Sunday, January 25, 2009

Secular Sunday: The Case for a Creator: Chapter Three, Part 3

Picking up in Chapter Three, still in the Wells interview, we address “icon of evolution” number two: “Darwin’s Tree of Life.”

In brief, Wells makes the assertion that, while the ever-branching tree of life, where everything flows and diverges from a common ancestor, is a good representation of Darwin’s theory, it isn’t supported by the fossil record.

This is, in a word, a lie. Part of it is Wells’ denial that any “transitional forms” exist in the fossil record (but we’ll get to that when he starts in on archaeopetryx), and the other part of it is the Cambrian explosion:

"The Cambrian was a geological period that we think began a little more than 540 million years ago. The Cambrian Explosion has been called the 'Biological Big Bang' because it gave rise to the sudden appearance of most of the major animal phyla that are still alive today, as well as some that are now extinct." [page 43]

Okay, this part is admittedly not a flat-out lie. The issue is more in the presentation -- once again, he clearly expects people not to know and not to do any research.

The Cambrian has been called the Biological Big Bang, but unlike the Big Bang, it isn't theorized to have occured suddenly, at an instant in time. Wells, in using the word "sudden," makes it sound like it happened in a very brief period of time, but the Cambrian period is actually a period of about 80-90 million years. An eye-blink in geological time scales, sure; but in terms of the process of evolution, it's more than enough time for life forms to diversify.

He then states that it "gave rise to...most of the major animal phyla that are alive today." I think that he knows people will read "most of the major animal phyla" and understand it as "most of the animals."

Let's go back to high school science class, and scientific classification. The mnemonic device I learned was:


This is to help remember the scientific classifications in order, from the most general to the most specific:


See how far up "phylum" is? It's the second most general form of classification. Even today, with all the billions of named species, and billions more that are probably as yet undiscovered, you know how many phyla there are?

About thirty-five. So it's not really inconceivable that over the course of about 90 million years, life could diversify in a couple dozen ways for a start.1 Wells makes a true statement, but phrases it in such a way that it sounds like the current forms of life all popped up at once, fully formed (and if you think I'm putting words or intentions into his mouth, he makes his intentions very clear in following paragraphs, as you will see).

This is simply not the case. The forms of life that arose at that time were still very, very primitive.

Continuing his description, Wells says:

"[A]t the beginning of the Cambrian -- boom! -- all of a sudden, we see representatives of the arthropods, modern representatives of which are insects, crabs, and the like; echinoderms, which include modern starfish and sea urchins; chordates, which include modern vertebrates; and so forth. Mammals came later, but the chordates -- the major group to which they belong -- were right there at the beginning of the Cambrian." [page 44]

This quote has the same word-games, although Wells is getting a bit bolder with his disinformation. Notice he throws in the "modern representatives" of the various phyla, mixed up with the discussion of the earlier phylogenic forms. If one wasn't reading closely enough, one might easily misconstrue this statement as saying that modern animals, essentially in their current form, appeared at the beginning of the Cambrian period. The "boom!" again makes it sound like it was something that happened near-instantly, instead of over 90 million years.

He also just skips merrily over the part where mammals "came later." Where did they come from if not evolution? But of course Wells doesn't bother to answer the question. Stunningly, he doesn't even seem to realize he's raised one.

Goaded on by Strobel, Wells continues with a football analogy that really goes for broke in misrepresenting the Cambrian explosion:

"Okay," he said, "imagine yourself on one goal line of a football field. That line represents the first fossil, a microscopic, single celled organism. Now start marching down the field. You pass the twenty-yard line, the forty-yard line, you pass midfield, and you're approaching the other goal line. All you've seen this entire time are these microscopic, single-celled organisms.

"You come to the sixteen-yard line on the far end of the field, and now you see these sponges and maybe some jellyfish and worms. Then -- boom! -- in the space of a single stride, all these other forms of animals suddenly appear. As one evolutionary scientist said, the major animal groups 'appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus -- full blown and raring to go.'

"Either way, nobody can call that a branching tree!" [page 44]

Ignoring the fact that football fields don't have a "sixteen-yard line," this is a fairly accurate representation of the geological time scale. Richard Dawkins has a similar illustration he uses, and it goes something like this (paraphrasing from memory): if you hold out both your arms as wide as you can, and consider that the history of the universe, starting with the tip of your left middle finger and the tip of your right middle finger being the present, then life appears somewhere around the wrist of your right hand, complex life appears at about the first knuckle of your middle finger, and the whole of human history is the sliver of dust scraped off the nail by a single light stroke of a nail file.

Cosmic. The problem, again, is that Wells doesn't attempt to give any concrete numbers to the abstraction. The "single stride," the recycled "boom!" all try to make it sound like a much shorter time than it was -- an impossibly short time, in other words. And it simply isn't. Not to belabor the point, but that "single stride" is a period of 90 million years. While the reasons why the Cambrian Explosion occurred do still confound evolutionary biologists, it is not seriously considered a problem for evolutionary theory.

Skeptical Strobel makes a comeback, and this time he actually raises a sensible objection, although it doesn't really seem to follow what they've been talking about before. "Maybe...Darwin was right after all -- the fossil record is still incomplete. Who knows how natural history might be rewritten next week by a discovery that will be made in a fossil dig somewhere?" [page 45]

Wells, surprisingly, admits that it is a possibility that a future fossil discovery will "suddenly fill the gaps...But I sure don't think that's likely...It hasn't happened after all this time, and millions of fossils have already been dug up." [ibid]

What Wells -- and most creationists/ID proponents who make this argument -- seems not to realize, is that fossilization is extremely rare. A large number of circumstances must all fall into place to create a fossil. It is, frankly, astonishing that we have found the millions of fossils that Wells admits we have -- all telling the same story and aligning perfectly with evolutionary understanding, I might add. We have never found a fossil of an animal from a later period in strata dated earlier. There are no fossils of, for example, Jurassic rabbits. The fossil record that we do have it completely consistent with evolutionary theory.

