Monday, 10 June 2013

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 4

BSCE and John Hellawell - The Darwin Delusion

Many Christian sects used the 150th anniversary of the publication of the 1st edition of Darwin's The Origin of Species to attack evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, our community did not resist the temptation to gatecrash the party. John Hellawell, a retired freshwater ecologist who has written at least one anti-evolution tract [1] gave a number of talks timed to coincide with the celebrations [2]. One of his talks, given at Redditch in the United Kingdom was attended by members of the British Centre for Science Education, an anti-creationist organisation. The report of his talk and the Q&A session afterwards makes for depressing reading. [3]
The talk started with a glowing introduction to Dr Hellawell informing us how qualified a biologist he was and how the guy introducing him couldn’t even pronounce what his PhD was in. That suggested to me that those who’d invited him wouldn’t be qualified to know if he was telling the truth or not.
Small details like this are quickly picked up by a scientifically literate audience, and makes us look amateurish. Furthermore, the person who introduced Hellawell committed the logical fallacy of argument from authority. While Hellawell - unlike Bilello - is a biologist and is therefore arguably in a better position to speak with some authority about biology, his doctorate does not make him an expert in evolutionary biology, but rather in one narrow field. Furthermore, Hellawell is one of a tiny minority of degree-qualified biologists who rejects evolution [3] making his opinion hardly authoritative in the scientific community.
He said that after 150 years, evolution is still a bone of contention within the scientific community, which is simply untrue. He also mentioned a book by John Lennox which gave evidence against evolution. Lennox is a mathematician and philosopher, not a scientist. The infamous New Scientist headline was also quoted (Darwin was wrong) without reference to the actual article or the editorial predicting is would be used in just this dishonest way by creationists.
Unfortunately, the BSCE correspondent is entirely correct in her criticisms. Take the claim that evolution is "still a bone of contention within the scientific community."  Hellawell has failed to differentiate between the fact of evolution (common descent and large-scale evolutionary change) and the mechanism by which it is believed to have occurred (the modern evolutionary synthesis). While the latter is still an area of active research, the former is no longer seriously questioned outside of a fundamentalist fringe. Hellawell is simply wrong to claim that evolution remains a contentious subject. The evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory notes that:
Over the past 150 years, [Darwin's evidence for evolution] has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma (1998) notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science. [5]
Citing the work of the mathematician and philosopher John Lennox as a reliable source of information against evolution was another poor move by Hellawell. Lennox is not a biologist, so is hardly going to be speaking with authority on the subject. As Gregory noted, evolution is one of the best-attested scientific facts, which raises the question as to the credibility of Lennox's anti-evolution arguments. Citing minority opinion, particularly from a non-expert is hardly the way to advance one's case.

The final comment about Hellawell's uncritical citation of the 21st January 2009 New Scientist cover story [6] is particularly depressing, given that - as the BSCE correspondent noted - the magazine went out of its way to warn of special creationist abuse of the article. In short, the article is a popular-level overview of horizontal gene transfer, and the implications it has for modern evolutionary biology. In short, horizontal gene transfer is the exchange of genetic material between species, sometimes between those that are only distantly related. While it is largely a feature of two of the three domains of life (Bacteria and Archaea), there is evidence that it takes place in multicellular life. While it shows that evolution is far more complicated than we had initially thought, horizontal gene transfer however does not mean that common descent has been invalidated. While the tree of life is better modelled as a net at its roots, at the eukaryotic level, the tree model is very much alive:

Lawton's article did not pronounce the death of evolution. Rather, it made the point that evolutionary relationships at the level of single-celled organisms (as seen above) are not modeled exclusively by a tree. At the level of multicellular organisms, the tree of life is obsolete:
Nobody is arguing – yet – that the tree concept has outlived its usefulness in animals and plants. While vertical descent is no longer the only game in town, it is still the best way of explaining how multicellular organisms are related to one another – a tree of 51 per cent, maybe. In that respect, Darwin's vision has triumphed: he knew nothing of micro-organisms and built his theory on the plants and animals he could see around him.  
Even so, it is clear that the Darwinian tree is no longer an adequate description of how evolution in general works. “If you don't have a tree of life, what does it mean for evolutionary biology?” asks Bapteste. “At first it's very scary… but in the past couple of years people have begun to free their minds.” Both he and Doolittle are at pains to stress that downgrading the tree of life doesn't mean that the theory of evolution is wrong – just that evolution is not as tidy as we would like to believe. Some evolutionary relationships are tree-like; many others are not. “We should relax a bit on this,” says Doolittle. “We understand evolution pretty well – it's just that it is more complex than Darwin imagined. The tree isn't the only pattern.”
That Hellawell would cite the New Scientist article as evidence of a crisis in evolution does him no credit, particularly when the editorial warned against creationist abuse of the cover article:
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that "New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong". Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not. [7]
It beggars belief that Hellawell would even think of citing this New Scientist article given what both lead article and editorial said. Any audience member familiar with the New Scientist article would be hard-pressed not to conclude that Hellawell either had not  read the article in question but simply used the provocative cover, or had failed to understand what he had read.

