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From Nothing?

This started as part of the second installment of “Why Creationism Horrifies Me”, I felt it was wandering too far off topic (even for me!) so I cut it. Since it’s still relevant, and since I’m too far behind to trash this much writing, I’m posting it on its own, even though I think I’ve said all of this before in older posts.

A common criticism I hear, or rather read, from creationists is that the scientific explanations say we came from nothing, or that the universe came from nothing. Although I freely admit that I don’t understand these relevant theories completely, I know enough to say that this isn’t so.

The thing is, we are the same matter and energy as everything else in the cosmos. Our matter came from the Earth, and our energy came from the Sun. It’s clearly true of life now, we can follow the cycles through the food chain and see that, and there’s no reason to believe it was any different for the first self-replicating molecules, the progenitors of what we call life. Read the rest of this entry

Strange and wonderful

Since I’ve been talking about evolution here lately, this seems fitting. It takes a lot of artistic license, but it’s pretty neat. I’ve seen several links to this during the evening, so I don’t even know where I saw it first now. But here’s an animation made by a bunch of 11 year-olds about evolution. I was a bit torn between picking at all the weak spots and cheering about the idea.

Objecting to Science Education 2 (Religious Boogaloo?)

Ok, so we have creationists claiming that evolution is a lie and that their religion’s creation story is an accurate & factual account of the beginnings of life, the universe, and everything. Let’s talk a bit about some of the things that they do with this idea.

“Intellectual freedom” is a phrase found on many bills working their way through many state legislatures right now. Almost without exception, these bills are designed to either bring some form of creationism into classrooms or to muddy up science education by suggesting that evolution is somehow optional. (Evolution’s about as optional to biology as gravity is to physics.) The idea here is that teachers are having their freedom restricted by being expected to teach science in science classes.

I suppose in the strictest sense, that’s true. Teachers would have more freedom if they could teach anything they felt like without having to consider the truth or accuracy of their lessons. But I have trouble getting behind the idea of the freedom for state-sponsored institutions to lie to children. Read the rest of this entry

Objecting to science education

So now that I have a workable, if simplistic, outline for what evolution is, let’s talk a bit about some of the groups and people out there opposing it as a scientific theory, especially those who are trying to have the teaching of it banned from public schools.

The most common objections I’ve seen to the theory of evolution are on religious grounds. The more honest ones are open about that, but you also get the occasional liar for Jesus. Perhaps the most famous example is “Intelligent Design”, which was a poorly executed attempt to camouflage religion as science and sneak it into classrooms. The resulting trial is the subject of a NOVA documentary which is well worth checking out. It also gave us the term “cdesign proponentsists”, possibly the clearest indicator of the dishonesty of the ID movement, certainly the funniest.

The Intelligent Design advocates are still out there, but they seem to be much diminished now. In recent years, they have apparently given up trying to pretend that they’re promoting a scientific theory without a religious agenda and openly refer to Jesus & the Bible on their websites. Since I’ve already written about their hypothesis here, I’ll move on to more typical (even generic) creationism. Read the rest of this entry

Evolution for drunk people

From U.C. Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution site:

Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations).

I had a drunken hot tub conversation the other night about evolution. It was the kind of discussion that would probably have been a lot more interesting if it had started much earlier, but it was still fun trying to hang on to a train of thought.

People get funny about evolution. Some people will claim that it doesn’t happen, but they will freely accept that, for example, we each get a random mix of traits from our parents. Given this premise, it’s impossible for populations not to evolve. People will be different, and those who thrive better will pass on their traits to more children so that their genetic legacy will have a stronger influence on the future population than those who are less successful. You really can’t have sexual reproduction without evolution. Read the rest of this entry

Evolution Quiz II: Electric Boogaloo

And we’re back! The second half of this silly test gets increasingly surreal, to the point where I’m thinking more and more that this is just a joke and not a serious argument for creationism. Of course, Poe’s Law tells me that I can’t ever know for sure.

Let’s do this.

8. List any of the millions of creatures in just five stages of its evolution showing the progression of a new organ of any kind. When you have done this, you can collect the millions of dollars in rewards offered for proof of evolution!

What on Earth is a “stage” of evolution? I wasn’t aware this was graduated somehow. I suppose you could call a single generation a “stage”, which means that they’re asking for a new organ between, say, you and your great-great-great-grandfather. For extra fun, “organ” probably isn’t as simple to define as, say, gaining a spleen.

Why five? Another apparently arbitrary number, though this is is extra weird because it asks for five of something that isn’t sufficiently defined.

Go back and rewrite the question.

9. Why is it that the very things that would prove Evolution (transitional forms) are still missing?

Welcome to the 21st century. I know, I know, you’re really looking for a crocoduck, aren’t you? Except chimeras like that aren’t predicted by evolution, hell they’d be a pretty solid blow against modern evolutionary theory. Evolution is a very gradual process, and every individual critter is a complete animal in its own right, regardless of its ancestry, or whatever its descendents may turn out to be.

