Sunday, November 14, 2004

Evolution, again

Michael Lopez responds to my post from the other day. I have little intention of flogging this subject beyond the point of usefulness, considering that (a) this is just a blog and (b) I'm not a biologist, but Michael does make some points that I feel need addressing.

First he notes some of "the usual suspects", by which I mean, the standard complaints about evolution theory:

Whatever your opinions of Evolution, there are still serious problems with it. The one that jumps to my mind most quickly is the simple lack of time: our planet is only about four and one half billion years old. That's really not a lot of time to go from ooze to amino acids to proteins to humans. I'm not saying it's impossible -- but it's not really 100% convincing. Then there is the problem with "missing links." Creationists make a LOT of hay about this, but despite their zeal, there's some sense to the argument. There's also the question of why single celled organisms still exist... but that's a slightly less strong argument.

That's pretty breathtaking: "only" about 4.5 billion years old. Creationists trot this one out with surprising regularity, and yet they somehow are never able to conclusively demonstrate that evolution is impossible in such a "short" amount of time. I personally find 4.5 billion years to be an astonishing amount of time (check out Carl Sagan's "Cosmic Calendar", which sets the Big Bang at midnight on January 1st, for an illustration of the time scales involved here.) I'm frankly amazed that Michael wants to just toss this one out there with a "you see, it's just not 100% convincing". Whose fault is that? It's not exactly 100% convincing that light is both a wave and a particle, but no one complains about that. I'm also not sure what to make of Michael's insistence, also with no backing argument, that "there's some sense" to the "problem with missing links". (Perhaps PZ Myers could weigh in here.) As for the bit about why there are still unicellular organisms, so what? It's never been the contention of evolution theory that all organisms must evolve into organisms of higher complexity over time, but rather that they can, if conditions over time favor them doing so. That's not just a "less strong argument"; that's a non-starter.

Michael also takes me to task for comparing theories that actually have been either confirmed or disproved, but he really doesn't have much to go on here because he keeps assuming that evolution theory is on far less stable ground than it actually is. My contention, and the vast majority of scientists agree, is that evolution is on far more stable ground as a scientific theory than most people think it is. With all due respect to Michael, he appears to be swallowing Creationist and ID "objections" without question. Plausible answers and convincing rebuttals to every one of these objections exist, and yet they keep getting plopped out there, often completely unchanged despite the answers the scientists provide. It's simply not true that evolution is in a "lot more serious trouble" than, say, plate tectonics. That the evolutionists haven't convinced everyone is not an indicator of a theory in danger of being debunked, which is just how Michael depicts it.

Michael also still seems to think that the Laws of Thermodynamics are called "laws" because Thermodynamics is on better ground, as a theory, than evolution is. This is flat-out wrong. The Laws are called Laws because they are formulated as such: the Second Law, for example, states that "In any closed system the energy available for work always becomes zero over time." (There are other formulations, of course.) It's not called a Law because it's true, but because it can be reduced to a single sentence in the form of a Law. Importantly, I can do exactly the same thing with Natural Selection; in other words, it can be stated as a Law: "In a world in which species must compete for limited resources to survive, organisms that develop traits that give them decided advantage over others will survive." (This phrasing stolen from here.)

Additionally, Michael insists that the phrasing on the textbook-sticker in question is fairly neutral. Yeah, maybe it's "technically true", but believe me, it really isn't. One doesn't pay attention to the evolution vs. creationism "debate" for years without noting that the phrasing "Evolution is a theory, not a fact" does not turn up outside of people trying to advance Creationism. Yes, it is true that "Evolution is a theory", but I see no reason to ascribe motives of truthfulness to the people insisting that this sticker be applied to this book about this theory alone.

Michael also says this:

Jaq needs to understand that the people who support Creationism aren't reacting negatively to evolution because they don't want it to be true. They're reacting negatively to evolution because it's directly at odds with what they've decided is the truth. It's a subtle, but important difference. They're not scared of evolution, but rather convinced of an idea which is inconsistent with it.

Again, with all due respect, I think that Michael is completely wrong here. They are scared of evolution, and they're scared of it precisely because it's inconsistent (or, rather, they think that it is inconsistent) with their default positions. That's a perfectly human way to respond to something, too -- but it is not a rational one, nor is it a scientific one. You don't get to react negatively to something because it's at odds with what you've already believed, and then call your objections "science". That's not the way it works. To return to Copernicus, it's worth noting that initial objection to Copernicus wasn't based in scientific concerns, but also because it stood at odds with what people had already decided was true. The objections were religious and philosophical in nature, precisely as they are now with respect to evolution. It wasn't science then to oppose the Copernican model, and it isn't science now to oppose evolution.

Lastly, Michael seems to be trying to turn things around a bit, accusing me of the same emotional response of which I accused the Creationists in my earlier posts. Well, maybe, but I don't think so. I'm convinced of evolution because of the amazing amount of evidence in its favor, its explanatory and predictive power, and frankly, its stunning elegance. And since I didn't come into the debate with a raft of pre-held notions about these things, I don't see how that accusation holds. Not even close.

It's also worth noting, in the end, that Michael's main point of interest here seems to be in the legal matter of whether this particular school board should be allowed to put that sticker on the book. I admit up front, I don't care one whit about the legalities. I care about the science, and I care that this is clearly just another attempt by the Creationism/ID people to whittle away until their position is in the schools, too. Defending someone's right to be ignorant is one thing; defending the actual ignorance is something else entirely. It's the latter on which I am focused. The fact is, there are some things on which I do not want to encourage students to "make up their own mind". A list of such items would include UFOs, Holocaust denial, Hollow Earth theory...and Creationism.

UPDATE: PZ Myers also comments on the textbook sticker. Warning to my readers: Dr. Myers is far less patient with Creationism than I am.

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