Monday, July 13, 2009

OK, I'll bite

Walt Brown poses 37 questions for evolutionists. (UPDATE: I somehow ended up with 38, but I don't feel like going back and figuring out where I lost sync.) Although he's clearly trolling, I find I can't resist taking a crack at them. Unlike many scientists, I think it is important to occasionally answer creationist propaganda because you never know who might be lurking. So here goes:

1. Where did the space for the universe come from?
2. Where did matter come from?
3. Where did the laws of the universe come from (gravity, inertia, etc.)?

I'll answer these three as a group since the answer to all three is the same: we don't know. (By "we" I mean Scientists, with a capital S, which is to say those who believe that science is the most reliable guide to metaphysical truth.) We can run the laws of physics backwards to a tiny fraction of a second after "the beginning", but no one knows why there is something rather than nothing. Various theories have been proposed, the most popular being the anthropic principle. Personally, I'm perfectly happy just having it be a mystery.

4. How did matter get so perfectly organized?

If you think matter is "perfectly organized" you obviously have not seen my desk.

5. Where did the energy come from to do all the organizing?

Nearly all of the energy required to do the organizing that we find here on Earth comes from hydrogen fusion happening in the sun. A tiny amount has recently come from uranium and plutonium fission. The uranium was produced in supernovas.

6. When, where, why, and how did life come from non-living matter?

We don't know, but there are various theories of abiogenesis. A lot of progress is being made in this area, and it is quite conceivable (perhaps even likely) that there will be an artificial genesis within our lifetimes. There is quite a lot of evidence that there was more than one genesis on Earth. Paleontological evidence indicates that basic life arises very quickly (on geological time scales, so "quickly" here means a few million years) once the necessary conditions (which pretty much means just having liquid water and a supply of energy) have been established. Complex multicellular life took much longer to evolve than life itself.

7. When, where, why, and how did life learn to reproduce itself?

Life never "learned" to reproduce. Reproduction is the *definition* of life, and it's something that just happens more or less spontaneously once the necessary conditions (liquid water, energy, a few amino acids and enough time) are established.

8. With what did the first cell capable of sexual reproduction reproduce?

Like everything else in evolution, sexual reproduction evolved gradually. Even today we can observe primitive precursors of sexual reproduction in bacteria, which exchange small rings of DNA called plasmids, which are almost certainly the precursors of sexual reproduction.

9. Why would any plant or animal want to reproduce more of its kind since this would only make more mouths to feed and decrease the chances of survival? (Does the individual have a drive to survive, or the species? How do you explain this?)

The "drive" to reproduce is not a primary phenomenon. It is a side-effect of the very fact of reproduction, and the obvious, almost circular observation that things that have a "drive" to reproduce reproduce better than things that don't have such a drive. So if such a drive can be built into an organism by its genes, it is inevitable that such a drive will arise simply because those organisms that possess it will reproduce more effectively than those that don't, and so be more likely to pass that drive on to their descendants.

10. How can mutations (recombining of the genetic code) create any new, improved varieties? (Recombining English letters will never produce Chinese books.)

This is a classic creationist straw man. Evolution consists of two parts: mutation, which is random, and natural selection, which is not random. It is natural selection, combined with a lot of time, that produces the "improvements." (I put "improvements" in scare quotes because they aren't actually improvements in any absolute sense.)

11. Is it possible that similarities in design between different animals prove a common Creator instead of a common ancestor?

No. Similarities by themselves don't prove anything. It is the similarities combined with a theory of how those similarities arise that "prove" (again in scare quotes because science never proves anything in an absolute sense) that life arose through evolution rather than by design. The theory of evolution has been worked out in exquisite detail. We know more or less exactly why different species share common traits. And it has nothing to do with a designer.

12. Natural selection only works with the genetic information available and tends only to keep a species stable. How would you explain the increasing complexity in the genetic code that must have occurred if evolution were true?

It isn't true that natural selection "only" works with the genetic information available. Mutation combined with natural selection generates new information ab initio. Nature is constantly saying, in effect, "Let's try this. Oops, that didn't work. Let's try that. Oops, that didn't work either." And after a few million tries it suddenly stumbles onto something that *does* work, and so now there is new "information", that *this* combination of genes "works" in the sense that it reproduces better than its competitors.

