Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another day, and more creationist bullshit

W. Edward Murphy wrote, "I could support teaching Darwinism as fact PROVIDED that the advocates of Darwinism can supply answers to a few of my questions.”

I’ll take Mr. Murphy at his word, and expect that he will begin supporting teaching science in science classes. This will of course include biology, and all biological science is evolutionary science.

First, as others have noted, Mike Behe is a devout Roman Catholic. In his testimony under oath in the Dover Trial he has admitted that 1) his rejection of evolution was religiously motivated, and 2) that the notion of Intelligent Design was plausible to the extent that you believed in creationism, 3) that no experimental evidence for ID creationism existed, and 4) that his concept of “irreducible complexity” was deeply flawed but that he had neither improved nor replaced it.

Second, any new species emerges from a population and not single progenitors. The clearest examples are subspecies that interbreed with closely related subspecies, but with reduced fertility outside their subspecies. We even see occasional hybrids between different species that, while very rare, can be fertile. As the ancestral species Homo erectus spread throughout Eurasia and Africa there were many isolated and diverging populations. Archaeological evidence and genetic evidence both indicate that this lead to new subspecies which were basically compressed back to Africa during the ice ages of the Pleistocene. Two large populations, the Neanderthals and our species emerged, and we are the only current members of our genus. Even today, we observe that individuals are able to reproduce even with widely divergent genes, and even chromosome misalignments.

Next, egg laying has a much longer history than internal incubation. We have excellent fossil data demonstrating that dinosaurs had well developed nesting behavior and even parenting. We also have irrefutable evidence that all of today’s birds are evolved from dinosaurian ancestors. Simply, the egg came first.

Evolutionary biology generates systematic quantitative observations from experimental situations in both laboratory and natural settings. The results of these studies are used to refine theory and make new predictions for tests of that theory. There are dozens of evolutionary experimental results and theoretical discussions published every week in just the science journals I read. Globally there are dozens published every day. (By the way, there was no such idealized model of “science” in the 17th century, and philosophers are still debating today just how they would define “science”).

We have any number of transitional fossils. The denial of this fact is the oldest of creationist lies. The higher in the taxonomic categories one looks, the easier the intermediates are to identify. Many paleontologists in the 1970s and ‘80s debated about the relative status of the lowest levels of taxonomy. Since in animals like birds, many species are first isolated into new species by behavior rather than gross alteration of their bones. Obviously, the evolution of those new species would be invisible paleontologically since it is extraordinary that behavior could be fossilized. (Rare, but not impossible. Dinosaur nesting behavior is an example). Today the combination of secure dating methods and the global geological data produced by the oil industry, enable us to make specific targeted excavation for transitional fossils of particular interest. Examples are the transition from sea to land by Devonian fish, and the return in the Eocene by those land mammals that were the ancestors of today’s whales.

But we do not even need fossil evidence of evolution because we have directly observed the evolution of new, reproductively isolated new species. There are examples in all major phyla from worms, insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Even more examples are from plants.

Mr. Murphy finally indulges in what is known as “quote mining” which is take a snippet of text out of context to distort and mislead. Darwin began a section titled “Organs of extreme Perfection and Complication” with the sentence misappropriated by Mr. Murphy. In the same paragraph, Darwin responds, “Reason tells me that if numerous gradations from the simple and imperfect eye can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; … the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.”

In the last one hundred and fifty years, we have learned much more about the evolution of eyes in all of the hundreds of forms they have taken. The eye is, as Darwin himself argued, not a problem- rather it is a further confirmation of evolutionary theory.

I would like to expect that Mr. Murphy will send a new email to the Texas Board of Education. But I won’t hold my breath.

Gary Hurd, Ph.D.