10. Explain why something as complex as human life could happen by chance, but something as simple as a coin must have a creator. (Show your math solution.)

Math solution? Do you really think “more complex” means “more likely built by a creative intelligence”? The first thing we humans do when we want to build something is remove as much complexity as we can. Take your coin example. When we want to make things out of metal, let’s say copper, where do we start? If your answer is “We go to the store and buy some copper”, you aren’t thinking things through. First we need to extract the copper from the earth.

Copper isn’t found in nice, pure lumps. Perhaps the closest we can find to that is the green stone malachite, with is a complex chemical compound that contains lots of copper in it. We can extract the copper from it using a reduction kiln, removing all that complexity so that we can stamp coins in nice pure copper discs.

The complexity of living things is a point in evolution’s favor, unless you want to argue that the creator is a complete moron. (What sadistic lunatic would build the human knee the way it is intentionally?) Living things are not merely complex, they’re unnecessarily so. Making a design weaker than it could be in order to make it more complicated is not a sign of intelligence.

11. Why aren’t any fossils or coal or oil being formed today?

Who says they aren’t? I don’t understand this, would you like us to set up a webcam so you can watch the process? Are you suggesting that the clearly eroded surfaces of, say, the Sphinx in Egypt are no longer being eroded because you can’t see the stone wearing away? Good heavens take a cave tour and look at stalagmites that have grown upward over centuries from calcium particles in drops of water!

If I recall correctly the energy in gasoline that moves your car around was first captured from the Sun by plants living four hundred million years ago. That’s not just older than the dinosaurs, it’s farther away from the dinosaurs than the dinosaurs are from us. I think it’s safe to say that fossil fuels are being used faster than they’re being made.

12. List 50 vestigial or useless organs or appendages in the human body.

No. That’s simply absurd, especially given the apparently arbitrary numbers. You only allow five “stages” for a whole new organ, but you won’t be satisfied with less than 50 vestigial bits? Fuck you.

But I won’t leave you empty handed. Here’s a link to endogenous retroviruses, bits of our bodies that started as viral infections. We’ve adapted to them so well that now they’re a normal part of us.

13. Why hasn’t anyone collected the millions of dollars in rewards for proof of evolution?

I think “millions” is likely hyperbole there. I did find a few sites claiming such prizes exist, the largest cash sum was over a million, but on a site that hadn’t updated since 2002. The only one I was able to find any real information about was Kent Hovind’s $250,000 prize ” to anyone who can give any empirical evidence (scientific proof) for evolution.*”

Kent is currently serving a prison term for tax fraud, but his son Eric might be willing to honor this challenge. Except look at the definition used for this challenge:

“* NOTE: When I use the word evolution, I am not referring to the minor variations found in all of the various life forms (microevolution). I am referring to the general theory of evolution which believes these five major events took place without God:
1. Time, space, and matter came into existence by themselves.
2. Planets and stars formed from space dust.
3. Matter created life by itself.
4. Early life-forms learned to reproduce themselves.
5. Major changes occurred between these diverse life forms (i.e., fish changed to amphibians, amphibians changed to reptiles, and reptiles changed to birds or mammals).”

Of these, only parts 4 & 5 are relevant to the theory of evolution. Hell, 1 & 2 aren’t even in the field of biology, and 3 is the realm of abiogenesis, which is probably more chemistry than biology. No single example of evidence could demonstrate all that, heck number 1 isn’t even a meaningful statement under the current big bang models as I understand them. (Which is to say, not very well.) It looks like what Kent really wants is to go back to college.

If this is typical of your “millions of dollars in rewards for proof of evolution” it’s frankly not worth it. No point playing if it’s clear that the game is rigged.

14. If life began hundreds of millions of years ago, why is the earth still under populated?

Under populated?! Right, you’re clearly just pulling my leg now. By what bizarre definition is the world under populated? There is life in every crevice of this planet, we have found life in places we didn’t think it was possible for anything to live. Living things have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere on this world, all that oxygen wasn’t there until the plants got to work. There are creatures living in the bottom of the ocean who do not even get their energy from the Sun.

The coldest tundra, there is life. The driest desert, there is life. Down in the deeps where no light reaches and the pressure is a thousand times the atmosphere we live in, we still find life. There is a lake in Antarctica that is frozen over the year round, and yet life survives within.

Oh right, you think everything’s about humans. Well, there are seven billion of us, how many do you think there are supposed to be?

15. Why hasn’t evolution duplicated all species on all continents?

Son of a… I’ve wasted all this time answering a troll, haven’t I!

Well, at least I got some writing out of it. See you next time!

Evolution quiz! Written by someone who does not understand evolution. Or quizzes.

In my search for something to blog about I probably would have thought of this ridiculous test eventually, I’ve seen it before at FSTDT. But PZ posted it today, so I’m jumping on it. (Also, check out PZ’s link to see the evolutionary penis-man!)

