I have insomnia. I'm bored and it's 2:00 in the morning. Here are some claims from some individual named Do-While Jones, available here, supposedly about conclusions from a Scientific American article:

  • Darwin’s theory has been dramatically revised because Darwin got it mostly wrong.
This claim is misleading. Scientific knowledge has changed in the 150 years since the Origin was published, but the essentials of Darwin's theory have not been shown to be wrong. The main impact of the so-called 'modern synthesis' that emerged in the 1940's was to amplify, rather recast evolutionary theory. The central claim is robust: that populations today evolved from a common ancestor due in part to processes similar to those we observe in the present, such as natural selection, is well-established by multiple lines of evidence.
  • Furthermore, most of the aspects of evolution that are “true” today will be rejected in the future.
I don't see how anyone could know that.
  • There is no molecular proof that natural selection is responsible for all the life forms on Earth.
This is misleading. No one claims that natural selection is the sole process responsible for evolutionary diversification, and in fact when we invoke molecular evidence we do not describe it as definitive 'proof' of selection. The main observation we make is that some sections of the genome appear to be highly-conserved across many taxa. The degree and depth of conservation can be used to infer things about the natural history of the population we're studying.
  • Nobody knows how life could possibly invent complex traits.
This is false. We have many mechanisms identified that are sources of genetic variation, and there are exciting research programs that have identified potential candidates to explain the kind of genomic reorganization that facilitates speciation. We have quite a few 'how's', and we're busy testin them.
  • The story of human evolution is far from complete because there are only a handful of fossils, resulting in many different interpretations.
A handful of fossils? This is patently untrue. There are thousands of hominid specimens from the last 240,000 years, many of them from species other than H. sapiens. It is true that the number of older hominid fossils is rarer, but there are still quite a bit more than a handful, and more are being discovered all the time. The history of life is far from complete. So? That is why we are constantly looking for more evidence, see? And, while interpretations differ, no one who knows the fossil record denies that there a certain trends in hominid evolution over the last 7 million years: the cranial capacity goes up, the spine becomes more curved, the angle of the face becomes ever-more acute, the prominent brow and crest gradually are reduced, etc. There are no meaningful arguments about the general anatomical trends.
  • The future of human evolution is potentially disastrous if we try to accelerate evolution artificially.
So? This is a silly argument. The future of human evolution has all sort of potential, for bad or for good. Human beings have affected the evolution of other organisms for thousands of years: compare, for example, teosinte with maize. I don't see anyone arguing that corn-on-the-cob is a wicked consequence of accelerated evolution!
  • The foundation of pop evolutionary psychology is baseless speculation, resulting in four major fallacies which affect human attitudes toward morality.
There are debates within evolutionary biology about how best to apply our models to human behavior. This is nothing new: consider Desmond Morris's 'Naked Ape', or Robert Ardrey's 'African Genesis', for example. Such popularizations tend to exaggerate the most problematic features of the model, simply because they are sensational by nature. Evolutionary psychology is still a young field, and it is encouraging to see that it is being met with calls for greater rigor. That's a sign that it is beginning to move from pop biology to a robust scientific research program, capable of falsification.
  • Some computer programs and a few other things incorrectly called “evolution” are really useful, but they don’t really have anything to do with biological evolution.
The Scientific American article doesn't say that. The critic is seeing what they want to see, and they are seizing on the fact that all computer models contain idealizations that are biologically unrealistic in order to make it possible to obtain results in a reasonable amount of time. This is no different from introductory physics labs that ask you to imagine a frictionless surface to make the calculations easier.

  • Most importantly, we can’t tell any of our public school students these things because it might lead to Christianity!
Actually, it could just as easily lead to a variety of beliefs that I don't subscribe to. The real reason we don't tell students lies about the fossil record is--duh--because they are lies. Another big whopper is that we are attempting to prevent students from considering the claims of organized religion. Why would I, a Methodist, want to do that?

Look, it only took me about twenty minutes to grab this guy's text and rebut or recast (correctly) his misleading claims. What you've got here is another retired engineer making noises about science that they often clearly fail to understand. Hint, hint!


Stan said...

Ok Scott.

1. Darwin did get it mostly wrong, and most evolutionists admit that while claiming that the underlying sentiment - “inferred change” - is correct.

2. Most of the inferences and stories about evolution are about to be replaced with molecular biological facts; surely you know that. See Massimo Pigliucci’s summaries of the “Altenberg 16” conference last summer. The results of this conference will change evolutionary theory when they are officially released later this year. And epigenetic discoveries will likely change even that, in the future.

