The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 8 in a series

The photo shows creationists Walter Bradley and Ide Trotter at a workshop hosted by the Texas Education Agency, where they were assigned the task of reviewing high school biology texts for public schools.

I tend to devote this series to people being stupid about science, such as by using science and religion in the same sentence. That often comes about when people, caught up in religion, carry the contagion with them when they step across the line into fields of science—or into any other area requiring rational thought. Who does this a lot are the people at the Discovery Institute (DI), the premier organization in this country promoting Intelligent Design.

A rich resource on this kind of foolishness is the DI’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC), founded by creationist Stephen C. Meyer, among others. the thinking of DI fellows and the CSC are made public on an associated site called Evolution News. More recently, I found the following posted on the Discovery Institute site:

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor: Why Machines Will Never Think

From remarks at the official launch of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence

ROBERT CROWTHER, II AUGUST 1, 2018

This is interesting on multiple levels, one of which relates to Dr. Michael Egnor, whom we have met before:

Michael Egnor is a prominent neurosurgeon and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Stony Brook University. He became inoculated against evolution (the science of biological evolution) after reading  Michael Denton‘s book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Egnor has aligned himself with the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC), one of the leading creationist organizations in this country and likely the absolute leader in support of the Intelligent Design version of creationism. An excerpt from one of his posts on the CSC’s Evolution News blog may be characteristic:

Scopes was put on trial for violating the Butler Act, which prohibited teaching human evolution to schoolchildren in Tennessee. What Scopes actually taught, if anything, is unclear, because Scopes was untruthful about what he did, and the trial was a legal ploy to spur a Supreme Court ruling. The truth was a secondary consideration at best to Scopes and to his team.

Hunter’s textbook Civic Biology was racist and taught eugenics. It was vile stuff. If a teacher taught from it today, he would not be prosecuted for violating the Butler Act. He would be prosecuted for federal civil rights violations.

Follow the link and read the post for complete details. Anyhow, Dr. Egnor now proposes to  boldly step outside his realm of expertise and into the quagmire that is Artificial Intelligence (AI). I took some time to read through his thinking on the matter, and you are invited to do likewise. What I found is that, while Dr. Egnor is likely correct in some of his conclusions, he is correct for the wrong reasons. An illustration from Dr. Egnor’s monograph:

What is the hallmark of human thought, and what distinguishes thoughts from material things? Franz Brentano (1838–1917), a German philosopher in the 19th century, answered this question decisively. All thoughts are about something, whereas no material object is inherently “about” anything. This property of aboutness is called intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind. Every thought that I have shares the property of aboutness—I think about my vacation, or about politics, or about my family. But no material object is, in itself, “about” anything. A mountain or a rock or a pen lacks aboutness—they are just objects. Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind.

Another word for intentionality is meaning. All thoughts inherently mean something. A truly meaningless thought is an oxymoron. The meaning may be trivial or confusing, but every thought entails meaning of some sort. Every thought is about something, and that something is the meaning of the thought.

That’s what I like about philosophers. First, they fall back on what other philosophers have said—with little or no attempt at confirmation, and they talk of things being true, apparently for the sole reason that they say they are true. How about, “Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind?” Whether he realizes it or not, what Dr. Egnor has just done is to write a definition for the word mind. Please note the statement does not preclude a computer becoming a mind. What it says is that if a computer attains intentionality, then a computer can become a mind. Dr. Egnor never offers any reason a computer cannot become a mind. He says it, so it must be so.

Under other circumstances I would pass off Dr. Egnor’s musing as the product of religious corruption. I cannot do this, because it happens that Dr. Egnor, in his musings, is in the company of mental giants, one being renowned mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. It happens that Penrose is of the same mind as Dr. Egnor in this matter. Neither believes a computer can become a mind, and Penrose has written a book on the matter titled The Emperor’s New Mind. I have had a copy of the book since it came out in 1989, but I did not read through it. That’s because I quickly encountered conclusions I cannot sign off on. In the book, Penrose seems to invoke the argument from incredulity, much as Dr. Egnor does above. Martin Gardner wrote the forward, concluding:

Penrose’s achievements in mathematics and physics– and I have touched on only a small fraction– spring from a lifelong sense of wonder toward the mystery and beauty of being. His little finger tells him that the human mind is more than just a collection of tiny wires and switches. The Adam of his prologue and epilogue is partly a symbol of the dawn of consciousness in the slow evolution of sentient life. To me he is also Penrose– the child sitting in the third row, a distance back from the leaders of AI– who dares to suggest that the emperors of strong AI have no clothes. Many of Penrose’s opinions are infused with humour, but this one is no laughing matter.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 143-148). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Here is a sampling of Penrose’s own thinking, highlighted in my Kindle edition by earlier readers:

Most particularly, I argue that the phenomenon of consciousness cannot be accommodated within the framework of present-day physical theory.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 153-154). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

My reasoning, as presented in this book, has two main strands to it. The first of these endeavours to show, by appealing to results of Gödel (and Turing) that mathematical thinking (and hence conscious thinking generally) is something that cannot be encapsulated within any purely computational model of thought. This is the part of my argument that my critics have most frequently taken issue with. The second strand of the reasoning is to demonstrate that there is an important gap in our physical picture of the world, at a level which ought to bridge the submicroscopic world of quantum physics to the macro-world of classical physics. My viewpoint demands that the missing physics falling within this gap, when found, will play an essential part in the physical understanding of the conscious mind. Moreover, there must be something outside purely computational action in this sought-for area of physics.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 164-170). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Penrose appears to set aside a special place for living forms, and he does not limit this thinking to the mind. I took four courses from  Wolfgang Rindler, and after I got my degree I came back to the campus to attend a 70th birthday party for him. Roger Penrose attended, as well, and he gave a talk in which he explained that living material needs to be explained in terms of  quantum physics. I  got that this was an explanation in terms of quantum  physics beyond the fact that quantum physics determines basic chemical properties of the elements, and I asked the question, “Are you resurrecting the concept of vitalism?” He assured me he was not, and I let it go at that. For the moment. The truth is, I consider Penrose’s invocation of quantum mechanics as vitalism dressed up in a lab coat.

Apparently anybody can be a philosopher, so I’m thinking about giving it a try. In future postings I will provide rational explanations for human thought, life, death, and the origin of the universe. Keep reading.

The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 6 in a series

Цифровая репродукция находится в интернет-музее Gallerix.ru

A Facebook friend from time to time posts links to the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News blog. Much thanks. I need to keep up.

Evolution News has a number of authors, mostly notable creationists. These would include Stephen C. Meyer, Michael Behe, John West, and Jonathan Wells. This item was posted by Ann Gauger:

Ann Gauger is a zoologist with a BS in biology from MIT and a 1989 PhD from the University of Washington. As a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard she cloned and characterized the Drosophila kinesin light chain. Her research has been published in Nature, Development, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. She also has a number of years of experience as a homeschool teacher.

