Blinded By Pseudoscience

When this much condensed stupidity forces its way into my ears, I feel like I have to write or read something factual to alleviate the pain.

A friend of mine was recently ambushed by evangelicals, who wanted to interview her for their Christian apologist website.  The video at the top is an example of some of the arguments these people use to back up their disbelief in the accepted scientific consensus. It frustrates me to no end to hear some evangelicals try and “debunk” evolution. If you are a creationist and a friend of mine, I apologize in advance and you may want to stop reading now.  If you can reconcile your religious beliefs with modern scientific findings, then I can’t really argue with you.  However, when you come up with some half baked pseudo-science that “disproves” evolution, and then use it to back up your creation story which involves a magical garden, an evil snake, and a woman made out of a rib, it just pisses me off.  The fact that there are so goddamn many of you who ascribe to this crazy bullshit is also staggering.  48% of Americans believe that God pretty much created humanity in its current condition:  Ahhhhhh!

Ok.  So here is your handy dandy guide to debunking crazy, bullshit Creationist arguments.

1. Lack of transitional fossils: One of the arguments trotted out by creationists, is that we haven’t found transitional fossils.  That is, fossils that show a species that is changing into another species.  They claim that while we have found fossils from many different species that look similar or seem to show a progression, there is no actual evidence of a single species in mutation to another species in the fossil record.  Since differing species can’t interbreed, it is argued that while species can change over time, they can’t descend from another species.  Therefore, the main species in existence must have been created by an intelligent designer.  This line of logic is convenient for them, because when we do find transitional fossils, Creationists can simply claim that it belongs to one species or the other and does not prove a link between the two.  Archeaopteryx is one such example.  Most scientists acknowledge it as a link between dinosaurs and birds, but Creationists simply claim its a dinosaur with wings like the Pterodactyl.

The truth is that ALL species are in transition, since they eventually evolve into something else.  The ultimate proof these people are looking for, is an organism that is the direct parent of one species and the direct child of another, which couldn’t be verified even if it was found.  While there do exist gaps in the fossil record, they get smaller by the day.  By the scientific definition of transitional fossil, we have already found many such fossils that show a clear progression from one organism into another.  There may also be some evidence to suggest that evolution follows a path of punctuated equilibrium, that is long periods of relative stability punctuated by short bursts of rapid evolution.

Furthermore, speciation is occuring as we speak.  Simply put, an organism can branch from its original species by a few different mechanisms: one of which is allopatric speciation.  In a nutshell, this means that members of the same species sometimes, when put under different evolutionary pressures, will change until the point where they are no longer compatible with their original species and unable to interbreed with them.  This can occur when a species migrates to a different clime with different predators and prey, and evolve to deal with those new pressures.  The modern polar bear has many differences from the modern brown bear, such as its ability to swim 60 miles in freezing water, its white coat, extra fat for insulation, elongated neck and webbed paws to name a few, but can still interbreed with the brown bear.  Given more time however, the two species could diverge significantly enough to no longer be compatible.  There is even evidence to suggest that speciation can occur within the same environment.  The Hawthorn Fly is one such example, where a fly has recently evolved to eat apples (a non-native fruit) instead of the usual fruit that the fly subsists on.  This new kind of fly only eats apples, matures faster, and rarely interbreeds with the original species (about 4 to 6% hybridization rate).

2. Life is too unlikely to arise by chance: This argument appeals to common sense, but is ultimately unverifiable and useless.  The odds of a person with my exact characteristics being born are astronomical, however its ridiculous to assume I don’t exist.  The fact that we’re here, allows us to pose all sorts of questions about how unique it is that a certain set of circumstances have come about leading to our existence.  Oxygen is a poisonous, corrosive, flammable gas and we breathe the stuff.  Life found a way with the supplies on hand, so therefore the supplies on hand are of use to us.

3. Irreducible complexity: This theory asserts that we possess features that would be useless if they were only partially evolved. Therefore, they would not help the survival of a species and not be eventually developed into its current incarnation.  “Of what use is half an eye?  A circulatory system?  The blood and the heart would all have to evolve simultaneously, etc. etc.”  These are some interesting questions, but ultimately are things that evolution has an answer for.

The misconception is that the evolved feature was built like a computer, where the body had to assemble pieces that by themselves wouldn’t form any useful function until they operated together as a unit.  Evolution doesn’t work like that.  The stubs that the first tetropods developed had some use other than for walking on land.  Before the first fish made its attempt out of the water, those growing limbs offered an advantage in navigating its original wetland environment.  Lungs developed as an accessory respirator.  During droughts, small bodies of water would become starved of oxygen, and the fish able to get more oxygen out of the air had a greater chance of survival.  It also served a secondary purpose in helping to maintain density with the surrounding water and improve underwater movement.  The swim bladder in fish that evolved later makes use of that same functionality while losing the dependence on outside air.  Feathers can help to regulate body temperature, potentially attract mates and still eventually reach a size where it could offer an advantage if used for flight.

