Translate

Friday, 16 October 2015

Ten special creationist myths about evolution debunked

Despite the fact that evolution has not been seriously doubted by mainstream biologists for over a century, and the considerable amount of high-quality information on the subject that is freely available, special creationists in our community still falsely claim that evolution is false. While sadly those who have grounded their theology on evolution denialism and have a considerable reputation invested in publicly attacking evolution have too much too lose from accepting that they were completely wrong, it is possible that some of those they have been misleading may be saved by providing them with definitive refutations of special creationist myths. While this website has a wealth of material on the subject for the curious reader, there is no substitute for a short refutation of the most common myths, ranging from evolution is 'only a theory' to evolution is an 'atheist conspiracy.' Read on.

1. Evolution is 'only a theory'

False. In science, a theory is not a wild guess, speculation, or hunch. Rather, it refers to a collection of observed facts, rules, laws, and tested hypotheses that have considerable predictive and explanatory power. As the biologist T.R. Gregory notes:
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. (Emphasis mine) [1]
Therefore, when scientists call evolution a theory, they are offering it the highest praise possible. Evolution is a theory in the same way Einstein's theory of general relativity (the current theory of gravitation) is a theory, namely something with considerable predictive and explanatory power, and anything other than a wild guess or speculation.

2. Evolution is an atheist conspiracy

False. While there are many prominent atheists with backgrounds in science who use evolution for anti-apologetic purposes, many of the early defenders of evolution were devout Christians. As the historian of science David Livingstone points out:
Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory. But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history. (Emphasis mine) [2] 
Some of the leading figures in evolution after Darwin were Christian such as Ronald Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky. The latter, in his famous paper "Noting in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" stated:
I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts....the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness. [3]
Today, there are many prominent scientists who accept evolution while remaining faithful to Christianity. Examples include palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, medical geneticist and head of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, cell biologist Kenneth Miller, and evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak. Any claim that evolution is intrinsically atheistic or is an atheistic conspiracy is contradicted by the facts.

3.  Many prominent scientists reject evolution

False. Anti-evolutionist organisations tout lists of scientists who 'dissent from Darwin', but these lists represent only a tiny percentage of the total number of scientists throughout the world. Historian of science Ronald Numbers points out that:
After more than a decade of effort the Discovery Institute proudly announced in 2007 that it had got some 700 doctoral-level scientists and engineers to sign "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism." Though the number may strike some observers as rather large, it represented less than 0.023 percent of the world's scientists. On the scientific front of the much ballyhooed "Evolution Wars", the Darwinists were winning handily. The ideological struggle between (methodological) naturalism and supernaturalism continued largely in the fantasies of the faithful and the hyperbole of the press. [4]
Furthermore, many of the scientists on these lists are not biologists, but work in unrelated fields such as philosophy, engineering, mathematics, or physics, meaning they are not qualified to offer an informed, authoritative opinion on evolution. Finally, some of those who sign these lists accept the fact of evolution, but reject the modern synthetic theory of evolution. An example is the biochemist Michael Behe who is one of the signatories of the Discovery Institute list. Behe openly accepts the fact of common descent, regarding the genomic evidence (shared genetic 'errors' at identical positions) as definitive:
If a common ancestor first sustained the mutational mistakes band subsequently gave rise to these two modern species, that would very readily account for both why both species have them how. It's hard to imagine how there could be stronger evidence for common ancestry of chimps and humans.

That strong evidence from the pseudogene points well beyond the ancestry of humans. Despite some remaining puzzles, there's no reason to doubt that Darwin had this point right, that all creatures on earth are biological relatives. [5]
Evolution denialists who appeal to these lists fail to appreciate that (1) they represent less than 0.1% of the total population of scientists (2) many on the list are not qualified to offer an opinion and (3) some on the list accept evolution.

4. Evolution cannot explain the origin of life or the origin of the universe

Irrelevant: The origin of life and the origin of the universe are two separate fields, namely abiogenesis and cosmology. Evolution refers to how the diversity of life we see throughout the history of this planet appeared. It says nothing about the origin of the universe or the origin of life. and special creationists err by conflating evolution, abiogenesis, and cosmology, and criticising the first item for failing to explain the latter two.

