Creationist Target Practice

Yesterday, someone calling himself Rev. Skeens posted the following comment. I rejected it since it had no perceptible connection to the post it was submitted under, but then I had second thoughts. Granted that this is beginner-level stuff and hardly challenging, but it's been a while since we honed our debating skills on an actual creationist around here, so I thought it might be entertaining to throw it out there and use it for target practice. Who wants to have a go?

Secular archeologist's may claim that there is no evidence of a global flood, but, Scientist's have found fossils of sea creatures high in the Himalayan Mountains, and also at between 7,000-8,000 feet above sea level in the Grand Canyon rock formation layers. These are the two prominent finds that support a global flood, but, if you do the research yourself, not just listen to what other atheists say, you can find that on every continent on the planet are fossils found high above sea level of sea creatures. If these formations weren't under water at one point in time or another, how did the sea creature fossils get there?

Mr. Skeens has taken his best shot at us. You may return fire when ready. I'll be sure to e-mail him and tell him about this post so he doesn't miss out!

August 6, 2011, 2:50 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink201 comments
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My Notes on the Ideological Turing Test

Following up my post analyzing the results of Unequally Yoked's ideological Turing test, this one lists how I voted on each of the atheist candidates. I took notes as I was going through them, trying to flag what stood out to me as evidence of genuineness or fakery. As you can see, some of my criteria turned out to work, some of them didn't.

#1

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Christian

#2

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Christian

#3

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Christian

#4

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Christian

#5

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Atheist

#6

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Christian

#7

I Said: Christian
Really Was: ??

#8

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Atheist

#9

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Atheist

#10

I Said: Christian
Really Was: Christian

#11

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Atheist

#12

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Atheist

#13

#14

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Christian

#15

I Said: Atheist
Really Was: Christian

Overall, out of all the Christians, only #6 and #15 had me completely convinced that the authors were atheists. Three others, #1, #3 and #14, I was on the fence about, but went the wrong way on two and got one right. #2, #4 and #10 didn't fool me at all. Since there were 8 total Christians, I picked out half the fakers.

#5 and #9, by contrast, were real atheists that I wrongly flagged as fake. I think the common element there is that those people wrote short answers, or answers that seemed weak to me. Whether you were a real or a fake atheist, you had to put forward a vigorous defense of that view if you wanted to be taken seriously. Perhaps those people thought that, since they knew they were really atheists, that would come through easily and they didn't need to go to the trouble.

If you voted, what criteria did you use? What was the best way to tell the real atheists apart from the fakers?

July 23, 2011, 10:20 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink17 comments
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Thoughts on the Ideological Turing Test

The ideological Turing test that was running at Unequally Yoked has concluded, and if you're like me, you couldn't wait to find out how we did. Well, the results are in: here's the answer key (some real surprises there!), and here's how the voting shook out for the atheist round and for the Christian round. Read those first, and then come back for my thoughts on the outcome.

First of all, I want to thank Leah for running this contest, and I especially want to commend her Christian participants. They did an outstanding job of posing as atheists, much better than I was expecting, and one or two of them had me completely fooled. I highly doubt that a random sample of Christians off the street would have done anywhere near as well. Not counting the one answer that I knew was mine, I got better than 50% right, but not much better - certainly not enough that I can plausibly claim my score wasn't just due to chance. I'm working on a followup post where I'll list how I voted on each entry and explain what my reasoning was.

But here's what I found most astonishing: Three Christians got higher atheist scores (i.e., were judged more likely to be atheists) than any of the real atheists! Conversely, if you look at the five people with the lowest atheist scores, two of them actually were atheists.

I've got to conclude that there's something else going on here, something I don't fully understand. If the Christians did an absolutely flawless job at passing themselves off as atheists, then we should have expected equal scores between the real and the fake atheists, because they would have been indistinguishable. Instead, it seems as if some of the Christians were judged to be "even more atheist" than some of the real atheists. (I'm happy, at least, to see that out of all the real atheists, I got the second highest atheist score, behind only Leah. She's good at this!)