From Evolution News:

Is There a First Human Couple in Our Past? New Evidence and Arguments

Ann Gauger March 5, 2018, 3:51 PM

Dennis Venema is associate professor at Trinity Western University. His book Adam and the Genome is under active discussion here and over at BioLogos. The central question implied in the title of that book is: does our genome rule out Adam? Could humanity have had its origin in a first pair, or did it have to come from a population of at least several thousand?

This question has been addressed by numerous scientists in the past, ever since human genetic data began to roll in. And all of them, as far as I know, have said that yes, our genome rules out Adam. We are the product of common descent. We are descended from an ape-like population of at least several thousand. This we have heard before.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. There has been a debate going on over at BioLogos for a number of months that was triggered by Venema’s book. The debate is about whether there could have been a bottleneck of two at some time in the human past. This discussion was started when Richard Buggs, Senior Research Leader (Plant Health) at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and Reader in Evolutionary Genomics at Queen Mary, University of London, challenged Dennis Venema about what Venema wrote in Adam and the Genome. Venema had argued:

As our methodology becomes more sophisticated and more data are examined, we will likely further refine our estimates [of human population size] in the future. That said, we can be confident that finding evidence that we were created independently of other animals or that we descend from only two people just isn’t going to happen. Some ideas in science are so well supported that it is highly unlikely new evidence will substantially modify them, and these are among them. The sun is at the center of our solar system, humans evolved, and we evolved as a population.

Put most simply, DNA evidence indicates that humans descend from a large population because we, as a species, are so genetically diverse in the present day that a large ancestral population is needed to transmit that diversity to us. To date, every genetic analysis estimating ancestral population sizes has agreed that we descend from a population of thousands, not a single ancestral couple. Even though many of these methods are independent of each other, all methods employed to date agree that the human lineage has not dipped below several thousand individuals for the last three million years or more — long before our lineage was even remotely close to what we would call “human.” Thus the hypothesis that humans descend solely from one ancestral couple has not yet found any experimental support — and it is therefore not one that geneticists view as viable. [Emphasis added.]

The image above appears at the head of Gauger’s Evolution News posting. It’s a painting from centuries ago titled “Adam and Eve” or something close to that.

I have previously reviewed the book Adam and the Genome by Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight. The summary of the book is that the creationists have it all wrong, the human species did not descend from a single pair of humans, but is the most recent of a lineage stretching back billions of years. However, God does exist, and God is responsible for all this.

Update: I am adding some material of interest.

Gauger mentions she has previously discussed this point.

So TSP is not validated for these highly polymorphic genes, HLA-DRB1 in particular, and convergent evolution (or original diversity) is validated. I addressed, by the way, the question of HLA-DRB1’s polymorphism and TSP, and a first human pair, in the book Science and Human Origins (2012). That book was written after I discovered that Francisco Ayala’s argument against the possibility of a first pair based on HLA-DRB1 did not stand up.  My hypothesis about a first pair was based on what I saw in papers about HLA-DRB1, most notably this and this, but the hypothesis was more suggested than demonstrated. I am glad to see that some of what I wrote has been substantiated.

See below for an expansion of TSP. The book in question has five parts, written separately by Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin. Gauger contributed chapters 1 and 5. Chapter 5 relates to the topic of her posting:

5

THE SCIENCE OF ADAM AND EVE

Ann Gauger

Using population genetics, some scientists have argued that there is too much genetic diversity to have passed through a bottleneck of just two individuals. But that turns out not to be true.

IN CHAPTER 1, I ARGUED THAT OUR SIMILAR ANATOMY AND DNA sequences are not sufficient to demonstrate that we share a common ancestor with chimps. Using peer-reviewed scientific literature about transitional fossils, and what is known about current chimp and human anatomy, I concluded that there are too many anatomical changes and too little time for neo-Darwinian processes to have accomplished the supposed transition from our last common ancestor with chimps to us.

But the current challenge concerning our origins involves more than fossils, anatomy, and improbable Darwinian scenarios. Now that DNA sequencing has become relatively simple and cheap, researchers are gathering vast amounts of human sequence data. They use the genetic variation they find to reconstruct past events in our genetic history. They derive evolutionary trees, estimate ancestral population sizes, and even calculate when and where our ancestors migrated out of Africa. Based on this kind of work, some have argued that we cannot have come from just two first parents.

[Location 2102 in the Kindle edition]

Gauger wants to take exception to the first part. Evidence that points to human origins from a collection of a few thousand individuals is not conclusive. The original pair of humans is not ruled out by modern research. The sum total of the piece is a glaring heap of wishful thinking, as would be evident to people knowledgeable of the subject and taking time to run down all Gauger’s arguments. And that I will leave to others, since it is beyond the scope of my expertise to critically evaluate the opposing arguments. I will just get to Gauger’s concluding statement:

So let me restate: the best explanation for the similarity among alleles is convergent evolution (or possibly original diversity), and not TSP. Finally, this analysis is strong evidence that TSP does not rule out a bottleneck of two.

To sum up, it’s very simple.

  • A bottleneck of two that is older than 500,000 years ago cannot be ruled out. That does not mean such a bottleneck ever existed, but rather that the possibility cannot be excluded. Future models may change that number of 500,000 years, up or down.
  • This is based on an analysis of the genetic data run by Drs. Schaffner and Swamidass, themselves evolutionary biologists and not ID supporters.
  • In addition, the bottleneck hypothesis stood up to a test using TSP (trans-species polymorphism). The test showed TSP was due to convergent evolution. This was a surprise to Dr. Swamidass.
  • A bottleneck of two, or a first pair at our origin older than 500,000 years, is possible.
  • Evolutionary biologists, including Dennis Venema, can no longer say we had to come from a population of 10,000 at any time over the last 3 million years.

Obviously, there is no rigorous science being argued here. This amounts to a special pleading for religious belief, particularly for biblical truth. Along that line, Gauger is not attempting to sell the full load. The Bible recounts the origin of the human race from two people. Gauger stops there. She lets slide the remainder of the story—that all this happened little more than 6000 years ago. Lady, if you’re in for a penny, you need to be in for a pound.

It’s an interesting twist we are observing. In days gone by—actually, in decades gone by—those people at the Discovery Institute sought to sell Intelligent Design as legitimate science, devoid of religious indoctrination. They seem to have thrown that notion over and have now gone full Monty pushing for the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity. At times the openness can be refreshing.

Deeper and Deeper

A Reading Of High Delusion—Part 2

I previously reviewed The Language of God, by Francis Collins. This is Adam and the Genome, by Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight. I obtained the Kindle editions of both after a short dive into a posting to Evolution News, the blog site of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. No author is listed for that post, but it centered on this book and the one by Collins:

In Adam and the Genome, Trinity Western University biologist Dennis Venema covers many other subjects besides what you might expect from the book’s title. We have been reviewing this material by the prominent theistic evolutionist and BioLogos author; find the series so far here.

Thus, Venema cites the high degree of genetic similarities between insulin genes in humans and other mammals as evidence for our common ancestry. He writes:

[W]e can see that there is good evidence to support the hypothesis that these two present-day genes come from a common ancestral population in the distant past … What we observe for this short segment is that the gorilla sequence is identical to that of the human except for one letter; the chimpanzee is identical except for three; and the orangutan is identical except for five. As before, this level of identity far exceeds what is needed for functional insulin, and strongly supports the hypothesis that humans share a common ancestral population with great apes. Indeed, the similarities between these sequences make English and West Frisian look like very distant relatives by comparison.

