Intellectual incest

Natural selection tends to avoid incest. Incest—more properly, inbreeding—allows recessive genetic traits to accumulate, often to the detriment of affected individuals. If a child gets a bad gene (doesn’t make a needed protein) from one parent, it’s best if the other parent doesn’t also contribute the bad gene.

Popular literature suggests wild populations, such as wolves, seek mates from outside their own packs. Also, primitive peoples may raid neighboring clans for wives, and friendly exchanges of eligible women between ruling European families provided genetic diversity while maintaining royal status.

Cultural and intellectual incest is a problem of a slightly different nature. Lack of cultural diversity can deprive a nation of the benefits of innovation and can also result in the development and retention of perverse cultural traits. Open societies are the fix. Honor killings within some European societies have lost fashion as a result of the cultural dilution that resulted from advances in communications and exchange of populations in the twentieth century.

Science deflects intellectual incest through a well-considered program of peer review. A small group of scientists working in isolation can develop wrong-headed theories through self-deception or an undeserved sense of self worth. Banging unworkable theories against contrary opinions and knowledge will often bring light and a better understanding of the true nature of things.

Cold fusion is one area where this process did not work well. The original developers of the idea shortly isolated themselves from scientific interchange and scrutiny and remained locked into a dead-end path to the ends of their careers.

Then there is Intelligent Design

If ever there was a “theory” that was self-named, it is Intelligent Design. That is because Intelligent Design was intelligently designed.

Intelligent Design grew from a special need. The need was to keep alive the idea that supernatural forces control the world we live in. Especially, the idea that the existence of people—our species—is the result of a thought process. The founder of this thought process cannot, for political reasons, be identified by proponents. However, the thought process, itself, is likened to the thought process enjoyed by people, ourselves.

Young-Earth creationism (YEC) initially filled the need for supernatural explanations. YEC was and still is promoted heavily in many religious organizations. When modern science falsified YEC absolutely, it still found refuge in churches. Not so much so in the public schools.

Once it lost any factual credibility, YEC became unwelcome in publicly-financed education. A short phrase in the first constitutional amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” Since teaching YEC is strictly religious, with no other reason for being, the courts eventually abolished it from all education that obtained financing through the power of the American government.

The religious-minded scientists and scholars who founded the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC) do not necessarily espouse YEC, but they do have a problem with the rejection by modern science of a supernatural basis. Especially, they object to the teaching in public schools the Darwinian theory of evolution, which holds that the development of modern life forms is the result of a purely natural process. In particular, they object to public institutions teaching young children about a science that does not involve God.

The CSC resurrected the old idea of Intelligent Design in order to provide a plausible vehicle for the supernatural. By supernatural the predisposed student was expected to infer God. And not just any god, but Yahweh, the god of Abraham. The CSC fellows likely had the idea that even students who were not predisposed would catch on to the idea, and so much the worse for those who did not catch on. They would by their actions be singled out.

Law professor Phillip Johnson published Darwin on Trial to get the idea going—not specifically Intelligent Design, but that something was wrong with purely natural explanations. Johnson’s inspiration quickly coalesced like thinkers, and thus began the formulation of Intelligent Design as a substitute for science.

The problem manifested early on was the nasty matter of peer review. What peer review there was of Intelligent Design was, itself, nasty.

Scientist Stephen J. Gould wrote a stinging review of Darwin on Trial for Scientific American. The rest of the scientific community for the most part ignored it.1

But the movement was growing, and other books followed.

Professor of biochemistry Michael Behe wrote Darwin’s Black Box, explaining that certain life processes were irreducibly complex and could not have developed by random mutation and natural selection. They must have been designed.

Jonathan Wells does not do any science, but he does have a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology. He wrote Icons of Evolution, in which he attempted to shoot down what he perceived were ten icons representing the science associated with the theory of evolution.

William Dembski has a Ph.D. in mathematics, but he does not appear to do any scientific research. Dembski has put forward the idea that science can detect the presence of design in nature by observing specified complexity. Dembski uses his expertise in mathematical statistics to bolster his claims.

Through all of this there persists the problem of peer review, or lack of it. The CSC fellows have put forward their ideas about Intelligent Design, but they have not published them in any legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The word legitimate is highlighted in the above, because, strictly speaking, some papers promoting Intelligent Design have been published. You only have to ask.

I went to the page on the CSC’s Web site that discusses peer review related to Intelligent Design. The content is enlightening.2

There is a long list of “peer reviewed” publications, some of which are already familiar.

In 2004, from all appearances, CSC founder Stephen C. Meyer engaged CSC fellow Richard Sternberg to publish his paper “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of which Sternberg was editor. Sternberg allowed publication of the paper after bypassing regular review by other editors of the journal. The standard process does not reveal the names of those who review a paper, so it is not possible to determine whether peer review included CSC fellows. Having like-minded creationists perform the peer review would make this a classic case of intellectual incest.

Regardless of who performed the peer review, the Meyer paper does not present any scientific research into Intelligent Design. This has not kept the CSC from claiming a goal in the game of peer review soccer.3

I looked down the list of publications claiming peer review and found this one. Tracking it down revealed some details:

Jonathan Wells published “Do Centrioles Generate a Polar Ejection Force?” in Rivista di Biologia. Sidestepping the peculiar nature of the publication venue, the reader should skip down to the Conclusions section of the paper. Typically this section will summarize what the paper purports to show. This section is significant for what it does not say. It does not make any claim for Intelligent Design or for a supernatural cause of any kind. After 18 pages of elaborate explanation of some very nice biological processes, Wells concludes by summarizing:4

The polar ejection force that plays an important role in dividing animal cells could be generated by centrioles. In the hypothesis presented here, these organelles are literally tiny turbines that pump fluid through their triplet microtubule blades with a dynein-powered Archimedes’ screw located in their proximal lumens. A mother centriole would rotate about its long axis within a bearing of subdistal appendages, held in place by a flange of distal appendages. A daughter centriole, projecting at a right angle from the mother, would not rotate about its own axis but would revolve around the latter inside the capsule formed by the centromatrix. The daughter would also function as a turbine, however, generating a torque that introduces an eccentricity or “wobble” into the revolutions of the mother-daughter pair.

Another writer familiar with the matter has this to say:5

First, the journal, Rivista di Biologia, is utterly insignificant, and is prone to publishing articles that are clearly on the edge of scientific respectability. Its editor is (reportedly) a creationist and is affiliated with the Discovery Institute. Second, the paper is not a primary research report. It outlines a hypothesis, accompanied by a literature review, but describes no new experiments and reports no new findings.

Intellectual incest can take multiple forms, and publishing under a reviewer sympathetic to Intelligent Design, as in this case, would be one of them. Most odd of all is why Wells didn’t take this opportunity to publish something favorable to Intelligent Design.

Odder still is the CSC’s continued insistence that Darwin’s Black Box was peer-reviewed. It’s odd in the first instance, because a popular book like DBB doesn’t need to be peer-reviewed. You just write the book, find a publisher, and collect the royalties. And what kind of peer review did DBB receive?

In his book about the Kitzmiller trial, Edward Humes describes the cross examination of author Michael Behe. Behe had claimed the DBB was peer-reviewed. On cross examination attorney Eric Rothschild asked Behe about reviewer Michael Atchison. Then Rothschild recounted the story behind Atchison’s review of DBB.

