Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No wonder people believe in creationism

My daily morning pre-coffee read-through offered a little light reading about Dr. Kent Hovind a.k.a. Dr. Dino, one of the world's most prominent young-earth creationists (who, not coincidentally IMHO, is currently serving time for tax fraud.)

Idly curious to see what my side of the debate had to offer nowadays I followed the link to Berkeley's evolution website to have a look. I was appalled. This is the web site from one of the leading universities in the world and it is horrible. Absolutely, unforgivably horrible. If all evolution sites are this bad it's no wonder so many people believe in creationism.

So what's wrong with the site? Well, for starters, it gets the definition of evolution wrong:

Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification.

I literally wanted to scream when I read that. This definition is not only wrong, it is completely, utterly, irredeemably wrong. It is the kind of straw-man definition of evolution that a creationist would come up with. Descent with modification? What does that even mean? If a bird dives to the ground and sheds a few feathers, is it descending with modification and hence evolving?

Evolution is not "descent with modification" (whatever the hell that means). Evolution is the reproduction of information under the influence of random changes (a.k.a. mutations) and -- crucially -- selection, usually (but not necessarily) natural selection. It is this last element -- selection -- that is the key to evolution. Creationist critiques of evolution on the grounds that the complexity of life could not possibly arise "randomly" ignore the fact that selection is not random. For the web site of a premier university dedicated to evolution to miss this indispensable fact is unforgivable.

But it gets worse. Much, much worse.

It may come as news to the curators at Berkeley, but evolution is a controversial topic. Not everyone accepts the validity of evolution. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that people might come to the site with the intent of finding information that will help them make up their minds. And it is not unreasonable to further suppose that they might start their investigation by following the links marked "What is evolution and how does it work?" and then "Evolution 101". (The mere fact that you have to follow two links to find this introductory information is bad enough. But that is the least of the problems.)

In "Evolution 101" you will find an extensive (and wrong because it does not mention selection) description of evolution with lots of highfalutin' terminology like "clade" but no actual evidence. None. Nada. Zilch. It's even worse than a creationist apologia because the creationists at least present some evidence (even if it's bogus evidence) to support their cause.

There may be evidence for evolution out there, but you wouldn't know it from reading Evolution 101 on the Berkeley web site.

[UPDATE: There is a section on evidence for evolution on the site. It even has a top-level link. But I stand by my critique of the Evolution 101 section. Also, as far as I can tell, the "evidence" section leaves out one of the best examples.]


Don Geddis said...

[E]volution is a controversial topic. Not everyone accepts the validity of evolution. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that people might come to the site with the intent of finding information that will help them make up their minds.

I get what you're saying, and it's a reasonable suggestion that a web site like that might want to address that audience too.

But at the same time, evolution is not a controversial subject with science. So, the web site might (deliberately?) not be catering to people who are trying to "make up their minds".

There are other sites that directly address a "creationism vs. evolution" comparision, e.g. talk.origins. Not every evolution site must necessarily focus on this particular issue.

(That said, I agree that natural selection is a critical part of the theory of evolution.)

Unknown said...

Evolution is change in living things over time. So although "descent with modification" is pedantic and obtuse, it is also correct.

How that evolution happens is a theory of evolution. The Theory of Evolution (how we come to see the diversity of life we do) is basically, "Evolution by random mutation and natural selection."

So yes, sites like Berkeley preach to the choir, and could be improved. But when debating evolution I never refer people to university sites unless they say something particularly germane. Talk.origins is a much better choice.

Ron said...

> evolution is not a controversial subject with science

That's true, but misses the point. Creationism is not a controversial topic with creationists.

The problem with Berkeley's "Evolution 101" is that it ignores the most basic tenet of science which is that evidence is what matters, not a mere recitation of "facts". It also ignore the most basic tenet of writing which is to target your writing to your audience. A web site called "Evolution 101" is not targeted at scientists.

> although "descent with modification" is pedantic and obtuse

But that is my whole point: pedantic and obtuse has no place in a web site targeted to non-experts. It undermines the cause of reason and rationality rather than advancing it.

Don Geddis said...

How about this perspective? The web site is aimed at people who are already sympathetic to science (say, electrical engineers, or physicists), but who happen to know nothing about evolutionary biology. So the purpose of the web site isn't to "prove" anything, it's only to attempt to clearly explain what the conclusions actually are.

Much like, a physics web site might try to explain about statics and quantum mechanics and gravity, but wouldn't bother listing any of the actual evidence leading to those conclusions.

I agree it's different in this case, simply because evolution is controversial within some segments of society, but physics isn't really. But still, I can imagine a target audience of pro-science but evolution-ignorant.

Ross said...

Evolution is the change in frequency of alleles in a population over time. That evolution has happened and continues to happen is an observed fact.

Christian thinkers did not dispute these observations during Darwin's day over 150 years ago. What informed Christians in Darwin's age disputed was the theory that provided an explanation for those facts, i.e. natural selection. They were certain that unless the "hand of God" was involved in the explanation, the explanation was heretical.

What I find particularly amusing and simultaneously worrying about this debate is that we have managed to lose ground. Not only are we now defending the validity of natural selection, but we're forced to defend the existence of the problem that natural selection explains. 150 years after this debate was started, we are even now having to defend simple factual observations about evolving populations.

The fundamental problem, of course, is a completely justifiable hostility and retrenchment against rational thought and the scientific method. Both are problematic for those who assert that belief without evidence (faith) is necessary for a valuable life.

The web site that you looked at is not trying to overcome skeptics of the value of rational thought or the scientific method. They realize that their time is better spent on other activities.

Ron said...

> The web site that you looked at is not trying to overcome skeptics of the value of rational thought or the scientific method.

It's even worse than that. They don't even follow the scientific method. Here's one of the first things you encounter as a newcomer to the site:

The central idea of biological evolution is that all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, just as you and your cousins share a common grandmother.

That is completely wrong. The idea that all life has a common ancestor is a consequence of evolution by mutation and natural selection. It's no more the "central idea of biological evolution" than the fact that there are two high tides every day is the central idea of Newtonian mechanics.

This site is so confused it is actively harmful because it supports the creationists claim that evolutionists don't know what the fuck they are talking about.