(Adam and the Genome, p. 30)

Yes, Venema does dig deeply into revelations from the human genome, and Evolution News does make a big deal about that. But Venema goes far deeper, a depth not plumbed by the posting. All this you can marvel at by plugging through the remainder of the book—which I did.

From the back cover of the book:

Dennis R. Venema (Ph.D., University of British Colombia) is professor of biology at Trinity Western University and Fellow of Biology for the BioLogos Foundation. He writes and speaks regularly about the biological evidence for evolution.

In the book Venema does lay out the evidence for evolution in grand detail, and it is this part that has caught the attention of the Intelligent Design pitch men. Some excerpts from the book elaborate:

Like many evangelicals, I (Dennis) grew up in an environment that was suspicious of science in general, and openly hostile to evolution in particular. Yet I had a deep longing to be a scientist, even as a child. For a long time, I reconciled my two worlds by rejecting evolution— after all, evolution was “just a theory” pushed by atheists and supported by “evidence” so flimsy that even a child could see through it. Moreover, Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life, and “what the Bible said about creation” was good enough for me.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

He goes on to say that conflicts with his faith almost kept him from pursuing his dream of becoming a scientist. Fortunately for science and for his students at Trinity Western, reason won out.

My family explored the possibility of my attending a Christian university, but it was more than we could afford. So a secular university it was, and I braced myself for what would surely be a trial for my faith.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 2). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Interestingly, I would remain an antievolutionist through the course of my PhD and on into my career as a professor, now teaching at the very same Christian university I was unable to afford as a student. What would come as something of a shock to me as a young professor is that, contrary to the claims of my Christian grade-school workbooks, evolution is a theory in the scientific sense.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 11). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What those creationists of the second kind found worth challenging is Venema’s erudite exposition of the evidence for common descent. For example:

In looking at the sequences above, we can see that there is good evidence to support the hypothesis that these two present-day genes come from a common ancestral population in the distant past, just as “butter, bread, and green cheese” and “bûter, brea, en griene tsiis” do. The principle is the same: they are far more similar to each other than they are functionally required to be. In principle, any words could stand for these concepts in either English or West Frisian; similarly, any matched pair of hormone and receptor could function to regulate blood sugar levels in humans or dogs. Yet what we observe strongly suggests, in both cases, that the present-day sequences are the modified descendants of what was once a common sequence.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 30). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Besides giving the creationists something to chew on, Venema does a great job of taking them down.

In the late 1990s I was a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, studying genetics and development. I had weathered my bachelor’s degree with my faith and antievolutionary views intact, and my area of study did not require me to think about evolution much at all. 3 Evolution was not completely avoidable, however: one very proevolution professor down the hall from my lab maintained a bulletin board called “Crackpot’s Corner,” where antievolutionary views were held up as objects of ridicule. It was here, on this bulletin board, that I first became aware of biochemist Michael Behe, a leader in the intelligent-design (ID) movement. 4 A little digging indicated that he had recently published a book, Darwin’s Black Box. In that book, which I eagerly devoured, Behe makes the case for what he calls “irreducible complexity”:

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (pp. 67-68). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Venema explores Behe’s irreducible complexity conjecture and finds it bare of support.

Behe argues, we can infer when we see protein complexes composed of several proteins that bind to one another that they are the product not of evolution but rather of design.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 69). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The irreducible complexity argument goes like this:

  • A living organism, even the simplest cell, is a complex assembly. Darwinian evolution stipulates that life forms were not always that complex.
  • Evolution from less complex to more complex life forms has taken place.
  • We now know that evolution proceeds by random mutation of genes, coupled with selective pressure that produces organisms more likely to predominate in the gene pool.
  • Random mutation of genes must occur in small steps, slight changes in a DNA chain—the genome.
  • Each slight change in the genome must be beneficial to the organism, else that change will not be preserved.
  • Existing organisms cannot operate competitively with the loss of a single function coded in the genome.
  • Modern organisms are irreducibly complex. There is no way to proceed from one viable organism to a new and more viable form by means of single mutations.

Behe stakes his argument against Darwinian evolution on his contention that many biological functions are irreducibly complex. What Venema does, and what others do, is to expose Behe’s supposed irreducibly, showing how current forms can be obtained by means of Darwinian evolution.

Interestingly, the virus did evolve to use a second host protein, one called OmpF. Not only did this happen once, but it happened repeatedly in the experiment. Sequencing the DNA of the viruses able to use OmpF instead of LamB revealed that one of the virus proteins— the one that normally binds to LamB, called “protein J”— had accumulated four amino acid changes. By looking at the preserved samples, the researchers showed that the new binding requires all four mutations to be present. They also showed that these mutations did not happen simultaneously, but rather sequentially. As it turns out, these single mutations allowed the protein J to bind more tightly to LamB, which was a significant advantage since hosts with LamB were so scarce in the experiment. Once three single mutations were in place, the virus was only one mutation away from the ability to bind and use OmpF. Interestingly, viruses capable of using OmpF retained  their ability to bind LamB— the virus could now use either host protein.

Two key aspects of this experiment are problematic for Behe’s thesis. First and foremost, this experiment documents the addition of a protein to an irreducibly complex system. The original system was composed of virus protein J binding to LamB, plus numerous other protein-binding events. The modified system lacks LamB and has a modified virus protein J that binds to OmpF instead. The intermediate system has the modified virus protein J and LamB, as well as OmpF, but now only one of LamB or OmpF is required. The transition from one irreducibly complex system to another has an intermediate state between them that acts as a scaffold, or to use Behe’s term, a stepping-stone.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (pp. 79-80). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Is it any wonder those creationists of the second kind, writing for Evolution News, feel the need to take Dennis Venema down.

Venema is beginning to look like a secular camp hero of the first kind. Where this discourse starts to come apart is the latter half contributed by Scot McKnight.

Scot McKnight (born November 9, 1953) is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, and author who has written widely on the historical Jesusearly Christianity and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL. McKnight is an ordained Anglican with anabaptist leanings, and has also written frequently on issues in modern anabaptism.

From Chapter 5 through Chapter 8, McKnight lays out a devilishly detailed analysis, some would say apologetic, on the place of Adam, both as a character in Genesis and as an ideal in Judeo-Christian faith. I apologize for having little comprehension of what he is attempting to get across, but I will have a go at my interpretation.

What happens when the church or, in my case, a Bible professor, encounters the kind of science found in the first part of this book? What happens, not to put too fine a point on it, when evolutionary theory and the Human Genome Project encounter the Bible’s creation narratives? What happens then when we are told that the best of science today teaches that the DNA characteristic of modern humans could not have come from less than approximately 10,000 hominins? What happens when we are told there were pre-Adamite humans? What about those two humans in Genesis 1– 3? And what about the eight that survived Noah’s flood? Which are we to believe, some ask: the Bible or science?

