Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cornelius Hunter, Pseudogenes and the Nature of Science

Cornelius Hunter wrote a piece a few days ago that I had not had a chance to respond to. In this piece, Hunter argues (as he usually does) that there are hidden assumptions in all "Darwinian" scenarios. He begins:
Another school year is set to begin at high schools and colleges where the next round of biology students will be filled with evolutionary misinformation. At the center of this propaganda campaign are the many biology textbooks used to indoctrinate young minds with old dogma. These textbooks contain the latest evolutionary newspeak, but the underlying lies are no different.
In overall demeanor, Hunter is considerably more sarcastic and strident than most of the other folks at the DI and one has to wade through that to get at what he is trying to say. The topic of the day is shared pseudogenes, which, when found in two related organisms, are generally considered to be evidence of common ancestry since a progressive creation model would be forced to explain how two related organisms just happen, against all probability, to share the same genetics mistakes at exactly the same place in the genome. Hunter writes of this:
This claim, that such shared errors indicate, or demonstrate, or reveal common ancestry, is the result of an implicit truth claim which does not, and cannot, come from science. It is the claim that evolution and only evolution can explain such evidences. It is the equivalent of what is known as an IF-AND-ONLY-IF claim. Science makes IF-THEN statements (if evolution is true, then species with recent common ancestors should have similarities between them). IF-AND-ONLY-IF statements (if and only if evolution is true, then species with recent common ancestors should have similarities between them) cannot be known from science.
This is a peculiar misunderstanding of the scientific method. Science posits hypothetical questions to explain observed data. It also acts on the principles of parsimony and Occam's Razor. All other things being equal, the simplest explanation for any given phenomenon is likely to be the correct one. The idea that shared pseudogenes reflect common ancestry is not an IF-AND-ONLY-IF statement. It is simply the best explanation that we have. There might be other explanations for these data but, given the evidence from other areas of study (palaeobiology, palaentology, evolutionary development) common ancestry is the best explanation that we currently have. Hunter has failed to make this distinction.

He continues:
In their text The Living World (Fifth Edition, McGraw Hill, 2008) evolutionists George Johnson and Jonathan Losos rehearse the usual teachings. Students are told that “Microevolution Leads to Macroevolution” with the giraffe’s neck serving as the example of how small change is supposed to accumulate to the large-scale change evolution needs.

Of course this is a long-standing, well-known problem for evolution. Mechanisms for large-scale change are speculative for it does not appear merely to be the result of repeated rounds of microevolution. Johnson and Losos, of course, inform the student of none of this.
Hunter also fails to inform us that one particularly good reason to think that evolution is responsible for the giraffe's long neck is the placement of the laryngeal nerve. In all animals, the nerve runs from the brain down through the aortic loop to the throat. In simple organisms, this is roughly a straight line but as you go to more complex organisms, the path of this nerve gets longer. In humans, it runs more than a foot longer than it needs to be for it to be efficient. In giraffes, this nerve runs a full fifteen feet longer than would be efficient. Why does this happen? Because the nerve develops the same way embryologically in all organisms. It is during post natal development that the length appears. The nerve cannot restructure itself, so it goes along for the ride.

As far as the evidence for this is concerned, there is no problem for evolution, whatever. From the transitional fossil FAQ in Talk Origins, we have this:
Giraffes: Branched off from the deer just after Eumeryx. The first giraffids were Climacoceras (very earliest Miocene) and then Canthumeryx (also very early Miocene), then Paleomeryx (early Miocene), then Palaeotragus (early Miocene) a short-necked giraffid complete with short skin-covered horns. From here the giraffe lineage goes through Samotherium (late Miocene), another short-necked giraffe, and then split into Okapia (one species is still alive, the okapi, essentially a living Miocene short-necked giraffe), and Giraffa (Pliocene), the modern long-necked giraffe.
Along the way, the neck continues to get longer. What mechanism would Hunter propose to explain this? He presents none. Hunter continually castigates Johnson and Losos for providing what they see to be the best explanation for the evidence. He writes:
The apologists make a failed attempt to enlist the fossil record as powerful evidence for evolution, and end up with only the usual metaphysics. They write:

"If the theory of evolution is not correct, on the other hand, then such orderly change is not expected."

Very interesting. And how do evolutionists know so much? From where did Johnson and Losos learn such ultimate truths? If evolution is not correct then such orderly change is not expected? Tell us more.
Aside from the snark, Hunter fails to inform the reader what the "failed attempt" is since he provides no evidence to support his position. This is nothing more than name-calling. Since he won't provide the evidence, the quote from the book is completely out of context. He ends his post by writing:
But this is nothing new in evolutionary circles. Only evolutionists teach such a biased version of science.
This is simply incorrect. I can think of numerous postings on Answers in Genesis, for a start, that recycle the same, tired wrong statements about the fossil and geological records: no transitional fossils, evidence of a recent creation of the earth, evidence for a world-wide flood—arguments that do not stand up to even rudimentary scientific scrutiny. Any bias that is practiced by evolutionists pales in comparison to these canards. Furthermore, the Discovery Institute, itself, has not been above stretching the truth to the point of breaking (here, here, here, and here.)

