There Will Always Be an Argument About Information

Question from Sam:
Hi, so I was casually surfing the web when I came across a video in “Answers in Genesis” which was basically said it could disprove evolution in 3 minutes with two simple facts. The second fact, which they championed, made the claim that it was impossible (there are no possible means by which this can occur) to add to genetic code in any way, meaning there was no possible way for an aquatic creature to create genetic code to grow legs, etc. (Disproving evolution) Of course, I questioned this bold claim, especially since they were extremely vague about their sources and provided no sources or further material for study. As such, I haven’t a clue how they came upon this claim, or the legitimacy of it, could you lend some further insight into this?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m assuming the first of the two facts didn’t do anything for you, which does not surprise me.

The source of the claim amounts to “it stands to reason” which is what people say when they don’t want to bother reasoning through something. It’s one variant of the argument from ignorance I’m always pointing out, specifically, “I personally don’t know how additions can be made to a genome, therefore there is no way.” People don’t know this because they literally have not checked at all, because the relevant material can be found online in seconds.

This TalkOrigins article from 2001 fits the bill nicely. The mechanisms by which information is added to the genome are quite simple, for instance gene duplication, or essentially random noise from mutations. What’s harder to comprehend is how this information proves useful, and particularly allows new features to emerge.

The answer to this is straightforward though the detail is immense if you drill into it: natural selection helps to eliminate the information which is not useful, leaving that which is. There are countless analogies for this, so to pick one arbitrarily, genetic material is thrown into an arena and under constant attack, so whatever survives does so because it makes a difference to the fight.

The true difficulty is in convincing creationists that this kind of argument doesn’t convince anybody, which does seem to be true in my experience; its purpose nowadays is instead to reassure creationists. Or perhaps they know this already, but it doesn’t stop them from using it to reassure each other.

Atheism Before Darwin

Question from Amanda:
Where did atheists believe humans came from before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some information on this here. There were theories of what would come to be called evolution long before Darwin, though none that fit the evidence nearly so well. Among some biologists there were inklings of the basic concept of common descent, for instance the idea that humans and apes were related, but without the strength of Darwinian theory this opinion was highly controversial and one risked one’s reputation by airing it.

So for the lay atheist minority worldwide, our best answer to your question was that they just didn’t know. Since they didn’t think a god existed, let alone created humanity, they reasoned that there must have been a natural mechanism to allow modern life forms to develop some time after the birth of the planet. With what they knew then, they were unable to take it any further.

This basically meant that evolution in that period was in the same position abiogenesis (the initial emergence of simple life from non-life) is in now. No mechanism was clear despite various conjectures, but if a god didn’t seem likely to you then this inspired confidence that a mechanism existed and might eventually be found. Darwin came through for his field, but we’re still waiting for “the Darwin of abiogenesis”. While we wait (and while some of us work at it), we have to content ourselves with not knowing, because to demand an answer when information is lacking is to open ourselves to a wrong answer.

The Concept of The Blind Watchmaker

Question from James:
Why does Richard Dawkins use the analogy of a “blind watchmaker” to describe natural selection?

Answer by SmartLX:
Straight from Wikipedia:
“In his choice of the title for this book, Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology.[1] Paley, writing long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence of the existence of a divine creator by drawing a parallel with the way in which the existence of a watch compels belief in an intelligent watchmaker. Dawkins, in contrasting the differences between human design and its potential for planning with the workings of natural selection, therefore dubbed evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker.”

Essentially, natural selection clearly does not plan. Paley’s argument is that if a watch suggests the existence of a watchmaker, the supposed appearance of design in living things should suggest the existence of a designer, but on closer inspection life is not as it would have been if designed by an entity with all its faculties intact. The reasons given by Dawkins include vestigial organs and features, inefficient physical arrangements of a body’s components (like the recurrent laryngeal nerve), inefficient solutions to simple problems, easily avoidable susceptibilities to malfunction, disease and death (see here for examples in humans), and needlessly expensive competition between individual organisms. Life functions, sometimes barely, but it could be so much better if someone had actually designed it rather than natural selection procedurally applying the simplest short-term solution to everything.