The only explanation I can think of is that the Christian winners managed to distill all the diverse atheist viewpoints they've heard into a statistical composite - an "idealized" atheist viewpoint that would strike anyone who heard it as typical of an atheist. We real atheists, meanwhile, each have our own quirks and idiosyncrasies which make us diverge from that idealized average.

Something else I wanted to point out is that far more atheists than Christians participated in this contest. 1,133 total atheists voted, while only 123 total Christians did. I can't help but think this is a clue to why the results came out the way they did. It's plausible that there's a self-selection effect at work: atheists, in general, tend to be more interested in learning about different belief systems than Christians are, but that also means that there's more of a spread of ability among us. By contrast, fewer Christians make the effort to learn about atheism, but those who do are highly motivated, and thus likely to do better in a contest like this one. Of course, I welcome hearing alternative hypotheses.

As far as the Christian round goes, I've got to be just a bit smug: I got the fourth-highest Christian score, higher than 6 of the 8 real Christians. Out of all the atheists, I was the second most-convincing Christian. (Leah beat me again. Didn't I tell you she was good at this? Now you know why she's on my blogroll.)

Still, when all the numbers are taken into consideration, I think the Christians showed us up this time, and I give them full credit for that. Because of unusual cases like clergy who've lost their faith but are still in the pulpit, we know that atheists can successfully imitate believers, sometimes for months or years on end. But in this competition, we didn't do as well. I don't think it's necessary to be able to convincingly imitate an alternate viewpoint to be justified in rejecting it, but even so, I expected our side to do better than it did. There are clearly some atheists out there who need to hit the books!

July 22, 2011, 6:23 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink18 comments
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Cast Your Ballots Now!

I wrote last month about the ideological Turing test going on at Unequally Yoked, and the first round of voting is now beginning. Leah has posted 15 sets of answers to a standard set of questions, some of them written by genuine atheists, some written by Christians pretending to be atheists.

Do you think you can tell the real atheists apart from the frauds? If you're up for the challenge, go check the answers out, apply your very best skepticism, and then cast your vote. The polls are only open till Sunday night, so be quick! Once voting is over, there will be a second round, this time of genuine Christians and real atheists trying to impersonate Christians. Do your nonbeliefs proud by proving that we can recognize real atheists when we see them!

July 8, 2011, 11:01 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments
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Take the Ideological Turing Test

My guest blogger alumnus, Leah of Unequally Yoked, has proposed a very interesting challenge for Christians and atheists alike which she calls the "ideological Turing test":

One of the greatest gifts of my time at Yale has been living, writing, and arguing in a community of smart people with whom I fiercely disagree... The imitation test has helped me make sure I really understood what I was rejecting and, in the end, embracing.

Unless your enemies are purposefully contrarian... there is something they find uniquely compelling about their ideology. To imitate them, you need to know what that is and understand why it moves people. It doesn't matter if the benefits of an ideology are outweighed by its drawbacks; unless you can recognize the good as good, no partisan will ever trust your analysis of their creed.

And, unless you're uncommonly brilliant and perceptive, it will do you a lot of good to confront the merits of the other side.

The basic idea is that both Christians, and atheists posing as Christians, will answer a slate of questions aimed at people professing a Christian viewpoint. Then the atheists, and Christians posing as atheists, will answer a similar slate of questions for people professing an atheist viewpoint. Finally, a panel of judges will read all the answers and see if they can tell the difference between the people who genuinely hold each viewpoint and the ones who are merely trying to imitate it. (See here for more detailed rules.)

The point of this exercise is that, if you can convincingly argue the other side's position, it's good evidence that you truly understand it and aren't merely rejecting it out of ignorance. I think this will be a fun game to play, and the outcome, regardless of what it is, should be interesting fodder for discussion and analysis. My only concern is that this may be a difficult game for the Christians - answering convincingly from the atheist viewpoint might require what they'd consider blasphemy - but if they're willing to play along, that's up to them.

