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.

Fun fact of the day

Evolution has no goals.

Take the Lenski experiments, for example.

Richard Lenski and his researchers followed several lineages of E. coli for 20 years (in fact, they’re still following them). They would freeze samples every 500 generations so they could go back and re-run the tape of evolution should some fundamental change occur. And, eventually, such change did occur. Some E. coli were able to consume a natural by-product of their environment after nearly 30,000 generations. Lenski et al. unfroze the old generations to see just what enabled the bacteria to obtain their new found skill. As it turned out, they had to go back many thousands of generations; it wasn’t just one mutation, but at least three. The first two were effectively random. But they were necessary in order to get to the third mutation – the one that opened up a new food product for the colonies. But in the re-running of the tape, not all lineages re-evolved the new mutations. They weren’t predestined to evolve a particular trait; nothing was inevitable.

And so it is with all of life. We are our genes, and how our genes are propagated via natural selection is not a goal-oriented process.

But I thought people with degrees couldn’t be anti-science?!

Our old friend Roxeanne de Luca recently had this to say about her anti-science nature:

You tried to say I was anti-science, got smacked down because I have an engineering degree, and haven’t learned?

Got that? Someone who has an engineering degree can’t be anti-science. It just can’t happen. I mean, come on! It’s a science degree! Of course, we have to ignore the fact that she has argued that condom use is ineffective because not everyone uses them in South Africa. And we have to ignore the fact that she has claimed that HIV rates have fallen because of abstinence only education (when, in fact, condom education drives are the primary reason for the decline, not to mention the fact that abstinence only education has been shown to be largely ineffective). And ignore the fact that she has argued that the scientific concept of conception is the same as the philosophical (and subjective) concept of humanity. Ignore it all. She has a degree. It’s sort of like how President Obama has a law degree. I’m sure it will only be a matter of time until far-right, Obama-hating conservative Roxeanne starts arguing that the President can’t hold views that, in her opinion, are against the constitution since he has a J.D.

But, hey. I don’t want to put Roxeanne in a difficult position. I know moving beyond the partisan hackery is difficult for a lot people, so I’ll make this a little easier for her. Republican congressman Paul Broun has come out with a series of statements that I’m sure Roxeanne is most eager to defend:

“God’s word is true,” Broun said, according to a video posted on the church’s website. “I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

Broun also said that he believes the Earth is about 9,000 years old and that it was made in six days.

Now, one may argue, so what? How does this relate to the rest of this post? I’m glad you asked. As it turns out, Broun has a notable educational background:

The Republican lawmaker made those comments during a speech Sept. 27 at a sportsman’s banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell. Broun, a medical doctor, is running for re-election in November unopposed by Democrats.

He also has a B.S. in chemistry.

I think everything here is pretty clear. Anyone who has a degree in some science cannot possibly be anti-science. Hell, someone who claims otherwise ought to be prepared to get “smacked down” pretty quickly. At least that’s the world according to Roxeanne de Luca.

Datechguy does not grasp evolutionary theory

I mentioned a little while ago that the Internet became a better place when Roxeanne de Luca ceased her blogging activities. As it turns out, her old website is gone, but she is still blogging at some site called Datechguy. I don’t care to read anything she has to say given how uniformly uninformed she is on all issues (not to mention the fact that she is crazy), but I did poke around her new location. In doing so, I came across this atrocious piece by the owner of the blog, Datechguy himself:

I think people often confuse “natural selection” and survival and the fittest, which is certainly scientifically sound and full blown evolution the creation of one species from another.

The second has several problems the biggest of which for me is the math.

What makes this interesting is that Datechguy spent a good portion his post disowning creationist arguments, including young Earth creationism. In fact, he is a member of the Catholic Church, a group that claims to embrace the theory of evolution. (The reality is that the Church rejects what the theory actually says, but they still claim to embrace it, at least superficially.) So there is no reason one should expect him to go on about “the math” since that’s nothing more than code for common creationist canards. Yet here we are:

Here is what you need for evolution of that nature to work:

  • You need some kind of mutation.
  • Said mutation needs to be a beneficial mutation so it doesn’t increase the likely hood of the creature caught by a predator.
  • You need a mutation that doesn’t prevent breeding with a similar creature
  • The result of that breed must carry said mutation so it has to be dominant trait
  • Continual breeding has to take place so that dominant trait spreads until all members of the species without that dominant trait disappear.

I really should just point to The Blind Watchmaker and call it a day, but I’m a sucker for punching bags, so let’s get started. First Datechguy says mutations are necessary for speciation. This isn’t all that far off from the truth, but it isn’t exactly accurate. Mutations are going to happen – each one of us has about 150 in our DNA right now – but they are not entirely necessary. All that needs to happen for a speciation event is for enough time, space, and natural selection to take place. That is, natural selection is a honing process, so it is theoretically possible for it to promote some alleles while eliminating others in a way which prevents breeding between two populations that once were able to produce offspring.

The second point is myopic in nature. Datechguy appears to be implying that mutations are for the sake of prey. I never realized that predators and organisms without predators were not involved in evolution. But I digress. We see beneficial mutations all the time. For example, humans which began to utilize animal milk once we started to create civilizations had their lactase producing gene left on after childhood, thus enabling the break down of lactose. That legacy continues in many Europeans and those of European descent. Datechguy has not made a significant point here.

The third point is plainly weird. This guy is saying that for a speciation event to happen, a mutation cannot cause a breeding split within a population. That is false. As we see with human chromosome 2, one very plausible way that it spread throughout the population was that it separated our ancestors with 48 chromosomes from those with 46 chromosomes. That is, a small number of individuals had a mutation which prevented breeding with other members of their population. (It is worth noting, however, that many speciation events are merely a matter of time and the breeding is continuous. That is, a population may be considered one species at Point X, it continues to breed in a way which causes no distinct split (e.g., no division that is present in a single generation), then after, say, 100,000 years, it is considered a different species.)

The fourth point is another weird one. A mutation needs not be dominant to be carried throughout a population. If it did, Mendel never would have had green or wrinkly peas.

The final point – that “continual breeding has to take place so that dominant trait spreads until all members of the species without that dominant trait disappear” – is my favorite. Datechguy is arguing that fixation is necessary for speciation to occur. As we saw with the 2010 Burke paper, evolution still very much occurs with or without complete fixation. In fact, allelic fixation varies between sexually and asexually reproducing populations, so it is improper to speak of it in blanket terms.

The rest of Datechguy’s post is a mix of the Boeing 747 creationist canard and the creationist intelligent design irreducible complexity argument. For instance:

It doesn’t mean it can’t have happened. In theory I can roll snake eyes 50000 times straight

Or to put it another way, if you saw me roll snake eyes 10 times in a row, what would be the first logical thought? Luck or fixed dice? How about 100 times? How about 1000?

(That comes from the comment section on the post.)

It’s a common mistake to believe that any given trait or characteristic needs to evolve in either one giant leap or through a series of perfectly coordinated mutations. Fortunately, that isn’t how evolution works. Natural selection operates via incredibly tiny steps, one by one. When looked at over the course of hundreds of thousands of years or more, we have a huge number of mutations and allelic changes that appear impressive, but the reality is that virtually all of those changes were individually likely. And, just as importantly, each one of those changes is individually useful. (I’m ignoring historical contingency for the sake of brevity.) For instance, an eyespot won’t enable any creature to see danger or prey from miles away, but it is useful for detecting light and dark and, eventually, color, shape, and size.

I imagine Roxeanne and Datechguy will be very happy together at a site that, as with her last one, entirely lacks all scientific value.