5. There are no transitional fossils

False: Transitional fossils abound. Tetrapod evolution [6], bird evolution [7], and whale evolution, [8] just to name a few areas are well-documented by the fossil record. The vertebrate palaeontologist Donald Prothero points out that:
In short, the fossil record of hoofed mammals is full of transitional fossils and even longer transitional sequences that demonstrate the origins of nearly all the living ungulates and tethytheres from ancestors that looked almost completely unlike their descendants. We now have the fossils that show where the perissodactyls came from (phenacodonts, Radinskya) and that document the radiation of the earliest horses, tapirs, rhinos, and brontotheres when they were almost indistinguishable to the untrained eye. We have the fossils that demonstrate the evolution of the horse family, the rhinoceroses, the tapirs, and the brontotheres, along with other examples not covered in this article. Their phylogenies are now much more bushy and branching, but otherwise, the general trends are the same that were observed over a century ago. Creationists attempt to discredit these examples by saying that our switch from an orthogenetic linear model of the 1920s to the modern bushy branching pattern somehow denies that this fossil evidence does show change through time, but this only reveals the creationists’ lack of training in anatomy and paleontology. Likewise, we now have the fossils to document the early stages of the radiation of the artiodactyls and especially the bushy branching history of camels and giraffes, both of which lacked humps or long necks in their respective early histories. Finally, the fossil record of transitions within the Proboscidea is excellent, from pig- or tapir-like beasts like Moeritherium that creationists would never place in the “elephant kind” to a variety of mastodonts leading up to modern elephants. One of the best transitional fossils of all is Pezosiren portelli, a perfect intermediate form that shows how the aquatic manatees evolved from walking ancestors. [9]
The fossil record is always going to be fragmentary due to the low chance of animal corpses surviving long enough to be fossilised, but the record we have overwhelmingly demonstrates large-scale evolutionary change.

6. We have never observed species forming

False Speciation has been documented many times. Examples include:
  • Homoploid hybrid speciation in plants has been documented in eight cases. [10]
  • Incipient speciation has been documented in yeast via divergent adaptation and antagonistic epistasis. This was shown in an experimental population of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisia. [11]
  • Incipient speciation in populations of Drosophila melanogaster via sexual isolation has been documented. [12]
  • Speciation within island populations of cichlid fish in Lake Victoria. The mechanism for this speciation is female preference for different male colouring, with differences in the light gradients in the lake being important in effecting speciation. As the authors note, this also explains why cichlid fish species collapsed during human-induced eutrophication. [13]
  • The Rhagoletis apple fly provides an example of sympatric speciation occurring in the context of a shift from its native host to an introduced apple species. [14]
Of the many special creationist claims, this is perhaps one of the easiest to debunk.
 
7. Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics

False: The creationist claim that evolution is false because the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that everything becomes more disordered betrays a considerable lack of understanding both of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics. Among other things, the second law states that the total entropy in a closed system will not decrease. The Earth is not a closed system, so right here, the creationist argument falls apart.

The analogy of pregnancy exposes the creationist argument perfectly. In nine months, a single cell turns into a complex life form, all without violating the second law of thermodynamics. Just as the uterus is not a closed system, so too the Earth in which life evolved.

The BioLogos Foundation puts it well:
With biological evolution however, the system being considered is not the universe, but the Earth. And the Earth is not an isolated system.  This means that an increase in order can occur on Earth as long as there is an energy input — most notably the light of the sun. Therefore, energy input from the sun could give rise to the increase in order on Earth including complex molecules and organisms.  At the same time, the sun becomes increasingly disordered as it emits energy to the Earth. Even though order may be increasing on Earth, the total order of the solar system and universe is still decreasing, and the second law is not violated.? - See more at: https://biologos.org/common-questions/scientific-evidence/evolution-and-the-second-law#sthash.blc6nAPO.dpuf
With biological evolution however, the system being considered is not the universe, but the Earth. And the Earth is not an isolated system.  This means that an increase in order can occur on Earth as long as there is an energy input — most notably the light of the sun. Therefore, energy input from the sun could give rise to the increase in order on Earth including complex molecules and organisms.  At the same time, the sun becomes increasingly disordered as it emits energy to the Earth. Even though order may be increasing on Earth, the total order of the solar system and universe is still decreasing, and the second law is not violated.? - See more at: https://biologos.org/common-questions/scientific-evidence/evolution-and-the-second-law#sthash.blc6nAPO.dpuf
With biological evolution however, the system being considered is not the universe, but the Earth. And the Earth is not an isolated system.  This means that an increase in order can occur on Earth as long as there is an energy input — most notably the light of the sun. Therefore, energy input from the sun could give rise to the increase in order on Earth including complex molecules and organisms.  At the same time, the sun becomes increasingly disordered as it emits energy to the Earth. Even though order may be increasing on Earth, the total order of the solar system and universe is still decreasing, and the second law is not violated. [15]
Again, this is another creationist argument based on a complete misunderstanding of the phenomenon or law to which they appeal.

