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Friday, 31 July 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 7

That special creationists in our community still deny the fact of common descent despite the powerful witness to this fact from the genomics data is a testament both to how poorly informed their anti-evolution arguments are, and the degree to which their adherence to fundamentalist distortions of the creation narratives blinds them to this evidence. I've outlined this evidence many times before, but in order to make this series self-contained, I will go through the main lines of evidence in the following posts.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 6

Given both the long-standing, overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of evolution, and the fact that there are many prominent life and earth scientists who are committed Christians and obviously do not regard evolution as intrinsically anti-theistic, the burden of proof clearly lies solely on the evolution denialists in our community to show why such a robust consensus that unifies both believers and non-believers is wrong. Unfortunately, evading the burden of proof is a common tactic among evolution denialists. One attempt to shift that burden of proof is to assert that scientists are the least qualified to speak authoritatively on evolution. The justification for this bizarre claim is that scientific specialisation means that each individual scientist can only speak authoritatively on a narrow subject, and therefore not offer an opinion on the remainder of the field. The argument therefore is that each scientist is accepting on trust what others outside their area of competence says, and therefore accepts evolution on faith.

This poor logic can readily be demonstrated by the always-useful tactic of replacing evolution with any other well-accepted scientific fact and seeing how unconvincing the logic is:
"As research scientists are hyper-specialised, they are therefore manifestly unqualified to speak authoritatively on continental drift. Individual geologists may be experts in geophysics, stratigraphy, radiometric dating, biogeography, or vulcanology, but given that - say - the geophysicist has probably never seen a fossil or the biogeographer never dated a fossil, they are simply looking at a tiny part of the whole, and merely taking the word of the other scientists."
Similar points could be made about the germ theory of disease, the atomic theory of matter, or any other well-attested fact for which a robust scientific theory exists, with the fundamental principle being the difference between the scientific theory that seeks to to explain the scientific facts (common descent in this case) and the theoretical mechanism that seeks to explain these facts (the modern synthetic theory of evolution). When framed this way, the patently unconvincing nature of this attempt by evolution denialists to evade the burden of proof is obvious.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 5

Fideism, scientific epistemology, and the ‘shifting sands of science’

When special creationists attack evolution by appealing to the fact that ‘scientific opinions change constantly’, it is clear that the person making this claim is ignorant of the basics of scientific epistemology. Put simply, interpretations may change, but facts remain, and in this case, while the theoretical mechanism of evolution is an area of active research, the fact of common descent and large scale evolutionary change is not doubted outside of a tiny fundamentalist rump whose objections are not scientific but stem from their fundamentalist misreading of the Bible.

Put another way, this reflects the special creationist failure to grasp what a scientific theory means, as any claim that scientific interpretations change betrays the common misunderstanding of a theory as a hunch, guess, or speculation, rather than a tested collection of facts and hypotheses that has explanatory and predictive power:
The common and scientific definitions of “theory,” unlike of “fact,” are drastically different. In daily conversation, “theory” often implicitly indicates a lack of supporting data. Indeed, introducing a statement with “My theory is...” is usually akin to saying “I guess that...”, “I would speculate that...”, or “I believe but have not attempted to demonstrate that...”. By contrast, a theory in science, again following the definition given by the NAS, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” Science not only generates facts but seeks to explain them, and the interlocking and well-supported explanations for those facts are known as theories. Theories allow aspects of the natural world not only to be described, but to be understood. Far from being unsubstantiated speculations, theories are the ultimate goal of science.[1]
Furthermore, it ignores the basics of scientific epistemology that freely state that “truth in science is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow”. [2] To the scientifically naive layperson, this may seem to be a weakness, but in fact it is one of the great strengths of science, helping prevent it from being locked into dogma.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 4

Paul on Mars Hill – Epicureanism is not the same thing as evolutionary biology

Special creationists appeal to Paul’s address on Mars Hill both to prove monogenism, and to claim that as the Epicureans were ‘evolutionists’, Paul’s address is evidence that he did not accommodate it. The first point is based on a complete lack of understanding of the context of Paul’s address and a flawed reading of the relevant verses in Acts 17, while the second claim is an evidence-free assertion that makes the mistake of confusing ancient Greek philosophical speculation with modern science which is comprehensively attested by the scientific evidence. One could just as readily argue that Paul did not accommodate atomic theory given that Epicurus adhered to this theory. Are we to deny the atomic theory of matter to be consistent? The folly is this position is clearly evident.

Where the special creationist attacks founder is that they forget that: the evolutionary speculations of Epicurus are to modern evolutionary biology what atomic materialism is to modern particle physics. The evidence for both views is overwhelming, and to dismiss evolutionary biology simply because Paul argued with philosophers who maintained a primitive philosophical analogue to it makes as much sense as to deny that matter consists of atoms because the Epicureans were atomic materialists.