More peculiar thinking from a Discovery Institute fellow.

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  1. Hunter's self-assured misrepresentations can be intimidating for those that seek reason, and are an intellectual narcotic for those who want to ignore the evidence.

    I tried posting on the UD blog comments and was told my comments were trash and that I was a troll for voicing my incredulity at their assertions (and my post was deleted).

    I guess I was getting to snarky for their tastes.

  2. I should try it. I have already castigated them for not having their email or office addresses published. No self-respecting scientific entity does that. I had to write the DI and request an email address for Hunter the last time. Every time I have emailed any of them, it has gone through Casey Luskin. My last email response from Hunter was so arrogant and self-righteous that I simply didn't respond.

  3. It's hard to know what to do with Hunter. And it's hard to say it better than Kent did.

    Sometimes dialogue is the best thing we can do when we disagree. And sometimes it's a mistake, when the dialogue "partner" is dishonest, deluded, or otherwise incapacitated. I've judged Hunter to be incapable of honest engagement with these issues.

    As for commenting on UD... I don't know. At the BioLogos site, some of us were recently trying to explain to Clive Hayden why he's wrong (or dishonest) about his "standards" for moderation that he claims involve "civility." Yikes.

    What's wrong with these folks? I don't know. But it sure is hard to figure out how (and if) to engage them.

  4. Steve, I think that both you and Kent are right but I keep hoping that someone who reads what we have to say will think twice about what Hunter and others of his mindset are saying. The problem, of course is that he, like William Dembski can squelch the comments. After his last paper with Jonathan Marks "supporting" ID came out and nine people commented that, well, no it really didn't do anything of the sort, Dembski wrote: "I'm growing weary of these quibblings and thus shutting the comments off."

    On one of the companion pieces to this one, Hunter referred to the "evolutionary clowns..." Now that's class.

  5. Don't get too discouraged, guys.

    There are still people out here (non-scientists, non-technical, and ignorant of many of the details) who are still trying to get a handle on evolution while simultaneously attempting to remain true to Holy Scripture.

    Your posts are helpful in that they allow someone like myself to hear the "other side" of the argument.

    I gave up believing in a young earth years ago, but I still cannot grasp how to reconcile parts of Scripture with evolutionary biology.

    I'll keep reading, and listening to, both sides (ID and Theistic Evolution) and hopefully will someday come to a more full understanding.

    I do appreciate the respectful tone that I encounter on this and other similar blogs.

    Much of the vitriol surrounding this debate comes out of a deep-seated fear that somehow biological evolution undermines the Scriptures. If that happens, people reason, then we can no longer have confidence that God is there, or that we can know Him.

    And that is the ultimate fear.

  6. I think I must have a hole in my understanding of things. I regard biological evolution the same way I regard other natural processes. Earthquakes happen, floods happen, and the continents move. The earth changes and animals and plants change right along with it. Why do we single out evolution from all other natural processes and elevate it to the level of first cause? To me that makes no sense, whatever. For too many people, it is either evolution or God, as if somehow that was a valid dichotomy. I just don't see how it can be.

  7. Charles,
    I'm glad you are listening and thinking. Your comment about fears is very honest and really reflects what many feel. I was there once myself.

    Jim and all,
    We do have to realize that accepting evolution does require a difficult paradigm shift for those whose acceptance of Christ was in part based on the creationist apologetic It feels like an abandonment of ones faith.

    My experience however was one of feeling liberated as I came to see that 1) it's not necessary for the Bible to be literally true for it to be God's inspired Word and 2) no one, not even the most ardent literalist actually takes Genesis literally.

  8. Charles, thank you for your comments. I sometimes am a bit tone deaf when it comes to this. As I wrote over at Steve Martin's blog, I grew up in Japan and did not encounter the young earth model and its supporters until I got here and went to church.

    The story of Glenn Morton should be a wake up call to what many people face that begin to look at the evidence. I refer to it as going through a door that closes behind you, forcing you to go forward. Charles, you were fortunate in that you saw that belief in God and acceptance of evolution was possible. I think that many would not.

    This is where I hold organizations like AIG and ICR in such contempt. Not only are they not willing to honestly engage the evidence, they are willing to propogate a scientific model that has no empirical support outside creationist circles and can be dispensed with a high school science class in geology. I honestly believe that they are driving people away from both science and Christianity.