And as an aside: "it hasn't happened after all this time." All this time? What arrogance!

Remember that human history has been too brief to even register as a blip on the cosmological radar. We are coming to the party several billion years late, and have only undertaken the study of paleontology at a serious level for a few hundred years. And yet if we haven't figured out the answer to every question in that time, there must not be one?

That's like walking into a friend's house, and immediately he tells you he's been looking for his keys for three days and asks you to help. Before you can even blink, he says "What, you haven't found them yet? Well, they must not be anywhere!"

"After all this time?" What is Wells smoking?

So they spend a couple of pages insisting that the fossil record doesn't support evolutionary theory. Again, a flat-out lie. That's what fossils are: evidence of the progression of life.

Strobel says, amusingly: "Protestations from Darwinists aside, the evidence has failed to substantiate the predictions that Darwin made." [page 46]

I can only conclude that when Strobel says "protestations from Darwinists," he actually means "evidence presented by people who actually know what they're talking about, but which I choose to ignore." This is another typical strategy -- ask for evidence, but when it is presented, dismiss the person giving the evidence, use that to deflect having to address their evidence, and claim that no evidence has been presented.

See also: "ad hominem."

Fuck, are we still not done with this chapter? Next week might be a long entry; I'm going to plough through as much as I can because we've barely hit the halfway mark, and I'm really tired of this clown. Wells could help me immensely by choosing not to speak in sentences that are almost entirely composed of falsehoods and fallacies, in dire need of explanation and correction, but I don't think I can count on that happening.

  1. At least, no more inconceivable than the time scale of "90 million years" is in general.


TheGamut said...

This might be a Pinocchio situation where he's (possibly unconsciously) trying to cover up the holes in his logic, which just creates more holes elsewhere. Do you get the feeling his writing is spiraling out of control?

Or... this could be a "While you were sleeping" scenario, where something makes perfect sense in a dream but takes a lot more explaining to make any sense when one is awake. Does it seem like he has an idea where he wants to go with this but has no idea how to get there despite the insistence he's made the previously connection?

We have a professor in our department that's writing a book about how Geology proves God's existence. :P (Yes. There is quite a bit of eye-rolling when the subject arises here.) I was thinking about how to get him to come here to put an early end to his book (as I believe it's intruding on his classes, to the detriment of some of the students, including a friend of ours), but he is one of those defines-the-universe-his-way people and has his own rules regarding theory and fact. If you thought I was annoying, he would make your head spin at the absurdity... almost as if he wasn't speaking American English at all but still speaking perfect English. This is a situation where he doesn't want co-existence. He wants it his (His) way only. (No way at all is not an option to him, either.)

Yet even if he gets that book published, his effectiveness for spreading the Word is limited. The students' learning what they need to know for the curriculum is the only part that worries me. (It's just as bad as an ex-professor who spent so much of his class time touting a commercial product instead of teaching the subject that students left the class knowing nothing about the subject.)

Still, you know how Tenure works. :(

TheGamut said...

Wow. I'm getting lysdexic. :) I probably should have waited until I got some sleep.

Carniphage said...

It is curious that Creationists demand that nature provide a comprehensive gapless paleontological record. As if they were somehow entitled to it.

It's therefore gratifying that when humans evolved the notion of god. They left behind an excellent paper-trail of their progressive modification of the idea. Complete with transitional forms, and blow-by-blow accounts of the clumsy mating of one tradition with another.

By the way....
The BBC Documentary, Around The World in 80 Faiths is recommended. My favourite religion so far is a mash-up between Islam and Animism. They have trans-sexual mullahs who have to stab themselves with giant knives. You couldn't make this stuff up.


TheGamut said...

I know I shouldn't laugh, C, but that's really hilarious. :) "The Cult of Frank-N-Furter" is what comes to mind.

Carniphage said...

It's faith number 1. About 2m50s in.


Dorkman said...

This might be a Pinocchio situation where he's (possibly unconsciously) trying to cover up the holes in his logic, which just creates more holes elsewhere. Do you get the feeling his writing is spiraling out of control?

No, all of these paths are well-trod by Creationists. They don't realize that there are holes in their logic because they don't know how to actually evaluate something logically. These are, remember, the same people who believe that a God who is willing to torture and punish everyone for eternity merely for not believing in him, is the purest form of Love and Morality in the universe.

almost as if he wasn't speaking American English at all but still speaking perfect English.

It is perfectly possible to have a grammatically correct but meaningless sentence. For example, Chomsky's "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Creationist "science" is a lot like that.

Yet even if he gets that book published, his effectiveness for spreading the Word is limited.

You think so? I think you're wrong. I think that a tenured professor of a serious, accredited university writing a book about how science proves God will get MASSIVE publicity in the evangelical community, as more validation of their fairy tale beliefs. The fact that it's not scientifically accurate or even valid will never cross their minds, as they won't bother to check if it's true -- all that matters is that it agrees with them.

No, I think your professor could find himself a very rich and famous man among the population of True Believers, and sensible scientists will have to spend the rest of their careers refuting the absurdities that he creates in an effort to actually get shit done.