Cornelius ‘Common Creationist’ Hunter

Cornelius Hunter has a history of struggling to understand simply concepts. Today is no different:

As with the so-called vestigial structures—another evolutionary construct—function is, ultimately, irrelevant. A structure is “vestigial,” or DNA is “junk,” not by virtue of any objective criterion dealing with function, but because evolutionists say so.

His post was primarily about so-called ‘junk DNA’, but I’ve addressed that topic in the past, so I will only mention it to note that it only ever betrays a deep ignorance when creationists talk about it. What I really want to discuss is Hunter’s mention of vestigial structures. First, let’s define our term:

[Vestigial] refers to an organ or part (for example, the human appendix) which is greatly reduced from the original ancestral form and is no longer functional or is of reduced or altered function.

Vestigial structures provide a clue to the evolutionary history of a species because they are remnants of structures found in the ancestral species.

It’s easy to see Hunter’s error. A vestigial structure need not be related to function whatsoever – and that doesn’t therefore mean that it is merely the say-so of biologists that makes it vestigial. The human ear, for instance, has vestigial muscles that don’t do anything; in our ancestors (and cousins), their function is to swivel the ear for better directional hearing. That’s vestigial, it’s evolutionary, and it’s science. DNA comparison can, does, and will show that when looked at. Furthermore, a vestigial structure can have a function while still being vestigial. For instance, whales have remnants of hind legs that clearly are not used for walking. However, they do play a role in where muscles are attached. Again, that’s vestigial, it’s evolutionary, and it’s science. Hunter just isn’t familiar with these things.

Thought of the day

One of the things that makes our country weaker is that we allow states that wish to undermine the teaching of evolution. We can’t expect to have a strong, scientific nation if we keep acting like science is an opinion-based discipline.

Thought of the day

The fact that we all have the same genetic building blocks strongly suggests a single point of origin for all of life. That we can trace our genetic heritage and cousinships in a hierarchical and expanding way which matches morphology, behaviors, and the fossil record helps to make the case for evolution one of the strongest cases for any theory in the history of science.

No, that’s a bad Oklahoma! Bad Oklahoma!

Looks like there’s another creationist bill in another red state:

Oklahoma’s most recent creationism measure has made it over its latest hurdle.

The Oklahoma Common Education committee passed the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act Tuesday in a close 9-8 vote, Mother Jones reports.

Introduced by Republican state Rep. Gus Blackwell, the legislation would “permit teachers, schools, and students to explore alternative theories without repercussions,” the Week columnist Dana Liebelson writes.

“Without repercussions”? Come, come now. This bill is about science denialism across the board, including of global warming, cloning, and especially evolution. A person cannot grow up in the 21st century and expect to be proficient in an ever more complex world when our schools are forcing scientific illiteracy on them. Just look at what one of the sponsors of the bill said:

While creationism bills have often been linked to religion, Blackwell insists that the legislation’s focus is scientific exploration.

“I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks,” Blackwell explained to Mother Jones. “A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations.”

Highly complex life – indeed, all of life – is explained not merely by chance, nor merely mutations. There are a whole host of mechanisms which contribute to life’s erratic march, such as genetic drift and, of course, natural selection. (I say “erratic march” because, as Stephen Jay Gould noted, life does not evolve towards complexity, but rather diversity.) We cannot expect students to write coherent papers on this matter when there are people in charge like Blackwell who have obviously never even considered biology at this level.

Hopefully this bill will die just like a similar one did last year, but who knows. The power of the stupid-lobby remains as strong as ever.

Natural selection is a serious problem for theism

Natural selection is the process by which different traits and, ultimately, alleles spread or shrink throughout a population over time. It is a key mechanism in evolution and an understanding of it is necessary to knowing anything important about life itself. It demonstrates how we can have such a long history with so many seemingly lucky ancestors, culminating in such a massive variety across the planet. But perhaps most importantly, it sheds light on some of our most fundamental questions about existence.

I’ve spoken in the past about Richard Lenksi’s E. coli experiment. He has been tracking a dozen different lineages of the bacteria for the past 25 years, carefully cataloging the genetic changes that take place and when they happen. What he has found is that mutations are often contingent, meaning that for Mutation #2 to happen, Mutation #1 is first needed. However, in his most interesting finding, it turns out that neither of these mutations will necessarily be useful at first. That is, they are neither advantageous nor deleterious, instead merely being neutral, as is so often the case. Yet they persist. It is only by chance, so it is a lucky persistence, but it happens. And, with time, Mutation #3 (or 4 or 5, etc) happens, and it is that mutation which is advantageous. Here natural selection goes to work, causing the new allele to near or reach fixation. But this does not happen in every lineage. Indeed, when Lenski re-runs his experiment using generations he had frozen earlier, he has found that sometimes the mutations all happen again, but more often they fail to occur. The reason is clear: there is nothing but chance that can maintain a neutral mutation. (This is why microsatellites are great for studying short-term generational changes, but not deep evolutionary time.)

I bring this up because Lenksi’s work crystallizes in experiment the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.

Gould went further, however, than us. No single trait, and certainly no entire species, is inevitable in evolution, he rightly said. Perhaps some features are more likely than others – the eye is said to have evolved independently 40 different times – but no specific feature (such as wings or bipedalism) can be firmly predicted. Indeed, Gould spent much of his time arguing that evolution drives not towards complexity or specificity, but rather diversity; life finds itself at many forks, but it never ‘knows’ which road it will take.