So here’s my layman’s understanding of this thing. I’ll take it bit by bit, starting with the introduction.

Students, give this test to your teachers. When they fail it, ask them why they are teaching this nonsense!

I think the real purpose of this thing is right there. Cause trouble in classrooms, because teachers are overworked already and school districts tend to shy away from controversy. Make teaching evolution a hassle and maybe nobody will bother. For some reason creationists always seem to think that if there’s any weakness in evolution that they win by default. And for people who have The Truth!™ they sure seem to think it’s vital that nobody gets a good look at the science.

Teachers, give this test to your students if you really want them to know the truth about evolution!

I’m puzzled what they think anyone can learn from this. Even if evolution were nonsense this test does nothing to demonstrate that, it merely asks a bunch of smug questions in bad faith and assumes you’ll jump over to their side once you can’t answer them satisfactorily. Well, let’s get to the actual questions.

1. Which evolved first, male or female?

So you think that men and women are literally different species? Is that where you’re going with this? I don’t suppose it’s occurred to you that maybe more than one thing can happen at a time?

2. How many millions of years elapsed between the first male and first female?

Zero. Get used to “How many millions of years” questions.

3. List at least 9 of the false assumptions made with radioactive dating methods.

Wait, which side am I supposed to be arguing for again? Actually I think the most common false assumption I’ve seen about radiometric dating is that it’s all carbon dating. I’ve also seen the assumption that we can carbon date fossils or other things without any carbon in them, that radiometric dating is the only way scientists determine age, that scientists believe they can never get an incorrect age from radiometric dating, that underwater snails & similar critters that reuse carbon (and thus date at much older than they are) prove carbon dating doesn’t work. I’ve seen truly bizarre claims that if a single artifact is dated incorrectly then the whole system must be useless, that the possibility of human error means it can’t be trusted, that the lack of human interpretation means it can’t be trusted, and of course Ken Hamm’s insistence that if it disagrees with the Bible it must be wrong, period.

By far my favorite is when they use the Carbon14 test to date something much older than 50,000 years and claim that the result of 50,000 years demonstrates that all radiometric dating is useless. 50,000 years is the upper limit of the Carbon14 test, this is like having a speedometer that only goes up to 65 and insisting that your car can’t go any faster than that. (“No really officer, I was going the speed limit! Your radar gun must be broken…”)

Why 9? This is our first request for an arbitrary number, it will not be the last.

4. Why hasn’t any extinct creature re-evolved after millions of years?

Why in the world do you think one should? Honestly if you think this is likely to happen, you either really don’t understand this theory, or you have a very small-minded view of environmental pressures. Or possibly both, I suppose.

Darwin’s finches went from beaks of many sizes to all big beaks in just a few generations because their environment changed so that big beaks were a serious advantage to getting food. This wasn’t a case of birds magically transforming with sparkly special effects so that they all had big beaks, it was a case of birds without big beaks starving to death.

Now, let’s assume that things change back to the way they were before, where beak size is no longer a significant factor in a bird’s ability to eat. It’s certainly possible that over several generations, the finches would once again have a wide variety of beak sizes, but they wouldn’t be the same as they were before because things are still different. Even if the environment changed back, the birds can’t because they’re not the same birds anymore. The old small beaked birds are gone, their genetic legacy is extinct, so any new small beaked finches would be descended from the big beaked ones that were able to survive before.Whatever varieties they may have, and over time that can get significant, it will not be the same varieties as there once were.

This example is not nearly the same as the question, though, because these finches are all the same species. Expecting a whole species to return of its own accord is simply laughable.

5. Which came first:
…the eye,
…the eyelid,
…the eyebrow,
…the eye sockets,
…the eye muscles,
…the eye lashes,
…the tear ducts,
…the brain’s interpretation of light?

Those are all very complex structures. Probably the beginning of vision was a patch of light-sensitive cells on the skin of sea creatures that probably didn’t have an interpretation of light beyond the simplest sensory input. It certainly wasn’t vision as we know it. Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t have brains as we think of them.

6. How many millions of years between each in question 5?

Sigh, once again, more than one thing can happen at a time. You seem to think of evolution as a serial operation, where it works on one thing until it’s “finished” and then moves on to another. Have you noticed that not all animals have all those things? Probably not, these questions are so anthro-centric the author would probably be shocked to learn that cats have three eyelids, or that owls cannot move their eyes to look around but must move their whole heads, or that reptiles have neither eyebrows nor eyelashes.

7. If we all evolved from a common ancestor, why can’t all the different species mate with one another and produce fertile offspring?

Because they’re different species. That’s actually one of the definitions of “species”, that they cannot produce fertile offspring with other species. What, you think DNA is like Lego blocks that can be stuck together in different ways even if you’re combining a Pirate set with a Star Wars one? (Space pirates!)

This is getting really long and I’m only halfway through. Also, stomach’s starting to growl, so I’m going to post this half and go get something to eat. Second half should be up late tonight or early tomorrow, see you next time!

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