Monday, 27 July 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 3

As I pointed out in the introductory post, fifty years ago, the then-arranging brothers of the Watford Ecclesia excommunicated bro. Ralph Lovelock for his views on how to reconcile the evidence of pre-Adamic human fossils with Christadelphian theology. However, it is a mistake to read this as a binding, ex-cathedra statement proscribing evolutionary creationism for all time. Even if it was, the Watford statement reminded us to acknowledge that such scientific problems exist, and need to be confronted honestly, with a view to look after 'those of tender years'

Unfortunately, it is common for anti-evolutionists in our community to appeal to the Watford decision and claim that this means our community rejected evolutionary creationism fifty years ago - ecclesial autonomy alone would ensure that local decisions remain local, so Watford's decision is anything but binding on the entire ecclesial world. Furthermore, the use of emotional language such as calling it "inimical to our faith" and a "threat" not only is a poor substitute for rational, informed commentary, but is hard to reconcile with the Watford statement's call to discuss things in a calm manner.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 2

In the intervening half-century since the then-arranging brothers of the Watford Ecclesia excommuicated bro. Ralph Lovelock for his views on how to reconcile the evidence of pre-Adamic human fossils with Christadelphian theology, not only has our community not made any substantive effort to honestly engage with these problems, it has retreated even from the old-earth creationist view which was normative up until the mid-20th century and uncritically adopted both the YEC worldview of American Protestant fundamentalism, and its extreme literalist approach to reading Genesis. Attacks on evolution are made in complete ignorance both of the evidence for evolution, and the considerable advances made in reading the creation narratives that take into account both its ancient Near Eastern  background, and the recognition among even many conservative Old Testament scholars that both fundamentalism and strong concordism are failed views that have long passed their use-by date.

In order to help make up for this regrettable lack of knowledge, I have selected a number of presentations from respected scholars in the life sciences and Old Testament studies. The motivated viewer who invests the time to watch and study them will be in an excellent position to appreciate why presentations such as those made by Stephen Palmer and other evolution denialists are inaccurate and unhelpful.

Friday, 24 July 2015

A four-legged snake fossil 110 million years old - the transitional fossils keep on coming

While the exact details of snake evolution are still to be worked out, there is no doubt that snakes evolved from four-legged ancestors. We have evidence of snake fossils with small hind limbs such as Najash rionergina [1] and Haasiophis terrasanctus [2] which provide evidence of limb loss in snake ancestors which had adopted a burrowing way of life in which limbs were not critical for mobility.,. Now, we have evidence of a transitional snake with four limbs. Tetrapodophis amplectus is a 110 million year old snake from the early Cretaceous. The authors of the article note:
We describe a four-limbed snake from the Early Cretaceous (Aptian) Crato Formation of Brazil. The snake has a serpentiform body plan with an elongate trunk, short tail, and large ventral scales suggesting characteristic serpentine locomotion, yet retains small prehensile limbs. Skull and body proportions as well as reduced neural spines indicate fossorial adaptation, suggesting that snakes evolved from burrowing rather than marine ancestors. [3]
Apart from providing more evidence for the hypothesis that snakes evolved from four-legged burrowing ancestors, it provides us with a splendid transitional fossil, allowing us to see the trend from four-legged snakes, to two-legged snakes, and on to the limbless snakes of today. 

Evolution? The transitional fossils emphatically declare 'yes'.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Demonising old earth creationism to protect evolution denialism - the latest anti-evolution strategy

There's an interesting development occurring among the more militant evolution denialists in our community in an attempt to protect their distorted reading of both Bible and nature from attack, and that is to declare belief in an old earth a 'gateway drug' to evolutionary creationism. The logic of this move is fairly easy to see as by denying that the Earth is old, the millions of years needed for evolution are taken away, making special creationism true by default.

We can see evidence of this in comments such as this one made at a Christadelphian science denialist Facebook group, in a thread advertising Don Pearce's controversial lecture which alleges that humans and dinosaurs coexisted as recently as several hundred years ago:
The implication are enormousness [sic] if you accept YEC - it means you cannot have evolution!. It's only the Old earthers that then leave it wide open to TE's. Why are so called believers of God quick to dismiss the statement 'In the Beginning God Created' Please Please accept God at his word - 1This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; 2Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the 'DAY' when they were created.
Treating OEC as a 'gateway drug' to EC and criticising it accordingly is a new and disturbing development in militant evolution denialism. Not only does it marginalise contemporary OEC Christadelphians by declaring their position to be theologically unsound as it "leave[s] it wide open to TE's", it guarantees that by grounding faith on the fiction of a young Earth, it ensures that once intellectually honest YECs encounter the evidence for an ancient Earth, the chances of them taking the well-worn path from YEC straight to atheism will be quite high. Far from protecting faith, such reckless moves dangerously undermines it.