If you'd like to help out, either as a participant or as a judge, leave a comment here or or on Leah's blog, or e-mail me or her (leahDOTlibrescoATgmailDOTcom). Leah tells me we particularly need more questions targeted at the atheist viewpoint, so if you have suggestions for those, please propose them.

June 25, 2011, 3:57 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments
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You Call That Religion?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

Spoiler Alert: the post below discusses the final number of the musical The Book of Mormon.

The Associated Press, in a review titled "Zany Musical 'The Book of Mormon' Will Convert You" said despite the sacrilege you might expect from a show imagined by the creators of South Park, the production was ultimately "pro-religion."  Or, more precisely:

Ultimately, believe it or not, this is a pro-religion musical, or at least a story about the uplifting power of stories. Far from being nihilistic, the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.

It's not often that atheists have occasion to make common cause with fundamentalists, but the increasingly diffuse definition of religion the AP and others are using is actually bad for both sides.  For religious people, the danger is clear enough: the vague moral therapeutic deism embraced by these dull heretics offers an out from every hard teaching or structure of religious authority.

At the end of the show, the Mormon missionaries have strayed from their theology but decide to stick around to offer what comfort they can to the African village they've tried to convert.  When their doctrine doesn't fit the situation, they just change it around or invent new scriptures to lend weight to their moral intuitions.  In the finale number ("Tomorrow is a Latter Day"), they proudly preach their new, flexible dogma:

I am a Latter Day Saint!

I help all those I can.

I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

Who cares what happens when we're dead?

We shouldn't think that far ahead.

The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!

Now, I hate to ever end up on the same side as David Brooks ("Creed or Chaos" 4/21/11), but we atheists are also hurt by this spiritual movement.  Defining the diffuse but well-meant spirituality of the schismatic Mormons in the finale as essentially religious leaves atheists out in the cold.  If a general desire to do good for others, divorced from any creed or Authority is limited to religion, it's no wonder that so many Americans doubt that atheists have any moral inclinations and are therefore unwilling to vote us into public office.

Christians steeped in orthodoxy complain that too many of their brothers and sisters in Christ are substituting their own judgement for God's.  They're correct, and we atheists ought to work to get these so-called Christians to own up to it.  The Brits were right on with their "If You're Not Religious, For God's Sake Say So!" campaign to encourage nonbelievers to identify as atheists on the census; weakly-affiliated parishoners boost the numbers and credibility of creeds they no longer profess.

We end up on the same team as the defenders of the faith; we're pushing people to pick a side.  While they offer apologetics, we're trying to heighten the contradictions and get people to admit that they've already concluded their faith is untenable, they just need to come out and say it.  Moral Therapeutic Deism lets believers shrug off all the challenging or horrifying aspects of their faith; it gives them permission to be lazy thinkers.

The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause.  It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

May 28, 2011, 9:56 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments
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The Mormon Test

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

When in argument with Christians, it can be hard to find a good way to explain why you doubt their precepts.  John Loftus has a good idea with his Outsider's Test for Faith, but most Christians believe that their faith can pass the test; it's hard to show them how their faith looks if you haven't been steeped in it.

Sometimes I've tried comparing and contrasting with other, conflicting denominations and asking why I should find one compelling over the other, but it's easy for Christians to escape that maneuver by claiming that they do agree on the most important aspects of God's nature.  According to them, I should be convinced by what binds them together.  It's also easy to end up in an endless cycle of counter-citations and courtier's replies if you try to get technical with objections and apologetics.

I have a couple standard questions, but, after seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway, I've got an idea for a different opening gambit.  As we heard during Romney's first campaign, Mormonism has a lot of mind-boggling propositions embedded in its theology.  According to data from the Pew Research Center, over a third of Americans do not believe Mormons are Christians, and that proportion is higher among white evangelicals.  In other words, most Christians have no emotional ties to Mormonism and are less likely to get defensive when talking about it.