The book’s editor told his wife about the book. The wife was a student of Atchison’s, and she suggested that Atchison talk to the editor. Atchison had a ten-minute phone conversation with the editor and got a description of the book. Atchison suggested the book would be good reading. And that was the peer review.6

It is not as though peer review will do any good for Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design gets lots of peer review, and all of it is bad. Not surprising, peer review of Intelligent Design does not have the effect of correcting the problems with Intelligent Design.

Under cross examination at the Kitzmiller trial, Behe was confronted with a stack of peer-reviewed research and published books dealing with the very science Behe used to promote irreducible complexity in DBB. This was material Behe had claimed did not exist. He made these claims in DBB and afterwards, and he continued to make these claims after they were refuted during Kitzmiller.

Apparently the matter of peer review has scraped a nerve at the CSC. The CSC has set up the Biologic Institute to conduct scientific research related to Intelligent Design.7

Biologic Institute brings together scientists with diverse expertise, unified by the realization that a revolution in biology—with far reaching implications—is well under way. Like many revolutionary ideas, this one is powerful in its simplicity:

The more we learn about the organization of life, the more clearly it reveals design.

That’s good enough for an Intelligent Design research center. But there is still the matter of peer review. For every problem there is a solution. The CSC’s solution is its own journal:8

BIO-Complexity is a peer-reviewed scientific journal with a unique goal. It aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life. Because questions having to do with the role and origin of information in living systems are at the heart of the scientific controversy over ID, these topics—viewed from all angles and perspectives—are central to the journal’s scope.

With this, the CSC has neatly tied up the problem of peer-reviewed publication. Peer review, perhaps, but not the problem of intellectual incest.

Therein is the real core of Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design cannot exist except in isolation. It needs to be supported by a determined cadre of rogue scientists and scholars, who cite each others’ research and tell themselves what they want to hear. CSC fellows say they are doing breakthrough research, and that research will lead the way toward an understanding of life’s origins. Reality is somewhat different.

I do a little writing, and I find my style becomes stale after a while. Some say it’s after a short while. Reading the works of good writers keeps me from getting into a terminal rut.

I also do some photography. Pulling out a National Geographic or even a Science magazine cover reminds me of what good photography looks like.

The CSC will never do this, and their incestuous intellectual environment is not likely to ever produce any novel or useful thinking. In my way of thinking that was never their intent.

References

1 http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/gould_darwin-on-trial.html

2 http://www.discovery.org/a/2640

3 You can read the Meyer paper on the CSC Web site or here.

4 http://www.discovery.org/a/2680

5 http://sfmatheson.blogspot.com/2007/11/do-id-theorists-generate-data.html

6 Edward Humes, Monkey Girl. pp 302-303. Harper, 2007.

7 http://www.biologicinstitute.org/

8 http://bio-complexity.org/ojs/index.php/main/about/editorialPolicies#purposeAndScope

My Sincerest Apologies

I’m not completely out of the loop. For example, I happened on this news item on TV and looked up the particulars on the Internet.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/kim-jong-ils-era-comes-to-an-end-with-grand-memorial-service-in-north-korea/2011/12/29/gIQAKJZLOP_story.html

Kim Jong Il’s era comes to an end with grand memorial service in North Korea

Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) — Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s new leader, stood on a balcony above Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square named for his grandfather, where tens of thousands of people gathered to hear eulogies that ended a period of national mourning for his father.

“Well,” I thought, “So much for that.” One wacko, delusional dictator out, another one in to take his place. For some reason I thought of “As the World Turns.”

Then I sat upright. There was something like a soft wind blowing in my ear, a cool hand on my heart.

I had forgotten to send a card, much less flowers. To say nothing of neglecting to hustle over to that Worker’s Paradise to attend the ceremonies.

The consequences were dire, I realized. The face on TV reminded me that the entire country of South Korea had failed to send an official delegation. Only 18 civilians made the trip north to have the last laugh at Kim’s passing. The North responded to this hostile act by threatening wholesale retaliation. Memories of 1950 were resurrected.

So, I was thinking, what kind of chance do I stand? The U.S. has 30,000 troops facing north at the 38th parallel, plus there are several hundred South Korean troops in place. South Korea could possibly stand a chance in case Kim’s youngest son (aka, The Great Leader) wakes up with a bad hangover. I, on the other hand, don’t even own a gun. Forget about a concealed carry permit. The Commies are going to come at me with T-72 tanks.

So, that’s it for me. No card, no flowers, not even a friendly Tweet (“Deepest regrets to learn of the untimely passing of your supreme, exalted father figure”). I am so screwed. So, there’s nothing left for me to do. As I always (sometimes) say, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

So here’s to you Kim Jong Un, if that’s your real name. Up your nose with a rubber hose. And the same goes for your sorry excuse of a carbon life form, your sawed-off, over-weight, size-one hat, barely male parent. He managed to consume many metric tons in excess of the Earth’s precious oxygen that was due him.

And don’t expect a card from me next Christmas.

OK, I feel better now.

Kreuz Market

Good excuse as any to go to Lockhart, Texas. I had not been to Kreuz Market in over 40 years, so I figured it was time to make a return trip. I took Barbara Jean along for the experience.

It’s amazing what has changed in four decades. Kreuz Market is no longer a minor family business. Fame and reputation (one of the top barbecue places in Texas) have forced it to expand to a awesome stand-alone edifice with parking for hundreds of cars. One thing that has not changed is the barbecue and the lack of utensils. Knife only to cut the meat, no forks. And no sauce (covers the taste of the meat). Order meat by the pound, served on several sheets of brown kraft paper. Eat on a wooden table, but now varnished and with no butcher knife fixed to the table with a length of cord.

The historic Caldwell County court house is also a treasure to behold.

Explaining Life

Thread of Life: The Smithsonian Looks at Evolution
Roger Lewin
Smithsonian Books, 1982
256 pages including index and picture credits

There are three million species of living things in the world, at least as of 1982, when Roger Lewin published Thread of Life. Lewin is an anthropologist and author of 20 books, many of which relate to evolution, including human evolution. I first encountered Lewin’s name from creationists who have frequently quoted something he has written, often out of context. The creationists want to convince people that somebody with scientific prestige is saying something bad about evolution.

At his lectures creationist Don Patton often hands out quotes from serious scientist to give the impression there is disarray amongst the evolutionists’ ranks. Here is one from a page bearing the copyright of the Northside Church of Christ.

“SIMILAR” NOT NECESSARILY “KIN” – RELATIONSHIPS IMPOSSIBLE TO PROVE

BASIS OF “FAMILY TREE”. ROGER LEWIN, Editor, Research News, Science, “The key issue is the ability correctly to infer a genetic relationship between two species on the basis of a similarity in appearance, at gross and detailed levels of anatomy. Sometimes this approach….can be deceptive, partly because similarity does not necessarily imply an identical genetic heritage: a shark (which is a fish) and a porpoise (which is a mammal) look similar…, BONES OF CONTENTION, 1987, p. 123

A quick check of Bones of Contention provides the full context.