3. Misleading? It’s true. The statement is about the empirical verification of natural selection: it is a true statement. SA, page 56-59, esp 59.

4. It is true, not false, that no-one knows how "life could possibly invent complex traits". All such "knowledge" is not knowledge, it is speculation. It is not knowledge until it is empirically verified.

5. Handful of fossils: How many fossils are there that connect the hominids to a common ancestor? This is stated in the article, even, page 60.

6. "...future of human evolution is potentially disastrous..." Silly argument? There are human/animal experiments being carried out in th UK as we speak; while these will be killed early on, what about 20 years from now when ethics no longer exists as a concept? What about negative evolution? The dystopian argument is on pg 71.

7."....evolutionary psychology is baseless speculation..." your claim of empirical rigor for this is in need of some support: how would one perform an empirical experiment on psychological artifacts from 2 million years ago? It is speculation, and will remain so, and this is the conclusion of the SA article, pg 74..

8."...Some computer programs and a few other things incorrectly called “evolution” are really useful, but they don’t really have anything to do with biological evolution..." This was actually the conclusion of the article, pg 90. The author concluded that the Spore program is more akin to intelligent design than random evolution, pg 91. So in actuality the program poses as evolution when it is actually ID. This is the same defect inherent in Dawkins and all supposed evolution programs - so far.

9. “…Most importantly, we can’t tell any of our public school students these things because it might lead to Christianity!…” You “recast” these statements as “lies”. They are actually true, every one of them. This statement, #9, is not a statement of science, it is a statement of political fact, and I’m sure you know that. None of the above facts has religious content; however the evolutionist community is terrorized by the possibility that the nonexistent empirical (factual) basis for evolution might be revealed to school children. This is fought off in the name of Congress passing laws instantiating a state religion: relativism in action.

This statement (#9) is true, and your characterization of the arguments as "lies", well Scott, that just ain't so.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

What major item did Darwin get wrong?

Please don't say 'genetics'. None of Darwin's contemporaries got that right, either, and there's nothing in Mendelian genetics that contradicts Darwinian evolution.

Please don't say 'Lamarckian inheritance.' Darwin never committed one way or another to acquired characteristics; he simply felt that he had to discuss it at various points because of the widespread belief amongst many naturalists of his day in 'use and disuse.'

Darwin got two things very right: that populations of living things evolved from common ancestors, and that natural selection causes evolution. Those are two big, big, big things. That is not a conclusion based on sentiment.

#2: Sure, molecular biology is going to recast our models and in some cases revise or scrap certain working hypotheses within the model. But it's not going to replace 'evolution by natural selection'. I see you've been getting Susan Mazur's breathless and wrong-headed bulletins about an alleged 'conspiracy' with the Altenberg 16. Her interviews with actual scientists are comical in their tone deafness. She'll ask a leading question to see if they'll feed her anything that will dovetail with her beliefs and usually gets a series of diffident and puzzled responses contradicting her suggestions. She barrels on as if she hasn't even heard their response.

Yes, it's true that the modern synthesis is about to be enlivened with new insights from fields previously not part of the synthesis. But it's going to be an evolutionary synthesis, Stan. If you think Pigliucci is going to suddenly say, "Wait a minute! Obviously the molecular data points to a designer!" you are kidding yourself.

#3: The action of natural selection can be empirically verified in innumerable ways both in the lab and in the field in populations today. The logic of natural selection has undeniable. To insist that we must provide empirical verification of all cases of natural selection in the past is unrealistic and it's a cheap trick for those people who want to import a Designer into biology, because they would surely shriek in protest if we demanded even a smidgen of evidence for a Designer in any public school classroom.

OK, with #4 I suppose you got me if by 'knowledge' you mean 'justified true belief'. We don't have enough data to justify the likelihood of this or that model in most particular cases. But we do have plenty of emerging science, mostly the evo-devo mentioned, that provides us with new mechanisms that can be tested in particular cases. So we do have a quite a few lines of research going into phenomena that can, in principle, explain the invention of complex traits by natural processes. It would be misleading to imply otherwise, and I think a layperson reading that statement is likely to infer precisely that.

