Defending Evolution from ID Distortions

Posts tagged “Discovery Insitute

Darwin’s Dilemma: My Take on the Discovery Institute’s Claims

I know it’s several months late, but I just got through watching a film done by the Discovery institute, on the Cambrian “explosion,” called “Darwin’s Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Explosion.” There are a few details that should be addressed about it. But, before I go into any kind of detail, yes, it should be pointed out that this is mostly the same kind of Creationist bull that I thought it would be, just a bit more sophisticated than the usual Creationist arguments made about the Cambrian radiation.

At first, typical of Creationist claims, Jonathan Wells makes the well-worn claim about life forms before and during the Cambrian. He compares the entire 3.8 to 4 billion years of life to a twenty-four hour day saying that for the first 21 hours, there were only unicellular life forms, and then the Cambrian life forms came into existence on the scale of a two minutes. This is an attempt to make the Cambrian radiation appear “sudden” A few minutes later, Wells then says something on the lines of that it could have happened over night which is complete bogus because it lasted at least 10 to 25 million years. Though there are higher estimates that go as high as 35 million years or more. The film says that fossil evidence shows that those estimates are too high, but it doesn’t give convincing details.

The film, however does mention the existence of other life forms, like the Ediacaran fauna which existed before the Cambrian, as well as fossil embryos. . . . Oh, about the fossil embryos, the film uses them to address the idea that pre-Cambrian fossils are not preserved because they were too soft. It is pointed out that these embryos were from soft-bodied organisms, and that they existed tens of millions of years before the Cambrian. From that, it is reasoned that if the appeal to pre-Cambrian organisms being too soft for preservation cannot be used. As the film argues this, the Discovery Institute seems to have missed a major implication of fossil embryos several millions of years before the Cambrian “explosion.” Think about it: Those embryos had to have come from precursor ancestors, and that would therefore show that the Darwinian prediction of the existence of simpler pre-Cambrian life. It shows, therefore, that such organisms did in fact exist, but that they were rarely ever fossilized. Fossilization is already a rare enough occurence without the organisms being much softer than is accustomed. But, another detail the DI seems to have missed: I do not remember any scientist ever saying that soft-bodied, pre-Cambrian fossils could never be preserved. They can be, it’s just much more of a novelty. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think the Discovery Institute is attacking a strawman.

Something I find exceptionally interesting is the interest that the film takes in fossils from southern China. All along, citing these fossils as evidence for their conclusion, I’m left to wonder why other fossils from China are ignored. In pre-Cambrian deposits dating from the Doushantou Formation, evidence of animal life in the form of adult Cnidirians was found. Among the finds were fossilized embryos and larvae tat resembled Anthrozoans. Not to mention, there s also evidence of cnidirian body plans with anthozoan affinity. An implication of this find is that  stem groups of bilaterians were also present between 25 to 45 million years before the Cambrian “explosion.” — Then, also there is more recent evidence from the same formation that complex, bilatarians existed between 40 to 55 million years before the Cambrian. — These fossil finds I cited were made in the first half of the last decade, between 2002, and 2005. These finds alone would show that the Cambrian “explosion” was likely less explosive. In contrast, the film Darwin’s Dilemma was released in September, 2009. Why didn’t the Discovery Institute include these fossil finds? Because of ignorance or bias? You make the call. — I go into more detail in my previous post entitled “The Truth on the Cambrian ‘explosion.’

Between scenes, the Discovery Institute indulges in the usual Creationist quote mining from well-known scientists about the appearance of the Cambrian fauna in the fossil record, but prominently Stephen Gould. Personally, I found that somewhat disrespectful since he is dead with his statements still being hijacked. Then also, they use a very selective quote from Richard Dawkins about the Cambrian’s abruptness in which he says, “It’s as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history.” You just have to realize that Dawkins is an Atheist and a major anti-Creationist to realize that he ultimately was not endorsing that view.  Besides, as he proposes a little later that “it might be that many of these animals had only soft parts to their bodies: no shells or bones to fossilize,” a view which the film goes out of its way to attempt refuting.  — The Quotes from Charles Darwin can be dismissed since they are 151 years out of date, and do not reflect the research accomplished since he published his theory.

A final claim made is on genetic information, and questioning whether or not Darwinian mechanisms can produce it. After deciding that it cannot, they resort to their typical “designer did it” cop-out. They try to rationalize their logic by saying that information is the product of intelligence, yada, yada . . . .  I’m not going to even bother to refute the typical argument from ignorance.

Basically, the film really doesn’t address anything that hasn’t been debunked before, it just seems to be a bit more sophisticated, and a bit more informative than other pieces of Creationist propaganda, but that’s probably because it admits to the existence of some fossils from before the Cambrian. I guess from that, it is the “best” Intelligent Design film I’ve ever seen, but that isn’t saying much. Mostly, the only real thing this film has going for it is its graphics, though I have seen better. I guess one of its goals is to dazzle the uninformed layperson with its computer graphics?  Who can tell? The Discovery Institute may accept the scientific age of the earth, but other than that, they aren’t much better than ICR.