For a scientist brought up in a tradition in which the lumps and bumps on a fossil are considered the only key to the past, this was a dramatic statement, and it goes to the heart of the battle that was fought over Ramapithecus. “Morphology seemed more logical than molecules,”47 says Adrienne Zihlman. “Morphology is what we ‘see’ in the sizes and shapes of bones and teeth…and it has always been given more weight. Paleontologists have always assumed that chimpanzees and gorillas were more closely related to each other than to humans, because they look so much alike.” The key issue is the ability correctly to infer a genetic relationship between two species on the basis of a similarity in appearance, at gross and detailed levels of anatomy. Sometimes this approach works, but sometimes it can be deceptive, partly because similarity of structure does not necessarily imply an identical genetic heritage: a shark (which is a fish) and a porpoise (which is a mammal) look similar because they have become adapted to the same environment, not because they are close cousins.

Lewin notes that basing kinship on similarity is unreliable (and maybe unwarranted). Patton takes the meaning a step further and asserts that relationships are impossible to prove.

When you adopt a high profile in science for the general public like Roger Lewin has you can expect this kind of attention from the creationists.

In Thread of Life Lewin takes the reader from the putative origin of life in the ocean to the flowering of human civilization. Along the way there are many indictments of the creationists’ distortions of modern science. The history of mass extinctions evident in the fossil record is tied to findings of modern geology. The new science of plate tectonics, coupled with exhaustive geological research give powerful clues to the forces that have shaped the present biological world.

The development of the mammalian ear is seen to be the driving force behind the development of the mammalian jaw from its ancestral reptilian jaw. The fossil evidence for this puts the lie to creationists’ (including Phillip Johnson) contention that stepwise development of complex body plans is never revealed in the fossil record.

Lewin deals beautifully with the sweep of biological history, from its beginnings in the sea, the emergence of divergent body forms in the Cambrian to the development of fishes and their amphibian descendents and reptiles. Plants preceded animals on the land, and the proliferation of insect forms helped drive the divergence of plant life in a relationship that is sometimes adversarial and sometimes symbiotic. Mammals derived from an early reptilian form and missed out on the dinosaur boom and bust. These stories and more will delight the interested reader.

Hardly a page does not carry a stunning photograph or illustration. The book displays human scientists easing back the curtain of uncertainty to reveal the underlying truth. A skeptic of the creationists’ claims will appreciate the glaring comparison with the intellectually barren work of this anti-science faction of our society.

A 1992 paperback edition of Thread of Life is available through Amazon. The hardcover edition is best if it’s a coffee table copy you want. See the links.

References:

Thread of Life is available from Amazon.
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0895990296/thenorthtexasske

Bones of Contention is available from Amazon
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0226476510/thenorthtexasske

The referenced page of Don Patton quotes is on-line here.
http://www.ntskeptics.org/creationism/patton/dp-fossi.htm

You can review Bones of Contention through Google Books.
http://books.google.com/books?id=hoBZmtfO-0AC&printsec=frontcover&dq=bones+of+contention&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HQX2Tt6TOenu2gWG7pioAg&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=bones%20of%20contention&f=false

Real Science

Real science

This item first appeared in the August 2009 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

The Beak of the Finch

Jonathan Weiner
The Beak of the Finch
1995, Vintage Books, 303 pages

I discussed Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells back in 2002. In the book Wells posits ten of what he calls icons-signature points upon which Darwinian evolution is supposed to hinge.1

Wells’ ten icons are:

Miller-Urey experiment
Darwin’s tree of life
Homology in vertebrate limbs
Haeckel’s embryos
Archaeopteryx
Peppered moth
Darwin’s finches
Four-winged fruit flies
Fossil horses
Hominid evolution

In the case of the peppered moth, Wells significantly points out photos of peppered moths resting on tree trunks or tree bark. The point is this: Published research reported on the effect of industrial activity on moth populations. There were moths of a peppery light color and moths with a peppery dark color. When our industry produced a lot of soot in the air, tree trunks (and everything else) acquired a dark grey coating. Moths of a lighter color stood out for all birds to see, and the moth population shifted to the dark end of the scale. When industry stopped pumping soot into the air, trees returned to their natural, lighter color, and dark moths lost their advantage. Researchers posted this as an example of natural selection in action.

In his book, Wells took great offense with these photos and disclosed the awful truth-the photos were staged. Dead moths were stuck on the trees and photographed to fool students into believing in Darwinism.

In this instance, the magnificent brain of Jonathan Wells, Ph.D., showed its power. I had completely missed this point when I viewed the photos in an earlier life. I had naively assumed a photographer was given the assignment to show students how moths of different colors looked when posted on bark of different colors. So the photographer got some moths, killed them, stuck them on some bark, and took the photos. It never occurred to me this was all a scheme to fool innocent students.

Wells is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture. The CSC is the major propagandist for Intelligent Design, a modern variation of creationism. Intelligent Design, they assert, is well supported by science and should be seriously considered as an alternative to purely natural mechanisms, such as Darwinian evolution. It would appear there is a thunderous clash of scientific viewpoints brewing.

Not quite.

Twenty years examining the Intelligent Design movement shows zero scientific activity. There have been symposia, public debates, slick video productions, and also books. Besides Icons we have Darwin’s Black Box, The Edge of Evolution, Mere Creation, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, The Privileged Planet, and a number of others that presume to provide scientific support for Intelligent Design or against Evolution. The CSC also claims two papers published in real, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

For example, a few years back CSC director Stephen Meyer arranged with Intelligent Design sympathizer Richard Steinberg to publish a review article in a journal for which Steinberg was editor. Steinberg side-stepped the normal review process and published “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” (Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117 (2004): 213-239). It’s what it takes to publish pseudoscience these days.

Videos include Icons of Evolution, Unlocking the Mystery of Life, The Privileged Planet, and also Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed. The later title may not have a CSC connection, but it shows TV personality Ben Stein connecting Darwinism with Nazism and the Holocaust.

Isn’t doing science wonderful? It’s an idyllic armchair world of publication, and presentation. And no sweat.

Not quite. The Beak of the Finch presents the world of real science.

For over 30 years beginning in 1973 Peter and Rosemary Grant worked studying the finches on the Galapagos Islands. One hundred and seventy years ago the Galapagos finches gave Charles Darwin inspiration during the development of his theory of evolution. Finches (dead) he brought back from the voyage of the Beagle turned out to be variations with a common ancestry. They were different species of finches that developed only on the Galapagos. Darwin’s finches represent one of Jonathan Wells’ icons of evolution.

Spending six months out of every year for years on end in the Galapagos, the Grants and others on their team carefully cataloged every finch on a small island and observed as populations hatched and died. They caught the birds and measured their beaks and noted their individual songs. Did I mention they measured the beaks to a fraction of a millimeter?

There were no armchairs in their camp, to say nothing of running water and air conditioning. The equator runs right through the small Galapagos cluster, and there is often no rain for months. The sun is blazing hot. The Grants raised two daughters in this environment, alternating with stays back at Princeton University to lecture and to publish.

And Wells sees fit to critique the Grants’ work.

The Grants, observed Wells, did not observe any speciation. Nor did they see any net evolution within a finch species. When extended dry spells forced the finches to crack harder and scarcer seeds, the population shifted to birds with thicker and tougher beaks. When the rains returned, and the variety of food increased, the tough-beaked birds gave way to ones with more adroit beaks. No net change, Wells observed.