#5: "Common ancestor"? I'm sorry to tell you this, but paleontologists almost never infer 'common ancestry' based upon fossils, hominid or otherwise. They only will make that inference in relatively-rare cases where there is a very high resolution of the fossil record for a relatively long period of time in a relatively stable environment. Even then, we don't infer that the individual organisms whose remains are petrified are actually ancestral to other fossil forms. Rather, we make the more modest claim that one fossil lineage is a member of a population that in all probability is ancestral to another population found later in the same sequence of strata. And even here, we are simply arguing that it is probable, rather than certain, that such is the case.

See, paleontologists don't think in terms of establishing 'missing links' or 'common ancestry'. That's a layperson's misconception, and a constant piece of misinformation in the creationist literature, of which you are now a part, I'm afraid. Rather, paleontologists talk about transitional features between different fossil forms. I confess that I see the failure of many creationists to appreciate this distinction as symptomatic of a more general failing, which is the tendency to arrange things into dichotomies.

Anyway, I think the claim about 'common ancestry' in the hominid fossil record is a conceptual gaffe on the part of the writers. While technically correct, it says nothing about the general pattern of transitional features found within the lineage of all primates, including hominids, not just the ones that some infer may have shared common ancestry. Looking at things this way is seeing a handful of trees and missing the forest.

#6: I am not saying that there are not risks. What I am saying is that it is silly to suggest that there is something wrong with evolutionary biology because some applications of evolution might be troublesome. I mean, why raise the point in this context? It's just another failed attempt to pooh-pooh evolution on cultural, as opposed to scientific grounds.

#7: Look, Stan, I share your skepticism of evolutionary psychology, especially the pop version of it which wildly runs ahead of any possible data. That stuff isn't science. And my point was that these sort of popularizations have always been with us, and they have never represented the scientific mainstream. Why do we hold Darwin in high regard, and regard the 1844 book by Chambers ('Vestiges of Creation') as just a curiosity? Chambers, after all, clearly wrote a best-selling book that talked explicitly of evolution 15 years before Darwin published. Why don't we talk him up more?

The answer: Chambers did not approach his topic with the sort of rigor and integrity that we expect from real scientists. Darwin's book does, marshalling multiple lines of evidence in a scientifically credible way to support his claim, bends over backwards to raise and then answer objections, and has the great merit of proposing a testable mechanism to explain how the evolutionary model he proposed could have come about. These are precisely the deficiencies in much 'evolutionary psychology.'

#8: I dare you download Avida, play with it with no preconceptions (use dice if you like to generate values), and then tell me that it doesn't model something close to natural selection in real populations. I'll grant that the programs are 'designed' if you grant that the outcomes given random inputs are unpredictable!

#9: You, my friend, are so off-the-map here I can't see your features clearly. Was that your "I'm a Christian, a persecuted minority group" face?
Seriously? In the public schools, we may neither establish nor prevent the free exercise of religion. What students believe about these things are properly speaking off-the-table. That has nothing to do with teaching evolution, teaching genetics, teaching chemistry, or for that matter teaching physical education. It has to do with the Constitution of the United States of America.

I don't demand that students believe in God, nor do I require them to profess acceptance of evolution. I teach my state's science standards, as do most of the science teachers I know, many of which are church-goers. Is it your contention that we are all part of a scientific conspiracy to outlaw Christianity?

The truth is, it's not the science teachers who are following the state standards who get into hot water with the courts. It's the wild-eyed creationist who wants to privilege their conception of the Ultimate within a public school science classroom.

Now, why don't we teach all these cutting-edge refinements to or alleged challenges of evolutionary theory? Why aren't they in the state science standards? Hmm, could it be precisely because they are cutting-edge, and have thus not made their way into the general curriculum, and we are charged with teaching the things that have passed muster with both the state and the scientific community?

Naaaah. According to you, Stan, they are kept out so we can keep Christianity out. So obviously, from your perspective, all those state standards are produced either by active agents or dupes of some anti-Christian conspiracy.

By the way, you do know you've all but admitted that you're a creationist who would like to see Christianity in the science classroom? Why not just can all the armchair philosophy talk and admit your motivations are religious?

Oh, wait, there's that pesky Constitution again.

Stan said...


1. Darwin thought that selection alone was sufficient to generate all speciation (pg 54 top); you think so too, but every and I mean EVERY source including SA includes mutation as a necessary condition for selection to produce variation of the overall genome. Why is it that you don’t accept the common theory of selection on mutations?

2. I have never read anything by a Susan Mazur. I frequently read Massimo Piggliucci, though. So it appears you agree with me on this point? And I have never said anything about a designer; that is your own personal demon. My distaste is for mooshy inferences to be referred to as truth and the false logic and worldviews they generate.

