Friday, September 11, 2009

The Long Arm of the Discovery Institute

The topic of evolution and creationism seems to be a common thread in the Roanoke Times. Today, guest writer David Clark claims that "Evolution isn't even a good theory." Clark, according to the introduction, is on the staff of the Campus Bible Fellowship, at Virginia Tech. He writes:

The other major issue I see is the relationship between science and evolution. Some assume that evolution is science-based fact, but it is far from that. Evolution is a theory -- and not even a good scientific theory, because it is contrary to science. Evolution has never been observed. Micro-evolution has been observed, and from that scientists have theorized the possibility of macro-evolution by extrapolation, which is a huge stretch. Micro-evolution results in the loss of information while macro-evolution requires the creation of new information.

Evolution may have sounded reasonable in Darwin's day, but since the discoveries of the complexity of the simplest living cell and of DNA, plus the development of information science, amoeba-to-human gradual evolution is demonstrably false.

Sound familiar? This is the long arm of the Discovery Institute, pumping out misinformation faster than oil through a pipeline. Not a bit of the above is true. Mr. Clark first writes that evolution has never been observed. Then he writes that "micro-evolution" has been observed. Well, which is it? Since microevolution is evolution, clearly it has been observed. The idea that microevolution results in a loss of information only makes sense if you don't understand how evolution works (and it is not clear that anyone on the staff of the Discovery Institute does). In every generation, random mutations occur and then selection acts upon them depending on what sort of trait they confer and what the environmental impact on the trait is. Some are beneficial, quite a few are harmful, but the vast majority of them are selectively neutral. Consequently, they add to the genetic variability of any given population. Whether or not selection works on those traits in the future depends on how the environment or population changes.

He makes the claim that gradual evolution is demonstrably false. Aside from the fact that this is a bit of a straw man—evolution proceeds both quickly and slowly depending on the environment/selection interaction—I would like to know how he supports that claim, since the fossil record is filled with transitional forms at every major level. These include fossils that show the transition from land animals to whales, from dinosaurs to birds (lots of those: from Sinosauropteryx prima to Protarchaeopteryx to Archaeopteryx to Shenzhouraptor through a number of other forms to modern birds), from lobe-finned fish (crossopterygians) to early tetrapods (such as Icthyostega and Cassinaria). To be sure, it may very well be that there is no direct ancestor/descendent relationship in any of the above examples. That does not mean they are not transitional or that the trends were not heading in a particular direction. Dinosaurs exist in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous that have feathers but were non-flying. They had feathers because feathers are marvelous insulators. Evidence exists for the evolution of five different kinds of feathers over time, culminating in the form we see in modern birds. Since evolution proceeds more like a bush than a tree, this is understandable. It is a mix of direct and collateral ancestry.

He closes with the following:
I'm in good company. Dr. Henry Morris, who was head of the Department of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech from 1957 to 1970, authored more than 45 books on the Bible and creation. In 1970, he founded the Institute for Creation Research, which continues to promote six-day creation through literature and seminars. Some years ago, 25 professors at Tech signed a letter saying they did not accept evolution.
How is this good company? Henry Morris had no standing within the scientific community because he espoused ideas that were outside his areas of expertise and had been dismissed by scientists over a hundred years before he was born. Henry Morris, who along with John Whitcomb, wrote The Genesis Flood, believed that there had been a world-wide deluge that had created the fossil and geological record and had inundated the entire earth. As Christian geologist Davis Young put it in his History of the Collapse of "Flood Geology" and a Young Earth:

Just what are those extrabiblical data? In summary, several centuries of effort to locate physical remnants of the biblical deluge have completely failed. Any physical evidence that has been claimed to support a global flood has eventually been demonstrated to have a different explanation. The idea that the flood deposited the world's stratified rocks has been thoroughly discredited by numerous lines of evidence. Many of the individual strata give evidence of having been deposited in such non-flood environments as rivers, beaches, deltas, lakes, glaciers, deserts, and shallow oceanic platforms. Many strata, such as lake deposits and fossil reefs, contain abundant indicators of very slow deposition under environmentally sensitive conditions quite incompatible with a catastrophic deluge. Many strata are overlain by fossil soils and separated from higher strata by erosional breaks that could only have been produced over extensive lengths of time. The fossils themselves are arrayed in progressive order in the geologic column. Many of the organisms lived in environments utterly unlike flooded terrains. Radiometric dating of volcanic ash or lava flows interbedded with fossiliferous strata show that they are millions of years old. Some large masses of igneous rocks injected into the strata took hundreds of thousands of years to cool and crystallize. Many fossiliferous rocks have been metamorphosed, indicating extreme burial that could not possibly have occurred during a year-long deluge.

All the evidence of the rocks tells us that they were not produced or arranged by a flood. The views of earth history offered by Woodward, Catcott, G.M. Price, Whitcomb and Morris, and John R. Rice are simply and obviously incorrect.

I implore those like Mr. Clark to go out and read the actual geological and palaeontological literature. It is in these pages that evolution lives or dies as a theory, not in the pages of a book written by someone who has never examined the data. As Saint Augustine put it:
Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances,… and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.1
It was true when Augustine said it, it is true sixteen centuries later.

1 St. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis)

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  1. Henry Morris had no standing within the scientific community because he espoused ideas that were outside his areas of expertise and had been dismissed by scientists over a hundred years before he was born. Henry Morris, who along with John Whitcomb, wrote The Genesis Flood, believed that there had been a world-wide deluge that had created the fossil and geological record and had inundated the entire earth.

    Well, actually Morris had a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering from the University of Minnesota, and had pretty high standing in that discipline. Over the years he squandered it, of course. Originally, like some current creationists (e.g., geologist/paleontologist Marcus Ross) he got his degree specifically to be credentialed in that area so he could speak authoritatively (if not accurately) about Noah's Flood. He was advised to do that by members of an early anti-evolution association whose name escapes me at the moment, but which was derived from 7th Day Adventist George McCready Price's flood geology ideas from the first half of the 20th century. However, Morris first spent some considerable time -- 20-ish years -- doing 'secular' hydraulics before co-authoring The Genesis Flood with theologian Whitcomb.

  2. This is true, but he had zero experience with geology, palaeontology, biology, biogeography or radiometrics, which made his geology arguments no more persuasive than those of Price's some thirty years before. When Price's followers got out into the field, they discovered that absolutely nothing of what he had taught them was true.

    While Morris' work in hydraulic engineering was exemplary, it did not prepare him for the rest of the evidence that blew his global flood theory out of the water.