Monday, March 4, 2013

What Darwin Didn't Know- Ch 1 - The Scope of Challenges Pt 1

Book Cover: What Darwin Didn't Know
I've dove into Geoffrey Simmon's "What Darwin Didn't Know" (2004), to evaluate an anti-evolution book.

I'm maintaining an index of my responses here.

Today's Chapter - 1: The Scope of Challenges - Part 1


Simmons begins the chapter by saying "In many regards the theory of evolution seems to make sense.", and then starts talking about abiogenesis. He seems to lump them together for some reason. I can't say I'm surprised. It's a common mistake creationists make. He does switch over to talking about something that resembles evolution, so I can give him the benefit of the doubt and think that he was just providing a small preface for talking about evolution.

The problem of Change

Humans and Dolphins

In this section, the "problem of change" is addressed. His argument is that not all lifeforms have been continually evolving. While humans have changed radically in 100,000 to millions of years, some plants and animals haven't changed "appreciably" in the same amount of time. He gives an example of the dolphin (specifically the male adult dolphin for some reason), saying it hasn't changed in 5 million years.

Let's categorize this objection under "misconceptions of evolution."

If we had a "Theory of Water Flows" (or better "Fluid Dynamics"), that describes everything we know about how water flows, that would not be falsified because some guy shows us a puddle of water that hasn't flowed for days. That's because this theory isn't an assertion that water must be flowing at all times. When water does flow, it's about how that works.

Likewise, evolution isn't an assertion that everything must be evolving at all times. We observe a phenomenon of creatures changing over time, and everything we learn about that is added to this "theory of evolution." 

If there was ever going to be a "first law of evolution", it'd be that the rate of evolutionary change is indirectly proportional to how adapted a form is to its environment, or something to that effect. If a creature, like a dolphin, is well adapted to its environment, we wouldn't expect it to change, because there's no environmental pressure to do so.

On the other hand, a branch of human ancestors migrated out of the trees, where their tree-adapted "four arms" didn't work so well on the plains. Given their form, bipedal movement was the most efficient mode of travel, and over time, they got better at that. Since they walked away (pun accomplished) from fruits in trees for food, and were a social species (like most primates are), they honed their ability to coordinate for hunting animals, and that coordination was better served through bigger brains that could do language.

In short, they had a lot of evolutionary pressure to adapt to a new environment. Dolphins have not. That's why some creatures evolve more than others. In terms of evolutionary change, bacteria run circles around humans, mostly because their generational rate is so fast. Environments in the water don't tend to change much. It's not like land regions that can shift due to tectonic movements into more arid or tundra regions over time. It's water of a particular temperature. They swim in it and eat fish around them. That's about it.

Again, this isn't a problem for evolutionary theory. It's a prediction of evolutionary theory.

Taking it to an extreme...

To showcase how science works, let's have a hypothetical. We observe that some species appear to evolve, with significant evidence. On the other hand, we also find some creatures that, according to both genetics, and the fossil record, unambiguously haven't evolved since the dawn of freaking time.

What would that do for the theory of evolution? Would it be falsified? The answer, actually, would be "no", and the reason for that is due to an understanding about how theories work. A theory is the "best fit" model that explains all available data at the time. In that sense, it's a conclusion. If we were find out that some species have evolved, and some haven't, the theory of evolution would be modified to reflect the fact that not all lineages evolve. Scientists would be clamoring over reach other to study this phenomenon, trying to figure out why that's the case.

... but the original theory would still apply to those that were evolving.

When it comes to falsification, it helps to understand the scope of the claim being challenged. Demonstrating that a particular car doesn't move does not prove that no cars move at all. Likewise, showing that one species hasn't evolved doesn't prove that no species have evolved. In order to completely falsify evolution, one would have to show that no species have evolved, ever. If one wishes to move from a generalization to a specific, that's a lot easier. One can show that a particular species, for instance, hasn't evolved (creationists should focus their efforts here on humanity, because why do we care whether chipmunks evolved or not?).