8. The 'Cambrian Explosion' shows that all life was specially created

False: Creationists claim that the Cambrian explosion shows complex life appearing suddenly at the base of the Cambrian period (540 million years ago) without any obvious ancestral forms, and allege that this is proof of special creation. This is incorrect for many reasons:
  • The fossil record of life prior to the Cambrian is not devoid of complex multicellular life
  • The Cambrian explosion took place over at least a twenty million year period. This is not a sudden explosion of life in an instant by any stretch of the imagination
  • Some modern phyla appear before the Cambrian, while others appear towards the end of the Cambrian

As one can see, not all major phyla appeared at the start of the Cambrian. Poriferans, cnidarians, and molluscs appearing prior to the Cambrian, while bryozoans appeared near the end of the Cambrian. The period commonly referred to as the Cambrian explosion took place over a twenty million year period, hardly an explosion. As palaeontologist Keith Miller notes, "[t]he Cambrian “explosion” appears to have had a 'long fuse.'"

Slow fuse is hardly the same thing as an explosion. It would be more accurate to call it the Cambrian adaptive radiation, but the term 'Cambrian Explosion' is fairly well entrenched in the literature. Irrespective of what one calls it, the Cambrian Explosion does not falsify evolution.

9. Irreducible Complexity falsifies evolution

False: The term 'irreducible complexity' was popularised by the biochemist Michael Behe in his 1996 book "Darwin's Black Box". Behe (who accepts common descent) claimed that there exist cellular structures that could not have evolved in an incremental, Darwinian manner. No credible scientists accepts Behe's claim, which was advanced by the way not in the mainstream scientific literature, but in a popular book, thus bypassing the peer review process.

Behe's argument was not received well by mainstream biologists who pointed out its many flaws. One of the more devastating criticisms came from the respected evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr who wrote: 
“Behe's colossal mistake is that, in rejecting these possibilities, he concludes that no Darwinian solution remains. But one does. It is this: An irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become—because of later changes—essential. The logic is very simple. Some part (A) initially does some job (and not very well, perhaps). Another part (B) later gets added because it helps A. This new part isn't essential, it merely improves things. But later on, A (or something else) may change in such a way that B now becomes indispensable. This process continues as further parts get folded into the system. And at the end of the day, many parts may all be required. 
“The point is there's no guarantee that improvements will remain mere improvements. Indeed because later changes build on previous ones, there's every reason to think that earlier refinements might become necessary. The transformation of air bladders into lungs that allowed animals to breathe atmospheric oxygen was initially just advantageous: such beasts could explore open niches—like dry land—that were unavailable to their lung-less peers. But as evolution built on this adaptation (modifying limbs for walking, for instance), we grew thoroughly terrestrial and lungs, consequently, are no longer luxuries—they are essential. The punch line is, I think, obvious: although this process is thoroughly Darwinian, we are often left with a system that is irreducibly complex. I'm afraid there's no room for compromise here: Behe's key claim that all the components of an irreducibly complex system "have to be there from the beginning" is dead wrong. [16]
As Orr notes, this evolutionary explanation is hardly new, and has an impeccable pedigree, being advanced by the Nobel laureate and geneticist Hermann Muller as early as 1918: 
“Most present-day animals are the result of a long process of evolution, in which at least thousands of mutations must have taken place. Each new mutant in turn must have derived its survival value from the effect which it produced upon the “reaction system” that had been brought into being by the many previously formed factors in cooperation; thus a complicated machine was gradually built up whose effective working was dependent upon the interlocking action of very numerous different elementary parts or factors, and many of the characters and factors which, when new, were originally merely an asset finally became necessary because other necessary characters and factors had subsequently become changed so as to be dependent on the former. It must result, in consequence, that a dropping out of, or even a slight change in any one of these parts is very likely to disturb fatally the whole machinery; for this reason we should expect very many, if not most, mutations to result in lethal factors, and of the rest, the majority should be “semi-lethal” or at least disadvantageous in the struggle for life, and likely to set wrong any delicately balanced system, such as the reproductive system.” [17] (Emphasis mine)
Muller’s argument answered Behe’s question about how complex organs could have evolved nearly 80 years before it was first advanced, a telling example of the poverty of research in most creationist material.

