Monday, 10 June 2013

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 3

Christian attempts to sabotage the teaching of evolutionary biology are unsurprisingly being challenged by defenders of mainstream science [1] who take exception to religiously-motivated attacks on science education. Unsurprisingly, Christadelphian lectures attacking evolution have been targeted by such defenders of mainstream science, suggesting that such lectures are potentially bad publicity for our community, as they result in us being linked with the more extreme elements of fundamentalist Christianity.

Three examples of adverse publicity arising from Christadelphian anti-evolution public lectures will be cited, not as a shaming exercise, but rather as a plea to our community to stop this form of preaching, as it does more harm than good. Not only does it link us with discredited fundamentalist organisations such as Creation Ministries International and Answers in Genesis, but the negative effect on young people in attendance seeing those lectures torn apart is incalculable.

1. The Panda's Thumb: An Open Letter to John Bilello

Public lectures attacking evolution given by emeritus professor John Bilello, from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan [2]  in 2005 were systematically taken apart by Jeffrey Shallit, a professor at the School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, Ontario [3] who is a well-known defender of mainstream science and critic of intelligent design.[4]

Shallit did not pull any punches when criticising Bilello's lecture:
I found your talk filled with misconceptions and misrepresentations, most of which could be easily corrected by taking an undergraduate course in evolutionary biology. I know you will want to correct these mistakes in future talks.
1. You claimed that scientists do not know the mechanism of how DNA changes. This is simply false. Point mutations, for example, can be due to tautomeric shift (a movement of hydrogen atoms that changes the properties of bonding). Radiation, including ultraviolet and gamma rays, are other causes of mutations. This is taught in undergraduate biology.
2. You claimed that changes to the genome do not result in new species. Again, this is simply false. For example, new species of garden flowers are routinely created through polyploidy. For more examples of speciation events, see
3. You seem to not understand what “neo-Darwinism” is. In your talk you said that Stephen Jay Gould was one of its leading proponents, and you implied that neo-Darwinism had a close association with punctuated equilibrium. In fact, “neo-Darwinism” (also called the “Modern Synthesis”) is simply evolutionary theory as it has developed in light of modern genetics and population biology. Neo-Darwinism includes genetic drift as a mechanism of evolution. It also says that characteristics are inherited discretely, as genes. You can read more about what biologists understand by “neo-Darwinism” by reading a biology textbook, such as Futuyma’s Evolutionary Biology or by following this link: 
4. You claim that “laboratory experiments have not verified neo-Darwinism”. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean. Are you denying the gene theory of inheritance? Or that genetic drift is an evolutionary mechanism? [5] 
Shallit continued by rebutting 'arguments against evolution' advanced by Bilello, including the claim that there are no transitional fossils:
“Where is the fossil evidence for all the intermediate life forms?” You claimed that only one intermediate was known, and even that was under dispute. This is an outrageous misrepresentation. Literally thousands of intermediates are known, and you could have verified this with even the most cursory examination of the literature. For example, see Kathleen Hunt’s “Transitional Fossil FAQ”:  
Shallit is needless to say correct here, as the fossil record abounds with transitional forms [6-9] confirming that Bilello's arguments are not informed by the scientific evidence. This reflects poorly both on Bilello's mastery of a subject in which he, as an outsider (materials scientist) has presumed to lecture others, as well as our credibility as a community. [10]

