Saturday, January 9, 2021

Correcting Pre-Suppositionalist Misunderstanding Of Evolution - Part 2

This is part 2 of a response to a response by Pre-Suppositional apologist ApoloJedi responding to claims about the theory evolution and altruism. Part 1 is here.

ApoloJedi has already read part 1 and has responded privately. I won't reveal confidences, but suffice to say he didn't agree with my assessment or some of my phrasing. I have subseqiently changed some of the phrasing to remove anything that came across as an ad hominem attack because I'm attacking the ideas, not the person.

AJ, keep them snow photos coming - life on your side of the world fascinates me.

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'WHAT IS EVOLUTION'

It is at this stage that I wish to point out a couple of instances where it looks like ApoloJedi has selectively quoted from his source material which I don't believe accurately frames the text correctly. 

From ApoloJedi's 'What Is Evolution' section, he quotes a particular textbook to demonstrate what he wants to show is being taught as the theory of evolution.

 

Let’s analyze what is currently being taught as evolution before we go forward. From OpenStax college textbook Biology 2e...p492: (emphasis added)
 

Evolution by natural selection describes a mechanism for how species change over time…Natural Selection, or “survival of the fittest” is the more prolific reproduction of individuals with favorable traits that survive environmental change because of those traits. This leads to evolutionary change…More offspring are produced than are able to survive, so resources for survival and reproduction are limited. The capacity for reproduction in all organisms outstrips the availability of resources to support their numbers. Thus, there is competition for those resources in each generation.

 

What piqued my interest here was that when I studied up on evolution, no-one ever mentioned anything to me about competition for limited resources - environmental attrition, yes, but competition for resources was never mentioned, so I decided to go to ApoloJedi's source to see if I had been mistaken all this time, and what I found was that ApoloJedi had quoted his reference in a way that it was framed to look like competition for resources was what was exclusively being promoted and taught as evolution, whereas the wider body of text ApoloJedi quote from actually shows that competition for limited resources was what Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace believed what Natural Selection was (and from an 1800s perspective):

 

Wallace and Darwin both observed similar patterns in other organisms and they independently developed the same explanation for how and why such changes could take place. Darwin called this mechanism natural selection. Natural selection, or “survival of the fittest,” is the more prolific reproduction of individuals with favorable traits that survive environmental change because of those traits. This leads to evolutionary change.

For example, Darwin observed a population of giant tortoises in the Gal├ípagos Archipelago to have longer necks than those that lived on other islands with dry lowlands. These tortoises were “selected” because they could reach more leaves and access more food than those with short necks. In times of drought when fewer leaves would be available, those that could reach more leaves had a better chance to eat and survive than those that couldn’t reach the food source. Consequently, long-necked tortoises would be more likely to be reproductively successful and pass the long-necked trait to their offspring. Over time, only long-necked tortoises would be present in the population.

Natural selection, Darwin argued, was an inevitable outcome of three principles that operated in nature. First, most characteristics of organisms are inherited, or passed from parent to offspring. Although no one, including Darwin and Wallace, knew how this happened at the time, it was a common understanding. Second, more offspring are produced than are able to survive, so resources for survival and reproduction are limited. The capacity for reproduction in all organisms outstrips the availability of resources to support their numbers. Thus, there is competition for those resources in each generation. Both Darwin and Wallace’s understanding of this principle came from reading economist Thomas Malthus' essay that explained this principle in relation to human populations.

 

What ApoloJedi says is being taught as evolution is not quite. The text ApoloJedi quotes from is clearly outlining what Darwin in the 1800's believed what Natural Selection was and even says that he was influenced by an economist - this is not OpenStax saying this is what Natural Selection actually is, and we know this because this section is clearly titled "Charles Darwin & Natural Selection"! But the thing to notice here that it says 'Evolution by natural selection describes a mechanism for how species change over time', it doesn't says  'describes the only mechanism'.


I would have preferred if ApoloJedi quoted the whole text, including the first principle of natural selection, because to me, if you're going to discuss a scientific principle - especially critically - you need to make sure you portray an accurate a picture as reasonable of what it is you're criticising, including any representations from the source text. This is to show a dedication to factual accuracy and to deflect any possible scope to be accused of quote-mining or that you're listening to the wrong people on the topic, lest you come across as someone who does not apply a high degree of intellectual rigour in their thinking.

I am not accusing ApoloJedi of this in the least. All I am saying is that when you quote a reference text to criticise a well-established scientific theory, you need to dot your i's and cross your t's. Measure twice, cut once, as they say.

