Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why Anti-Evolutionists are regularly thrashed in debates

Announcement of Duane Gish's "Evolution vs. Creationism" lecture in the University of Alaska Sunstar. Alas, no scientists from the University chose to engage him.

I still recall the first public lecture (and followup question period) on 'Evolution vs. Creationism' I ever attended in the U.S. It was while I was on a research assistantship to the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, AK. (Hitherto, I'd been teaching, doing solar work in Barbados - since 1971). The presenter was none other than Duane Gish - then of the Institute of Creation Research. (See advert - still preserved from the date it appeared: Feb. 19, 1986)

The sad and sorry aspect is that Gish had invited members of the science staff (any of them) based at The Geophysical Institute (affiliated with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks) to debate him. All of them declined. On being notified of this, Gish commented:

"It's rather strange that they wouldn't be prepared to support evolutionary debate because they teach it year in and year out. If it's supported by the scientific evidence then it should be a simple thing to do".

However, the professional scientists at the Geophysical Inst. were not amused. The Head of the UAF Biology Dept., Stephan McLean noted (from The University of Alaska Sunstar campus newspaper that also reported Gish's comments):

"I refuse to get involved personally in debating this issue. In any case, the question that was put forward was extremely biased. The creationist side chose the topic, booked the hall, and made the rules - then invited this very skilled person. The way it was structured allowed the creationist advocate to take the offensive and put the evolutionist on the defensive".

Then Director of the G.I., Professor Juan Roederer was less polite:

"These individuals are simply impostors. They essentially base their arguments on a distorted or outright falsified interpretation of existing scientific fact."

Most upsetting to me, on attending Gish's performance - which is all that it was- is that anyone half informed would have demolished him by requiring simple rules and debate changes. For example, in all the times (6) I debated religionists in Barbados - no one was permitted to cite from scripture, since evolution is a scientific theory, and bibles are not books of science. Another rule - used in my debates - was a limit of three minutes per response which always had to be direct.

As it was, the "rules" allowed freelancing by Gish, and he exploited them to clown around with specious, irrelevant illustrations ("Anyone here have a grandma that used to be a gorilla?") that totally misrepresented the evolution position. In any genuine formal setting, he'd have been hooted out, but his semi-educated audience ate it up.

His trotting out a question like "Do any of you really really believe Earth is 4 billion years old?" could have been rebutted by appeal to the use of radio-active isotopes that show it. For instance, in a recent use of the isotope delta- 13 C, evidence has been found for the existence of life on Earth at least 3, 850 million (or 3.85 billion) years ago.[1] Quartz (zircon, zirconium) crystals have often found to be of use, since they may harbor small amounts of uranium or thorium at the level of ‘parts per billion’ .

Despite some drawbacks to the use of fossils and the fossil record, anyone with even basic physics knowledge can easily see that radioactive isotope dating is an excellent means of enhancing the quality assurance of dating fossils. The use of such methods (e.g. using delta-13C) to show that life existed on Earth nearly four billion years ago, for example, controverts the thesis claimed by most creationists. The problem is that most of them lack the education to appreciate the methods.

As for another Gish howler, that "humans walked with dinosaurs" - if even remotely so, then humans would never have made it out alive. The best trace remains available from 17-20,000 years ago disclose a human population of barely 50,000. In any one year nearly half were felled and eaten by saber-tooth tigers or other predators, and it was only the shift to agriculture- farming that allowed human number to catch up. Meanwhile, from fossil density extrapolations and dating methods, more than 4- 5 million dinosaurs inhabited the earth - a good proportion of them ferocious killers like T-Rex and Allosaurus. If saber tooths (in the hunter-gatherer era - wherein "Adam and Eve" are purported have arisen) almost reduced human numbers by half, it would have taken only ONE of the main dino predators to reduce them 100%......into extinction. Bows and spears vs. T-Rex? Don't make me laugh!

Interestingly, within three years of the Fairbanks debacle, a bounty of new data and methods showed where and how the bible-punching, anti-evolutionists could be thrashed like eggs by a hammer on an anvil. New dialectic techniques and a more aggressive interest in confrontation also helped. By the time the Discovery Institute arrived, and most creationism had mutated to "intelligent design" - the believers and their ilk were getting regularly hammered. They were forced to call new seminars and conferences to try to keep up with useful methods - but were inevitably a day late and dollar short.

By the time I returned to Barbados to teach at Harrison College, I was using many of these same techniques and advances in formal public debates held at the College's Main Assembly Hall. In the course of those debates, I would learn how and why the Fundie side so often took a drubbing. This most often surfaced in their appalling lack of scientific knowledge and their recourse to debating tricks rather than substance. Some of the primary anti-evolutionist mistakes I'd like to highlight here:

1) The Stupidest Mistakes:

This category is reserved for the outright dumbest, most ignorant - which - if even remotely mentioned screams that the person is either an imbecile, a fool or the most uneducated specimen to escape the American educational system:

a) "If evolution is true, how come all my grand parents, and their grand parents and theirs were ALL human, and not apes?"

The idiot who uses this doesn't have a clue what human evolution means - which is not that humans "descended from apes" - but that both apes and humans descended from a common ancestor.

b) "You guys say chimps differ from humans by only 2% in their DNA structure (genome). So, let me get this straight: If lettuce is 98% water and humans are too, are we not also descended from lettuce?"

