Monday, June 04, 2007

Another University Student

Re: Evolution Doesn’t Make Much Sense

The recent creationist editorial by Mr. Jesse Nickles has provoked a discussion over his actual motivation. Some readers feel that his essay was an obvious satire and argue that no university student could be so badly misinformed. Others viewed his effort as a more elaborate hoax which attempts to make creationists appear stupid by presenting such easily refuted claims. While the later suggestion has attraction- we could feel assured that educated people associated with the university would not be so absurd- I regretfully concluded that Mr. Nickels must be assumed to be sincere. In the observations to follow I will give a number of references to easily available scientific literature, all of which is freely available to every UCI student and over the Internet to nearly anyone. I have not attempted to be exhaustive lacking both time and patience for such an amount of work.

His first paragraph presents several errors starting with the claim that the concept of "common descent" was ancient. More obviously wrong is his notion that evolution was intended as an alternative to God(s). Thomas Huxley, popularly referred to as "Darwin's pit bull," coined the term "agnostic" to characterize evolutionary theory's relationship to religion. Acts of "self creation," desperate or not, are more in tune with mythology and self-help books than either history or science.

Nickels next proposed a test. The logical failings can be swept aside by rephrasing his proposal as, "If any biological species can be shown to have 'qualities' that could not be the result of sequential evolution, the theory fails." This is actual rather close to something Darwin proposed, and we can then accept Nickels's use of humans as the test organism.

"Reason: There are no “less-developed” versions of human reason in other species."

Yes there are. For a lesson in reasoning ability I suggest Nickels starts with:

Thomas Suddendorf
2006 "Foresight and Evolution of the Human Mind" Science 19 May 2006 312: 1006-1007 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1129217] (in Perspectives)

Even the birds do it:

N. J. Emery and N. S. Clayton
"Effects of experience and social context on prospective caching strategies by scrub jays"
Nature 414, 443-446 (22 November 2001) | doi:10.1038/35106560; Received 23 July 2001; Accepted 20 September 2001

Virginia Morell
"NICOLA CLAYTON PROFILE: Nicky and the Jays" Science 23 February 2007 315: 1074-1075 [DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5815.1074] (in News Focus)

"Morality: Mankind has a universal sense of right and wrong, unique among the species."

I have been a professional anthropologist for over 30 years now and I would have to say that Nickels is sadly unprepared to participate in international relations. I know this because he has so many silly ideas about humans and their "universal morality." His most ridiculous idea is that we have one. "Thou shall not Kill" is preached by the same people who preach "Justified War" and the acceptability of "Collateral Damage." The rest of the more common lists can similarly be dismissed. But, we do in fact share with other primates certain behaviors, and apparently have some evolutionarily hard-wired" in our brains.

Dominique J.-F. de Quervain, et al
"The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment" Science 27 August 2004 305: 1254-1258 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1100735]

Gretchen Vogel
"The Evolution of the Golden Rule" Science 20 February 2004 303: 1128-1131 [DOI: 10.1126/science.303.5661.1128]

Even Monkeys do it;

Sarah F. Brosnan, Frans B. M. de Waal
"Monkeys reject unequal pay." Nature 425, 297-299 (18 September 2003) | doi:10.1038/nature01963;

Nickles's assertions regarding music and art are merely that, assertions without any evidence.

Language: The literature on language and non-humans is far too large for Nickles to have missed. Maybe his essay really was a parody.

Females: Mr. Nickles's infatuation with Stephen Colbert aside, female warthogs are the ultimate in seductiveness- to male warthogs. This is why we have baby warthogs. This is another point for the satire theory.

Domination: Nickles is very confused here. Is human welfare "evil?" Is human welfare enhanced by environmental destruction? The simple answer is no. A world in "perfect harmony" has never existed other than in soda pop commercials.

Ideology: This is merely a word to describe a justification for shared beliefs and behaviors. We use these 'norms' to identify members of our group from nonmembers. There are clear economic and even reproductive advantages to group cooperation.

Samuel Bowles
"Group Competition, Reproductive Leveling, and the Evolution of Human Altruism"
(8 December 2006) Science 314 (5805), 1569. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1134829]

Sex: Nickels has clearly never had a course in primatology, nor heard of the Bonobos (Pan paniscus). (Nor been to many spring break parties, one must suppose). Brian Hare, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has noted that Bonobos are very tolerant of strangers; when they meet they often have sex, whereas chimps (Pan troglodytes) often attack. Humans might do either. Bonobos have more frequent sex in captivity that in the wild, but even then frequently they have homosexual and heterosexual encounters and even oral and, well let's say we have nothing to teach Bonobos about sex.

Nickels finished by firing off a scatter of false statements regarding mutations, human material culture, the age of the universe, the origin of life and some standard misrepresentations of thermodynamics. This is called the "Gish Gallop" in honor of arch creationist Duane Gish. The TalkOrigins website addresses most of these at

Gary Hurd, Ph. D. (UCI 1976)

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