The Case for a Creator: Soup's On!

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 is ostensibly about the origin of biological information, but what it's really about is the origin of life. We've discussed this in part in an earlier chapter, but Meyer has some other objections to raise.

First up, Strobel raises the question of the "prebiotic soup" - the dilute broth of organic molecules that's believed to have existed in the Earth's oceans before the origin of life, a fitting stage for many kinds of complex chemical reactions. This is a plausible environment for abiogenesis to take place, so Meyer tries to sow some doubt:

"I hear scientists talk a lot about this prebiotic soup," I said. "How much evidence is there that it actually existed?"

"That's a very interesting issue," he replied. "The answer is there isn't any evidence... If this prebiotic soup had really existed... it would have been rich in amino acids. Therefore, there would have been a lot of nitrogen, because amino acids are nitrogenous. So when we examine the earliest sediments of the Earth, we should find large deposits of nitrogen-rich minerals... Those deposits have never been located." [p.227]

There's no footnote for this, and I find it a puzzling and implausible argument. Earth today contains billions of tons of organic molecules locked up in life. But the Earth is a closed system. Aside from negligible contributions by comets and meteorites, the atoms on this planet today are the same ones that were here when it was first formed. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we know from Miller-Urey-type experiments that organic molecules like amino acids readily form in the presence of a source of energy. How could there not have been a prebiotic soup? What does Meyer imagine all those molecules were doing prior to the origin of life? (Then again, as I pointed out in chapter 4, Meyer appears to be a believer in the young-earth mythology - so maybe the alternative he's really trying to push is the Garden of Eden.)

Meyer also fails to qualify his mention of "earliest sediments". The earliest sediments, if by that he means sedimentary rocks of the same age as the origin of life, do not exist: erosion and plate tectonics tend to destroy and recycle the very oldest rocks. Most of the oldest surviving rocks that we possess are zircons, tiny mineral grains that form in igneous and metamorphic rocks. Zircons can be radiometrically dated, and some are known that are over 4 billion years old, but they don't offer any clues as to when life got started.

The oldest geologic evidence of life is significantly later. There are fossil stromatolites about 3.45 billion years old in rocks from the Warrawoona Group of Western Australia, which is the oldest clear evidence of living things. More controversially, there are rocks from Greenland about 3.85 billion years old that may contain "chemofossils". Living things concentrate the C-12 carbon isotope, rather than the slightly heavier C-13. These rocks show that same altered ratio, which could be a chemical marker left by early life. Evidence this subtle is still being debated by the scientific community, and given the extensive recycling of the Earth's oldest rocks, it's not reasonable to expect "large deposits" of nitrogen-rich minerals dating back to the origin of life to have survived.

Meyer has only one source to back up all of this, and it's a real laugh riot:

"In fact, Jim Brooks wrote in 1985 that 'the nitrogen content of early organic matter is relatively low - just .015 percent.' He said in Origins of Life: 'From this we can be reasonably certain that there never was any substantial amount of 'primitive soup' on Earth when pre-Cambrian sediments were formed; if such a soup ever existed it was only for a brief period of time.'" [p.227]

Strobel labels this an "astounding conclusion", but what he should be more astounded by is how far Meyer had to stretch to find a source for this claim. Wanting to verify this, I did a search for Jim Brooks' Origins of Life, only to find that it's long out of print according to several online booksellers. But more comical is that Strobel cites the publisher of this book as "Lion" - which I found out is Lion Hudson, which is, in fact, a Christian publishing house. A twenty-year-old, out-of-print book by a Christian publisher - that's the most reliable source that could be found to back up these assertions! Couldn't Meyer find even one actual scientific source to quote-mine?

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March 8, 2010, 1:21 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink11 comments
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Fossilized Opinions

Sam Harris is famous for the argument that religion, even moderate religion, does harm by teaching that faith is a virtue that should not be questioned, which encourages militant and violent strains of fundamentalism. Today, I want to talk about another way, subtle but unmistakable, that religion causes harm to human beings.

Because of its tendency to treat all the statements of its founders and sacred texts as holy truth, religion has the effect of "freezing" the prejudices in vogue at the time of that religion's founding - encouraging followers to view them not as contingent or arbitrary cultural biases, but as the received will of God. And when a community of the faithful sincerely believes this, they'll perpetuate those prejudices for decades or centuries, long after the rest of the world has made enough progress to leave them behind. These preserved opinions are like fossils, surviving remnants of a more ancient era. But unlike fossils, they're still alive and malignant and able to do harm.

Consider the belief, still all too common, that rape victims are partially to blame for being raped if they drink or dress provocatively. This is a pernicious myth that's long been used, and is still being used, by rapists to excuse their actions and discourage rape victims from reporting the crime. It springs from the ancient prejudice that men can't be expected to exercise self-control in such situations, while women who are raped must have done something to tempt or incite the man into raping her. This is the sort of vile misogyny that our society should long since have discarded - but not only is it alive and well, it's still being propped up by patriarchal, male-dominated religions. Consider this story about a religious leaflet given to a woman in Virginia:

"You may have been given this leaflet because of the way you are dressed," it begins. "Have you thought about standing before the true and living God to be judged?"

..."Scripture tells us that when a man looks on a woman to lust for her he has already committed adultery in his heart. If you are dressed in a way that tempts a men to do this secret (or not so secret) sin, you are a participant in the sin," the leaflet states. "By the way, some rape victims would not have been raped if they had dressed properly. So can we really say they were innocent victims?"

This loathsome argument, though presumably from a Christian source, has much in common with the Muslim cleric who proclaimed that women who refuse to veil their faces are like "uncovered meat" that gets eaten by stray animals. Both of them justify their woman-hating, blame-the-victim attitude by passing it off as the word of God.

The same attitude is behind a new and worrying trend in American schools: religious-right legislators who've supported teaching creationism in science class are now broadening their sights to demand the teaching of "alternative views" about global warming, as well as other favorite right-wing targets. As the article notes, white evangelicals are among the least likely to accept the science behind climate change (and I've written before about similar views from both sides of the theological aisle).