The classic example of irreducible complexity given by Behe - that of the evolution of the vertebrate blood clotting system - is not regarded by biologists as posing any problem for evolution. Russell Doolittle, a biologist who is recognised world-wide as an expert in blood coagulation and whose work was cited by Behe has forcefully refuted Behe’s argument: 
Here are a few of his comments that I found most irritating. 
On page IV-29 the author bold-facedly claims that "the (Doolittle) article does not explain.. how clotting might have originated and subsequently evolved." and then in italics "..no one on earth has the vaguest idea how the coagulation cascade came to be." 
I disagree. I have a good idea, shared by most workers in the field, and it is a matter of the (important) details that we are trying to establish. 
On page IV-24, Behe underscores that no "causative factors are cited." "What exactly is causing all this springing and unleashing?" Gene duplications, of course, the frequency of which is difficult to measure (I often note that "duplication begets more duplication," for reasons of the misalignment of similar sequences), but which is turning out to be enormously more common than expected. 
Causation is tricky. Sometimes environmental or internal benefits are obvious. Often however, the rule for survival is "no harm, no foul," with adaptations occurring subsequently. For the moment, they don't even have to be slightly improved. 
As for the "enormous luck needed", we are now into the crux of all evolutionary problems, which is to say, what is the probability of survival? Population geneticists are attempting to answer such questions in general terms (see, e.g., J. B. Walsh, Genetics, 139, 421-428, 1995). In fact, the product of most gene duplications, which are the heart of the evolutionary process, are doomed to random oblivion (see enclosed, Doolittle, Science, 1981). 
Also, on page IV-26, he states, "the crucial issues of how much? how fast? when? where?" are not addressed. These are relevant and not unknowable matters. There is a wonderful article about to appear in Molecular Phylogenetics by D. Gumucio et al on how fetal hemoglobin has evolved in primates and that also outlines exactly the regulatory circumstances that allow its differential expression. Finally, my "model" does give some important numbers. The power of sequence-based analysis is that it reveals the order of appearance of new proteins, even when the sequences are limited to one or a few species. As noted above, it also has the power to make predictions about the occurrence of proteins in different creatures. [18]
Doolittle's scathing condemnation of Behe's "irreducible complexity" is hardly isolated - as I mentioned earlier, even his colleagues in the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania have distanced themselves from his ideas. Placing confidence in a broken reed such as "irreducible complexity" is ill-advised.