Wells did not mention other research covered in The Beak of the Finch, which is not to imply he based Icons on Weiner’s book.

The Beak of the Finch covers more than beaks. In the streams of Venezuela, Margarita Island, Trinidad, and Tobago guppies are in their natural environment. They swim about the quiet ponds, but always close to the bottom, because they have enemies in the form of several species of fish and a freshwater prawn. The stream beds are often carpeted with multi-colored gravel, just as in your aquarium, and guppies that look like the speckled bottom of the stream live to spawn another day.

About the time the Grants were studying finches in the Galapagos, John Endler was doing a similar study of the guppies. He noted that in the head waters of a stream there might be few predator fish, but as a stream neared the sea after traversing a number of water falls, the guppies’ enemies grew in number and variety. The predators that were downstream could not get up the water falls, so upstream guppies enjoyed less predation.

Endler noticed that as predation increased downstream, so did the pressure of natural selection. Where predators came in numbers guppies that did not well match the stream bottom became quite rare. In regions where the streams don’t have colored gravel bottoms, the guppies have a problem.

Bold spots may show off male guppies to potential mates, but the boldest males get seen and eaten before they can spawn. Spotless males can avoid getting eaten, but they also avoid getting spotted by female guppies on the prowl. Endler observed that successful guppies were ones that struck a careful balance. Their spots were quite small and escaped the view of predators several inches away. However from the distance of a couple of centimeters they showed up on a female’s radar and remained in the gene pool.

Endler took the experiment a step further and constructed ten artificial guppy ponds at Princeton University. He seeded the ponds with guppies and let nature take its course. The guppy populations took off, and Endler introduced the guppy predators into the experiment, selectively. Some ponds did not get predators. Also, Endler provided different gravel bottoms for the ponds and studied the results. Natural selection took place.

Populations under the pressure of predation conformed to the requirements of survival, matching the gravel bottom and cautiously displaying spots for the female sex. Populations free of predation developed gaudy spotting in a race with sexual selection.

There’s much more. Jamie Smith conducted research with sparrows on the island of Mandarte in British Columbia. British Columbia does not suffer the drought and the equatorial heat of the Galapagos, but it does have seasons of severe wind, snow, and cold. This research again revealed clear population response to the pressure of natural selection.

If the book illustrates one thing it is this: Contrary to what some creationists assert there is on-going and fruitful research into Darwinian evolution. Real scientists are working in the real world and doing real research with little opportunity to enjoy an armchair. The contrast with the lack of activity by the creationists is breath taking.

For the record, despite what Jonathan Wells had to say about the peppered moths, in the case of the finches he agrees that natural selection does work. Additionally, published research does not claim the finch studies offer proof of speciation or net evolutionary development. One wonders, then, what was all the fuss with Icons of Evolution.

On a final note, if the Grants did not observe any net evolution of the finches during their research, they must have observed the remarkable evolution of technology during this time. When they started in 1973 there were no personal computers, and the book details their later work as they archived their data on large numbers of floppy disks. The Grants are now emeritus professors, and it’s fairly certain each of their personal computers will be connected to terabyte hard drives sitting on their desk tops. Readers who have observed the evolution of computers will have to appreciate the irony.

Jonathan Weiner received the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Beak of the Finch. He has also written The Next One Hundred Years and Planet Earth.

References

1 http://ntskeptics.org/2002/2002october/october2002.htm#icons

Stupid And Deadly

This first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

Consider, for a moment, that Darwin could have been right all along.

OK, forget Darwin. Consider for a moment that there is a species on this planet so incompetent it deserves to go extinct right now.

That would be us.

Recent developments bear this out. I will elaborate. I made a joke a few years back about dowsing for land mines, but I should have been more circumspect.1 The truth turns out to be ludicrous beyond belief.

In a recent blog post, Bob Park alerted us to a scam that just will not go away. In the UK a company known as ATSC has for several years marketed their ADE 651, a device for detecting dangerous explosives, including bombs carried by enemy agents. The technology would be undeniably beneficial, if only it worked. In reality, the device is little more than a dressed up water dowser. Its evolution is akin to the genesis of Intelligent Design from young-Earth creationism.

We should have been warned, because ADE 651 has an antecedent dating back more than ten years. In his post from 12 January 1996 Bob Park highlighted the remarkable Quadro Tracker.2

What’s cuckoo: high-tech dowsing rod locates timid laboratory.

The Quadro Corporation, which markets the QRS 250G Detector, a dowsing rod with an antenna that outperforms old fashioned willow branches, says the device can locate anything from weapons to buried treasure–well worth the price of $995 each. But a Sandia National Labs scientist thought it might be a good idea to test one. It failed to locate anything; dissection found just plastic! Sandia sources tell WN that management directed scientists to remain silent in the face of a threat of legal action by Quadro.

An entry in Wikipedia notes that between 1993 and 1996 “[a]round 1,000 were sold to police departments and school districts around the United States on the basis that it could detect hidden drugs, explosives, weapons and lost golf balls.”3

Developments unfolded, and the FBI obtained a permanent injunction to keep the device from being marketed in the United States. Principles of Quadro Corp. of Harleyville, South Carolina, were brought to trial for fraud but were acquitted on all charges.

Move forward and across the pond.

In the UK ATSC Limited has the following product description on their Web site:4

ADE651® is the latest generation of long-range detector products offered by ATSC. As with other ADE™ substance detectors, it incorporates long-range electromagnetic attraction to enable the effective identification of even the most difficult substances including explosive and narcotic materials. Unlike other trace detectors, that are limited by the need to have actual physical contact with the item sampled, the ADE651® is able to detect programmed substances at long distances safely and without the need to have actual physical contact with the substance. As such, the ADE651® continues to set standards for the detection of substances.

As with Quadro, ATSC seems to have sailed right past the consciousness of all concerned—then somebody woke up. The Independent reported on 23 January this year:5

Hundreds of people have been killed in horrific bombings in Iraq after a British company supplied “bogus” equipment which failed to detect explosive devices.

The head of the company, which has made tens of millions of pounds from the sale of the detectors, has now been arrested and the British Government has announced a ban on their export to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Accounts of the ADE 651 indicate it works through the user’s expectations, much like the traditional “water witch” dowsing rod. The ADE 651, like all such devices, requires physical contact with the operator, and this allows subtle, usually subconscious, operator actions to affect the device and to influence indications of detection. In what may be an oversimplification: The operator expects there is no bomb, the device confirms his expectation—reality notwithstanding.

What is so bizarre about the Quadro-ADE 651 is how easy it should have been to falsify its claims. Put some explosive in a vehicle, or not. Don’t tell the operator. Is the device correct significantly better than chance?

In about twenty minutes a conscientious appraiser would have rejected these devices and sent their purveyors packing. Instead, numerous government agencies, representing budgets of billions of dollars annually, saw only the glitter and the promise of an easy fix. And they pulled out, not theirs but the taxpayer’s, checkbook.

The legion of the duped is impressive. An item on Wikipedia reports the following purchasers/users of the ADE 651. Some of these reports derive from ATSC promotional materials and not from actual observation:6

Iraqi Police Service and Iraqi Army: The Interior Ministry purchased 800 items in 2008 for $32 million and 700 in 2009 for $53 million. Top price was $60,000 per unit.