It's no surprise that people who are hostile to the scientific worldview would oppose not just evolution, but other well-established scientific truths as well. A worldview founded on faith, fallacy and magical thinking is unlikely to accord scientific research the respect it deserves. (To cite another example, prominent creationists Philip Johnson and Jonathan Wells also belong to a pseudoscientific group which argues that HIV does not cause AIDS.) And since Christianity has, for the most part, become fused with the Republican Party in America, it was to be expected that there's hardly any daylight left between the political goals of those two groups. It started with Christians infiltrating and taking over the Republican Party platform, but it's fascinating to see how this connection now runs in the other direction as well - how the corporatist, social-Darwinian agenda of the GOP has become fossilized as the de facto position of evangelical Christianity.

The harm done by fossilized opinions is most obvious in Islam, where the status of women has scarcely advanced in fourteen hundred years. Laws still in force throughout the Muslim world allow men to take multiple wives, forbid women from getting an education or traveling outside the home without a male relative, devalue their testimony in court, and more. Just a few weeks ago, Muslim tribal elders in Bangladesh ordered the flogging of a rape victim - and Bangladesh is relatively advanced when it comes to women's rights, at least when compared to most other Islamic countries.

The next time you hear some mealy-mouthed accommodationist denouncing atheists for claiming "intellectual superiority" over believers, remind them of facts like these. If atheists' opinions are better, truer, more valuable than religious opinions, it's not because we're intrinsically smarter - it's because we are willing to change our minds when new evidence presents itself. Millions of religious believers' minds are mired centuries in the past, clinging to beliefs that we now know to be false and moral tenets that we now know to be atrocities. We have every right to feel superior to people who still hold such fossilized opinions.

March 6, 2010, 6:18 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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The Case for a Creator: The Illusion of Parity

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 of Case is about abiogenesis. It seems Strobel couldn't find any actual molecular biologists or organic chemists who support ID and were willing to speak with him about it, so it's back for another talk with Stephen Meyer, the philosopher already interviewed in chapter 4. With cheerful ludicrousness, Strobel describes Meyer, who is not a biologist and has never published a single piece of research on this topic, as "one of the country's leading experts on origin-of-life issues" [p.221] - which is like saying that Kent Hovind is one of the country's leading experts on tax law.

I want to quote some more of Strobel's rapturous verbiage about Meyer's intellectual prowess, to give you a sense of just how over-the-top and obnoxious it is:

In fact, I once hosted the videotaping of an intellectual shoot-out between Meyer and an atheistic anthropologist on the legitimacy of intelligent-design theories, and I remember walking away amazed at Meyer's finesse in deftly dismantling the professor's case while at the same time forcefully presenting his own. Maybe that's a throwback to Meyer's earlier years when he trained as a boxer, learning to overcome fears of taking a punch and how to jab away at an opponent's weakness. [p.222]

Creationists certainly love to describe how wonderfully convincing and compelling their arguments are. In some cases, they love doing it so much that they never actually get around to making the argument. And it's a given that Lee Strobel would never declare any debate between a creationist and a scientist to be anything less than a total victory for creationism. But I noticed something important missing from that paragraph: a footnote.

There are plenty of other footnotes throughout this chapter, but for some reason, Strobel never gives us a reference or a URL to this debate, never tells us where it was, when it was, or even who it was against. If it was such a total victory for ID as he claims, why doesn't he give his readers the tools to view it for themselves so they can see just how decisively Meyer trounced the other side? Could it be that he actually thinks the scientist won the debate, despite what he says? Or, more likely, he just doesn't want his readers to see any unfiltered pro-evolution argument in a format that creationists don't completely control. (As we saw last time, creationists tend to fare poorly in those encounters.) He'd prefer his readers serve as a cheering section, rather than giving them any information that might encourage those pesky tendencies toward critical thinking.

What Strobel also doesn't see fit to mention is that his re-interview of Stephen Meyer is likely because, at this point in the book, he's interviewed nearly every prominent figure in the intelligent-design movement. At the beginning of the book, he boasted of the parade of experts he would put on display - but it seems he couldn't fill out even ten chapters without repeating himself, and even then, the list had to be padded with philosophy professors, theologians and professional Christian apologists.

Strobel's defenders would doubtless say that there are other people he could have interviewed, such as two more names mentioned in the introduction to this chapter:

The astounding capacity of microscopic DNA to harbor this mountain of information... "vastly exceeds that of any other known system," said geneticist Michael Denton. [p.221]

...biology professor Dean Kenyon repudiate[d] the conclusions of his own book and the chemical origin of life and conclude[d] instead that nothing short of an intelligence could have created this intricate cellular apparatus. [p.222]

Yet I suspect there are reasons why Strobel chose not to include either of these two. Denton, for example, was once an ardent anti-evolutionist who wrote books like Evolution: A Theory in Crisis - but his newest book, Nature's Destiny, completely reverses course and instead argues that the laws of the cosmos are fine-tuned so as to make evolution (and the appearance of humans) inevitable. This position has significant similarities to ID, to be sure, but it also strays from the "abrupt appearance" evangelical-Christian orthodoxy that's promoted throughout the book, so it's not surprising that Denton isn't given a chance to speak here. (Jonathan Wells, the Moonie, and Michael Behe, the Roman Catholic, seem to be the farthest that Strobel is prepared to go in the name of ecumenism.)

The other name, Dean Kenyon, is more interesting. He's that rarest of rare birds, a creationist who actually has a degree in biology (Ph.D in biophysics from Stanford, 1965). On the face of it, he seems like an ideal choice for a book like this. But Strobel skips him, too, and I think this may have something to do with it:

It is my professional opinion, based on my original research, study, and teaching, that creation-science is as scientific as evolution, although it currently does not have the benefit of the volume of research that has been carried out under evolutionist presuppositions.... Moreover, I believe that a scientifically sound creationist view of origins is not only possible, but is to be preferred over the evolutionary view.

Kenyon was a major participant in the original intelligent-design movement - back when it was still called "scientific creationism". The Supreme Court dealt the decisive blow to that in Edwards v. Aguillard, which held that creationism was unconstitutional to teach in public schools. Almost immediately thereafter, the movement reconstituted itself as "intelligent design". Perhaps Strobel felt that interviewing Kenyon would be treading on dangerous ground as regards the ID movement's history. (The original proponents of scientific creationism also argued strenuously in court that their ideas were not religious, as you can see from Kenyon's affidavit.)

