Don’t diss Darwin.

The good news, there will be free copies of On the Origin of Species handed out at various universities, including mine.  The bad news, it comes with a tragically silly introduction by creationist banana-man* Ray Comfort.  Thankfully, the NCSE is on the case. They have a site devoted to this issue, Don’t Diss Darwin.

Click here to get your safety bookmark or counter-misinformation pamphlets.

Bonus: The Kirk Cameron Action Kit

* Here’s why the whole “Ray Comfort is bananas” thing is being emphasized.

Canada’s science minister refuses to answer question about evolution.

“I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.”

So said Canada’s federal science minister, Gary Goodyear, a chiropractor from Ontario, when asked if he accepts that evolution has happened. Who but a creationist would construe a question about a scientific fact as a question about their religious views?

“I do believe that just because you can’t see it under a microscope doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It could mean we don’t have a powerful enough microscope yet. So I’m not fussy on this business that we already know everything. … I think we need to recognize that we don’t know.”

Asked to clarify if he was talking about the role of a creator, Mr. Goodyear said that the interview was getting off topic.

I am truly fearful for the future of science in Canada.

Read the story by Anne McIlroy in the Globe and Mail.

Another reason to drop "Darwinism".

New Scientist book reviews editor Amanda Geftner describes some of the red flags that she has come to recognize as indicating a hidden religious agenda in pseudoscientific books. Here is one relevant excerpt:

When you come across the terms “Darwinism” or “Darwinists”, take heed. True scientists rarely use these terms, and instead opt for “evolution” and “biologists”, respectively. When evolution is described as a “blind, random, undirected process”, be warned. While genetic mutations may be random, natural selection is not. When cells are described as “astonishingly complex molecular machines”, it is generally by breathless supporters of ID who take the metaphor literally and assume that such a “machine” requires an “engineer”. If an author wishes for “academic freedom”, it is usually ID code for “the acceptance of creationism”.

The usefulness of “Darwinism” as a linguistic marker of anti-evolutionism is another reason for biologists to drop it — that is, if we don’t use it and they also stop using it, we gain because we get a more accurate description of evolution, whereas if we don’t use it and they continue to, we gain because it identifies their anti-evolution agendas. (I already consider it in this manner, but have to make special accommodations for people like Coyne and Dawkins who insist on using it to mean “modern evolutionary biology”, or for historians who mean it specifically in terms of Darwin’s ideas).

Arguments creationists should not use.

Creation Ministries International (formerly Answers in Genesis) has an interesting list of “Arguments we think creationists should not use“. Of course, anti-evolutionists regularly engage in less than honest tactics, including quote-mining, propaganda, and outright distortions, but in this case I applaud their candor. Here are some of the notable arguments listed, many of which you have undoubtedly heard many times — next time, just point out that even one of the leading creationist groups recognizes that these are not valid. (Obviously, the spin provided on these differs from what scientists think — see the original list for their explanations).

Which arguments should definitely not be used?

  • Darwin recanted on his deathbed.
  • Moon-dust thickness proves a young moon.
  • NASA computers, in calculating the positions of planets, found a missing day and 40 minutes, proving Joshua’s “long day” and Hezekiah’s sundial movement of Joshua 10 and 2 Kings 20.
  • The Japanese trawler Zuiyo Maru caught a dead plesiosaur near New Zealand.
  • If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes today?
  • Women have one more rib than men.
  • Archaeopteryx is a fraud.
  • There are no beneficial mutations.
  • No new species have been produced.
  • Paluxy tracks prove that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.
  • Darwin’s quote about the absurdity of eye evolution from Origin of Species.
  • Light was created in transit.

What arguments are doubtful, hence inadvisable to use?

  • Natural selection as tautology.
  • Evolution is just a theory.
  • There is amazing modern scientific insight in the Bible.
  • The speed of light has decreased over time.
  • There are no transitional forms.
  • Creationists believe in microevolution but not macroevolution.

A bicycle without a wheel.

I won’t get into this in detail, in part because I wrote about it in my paper The evolution of complex organs in the special issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach about eyes.

It seems the most recent analogy drawn by anti-evolutionists to support the idea of irreducible complexity is a bicycle — yeah, a unicycle works but a bicycle missing a wheel doesn’t, therefore it’s irreducibly complex. You can find out more at The Loom, where Carl shows people riding single-wheel bikes.

I am only weighing in because the discussion seems to be overlooking an important point about exaptation/co-option: the function need not be the same in both instances. So, although riding a bike with one wheel the way you would ride a two-wheeled bike a la wheelie is fine to show that it wouldn’t be totally non-functional, an even more relevant counter-example would involve a bicycle with one wheel that worked well for some other role.