So the question to pose is: what evidence should compel me to believe in your faith rather than Mormonism?  There are plenty of parallels to push on.  Apologist Lee Strobel makes much of the fact that early Christians were willing to be martyred for their faith and that, despite persecution, the Church grew and thrived.  The same is true of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  The Mormons were persecuted and threatened as them moved west.  According to standard Christian apologetic logic, we should give them more credence for persisting and creating new converts.

Of course, the problem for Christians is that they find Mormon theology to be false prima facie.  If you're a little shaky on Mormon theology, take a listen to the ballad "I Believe" from the musical.  In the song, one of the missionary leads sings a song that encapsulates parts of Mormon dogma.  It starts off mainstream ("I believe that the Lord God created the Universe / I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sin") but it quickly gets stranger:

I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America...

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob

I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well

And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri

Except, according to some Christian apologists, the implausibility of beliefs can be proof of the certainty of the believer.  After all, they say, no one would profess such a ridiculous seeming belief if they didn't have good reason to think it were true.   (Though the Mormons are certainly proof that widespread ridicule is insufficient to kill off a religion or halt its expansion).

Try turning the old defenses around and asking Christians how they account for the extremely rapid expansion of a church they regard as false.  They can't take the out they do when questioned about Islam; Mormonism didn't convert by conquest.  Framing the question more pleasantly ("I don't understand how...." rather than "Bet you can't explain...") could get you more a more considered response and a more charitable hearing once you try to pick their answer apart.

May 27, 2011, 4:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments
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Adapt or Die

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My previous two posts on mockery have drawn a lot of criticism, including charges that I am an accommodationist.  If that were the case, the definition of accommodationism had gotten way too broad.  Trying to treat people with respect is different from asserting that their beliefs are true, or, at a minimum, not actively harmful.  Accommodationists have no desire to deconvert Christians or other believers, but there's a lot of room in the atheist movement for people like me, who want to change the minds of the other side and have grave doubts that mockery and disdain are the right tools for our goal.

Most atheists won't meet Christians who have never had their beliefs mocked, so few of us will plausibly shake their confidence by being the first person not to give their claims automatic credence.  There may still be misconceptions you can be the first to correct (I've heard plenty of "Why are you angry at God" and had to explain I don't believe in a God that would attract my ire), but you're less likely to get to a productive conversation about nuances if you open with anger.

And if Christians have been criticized before, why do we expect it will be our sneer that does them in.  After all, even if they aren't particularly well versed in their faith, they've probably heard the Beatitudes, specifically Matthew 5:10-12.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Most Christians are braced for criticism and welcome it.  Whether they see an attack as an opportunity to evangelize, a moment to demonstrate righteousness in defense of their god or a chance to play the victim on the public stage, they're ready to take advantage of it.  And they didn't last for 2000 years by being flat out dumb; their responses have undergone a kind of evolutionary selection.   Almost all Christians have answers to common atheists or denominational questions, so a quippy attack is of limited efficacy.

In the long history of the various Christian traditions, those who couldn't offer something plausible enough to hold on to followers (or those who had unsustainable teachings, cf. the Shakers) died out.  Plenty of smart people have been Christians, and they've had a long time to kludge together apologetic responses to objections.  Sometimes, the relentless expansion of theology results in cruft that I like to label scriptural fanfiction, but the end result is a tangle of ripostes to any entry-level criticism you have to offer.

The simplest (and worst) response are the ones we're most familiar with, the fundamentalists who deny the scientific method, the legitimacy of any kind of statistical analysis, and even any human grasp of causality.  It's well nigh impossible to argue with these people.  You can always try pointing out they trust the conclusions of scientists in their day to day life, and ought to give them credence on bigger questions like evolution or the age of the universe, but you'll find some sects (esp Christian Scientists) have already embraced the reductio ad absurdum you were trying to set up and have rejected any semblance of an intelligible world in the here and now.  You're not likely to get very far with rational argument, and, although mockery may give you a spiteful pleasure, it's not likely to do the self-deceived much good.