When engineering a large complex structure, it is often not done all at once.  Scaffolding is employed, until it’s no longer needed and eventually discarded.  Evolution often works the same way.  Whales still have tiny vestigial legs and we still have our appendix.  After enough time passes those features may evolve away entirely, or adapt to a new purpose.  The modern eye could have evolved, while being useful at each stage in its evolution.  Here is a quote from Ian Stewart’s “Natures Numbers: Discovering Order andPattern in the Universe”, Phoenix, 1995, pg 24-26

“A remarkable example of this kind of thinking is a computer simulation of the
eye by Daniel Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, published in 1994…. [T]he computer
analysis … starts with a mathematical model of a flat region of cells … The
mathematical model is set up as a computer program that …calculates how good
the resulting structure is at detecting light and resolving patterns …During a
simulation that corresponds to a period of four hundred thousand years .. the
region of cells folds itself up into a deep, spherical cavity with a tiny iris
like opening and .. a lens … the pattern of variation of refractive index that
is produced in the simulation is very like our own. So here mathematics shows
that eyes definitely can evolve gradually and naturally…”

4. The Second Law of Thermodynamics: This basically states that “In a system, a process that occurs will tend to increase the total entropy of the universe.”  This seems to go against the idea of  self-organizing life, because the law says that the overall organization of the universe decreases rather than increases over time.  However this argument can be misleading, since biological organisms can become more ordered while the net change in entropy for the universe can still be positive.  In addition, the second law is only true of closed systems.  With an energy source, decreases in entropy can be arranged: such as separating heat from cold in a refrigerator.  Living organisms require an external energy source, so it is not unusual that they grow more complex over time.  In addition, many examples of things growing in complexity can be seen in the real world on a daily basis: egg to organism, infant to adult, etc. and by the narrow interpretation used by Creationists that should not be possible either.

5. Disagreement with the authenticity of carbon dating: This is the “were you there and how do you know” argument.  Some people argue that since we can’t go back in time and verify that carbon dating is accurate over the course of millions of years, we can’t say for sure that it properly dates things and proves the Earth to be millions of years old.  This is a fairly weak argument, since carbon dating has been repeatedly tested and its findings verified by many.  Creationists claim to be able to fake the span of a million years using carbon dating techniques, but their findings have been questioned, as the people performing the experiments were unskilled, unqualified, and refused to submit their findings to a significant scientific organization.

6.  Why are some of the weaker species we’ve evolved from still here?  Another common argument is that if we evolved from Chimpanzees, then why are Chimpanzees still around?  This comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of natural selection and our common descent.  First and foremost, we did not evolve from Chimpanzees.  We happen to share a common ancestor with them, but we both found different ways to handle the environmental pressures our species were under.  Secondly, natural selection is not a cage match.  Things as uncontrollable as Chance can play a roll in the survival or destruction of a species.  The species who have the chance to breed produce children like them, and over time the trends that happen for one reason or another to increase survival, tend to win out.  With a strict “survival of the fittest” interpretation, you could easily come to the conclusion that there should be no prey, since predators are the “stronger” species and all prey should have evolved to “beat” them or die off.  Predator and prey can develop a symbiotic relationship that help both species to survive.  Predators reduce overpopulation, which would starve off the prey, and the successful predators are careful not to hunt their prey to extinction, which would lead them to starvation.  In this case, predators that are too ambitious would have a smaller chance of survival.  There can be many niches a species is capable of occupying.  Furthermore, migration and continental drift can easily lead to differentiation in a species, which might lead it down different roads of evolution whereby we could arrive at the chimpanzee occupying one niche, and ourselves at another.

7. The earth would be covered in fossils if it was millions of years old:  This is perhaps the stupidest of all the Creationist arguments, but has to be addressed.  In the video at the top, the man states that it is impossible for the earth to be millions of years old because the number of creatures living and dying in that period of time would be so astronomical, that we would all be standing on a giant pile of bones.  Wow.  Ok, well to begin with, fossilization is extremely rare.  Most people don’t realize it, but one of the most popular and well known dinosaurs, the T. Rex, whose species had a lifespan of approx 5 million years and who’s skeleton is easily recognizable ,only has left behind 19 fossils that we’ve found so far.  For fossilization to even have a chance of occurring the body has to be covered by thick sediment almost as soon as possible, or frozen.  Most of the fossils we’ve found have been trapped in silt beds or tar pits in order to leave them preserved enough for us to recognize.  This means it is easily possible for millions of species to have existed and leave no trace.  If we as a species died off tomorrow, in 10,000 years the last remaining visible human structure may be Mount Rushmore.  A million years later there might not be a single trace of our history here on this planet aside from what’s in orbit.   After 65 million?  Likely not a trace.  So give the fossil record a break, we’re doing the best we can with it.

To learn more about evolution, there’s plenty of information online on Wikipedia alone.  Also, many thanks to Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen for all I’ve learned from reading them.  Buy their books.

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