for land to appear. For the purposes of the authors when Genesis was written, it merely had to sound right, so it does.
Between picking the obvious stuff, Genesis makes glaring mistakes. The main one is saying that day and night, and plants, let alone the Earth itself, were created before the sun (one of the two “great lights”) was. The scientific view is that the Earth formed around the sun 500 million years into its lifespan, that plants came well after that and that the sun causes day and night. Besides this, in Genesis animals emerged in just two short bursts over two days: sea creatures and birds together, then land animals. (That places most dinosaurs after birds, instead of the reverse.) A creationist (probably an old-earth creationist, if the issue has gotten this detailed) might then argue that science has these things wrong, but by doing so would completely abandon the argument that Genesis reflects modern science.
Then, of course, there’s also no sense of timescales in Genesis except the passage of the six days. Even if you apply “day-age creationism”, where each Biblical day represents huge amounts of time, the different days have to stand for different intervals ranging from a few million years to several billion, and there’s no sign of which days are the longest.
In summary, we have a very old document which gets many things wrong as well as getting some things right, and contains no details which indicate that the things it got right were anything more than intuitive guesses – except for various passages which have been broadly interpreted millennia later in terms of what we now know. See my piece on prophecies; the apparently accurate parts of Genesis are candidates for #1. High Probability of Success and #4. Shoehorned.
“…you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.”
Question from Bailey:
I’m an atheist and a freelance writer. My dad’s preacher has agreed to answer some questions I have about the Bible and his views on things of the religious matter. Trouble is, now that I have the opportunity to ask whatever I want (and get an entirely silly response I’m sure), I am a bit stumped. I have in mind:
1.) If the Bible is as black and white as they say, why ignore the laws in the Bible such as “don’t eat shellfish” and the like, and follow rules like “homosexuality is a sin?”…I will be referring to the laws in Leviticus.
2.) Do you believe in creationism or evolution and why?
3.) Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible? (I will be using specific examples, but would like as many ideas as possible).
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Help?
That lot’s a good start, but you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.
I’ve only just answered a question about the nasty Leviticus laws, so check that out first.
Whether your father’s preacher is a creationist depends rather a lot on his denomination. Evangelicals are generally creationists to some extent (with some high-profile exceptions such as Francis Collins), whereas Catholics usually toe the Vatican’s line of theistic evolutionism which is basically, “God caused evolution.” Either way, what he believes is almost certainly what his church officially believes, and you’d do best to look that up.
You may be at a disadvantage if he does turn out to be a creationist. There are a great many creationist arguments which, unsound as they are, take 5-10 seconds each to say and require a bit of research to rebut properly. About the best thing I can do for you is supply a slightly old but still exhaustive list.
If you’re looking for contradictions, you can’t go past the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible. It’s got a huge collection of them. Best of all, it’s been around long enough for other sites to write replies, and in a grand example of sportsmanship the SAB links to them directly. If you have a selection of apparent contradictions you’re going to bring up, you can get a very good idea of how this preacher will respond if he decides to defend them.
Besides your suggested questions I have one more, which I always try to ask believers: quite simply, “Why do you believe?” Once you know that, it’s only natural to work through the follow-up question with them: basically, “Is that a good reason?” It’s why I’m an atheist, really. I examined my own reasons for believing in the Christian God, and they just weren’t good enough. Self-examination, if you can manage to provoke it in others, is a powerful tool.
Best of luck with the interview, whatever your goal is. (You didn’t really make that clear. I hope you actually have one.) Let us know how it goes.
On the “croco-duck”: “Birds evolved from reptiles, all right, but you’re never going to find a fossil that shows a transition between two modern species.”
(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. In Ask from the Past I’ll be working through them.)
Question from Katoi5:
I am in the difficult process of completely renouncing my faith, I’m pretty much an Atheist, but I think I am more of an agnostic. My problem is with Creationists and how they are insisting that there are no transitional form fossils in the fossil record and Evolutionists insisting that there are several.
Since I can’t physically see these fossils for myself I can’t prove to myself once and for all that they are in fact real. Who can I believe? For any Atheist who has seen or knows for a fact these transitional forms exist, please let me know and perhaps tell me where I can find out more about them. If in fact there are transitional forms, then are creationists lying or do they really not know?
As Richard Dawkins explains in his new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, there’d be plenty of evidence even if not a single fossil had been unearthed, let alone obvious transitional forms. As it happens, there are lots of them.
All fossils are transitional in a sense because evolution is an ongoing process. The three most famous fossilised creatures who make great examples are Ambulocetus (literally “walking whale”, a huge sea mammal who hadn’t lost his legs yet), Tiktaalik (partway between a fish and an amphibian reptile) and “Lucy” the Australopithecus afarensis (a primate with an ape-sized brain and an upright gait). In each of these skeletons, both the type of animal it evolved from and the type it would eventually evolve into is startlingly obvious.
It can be difficult to see the fossils in person, for instance because “Lucy” is in Africa where she was found. If you have the resources and the mobility, however, they really do exist and you can go chasing them if you really need to. Otherwise, Google Images can quickly round up photos and drawings of them from all over.