14. When, where, why, and how did:

Single-celled plants become multi-celled? (Where are the two and three-celled intermediates?)
Single-celled animals evolve?
Fish change to amphibians?
Amphibians change to reptiles
Reptiles change to birds? (The lungs, bones, eyes, reproductive organs, heart, method of locomotion, body covering, etc., are all very different!)

I don't know the answers to these off the top of my head, but you can easily look them up yourself. (BTW, birds evolved from dinosaurs, not reptiles.)

14a. How did the intermediate forms live?

Well enough to leave offspring. I don't understand this question at all. If you want to see how intermediate forms live, look at mixed-breed dogs, or mules. They are, essentially, intermediate forms.

15 When, where, why, how, and from what did:

Whales evolve?
Sea horses evolve?
Bats evolve?
Eyes evolve?
Ears evolve?
Hair, skin, feathers, scales, nails, claws, etc., evolve?
Which evolved first (how, and how long; did it work without the others)?
The digestive system, the food to be digested, the appetite, the ability to find and eat the food, the digestive juices, or the body’s resistance to its own digestive juice (stomach, intestines, etc.)?
The drive to reproduce or the ability to reproduce?
The lungs, the mucus lining to protect them, the throat, or the perfect mixture of gases to be breathed into the lungs?
DNA or RNA to carry the DNA message to cell parts?
The termite or the flagella in its intestines that actually digest the cellulose?
The plants or the insects that live on and pollinate the plants?
The bones, ligaments, tendons, blood supply, or muscles to move the bones?
The nervous system, repair system, or hormone system?
The immune system or the need for it?

A full answer to this question would amount to a textbook on evolution. Happily, such books have been written, and all you need to do if you really want the answers is go read one. If you don't want to do that much legwork you can start with this accessible account of the evolution of the eye.

16.There are many thousands of examples of symbiosis that defy an evolutionary explanation. Why must we teach students that evolution is the only explanation for these relationships?

Because it's the best explanation we have. If you come up with a theory that explains the data better than evolution you will become instantly famous.

17. How would evolution explain mimicry? Did the plants and animals develop mimicry by chance, by their intelligent choice, or by design?

Mimicry, like everything else, evolves because it reproduces well -- but only when it reproduces well. This is why you do not see arbitrary mimicry in nature, but only mimicry that serves some reproductive purpose, like mimicking a poisonous species to prevent predators from eating you.

18. When, where, why, and how did man evolve feelings? Love, mercy, guilt, etc. would never evolve in the theory of evolution.

Of course they wold. All of these "feelings" (scientists would call them "instincts") serve easily demonstrable evolutionary purposes. Love, for example, helps bond humans into groups which are necessary for survival, because individual humans are quite vulnerable. Mercy helps prevent humans from killing each other. Guilt helps prevent actions that serve an individual at the expense of other individuals with whom that person may share genes. As with everything else in evolution, this has all been worked out in excruciating detail, mainly by a fellow named Robert Axelrod, who is probably the greatest scientist that no one has ever heard of.

19 *How did photosynthesis evolve?

I'm afraid I'm going to have to punt on that one. I just don't know. But I'm sure someone has worked it out. Try Googling for "evolution of photosynthesis".

20 *How did thought evolve?

Slowly. That's not a glib answer, that's the truth. Though resides in brains, which evolved over an extraordinarily long period of time though an extraordinarily complex series of stages, not all of which are yet fully understood. But we're working on it, and the pace of progress is breathtaking.

21. *How did flowering plants evolve, and from that?

See my answer to #19.

22. *What kind of evolutionist are you? Why are you not one of the other eight or ten kinds?

I didn't know there was more than one kind.

23. What would you have said fifty years ago if I told you I had a living coelacanth in my aquarium?

"Can I see it?"

24. *Is there one clear prediction of macroevolution that has proved true?


25. *What is so scientific about the idea of hydrogen as becoming human?

What is scientific about it is that this idea has been worked out in great detail and it explains all of the available data (and that's a boatload of data).

26. *Do you honestly believe that everything came from nothing?

In the sense that you mean it, yes, I really do.

After you have answered the preceding questions, please look carefully at your answers and thoughtfully consider the following questions.

27. Are you sure your answers are reasonable, right, and scientifically provable, or do you just believe that it may have happened the way you have answered?

Yes, I believe that my answers are reasonable, right, and scientifically "provable" (to the extent that anything is scientifically "provable"). I've personally looked into this in great detail, and the scientific account of our existence hangs together a hell of a lot better than any religious one.

27a. (Do these answers reflect your religion or your science?)