We’re Looking for a Few Good Mutations

Question from Nick:
How do you refute the argument that it is mathematically impossible for “good” mutations to occur and that evolution is mathematically impossible, and thus not a real theory, but a pseudoscience?

Short answer by SmartLX:
With evidence.

Okay, longer answer by SmartLX:
The idea that beneficial mutations are “mathematically” impossible is based on easily addressed misunderstandings of the process. The fact that the idea is so widely held by creationists despite being so easily addressed speaks to a common reluctance among their number to accept simple facts, if those facts are inconvenient.

A very simple counter to the claim is the fact that most individual mutations can potentially be reversed in subsequent generations. This is an observed and well-known phenomenon straightforwardly called reverse mutation. The list of reversible mutations includes many that would be regarded as “bad” or detrimental to survival and procreation. The reverse of these mutations would by definition be “good”, so there’s no barrier to this whatsoever.

The other effective counter is the set of beneficial mutations that have been observed. You can look them up on Google, or follow up on the short list given here. Most famously, the Lenski E.coli experiment tightly controlled an isolated population of E.coli and documented its acquisition, via repeatable mutation, of the ability to metabolise (eat) the citrate in its environment. The bacteria couldn’t do it, then they could. Creationists did everything they could to discredit this and failed pretty badly. We had our own little argument over it in the comments here (search the page for keyword “Lenski”).

How The Snake Got Its Venom

Question from Robert:
What would be your reasoning as to how the evolution of venomous snakes could have happened? Obviously, the first snakes did not start off with venom glands in their heads. That means that they were getting along just fine without any venom to kill their prey for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. So why in the world would venom glands evolve inside their heads? That is not ‘natural selection’. Indeed, that is completely unnatural. A creature wants to keep poison out of its body! So why would any creature start to make poison inside its body? That makes no sense at all. And it would potentially be extremely dangerous to that creature.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that such a totally bizarre thing occurred. So now what? You have snakes with venom glands in their heads. How in the heck are the snakes supposed to get the venom into their prey? That would be 100% impossible for snakes to do that without hollowed out, syringe-like, very sharp fangs.

That’s a HUGE problem. That means that snakes which somehow evolved venom glands, would then have to evolve syringe like teeth. And there is absolutely no way that could happen because that would require forethought and planning. And it would totally go against the theory of natural selection. Also, by the time that snakes could have strangely evolved syringe like teeth, their venom glands would have already been naturally phased out because those glands would have been totally useless for an extremely long time. But again, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that this second totally bizarre thing occurred. Now snakes would have had to evolve a structure that would connect the venom gland to the syringe like teeth. How could all of these bizarre things happen accidentally? …. or naturally?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t have to rely on my reasoning, not when Scientific American has a full article on this exact subject and Wikipedia has a good summary sitting right there. What the heck, here’s the National Geographic article too. These are literally the first three results when you Google “evolution of snake venom” so I guess you didn’t start there.

The first snakes actually did start off with venom glands because the glands first evolved in the ancestors of snakes, four-legged burrowing lizards more similar to the Komodo dragon. The proteins in venom share DNA with compounds that do other jobs. One is saliva, which breaks down organic material for digestion. Immune system proteins, which attack foreign elements in the body, are another. One compound that isn’t mentioned is stomach acid, but this is another dangerous substance that is essential to normal bodily function. We need poisons in our bodies to survive, only they’re poisons we’re able to tolerate because of how they’re produced and contained. Venom evolved many times over throughout the animal and plant kingdoms, because it has lots to build off.

As for delivery systems, of which there are many, you don’t need much of a starting point. Toads secrete poison on their skin and let it sit there, because the only animals they want to poison are those who try to eat them, so any number of bodily glands could have switched their purpose. Spitting cobras squirt venom forward, so what if they started by just plain spitting, or to be more specific, gleeking? With this technique, even humans can shoot liquid a long way from the body straight from a gland. A gland with a naturally effective nozzle like this can slowly evolve into either a weapon that can be aimed or a hard retractable tube that can inject, because every little bit closer it mutates to either one of these makes for more effective hunting and defense, and ultimately a better chance of survival.