For all its boastful claims, the actual ID movement is quite small, and Strobel's being forced to return to the same interview subject shows it. He tries his best to create the illusion of parity, to imply that there are just as many experts supporting ID as evolution, but we've already seen the deceptiveness of that. Try as he might to make the ID movement seem a mile wide, it will still only be an inch deep, and in no way comparable to the vast amounts of actual research, knowledge, and expertise within evolutionary theory.

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March 1, 2010, 6:48 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink29 comments
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An Atheist at Liberty University, Part III

When the church service let out, my friends and I toured several other buildings on campus. We stopped by the dorms, which are strictly gender-segregated:

I wonder what mindset lies behind this. Is it because the trustees of Liberty believe it's indecent for men and women to mingle in public? Then why aren't the classes and the church services also sex-separated? And why don't they also enforce the biblical decree that women not wear jewelry or braid their hair (1 Timothy 2:9)? That's as clear a command as you could ask for, but the administration of Liberty seems to be comfortable allowing students to flout it.

As with many aspects of evangelicalism, I think this rule is more concerned with avoiding the appearance of impropriety than actual impropriety. I mentioned earlier that Liberty's official policy is that students aren't allowed to spend a night off campus without prior permission, and even then, they can only stay at the home of a married Christian couple. This, like the segregated dorms, is presumably intended to discourage students from having sex. But it's not much of an obstacle: after all, there's nothing to stop two students from checking into a motel just for the day (or availing themselves of a secluded parking spot and the back seat of a car...). And sure enough, one of the first rumors we heard on campus was of a female Liberty student who had gotten pregnant and was being pressured to drop out of school.

The next building we visited was one of Liberty's academic halls. This was the first place where the true nature of this university made itself unmistakably clear: the walls were lined with displays advocating young-earth creationism and making snide comments about "evolutionists". I was surprised that they were daring enough to include Archaeopteryx - although, as you'll note, the model plays up the resemblance to a pigeon, and the card doesn't include any information about what this creature was or what evolutionists think about it.

But even that wasn't the height of crazy. At the far end of the hall was a "Center for Judaic Studies", with a display case filled with replicas of artifacts from Roman-era Palestine. A plaque next to the door announced that one of the offices within belonged to Dr. Thomas Ice, "Pre-trib Research Director". I took a pamphlet from a box next to the door, which is reproduced in part below.

The sheer, undiluted lunacy of this newsletter goes on and on, blithely presenting ludicrous assertions about how the future will unfold as if they were undisputed facts. One can clearly see just how little effort Tim LaHaye put into fictionalizing these beliefs for the Left Behind series. Note this passage from one of the inner pages, which the author somehow managed to write without irony:

A highlight was the bestowment of the Walvoord award upon Tim LaHaye, John Whitcomb, and Chuck Smith... It was a moving experience to realize that those three men were all over 80 and have served the Lord their entire adult lives. Each man is still excitingly looking for the Lord's return at any moment.

And Thomas Ice, despite the cheerful, froggy grin in his headshot, is an utterly demented kook, to judge by writings of his like this post:

Brannon Howse reveals the largely unknown story of how the Obamas are taking national their radical, socialist, and anti-Christian worldview training that was birthed through their organization "Public Allies". The training will include "social justice" training which is code word for Communism, socialism and Marxism.

It's not surprising that a person of this mentality would believe in the Rapture; this belief fits right into the paranoid mindset that's constantly jumping at shadows and that sees evil conspiracies lurking around every corner. But it is amazing that such a person could ever be considered qualified to serve as a professor (at the "Pre-trib Research Center", no less, as if there were were something to "research" about all this, rather than Christian believers telling each other the same fairy tales generation after generation).

At the time I saw all this, I laughed. Can you imagine anyone still believing this nonsense? was my initial reaction. But the more I reflect on it, the more sobering an experience it is. The fact of the matter is that there are people who do believe this nonsense, and are doing their best to broadcast it to the world - and, in large part, they've succeeded.

The church service was one thing; no one who attends that should have any illusions about what they're going to hear or where that information is coming from. But what we have here is ignorance systematically misrepresented as knowledge, virulent religious delusion concealed behind a cargo-cult facade of science. This, perhaps, goes back to what I said before about evangelicals valuing the appearance of the thing more than the thing itself. It's a strategy they've used very successfully here, presenting beliefs that are utterly insane in the manner and the style of academia.

The students who pass through these halls, most of whom have probably never been exposed to a contrary perspective in their lives, likely have no idea how contentious any of this material is. They'll listen, they'll lap it up, and they'll believe it - because that's what they've been taught to do. And when people who genuinely believe this go to the voting booth, when they influence the decisions that affect our society and the lives of everyone in it, this isn't comical; it's incredibly dangerous. When American foreign policy is based on fever-dream interpretations of the Bible; when research funds for science are allocated based on the myths and superstitions of the Bronze Age; when critical thinking is nonexistent and blind faith rules the day; when extremist religion is merged with politics; and when reason is drowned in paranoia and fearmongering, then our society is in grave danger. Liberty's malignant fundamentalism, flaunted to the world without a hint of embarrassment, is a lesson for anyone who still thinks that religion is essentially benign.

Coming up: The campus bookstore, plus a visit to Jerry Falwell's memorial.

February 24, 2010, 6:52 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink35 comments
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The Case for a Creator: ID on Trial

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

The best place to settle a scientific debate is in the peer-reviewed journals and the larger research community - a strategy which, as we've noted, the creationists have steered well clear of. This means, when they inevitably attempt to push their beliefs into public schools anyway, that we have to take them to court, and that's where most direct encounters between science and creationism take place.

However, though it's not an ideal forum for the advancement of scientific knowledge, the trial format does have its advantages. For one thing, we can cross-examine creationist witnesses and force them to answer direct questions - an opportunity not available on the internet, where they can hunker down behind the ramparts of their blogs and avoid all hostile or critical feedback. And when they've been put to the test in this way, they haven't come out of the experience covered in glory.