Friday, 17 July 2015

A new feathered dinosaur from China: the transitional fossils keep piling up

The journal Scientific Reports carries a short article [1] announcing the discovery of a near-complete feathered dinosaur from the early Cretaceous period in China. Zhenyuanlong suni was around 150cm in length, and had long arms with broad feathered wings and a feathered tail. While the evidence for bird evolution from dinosaurs is robust, [2] magnificent discoveries such as this are useful from an educational point of view in that they provide splendid examples of well-preserved dinosaurs with bird-like features that emphatically show their transitional status.

More to the point, it also shows why the YEC view of 'kind' as a biological classification is meaningless. Is this bird kind? Is this dinosaur kind? Clearly fossils such as this break down that naive concept of kind by the fact they stubbornly refuse to fit into an arbitrary classification, which is what you would expect from a transitional fossil, after all.

The holotype of the large-bodied, short-armed Liaoning dromaeosaurid Zhenyuanlong suni gen et. sp. nov. (JPM-0008). Source

(A) overview of the skeleton with regions of integument indicated with grey highlight; (B) proximal tail; (C) left forearm; (D) right forearm; (E) closeup of coverts on right forearm. Source
Artis's Impression (Source)

References

1. Lü, J. and Brusatte, S. L. A large, short-armed, winged dromaeosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Early Cretaceous of China and its implications for feather evolution. Sci. Rep. 5, 11775; doi: 10.1038/srep11775 (2015).
2. Chiape L.M. "Downsized Dinosaurs: The Evolutionary Transition to Modern Birds" Evo Edu Outreach (2009) 2:248-256

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Christadelphians using pseudoscience to argue that humans and dinosaurs coexisted

Christadelphian YEC Don Pearce has once more advanced a pseudoscientific view, [1] this time claiming in a lecture which has unfortunately been uploaded to YouTube that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. This view is of course false. Dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago, while the oldest anatomically modern human fossils are approximately 200,000 years old. Pearce appeals to mythology, cryptozoology and YEC arguments of extremely dubious provenance in order to justify this argument. One example should suffice to highlight the complete absence of anything resembling competent research in this lecture, one which as I saw yesterday when one Christadelphian shared it to an evolution-creation Facebook group, will bring nothing but derision and scorn towards our community.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Contrasting comments from fundamentalists at a science denialist Facebook group

Sometimes, even fundamentalists will get things right. One commenter at a Christadelphian science denialist Facebook group recently pointed out the need to always "examine ourselves and ask why we are feeling, thinking, or reacting in a particular way" and noted that those "who will never admit error, who are always right, who never concede will seek to tarnish and deride their greatest threats." I agree. Self-examination is always important, particularly when one is emotionally invested in a view and therefore at risk of ignoring the evidence that falsifies that worldview. Unsurprisingly, that Christadelphian science denialist Facebook group is notorious for having people who fail to heed that message of self-critical examination and "who will never admit error, who are always right, who never concede will seek to tarnish and deride their greatest threats".

Monday, 13 July 2015

Coelacanths are not living fossils


One of the standard special creationist arguments against evolution is the so-called 'living fossil', organisms that allegedly have not changed at all over millions of years. The coelacanth is frequently cited by special creationists as an example of a fish that has 'forgotten to evolve'. For example, the Institute of Creation Research claims that:
One of the most spectacular living fossils is the coelacanth, a lobe-finned fish. Once known only from fossilized remains, this fish was considered by many to be a key transitional form (“missing link”) between fish and amphibians. Its fossils are found in Devonian strata, which are assigned a stunningly vast age of 400 million years. However, a live coelacanth hauled up in a fishing net off Madagascar in 1938 showed the same well-designed form as the fossils. It uses its unique fins to orient itself vertically in the deepest seas of the Indian Ocean, not for “walking” onto land from shallow waters. Where is any evidence of natural selection having made even one significant change in this fish over its supposed 400-million-year existence? A similar question could be asked of a host of living fossils.
There are many problems with this argument, ranging from the fact that such claims are often made on examination of photographs of fossil and living creature by non-specialists (detailed examination of both is needed to comment authoritatively on the degree of morphological change) to the creationist belief that evolution should take place along orthogenetic lines, as evidenced by their assumption that these fossils should have 'evolved' into something else, a comment betraying gross ignorance of evolutionary theory.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Sometimes, even evolution denialists can stumble on the truth