With the specifics covered, let’s look at the overall nature of your challenge because it is VERY similar to those that have come before. You point to something remarkable and ask how it could have happened, and implicitly assert your own explanation by elimination after assuming no good answer is forthcoming. A textbook argument from ignorance (a harsh name, sorry, but the official one) and thus an informal fallacy, which is a failure of the premise of an argument to support its conclusion. It fails for several reasons: obviously it’s rebutted if an alternative answer is presented, but even if not it relies on the assumption that if you and I can’t think of a way then it’s impossible. We’d have to be gods ourselves for this to be true. I point out this fallacy whenever it comes in because it is the basis of many of the arguments for God, and every creationist argument. As a result, these arguments are only good for reassuring yourself and those who agree with you, because by themselves they have little power to persuade.

From Archaeology to Apes

Question from Kristi:
What is R. Dawkins’ view on Biblical archaeology? Scientists use fossils as artifacts, dinosaur bones, etc., yet when archaeologists find relief carvings of the Hebrews being taken into captivity by the Assyrians? Manfred Bietak has uncovered Semitic people’s remains dating back to time of the Famine around 1880 B.C, which would align with the information in the Jewish records and with the Biblical records of Genesis. Should not any artifact be considered scientific?

If we evolved from a complex organism such as the egg first then later to simpler organism such as the chicken, why are we not evolving anymore unless we are evolving into robots? Do you foresee the human race as fading out and becoming intelligent machines? We were once apes so would it be too much to believe we will re-evolve to something else?

Answer by SmartLX:
Richard Dawkins doesn’t seem to have made a public statement about Biblical archaeology as a whole, except to say there is no good evidence for any of the supernatural claims in the Bible, archaeological or otherwise. Evidence for non-supernatural elements of the Biblical narrative are another matter. There is plenty of evidence for the Assyrian captivity as you say. There were Israeli tribes about, no doubt, and they did leave their mark, but nothing in the archaeological record points to direct intervention by a deity with the interests of the Hebrews specifically at heart. Just because not everything in the Bible is untrue doesn’t mean the important bits for today’s believers are true.

Present-day human evolution is much like evolution at any other stage: so slow that any given generation doesn’t notice any major differences. We may be in the process of evolving into a very different form of organic life, but the process would take millions of years at least and research into the changes over the last few decades won’t give us much insight into that far future. Any transition to a machine or part-machine race is likely to be the result of deliberate self-alteration as a species, not Darwinian evolution.

Incidentally we are still apes. Leaving evolution and genetics aside completely, we meet the physical criteria to be classified as a “great ape”. Here’s a museum article.

Why We Aren’t All Smelling Our Butts Right Now

Question from Blink:
Hi guys. A theist asked me this question.

“Why are our eyes (not the anus) placed near our nose? Can you imagine how disturbing it would be if it were placed below our nose in place of our mouth!”

This is one of the many reasons why he believes in God.

I don’t know how to respond to this question, my instinct tells me maybe it has something to do with evolution. What is the appropriate respond to his question? Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
The anus is placed away from the mouth and nose because if any of our ancestors had developed the two close together, the species would have quickly been wiped out by anal-oral and anal-respiratory infections. On the other hand, the anus is placed near the genitalia and there’s a constant risk of infection between the two because that kind of infection isn’t usually enough to cause a major obstacle to survival, and there hasn’t been any major selection pressure to change it.

To make the same point more generally, if something being the case confers some kind of survival advantage, or if the alternative would make survival difficult, evolution is likely to encourage it to happen, because life will be easier at every stage for those who are closer to the ideal. Bad “ideas” are weeded out when the life forms that manifest them die.

But forget about evolution for a minute. Your theist asks why a particular thing is the case, and implies that if you don’t know, God must have done it. How utterly arrogant to think that just because the two of you may not be aware of any other explanations, reality must align perfectly with what HE thinks. This is a classic argument from ignorance, and the more people know what that is, the better for logic and reason in the world.

Counting Chromosomes

Question from Ken:
I’m agnostic. There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to understand about evolution for a while, and I hope this is the place to get it answered.

When I learnt about it, in school and university, they expressed the idea of increment changes (whether modifications of traits that were already there, or new traits through mutation) over time, passed on through generations, “chosen” by the ability to procreate and pass on genes. That, I think I get for the most part.