Science *is* my religion :-)

28. Do your answers show more or less faith than the person who says, "God must have designed it"?

Less. A lot less. I can go to Hawaii and see the evidence that the earth is very, very old with my own eyes. And so can you.

29. Is it possible that an unseen Creator designed this universe?

Of course it's possible. But all the evidence indicates that's not what happened.

29a. If God is excluded at the beginning of the discussion by your definition of science, how could it be shown that He did create the universe if He did?

Video. It's the gold standard nowadays. And no, I'm not being glib. If God is almighty, producing video of the Creation should be well within His capabilities.

30. Is it wise and fair to present the theory of evolution to students as fact?

Yep. It's as well established a fact as it gets.

31. What is the end result of a belief in evolution (lifestyle, society, attitude about others, eternal destiny, etc.)?

I live in a nice house with a pool, two cars in the garage, a wife and a cat. Since I don't believe in an afterlife, I try very hard to make this life as good and productive and meaningful as I can.

32. Do people accept evolution because of the following factors?

It is all they have been taught.
They like the freedom from God (no moral absolutes, etc.).
They are bound to support the theory for fear of losing their job or status or grade point average.
They are too proud to admit they are wrong.
Evolution is the only philosophy that can be used to justify their political agenda.

I don't know, I haven't done a poll. I'm sure some people believe in evolution simply because it's what they were taught, and that's not good. Science education in general could stand to be improved, but not by introducing bogus, discredited theories that are clearly nothing more than thinly disguised Creationism.

33. Should we continue to use outdated, disproved, questionable, or inconclusive evidences to support the theory of evolution because we don’t have a suitable substitute (Piltdown man, recapitulation, archaeopteryx, Lucy, Java man, Neanderthal man, horse evolution, vestigial organs, etc.)?

We should certainly not use questionable evidence to support any scientific theory. Happily, the evidence for evolution is as rock-solid (literally) as it gets.

34. Should parents be allowed to require that evolution not be taught as fact in their school system unless equal time is given to other theories of origins (like divine creation)?

Not unless you think parents should be allowed to require that Newton's laws of gravity not be taught as fact unless equal time is given to alternatives.

35. What are you risking if you are wrong? As one of my debate opponents said, "Either there is a God or there is not. Both possibilities are frightening."

Read up on Pascal's Wager.

36. Why are many evolutionists afraid of the idea of creationism being presented in public schools? If we are not supposed to teach religion in schools, then why not get evolution out of the textbooks? It is just a religious worldview.

No, it isn't, it is solidly established scientific fact. And the reason we're afraid of the idea of creationism in public schools is because where it has been tried the results are pretty scary.

37. Aren’t you tired of faith in a system that cannot be true? Wouldn’t it be great to know the God who made you, and to accept His love and forgiveness?

It certainly would. Unfortunately, all the available scientific evidence indicates such a God does not exist. That is why believing in such a God requires faith.

38. Would you be interested, if I showed you from the Bible, how to have your sins forgiven and how to know for sure that you are going to Heaven? If so, call me.

Don't hold your breath.


ineluki said...

Always a pleasure reading you, Ron. These creationist trolls are so obvious that it's almost painful.

Reading some of those questions, they could do much worse than reading Dawkins' "Climbing Mount Improbable". I know you don't like Dawkins, I actually do, but the ones that could really benefit from this read are neither your or me - too bad that those who could have already as closed a mindset as can be found, and wouldn't accept any facts against their beliefs if it hit them on their noses.

Ron said...

Thanks for the kind words! Just one clarification:

> I know you don't like Dawkins

I don't dislike Dawkins, I just think that some aspects of his rhetorical style are counterproductive. And it's not just him, it's the whole atheist/humanist/freethought/Bright (God how I despise that term!) movement. The whole lot of them are missing a fundamental truth, that religion is not about getting at actual metaphysical truth, it is about assuaging emotional pain. Until the AHFBs have something to offer that serves that purpose as well as religion does I believe they will continue to lose the battle for hearts and minds.

operator said...

I think you fell for a trap in your response to 'intermediate forms'. The whole intermediate form is a bogus concept, as far as evolution, and I never really see people address it. The idea of an intermediate form is that its ancestor was a design goal, and its descendants are design goals, but it is not. This is teleological reasoning.

There are no intermediate forms. Or, all species are intermediate forms. Each specie is in-between what it arose from and what might descend from it.

Ron said...