It's debatable whether the theory of evolution insists that all life evolved. The focus tends to be more on the "how" than the "whether". As I pointed out before, if we can demonstrate that particular species did not evolve, then the theory of evolution would be modified to say essentially "most species evolve".

Again, Simmons doesn't seem to know how to refute things. This is an example. One must have a grasp of the topic in order to construct an intelligible refutation.

"Pinnacle of Evolutionary Perfection"

Simmons continues...

Have these steady-state species reached the pinnacle of evolutionary perfection? This is also doubtful, but pinnacles are hard to define. Are they the toughest, smartest, most prolific, fastest, best-camouflaged, or meanest members of their group around?
I'm not sure if he's serious here. This may be tongue-in-cheek, but the way he keeps talking about it, it seems like he thinks it's an actual thing.

There are no "pinnacles of evolutionary perfection." In context of evolutionary theory, that's gibberish. A particular species may be well adapted to a particular environment, but if that environment changes on them, sometimes suddenly, then they're not well adapted anymore. It'd be like saying that those small whirlpools that form alongside rivers as they flow downhill are "pinnacles of fluid dynamics." No, sometimes, water stays in a particular spot for awhile where it's location is relatively stable (if we're comparing it's location to evolutionary status - the analogy probably could use some improvement).

There's a few ways one can tell that a person has misconceptions about evolutionary theory:
  • He/she says that one organism is "more evolved" than another
  • He/she talks about an "evolutionary ladder"
  • He/she says one species is more "evolutionary advanced" than another
We can add "pinnacles of evolutionary perfection" to that list.

One could argue that bacteria are "more evolved" than humans, in a sense of how much change has happened over time (even if they return to a previous status). Setting aside the confusion about the early time of evolution where there was a lot of genetic transfer between species, humans and a particular species of bacteria have been around since we had a common ancestor  In that time, however, our ancestry had a massive slowdown of generational rate. Our generational rate is something like 16-20 years. Some bacteria reproduce every 20 minutes. They're constantly evolving, compared to us.

"Then why haven't they evolved into intelligent creatures?", you ask? Evolution doesn't guarantee that. Like the dolphin may be stagnant in an environment it's well suited to, bacteria have their own niche that works very well for them. Most of their evolution was adaption to new environments, or elements like antibiotics.

Keep in mind that the step from single-cellular lifeforms to multi-cellular took billions of years, with each milliliter of ocean having hundreds to thousands of individual organisms, with generational rates of minutes, over most of the entirety of the Earth's oceans ... talk about infinite monkeys on typewriters writing out Shakespeare. 

Simmons continues...

If one looks closely, this is often not the case. Do animals go through short evolutionary bursts or pauses (millions of years)... and the exceptions of today are merely in a pause?
Hey, I think he's starting to get it! 

There is a debate about a concept called "punctuated equilibrium", which would account as to why there's fewer "transitional fossils" than we'd like. In short, transitional forms are unstable, so their evolutionary progress is faster, to the point where there's less time for fossilization than non-transition forms.

No one can answer this, but it defies contemporary scientific principles.
Uh what? It's very well explained. And what "contemporary scientific principles" is it defying? 

He keeps pointing at things that are predicted in evolutionary theory as examples of things that contradict evolutionary theory.

It's weird.

Did an asteroid strike near the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, causing tidal waves and nuclear winters that selectively drove dinosaurs to extinction and yet spared many prehuman animals?
"Spared"? Did the incoming tsunami, as it was crashing into land look down, see the baby-eyed pathetic mammals and say "NO GET ABOUT OF THE WAY" and then steer around them? Most probably drowned, but as we know all too well, small rodent reproduction is... prolific. All you'd need is some to cling to trees or be on hills, for enough to survive to repopulate.

If so, one might wonder why the entire evolutionary clock wasn't set back. Then again, is surviving a matter of the fittest or of the luckiest?
Wondering is fine. Then thinking about it - and realizing that "setting back the entire evolutionary clock" would require an extinction of all multicellular lifeforms - is better. 