The extreme evolution denialist websites that do their best to live up to every atheist's stereotype of the wilfully ignorant fundamentalist Christian sometimes occasionally come up with the odd nugget of truth. This one came from the internecine brawling on one of those science denialist echo chambers between the hard-line YECs, and the OEC faction that appreciates the folly of blithely assuming that geology is 'science falsely so called.' One of the OEC evolution denialist at the site pointed out that geology poses considerable problems for YECs:

How to make the Bible compatible with special creationism - 2

As I've pointed out many times, no special creationist really reads Genesis 1 literally, partly because such a literal reading fundamentally contradicts Genesis 2, partly because in order to make it harmonise with what even YECs acknowledge to be true about the natural world, they read int the narrative modern science. As Science and Scripture points out in this second part of their series on making the Bible compatible with special creationism, the considerable time delay of 105 years between the Genesis command to be fruitful and multiply, and the birth of Seth alone is enough to show the degree of massaging, twisting, and re-interpretation that goes on in YEC interpretation.


Tuesday, 7 July 2015

How to make the Bible compatible with special creationism - 1

Special creationists constantly assert that they read Genesis 1 plainly and literally. That is false, given the fact that they are forced to create elaborate harmonisations to reconcile a literal reading of Genesis 1 with Genesis 2 given that both flat-out contradict each other on the length, order, and duration of creation events. If the two creation narratives were meant to be read literally, no harmonisation would be needed. Add to that the fact Genesis 1 when read plainly and literally teaches the existence of a solid firmament separating waters above from waters below, and the special creationist claim that they read Genesis 1 literally is one that rings hollow.

Truth be told, special creationists unconsciously alter the plain meaning of the text in order to make it harmonise with astronomical facts that not even YECs can deny. The following, courtesy of Science and Scripture ably demonstrates why no one, not even YECs really read Genesis 1 in a plain, literal manner.



Monday, 6 July 2015

When scientific competence meets YEC incompetence...

While the recent influx of militant anti-evolutionists into the Science and Scripture Facebook page has seen some of them use somewhat intemperate rhetoric, there has also been examples of posters showing both profound ignorance of evolutionary biology, and a complete lack of insight into that fact. Both are poor publicity for our community in their own way; the former for reasons outlined in my last post, the latter because it gives the impression that anti-intellectualism, science denialism, and fundamentalism are rampant in our community, and positively shouts to anyone interested in the gospel message who also respects science that they will not be welcome.

"By their fruits ye shall know them" - YEC extremists in their own words

Over the many years I've been following Christadelphian anti-evolutionists, I've noticed that poor scholarship, misrepresentation of evolutionary creationist views in our community, uncritical reliance on pseudoscientific resources, quote mining, and logical fallacies are their stock in trade. To their credit, gratuitously offensive, belligerent, abusive, and hostile behaviour was quite uncommon. This has changed recently, with the emergence of militantly ignorant YEC echo chambers that seem to make inculcation of such behaviour the norm rather than the exception. In the last few days, some of those responsible for the most extreme rhetoric have drifted over to the always excellent (and incredibly patient) Science and Scripture page, and have made a very strong case that militant YEC is anything but conducive towards Christian behaviour.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Alan Hayward reminds Christadelphians of our old earth creationist heritage

Thirty years ago, the late Alan Hayward, a Christadelphian old earth creationist published Creation and Evolution: The Facts and the Fallacies which sought to combat both young earth creationism and evolution. While his arguments against evolution have not withstood the test of time, his incisive critique of young earth creationism and flood geology remains one of the best refutations of both of these aberrant viewpoints. His preface to Christadelphian readers (not found in books aimed at a general audience) deserves as wide an audience as possible to show how YEC  owes nothing to the Bible, to the scientific facts, and to our original heritage.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

John Horgan Reviews Jerry Coyne's "Faith vs. Fact"

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has joined a number of other scientific New Atheists in jumping on the anti-theism bandwagon with his book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible in which he attacks religion and declares it thoroughly incompatible with science. Given that Coyne has already demonstrated less than stellar competence when straying outside of his narrow area of professional expertise as evidenced by his flirtation with the pseudohistorical belief that the historical Jesus never existed, the odds of it being little more than a poorly-informed scientistic rant are hardly minimal.

Scientific American writer John Horgan has reviewed Faith vs Fact, and appears somewhat less than impressed:
Coyne contends that religion "is severely at odds with science, and that this conflict is damaging to science itself, to how the public conceives of science, and to what the public thinks science can and cannot tell us." This is a defensible position, but Coyne poses it in such an extreme form that he discredits his cause.
Given that Horgan is a non-theist whose main objection to Christianity is the problem of evil, his criticism can hardly be attributed to a desire to defend Christianity, unless one subscribes to an absolutist form of atheism which dismisses accommodationists such as Horgan as enemies reason, a view which is hardly rare among the New Atheists, and suggests strongly that their anti-theism is more of an ideology than a simple profession of unbelief.