> The whole intermediate form is a bogus concept

I think that's debatable. There are islands of relative stability in the evolutionary search space, and it's fair to ask how life transitioned between those islands. For example, I think it's fair to ask how life transitioned from being water-breathing to being air-breathing. And the answer is like this and this.

It may not be strictly correct, but I think it makes more effective pedagogy to answer the question directly when you can rather than tell the questioner that their question is bogus. You don't really win hearts and minds that way.

Brian Whitmer said...

"31. What is the end result of a belief in evolution (lifestyle, society, attitude about others, eternal destiny, etc.)?

I live in a nice house with a pool, two cars in the garage, a wife and a cat. Since I don't believe in an afterlife, I try very hard to make this life as good and productive and meaningful as I can."

Dude. Maybe you can't put the pieces together, but I can from five minutes on your blog. God's punishing you with a noisy dog next door.

Seriously, though, I would hardly call these good arguments for Intelligent Design. Seems silly to bat back and forth on "oh yeah, what about this?" The really fascinating thing to me is just the fact that you can have two drastically different lenses which, to their respective viewers, show the exact same world in perfect clarity.

Ron said...

> God's punishing you with a noisy dog next door.

Punishing me for what? For not believing in him? First, believing in God is not a volitional choice. I can no more choose to believe in God than I can choose to believe that the sky is green, because it is absolutely plain to me that the sky is blue, and that God (at least the Biblical God who demands that people believe in Him with no evidence) does not exist. Furthermore, God punishes believers too (c.f. Job). So even if I accept your premise that I'm being punished by God, what exactly am I supposed to do about it?

BTW, if the worst problem I have to deal with is a barking dog (and at the moment that's pretty much the case) that's not much of a punishment in the grand and glorious scheme of things.

> you can have two drastically different lenses which, to their respective viewers, show the exact same world in perfect clarity.

Exactly right. I have a theory about that too.

Brian Whitmer said...

Easy, slim. I meant the dog thing as a joke.

I think you (and moreso your commenters) do religious folk a disservice by characterizing atheists as people who don't need the soothing "drug" of religion.

I also think you miss the point on belief and choice. You say you can't choose to believe or not believe in God, that's just the way it is, but I disagree. The way I see it, belief *has* to be a choice. The world (and culture) of today doesn't give room for many (if any) absolutes, and as far as I'm concerned believing in God is not a natural thing. You may hear differently from other people, and that's part of a cultural terminology, people trying to live with "unwavering faith," but the fact of the matter is, a person who believes in God does so by choice, not just because "that's the way it is."

I mentioned before the idea of seeing the world through different lenses. I think there's quite often a lack of effort on both sides to understand the perspective of the other. Believing in God may sound perfectly ludicrous to someone who has founded their perspective without it, but the flip side is also true. I don't think we as humans are very good at living in continual upheaval, and we are very reluctant to give up our pillars, wherever we've placed them.

Ron said...

> Easy, slim. I meant the dog thing as a joke.

I know. But some people take that sort of thing seriously.

> You say you can't choose to believe or not believe in God, that's just the way it is, but I disagree.

Sorry, slim :-) but I think I'm in a better position to know what's going on inside my head than you are. Maybe *you* can just choose to believe in God, but that is not a skill that I have managed to acquire.

Brian Whitmer said...

> Sorry, slim :-) but I think I'm in a better position to know what's going on inside my head than you are. Maybe *you* can just choose to believe in God, but that is not a skill that I have managed to acquire.

You sort of missed the point, there. I wasn't dictating how your brain works or your reasons for not believe, merely pointing out that *nobody* just believes in God. You talk about faith like it's either there or it isn't, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's a mis-characterization to say that believers just believe, or that they use religion as a crutch to deal with life's question marks. Sure that does happen sometimes, but there are just as many "atheists" with the same problem.

If you're going to pit yourself against religious folk, you'd do well to at least acknowledge that believers have done as much "research" into their life views as you have done into yours. It's not "just choosing to believe", it is a conscious decision. My previous point was that the only way *anyone* could believe in God is to *choose* to. How else could anyone honestly hold to an idea without any of the kind of empirical evidence society calls proof, if not by choice?

So when you say "believing in God is not a volitional choice" I have to disagree, because I don't see how it can be anything *but* a choice. It's fine that you don't believe, and you definitely know your reasons better than I do, but you shouldn't talk about belief (in God, or in general) as something that would happen *to* you. If it were going to happen, it would have to happen *in* you.

operator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.