Ask from the Past: Evolution vs Creation Conundrum

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?

Thank-you

Answer:
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.

SmartLX

Testing for Design

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:
Yes.

“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!”

ATA Answer:
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.

SmartLX

Scientific Evolution: the art show

10% of the proceeds from the show will go towards stem cell research, which is a great thing, but they’re pretty sure it’s hurt their publicity campaign.

We got a request to publicise a month-long exhibition in California named, and themed, Scientific Evolution.

10% of the proceeds from the show will go towards stem cell research, which is a great thing, but they’re pretty sure it’s hurt their publicity campaign.

I’ve done as they asked for two reasons. One, any publicity for evolution itself is good when the principal weapon against its acceptance is ignorance. Two, it’s very probable that the negative publicity for this art stems directly from conservative religious groups, and (imagine Marvin the Martian’s voice) this makes me very angry.

If you’re in California, see whether the exhibition would interest you. If not, have a look round for any protestation against it. I wonder if we can identify particular antagonists?

SmartLX

The Great Big Arguments #4: Design

“…theists may claim that anything natural with any quality to it whatsoever must have been deliberately crafted with humanity in mind.”

Question:
Here’s a sample of the many different ways in which the same basic question is posed: How did all the beauty around us come to be? How did intelligent people come from monkeys, or oranges, or sludge, or nothing at all? How did life begin if the chances of the necessary proteins assembling was one in ten to the power of hundreds? (The next one’s taken from an actual wall poster:) How can anyone witness a sunset and not believe in God? Why is there any order to the universe? Why are the fundamental constants of the universe tuned so that matter, and humans, can exist at all? How is it that we live, and live in such a wonderful world, if it all came about by chance?

Answer:
From the development of the eye to the beauty of a waterfall to the exact value of the gravitational constant, theists may claim that anything natural with any quality to it whatsoever must have been deliberately crafted with humanity in mind. This is the Argument from Design.

Even if it were correct, it’s a terribly egotistical way of looking at the world. And even if it were proven to be correct, no religion would have any basis upon which to claim that the designer or creator was its particular god or gods.

The basic answer to the argument from design is that there is no substantive evidence for it and therefore 1. to assume design in the presence of alternative theories supported by substantive evidence is putting one’s head in the sand and 2. to assume design even in the complete absence of alternative theories is an argument from ignorance.

Beginning with evolution and the development of intelligent humans, there is a huge amount of geological, genetic and observed evidence to support the currently held view of the “tree of life”. Evolution of subspecies is observed all the time, and contrary to a common objection whole new species have been seen to emerge, and recently. (This article on speciation has some examples.)

Contrary to another creationist talking point, there are tons of known transitional fossils. Contrary to Kirk Cameron, these don’t look like half of one animal joined to half of another (like his famous Croco-duck). They’re more like what you get if you morph a whole picture of one into a picture of the other, but stop halfway.

To dismiss evolution as a useless series of random changes is an argument from personal incredulity, which is a type of argument from ignorance. It’s also wrong. The mutations are random, but only the beneficial mutations tend to be passed on by sheer survival and procreation skills. Evolution doesn’t just try random things and get it right every time, it tries everything and goes with what works. It’s like trying to hit a dartboard by spraying the whole wall with a machine gun. You’ll miss a lot, but you’ll hit it too.

Intelligence came about because at every stage in the development of primates, the ones who are just that little bit smarter than everyone else will always have the advantage. Over millions of years, it all adds up. Along with this comes morality (since good deeds are often rewarded), an appreciation of beauty (since it helps if what’s pleasing to the eye is usually not diseased, poisonous or dirty) and emotions (to motivate us to do what’s helpful to us and others).

Going back to the origin of life, abiogenesis as it was called could have occurred by a number of different chemical processes. So far scientists have used electricity (lightning) and a replica of the ancient atmosphere to create amino acids, which are pretty close. With a whole world full of chemicals being blown and washed into each other and billions of years to work, there was ample time and material for the components of the first replicating organism to slowly accumulate. The huge odds against this often given by folks like Hoyle generally assume firstly that they all had to come together at once, and secondly that only one version of it could possibly work. Once one little bit of DNA was off and running, evolution and exponential growth took over.

Before we tackle the whole universe at once, let’s consider Earth. Someone might claim that God put Earth exactly where it needed to be relative to the Sun so that liquid water and therefore life could form. We now know, however, that there are a lot more planets out there, and probably huge numbers of undiscovered ones. It’s not that Earth was placed where liquid water could form. Rather, liquid water only forms on planets of the right temperature and Earth happened to fit the bill. Lots more planets might. This is called the anthropic principle: places aren’t made for humans, humans just have a chance of turning up in hospitable places. Even on Earth there are many places we can’t survive, like inside volcanoes and kilometres under the sea. So, we didn’t emerge from there. Big surprise.

The largest design claim has to do with the fundamental constants of the universe. Six major ones are usually mentioned: those pertaining to gravity, electromagnetism, spatial dimensions and other less famous concepts. As is repeated endlessly, the slightest difference in any of them might result in matter being unable to form or stay together. This is the “fine-tuned universe” argument.

The problem is that even if this is true, there could still be other values of the constants which support matter. Perhaps instead of changing one or two slightly, you need to shift four of them by a huge amount. Considering that some of the constants could even be negative, you’ve got an infinite six-dimensional sample space in which to test hypothetical universes. We may never know whether our values are the only valid ones. Or, we may stumble upon another valid combination and that’ll be the end of this argument.

Besides, the anthropic principle applies again if you consider the theory of a multiverse. If there are multiple (perhaps infinite) universes each with its own set of constants, of course we’re going to turn up in the universe with a friendly combination. Other life forms may be thriving in universes where we wouldn’t last for a second, and understanding how would require us to re-learn physics from scratch.

Contesting the argument from design is hard work, because to be most effective you need to know the going theories for whatever phenomenon is in question. I’ve tackled the most common ones, but be prepared for just about anything useful or pretty to be presented as direct evidence for gods. Then you need only find out where it really came from.

SmartLX