This presents a significant problem for theists. For the young Earth variety, the issues are glaring. That group of people is nothing but woefully ignorant, denying even the most obvious and established science. They don’t deserve any more of my time here. For the older Earth variety that opts for theistic evolution, however, the problems they face are merely buried just far enough away from mild, easy thinking to be ignorable for most. That is, they’ve admitted to the fact of evolution, but they are necessarily ignoring that if humans evolved just like everything else, there was a point where our ancestors weren’t human; we were no different from any other mammal in the distant past. (It is only time and space which allows us to define a species.) That destroys any argument that says, in the eyes of some deity, we might be more special than, say, a giraffe.

The counter to this, as per the Catholic Church and others, is to simply declare that we were infused with souls at some unknown point in our evolutionary history. This isn’t much of an answer: No member of a species gives birth to a different species; evolution is continuous. So to believe the theist’s argument, we must conclude that at some point in our ancestry, a mother with no soul gave birth to offspring that did have a soul. That is, one was not essentially human while, magically, the other was.

The one version of theism that gets around some of this is where it is declared that all of life is equally special, so it doesn’t matter that no particular species or even traits are inevitable. This, however, has its own problem. Namely, it makes the given deity (or deities) entirely superfluous. It’s no more a viable position than seeing a door blown inward from the wind and declaring that there was also a ghost pushing from the outside.

For me, I find it far easier to simply accept natural selection and its clear implications. I have no need to make seemingly comfortable lies comport with contradictory facts.

How should we treat cloned Neanderthals?

Harvard geneticist George Church was recently interviewed by a German magazine where he said that we need to start talking about the ethical and other implications of cloning a Neanderthal. He said that, whereas the technological possibility is foreseeable in the relatively near future, we need to start the conversation today. Unfortunately, English-based media sensationalized his comments and falsely claimed that he was looking for a surrogate mother:

Harvard geneticist George M. Church was quoted in the Daily Mail as looking for an “adventurous woman” to serve as a surrogate for a “cloned cave baby.” The shocking headline spread quickly across the media with no small amount of help from major news aggregators like the Drudge Report…

“I’m certainly not advocating it,” Church told the Herald. “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”…

Church added that he wasn’t even involved in the particular aspects of the Human Genome Project focused on Neanderthals. Nonetheless, he hopes to use the mistake made by the media for the greater good. “I want to use it as an educational moment to talk about journalism and technology,” he said.

To compound the mistake made by the media, people like Arthur Caplan, writing for CNN, continues to spread falsehoods even after the correction has been made:

Despite a lot of frenzied attention to the intentionally provocative suggestion by a renowned Harvard scientist that new genetic technology makes it possible to splice together a complete set of Neanderthal genes, find an adventurous surrogate mother and use cloning to gin up a Neanderthal baby — it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

My beef is with the baseless accusation that Church was being intentionally provocative. Here is what he actually said:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by “soon”? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?…

SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?

Church: Well, that’s another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what’s technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.

In other words, the magazine asked him all these things. He gave pretty uncontroversial answers, even choosing to take a rather neutral stance when asked if we should clone a Neanderthal. I think the evidence is clear that not only was Church not being intentionally provocative, he was actually attempting to give benign answers.

At any rate, this all does raise the interesting question of how we would treat Neanderthals if we did clone them. Would we give them the same rights and protections? Would we develop a new application for the old scourge of apartheid? I’m not sure the answers to these questions, but I do have some input on how we should go about considering them.

Humans are awfully fond of talking about our special status in the animal kingdom. Indeed, many of us refuse to even consider ourselves animals, disregarding the affront to biology such a stance is. Of course, we have some good reasons for separating ourselves, at least in the context of morality and ethics. Though such practices, common across many taxa, are little more than game theory working itself out amongst genes and individuals, humans take it to another level. So while, for example, our ape cousins will show rudimentary understandings of right and wrong, we have far more complex rules for our society, rules that we can reason out and justify by way of our higher level of intelligence. We are different and that’s important.

How different, though, are Neanderthals? We know a fair amount about them, but they haven’t been around for 20 or 30 thousand years. No one has interacted with them, so a cloned baby would be an experiment in every sense of its life. So how different would it be? Would we have criteria established that said, ‘If the Neanderthal is different in these certain ways, it will not enjoy the same rights afforded everyone else under our laws’? I don’t know, but the concern is an interesting one because it raises the issue of why we think we’re so special.

Evolution is a continuous process. We are descended from species which were not human, but at no point did one species give birth to a brand new one. Every mother gives birth to offspring that are categorized in the same way she is. However, when enough time has passed, we’re given the luxury of defining different groups as species within this or that Genus under one or another Family. But look over the tape of evolution and everything eventually converges and lines blur. Just think about human evolutionary history: Back things up 100,000 years and we’re largely the same. How about 150,000? 300,000? 1,000,000? At some arbitrary point we pick, we’re going to start defining significant differences, but if we continually shrink the window of time, the differences start to disappear. (This is all a huge problem, in my view, for the Catholic or other theistic evolutionist who believes only humans have souls.) So from 500,000 years ago to 100,000 years ago, there will be notable change, but that change will be smaller between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago. And the differences become less when we look at our history from 300,000 to 200,000. Keep going and we may be talking about how different our ancestors from 272,000 years ago were from our ancestors living 271,000 years ago. Forget that our investigations into the history of life can’t get that specific. What’s important is that we have to realize there is no line in the sand that says “Species A ends there and Species B begins here”.

So if we do decide that Neanderthals are less deserving of the rights given to humans, we have to admit that humans, at some point in our lineage, were also not deserving. That is, our intelligence and consciousness become more and more comparable to our cousin apes (and now extinct man-like cousins) as we go back in time; we eventually arrive to a point where we would not give our ancestors the same rights that we enjoy. That means we are not inherently special, and I think that’s a major blow to a lot of our assumptions. The supposedly humble Neanderthal shines light on our human arrogance.

Thought of the day

The fact is, a person who rejects evolution is a person who doesn’t understand the world.