Surviving is a matter of both, which is, oddly enough, why it works, and why there's as much diversity in the biosphere. That's another common misconception about evolution. "Survival of the fittest" is frequently misunderstood. Any particular creature, for an environment, has a set of traits that are going to increase the probability of it surviving, and another set of traits that are going to decrease the probability of surviving (and another set that are benign) - with a net probability when all is factored in. Evolution is more a drift than a requirement that the so-called "fittest" must survive.

If a population of brown rabbits migrate into a tundra area (and they stick out like sore thumbs), it's not a guarantee that all brown rabbits will die before reproduction, nor is it a guarantee that all white rabbits will survive. It's more likely that the white rabbits will survive to reproduction. Thus, over the generations, the average genome of that group of rabbits will drift towards being more white, overall.

Returning to the dinosaurs versus mammals... the mammals weren't "spared". They survived. It's not like the tsunami eradicated the entire planet surface.

We regard cockroaches as practically immortal, because they have an amazing capacity to survive. Why? They're small, and efficient with low metabolism. If we were to have another "Yucatan incident", guess which would be more likely to survive? The giant high-metabolism eating machines, some of which ate hundreds of pounds of organic material a day, or creatures that could survive long periods of time on mere crumbs? They'd only have to survive the initial blast, and maybe a few years of darkness. Nuclear winters don't typically totally blot out the sun... some plants can actually survive on little light (I know, I have one in my living room whose survival mystifies me).

Guess what? That was the mammals, and other small creatures. The mass extinction was mostly from the large creatures that couldn't cope with a sudden destruction of most of their food sources.

He cites this as question that casts doubt on evolutionary theory. Yes - that the mammals survived and the dinosaurs didn't... I think. I think that was his point, otherwise, I don't know what was the point. It doesn't matter that this event, that would "reset the evolutionary clock", is well evidenced as having led to mammals taking over... and as why they took over.

Simmons ends the section on this:

Even the  most ardent supporters of the theory of evolution still call it a theory - with very good reason: no knowledgeable scientist has ever called it the "facts of evolution".
Benjamin Sisco (Star Trek DS9) Facepalming

Remember in the preface review when I was commenting about how I was picking up on signals that Geoffrey Simmons doesn't know what a scientific theory is?

That's because he doesn't. 

How could a man who supposedly has been studying evolution for 45 years never, ever picked up on this little tidbit of information?

Scientific Terminology 101

When people take a course called "Atomic Theory", what are they learning? They're learning all the facts about what we know, as demonstrably true, about atoms and related topics.

Teaching evolutionary theory is teaching evolutionary facts. It is synonymous. That's why courses on "Atomic Theory" will never be changed to "Atomic Facts" - because it doesn't make sense to do so.

A scientific theory is the model and body of knowledge of everything we know about a particular phenomenon. Ironically, in science, it means almost the opposite of how Simmons is using it here.

As an aside, this is why "String Theory" arguably isn't actually a scientific theory yet, and to a greater degree, why "Creation Theory" isn't a scientific theory. Creation Theory doesn't have any demonstrably true facts/evidence. That's why it's not a theory.

Conclusion/Personal Annotations

I'm not actually done. First, I said I'd review two chapters a week, then changed that to one. I'm down to reviewing individual pages. That's how bad this is.

All the above response... that's 2.5 pages into the chapter, that's 15 pages long. 

I didn't anticipate that literally every consecutive statement would be demonstrably wrong. It looks like the next sections are making more broad cases, instead of this Gash Gallop of inanity in first two and a half pages of the chapter... so maybe I can review broader chunks in the future.

Have you ever been reading a book or article, and then some way into it, you begin to wonder if it isn't satire? I'm half expecting to flip to the publisher information page and find it's from The Onion. This book, so far, is like some satirical caricature of the typical clueless creationist, spouting off every beaten trope he/she could conjure.

I am physically incapable of letting an incorrect statement pass - you may have noticed. That habit is severely backfiring on me in this case.

I'm honestly wondering if there's a point in continuing. Is the rest of the book going to be like this? ... one inane incoherent incompetent assertion after another?

I'll get through it, even if I have to address every page individually. I'm not, however, going address this every post I do - I'd go insane.

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