This is just the first single-wheeled, functional-for-something-different, co-option example I found. This actually involves one shift and one addition of function. Loss of wheel to make it useful for exercise indoors, then addition of other parts to run a laundry machine. Of course, modern stationary bicycles used for exercise are more specialized, but you can still find gear to convert a normal bicycle into a stationary one, sometimes by taking off the front wheel.

So, basically, bicycles with one wheel provide a very nice illustration of how co-option with shift in function can and does work.

Look at it this way…

Todd Oakley reports on a dust-up over at Panda’s Thumb in which a commentator is not convinced that eyes evolved, in large part because the specific details of the early origin of the phototransduction pathway have yet to be worked out. Not surprisingly, responses have pointed out that the gaps are getting smaller and smaller and that a lot is known about how phototransduction may have arisen from precursors in other systems through duplication, co-option, and the various processes discussed in this paper.

I think this debate misses a much larger and more significant point. Darwin suggested that eyes evolved in the Origin, published 150 years ago. This was before even the basics of heredity were generally understood. It was before the discovery of DNA. Before the elucidation of the structure of DNA. Before the rise of molecular biology. Before the advent of phylogenetics. Before evolutionary developmental biology. Before genome sequencing.

And yet, through the emergence of all these major new sources of data, not a single reliable observation in any of these fields has contradicted the general hypothesis that eyes are the product of evolutionary mechanisms. Quite the opposite, as the picture of how this probably occurred in different lineages is become increasingly clear thanks in large part to this rapidly expanding body of knowledge. Gaps remain, of course, which is why it’s an intriguing field of inquiry. But the notion of waiting until every last detail is known before accepting the basic historical reality badly misinterprets the nature of science and scientific evidence.

"Intelligent design is not a theory" says DI fellow.

The Panda’s Thumb (PT) has a short post giving a quote from Michael Medved, a new fellow at the Discovery Institute (DI) (which promotes intelligent design, or ID). In it, Medved notes that intelligent design is not a theory itself, but merely a challenge to evolution. We already knew that, of course, and well known ID advocates have made similar statements before1. What interested me was my reaction to seeing the PT post. My first thought was, “Ok, but what’s the context?”. Not that I expected PT to be disengenuously quote-mining (this is, instead, a major creationist maneuver), but I wanted to know why he would say such a thing and what the full quote might have been. PT links to the source, which is an interview in the Jerusalem Post in which Medved is asked about a variety of issues, most of them political, with just a short exchange on ID. Here is the relevant portion, in full.

Speaking of your desire for this kind of particularity, you are a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute that studies and believes in Intelligent Design. How do you, as an Orthodox Jew, reconcile with this kind of generality – with the view of their being a hierarchy with a chief “designer” – while believing in and praying to a very specific God?

The important thing about Intelligent Design is that it is not a theory – which is something I think they need to make more clear. Nor is Intelligent Design an explanation. Intelligent Design is a challenge. It’s a challenge to evolution. It does not replace evolution with something else.

The question is not whether it replaces evolution, but whether it replaces God.

No, you see, Intelligent Design doesn’t tell you what is true; it tells you what is not true. It tells you that it cannot be that this whole process was random.

This is actually quite interesting. What is happening is that a religious interviewer is expressing concern that ID is a challenge to God as the designer. This puts ID creationists in a tough position. In order to sound “sciency”, they pretend that ID is not about God and say that the designer could be anything intelligent (God, gods, aliens). This is not science, and it is also not very good theology, as the interviewer indicates. As a result, ID creationists usually say one thing in debates (we can’t know who the designer is) and another in speeches to religious groups (obviously, the designer is God).

The thing is, there already are qualified people who constantly challenge evolutionary explanations. They are known as evolutionary biologists. We argue, we trash each other’s papers as peer reviewers, and we force one another to present more convincing data on even the smallest issues. The outside commentary by ID creationists — if indeed they are offering no testable alternatives (which they aren’t) — is not useful. Evolutionary biology will continue to study how complex features arise without creationists’ challenges because it is the job of science to explain such things. And they will do it in the field, in the lab, and in the peer-reviewed literature.


1 Note that these are second-hand quotes so interpret them accordingly.

“‘I’m not pushing to have [ID] taught as an ‘alternative’ to Darwin, and neither are they,” he says in response to one question about Discovery’s agenda. ”What’s being pushed is to have Darwinism critiqued, to teach there’s a controversy. Intelligent design itself does not have any content.” George Gilder, interviewed in the Boston Globe, July 27, 2005.

“Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a real problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity”—but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.” Paul Nelson, interviewed in Touchstone vol 17, July/August, 2004.

“I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove…No product is ready for competition in the educational world.” Phillip Johnson, quoted in Berkeley Science Review, Spring 2006.