In chapter 8, Lee Strobel gives Michael Behe the opportunity to repeatedly make assertions like this one:

"Complex biological systems have yet to be explained by naturalistic means. That's a fact." [p.216]

In the cozy environment of Strobel's interview, this claim meets with no skepticism. Not a hint is given that evolutionary biologists have made any progress in explaining the origin of any complex biological system. But on another occasion, Behe had to defend these views in a considerably less friendly forum, and he didn't fare nearly as well.

In 2004, the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania voted to include references to intelligent design in their biology curriculum. The ensuing lawsuit, Kitzmiller v. Dover, became a landmark in the evolution wars - not least because several prominent creationists agreed to appear as witnesses for the defense, among them Michael Behe.

The Talk.Origins Archive has complete trial transcripts, which you can read through if you want. However, I want to highlight an exchange from day 12, when Behe was cross-examined by Eric Rothschild, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. Behe had claimed in his testimony that "the scientific literature has no detailed testable answers to the question of how the immune system could have arisen by random mutation and natural selection".

Even compared to all the other falsehoods told by Behe, this stands out as his wrongest claim yet. The origin of the immune system has been a topic of active research for decades, and we've made enormous strides in our understanding of how it evolved. The key hypothesis, called the transposon hypothesis, makes several surprising predictions that have been verified by subsequent work. This seemed the ideal point to attack Behe when he took the witness stand, which led to this exchange:

Q. I'm going to read some titles here. We have Evolution of Immune Reactions by Sima and Vetvicka, are you familiar with that?

A. No, I'm not.

Q. Origin and Evolution of the Vertebrate Immune System, by Pasquier. Evolution and Vertebrate Immunity, by Kelso. The Primordial Vrm System and the Evolution of Vertebrate Immunity, by Stewart. The Phylogenesis of Immune Functions, by Warr. The Evolutionary Mechanisms of Defense Reactions, by Vetvicka. Immunity and Evolution, Marchalonias. Immunology of Animals, by Vetvicka. You need some room here. Can you confirm these are books about the evolution of the immune system?

A. Most of them have evolution or related words in the title, so I can confirm that, but what I strongly doubt is that any of these address the question in a rigorous detailed fashion of how the immune system or irreducibly complex components of it could have arisen by random mutation and natural selection.

...Q. There's also books on the immune system that have chapters on the evolution of the immune system?

A. Yes, and my same comment would apply to those.

Q. I'm just going to read these titles, it sounds like you don't even need to look at them?

A. Please do go ahead and read them.

Q. You've got Immune System Accessory Cells, Fornusek and Vetvicka, and that's got a chapter called "Evolution of Immune Sensory Functions." You've got a book called The Natural History of the Major Histocompatability Complex, that's part of the immune system, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And here we've got chapter called "Evolution." Then we've got Fundamental Immunology, a chapter on the evolution of the immune system.

A lot of writing, huh?

A. Well, these books do seem to have the titles that you said, and I'm sure they have the chapters in them that you mentioned as well, but again I am quite skeptical, although I haven't read them, that in fact they present detailed rigorous models for the evolution of the immune system by random mutation and natural selection.

Q. You haven't read those chapters?

A. No, I haven't.

Q. You haven't read the books that I gave you?

A. No, I haven't. I have read those papers that I presented though yesterday on the immune system.

Q. And the fifty-eight articles, some yes, some no?

A. Well, the nice thing about science is that oftentimes when you read the latest articles, or a sampling of the latest articles, they certainly include earlier results. So you get up to speed pretty quickly. You don't have to go back and read every article on a particular topic for the last fifty years or so.

Q. And all of these materials I gave you and, you know, those, including those you've read, none of them in your view meet the standard you set for literature on the evolution of the immune system? No scientific literature has no answers to the question of the origin of the immune system?

A. Again in the context of that chapter, I meant no answers, no detailed rigorous answers to the question of how the immune system could arise by random mutation and natural selection, and yes, in my, in the reading I have done I have not found any such studies.

The list of books and papers that Rothschild piled up on the witness stand, as you can see from the photograph, is extensive, and Behe admitted that he hadn't read any of them. Yet despite this, he continued to insist that it was not possible that any of them contained an explanation good enough to satisfy him. If you want to see the list for yourself, the NCSE has an annotated bibliography - listing all the titles and excerpting their subject matter, to show how they directly address the origin of the immune system - the kind of detailed, testable scientific hypothesis that, according to Behe, does not exist. (See also Evolving Immunity.)

After forty days and forty nights of testimony (really), the Kitzmiller trial concluded, and Judge John E. Jones - a conservative George W. Bush appointee - issued a strongly worded decision which concluded that ID was religion, not science, and that teaching it in public school would be an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. Behe's testimony was singled out for criticism, as Judge Jones wrote:

...in Darwin’s Black Box, Professor Behe wrote that not only were there no natural explanations for the immune system at the time, but that natural explanations were impossible regarding its origin. However, Dr. Miller presented peer-reviewed studies refuting Professor Behe’s claim that the immune system was irreducibly complex. Between 1996 and 2002, various studies confirmed each element of the evolutionary hypothesis explaining the origin of the immune system. In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fiftyeight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not “good enough.”

Christian apologists like Lee Strobel go out of their way to present ID advocates in the best possible light, asking them easy, leading questions and ensuring that their answers go uncriticized and unchallenged. But in an open environment where they don't control the terms of the debate and must confront the evidence, creationists meet with disaster time and time again. Is it any wonder that scientists have little regard for ID advocates, considering that their major arguments, like fragile hothouse flowers, must be carefully shielded from contact with the evidence lest they collapse?

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February 15, 2010, 9:17 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments
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The Case for a Creator: The Poker Player's Fallacy

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

In my review of Darwin's Black Box, I listed three ways that an irreducibly complex system can evolve:

The first can be summed up as scaffolding: extra parts which support a partially functional system until it is completely assembled, at which point the extra parts become unnecessary and are pruned away by selection. The second is the case of improvement becomes necessity, where an adaptation is at first merely beneficial, but as later changes build on it, it becomes indispensable. The third, possibly the most important, is change of function, also called cooption... A system which originally evolved to perform one function may take on a new function, starting out with multiple functioning parts rather than having to acquire them one piece at a time.