 

ApoloJedi then goes on to say what he thinks evolution is:

 

To summarize their claims on what evolution is:
 

1. Evolution is unguided

2. Evolution can be verified by showing the gradual process of uncountable sequential individual heritable changes

3. The mechanisms of evolution are natural selection acting on random mutations

4. Genetics determines traits, behaviors, and reproduction

5. Organisms that are the most fit (greatest fitness) in their environment persist to pass their genes to subsequent generations

6. Fitness is “individual reproductive success and is equal to the average contribution to the gene pool of the next generation that is made by individuals of the specified genotype or phenotype”

7. Evolution’s sole driver is to reproduce genetic material in the competition for limited resources.

 

Let's see how correct ApoloJedi is in his representation of evolution:

 

1.  Evolution is unguided

From a Naturalistic perspective, evolution has no Designer or higher intelligence pushing buttons or pulling strings. However, without a higher purpose is a more suitable term than unguided

The thing to bear in mind is that evolution didn't seek to create humans - it merely created homo sapiens in the same way it created 8.7 million other species: through genetic variation and environmental attrition.

However, if you wish to accept the Theistic Evolution hypothesis, then no, evolution is not unguided. I, however, can't see ApoloJedi accepting Theistic evolution.
 

2. Evolution can be verified by showing the gradual process of uncountable sequential individual heritable changes

I'm not too sure why ApoloJedi is fixated on the word 'uncountable' as if it's a bad thing. There are an uncountable number of stars in the universe, an uncountable number of atoms in a rock, and an uncountable number of fish in the sea - this does nothing to count as proof against their existence, and no-one thinks the idea of rocks on the ground, stars in the sky or fish in the sea are ridiculous.

But we can, and have, demonstrated the overall sequence of gradual processes acting upon heritable changes, and in a number of ways.

The most basic is the fossil record - we simply don't see modern animals such as lions, stingrays or weasels in the lower strata, and we never find ancient animals such as eohippus, acanthostega or Venericardia planicosta in the higher strata or even on earth today. There is clearly a pattern from basic organisms to more robust and more complex and featured the higher up the geologic strata you go. The most parsimonious explanation is that different types of organisms existed at various times in the earth's history and that the overall morphology of living organisms has changed over time - exactly what we would expect in the theory of evolution! And if you wanted to challenge this, all you would need to do is find, for example, a Precambrian rabbit fossil. For the fossil record to be evidence against evolution, we would need to find an example of a modern organism, such as a rabbit, fossilised in a geologic strata out of order from its precursor forms. Find that fossil out of order and without a coherent explanation, evolution has a problem.

Next, we have a long chain of intermediates between ancient forms in the Cambrian strata and the modern forms of what we see today. In short, there is no multicellular organism on the planet that we haven't found at least one ancestor for in the fossil record. The tree of life we have uncovered so far is amazingly detailed, something that can be seen for yourself at the Phylogeny Explorer Project.

We then also have phylogenetics combined with taxonomy - with these two tools, we can create a double-nested hierarchical structure that works both backwards and forwards and places organisms by their differences, morphology and genetics, which amazingly also lines up with their place in the fossil record.

So yes, not only can evolution be verified by uncountable, sequential, individual and heritable changes - evolution HAS been verified by analysing the uncountable, sequential, individual heritable changes.
 

3. The mechanisms of evolution are natural selection acting on random mutations

Firstly, while there is an element of randomness to evolution, but it is more of a feedback loop rather than something like lottery balls or coin tosses. Genes, despite their seeming complexity, are bound to the laws of chemistry and it is within those boundaries that they operate. It's not like anti-theistic scientists ad hoc created new laws of chemistry to dictate what should happen for the sole purpose of upsetting gentle and pious Christians to try push God out of the textbooks - scientists are simply reporting what they observe, and they observe that genes behave in a certain manner and undergo changes in response to a number of factors.

Secondly, it could be argued that natural selection doesn't drive the changes. Natural selection is merely shorthand for the observation that a set of genes whose body is not capable of surviving its environment is less likely to pass on those genes.

Thirdly, those 'random mutations' could be one of a handful of observed mechanisms for genetic variation. Single nucleotide polymorphisms, insertions/deletions, polyploidy, genomic duplication, frameshift mutations, endogenous retroviruses and more. And you can't dismiss these because these have all been observed.

So it turns out ApoloJedi is somewhat correct. But I will add that Creationists do need to make themselves more aware of the research in to the topic to uncover more of the things they aren't aware of. 
 