Mexican state of Colima: One was purchased for $60,000.

  • Lebanese Army
  • Chinese Police
  • Royal Thai Police
  • Interior Ministry of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan
  • Hotels in Jordan: Required by the government
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Indian police
  • Police in the Belgian municipal region of Geel-Laakdal-Meerhout (Used to detect drugs)
  • A Belgian drug squad
  • A Hong Kong correctional facility
  • Chittagong Navy (Bangladesh)
  • Pakistan’s Airport Security force: To detect bombs at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi

It does not warm the heart to learn that superstitious nonsense is not the exclusive purview of uneducated yokels from the outback. Sit down at a conference table to discuss project planning at a high-tech concern in this country or elsewhere, and it is possible the person sitting next to you is ready to buy into the Quadro Tracker, the ADE 651 or the next baseless gimmick to follow. The fictional Jed Clampett would have been able to hold his own with this crowd.

People ask me, and other skeptics, why we take such a passion for the truth. What’s the harm, they say, if people have their little myths, their little fantasies? Sometimes I shrug off these annoying complaints with a glib remark. Such as, “Because people can die.”

References:
1 http://www.ntskeptics.org/2000/2000september/september2000.htm#ink
2 http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN96/wn011296.html
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadro_Tracker
4 http://www.atscltd.com/products-services.html
5 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/head-of-bomb-detector-company-arrested-in-fraudinvestigation-1876388.html
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADE_651

Bachmann Brings Holiday Joy

When you’re down and out.
Throw off your gloom and doubt.
Lift up your head and shout.
“You bloody idiot!”

A good belly laugh lifts the spirit and rejuvenates the soul. Which brings me to Michele Bachmann.

I needed to pull up only a single recent news item to get an evening’s worth of mirth. This is courtesy of the Worthington, Minnesota, Daily Globe. Bachmann has started a multi-day blitz through Iowa in a run-up to the first primary caucus of the 2012 election cycle. Her comments are sure to bring merriment to all within voice range. Where to start?

“Iowa chose Barack Obama, now Iowa has to choose Barack Obama’s replacement,” Bachmann told the crowd in the restaurant.

This was starting to get interesting. Let’s see what else she had to say.

Bachmann then went on to list various issues she had challenged the president on, from cap and trade to illegal immigration.
“I can’t wait to stand on the stage with him during the debate and completely deflate everything he’s said about our economy,” Bachmann said.

She began to detail what was wrong with the country and what she would, given the chance, do about it.

Bachmann also discussed gas prices, saying when Obama took office, gas prices went up.

“I want to bring gas prices back to $1.79 a gallon,” Bachmann said. “And we can because the United States is the number one energy resource bridge in the world. The problem is the federal government has locked up all the oil and natural gas and coal, and said, ‘Forget it, we’re not going use it anymore.’ Not me — I’m going to legalize it.”

That’s interesting and very amusing. I can tell I am going to have an enjoyable evening. Let’s see the story behind this. I went to GasBuddy.com and pulled down their price history chart.

Regular gasoline price index for 48 months in dollars per gallon

The chart shows prices peaking in early July 2008 when George W. Bush was president. I was in North Hollywood, California, about this time, and for me the price for regular peaked at $4.46 per gallon about 18 July. The chart shows a precipitous plunge as the economy tanked, most likely Obama’s fault, but we can’t prove it.

As the shock wore off, and people came to their senses, people started spending again and driving again, and the price began to rise. The price of gasoline is driven largely by demand, and the price drop was due to a drop in driving, and the subsequent increase in price has been largely due to an increase in driving, not completely due to an upturn in economic output, which has not picked up all that much since 2008.  The lowest I paid for regular gasoline recently was $1.25 per gallon at a Kroger store in the north Dallas. That was in early 2009.

The price of regular gasoline has since spiked again, in May of 2011, not quite as high as it was in July 2008, but enough to get some notice and enough to make Bachmann think she could get some traction. The price is currently back down to what it was right before Obama was elected in 2008. If Bachmann can get it down to $1.79, more power to her. How many people are going to stop driving when she becomes president?

Bachmann also spoke of immigration, saying if she was elected she would put up a wall in the southwest area of the U.S.

That sounds like a wonderful idea. A great barrier wall will keep out all those undesirable people from south of the border. But wait! I have a better idea. If we stop paying illegal aliens to come here, they will stop coming.

Only kidding, folks. Of course we are not going to stop paying them. That’s what makes this country so great. We make it illegal for people without the proper papers to come here to work, so when they do come they can’t complain about low wages, no Social Security, no worker’s compensation, no pay for overtime worked, unsafe working conditions. Employers get this gorgeously cheap labor, and when somebody gets sick or hurt on the job the taxpayers in the community pick up the costs, not the employers.

It is against the law to hire somebody who is here illegally and who does not have the proper work visa. You are invited to get elected to public office and start pushing to enforce this law. You will find your corporate campaign contributions start to dry up like a cow patty on a Texas summer day. While you are at it, please ask every elected official (Republican and Democrat) who has ever hired illegal domestic help to send me a dollar. I need to retire next year.

“I’m going to make English the official language,” Bachmann said. “We will end welfare subsidies for illegal aliens, and I’m going to end the practice of anchor babies — where illegal aliens come into the United States and have a baby, and that baby is given American citizenship and immediate access to welfare benefits”

I have been hearing this “English the official language” crap for years now, and it does not make a lot of sense. This appears to be a solution in search of a problem. Reality belies the idea that the English language is in danger in this country.

I lived a few months on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, California, and my friend Greg and I were the only people living in the apartment complex who could not speak Spanish. However, English was never in danger, even there. This was brought home to me one day as I was walking by the pool where some grade school kids were playing. One little girl became disgusted with a certain little boy, and she told him what he could do with himself in English I have not heard since I served on an aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic.

I once attended a business conference in Spain, where they speak Spanish, of course. Of course Spanish is not the language of this region of Spain, which supports three Spanish-like languages. Using my best Spanish I asked a sales clerk if she spoke Spanish. She replied “un poco.” The conference was hosted by the Telefonica, the Spanish telephone company and was attended by people from nearly all European countries plus Japan, China, etc. The conference was conducted in English. At the time I worked for a French company with headquarters near the Champs Elysees in Paris. The language spoken at this place is English.

I live in San Antonio, Texas, one of the most Spanish-speaking cities in the United States. You will hear some Spanish spoken on the street and in the stores, but the English is excellent. Of course, the people building the house across the street from me seem to speak only Spanish.

I am not going to dig too much into this “anchor baby” farce except to remind Bachmann that an amendment to the Constitution gives citizenship to everybody born in the U.S. And, these “anchor babies” are not going to take anybody’s job. These children are U.S. citizens with all rights of citizenship. They will be educated in the public schools and receive the same bad education as everybody else’s kids and will have a tough time finding a job, because employers will want to hire illegal aliens who will work for low wages, off the clock, without insurance and worker’s compensation.

“The fact is, we need the most conservative candidate we can get,” Bachmann said.

I hope that does not mean we need the most idiotic candidate we can get. If that’s what we need, then Bachmann is our guy.