That last question leads some of us to dig in our heels while others shift with the latest conclusions of science. Some relish the countercultural stance of digging in their heels, and, to switch imagery, the second group at times refers to their counterparts as hiding their heads in the sand of the past or even of religious superstition. What the first thinks is faithfulness to the Bible, the second thinks is intellectual compromise. The accusations go both ways. You’ve probably heard them as often as I have. To illustrate I pose the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, who dug in against scientists, with Galileo from the generation following Luther, who permitted science to reshape his thinking. Luther said this of the facts in the Bible that seem to conflict with the external realities: “The more it seems to conflict with all experience and reason, the more carefully it must be noted and the more surely believed.” When Luther turns to Eve being formed from a rib, he says, “This is extravagant fiction and the silliest kind of nonsense if you set aside the authority of Scripture and follow the judgment of reason.” But perhaps this illustrates his heel digging the most: “Although it sounds like a fairy tale to reason, it is the most certain truth.” Here Luther contrasts “reason” (or scientific thinking) and faith or Scripture. One might call Luther’s approach the dominating approach to science and faith because he chooses— against reason, he admits— for the Bible to dominate the evidence. Galileo mirrors Luther with another kind of domination: “A natural phenomenon which is placed before our eyes by sense experience or proved by necessary demonstration should not be called into question, let alone condemned, on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning.” The choice to let either the Bible or science dominate the other is common enough, but there is a better way, one that permits each of the disciplines to speak its own language but also requires each of the voices to speak to one another. Science, after all, can help the interpreter of the Bible just as the Bible can provide horizons and vistas for the scientist. Three Old Testament scholars are modeling how this dialogue between the Bible and science can be fruitful— John Walton, Tremper Longman, and Peter Enns. They don’t agree with one another always, nor do I always agree with them in the pages that follow, but they have opened up new pathways for this kind of dialogue to occur.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 93-94). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That’s a massive chunk of text carved out of a book for review, but it’s worth doing on two counts:

  • McKnight has a knack for the longest trains of thought I have encountered in writing, making it difficult to find a good point to insert a break.
  • This piece pretty much summarizes my impression of where McKnight is going with the last four chapters.

He seems to accept that Adam and his faithful companion Eve are not the origin of the human race. Then he spends the remainder of his alloted space attempting to justify the story of Adam (and Eve) by invoking context.

I have to admit that the encounter with science made me wonder at times about what I had been taught, about what the Bible said, about whether or not the Bible was wrong, and— this was for me a defining intellectual moment— about whether traditional interpretations of Genesis 1– 2 were perhaps well intended but misguided and in need of rethinking. In other words, my encounters with trustworthy scientists and their works taught me to go back to the Bible with other questions and other possible interpretations and to ask what Genesis meant in its world. In this I believe I was motivated by a quest to know the truth. I went back to the Bible to read Genesis in context and to ask if what many thought the Bible was saying (that is, its interpreted meaning) was not in fact what the Bible was actually saying (its original meaning). But there’s more: my encounter with science that prompted renewed study of Genesis also led me to challenge science about some of its assumptions. Modernity, expressed in extreme form in the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, presses into our minds that the only reality is the empirical. If only what studies the empirical world (science) ascertains reality, then only science tells us the truth about reality. However, this common assumption in modernity is a case of concluding what one already assumes. How so? This approach restricts discoveries to empirically testable realities. Nothing else is real. But what if there is more? What if some kind of nonempirical reality exists? This is the sort of question the Bible presses on the scientist. I am convinced that there is more than the empirical, or perhaps I should say the more is hyperreality or suprareality. If so, there is a reality not knowable exclusively by the empirical methods of science. Theology, which is designed to investigate that nonempirical reality in some ways, can provide a map onto which we can locate science and which can challenge science.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 95). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[Emphasis added]

Use of “context” occurs four times prior to this point, including once in an introduction and once in the Table of Contents. It appears an additional 85 times from this point forward. My take: context is everything.

Where have I seen this before? It was in the matter of tattoos. A Facebook friend, a devout Christian and one who from time to time posts pronouncements of faith, called attention to her tattoos. Gentleman that I am, I reminded her that the Bible forbids tattoos, much as it forbids homosexuality. A relative chimed in with the reassurance that it is a matter of “context.”

My take (again): “context” is a cop-out. When context is invoked to justify the Bible, then what you are getting from the Bible is the interpretation being pushed by the speaker. You are not getting the word of God. You are getting the word of the interpreter. You are not placing you faith in a 3000-year-old set of laws. You are placing your faith in whoever happens to be professing faith, an extreme case being the sordid collapse of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple.

Previously mentioned, McKnight’s parsing of theological history largely passes over my head. Therefore I will post a few excerpts that caught my attention, and  I will let the reader get back to me. Advice requested.

I went back to the Bible to read Genesis in context and to ask if what many thought the Bible was saying (that is, its interpreted meaning) was not in fact what the Bible was actually saying (its original meaning).

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 95). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Every statement about Adam and Eve in the Old Testament, in Jewish literature, and in the New Testament is made from a context and into a context. Furthermore, some of the statements about Adam and Eve in all this literature are designed to speak against that context. That is, those statements are polemics and apologetics. Learning about those contexts and polemics often brings fresh understanding of the intention of the Bible and hence of what God wants his people to hear. In addition, this contextual approach to Adam and Eve provides a model for how Christians today can think about Adam and Eve in the context of the faith-and-science debate. If the Human Genome Project provides brilliant discoveries about the origin of life and the development of humans into who we are today, we will all gain clarity if Christians learn how to speak about Adam and Eve in a context that both affirms conclusions about the genome and challenges some conclusions drawn from the Human Genome Project. Contexts, both ancient and modern, shape what we see, what we hear, and how we respond.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 97). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Winding down with:

Interpreting the Bible is not easy. As Scot demonstrates, taking into account the languages, contexts, and presumed intents from centuries ago is a lot like, well, paleontology. Again, when explaining the challenges science presents to Christian faith, I stress the important distinction between scientific findings (e.g., DNA in a Siberian cave) and the philosophical or theological interpretations of those findings (Homo sapiens therefore emerged by sheer luck of the genome, or God operates on a circuitous route not unlike wandering in the wilderness to get to the promised land).

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 197). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Summarizing the book, we have two obviously intelligent people still clinging to the notion there is a magical person who created us and the universe and who cares for us personally. That this can be so is not an indication that there is no problem at hand. It is an indication that the problem is both wide and deep-seated.

May Jesus have mercy on our souls.

The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 3 in a series

Today I’m continuing to follow some posts on the Intelligent Design blog Evolution News. Sometimes these posts are anonymous, credited to Evolution News, with no author specified. This one was posted by Cornelius Hunter, listed as a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. In fact, that is how his entry in CreationWiki lists him:

Cornelius G. Hunter, Ph.D., is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he earned a B.S and M.S. in aerospace engineering receiving a Ph.D. in Biophysics and Computational Biology from the University of Illinois and currently is Adjunct Professor of science and religion at Biola University. He is currently engaged in molecular biophysics post-doctoral and engineering research in Cameron Park, California. He is fellow of the Discovery Institute‘s Center for Science and Culture (CSC). He is formerly senior vice president of Seagull Technology, Inc.