Plenty of other Christians believe that their faith is compatible with the more ordinary truths of the world they live in, and they've been working to harmonize their dogma with the data on the ground.  Their answers may be convoluted or unverifiable, but they satisfy the people in the tradition.  It's  no good raising questions and smirking if you can't rebut the next reply.  When atheists overreach, they discredit our whole movement.

Luke of Common Sense Atheism joined Andrew of Evaluating Christianity to make the case that most atheists who debate William Lane Craig shouldn't.  You might know that WLC's arguments are bunk, but if you can't make the case against him cogently and quickly, your smugness hurts our image.  Arrogance can win you an audience, but if you can't back it up with argument, you're handing weapons to the enemy.

If your goal isn't deconversion, or, at the very least, sapping public support for policies sourced in Christian doctrine, then I'm not sure why you're having hostile confrontations in the first place.  Some commenters made the case that the stupidity of our opponents or the harm they do is sufficient justification for holding them up to ridicule.  I disagree.  If you're in it for the bloodsport, knock it off.  It's one thing to take an aggressive stance because you honestly believe you have the best interest of your target at heart and quite another to think that your own intelligence or skepticism entitles you to make the less privileged suffer.

I've spent more of my time here at Daylight Atheism talking about poor deconversion tactics than I planned.  Tomorrow, you can count on a more constructive post on strategy inspired by my recent trip to see Broadway's The Book of Mormon.  In the meantime, I do have a list of three avenues of questioning I offered in argument with a campus ministry group.

May 26, 2011, 10:30 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments
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Atheists Don't Debate (Except When We Do)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part II

In chapter 3, Hedges gives a two-and-a-half-page-long excerpt of a debate he had with Sam Harris at UCLA in May 2007, moderated by the columnist Robert Scheer, about whether Islam encourages suicide bombing:

HARRIS: OK, well, let me deal with your taking the measure of the Muslim world. Happily we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim world and make friends and get a vibe... A single well-run opinion poll would be worth a thousand years of you wandering around the Middle East.

SCHEER: Come on.

HARRIS: That's not meant to be hyperbolic.

SCHEER: Wrong, wrong, wrong.

HARRIS: Let me tell you -

SCHEER: You can't possibly believe that about polls, my God -

HARRIS: All we've got is conversations; all we've got is conversations.

SCHEER: The man has lived there for 15 years, for God's sake. (p.73)

This quote is noteworthy for the way Scheer, allegedly present to act as the moderator, gives up the pretense of doing that and openly joins Hedges' side. Hedges doesn't comment on this, so either he didn't notice (unlikely) or doesn't think it casts him in a bad light that he let the moderator argue his side of the debate for him. After this quote, Hedges resumes bashing his opponents:

Harris follows the line of least resistance. He does not engage in the hard and laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Self-criticism and self-reflection are a waste of time. Nuance and complexity ruins the entertainment and defeats the simple, neat solutions he offers up to cope with the world's problems. He does not deal in abstractions. He sees all people as clearly defined. The world is divided into those who embrace or reject his belief system. Those that support him are good, and forces for human progress. Those that oppose him are ignorant at best, and probably evil. He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship. (p.75)

Harris has "no interest in debate"? After you just spent two and a half pages quoting from a debate he had with you? Did an editor even look at this book?