In his interview with Lee Strobel, Behe doesn't address the first two. But Strobel does ask about the third, in reference to Behe's account of the cilium:

"Maybe these three components were being used for other purposes in the cell and eventually came together for this new function... Isn't it possible that they might all come together by chance?" [p.203]

Behe's response is as follows:

"It's extraordinarily improbable," he replied. "Let me illustrate it for you. Say there are ten thousand proteins in a cell. Now, imagine you live in a town of ten thousand people, and everyone goes to the county fair at the same time. Just for fun, everyone is wearing blindfolds and is not allowed to speak. There are two other people named Lee, and your job is to link hands with them. What are the odds that you could go grab two people at random and create a link of Lees?" [p.203]

This is a clever argument, and probably seems very convincing to people who don't understand how evolution works. It can't be doubted that the odds against random chance giving rise to the right mutations to produce a cilium must be incredibly large. Has Behe put his finger on a critical flaw in evolution?

Let's say you're a poker player playing a game of five-card draw. In the initial deal, you get a full house:

9♦ 9♥ 9♣ Q♣ Q♠

The betting begins, and none of your opponents fold. The showdown comes, and one of them has two pair:

2♦ 2♥ 7♣ 7♠ K♥

One has three of a kind:

3♥ 3♦ 3♣ 8♠ 6♥

and one has a lowly ace high:

A♥ 10♦ 6♠ 4♣ 3♠

You win. Success!

At first, you bask in your victory and congratulate yourself for your good luck. But then you make a dramatic realization - the probability of getting the specific hand you were dealt was astoundingly small. After all, there are 52 cards in a standard deck! The odds of being dealt the exact hand that won you the round can be computed as just one chance in 2,598,960, or 0.0000003847693%. Given that you triumphed despite such improbability, is it really believable that your victory came about by chance? Especially if you win more than one hand, shouldn't you consider the hypothesis that there's an Intelligent Designer influencing the workings of the game?

When it's put in these terms, the fallacy is obvious. The odds of drawing one particular hand are low, but the question you should be asking is the odds of drawing any winning hand. There are many different winning hands in any particular round, and depending on what your opponents were dealt, your chances could be quite high.

This is the exact fallacy that Behe is committing. He's trying to calculate the odds of one specific set of mutations occurring to produce the cilium as it exists today. That probability, like the poker player's probability of his one exact winning hand, is fairly low. But that number is completely irrelevant, because the real question is this: what are the odds of evolution putting together any system, from any set of interactions among those ten thousand proteins, that could result in a unicellular organism gaining increased mobility? Needless to say, this number is much harder to calculate, but it's also certain to be much larger.

Behe has no excuse for not knowing this. Someone with his level of education and scientific background should be fully aware that this is how evolution works. And there's no chance that this is just a sloppy paraphrase or misquotation on Strobel's part, because Behe has used this same argument on at least two other occasions: once in his own book, and once in the paper that I alluded to in my previous post - the only peer-reviewed journal article that Behe has published in more than ten years. It appeared in 2004 in Protein Science, with the title "Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues".

The contributors on The Panda's Thumb, in a lengthy reply to this paper, point out the numerous unrealistic and restrictive assumptions that Behe makes:

...the paper says that if you have a protein function that requires two or more specific mutations in specific locations in a specific gene in a specific population, and if the function is not able to be acted on by natural selection until all mutations are in place and if the only form of mutation is point mutation, and if the population of organisms is asexual, then it will take a very large population and very long time to evolve that function. This is not unexpected.

The reply also castigates Behe for buying into the creationist myth of the "one true sequence":

The evolution of new functions is not a process that requires a certain target to be hit. There can be multiple new functions that any starting protein can acquire. Likewise, there can be multiple ways of acquiring any given function.

...the fact that [Behe and Snoke] only consider specific changes at specific locations makes their model meaningless because it assumes a fundamentally different process than the one that occurs in nature.

Ironically, as the PT post also points out, even Behe's artificially restrictive assumptions still imply that new protein functions should be easy to evolve in a relatively small population of bacteria!

By the standards of creationists who think "why are there still monkeys?" is a clever gibe, this is a far more sophisticated argument. But it's still an argument whose huge flaws should be apparent to anyone who knows even a little about evolutionary and molecular biology. Yet Michael Behe still treats it as not just valid but devastating. The only conclusions I can see fit to draw are that he's either an incredible incompetent, despite his education, or he's deliberately misleading his readers with an argument that he knows is fallacious. Which of these is more likely to be the case?

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February 5, 2010, 6:44 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink32 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Complexity Is Scary!

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

In the previous installment, I discussed how creationists steer well clear of doing any real science. We can see another example of this in, ironically, the way Strobel falls all over himself lauding Michael Behe as a Real Scientist:

He has authored forty articles for such scientific journals as DNA Sequence, The Journal of Molecular Biology, Nucleic Acids Research, Biopolymers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Biophysics, and Biochemistry... He is a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, and other professional organizations. [p.196]

(Side note: Why is Behe a member of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution?)

But never mind that parentheses. Just take a look at Michael Behe's impressive scientific track record! See how many prestigious peer-reviewed journals he's published in! Just try to refute the ID-supporting scientific arguments of... but wait a minute. Strobel has swiftly stepped around a very obvious question. How much of that vaunted publication record actually supports the arguments of ID?

The answer, if you don't stop at Strobel's glossy superlatives and actually go on to look at the papers, is: not much. If you look at Behe's CV, you can see that most of his work is about technical aspects of DNA and protein structure (with scintillating titles such as, "Quantitative assessment of the noncovalent inhibition of sickle hemoglobin gelation by phenyl derivatives and other known agents"). And if you look a little more deeply, you'll notice an even more interesting fact: Behe's already modest scientific output nosedives in the early 1990s. Not by coincidence, I'm sure, his much-hyped Darwin's Black Box was first published in 1996. Perhaps that was when he found out that working the creationist lecture circuit was a much easier, and far more profitable, line of business. (There was one new paper by Behe in 2004 - the only exception to what's otherwise a decade-plus publication drought. We'll come to that in a later post.)

There may be another reason for this, and we'll see it in the first section of this chapter. Guided by Strobel, Behe begins the conversation by talking about how simple Charles Darwin and his contemporaries thought that cells were.