Postings by a Facebook friend continue to bring to my attention a number of these Evolution News postings. Here is the most recent:

Warren Allmon on the Argument from Homology

Cornelius Hunter January 19, 2018, 1:30 PM

once debated two evolutionists on the campus of Cornell University. In that debate I raised several fundamental problems with evolutionary theory. The problems that I pointed out fell into two broad categories: process and pattern.

In the latter category, I noted that the keystone argument for evolution from homology had badly failed. Unfortunately, that failure was waved off and went unaddressed by the evolution professors. That may not have been the case had Warren Allmon been able to participate. Allmon, Director of the Cornell University-affiliated Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), has thought more deeply about the homology argument than most evolutionists. Now in 2018, he has published, along with adjunct professor Robert Ross, a new paper, “Evolutionary remnants as widely accessible evidence for evolution: the structure of the argument for application to evolution education.” The paper, in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, contains a very important concession.

As is typical, the new Allmon/Ross paper makes several serious scientific errors, either through ignorance, denial, confirmation bias, or whatever. The paper also relies on heavily religious claims and arguments, which again is typical.

And Hunter goes on in this manner for several additional lines, never getting around to the matter of homology and evidence for evolution. He proposes to work through the argument in future installments, and I will attempt to follow up.

In the meantime, it’s worth noting the selection of Cornelius G. Hunter as a fellow at the CSC, and it is especially interesting that he’s on Evolution News, which history is to deny any religious basis for Intelligent Design. In that effort, the CSC is much out on a limb. I mean, look what I do. Everywhere I write Intelligent Design, I capitalize it, such as I would Christianity and Islam. These are religions, and their names get put in initial caps.

While I’m on the matter, here is a list of books by Cornelius G. Hunter:

  • Hunter, Cornelius G. (2001). Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil. Ada, MI: Baker/Brazos Press. ISBN 978-1-58743011-4.
  • Hunter, Cornelius G. (2003). Darwin’s Proof: The Triumph of Religion over Science. Ada, MI: Baker/Brazos Press. ISBN 978-1-58743056-5.
  • Hunter, Cornelius G. (2007). Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism. Ada, MI: Baker/Brazos Press. ISBN 978-1-58743170-8.

Somebody advised me that the CSC has thrown in the towel and decided the religious approach is the way to go in promoting Intelligent Design. The image above is, in fact, from the video series Does God Exist, featuring creationist and CSC fellow Stephen C. Meyer and produced by Focus on the Family, decidedly not the go-to place for scientific enlightenment.

Anyhow, I am among the most glad to see the CSC becoming more open about the connection between the God of Abraham and Intelligent Design. It makes my job of pointing this out a lot easier, even if not as much fun. There’s going to be lots more. Keep reading.

And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.

The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 2 in a series

Hot damn! This is getting good. Yesterday I kicked off this series with a review of a post (by somebody) on Evolution News, the blog site hosted by the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture. That’s the group doing the heavy lifting to promote the Intelligent Design version of creationism in this country. It so happens I picked up on three such postings, courtesy of a Facebook friend who linked them on his time line. Here’s another:

Submit Nominations for 2018 Censor of the Year Now!

We’re about a month away from Darwin Day, February 12. It’s the great man’s birthday, celebrated by Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture as Academic Freedom Day. We prefer this alternative framing of the occasion because the freedom to debate Charles Darwin’s scientific legacy is continually endangered by intimidation, threats to careers and livelihoods, fake news and fake science, and subtle and totally unsubtle forms of censorship.

All right! This is going to be good. The language of Evolution News is picking up the tone of rhetoric in today’s political world. I particularly enjoy seeing “intimidation, threats to careers and livelihoods, fake news and fake science.” Also “unsubtle forms of censorship.” This writer is prepared to lay it on thick. Who could ask for more?

The writer is identified, something often missing. He’s David Klinghoffer, somebody I enjoy reading. Here’s his Wikipedia entry:

David Klinghoffer is an Orthodox Jewish author and essayist, and a proponent of intelligent design. He is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, the organization that is the driving force behind the intelligent design movement. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review, and a former columnist for the Jewish weekly newspaper The Forward, to which he still contributes occasional essays.

And there’s more:

Klinghoffer has published a series of articles, editorial columns, and letters to the editor in both Jewish and non-Jewish conservative publications seeking to promote opposition to Darwinian views of evolution, stating that science can include a support for an underlying intelligent design in the development of living things and the universe as a whole, and, indeed, that some scientists hold to such views. Larry Yudelson has responded, in a piece directed at Klinghoffer, that rabbinical Judaism has accepted evolutionary theory for more than a century, and that Judaism has never rejected science. Yudelson also argues that Klinghoffer’s employer, the Discovery Institute, is a Christian think tank that is funded by organizations that seek to promote a “Christian-friendly world view”

Surprise, surprise! Yes, people, Jews do support creationism. Don’t forget, Jews invented this fantasy to begin with. Christians and Muslims since picked up the torch, and especially Christians are now the big promoters. Anyhow, David Klinghoffer has more to say from his Evolution News post. He is asking  readers to submit nominations for Censor of the Year (COTY). Here’s what he has to say about the great injustice being perpetrated:

Darwinists do not go so far as to burn books by proponents of intelligent design. However, their actual tactics in suppressing open debate are far more effective because, for the most part, they are practiced behind a veil of secrecy.

Remember, as Sarah Chaffee pointed out last week, most Darwinist censorship works via self-censorship. In academic and other contexts, the intimidation need not be explicit. It is practiced quietly, without drawing attention to itself. The victims, the censored, understandably don’t want to imperil their work, their income, or their reputation. So they keep quiet both about their doubts on Darwinian evolution and about the power structure in their institutions that maintains the informal speech code.

Yes, that’s it. Darwinists (scientists) intimidate the opposition by subtle and nefarious means, such means not being elaborated here, but perhaps in the Sarah Chaffee post that is linked above. I invite you to follow the link and read the sordid details. She tells of professors who give private talks promoting Intelligent Design, who must disclaim up front they do not speak for their academic institutions. Additionally she writes:

Or just take a look at our pictures on Evolution News of the Summer Seminars on Intelligent Design. You may see the very tops of students’ heads, no more. Not their faces, not an inch of their profile. Those we carefully crop out. This is to keep participants’ identities a secret. It’s so their career prospects will not be harmed by an association with intelligent design.

Anyhow, the issue is that people in the know who want to criticize Darwinian evolution and more so, promote Intelligent Design, find themselves ridiculed by colleagues and others. Yes ridiculed. Coerced into keeping quiet. To be sure, I have my own characterization of what’s happening:

Typically a candidate for tenure at a college or university must pass review by his peers. Tenure is almost a lifetime assurance of employment and can be denied if your peers do not look forward to working with you. I have stated elsewhere that there are only so many times you can show up for the party with your fly unzipped before you are no longer invited.