4. "Genetics determines traits, behaviors, and reproduction"

But again, it's not the whole story. Genetics are the blueprint for the structures in much the same way architectural drawings are blueprints for a house, but they're not the whole thing. There is a lot more to the body than just genetics.

So the most reasonable way of putting it is to say that genetics has an INFLUENCE on traits, behaviours and reproduction, but determines is not the right word. This is where the nature-vs-nurture debate comes in to play, especially in fields such as neuroscience.
 

5. Organisms that are the most fit (greatest fitness) in their environment persist to pass their genes to subsequent generations

Again, not quite. You don't have to be the most fit - you just need to be somewhat fit to the point that the environment doesn't actively work against your existence. If we look at an animal like the Naked Mole-Rat, the Naked Mole-Rat thrives in underground desert environments, as compared to humans who need plenty of both water and sunlight (but not too much).

So it's not the case that you need to be so strong that you're selected for - you just need to not be so weak as to be selected against.

And remember, 'selected' is just an analogous term. There is no evolution games-master looking from above pulling trapdoors on unsuspecting critters.
 

6. Fitness is “individual reproductive success and is equal to the average contribution to the gene pool of the next generation that is made by individuals of the specified genotype or phenotype”

This is fairly correct. 

But as a reminder, fitness in this context is to do with regards to the environment, not with notions of worth, value or economic productivity. 
I add this because I have noticed in Creationist circles that fitness gets equivocated with value to society or worth.

So hats off to ApoloJedi on this one.
 

7. Evolution’s sole driver is to reproduce genetic material in the competition for limited resources.

Half-right. Evolution's driving factor is reproduction and survival, but there doesn't need to be competition for limited resources for evolution to work. Evolution also works when plenty of resources are available as well.
 

ApoloJedi continues his analysis:

 

WHAT IS EVOLUTIONISM

 

Evolutionism is the belief that evolution is the only explanation for all of biology. Those who practice evolutionism are ruthless in protecting this belief. Practitioners expelmalign, and/or punish anyone who dissents from the common evolutionism narrative.

 

Let's go to Wikipedia to see what it has to say and see if ApoloJedi is somewhat correct in his definition:

 

The term evolution is widely used, but the term evolutionism is not used in the scientific community to refer to evolutionary biology as it is redundant and anachronistic

 

I highlight this because when discussing science, again, you have to be as precise as you reasonably can be, consistent and up-to-date with your terminology. Discussing the scientific veracity of evolution, but then throwing in an anachronistic word no-one uses is poor sport because evolutionism is really now only a word Creationists use to describe anyone who accept the findings of modern biology and is prepared to defend the findings of science against the encroachment of pseudoscience.

 

But is evolution the only explanation for all of biology? No. Anyone who has looked even a cursory glance in to the topic should know about the four foundational principles of biology: evolution, cell theory, genetics and homeostasis. So using the pejorative 'evolutionism' to describe a position no-one who understands the topic properly holds and then ignore the rest of the research in the field is, yet again, poor sport. The closest one could get is Theodosius Dobzhansky's essay that was literally titled "Nothing In Biology Makes Sense Except In The Light Of Evolution". So, Dobzhansky was one of these raging atheists? No. He was a Creationist.

 

Of further interest are three links ApoloJedi used in his definition for evolutionism for the words expelmalign and punish. Let's see where they take us.

 

Link 1 take us to Creation-Evolution Headlines (http://www.crev.info), a website run by David Coppedge whose claim to fame is that he was fired by a contractor to NASA for pushing Intelligent Design on to his co-workers. Crev.info is no better than EvolutionNews.com in terms of intellectual robustness and dedication to accuracy. Not that I proclaim myself to be any better, but at least I can be corrected.

But I'll put it like this - if David Coppedge has an open-and-shut case against evolution and has a better scientific principle, he should talk to Dover Area School District and appeal to get Kitzmiller vs Dover overturned.

 

Link 2? This takes us to the Wikipedia entry for "A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism", a statement issued by The Discovery Institute that attempts to show that a large number of serious scientists seriously question Darwinian evolution. At last count, over 1000 scientists from all fields have put their name to the statement.

The first problem? As I said before, Darwin isn't evolution and evolution isn't Darwin. Darwin could be wrong about one thing, ten things, a thousand things, but the theory of evolution stands by a long and thorough body of research independent of Darwin. Sure, write a petition against Darwin. That's nice. He not going to take offence because he's long dead.

 

The second problem? While there may be 1000 signatories to the statement, less than a quarter of them have any direct relevance with respect to biology, and a large percentage of the signatories are evangelical Christians (see here).