What really piques Hedges' ire is that Sam Harris, when trying to explain the causes of Islamic terrorism, didn't accept Hedges' own personal reminiscences about people he met as a Mideast correspondent, and decided instead to rely on those worthless nobodies at Pew and their so-called "scientific 38,000-person random sampling of the populations of nine countries". And then there's Harris' outrageous statement about the cause of the Yugoslavian war in the 90s:

[Harris' book was] tedious, at its best, and often ignorant and racist. His assertion, for example, that the war in the former Yugoslavia was caused by religion was ridiculous. (p.2)

Ooh, those atheists just make Chris Hedges so mad! They don't know anything about what causes war. It's a good thing we have a foreign-policy genius like Hedges to tell us what factors really led to that brutal episode of ethnic cleansing:

The Serbian ethnic cleansing campaigns... sought their moral justification in distant and often mythic humiliations suffered by the Serbs, especially the 1396 defeat of Serbian forces by the Ottoman Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in the province of Kosovo... the mythic tale of the defeat, and the alleged treachery of the Muslims in the battle, figured prominently in windy discussions by common soldiers on the front lines in Bosnia during the war. (p.133)

The collective humiliation and the rage it produced obliterated self-reflection and self-criticism. It fed acts of aggression against Muslims. The images on the evening news in Belgrade of Serbian victims, as well as the alleged atrocities by the Muslims in Bosnia or Kosovo, were used to justify the wanton attacks by Serbs, most of them against unarmed Bosnian Muslims. (p.133)

The worst atrocities in Bosnia were sanctified not by imams, but by Catholic and Serbian Orthodox priests. (p.149)

But don't forget, religion had nothing to do with causing that war! To say so would be "ridiculous", and only "ignorant and racist" people like Sam Harris would think that! Aren't you glad you have a Very Serious Person like Chris Hedges to explain this all to you?

Ironically, Hedges' defense is the same as that of the Christian fundamentalists he decries: When discussing a modern holy war, if there are any identifiable political or nationalistic motives for either warring side, he concludes that religion is excused of all blame - even when religious figures sanctify acts of bloodshed, even when religious rhetoric is used by the warring sides to condemn each other or inflame their own people's passions, even when religion is the very basis that the warring sides use to tell each other apart in the first place. As atheists, we should have no trouble agreeing that factors other than religion play into violent conflict, even if religion also bears a large share of the responsibility. It's only people like Hedges who have to deny the obvious truth that religion can be both an initiator and an accelerant of bloodshed.

Other posts in this series:

December 13, 2010, 2:52 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments
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Creationists Flee from Criticism

A few weeks ago, I was alerted by a Google alert to a post, "Conversation With An Atheist", on the site Everyday Christian. Since I'm always interested to find Christians who want to converse with atheists, to see what they have to say about us and to us, I checked it out. It turned out to be a fairly run-of-the-mill creationist argument by a Christian apologist named Jack Wellman.

Since my interest was piqued, I posted a comment in reply to Mr. Wellman, and then another when he responded (you can see them by following the link to the thread). Several others chimed in as well. Wellman kept responding, using the typical creationist tactic of changing the topic to a new argument every time the previous one was refuted. He also posted several remarks that showed a spectacular misunderstanding of evolution, such as inexplicably claiming that the universality of the genetic code was evidence against common descent, rather than one of the strongest pieces of evidence for it. I tried to correct these fallacies in as civil a manner as possible.

However, at some point, it seems that either Wellman or the site moderators decided he wasn't faring well enough in the debate, and simply stopped allowing new comments to be posted. I subscribed to the thread by e-mail and got one final message several days ago, from another contributor complaining that his previous comments had been censored. But when I checked the thread, this comment had been deleted. Since then, no new comments have been allowed to appear.

This was my last comment, which was submitted over a week ago and hasn't been posted. There's been no explanation from the site moderators as to why it was rejected:

"And so you, evolutionists, and biologists had expected to see something that would link a primitive ancestor to the middle Cambrian animal Pikaia. Explain the archeological evidence that Pikaia had a less-complex ancestor then."

Easily done: Haikouella isn't an ancestor of Pikaia. You've jumped to the erroneous conclusion that a species living at time X must necessarily have been the ancestor of a species at time X+Y.