One State, Under Duress

Just finished watching Don Lemon interview Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network along with (apparently) Jonathan Saenz of the Liberty Institute. The issue was the new specialty license plate that posts the motto “ONE STATE UNDER GOD” and depicts the  Calvary Hill three crosses motif representing the Crucifixion.

The Texas DMV board recently approved the design by a 4-3 vote, and it is, like all specialty plates, available by special request.

Saenz asserted that Miller’s objections go against our tradition of religious freedom. Also, he noted that other designs depicting college affiliation had been found to be unobjectionable. He noted that drivers have the freedom to express their religious preference on their cars and elsewhere.

Miller stated the problem was not with expression of religious preference but with that preference being appended to a Texas State instrument, the license plate. She asked, in vain, whether Texas should be allowed a specialty plate objecting to religion.

The problem is, Miller mis-argued her case. She ignored Saenz’s continued reiteration that the motif and the slogan were very popular in Texas and represented Texas mainstream values. Saenz had also pointed out that the Texas legislature had approved the “under God” slogan by a wide vote margin with both Democrats and Republicans voting in favor.

What Miller should have stressed is that popularity does not matter, and legislative and DMV board action action does not matter.  Saenz is very comfortable with the assurance that no contrary motif and no motto objecting to God would ever be approved. The legal problem is this is exactly the action covered by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Establishment Clause has the wording “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Fourteenth Amendment extended this prohibition to state and local governments. What the Texas legislature has done and what the DMV board has done is to make a law respecting an establishment of religion.

The Texas DMV can remedy its action by providing specialty plates to address all sentiments regarding religion, effectively nullifying its action of granting favor to one specific religion. Forestalling a flood of comments to this blog informing me that this would be completely impracticable to implement I state now that this would be completely impracticable to implement due to the problem of economies of scale. The non-recurring cost of providing a specialty plate for Christians would be amortized over several thousand plates, while the cost of setting up a plate with the motto “ONE STATE UNDER DURESS” would be shared by two Texas drivers. And that would only be if I can persuade my lovely wife to order a plate for her car.

Saenz is gong to argue that much the same holds for the college affiliate plates. However, the Texas DMV is not going to approve a specialty plate for the University of Paluxy, which  cost would be amortized over at most one or two Paluxy residents who enjoy a good joke as much as I do. Saenz is comfortable in the knowledge that the non-Christian minority, diverse as it is, could never be seen as deserving of a specialty plate. For him, in numbers there is right.

Wrong.

The Bill of Rights was put in place exactly to protect those who do not have the numbers to  vote their protection against government action. The Texas DMV action is exactly the government saying “Our religion is the right one, and you can just go to you know where.”

People, we get the government we deserve. Shame on us.

Deconstructing Phillip Johnson

I have completely updated this post with changes in language and additional text. 23 December 2011.

PhillipJohnson

The Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC) is the principle organization in this country dedicated to the promotion of creationism in the form of Intelligent Design. An item on their Evolution News blog directed me to a video featuring noted creationist Phillip Johnson. This particular post is by Jonathan M. and is titled “Maligning Phil Johnson, with Lots of Rhetoric but Little Substance.” Apparently biochemist Larry Moran and mathematician Jeffrey Shallit have taken time out to critique the video, and Jonathan M. is distressed at their lack of civility.

Phillip Johnson is a retired professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, and prior to that he was a lawyer of some significance. In one capacity he was law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. More recently Johnson became critical of science’s infatuation with natural processes and evolution in particular. Johnson is distressed at the reliance mainstream science places on natural process to the exclusion of supernatural processes, particularly supernatural processes that align with Johnson’s religious beliefs. For the remainder of this post the term “evolution” will be used to mean biological evolution by only natural processes.

The Johnson video is about 58 minutes long, and readers are encouraged to watch it all the way through. I did, and I was impressed by its lack of candor and no small amount of flummery. I will itemize a few points and leave to the reader the task of dissecting the remainder.

The video has the title “Focus on Origins” with the subtitle “Darwinism” and was produced by the University of California, apparently in 1993. The date is significant, because this was soon after Johnson published Darwin on Trial, his critique of evolution, and this was the year following the symposium Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference?, which was held on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The date is also prior to the formation of the CSC and the unauthorized release on the Internet of the so-called Wedge Document, which outlined the CSC’s roadmap for vanquishing naturalism.

You would like to think the video is going to involve somebody interviewing Johnson, asking his take on Darwinism and such. The interviewer would have a list of questions to ask, and Johnson would respond to the best of his ability. The appearance, however, is that some people got together and decided to make a video arguing against evolution and for a religious view of the world. The interviewer has a set of loaded questions, and Johnson has his prepared responses. The narrative proceeds in a question-response sequence with an apparent goal in mind.

It starts innocently enough. The interviewer asks:

How does a lawyer’s perspective help in evaluating scientific theories? Aren’t you a bit out of your element?

Johnson agrees readily that he is an outsider with regard to biology and evolution, but he argues that even Darwin was not trained in evolution before developing the theory of natural selection. He notes that Charles Lyell, the founder of modern geology, was himself a lawyer. Johnson contends that nobody specializes in a science called evolution, and then he goes a bit further with a statement that will raise some eyebrows. “Molecular biologists, for example, are relying on fossil experts, paleontologists and vice versa.”

This should get the attention of scientists working in the field. Ask a molecular biologist whether he routinely wanders over to the Paleontology Department and asks the researchers there to confirm his findings of common inheritance. I am just another outsider, but everything I read convinces me that molecular biologists are quite satisfied with their work and would knock heads with any paleontologist who disagrees with their findings. How did Johnson come by his bizarre conclusion? I am going to guess he pulled it out of the same place from which he pulls a large portion of his ideas about how science works. If you ever questioned Johnson’s claim that he is an outsider regarding science, his opening lines in the video will put your concerns to rest.

Johnson goes on to say that his role is to apply a lawyer’s perspective and to examine the underlying assumptions (presumably to assure us these assumptions are false). What follows sets the tone.

Johnson talks about things people take for granted and never question.

One of those things is the creative power of natural selection. If you ask these people, “How do you know that mutation and selection in the Darwinian mechanisms have the power to create complex organs?” The answer they give will be some variation on, “Well, everybody knows that. That’s common knowledge. We settled that long ago.”

We wonder who Johnson has been talking to. His implication is that nobody has given this any thought, and nobody in mainstream science is concerned with this issue. While Johnson may be correct in saying, by implication, that scientists have not demonstrated the production of complex organs by natural selection, the thrust of his statement is pure propaganda.

Contrary to what Johnson may think, scientists have demonstrated principle aspects of evolution and natural selection, including the following:

1. Natural selection can produce marked changes in populations, as demonstrated by the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant in their study of finches on the Galapagos Islands. See The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. It’s an excellent treatise on how science is done, and it won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

2. The fossil record shows multiple examples of the stepwise development of complex organs as exemplified by the development of the mammalian ear from the reptile ear.

When Johnson addresses his concerns about the underlying assumptions of evolution, the chief one seems to be the exclusion of supernatural processes. In other parts of the video Johnson bears down not so much on the development of complex organs (and organisms) as on science’s reliance on purely natural processes, such as natural selection.

Here are comments on some additional question-answer exchanges. The reader should follow up by reading the analyses by Moran and Shallit.