 

The third problem? As a counter measure, the National Centre for Science Education created Project Steve in which scientists named any variation of the name Stephen (Steve, Stephanie, Stipe, Esteban, etc) signed their name to support a statement regarding the veracity of the theory of evolution. So far, more professionally-qualified Steves have signed the NCSE counter-statement than the total number of signatories to The Discovery Institute's original statement, with a higher percentage of biologists among them.

 

And what about ApoloJedi's third link? Jerry Bergman's Slaughter Of The Dissidents, a book about those evil and corrupt Darwinists killing the careers of those who boldly stand up and dare to challenge the theory of evolution.

 

This, I don't have too much to say, but let me frame it like this: if I was an astrophysics professor who attempted to teach Flat Earth Theory or Geocentrism to my students as a serious scientific proposition, I would expect to the shown the door. If I was a lecturer in a medical faculty teaching students that sacrificing doves in a temple to a particular Israelite deity was the most effective way to cure diseases, again, my resignation would be expected.

 

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they're not entitled to their own facts. Just because you have a controversial opinion does not mean that opinion is correct and it does not mean you have the right to teach that opinion as fact at the expense of intellectual rigour, and especially not in a professional science faculty.

 

Anyone who wants to teach pseudoscience can go teach their pseudoscience at places that accept pseudoscience as fact, and let the adults in the room go about their business.

 

Let's continue:

 

According to those practicing evolutionism…

 

Which is no-one because evolutionism is not a thing.


...the theory of evolution cannot, must not, and will not be criticized.

 

I personally have no issue with criticism of specific components of the theory of evolution. Criticise those specific components of evolution as much as you want, but on two conditions: First, that your criticism has scientific validity, and second, that your criticism doesn't come out of theological bias - remember, the theory of evolution is NOT a theological issue: it is a scientific issue. I set these two criteria because in my dialogue with numerous Creationists, I have heard some woefully ignorant claims said about evolution, such as that Hitler's racism was inspired by Darwin (quite inconceivable, considering Hitler wrote that he was actually inspired by Protestant forefather Martin Luther), or that teaching children the theory of evolution leads to emotional distress and depression. These claims are not just not supported by the evidence, but is almost an ad hominem attack (if you could somehow ad hominem a scientific theory).

 

Scientific criticism of evolution? No worries. If your research is rock solid and you can overturn one of the founding principles of biology, you deserve the fame and fortune that comes your way.

 

But political or theological criticism of evolution just fake news. Don't spread it.

 

Efforts to offer any anything other than complete obeisance to the theory are met with swift and unmerciful retribution in an effort to silence critical thinking. In practice, it strongly resembles religious fervor in protection of the dogma.

 

This is where the previous analogy with teaching Flat Earthism comes in to play. Again, imagine an astrophysics professor who is dismissed for teaching Flat Earth and dismissing and criticising the teaching of a global earth. Would you then say that physics departments all over the world are part of a cabal to silence critical thinking, or would you say they are simply upholding academic standards?

 

But despite your answer to the above, ApoloJedi's criticism is definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black - one only has to look at the history of Christianity, both ancient and modern, to see that Christians have had no problem silencing, with swift and unmerciful retribution, anyone who dissents from the theological line. In his own words, the church father St. Augustine welcomed persecution of heretics, and in a modern context, David Fitzgerald's Jesus: Mything In Action lists numerous Christian academics who either had their careers stalled, were forced to resign from positions, or were otherwise ostracised for airing alternative views on theology that did not toe the Fundamentalist line.

Funny about that...

 

This is generally what happens when someone makes a social media comment that even hints there might be problems with evolution’s ability to explain all of biology...

 

No-one believes evolution explains all of biology. As stated before, evolution is one of the four foundational principles of biology - not the be-all and end-all. Comments like this indicate either a lack of study biology to any great depth, or having consumed so much of the Creationist trope of it being equivalent to anti-theistic atheism that ApoloJedi doesn't realise his position is not that is held by those who understand the topic professionally.

 

But it's not so much that you are criticised for criticisng evolution because atheists just love evolution so much - it's because evolution has been so thoroughly proven that the only reason you would criticise it is because you're trying to defend a pseudoscientific position, not advance scientific education or understanding. The same goes for Flat Earthers, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 Truthers and Scientologists - if you say something so outreageously incorrect and untrue that the only reason you’d say it is because your theological disposition compels you, you deserve the criticism - not abuse because abuse is bad, but criticism - that is directed your way.


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This marks the end of part 2.


The fun and frivoloty continue in part 3.

 

Stay safe. If you can't be all of tall, friendly, atheist or a dad, be at least two of them!

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