If you really want to understand this, Jack, I'm happy to explain it. Evolution rarely, if ever, works in a single, smooth trajectory of change - species A changes into species B, which changes into species C, and so on. Instead, what we usually see is a path of descent like a branching bush: species A radiates into species B1, B2, B3... and so on. Most of these go extinct, but B2, say, speciates into C1, C2, and C3, and again, some of the daughter species go extinct and others diverge in their own ways. But species don't have fixed lifespans, and there's nothing to dictate how long a particular species will survive before it goes extinct. There may still be living species from the A or B generation existing side-by-side with far more advanced descendants. It's like having an uncle who's younger than you: for humans, it's unusual but certainly possible. But in evolution, it's downright common.

For obvious reasons, it's difficult to reconstruct an exact line of descent from fossils, just as you probably couldn't put together an exact family tree just by looking at photographs. It's possible that either Pikaia or Haikouella is the common ancestor of all vertebrates, or it may be another species we haven't discovered yet. But what's certain is that evolution was doing a lot of experimenting with chordates in the Cambrian, and what's equally certain is that we came from one of those lineages, because true vertebrates - primitive fish called ostracoderms - start appearing in the Late Cambrian and then in greater variety in the next period, the Ordovician. This was why I wrote "Pikaia or one very like it" - all this detail is what lies behind that little phrase.

"Irises and humans have 25% of the same DNA, so based upon your faulty logic, we should be at least 1/4th part Iris."

It would be more accurate to say that irises and humans are very similar when it comes to the most basic functions of life, which is true, and is a prediction of evolution via universal common descent. Really, why are you so surprised by this? Sure, irises and humans don't look much alike, but at the lowest levels of organization, we have a lot in common.

We're both made out of eukaryotic cells. We both store genetic information in DNA, copy it into messenger RNA, and transcribe that RNA into proteins. We both use ATP as the cellular currency of energy. We both share basic components of cellular metabolism like glycolysis and the Krebs cycle. We have these and many other traits in common because we (that is to say, animals and plants) are both descended from an ancestral eukaryote that did all these things. We've both inherited a common toolbox of genes for performing the basic functions of life - genes that perform functions so basic, it would be essentially impossible for evolution to change them in any major way - and as the human and iris lines diverged, we each added our own specializations on top of that.

"Incidentally, you failed to mention the fact that the genetic code for protein-coding genes is nearly universal in eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Millions of alternative genetic codes exist, so why do all organisms have nearly the same one?"

Again: because we're all descended from a common ancestor. This is actually one of the most powerful lines of evidence for evolution. Why do you think it should be a problem for us?

Note that an omnipotent creator could easily have created every single species with a completely different genetic code, a completely different way of turning genes into protein. That's the kind of evidence that would prove evolution impossible. Instead, what we find is near universality, with just a few very minor variations - the only signature we could reasonably expect from a process of descent with modification.

If you see anything so inflammatory in this comment that a site moderator would have cause to reject it, please tell me what it is, because I'm stumped. The only conclusion I can draw is that Jack Wellman realized he wasn't doing well and didn't want to deal with any further criticism, and prevailed on the site admins to stop letting it through. (I've also saved a copy of the thread in case they go back and delete earlier comments, which wouldn't surprise me at this point.)

Sadly, in my experience, this isn't uncommon. I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that it's pointless to debate creationists and other religious fundamentalists in any forum that they control, because they'll shut down the discussion as soon as they sense they're losing, even if the contrary comments are polite and on topic. They simply can't be trusted to allow a fair and open debate; they have too much to lose. And this isn't true just on web forums, but in wider society, where religious believers constantly try to shut down criticism with blasphemy laws, "hate speech" claims, threats, and every other method fair or foul available to them.

After some searching, I found Mr. Wellman's own site. I've sent him an e-mail to let him know about this post and to invite him to continue the debate here, or even just to explain why my comments stopped being posted. I don't expect much to come of it, but we'll have to see.

July 18, 2010, 12:38 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink25 comments
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