But what I never really understood is how the number of chromosomes could change over time. How can chromosome numbers increase and decrease? I mean… let’s say an individual somehow has it happen, shouldn’t he or she be unable to produce viable (or fertile?) offspring with others of the species because of the wrong numbers of chromosomes? How does chromosome number change at all? The only way I know is through issues that happen in meiosis, the kind of stuff that causes Down’s Syndrome, and the XXY and X gender chromosomal abnormalities that cause problems in humans.

So, my question is: How can chromosome number change in to produce a viable, fertile individual for it to be able to spread to an entire species?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a good question because a sudden whole extra chromosome full of junk, or a whole one gone missing, can indeed cause serious defects. That said, it helps to remember that a chromosome is merely a container of genes, and the number of chromosomes has very little to do with the amount of genetic information in each.

The addition of a chromosome is the more complex process, so I’m linking to an explanation of one mechanism by PZ Myers. Essentially, one chromosome’s worth of genes ends up being shared by two, and at first it can interact just fine with the old combined chromosome because the total sequence is the same. This does introduce a higher rate of error until individuals with the split chromosome start mating with each other, at which point there’s no longer a downside. Once the new number of chromosomes is settled, each chromosome is free to mutate independently and add new genetic information in the usual ways.

As for a reduction in chromosomes, we need look no further than our own genome. Our #2 chromosome pair is equivalent to two separate chromosome pairs in our closest ape relatives, but fused together. You can tell because there are two end markers (telomeres) right in the middle of it. No genetic information was lost, it was merely repackaged. This, importantly, is a very clear example of the kind of predictions one is able to make using evolutionary theory: the number of chromosomes in our genome compared to our ancestors’ (i.e. one less) tells us that exactly one fusion must have occurred, and we can then check the genome for only one extra set of markers.

And The Rest: You Finally Made A Monkey Out Of Me

Question:
If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to And The Rest, a potential new series where visitors and I try our best to create serious, concise, easy-to-understand answers to the most ignorant, misguided rhetorical questions and other hopeless arguments posed by theists who think they’ve got the ultimate trump card.

When you get one of these it betrays such lack of understanding and willingness to parrot propaganda that you may get angry and refuse to answer it; most of the time this will simply send the message that it works as rhetoric. I’d rather work on a library of straightforward answers which can be passed on and spread as wide as the questions themselves, until it’s inconceivable in each case that the question was ever given merit by anyone.

Right then, the monkey question is the classic example, so here’s my attempt to clear it up as quickly and simply as possible:

“Because not all the monkeys evolved into humans. Most of them evolved into other kinds of monkeys. They had different offspring like any family does. [Bonus semantics if you’re snarky:] And technically it was apes, not monkeys.”

Think you can come up with something more elegant? You’re probably right, so have a go in the comments. Otherwise, comment with some other faux “stumpers” we should cover in this series. Cheers.

If Evolution Is True…

Question from Josh:
If evolution is true,why did an EVOLUTIONIST admit that Archaeopteryx was/is a PERCHING BIRD!?

Also,what about the sabretoothed herbivore,or the fact that Trilobites have such perfect vision that there was no distortion (at ALL!)?

Answer by SmartLX:
Archaeopteryx is indeed currently classified as a bird rather than a dinosaur. It’s still descended from dinosaurs or other reptiles, which is obvious because despite its birdlike characteristics putting it over the line it’s still replete with reptilian characteristics. Its common ancestor with dinosaurs was just a bit further back. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.

Tiarajudens was indeed a herbivore with a pair of “sabreteeth”. We know it ate plants because the teeth around it are well suited for the purpose of grinding plant matter. The big fangs would either have been a holdover from a carnivorous ancestor or a useful defence and deterrent against its contemporary predators. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.

Trilobites had highly advanced eyes, developed at great speed as a primary tool for hunting food and avoiding predators (and therefore a major “selection pressure”).

One type of trilobite-style eye
One type of trilobite-style eye, courtesy of Wikipedia

The trilobite-style eye evolved quite separately from the eye we see in mammals and reptiles today; since it was adapted for use in water, it wouldn’t be much use to us anyway. Some of its components, for instance the signalling system, had already existed for millions of years in lifeforms as diverse as protozoa, plants and yeast. Some trilobites effectively lost their eyes over time because they were living so deep underwater there was no light to speak of. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.