Did Shallit misrepresent Bilello? Not at all. In a multi-part series Bible and Science which ran in the Tidings magazine over a couple of years, he made a number of errors in his attacks on evolutionary biology. In on, he invoked the argument that the modern evolutionary synthesis 'demands' gradualism, whereas the fossil record allegedly does not show this:
Evolutionists seem to want it both ways; the literature is replete with gradualism arguments, while in the background is the clear evidence from the fossil record that this model just does not cut it! Using the gradualism argument evolutionists assumed time was the mechanism that explained evolution. The usual simile was that one should imagine a bevy of monkeys plucking away at random on the keyboards of typewriters. Given eons of time, the monkeys would eventually produce tons of literary garbage, but they would also compose all the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare, as well as every other piece of literature ever written. The same assumed mechanism was supposed to apply to gradual evolution, namely, over vast ages of time all possible combinations of the DNA genetic code could have been formed and only the successful ones would have survived assuming the basis embodied in Darwin’s precept of the survival of the fittest. However, the prime conclusion of the “punctuated equilibrium” model is that the fossil record is “no gradual story”. What Darwin expected has not happened. With those three words, classic Darwinism should be dead or, at best, in a severe comatose state. (Emphasis mine) [11] 
Always verify your references. Bilello refers to a popular book  edited by Stephen Gould, "The Book of Life". What's the context? The quoted words are in bold:
The Cambrian had always been a mystery, a highway starting in a desert. Now we have pathways converging to feed it, and it turns out to be a broader road than we knew. Yet it is no gradual story that our discoveries reveal, but a revolutionary episode, crammed with new animals, some big and some small, some with skeletons and some without. Can we account for the sudden appearance of so many fundamentally different kinds of animals - the basic phyla? And why did the variety of animals within each phylum rocket so steeply upward? Scientists would like to know what gave "higher" animal life the functions and structures it started with, and whether the evolutionary rules have changed since then. 
In the next paragraph, the author points out that adaptive radiations occur when life encounters new ecological niches which have yet to be exploited, then continues:
Apply this formula to the Cambrian explosion. Suddenly there were creatures whose size and mobility enabled them to exploit whole oceans full of resources never previously vulnerable to capture and easy to digest. Here was virtually limitless abundance at a number of levels...
What happens when animals flood into empty ecological space is a sequence well known in life's history. Not only individuals, but also species, begin to multiply, and at a geometric rate...The easier the access to new and diverse environments, the more likely the accidents that lead to speciation, the birth of new species.
We can't date rocks of the early Cambrian with a margin of error less than 5 to 10 My, but in the longer term the number of fossil taxa does seem to increase geometrically...The increase flagged in less than 20 My, and after that diversity levelled off until the end of the Cambrian [12]
Bilello has completely  missed the point, and his selective quotation is misleading, given that he claims that "the prime conclusion of the “punctuated equilibrium” model is that the fossil record is “no gradual story” The quote has nothing to do with punctuated equilibrium theory, but is referring to the Cambrian adaptive radiation! If he'd bothered quoting the context, not only would this have been evident, but he would have seen one of the explanations for the 'Cambrian explosion".

I use the term Cambrian adaptive radiation, not only because that's essentially what it was, but because as evangelical Christian and palaeontologist Keith Miller notes, the explosion took some time in taking place:
Defining the Cambrian “explosion” is not as straightforward as it might seem. Although there was clearly a major burst of evolutionary innovation and diversification in the first 20 million years or so of the Cambrian, this was preceded by an extended period of about 40 million years during which metazoans (multicellular animals) arose and attained critical levels of anatomical complexity. The Ediacaran saw the appearance of organisms with the fundamental features that would characterize the later Cambrian organisms (such as three tissue layers, and bilaterally symmetric bodies with a mouth and anus), as well as the first representatives of modern phyla. The base of the Cambrian is not marked by a sharp dramatic appearance of living phyla without Precambrian roots. It is a subjectively defined point in a continuum. The Cambrian “explosion” appears to have had a “long fuse.” [13]
What else can one say? This is appalling research by Bilello, and shows unfortunately that his 2005 lecture was not an isolated incident, but representative of his poor understanding of evolutionary biology. Worse still, with this material in the public domain, it simply reinforces the perception that we are no better than the fundamentalists Christian critics of evolutionary biology whose attacks are misleading and poorly researched.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. Organisations such as the National Center for Science Education exist as a direct response to fundamentalist Christian attacks on the teaching of evolutionary biology. See



4. Elsberry, Wesley, and Jeffrey Shallit. (2011) Information theory, evolutionary computation, and Dembski’s “complex specified information”. Synthese 178 (2):237-270.

5. Shallit J "An Open Letter to John C. Bilello, or More Data for the Salem Hypothesis"  Panda's Thumb  May 4, 2005

6. Clack, J. A. (2009). The Fish–Tetrapod Transition: New Fossils and Interpretations. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2(2), 213–223.

7. Chiappe, L. M. (2009). Downsized Dinosaurs: The Evolutionary Transition to Modern Birds. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2(2), 248–256.

8. Thewissen, J. G. M., Cooper, L. N., George, J. C., & Bajpai, S. (2009). From Land to Water: the Origin of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2(2), 272–288.

9. Prothero, D. R. (2009). Evolutionary Transitions in the Fossil Record of Terrestrial Hoofed Mammals. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2(2), 289–302
10. Although his Christadelphian affiliation is not mentioned on the Panda's Thumb blog, Shallit links to another site criticising Bilello's lectures which linked to an article he wrote in the Tidings magazine.

11. Bilello J "Bible and Science (18): When? Part 2" Tidings Jan 2005

12. Sepowski JJ "Foundations: Life in the Oceans" pp 55-56 in The Book of Life  Ed. Stephen Gould (WW Norton, 2001)