Precambrian Animal Life: Probable Developmental and Adult Cnidarian Forms from Southwest China, by Jun-Yuan Chena, Paola , Feng Gaoa, Stephen Q. Dornbos, Chia-Wei Lid, David J. Bottjer and Eric H. Davidson. From Science Direct, and Developmental Biology.
The Early Evolution of Animals by David J. Bottjer, from Scientific American.

Recommended Reading:
Transitional Forms and the Evolution of Phyla, by Glenn R. Morton, from American Scientific Affiliation. Published in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.
Cambrian Explosion, from SkepticWiki

Devoluton and an Evolutionary “Ladder”

When I first began reading Creationist arguments, I ran across the claim that humans as well as all other species were deteriorating. — One well known Creation Scientist I read claimed that the first humans lived for several hundreds of years and were therefore superior to all humans alive today. And based on that reasoning, he claimed that we were “devolving,” not evolving — devolving since the time of Noah’s flood. My reading of Creationist and Intelligent Design lit is that for evolution to be true, everything has to lead to an improvement.

Joseph Mastropaolo, a Creation “scientist,” for example, talks about medical disabilities and harmful mutations saying that this argues against evolutionary theory. He says that if evolution were true, then there should be less mutations less disease.

From the medical literature, the evidence suggesting evolution is zero and the evidence suggesting the exact opposite, devolution, is more than 15,400. Obviously, evolution is the exact opposite of reality.

Just as a side note, Mastropaolo’s insistence that evolutionary theory makes the prediction that there should be less disease fails to take into account that the viruses and bacteria that are responsible for sickness and disabilities evolve as well, so the persistance of disease is perfectly consistent with evolution. — Also, he says,

If evolution is true, then we should observe a decrease in human mutations, medically designated human genetic disorders, over time according to one definition of evolution, change over time, and another definition, natural selection. [ . . . ] The actual data show that genetic disorders doubled every 13 years through the sixties, seventies and eighties. In the nineties, genetic disorders doubled in about half the time, every seven years.

How ’bout that? I guess for evolution to be true, harmful mutations and genetic defects should become less frequent as time goes on. This is quite an over-simplistic understanding of how evolution works. — I think I’m being too generous by even describing his description of the process as an “understanding” because that’s not how evolution works at all. It doesn’t ensure against more disabilities in the future, and it certainly never claimed to guarantee that the occurence of detrimental mutations would be reduced in the future.

Such claims and insinuations are common in Creationists literature. Their perception is that there is a certain requirement that there there is a dictated direction from the simple to the complex, and that anything that seemingly goes in the opposite “direction” is a refutation of evolutionary theory. — The idea of “devolution” is based on the common misconception that evolution is directionary, that is, that increasing complexity is a necessary outcome for evolutionary change. The truth is that evolution doesn’t dictate any such trend. It has no pre-ordained direction.

The idea of a “ladder” of progression was proposed by several, but notably by the French naturalist Jean Baptist de Lamarck who believed that the simplest life forms were on the bottom while the most complex forms (i.e., humans) were on the top. Charles Darwin, however, did not subscribe to Lamark’s ideas, considering them unreliable. In fact, by the time Darwin had appeared on the scene, the idea of a chain was losing it’s support, but Darwin was the one that ultimately demolished it. — He envisioned a tree with the branches dividing, and so on, though modern evolutionary theory is shown as more of a “bush.”

Rather than just adding, evolution often reduces as well. Tapeworms lose their guts, cavefish lose their eyes, and humans lose their appendix. The ancestors of these particular species had fully functioning versions of these particular organs, though the modern counterparts are either semi-functional or non functional. There is no reason why apparently “simple” creatures cannot have evolved from more complex ancestors, and there is reason why this would happen: If you don’t use it, you tend to lose it.

The claim that devolution occurs rather than evolution shows that Creationists either do not understand evolution, or they feel the need to redefine it so they can make it look like a pseudo-scientific absurdity. The reality is that ‘devolution’ is not a legitimate biological term. So far, I haven’t been able to find it in any science textbook. The only people who use the term tend to be just laypeople or Creationists.

As a final observation, talk about “devolution” and an evolutionary “ladder” actually causes a fundamental contradiction of another common Creationist fallacy: The claim that Darwinian Evolution is based on pure chance. If evolutionary theory dictates that organisms absolutely have to become more complex, then how could evolution be based on pure coincidence? Logically, you cannot accept both ideas. Though to be honest, Evolution isn’t based on pure chance: Though mutations are random occurences, Natural Selection is the exact opposite of chance.

The fact of the matter is, the concept of an “Evolutionary ladder” is an oxymoron. It has no place in modern biology, so if you hear anyone  using such a term, you can be sure that person doesn’t understand evolutionary theory.

Age of the Earth, Medical Science, Adam, Eve, Even, and the Flood, by Joseph Mastropaolo
Jean Baptist de Lamarck
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrate of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution, page 74. By David Quammen.
Getting the Monkey off Darwin’s Back: Four Common Myths About Evolution, by Charles Sullivan and Cameron Mcpherson Smith. From the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Evolution myths: Natural selection leads to ever greater complexity by Michael Le Page. From New Scientist.
Evolution Theory Overview, from FossilMuseum.Net