"In Darwin's day, scientists could see the cell under a microscope, but it looked like a little glob of Jello, with a dark spot as the nucleus... Electricity was a big deal back then, and some believed that all you had to do was to zap some gelatinous material and it would come alive. Most scientists speculated that the deeper they delved into the cell, the more simplicity they would find." [p.196-7]

This claim, which apparently originated with Behe, has become a touchstone of creationist literature. Many prominent ID advocates, all using each other as their only sources, have spread the claim far and wide that early Darwinists thought cells were extremely simple. The trouble for them is that this claim is utterly false. Darwin himself (who was a skilled microscopist), wrote about the "astounding complexity" implied by what he could see of cells' organization and behavior. For details, see this post by Wesley Elsberry, which also catalogues the sloppy anti-evolutionists repeating this falsehood.

I'm sure you've guessed Behe's motivation for making this false claim: so he can dramatically whisk the curtain back and proclaim (much to Darwinists' imagined horror) that no, those tiny little cells are really complicated!

"We've learned the cell is horrendously complicated, and that it's actually run by micromachines of the right shape, the right strength, and the right interactions." [p.197]

This is Behe's cue to launch into a description of some of the molecular processes that operate within the cell. I'll spare you pages of verbiage about mousetraps and highways and motors - ID advocates still love these cartoonishly simple, Paleyesque analogies - except to note that Strobel chimes in on cue, gasping theatrically at the "stupefying complexity" [p.209] of this processes that stand revealed.

All this buildup is just so Behe can get to his overall point, which can be summed up thusly: "Look how complicated this is! Look how many different parts it has and how well they have to work together! I just can't imagine any way this could have developed gradually through evolution, can you? Let's just give up, say it must have been intelligent design, and then go home."

Lest you think that I'm being unfair to Michael Behe, he actually says something like this in this book, and in very nearly these words. Here's how he puts it:

"Now, does this microscopic transportation system [Behe is speaking about the endoplasmic reticulum —Ebonmuse] sound like something that self-assembled by gradual modifications over the years? I don't see how it could have been. To me, it has all the earmarks of being designed." [p.209]

"I don't see how it could have been": this is the argument of intelligent-design advocates in a nutshell.

I do wonder if this way of thinking is partly responsible for creationists' near-total lack of scientific output, even those who were actual scientists before joining the ID movement. Their argument is based on treating the complexity of the living world as utterly intractable and inexplicable. Is it not likely that this attitude discourages them from trying to study it? When your theology teaches you that science is a futile pursuit, why even attempt to do science?

The error at the root of this complexity phobia is the belief that evolution is incapable of creating complex things. This is implied in Behe's arguments throughout this chapter, though it's never explicitly spelled out. But why should we believe this? Evolution has been running on this planet for billions of years. It's not at all surprising that, with so much time to accumulate beneficial mutations and acquire new genes, the end products that we see today would be very complex indeed. And those molecular systems that Behe is so awed by? Many of them are found in bacteria, which number in the trillions and have generation times measured in hours. If evolution were a contest, bacteria would be the undisputed champions. Is it any wonder that there's so much complexity down at the bottom?

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January 29, 2010, 6:45 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments
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The Case for a Creator: The Smell of Science

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 is devoted to an interview with Michael Behe, the biologist and creationist who coined the concept of "irreducible complexity". As I've already reviewed Behe's book, I won't spend a great deal of time rehashing the arguments given in my review. Suffice to say that there is abundant evidence that "irreducibly complex" systems can evolve into existence - we've witnessed them doing so, both in the lab and in the wild. In fact, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Herman Muller described exactly the same concept, and cited it as an expected result of evolution, in 1918.

Instead, I'm going to use the occasion of Strobel's conversation with Behe to shed light on some of the peripheral issues and tactics used by modern creationists. And the introduction to the chapter, where Strobel meets Behe in his office at Lehigh University, is a perfect example of one such:

Lehigh University's "Mountaintop Campus," a seventy-two-acre, eight-building research complex overlooking the hardscrabble city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was littered with brown, brittle leaves when I arrived one autumn afternoon in my search for Michael Behe.

After parking in front of Iacocca Hall, a modern, tan-and-green glass building, I walked up to the second floor. I strolled down a long hallway with laboratories on both sides - the Complex Carbohydrate Research Lab, the Core Chromatography/Electrophoresis Lab, the Molecular Microbiology Research Lab, the Neuroendocrinology Lab, the Core DNA Lab, and the ominous-sounding Virology Lab, with an orange biohazard sign plastered on its door.

The hallway's wall featured scintillating reading - an oversized reproduction of a technical article by two Lehigh scientists, asking the provocative question: "How Does Testosterone Affect Hippocampal Plasticity in Black-Capped Chickadees?" [p.195]

As an aside: If mainstream science is as implacably hostile to ID as creationists suggest, why is it that Michael Behe is still teaching at this place? One would think that those evil, dogmatic Darwinists would have drummed up some excuse to fire him by now.

But that wasn't what I wanted to call attention to. Notice how carefully Strobel describes the surroundings, how much detail he pays to the hallways and offices at Lehigh he has to pass through to find Behe (and he must have stopped, at least for a few minutes, to write down the names of all those labs and the exact title of that paper). Having read the other chapters in the book, I can tell you that Behe's environs get more attention and descriptive detail than anyone else Strobel speaks to. Why do you think that is?

The one thing that creationists crave more than anything else is the appearance of scientific respectability. But they've never even tried the traditional way of achieving this, i.e., doing science. Behe, for instance, has never published a paper in any peer-reviewed scientific journal explaining, advocating, or giving examples of the concept of irreducible complexity, and his scientific productivity in general has nosedived since he started advocating ID. As I mentioned earlier, two other leading lights of the ID movement, Jonathan Wells and Stephen Meyer, can each claim a total of one journal article in their entire careers, and these were published in obscure journals under suspicious editorial circumstances. (For purposes of comparison, the most prolific scientists working today publish hundreds of peer-reviewed papers per decade.)