3.You said, “To insist that we must provide empirical verification of all cases of natural selection in the past is unrealistic and it's a cheap trick for those people who want to import a Designer into biology…”

Your designer inference is, once again, your own demon. I just asked for one (1) valid, verified, empirical experiment. You are veering away from a request for evidence, into your world of “design demons” again.

4. So we agree on this one that the science consists of stories about what "could" have happened, not empirical science?

5. Common Ancestor: see page 60. Then see page 61,62,63. Common ancestors all over the place, from fossils. Scott, you are not even reading the literature, are you? And you continue to hurl the pejoratives:

“That's a layperson's misconception, and a constant piece of misinformation in the creationist literature, of which you are now a part, I'm afraid. Rather, paleontologists talk about transitional features between different fossil forms. I confess that I see the failure of many creationists to appreciate this distinction as symptomatic of a more general failing, which is the tendency to arrange things into dichotomies.”

And so you accuse the SA of being wrong, too, and creationists to boot?? They are the ones that brought it up; they used the term; they made the drawings. I’m afraid you are way out in the weeds here, my friend. You really must read the mag. (pg 60 -63).

6. SA brought it up! Is that your issue? Then it is with SA.

7. So this point is not “a creationist lie”?

8. Your issue: “I'll grant that the programs are 'designed' if you grant that the outcomes given random inputs are unpredictable!”

I have no problem granting that if a program has random inputs, the program is undesigned, and the hardware is just cosmic dust, that the outcomes would be unpredictable. Can you show me a program like this that shows evolution, please?

9. You detest creationists to the point of seeing them under the bed. It’s not a healthy situation. I am not now nor have I ever been a creationist, nor a YEC, nor have I played one on TV. So much for that. Your attempts to recategorize me into something you can get a grip on will not succeed, and here’s why: I admit that I have no knowledge of the things of which I have no knowledge; you do not. Moreover, the hollowness of the science in question easily spawns false worldviews and dangerous, irrational agendas, another thing you are loath to admit. You think that the things you are addressing reach no farther than the classroom of budding, relativist scientists. I see a social decay that is generated by an inferential-scientific hit to logic and ethical behavior. And unfortunately, it seems to me that the decay extends to certain science standards and practices.

So you can call me all the names you wish in your attempt to ridicule me down to size, and it doesn’t matter, because my position is plenty firm enough to stand on its own. Here’s my position: Evolution is not empirical in any way; it is inferential; being solely inferential it cannot be factual – it is speculation; therefore the vehement defense of evolution as truth is not rational; the inferred consequences of evolution such as devalued human dignity, relativism in logic and ethics, eugenics, and elitist New Man humanism are false, are dangerous, and are – at a minimum - supported by evolution, as evolution is understood to be the materialist position on origins.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

STAN: Why is it that you don’t accept the common theory of selection on mutations?


Please quit misrepresenting my views. I have never denied that mutations are part of the puzzle. Natural selection acts upon genetic variation and mutation obviously is a major source of such variation. These are facts.

What I have denied is the claim that mutations are the ONLY source of genetic variation, or (to put it another way) that you have to have mutations in order for natural selection to work. That claim is most certainly not a fact; it has in fact been falsified. I have repeatedly explained to you that both sexual recombination and genetic drift create new combinations of alleles, new raw material for the crucible of natural selection.

You never acknowledge this, other than to refer to sources, usually decades old, that either over-simplify what's happening in real populations or which (frankly) get it wrong. I do feel that some of the SA articles are very guilty of that sort of 'dumb-downed' gloss which leads to misconceptions. And I think you know very well that ideologues are quick to seize upon such misconceptions in order to distort them further.

Apparently, you would have me believe that I'm seeing a 'design demon' that isn't there where your views are concerned. To hear you tell it, it's all about one armchair philosopher's appraisal of the (to you) faulty logical structure of evolutionary biology.

(pauses to gather thoughts)

I find it difficult to take you seriously on this point, sorry. I don't know of any active figure in the philosophy of science who would sign up for your application of empiricist criteria to biology. But I do know many creationists who go ON and ON about mutations the way you do, precisely because they want to make the (false) claim that evolution is a completely random process.

Similarly, I don't know too many historians of science who would buy the notion that acceptance of evolution exclusively feeds any particularly-obnoxious brand of ideology in the public sphere, as you obviously do. But I do know many creationists who describe evolution as the 'Root of all Evil'.