This unreconstructed, semi-educated dimwit doesn't grasp anything about genetics which marks his downfall. What has gone over his head (and probably isn't even on the "radar") is the specific cytochrome -c protein sequence. As it turns out, the 2% generic DNA -difference is not the key or critical aspect, it is that humans and chimpanzees have the exact same cytochrome -c protein sequence. In the absence of common (evolutionary) descent, the chance of this occurrence is conservatively less than 1 in 10^93. That is, 1 in 10 to the 93rd power, or 10 followed by 93 zeros.

Thus, the high degree of similarity in these proteins is a spectacular corroboration of the theory of common descent. Furthermore, human and chimpanzee cytochrome- c proteins differ by ~10 amino acids from all other mammals. The chance of this occurring in the absence of a hereditary mechanism is less than 1 in 10^29. Meanwhile, the yeast Candida krusei is one of the most distantly related eukaryotic organisms from humans. Candida has 51 amino acid differences from the human sequence. Lettuce has about 29 amino acid differences.

The problem is that the believer has only tapped the most superficial information to try to take down the evolutionist- but ends up taking himself down.

c) "If evolution is really true, you'd be able to take your watch apart - toss it on the ground - and come back after some time and see it back together!"

This one is so lame it's nearly impossible to assay all the errors, false assumptions and nonsense, yet you'd be amazed how many buy it! For one thing, a watch is a manufactured contrivance - but neither organisms or the universe at large are. Indeed, the fundamental error is that the antagonist confuses the theory of evolution (based on natural selection) with noogenisis.

The concept of life possibly arising from non-life (panspermia is an alternative theory for life origin) is the theory of noogensis.What evolution says is that incremental changes to proteins, and genetic structures are made over time. The changes then become passed on by a process of natural selection to successive generations of an organism. The attributes passed on generally confer a survival advantage.

The related error of many creationists is to assume all evolutionary probabilities are fixed, and all are remote. An example often given (misplaced) is the likelihood of taking a Jet apart and having it come back together by itself. This is erroneous since the Jet is already a manufactured item. Hence if one disassembles it there is zero probability of its reconstruction unless extraneous factors are inserted. Like a team of Jet builders!

Natural selection works differently, in that certain features of living things are already selected for then their repetition is enhanced via reproduction. It is not the same at all. In fact, the increased probability is usually already set once a single simple change occurs. This usually starts with micro-evolution. Micro-evolution implies an incremental change in a small proportion of DNA.Examples of micro-evolution include the re-arrangement of amino acids in proteins such as haemoglobin, or the altered genes for a specific genetic character in successive generations of the fruit fly.

2) Less Dumb Strategies of Anti-Evolutionists:

The following are less dumb tacks, but still pretty dumb - since they open the person to considerable putdowns!

a) "How come I don't see any missing links? Where are they?"

This question mixes chalk and cheese - in that the question is really geared to one sub-theory of evolution called "gradualism" - and not another (promoted by the late Stephen J. Gould) called "punctuated equilibrium". While a "missing link" (exact common ancestor identified by specific genome) would be more or less standard for the gradualist view it is not needed for the latter. We are able to see more in terms of algorithmic branching in the latter, and how numerous competitor common ancestors could have emerged rapidly and co-existed. (Just as we now have evidence that both Neandertal Man and modern Homo Sapiens existed at the same time, for perhaps 50,000 yrs.) Thus, the "missing link" - hyperinflated by creationists like Duane Gish and others, is more a "Macguffin" invented by the ID-creationist crowd to take the spotlight off the genetic evidence for multiple lines of species evolution.

A sound response to such questions is always for the evolutionist to refer directly to the evidence for a "genetic missing link" which would cover both the gradualist and punctuated equilibrium idioms. Specifically, in one of the most powerful ever demonstrations of the validity of evolution, Yunis and Prakash, 1982, Science, Vol. 215, p. 1525, 'The Origin of Man: A Chromosomal Pictorial Legacy', showed that the human chromosome designated '2' was the result of the telomeric fusion of the two ape chromosomes, 2p and 2q. The effect also saw the reduction from 24 chromosome pairs in apes, to 23 pairs in humans. In other words, the duo of ape chromosomes (2p and 2q) can be considered a genetic missing link to humans!

b) "If the second law (of thermodynamics) asserts everything is winding down and getting more disorderly, how can you have more orderly and advanced biological organisms?"

This is directly a result of misinterpretation of the 2nd law, something I often see from those who've never taken a serious physics course - even in high school. Strictly speaking the law states:Entropy (the state of disorder) will tend to increase over time in any closed system.

The last part is very crucial but it is exactly the part that the creationist-ID crowd omits, which renders their question a non-starter.The reason is that neither the Earth nor its biological systems are "closed" systems, hence do not exhibit constantly increasing disorder.The Earth, for example, is open to the radiant energy of the Sun and receives some 1360 watts per square meter. Plants on the Earth are likewise OPEN to solar energy, and receive it and then use it in the process of photo-synthesis.

Other organisms eat the plants and thereby incorporate that energy into themselves. Thus, the path is cleared for higher organizational development and speciation. We do not see a constant wind-down because all these systems are OPEN, not closed.

Using these rebuts and replies, in standard debate formats, I have never seen a religious believing, anti-evolutionist get the better of his evolutionist counterpart. The only remaining place the converse is true is in the anti-evolutionist's own brain. Or maybe his own blog in which he can control all inputs, comments etc. Anders, are you paying attention?

[1] Holland, H.D.: Evidence for Life on Earth More Than 3850 Million Years Ago, in Science, Vol. 275, 3 January, 1997, p. 38.

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