While there is little benefit in further comments on the BSCE report given that what has been seen is damning, two final quotations serve to show how damaging anti-evolutionary lectures are to our credibility.

When dealing with [evidence of evolution in the fossil record] he was in his element and told us how Darwin had referred to the fact we should see transitions in the fossil record and lamented the fact we didn’t.
Here is the quote he gave:
“But, as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?”
And here is the rest of it, that was kept from the audience by Dr Hellawell;
“It will be more convenient to discuss this question in the chapter on the Imperfection of the Geological Record; and I will here only state that I believe the answer mainly lies in the record being incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been imperfectly made, and only at long intervals of time.”
Here is an extract from the chapter Darwin refers to;
“These causes [the imperfection of the fossil record, the limited exploration of the record, poor fossilization of certain body types, etc.], taken conjointly, will to a large extent explain why -- though we do find many links -- we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all extinct and existing forms by the finest graduated steps. It should also be constantly borne in mind that any linking variety between two forms, which might be found, would be ranked, unless the whole chain could be perfectly restored, as a new and distinct species; for it is not pretended that we have any sure criterion by which species and varieties can be discriminated.”
I think that by anyone’s standards, simply quoting the first line is extremely dishonest and misleading. 
But Hellawell simply went on to claim that the situation had not changed since Darwin’s day. He repeated again and again that there were no transition fossils.
Again, to an informed audience member, the only charitable conclusion one could draw from Hellawell's incomplete citation of the Darwin quote was that he had not verified his reference, but was simply quoting its incomplete citation from another author. Likewise, the demonstrably false comment that there were no transitional fossils would brand Hellawell in the eyes of an informed audience member as completely out of touch with contemporary research in palaeontology.

Tiktaalik roseae  is a Devonian fish which blurs the boundary between fish and tetrapod to such a degree that the portmanteau term fishapod has been coined in order to fully describe its status as a significant transitional fossil. The palaeontologists involved in its study and analysis state:
The pectoral skeleton of Tiktaalik is transitional between fish fins and tetrapod limbs. Comparison of the fin with those of related fish reveals that the manus is not a de novo novelty of tetrapods; rather, it was assembled in fishes over evolutionary time to meet the diverse challenges of life in the marshes of Devonian aquatic evosystems. [8]
This was written in 2006, three years before Hellawell gave his presentation. It is simply inexcusable for anyone to give a public lecture in which specific claims such as that no transitions existed in the fossil record were made, when information such as the discovery of Tiktaalik was common knowledge for the past three years.

The question and answer session simply emphasised how much of a liability anti-evolution lectures are, particularly when an informed, critical audience exposes the flaws in the presentation:
In the Q&A all the questioners were hostile to his ideas but unfailingly polite to him. His supporters remained silent and a little shell-shocked. 
He was asked to explain vestigial limbs by someone, e.g. internal limbs found in whales. He gave a vague answer about the appendix now having some use, he didn’t seem to know about hind limbs sometimes being found in whales. (Vestigial does not mean without any use but he implies otherwise with his appendix comment)
Someone else asked why he hadn’t mentioned DNA as much stronger evidence for evolution than fossils gave some excellent examples of our DNA and chimps. His reply was rather waffly and basically consisted of him saying that it wasn’t proof.
Thanks to the BCSE recommendations about taking notes, I was able to ask him about why he’d said there were no beneficial mutations and I named a couple - lactose tolerance and HIV resistance on the CCR5 gene. His reply was they didn’t lead to new species. Which wasn’t the point I was asking about - moving goalposts once again! 
I also asked why he’d said there were no transition fossils and I named Thrinaxadon and our very good record of reptile to mammal fossils. With hindsight, I probably dwelt on this too long and I wish I’d mentioned the hundreds others like Tiktaalik or some of the newer ones to further support my question. He asked what order they’d been put in and then just blustered when pressed further.
This is without doubt disastrous publicity for us - particularly as it is immortalised on-line - but the worst part of this was the fact that:
Afterwards several people approached me to say “thank you” and “well done” and I told them about the BCSE and the Creation watch campaign.
When members of the audience our community was trying to reach with our anti-evolution lecture instead thanked the defenders of mainstream science who rebutted the points made in the lecture, it is hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that attacking evolution is a disastrous preaching strategy, particularly in an age when a person with a smart phone can check the factual accuracy of such lectures, and at the conclusion of the presentation eviscerate the presenter with the facts.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. Hellawell, J.H. "Creation or Evolution?" (2004, Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association)

4. The number of geologists and biologists who reject evolution is less than 1%.

5. Gregory T.R. "Evolution as Fact, Theory and PathEvo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46–52

6. Lawton G "Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life" New Scientist  21st Jan 2009

7. Editorial: Uprooting Darwin's tree New Scientist 21st January 2009

8. Shubin NH, Daeschler EB, Jenkins FA. The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limbNature. 2006;440(7085):764-71.