So, if you feel mischaracterized, sorry. Maybe you're just an innocent victim of my 'demons'. But here's the thing: I'm actually the guy in the trenches where these things are concerned. I have some experience in dealing with the harm which is done to science education on a regular basis by ideologues of various stripes, and thus cause to be suspicious of the opinions of those who are not on the front lines. You must realize that I wouldn't bother replying to you if I didn't think your views were thoughtful. But I do think that you are misguided, and I do think that you sound like a creationist, especially in your repeated failure to understand my nuanced point about mutations, which are neither necessary nor sufficient to account for speciation events.

Lest this seem too condemnatory, I'd like to point out that I deal with creationists all the time, and many of these interactions are positive. Most creationists are good people whose hearts are in a better place than their heads. I get along just fine with these folk. We share perspectives, agree to disagree and the like. In fact, I actively participate in a chapter of the old-Earth creationist outfit 'Reasons To Believe'. I enjoy particpating! So, I don't necessarily regard all creationists as wicked or irredeemable.

But, as you might imagine, there are a few bad apples in the bunch, usually the 'professional' creationists who are essentially running a cottage industry within the churches. Their game is not dialogue or discussion. Their game is division, and they are willing to use almost any argument, no matter how rotten or unprincipled, to make their case while in the midst of their traveling road show. They may not be demons, but they are very bad role models no matter how you slice it: bad science, and worse religion.

(shrugs shoulders)

Anyway, if you want to say you're not a creationist, I'll accept that as face value. But I hope that this aside will give you some insight into why your approach to this issue raises red flags. Your blog is aimed at atheists, clearly. But you yourself seem to be interested in reasoning to a different conclusion. An atheist who found your site looking for a sympathetic perspective might well feel they had been sold a bill of goods. I have no dog in that fight, but if I did, I would probably be tempted to 'connect-the-dots'. If it walks like a duck, etc.

Stan said...

Well, OK then.
I too feel misunderstood and I have gone to every source you have given me, and they all, ALL say the same thing: if it doesn't change (mutate) it can't be selected as a new feature.

I am not an Atheist. I was a devout Atheist for 40 years as it says in the header of my blog. There were two main materialist reasons for my Atheism: First, I am able to understand all the man-made creations that I see - no mystery there; second, evolution explains all the rest - no need to think any further.

That was not just my belief, it was and is the belief of many, including some in my family. It was totally superficial and unexamined. And when I rejected all my so-called knowledge and started from scratch, building the basis for logic and for thinking anything at all, I ultimately found that most of the principles that come naturally out of evolutionary thought are false; so I started to look at the likelihood of evolution, which I had previously considered axiomatic.

The rest you know.

I wish to be kind here, please take what I am saying as meant in a rational way. I feel that the big dogs of the evolution issue are enmeshed in an agenda, one which they personally cannot see, yet which clouds their judgments. Case in point, Massimo Pigliucci, who spends as much time on Humanist, Materialist, Atheist issues as he does on evolution.

In other words there is a lack of undirected perspective. And this results in unconsidered preconceived results.

I know that our conversation here is done, and that such talk does indeed exasperate you. However, regardless of how you characterize my credentials to discuss such things, I do not believe that the case for evolution has been made, (and I have read every source you recommended and many more) and I do not think it should be taught as truth in schools. As an inferred theory with a certain calculable probablility, yes. But with defects that need to be answered.

Scott, your criticisms have increasingly devolved from discussions of the substance of position to attacks on me and now the honesty of my blog. From this I realize that this is the end of any productive conversation between us. So I think this is the time for me to just sign off on move on.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Stan, thanks for your courteous reply.

Your comment here reveals your conceptual cul-de-sac:

I have gone to every source you have given me, and they all, ALL say the same thing: if it doesn't change (mutate) it can't be selected as a new feature.

Here's the thing: you're conflating genetic change in populations with mutations. They aren't the same thing. If you read an authority, and they say there has to be genetic variation, that the population has to change genetically for natural selection to work....that's correct. But if they say that mutation is the only means in which a population can change genetically, that's incorrect.

I'll blog about this later and provide you with a highly-accessible site and graphics etc. to help make this clearer.

I regret if my tone has closed the door to dialogue. Your comments about how some academics nest their evolution within their politics (usually left-wing) is spot-on. Ken Miller has a good chapter on this aspect of the matter in his book "Finding Darwin's God".