Doesn’t the natural history of life through time demonstrate the fact of evolution?

Typical of Johnson’s explanations, his response to this is far from matter-of-fact. He hedges a bit but he seems to say, “No.” Here is a short quote from his response:

One can’t even talk about the fact of evolution, because it’s such an ill-defined thing. What is it?

This comment is completely disingenuous. The fact of evolution, that is the core of the theory, is well-established. Either Johnson is unaware of this, or else he wants you to believe something that is not true. He continues:

But any event, some creatures become extinct, some species become extinct, and others come into existence somehow, no one knows how. They are more or less related to what went before, in that they have common features with the things that went before, and so it’s reasonable to speculate that there was some possibility of development that produced them, but everything said beyond that is just rank speculation and really fiction.

In a rambling, oblique way Johnson seems to be saying he does not believe the basic fact of evolution-that current life forms share a common ancestry.

What is so puzzling about this is that just a few months prior to the interview Johnson was saying something else.

At the SMU symposium in March 1992 I had the opportunity to find Johnson in conversation with Jon Buell. Jon Buell heads up the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, the organization that produced the Pandas and People creationist text that was central to the Kitzmiller v. Board of Education trial in 2005. The FTE was also a co-sponsor of the symposium.

I put to Johnson my two burning questions: Do you believe the Earth is billions of years old and that current life forms share a common ancestry? Johnson blinked a couple of times and stated flatly yes to both parts. Amazingly, Buell answered affirmatively, as well.

I discussed this topic again with Johnson in subsequent correspondence, and he never used the occasion to repudiate that position. Watching his response in the interview you will not get the idea that Johnson believes in common ancestry.

What can be taught legally in the science classroom?

Johnson’s response details what, in his mind, is a vast conspiracy to suppress any scientific explanations in science classes that would encompass religious ideas. What he is referring to but does not state is that the courts have ruled that for public schools the introduction of religious explanations that have no basis in fact amounts to proselytizing at public expense and is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Elsewhere in the interview he hints broadly of an antipathy toward religion in higher academics.

What Johnson chooses to ignore is that the First Amendment only applies to instruction supported by public funds. He does not seem to notice that prestigious, church-supported colleges and universities teach only natural explanations in science classes even though they are not required to by law. A short list would include Baylor University, Brigham Young University, Notre Dame, Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University. These places are hardly hotbeds of anti-religious sentiment.

Is it illegal to teach Pasteur’s Law of Biogenesis that life does not arise spontaneously?

This, too, is odd, because Johnson does not answer the question that was asked. Louis Pasteur ran some experiments similar to ones that had been performed earlier. These experiments showed, for example, that maggots did not appear in meat that was kept isolated from egg-laying flies. He then concluded that life could derive only from other life.

In his response Johnson makes no reference to Pasteur but leaps immediately to a discussion of whether courts would take issue with an instructor who proclaims that life cannot ultimately originate by natural processes.

The reality is that no science course has any problem with Pasteur’s experiments or with his conclusion that maggots cannot be produced from untainted meat.

Despite what Johnson may want you to think, a science teacher in a public school could, with no problem, tell students that no experiments have ever produced life from non-living matter. There might be a problem if the teacher relied upon religious explanations for this result, but only in public schools.

This is ultimately going to be a problem for the creationists. It is now 2011, and the scientific study of the origins of species (and life) has been going on for less than 152 years. At some time in the future the text in bold type face above will become obsolete. We wonder what the creationists’ fall-back position will be then.

It is evident from the fossil record that fundamental body plans do not undergo major evolutionary change. Are there natural processes which prevent evolutionary change?

This is a queer sort of “question.” The first part is not a question at all. It’s a purported statement of fact that Johnson is expected to assume when answering the second part.

The first objection to this is that the statement is false. It is not evident from the fossil record that fundamental body plans do not undergo major evolutionary change. Contrarily, the fossil record does record changes in major body plans. The previously-mentioned record of the development of the mammalian ear from the reptilian ear is an easy example that comes to mind. The development of the mammalian ear is considered to be a driving force for the development of the mammalian jaw from the reptilian jaw.

I recently completed reading Roger Lewin’s excellently illustrated book Thread of Life. The subtitle is The Smithsonian Looks at Evolution, and it follows what was, at the time of its publication in 1982, the scientific understanding of biological evolution for the 3.8 billion years that life has been on this planet. The date is significant, because it’s eleven years prior to the Johnson video. The material presented in this book does not consist of arcane research results published in obscure journals. This is stuff that was generally known in the scientific community at the time and was readily available to Johnson, if he would care to indulge. It would appear that he does not.

Page 186 illustrates the scientific findings related to the evolution of the mammalian ear.

Evolution of mammalian jaw and ear were linked. Beginning with lobe-finned fish, bottom, and progressing through primitive amphibian to mammal-like reptile and modern mammal, colors in diagram show shifts in size and function of bones.

  • Hyomandibular became stapes in ear
  • Quadrate became incus in ear.
  • Articular became malleus in ear
  • Angular became middle ear housing, or auditory bulla.

If Johnson wants to dispute that fundamental body plans undergo major evolutionary change, he needs to directly address specific points like this rather than make vague and unsubstantiated assertions. What Johnson does say is this, answering the question part:

Yes, one of them is called natural selection. You see in fact, natural selection is what prevents gradual step by step change from occurring. It’s a conservative force that promotes the stasis that you actually see in the fossil record and in the evidence. And the reason for that is that if you try to change one kind of thing into something basically different by tiny step by tiny step you are going through intermediate space where the thing isn’t viable.

You can imagine this in the sense that — suppose that you got a set of mutations which in themselves might be capable of turning a mouse into a whale. That’s essentially what is deemed to have happened according to the Darwinian theory. Not literally because it’s not literally a mouse, but something like that, a tiny four-legged creature must have changed step by tiny step into a whale. But if you imagine that starting to happen it’s counterfactual because you have to imagine the mutations coming and there’s no evidence that they exist. You can see that somewhere there the mouse started to develop flippers and a big tail and gear for breathing underwater it would become awfully unsatisfactory as a mouse and helpless and it would get eaten or would be unable to survive. But natural selection would weed it out.

This quote is interesting in so many ways.

First, Johnson began the entire dialog indicating he did not pretend to be a scientist but was qualified to analyze the state of modern science from a lawyer’s perspective. He would demonstrate bald assumptions and would show where the claims do not follow from the evidence.

In order to demonstrate this latter part he discovers the need to pass judgment on the scientific evidence, and to do this he has to step into the role of a scientist. Here is where Johnson has historically gotten into trouble and why he has caught so much grief from scientists. He often demonstrates he has gotten his scientific facts wrong, he has not deeply studied the subject matter he is willing to discuss, and he completely misunderstands much of the material he has studied.

Johnson has made an unfortunate choice in picking the evolution of the “mouse” to a whale, because that is one area of evolutionary development that has yielded significantly to scientific study and analysis in recent years. Johnson can be forgiven for not knowing of this fairly recent work, because, as he has assured us, he is not a scientist. I will also forgive him for not knowing that whales cannot breathe under water.