10. Hitler was a Darwinist

False: As it turns out, the creationist claim is seriously lacking supportive evidence. In his essay, historian Robert Richards examines this question and concludes:
Countless conservative religious and political tracts have attempted to undermine Darwinian evolutionary theory by arguing that it had been endorsed by Hitler and led to the biological ideas responsible for the crimes of the Nazis. These dogmatically driven accounts have been abetted by more reputable scholars who have written books with titles like From Darwin to Hitler. Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s great German disciple, is presumed to have virtually packed his sidecar with Darwinian theory and monistic philosophy and delivered their toxic message directly to Berchtesgaden—or at least, individuals like Daniel Gasman, Stephen Jay Gould, and Larry Arnhardt have so argued. Many more scholars are ready to apply the casual, but nonetheless, telling sobriquet to Hitler of “social Darwinian.” In this essay I have maintained these assumptions simply cannot be sustained after a careful examination of the evidence.
To be considered a Darwinian at least three propositions would have to be endorsed: that the human races exhibit a hierarchy of more advanced and less advanced peoples; that the transmutation of species has occurred over long stretches of time and that human beings have descended from ape-like ancestors; and that natural selection—as Darwin understood it—is the principle means by which transmutation occurs. Hitler and the Nazi biologists I have considered certainly claimed a hierarchy of races, but that idea far antedated the publication of Darwin’s theory and was hardly unique to it. There is no evidence linking Hitler’s presumption of such a hierarchy and Darwin’s conception. Moreover, Hitler explicitly denied the descent of species, utterly rejecting the idea that Aryan man descended from ape-like predecessors. And most of the Nazi scientists I have cited likewise opposed that aspect of Darwin’s theory. Hitler did speak of the “struggle for existence,” but likely derived that language from his friend and supporter Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an avowed anti-Darwinian. Moreover, by Hitler’s own testimony, his anti-Semitism had political, not scientific or biological roots; there is no evidence that he had any special feeling for these scientific questions. And in any case, remote and abstract scientific conceptions can hardly provide the motivation for extreme political acts and desperate measures. Among Nazi biologists, at least those publishing in an official organ of the Party, Mendelian genetics and de Vriesian mutation theory were favored, both vying at the beginning of the twentieth century to replace Darwinian theory. Moreover, the perceived mechanistic character of Darwinism stood in opposition to the more vitalistic conceptions of Nazi biologists and that of Hitler—or at least vitalism accords with the drift of his thought about race. Finally, though his own religious views remain uncertain, Hitler often enough claimed religious justification for racial attitudes, assuming thereby the kind of theism usually pitted against Darwinian theory.

If “Social Darwinian” is a concept with definite meaning, it would have to refer to individuals who apply evolutionary theory to human beings in social settings. There is little difficulty, then, in denominating Herbert Spencer or Ernst Haeckel a social Darwinian. With that understanding, Darwin himself also would have to be so called. But how could one possibly ascribe that term to Hitler, who rejected evolutionary theory? Only in the very loosest sense, when the phrase has no relationship to the theory of Charles Darwin, might it be used for Hitler.

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!
Even if Hitler was a Darwinist, the main problem with this creationist argument is that a scientific theory is true irrespective whether the basest of men support it. No one would reject the germ theory of disease or the atomic theory of matter if Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot accepted them. Likewise here; the fact of evolution stands independent of whether Hitler was a Darwinist or not. 

References

1. Gregory T.R. "Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52
2. Livingstone D.N. “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii
3.Dobzhansky, Theodosius "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution", American Biology Teacher (1973) 35:125–129
4. Alexander, Denis; Numbers, Ronald L. (2010). Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
5. Behe M The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (2007: Free Press) p 71-72 
6. Clack J.A. "The Fish-Tetrapod Transition: New Fossils and Interpretations" Evo Edu Outreach (2009) 2:213-223
7. Chiappe L.M. "Downsized Dinosaurs: The Evolutionary Transition to Modern Birds" Evo Edu Outreach (2009) 2:248-256
8. Thewissen J.G.M. et al "From Land to Water: the Origin of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises" Evo Edu Outreach (2009) 2:272-288
9. Prothero D "Evolutionary Transitions in the Fossil Record of Terrestrial Hoofed Mammals" Evo Edu Outreach (2009) 2:289-303
10. Rieseberg L.H. “Hybrid Origins of Plant SpeciesAnnu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. (1997) 28:359–89
11. Dettman J.R. et al “Incipient speciation by divergent adaptation and antagonistic and antagonistic epistasis in yeastNature (2007) 447:585-588
12. Ching C, Takahashi A, Wu C “Incipient speciation by sexual isolation in Drosophila: Concurrent evolution at multiple lociProc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (2001) 98:6709-6713
13. Seehausen O et al “Speciation through sensory drive in cichlid fishNature (2008) 455:620-627
14. Bush G.L., Smith J.L. “The Genetics and Ecology of Sympatric Speciation: A Case StudyRes. Popul. Ecol. (1998) 40:175-187
15. "Does thermodynamics disprove evolution?" BioLogos Foundation website
16. Orr, H.A (December 1996/January 1997). "Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again): The latest attack on evolution is cleverly argued, biologically informed—and wrong". Boston Review 22:(6)
18. Brayton E “Two of Behe’s Reviewers Speak OutDispatches From the Culture Wars October 27, 2005.
19. Richards R.J. "Was Hitler a Darwinian