Individual creationists may deny the existence of transitional fossils for any of several reasons:
– They haven’t heard of the famous ones.
– They have heard of the famous ones, but they’re trying to persuade those who haven’t. (Sophistry alert.)
– They maintain a definition of “transitional fossil” which does not match the reality. (Take Ray Comfort’s famous “croco-duck”: half-crocodile, half-duck. Birds evolved from reptiles, all right, but you’re never going to find a fossil that shows a transition between two modern species. There isn’t a straight line of descent between distant cousins.)
While as I said the complete absence of fossils would not harm Darwin’s theory, the well-known transitional forms we do have make the process of evolution just that little bit more visible and comprehensible. That’s anathema to creationists, hence the campaigns of denial.
IDEA has one answer. I have other ideas.
Question by the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center (the IDEA Center):
Does intelligent design make predictions? Is it testable?
Answer according to the IDEA Center:
“Intelligent design theory predicts:
1) that we will find specified complexity in biology. One special easily detectable form of specified complexity is irreducible complexity. We can test design by trying to reverse engineer biological structures to determine if there is an “irreducible core.” Intelligent design also makes other predictions, such as
2) rapid appearance of complexity in the fossil record,
3) re-usage of similar parts in different organisms, and
4) function for biological structures.
Each of these predictions may be tested–and have been confirmed through testing!”
Yes and no, but the no is bigger.
The IDEA Center is a student-targeted initiative co-founded by Casey Luskin, now of the Discovery Institute. It encourages high school and tertiary students to set up their own IDEA clubs and talk about intelligent design. I use the present tense because it’s never officially folded, but there has been no visible activity by IDEA since a screening of The Privileged Planet in 2007.
I’m not simply flogging a dead horse (with regard to IDEA and intelligent design itself) because the question applies to the now more openly advocated hypothesis of divine design. It concerns a major aspect of claims by any creationist group that their version qualifies as science: is it falsifiable? What does it tell us that we don’t already know? What would disprove it?
I’ll work through the points in IDEA’s answer.
1) Two kinds of “specified complexity” crop up in creationist arguments: irreducible complexity, and “complex specified information” such as that found in DNA.
The discovery of irreducible complexity in a lifeform might go a long way toward proving design, though this hasn’t happened so far. Every purported example of irreducible complexity has been hypothetically reduced, in other words a possible evolutionary pathway to its current state has been found. On the other hand, the absence of real examples doesn’t mean nothing is designed. Irreducible complexity is only useful to this issue at all if it’s actually found.
The term “complex specified information” subtly begs the question, implying that someone specified it. While there’s certainly complex information in DNA, this is predicted and indeed required by evolutionary theory as well. The instructions for building body parts, the essential products of mutation and natural selection, have to be stored somewhere.
There’s a larger example of begging the question here. Of course the design hypothesis will predict the very thing it was created to explain: the complexity of life, including its means of reproduction and information storage. The important predictions we get from science are those with new, as yet unknown information – those we have to go out and test, not just refer to the same information that spawned the hypothesis.
For instance, we have one less chromosome pair than our closest ape relatives. Losing a pair outright is catastrophic, so the only way our species could have arisen from apes with one less chromosome pair is if two pairs fused. Therefore the end-markers for chromosomes should appear in the middle of just one of our pairs. On investigation, they showed up in pair #2. If they hadn’t, or had appeared in more than one pair, evolutionary theory as it exists now would have been falsified.
2) Again, the rapid appearance of complexity is a non-unique and retrospective prediction by the design hypothesis. Evolutionary theory allows for it as well, for a given value of “rapid”.
The most famous example is the “Cambrian explosion”, which took not less than two million of the fifteen million years now known as the Cambrian period. That’s as long as homo habilis took to evolve through homo erectus into us, homo sapiens. Given that it’s also roughly the point where the animal kingdom itself began, one would expect tremendous diversification.
A prediction certain design proponents might make which is not shared by evolutionary theory is not the rapid appearance but the literally instantaneous appearance of complexity. Like irreducible complexity, this would be earthshaking if found, but until then its apparent absence tells us nothing.
3) Similar features in creatures which are not at all closely related is another thing evolutionary theory also predicts in unremarkable hindsight, via convergent evolution. For example, across the animal kingdom we see eyes at all stages of development because eyes are undeniably useful. Any creature which begins to develop sight has an immediate advantage over the blind.
4) “Function for biological structures” mostly refers to DNA, and the idea that it’s all useful. The existence of “junk DNA”, that which has no effect on the creature which carries it, does not obviously indicate a design purpose, so the prediction of design is that practical effects will eventually be traced to most or all of it.
Given that we don’t know the purpose of a lot of DNA, new purposes will surely be found for some of it, but what’s the failure standard here? What percentage of DNA, if confirmed to be absolutely useless, would disprove design? There’s no sensible answer. Design isn’t falsifiable this way either.
In the broad view, we have 1. a bunch of different ways evolution could at any moment be debunked or disproved (and, notably, hasn’t been) and 2. no good way divine design could ever have potentially been disproved. It makes obvious predictions, all right, but it can’t truly be tested. Hopefully I’ve managed to demonstrate the difference a little more for you.