Sadly it is true. If you say stuff that is foolish enough for long enough, people around you will start to conclude there is something wrong with your thinking process. And therein lies the problem with Klinghoffer’s premise and that of the rest of the Intelligent Design  crowd. This is undue criticism, undue intimidation, only if Intelligent Design has a basis in fact. The problem for Klinghoffer et al is that Intelligent Design really is creationism dressed up to look like science. And thinking people recognize this. And they act appropriately, if unkindly, in response.

There are more of these. Keep reading.

The Years of Living Stupidly

Time to start a new series.

A fellow skeptic keeps posting stuff from Evolution News, and my Facebook feed picks it up. Evolution News is the blog of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, an enterprise started up by creationist Stephen C. Meyer in 1996, and he is currently the director. I’ve spent a lot of time the past two years trying to  ignore output from the Discovery Institute, but something about this post brought me back. Here’s what it’s about:

Adam and the Genome and Human-Ape Genetic Similarity

Evolution News @DiscoveryCSC January 18, 2018, 7:54 AM

In Adam and the Genome, Trinity Western University biologist Dennis Venema covers many other subjects besides what you might expect from the book’s title. We have been reviewing this material by the prominent theistic evolutionist and BioLogos author; find the series so far here.

Thus, Venema cites the high degree of genetic similarities between insulin genes in humans and other mammals as evidence for our common ancestry. He writes:

[W]e can see that there is good evidence to support the hypothesis that these two present-day genes come from a common ancestral population in the distant past … What we observe for this short segment is that the gorilla sequence is identical to that of the human except for one letter; the chimpanzee is identical except for three; and the orangutan is identical except for five. As before, this level of identity far exceeds what is needed for functional insulin, and strongly supports the hypothesis that humans share a common ancestral population with great apes. Indeed, the similarities between these sequences make English and West Frisian look like very distant relatives by comparison.

(Adam and the Genome, p. 30)

Yes, it appears Evolution News is having a go at biologist Dennis Venema’s new book (2017) Adam and the Genome. What the Discovery Institute wants to convince us is that life forms and all we see about us could not have come about by natural processes. A creator, an intelligent entity of some sort, must be behind it. That’s what’s going on here. Here Evolution News is digging at Venema’s evolutionary explanation for the similarity between the human genome and that of some of our close relations. Venema is using the origin of languages to make a comparison. I have the Kindle edition of the book, which allows me to provide the context of the above:

In looking at the sequences above, we can see that there is good evidence to support the hypothesis that these two present-day genes come from a common ancestral population in the distant past, just as “butter, bread, and green cheese” and “bûter, brea, en griene tsiis” do. The principle is the same: they are far more similar to each other than they are functionally required to be. In principle, any words could stand for these concepts in either English or West Frisian; similarly, any matched pair of hormone and receptor could function to regulate blood sugar levels in humans or dogs. Yet what we observe strongly suggests, in both cases, that the present-day sequences are the modified descendants of what was once a common sequence.

Now that we understand the redundancy of the codon code, we can see that for genes this rabbit hole goes even deeper. Many of the amino acids in insulin can be coded for by alternate codons. For example, “Leu” in the diagram indicates the amino acid leucine, for which there are six possible codons. This short snippet of the insulin gene codes for nine leucines, and eight of them use exactly the same codon in dogs and humans (and the ninth differs by only one letter). For these nine codons, there are 96 (= 531,441) possible combinations that will correctly code for just these nine leucines, to say nothing of the other 101 amino acids found in insulin, most of which can be encoded for by multiple codons. Is it merely by chance that what we observe in these two species is only one letter different for these nine codons? A simpler, more reasonable explanation (or what a scientist would call a more “parsimonious” explanation) is that these sequences come from a common ancestral population and have been slightly modified along the way.

Of course, scientists have sequenced the genomes of many other species, so we can test this hypothesis by looking at a larger data set. Humans are not thought to have shared a common ancestral population with dogs for a very long time; other species are thought to be our much closer relatives due to other shared features, such as anatomy. When the pre-Darwin biologist Carl Linnaeus (1707– 78) drew up his taxonomy of animal life (i.e., a system that organized life into categories), he famously placed humans and great apes in a category he called “primate,” from the Latin indicating “prime” or “first.” While he was certainly not thinking about common ancestry, he naturally recognized that these species (such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) have a closer anatomical affinity to humans than other animals. In light of such an affinity, evolutionary theory predicts that these species share a more recent common ancestral population with humans than nonprimate species, such as dogs, do. Therefore, their gene sequences should be a closer match to human sequences than what we observe in dogs. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what we observe. Let’s return to our example of the insulin gene and extend our comparison of the same short stretch to include three great apes (fig. 2.6).

What we observe for this short segment is that the gorilla sequence is identical to that of the human except for one letter; the chimpanzee is identical except for three; and the orangutan is identical except for five. As before, this level of identity far exceeds what is needed for functional insulin, and strongly supports the hypothesis that humans share a common ancestral population with great apes. Indeed, the similarities between these sequences make English and West Frisian look like very distant relatives by comparison.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 30-31). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I highlighted the portions the author reprinted from the original. Use of this partial excerpt is legitimate, since it does not change Venema’s original meaning and intent. What is to be found in the complete text is a fuller explanation, plus a tie-in to Venema’s language analogy.

The history of languages makes for an interesting study, and for English readers there is particular significance. The book The Story of English, by Robert MacNeilRobert McCrum, and William Cran is a companion book to the PBS television series of the same name. I have a similar book, The Stories of English, by David Crystal. It rehashes the history of English in much the same way:

We can note both of these processes happening for the Germanic group of languages during the period. In the late second century, the Goths moved into Europe from southern Scandinavia, eventually arriving in the Mediterranean region. During the fourth century, Bishop Wulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic. The language had changed so much during this short time that scholars now consider it to be a distinct, eastern branch of the Germanic family. On the other hand, the westward movement of peoples along the north European coast and into England resulted in a group of languages which had much greater similarities. English and Frisian, indeed, were so close that they would probably have been mutually intelligible for many centuries, especially in Kent. Even today, though mutual intelligibility has long since gone, English people listening to modern Frisian sense a familiarity with its expression which is not present in the case of Dutch or German. Genetic anthropologists have discovered a significant Y-chromosome identity, too (p. 31). 3

Crystal, David. The Stories of English (pp. 20-21). The Overlook Press. Kindle Edition.

I once visited the northwest coast of the European continent and was struck by the similarity. At a company cafeteria I picked up a coupon good for two desserts and had no trouble reading it, even though it was written in the local  language.

Anyhow, the background is fascinating, but the intent of Evolution News is to demonstrate that Venema is wrong—genetic similarity does not indicate common descent. Evolution News sometime ago quit identifying authors, but whoever posted this item failed to get the message. Traditionally, Intelligent Design, a concoction of the Discovery Institute, does not rule out common ancestry. These people tend to allow for that, but they also want us to know that natural, and especially random, process are not at work. The whole line of descent process was managed by an intelligent entity, yet unnamed. With some exceptions:

If the Associated Press writer confused a challenge to common descent with “Intelligent Design,” it could be because Intelligent Design proponents with the CSC on occasion do challenge common descent. For example, Ray Bohlin is a CSC fellow and supposedly a spokesman for Intelligent Design. At the Texas Faith Network conference in Dallas on 3 November 2003 Bohlin addressed a large room full of people and stated that common descent was true for all life forms, except humans. You can imagine the confusion of all in attendance.