No, creationists aren't interested in doing real science; they've more than sufficiently proved that already, by passing up the countless chances they've had to make any meaningful contribution to the scientific literature. They'd rather spend their time writing non-peer-reviewed books for mass consumption, giving talks to church gatherings, lobbying school boards, publishing editorials in conservative media outlets and other friendly venues, and doing all the other activities that are typical of politicians and ideologues, but are not how actual scientists communicate with and convince their colleagues.

But they still crave that semblance of scientific legitimacy, and the way they try to get it is by surrounding themselves with the trappings of science. Hence the careful attention Strobel pays to Behe's academic environs, as if to say, "See, we're talking about intelligent design! And we're doing it in a building where real science gets done! How can you doubt that ID is science when I tell you about all the posters with the big, sciencey-sounding words I had to walk past to meet Michael Behe?"

It's as if they believe that "science" is something that a person can acquire by proximity, something that clings to them, like a smell. But whether they've managed to convince themselves of this or not, it's a falsehood. Science isn't a matter of outward appearances, but a way of knowing - a habit of thought, really. It requires subjecting every idea to rigorous skepticism, formulating falsifiable theories that make concrete predictions, and then testing them ruthlessly through experiment and observation. All these things are anathema to the creationists, who, no matter how many white lab coats they dress up in, are not doing science, but advancing a religious idea to serve political ends.

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January 21, 2010, 6:23 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink22 comments
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The Case for a Creator: A Universe Not Made For Us

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

The final section of this chapter concerns Gonzalez's argument that the Earth is uniquely designed to make scientific discovery possible. His argument is that our planet is fine-tuned not just to allow the existence of life, but to allow us to find out important facts about the nature of the universe that wouldn't be possible to discover if we lived anywhere else. (As an aside, it's asinine for Strobel and his interviewees to celebrate how perfectly designed the Earth is for scientific discovery when they themselves reject many of the most important conclusions of science - but never mind that.) He begins with solar eclipses, which occur due to another of those coincidences that ID advocates love so much:

"There's a striking convergence of rare properties that allow people on Earth to witness perfect solar eclipses... total eclipses are possible because the sun is four hundred times larger than the moon, but it's also four hundred times further away. It's that incredible coincidence that creates a perfect match.

Because of this configuration... observers on earth can discern finer details in the sun's chromosphere and corona than from any other planet, which makes these eclipses scientifically rich." [p.185-186]

Again, this is something that Guillermo Gonzalez, a professional astronomer, can't possibly be ignorant of: You don't need a solar eclipse to view the sun's corona. You can just use a coronagraph, a very simple instrument that's been in existence since the 1930s and performs the same function. The fact that our planet is uniquely positioned to see total eclipses is an interesting coincidence, but it's in no way vital to scientific discovery.

"...perfect solar eclipses helped us learn about the nature of stars. Using spectroscopes, astronomers learned how the sun's color spectrum is produced, and that data helped them later interpret the spectra of distant stars." [p.186]

This argument makes no sense to me. What do eclipses have to do with humanity's invention of spectroscopy?

"...eclipses provided a historical record that has... enabled us to put ancient calendars on our modern calendar system, which was very significant." [p.186]

Eclipses, of course, are not the only way of coordinating ancient and modern calendars. You can use any event, whether earthly or astronomical, that occurred on a known date as a reference point. SN 1054 would be another example.

"Our location away from the galaxy's center and in the flat plane of the disk provides us with a particularly privileged vantage point for observing both nearby and distant stars." [p.187]

Wouldn't a location in a more densely populated stellar neighborhood give us an even better vantage point for observing many different types of stars? This is a Gish Gallop-type argument where Gonzalez fires out as many assertions as possible, while doing little or nothing to explain the reasoning behind each one.

"The moon stabilizes the Earth's tilt, which gives us a livable climate - and it also consistently preserves the deep snow deposits in the polar regions... By taking core samples from the ice, researchers can gather data going back hundreds of thousands of years." [p.187]

I agree that ice-core data is a useful way of learning about past climate, though not the only one. I also note that Gonzalez has here committed himself to rejecting the young-earth position, which is something Strobel refuses to do (he calls it an "internal Christian debate", remember). It's therefore interesting that he lets this pass without comment. Shouldn't he point out that, according to many of his fellow Christians, the Earth doesn't have "hundreds of thousands of years" of past history and therefore these ice cores are useless as records of anything?

"And a transparent atmosphere allows the science of astronomy and cosmology to flourish." [p.188]

This argument is especially ridiculous. Every atmosphere, no matter its composition, is transparent at some wavelengths and opaque at others. Our atmosphere, for example, is transparent to visible light but strongly absorbs infrared. Astronomers on any planet would ply their trade at the wavelengths that pass through the atmosphere, and for those that don't, they could do precisely what we've done: send telescopes and observatories into space.

"Thousands of seismographs all over the planet have measured earthquakes through the years... scientists have been able to use that data to produce a three-dimensional map of the structure of the Earth's interior." [p.188]

The same effect can be achieved by setting off explosives on the surface to produce seismic waves, a technique used routinely by geologists and the extraction industry.

As we can see from all these examples, there's nothing about the Earth's environment that makes it uniquely well-suited to scientific discovery. What Strobel and Gonzalez have really managed to show, instead, is humanity's cleverness in exploiting every opportunity available to us to learn about the natural world. Our planet is well-suited for science in some ways, ill-suited in others. If we lived on a different planet, the ways we'd have to learn about the world would be different - and if there were creationists on that planet, doubtless they'd be saying that those opportunities, and not these, were evidence of divine design.

As evidence of this, Strobel and Gonzalez have presented a rosy and thoroughly one-sided list of the ways in which our environment is good for scientific discovery. But there are other aspects of our environment, equally obvious and important, that are not so favorable. Here are some of them:

* The light speed limit. The fact that nothing can travel faster than light makes it essentially impossible to explore our universe in person, or even via robots. Even the nearest stars would take thousands of years to reach using the fastest means of travel currently available to us, and exploring any really interesting places, like the galactic center, would take millions.

* The poor fossil record. Because fossilization is an extremely rare event, most creatures, and possibly even most species, that have ever lived are unknown to us. Even in the very rare cases where fossils are formed, we need to rely on luck to bring them close enough to the surface to notice, and incredible amounts of tenacity and hard work are needed to excavate even a single fossil and assemble it from fragments and disassembled bones.