What Johnson missed in his quest for fault in modern biological science is something that has been spelled out in Carl Zimmer’s book At the Water’s Edge. Zimmer relates the research into the progression of life from its place of origin in water to dry land and the subsequent return of mammalian life to the water in the form of whales and porpoises. He explains what Johnson failed to understand, how “the mouse started to develop flippers and a big tail.” What Zimmer does not explain is how mammals learned to breathe under water. This may forever remain unexplained.

Johnson’s puzzlement regarding how the “mouse” managed to survive without becoming eaten while morphing into a water animal is itself puzzlement. I am not a biologist, but in my naive analysis I think first of a bear. A close relative of the bear is the badger, which more closely resembles an otter than an otter resembles a bear. The otter spends a lot of time in the water and has feet and a tail that assist in swimming in the water. The sea otter spends almost all of its existence in the water and in that way is much like a sea lion, which is much like a seal, only the seal spends very little time out of water. Another ocean-going mammal is the whale, which never comes ashore except by accident.

So there is a rough progression of mammalian life from the bear to the whale, and all of these intermediate forms seem to be doing all right without being eaten to extinction. Keep in mind I have not just described a line of descent from bears to whales. The whale lineage has long gone extinct, and we have only fossil evidence of the whale’s ancestors.

Of course, Johnson can still assert that morphing an otter-like animal into a sea lion-like animal will involve some intermediate forms that are not viable. This is a common practice of creationists, and I invite him to give it a shot.

About ten years back I debated creationist Don Patton, and whale evolution looked like a good source to make my point for evolution. I pointed out the following:

For example, the anatomy of the foot of Basilosaurus allies whales with artiodactyls (Gingerich and others 1990). The axis of foot symmetry in these fossil whales falls between the 3rd and 4th digits. This arrangement is called paraxonic and is characteristic of the artiodactyls, whales, and condylarths, and is rarely found in other groups (Wyss 1990).

Patton’s response was that the fossil foot bones were not attached to the remainder of the skeleton and were not used for feet but to anchor some muscles. I think my reply to this was something like, “Then why do they look like feet?”

We have other biological evidence of the whale’s ancestry, as well. Biologists are currently sorting out whale molecular phylogeny, which currently indicates a common descent with artiodactyls-hoofed land mammals with an even number of toes.

I have covered only a few examples from the interview, but they exemplify Johnson’s pronouncements and writings on science.

The driver of this discussion was the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Darwin on Trial. The CSC has recently been celebrating this great milestone, and the Evolution News blog has carried a number of items about Johnson and his role in the promotion of the Intelligent Design movement. Real scientists have been pushing back, and one aspect of this reaction has been some rude commentary.

CSC blogger Jonathan M. has taken offense at this rudeness, and we are supposed to be outraged. My own outrage has yet to see the light of day, because I have endured twenty years of the kind of obfuscation and tomfoolery dribbled out by Johnson and other fellows of the CSC. It is difficult to be civil to these people in the face of their rude treatment of the truth.

Of course, the Johnson interview is seriously out-dated. Intelligent Design has accumulated nearly two decades of history since then, and Johnson may have changed his position on some points. However, the core claims remain the same:

1. Science should not be bound to natural processes.

2. Naturalistic science is antithetical to religion and to religious freedom.

3. Evolution is a dogmatic, secular religion and is not based on sound science.

4. The facts of evolution are false. Life could not have originated by purely natural means, and the life forms we see on the Earth today required a supernatural intelligence to guide their formation.

The Wedge Document previously mentioned was apparently drafted in 1998 and is considered to be an outgrowth of Johnson’s thinking. It states two main goals of the CSC:

“To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies”

“To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”

Recent outpourings of the CSC through their Evolution News blog indicate that not much has changed in the twenty years since publication of Darwin on Trial.

Notes:

Jonathan M.’s blog posting is here.

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/12/jeffrey_shallit053841.html

Larry Moran’s and Jeffrey Shallit’s comments are here.

http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2011/12/phillip-johnson-one-of-very-best.html

http://recursed.blogspot.com/2011/12/this-video-should-be-shown-to-all.html

The Phillip Johnson interview can be seen here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ww6T8xjp9Vo

For more on Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference? follow this link.

http://www.ntskeptics.org/2009/2009december/december2009.htm#design

Wikipedia has a comprehensive commentary on the Wedge strategy.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge_strategy

For a review of The Beak of the Finch follow this link.

http://www.ntskeptics.org/2009/2009august/august2009.htm#science

Roger Lewin’s Thread of Life is available on Amazon.com.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B001UBWGKU/thenorthtexasske

I previously discussed At the Water’s Edge in The North Texas Skeptic.
http://www.ntskeptics.org/2010/2010september/september2010.htm#water

Some of the narrative from the Don Patton debate is on the NTS Web site.

http://www.ntskeptics.org/issues/debate/debate.htm

Wikipedia discusses whale evolution.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whale_evolution

For the interested viewer, here are the interview questions and program notes, along with the time marks:

[Start] How does a lawyer’s perspective help in evaluating scientific theories? Aren’t you a bit out of your element?

[3:59] Why are you convinced that Darwinism is more philosophy than science?

[6:06] Have any of your critics acknowledged that Darwinism is something akin to a secular religion?

[8:32] You describe yourself as a creationist. What do you mean by that term?

[10:08] What is meant by the term evolutionist?

[12:03] Do you consider theistic evolution to be a contradiction in terms?

[15:02] Do you believe that natural processes

1. Are sufficient to account for major evolutionary change,

2. Are insufficient, or

3. Prevent major evolutionary change from occurring?

[16:37] Doesn’t the natural history of life through time demonstrate the fact of evolution?

[17:56] What do you consider to be the best evidence for evolution?

[20:43] What do you consider to be the major problems with Darwinian theory?

[25:50] Darwinian theory predicts that the accumulating diversity of species should precede the disparity of the higher taxa. Isn’t geological succession in systematically reverse order to Darwinian predictions?

[28:00] Do you reject the concept of descent with modification?

[30:09] It is evident from the fossil record that fundamental body plans do not undergo major evolutionary change. Are there natural processes which prevent evolutionary change?

[32:05] If Darwinian theory is such a poor theory why don’t more scientists reject it?

[33:49] Why don’t scientists consider creation to be an alternative explanation of origins?

[35:38] If science is limited to naturalism what possible alternatives could exist to evolutionism?

[37:35]Do you have any alternative research program for scientists?

[40:39] Darwin’s extrapolations seem more metaphysical than empirical. Shouldn’t scientists return to more empirical science?

[42:00] Do scientists need a better understanding of nature’s ordinary rules of stability and stasis before they can develop better theories of change?

[43:26] Could scientists come to the conclusion that natural processes prevent major evolutionary change?

[44:51] Does the California Science Framework allow criticism of Darwinian theory in the classroom?

[46:54] What can be taught legally in the science classroom?

[49:25] Is it illegal to teach Pasteur’s Law of Biogenesis that life does not arise spontaneously?

[50:43] Doesn’t the uncritical teaching of Darwinism undermine support for public education?

[53:46] Introducing Michael Behe

[53:59] Introducing Michael Denton

[53:59] Introducing Dean Kenyon

[54:04] Introducing Charles Thaxton and Walter Bradley

[54:13] From IRREDUCIBLE COMPLEXITY The Biochemical Challenge to Darwinian Theory (Michael Behe, courtesy Access Research network www.arn.org)