Retired law professor Phillip Johnson is considered the godfather of the modern Intelligent Design  movement. At a symposium titled “Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference,” held on the campus of Southern Methodist University in March 199, .I had a chance to talk with Johnson and get his views firsthand. He expressed some surprising points for an opponent of evolution:

n 1992 Johnson attended the conference on “Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference” at Southern Methodist University (SMU). The conference was inspired by Jon Buell, a local creationist. Buell’s Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) published the book Pandas and People, an early work pushing Intelligent Design. At the conference the departure from young-Earth creationism was stark. Johnson and Buell were standing together when I asked them the question. Their answer was significant. Yes, the Earth and the universe really are billions of years old, and yes, present life forms share a common ancestry. These were not your grandfather’s creationists.

Here is a copy of the proceedings.

Anyhow, Evolution News is now having none of that. Continuing from the post:

The obvious answer to this argument is common design — that humans, gorillas, and orangutans were designed based upon a common blueprint. This would explain genetic similarity between humans and other species quite well.

Then the author presents an additional excerpt and promptly goes off the rails with this:

There he goes again, telling God what he can and cannot do. It’s a bit of chutzpah, don’t you think? He’s also telling God what God must intend when he does certain things. In particular, Venema is telling God that if he designs two species to be similar then God must thereby intend to tell us that those species are related through common ancestry. And if those species aren’t really related, then Venema tells God that he is being deceitful.

But what if Venema is putting thoughts into God’s head that aren’t there? What if God could have entirely different purposes for designing two species as similar — purposes that have nothing to do with trying to communicate some message to humans about relatedness or unrelatedness?

Oh, Jesus! You gave away the store. Intelligent Design is not supposed to be about God. It’s supposed to be science, real science, well-researched science, science that reveals there is a Designer, not identified and definitely not identified as G*d. G*d is the word that keeps Intelligent Design out of public classrooms, which is where its proponents, despite much public posturing, in their heart of hearts want it to be. Possibly we are now seeing the offshoot of all those years of living stupidly.

That covered, there is more of interest. The post dips into  a discussion of The Language of God, a book by Francis Collins:

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950) is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project. He is director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, United States.

Before being appointed director of the NIH, Collins led the Human Genome Project and other genomics research initiatives as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of the 27 institutes and centers at NIH. Before joining NHGRI, he earned a reputation as a gene hunter at the University of Michigan. He has been elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science.

In order to continue following the discussion I obtained a Kindle edition and will be covering that in future posts. Also, and free on Amazon, is Intelligent Design the Final Proof of God. Go for it. Kindle readers are free for tablets and computers.

Darwin’s Doubt

Number 3 in a Series

Chipmunk confronts a diet soda can near Mirror Lake Utah

I have a copy of creationist Stephen C. Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt, and I have promised to review it. I was recently reminded of that by a post on the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News site. That posting excerpts a number of passages from the book. I previously reviewed the first of those. Here is another citation:

Intelligent agents can generate top-down patterns of appearance like we see in animal body plans.

Here is the pertinent passage:

“Top-down” causation begins with a basic architecture, blueprint, or plan and then proceeds to assemble parts in accord with it. The blueprint stands causally prior to the assembly and arrangement of the parts. But where could such a blueprint come from? One possibility involves a mental mode of causation. Intelligent agents often conceive of plans prior to their material instantiation— that is, the preconceived design of a blueprint often precedes the assembly of parts in accord with it. An observer touring the parts section of a General Motors plant will see no direct evidence of a prior blueprint for GM’s new models, but will perceive the basic design plan immediately upon observing the finished product at the end of the assembly line. Designed systems, whether automobiles, airplanes, or computers, invariably manifest a design plan that preceded their first material instantiation. But the parts do not generate the whole. Rather, an idea of the whole directed the assembly of the parts.

Meyer, Stephen C.. Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (pp. 371-372). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Meyer is correct in stating (by implication) that a builder, on receiving a set of design specifications (blue prints and such), can proceed in constructing a device or assembly. Note the implication. There exists nothing like the desired assembly. The materials to construct it are present, and there is a pre-recorded set of instructions for construction. The instructions are the sole source of the information required for construction.

At this point a reminder is helpful. Define information as the agent that mediates cause and effect. I have stated this previously, perhaps not in this exact form. Nobody has ever challenged my definition. All are welcome to have a go at it.

What Meyer does not concede is that a set of instructions is not a prerequisite for constructing a device/assembly. Random processes can accomplish this. This is the basis of Darwinian evolution, and this is what the creationists argue strongly against. They pose it much like this:

Given even the finished components, steel sheet, machine screws, quantities of paint, it is unlikely to the extreme that a random process will assemble these components into a functional automobile, much less into one that somebody would purchase off the showroom floor and drive away.

To be sure, that is an extreme statement of the creationists’ argument, and those people do argue a more digestible case. Their most popular argument is more like this:

Given a completed, perfectly functional, automobile and given materials to be added to produce next year’s model, it is improbable to the extreme that this modification can occur by accident. Some sort of pre-conceived design is required. A set of documentation is required. At the minimum there must be an intelligent agent with the pre-conceived design upgrade in mind.

And this is what the so-called Darwinists object to. The creationists insist there must be a pre-conceived idea, there being no mention of who or what holds this pre-conceived idea. To be clear, the agency that Stephen C. Meyer represents is the Discovery Institute, and their concept is called Intelligent Design. Further, the narrators of Intelligent Design want to insist that religious faith is not at the base of their argument. And this last is an outrageous lie of grand proportions. Any notion that Stephen C. Meyer pushes Intelligent Design absent religious faith is daily countered by his own words and actions. For example:

The final four episodes deal with the New Testament, the contribution by Christians, telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth, his teachings, his trial and execution, and his return from the dead. Meyer wants to assure viewers all those doubts about the validity of the New Testament are groundless.

Following the trajectory of Meyer’s life and career, we see a relentless commitment to a defense of the Christian faith. His promotion of Intelligent Design is one manifestation of that commitment.

Returning to Meyer’s argument, biologists argue that random processes we observe in nature are adequate to have produced the life forms we see today. In direct counter to Meyer, the concept of Intelligent Design is intellectually bankrupt on a number of points. Repeating myself:

I scoff. Really? Let me get this straight. An Intelligent Agent, the Entity who created the Universe, the Earth, the planets, the sun, and all we see around us—this Entity, took over 13 billion years to get us to where we are today after first creating the Universe. Actually, over 13 billion years to get us to the point where there was a Universe and a planet Earth, and there were any number of species of plants and animals, but none resembling people. Allow me to repeat: Really? If that is Stephen C. Meyer’s concept of intelligence, then Heaven help the human species, because intelligence is all that’s keeping us going.