* Erosion and plate tectonics. The active geological processes that continually destroy and recycle the Earth's crust mean that most of the planet's oldest rocks and fossils no longer exist, making it very difficult for us to learn about the earliest epochs of history.

* Dark matter, dark energy, and other elusive phenomena. To judge by astronomical observations, the vast majority of the universe is made up of substances that are invisible to us and completely unlike anything we encounter on our planet. Enormous amounts of research, creativity, and effort have been expended in building the vast and complex experiments that we use to detect them (just read this description of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment, or this page about the Large Hadron Collider).

* Geological and cosmological timescales. Many really interesting scientific phenomena - continental drift, star formation, galaxy collisions - occur on such long timescales that they can't be directly observed from start to finish by humans and our comparatively puny lifespans. This is very inconvenient for learning about the processes that shape our planet and our universe.

These aspects of our world (are there others I've forgotten?) cast doubt on the rats-in-a-maze theology which claims our universe is stocked with little puzzles created by God just to keep us busy. Nature does not yield its secrets easily, and the few pieces of knowledge we've managed to gain have all taken diligent work and imaginative leaps by dedicated scientists. It trivializes and demeans their effort for creationists to come in afterward and claim that those scientists were really just finding the clues planted by God.

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January 8, 2010, 6:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Hot Jupiters

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

In chapter 3, I chastised Jonathan Wells, a trained biologist, for making deceptive arguments whose answers he unquestionably already knows. I have to send a similar criticism Guillermo Gonzalez's way, because in this chapter, he makes an argument that any beginner student in astronomy would be able to answer easily.

The argument has to do with the nature of extrasolar planets, of which we currently know over 400. Gonzalez concedes that this means our solar system is not unique when it comes to having planets orbiting a star - a point he's clearly reluctant to yield - but he still maintains that what we have discovered reinforces his claim about the uniqueness of Earth.

"...the expectation was that astronomers would find giant gas planets in large circular orbits, much like Jupiter... However, we're finding that the planets circling other stars are quite different from Jupiter. They orbit over a full range of distances, from just a tiny fraction of an Astronomical Unit - which is the distance between the Earth and the sun - out to several Astronomical Units. Most of their orbits are highly elliptical; very few are circular. These strongly non-circular orbits utterly surprised astronomers... they had expected that other planetary systems would be just like ours. And that expectation was basically dashed." [p.173]

Strobel lets this comment pass without asking for any examples of astronomers who had allegedly expected this. I doubt he would have gotten any if he had.

It's true that most of the extrasolar planets we've found so far are "hot Jupiters", or gas giants with orbits that take them very close to their parent stars. (Most hot Jupiters do, in fact, have circular orbits, so Gonzalez is wrong on that point.) But that's not because every extrasolar planet is like that. Rather, it's because the detection methods we use are most sensitive to this type of planet.

One of the most successful ways of detecting extrasolar planets is the radial-velocity method. As a massive planet orbits its star, the gravity of the planet tugs the star back and forth. This causes a small, but detectable, Doppler shift in the frequency of the star's light as observed from Earth. Because gravity is proportional to mass and inversely proportional to distance, the planets with the largest gravitational effects on their parent stars - the ones that are easiest to detect - are very large and orbit very close: in other words, hot Jupiters.

Planet-finding instruments like HARPS have astounding sensitivity, able to detect velocity shifts in stars as small as 1 m/s. But even they aren't sensitive enough to detect the minuscule Doppler shifts that Earth-size planets would cause. Finding terrestrial exoplanets will have to wait for next-generation instruments like NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder mission - although, as our methods improve, we're finding more and more exoplanets in a category called super-Earths - rocky worlds much smaller than gas giants, but with up to ten times the mass of our own planet.

Searching for these planets is like sweeping the ocean with a net to catch fish. The more finely-woven your net, the smaller the fish you'll be able to catch. Our "net" is still fairly coarse, able to catch only the larger fish. Strobel and his creationist allies would claim that this proves that only large fish live in the ocean. But we're getting better at weaving finer and finer nets, and every year we're catching smaller and smaller fish. This is an area where the science is progressing very rapidly, and we're in the very rare position of being able to know, possibly within just a few years, exactly how wrong the creationists are.

Having spent all this time discussing religious pseudoscience, I just have to cleanse my palate now by talking about some real science, especially since there's such an abundance to be had. Feast your eyes on the first ever visible-light image of a planet outside our solar system:

This composite image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys, shows a dust disk surrounding the bright star Fomalhaut (see also), about 25 light-years from Earth in the constellation Piscis Australis. The star itself has been blocked out from the image, so that its light doesn't drown out the far dimmer object orbiting it: the planet named Fomalhaut b, which is about the same mass as Jupiter and orbits its parent once every 872 years, four times as far as Neptune is from our own sun.

Fomalhaut is a young, hot white star, similar to Vega and Sirius. It's only about 200 million years old - which means Fomalhaut b must be similarly young - but is expected to burn for no more than another billion years or so. The star is surrounded by a vast disk of dust, which very likely resembles the one that coalesced into the planets of our own solar system. Fomalhaut b's gravity has shepherded the particles of this disk, which accounts for the relatively sharp inner edge visible in the Hubble photo. The disk also radiates strongly in the infrared, which may indicate heat being radiated from the collision of small rocky bodies and planetesimals - implying that planet formation may be occurring around Fomalhaut, or even that other young planets exist within this system that have yet to be observed.

One more intriguing fact is that Fomalhaut b is significantly brighter than expected for a planet of its mass. A possible explanation is that the planet, like Saturn, has a ring system that reflects starlight (though, one of the scientists who theorized this said that its rings could dwarf Saturn's by comparison).

These are the kind of discoveries that creationists wave off, insisting that there's nothing new or interesting worth finding beyond our own world. A worldview that already has all the answers has no place for curiosity. But the universe is greater than they imagine, and every day, real scientists are making discoveries that further reveal to us our true place in the cosmos. There are countless worlds waiting to be explored. Who knows what wonders may yet lie hidden on those other shores?

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December 24, 2009, 10:35 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink21 comments
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