Additionally, at no point in their argument have proponents of Intelligent Design identified a mechanism by which the Intelligent Designer could have implemented these designs. Nor can they.

I will continue the review of Meyer’s book through an analysis of the Evolution News post prior to diving into a direct review of the book. Keep reading.

Darwin’s Doubt

Number 2

Chipmunk confronts a diet soda can near Mirror Lake, Utah

It was two years ago I obtained a copy of creationist Stephen C. Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt and promised to review it. I was recently reminded of that by a post on the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News site:

In his book Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen Meyer considers the nature of animals and what is required to build an animal. He finds that only intelligent design can explain the abrupt origin of animal life in the fossil record, as well as the new information required to build the integrated nature of parts and systems that comprise animal body plans. Here’s how Meyer makes the case that intelligent design is the best explanation for many aspects of the origin of animals as witnessed in the Cambrian explosion:

The posting is not signed, a departure from my previous experience. The site lists a number of contributors, here listed in no particular order:

The author goes on to state:

Intelligent agents can generate new form rapidly as we see in the abrupt appearance of animals in the Cambrian fossil record:

That is followed by an excerpt from the book:

Intelligent agents have foresight. Such agents can determine or select functional goals before they are physically instantiated. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities. They can then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design plan or set of functional requirements. Rational agents can constrain combinatorial space with distant information-rich outcomes in mind.

Meyer, Stephen C.. Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (pp. 362-363). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Yes! Stephen C. Meyer is 100% correct. If you have an agent, a person, with intelligence and foresight, you can make much more rapid progress than can be accomplished by random processes alone. Here is what an intelligent agent can do:

  • Send nerve impulses from a brain to muscles and cause objects to move, directing bits of matter to come into contact and preventing certain things from happening, which things would not ordinarily have happened were it not for said intervention.
  • Use eyes or other sensory methods to determine what is going on, allowing the brain to make decisions and to change the course of actions being taken.

If the Intelligent Agent only had a brain. Or hands. Or eyes.

What Meyer is saying, perhaps without realizing it, is that somewhere in the distant past something caused matter to move in ways contrary to the natural flow of events. And nowhere in any of his writings I have found has Meyer explained such happenings, neither has he mentioned them. It is an explanation the proponents of Intelligent Design must not touch. It is the figurative third rail of Intelligent Design. Touch it, and Intelligent Design dies.

But stop right there. I know what Meyer and the other creationists are going to say. Allow me to propose a quote:

Our research has not yet uncovered a method. However, our observations and our reasoning have convinced us, and will convince any thinking person, that there must have been an  Intelligent Agent at work. Else we would not have gotten to where we are today.

Explainer of Intelligent Design

I scoff. Really? Let me get this straight. An Intelligent Agent, the Entity who created the Universe, the Earth, the planets, the sun, and all we see around us—this Entity, took over 13 billion years to get us to where we are today after first creating the Universe. Actually, over 13 billion years to get us to the point where there was a Universe and a planet Earth, and there were any number of species of plants and animals, but none resembling people. Allow me to repeat: Really? If that is Stephen C. Meyer’s concept of intelligence, then Heaven help the human species, because intelligence is all that’s keeping us going.

I will dig deeper into Stephen C. Meyer’s book in the coming days. In the meantime, the Evolution News posting has a link to a neat video, which you should watch. I know I will watch it, and I will have a go at summarizing it in a future post. Here’s the link:

And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.

Fool’s Argument

Sixth of a series

This is the sixth in my review of the video production Does God Exist, brought to you by Focus on the Family, an agency for conservative Christian advocacy. The video is available on DVD from Amazon, and it is currently streaming on Amazon, free with Amazon Prime.

The previous episode featured creationist Stephen C. Meyer, introducing the concept he elucidated in his book, Signature in the Cell, previously reviewed. This time Meyer is continuing that theme, and he is going to be arguing that in the evolutionary development of life on this planet, natural processes face improbable odds.

 

He cites Douglas Axe, another creationist associated with the Discovery Institute.

I am posting a transcription of the text to make it visible to search engines.

Doug Axe, Ph.D., Cal Tech, formerly @ Cambridge Univ.

A Critical Question

How common (or rare) are functional sequences (i.e., proteins) among all the possible combinations of amino acids?

We are going to learn that proteins are chains of amino acids (peptide chains), and their critical functionality in living cells is the shape they take on when folded, as these chains do naturally when formed. Only a few out of many [understatement alert] possible proteins are functional to living cells. Accidental formation of a useful protein is extremely unlikely.

The text:

How Rare are Functional Sequences?

For every ONE of these

How many of these [= 1/????]

Meyer gives the numbers.

Here’s the text.

CHANCES OF FINDING A FUNCTIONAL PROTEIN BY CHANCE = 1/10164!!!

1080 elementary particles in  the universe

1016 seconds since the Big Bang

10139 events since the beginning of the universe!

Those are tall odds.

Meyer concludes the argument for natural formation of living matter is circlar.

To wit:

Begging the Question

Natural Selection

Self-Replication

Sequence Specific DNA and Proteins.

He is saying sequence-specific DNA and proteins are required for self-replication, which is required for natural selection, a false argument. He does not recognize the feasibility of self-replication without DNA and proteins. Self replication of non-living matter is what scientists propose. Scientists have not demonstrated the complete development of living cells from self-replicating, non-living matter, and neither has Meyer demonstrated his claim for Intelligent Design.

Additionally, Meyer calls this begging the question, which it technically is not. Begging the question has a stricter definition, but that is a minor issue.

He brings up Michael Polanyi.

Here is what he has to say:

Michael  Polanyi

“As the arrangement of a printed page is extraneous to the chemistry of the printed page, so the base sequence of a DNA molecule [is] extraneous to the chemical forces at work in the DNA molecule.”

Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry

Meyer is using the Polanyi quote to illustrate his argument that natural chemical processes alone cannot account for the fortunate formation of life-critical molecules.

The association of Michael Polanyi (in name only) with the Discovery Institute goes back 18 years. In 1999 William Dembski, under the auspices of a friendly University president, founded the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University.

The Michael Polanyi Center (MPC) at Baylor University, Texas was the first center at a research university exclusively dedicated to intelligent design study. It was founded in 1999 “with the primary aim of advancing the understanding of the sciences,” in a religious context and is named for Michael Polanyi. All of the center’s research investigated the subject of intelligent design. The center was relegated in late 2000 to a minor program within the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning and fully dissolved in 2003.

There are many points covered in this episode I have not covered,  but this provides the flavor. Meyer concludes.

The text:

There is no naturalistic explanation for the origin of the information that you need to build the first life.

His conclusion is way over the top. It is not a logical conclusion, even based on the partial discussion of the topic he has presented. Specifically, Meyer discusses improbabilities of purely random processes, denies the possibility of self-replication by means other than DNA (and such). Then he jumps to the origin of information, which origin he has nor argued against in his talk.

In my review of his book eight years ago, I posited that novel information comes from purely random events, a conclusion I suspect will be counterintuitive to most. Contact me if you want to discuss this further.

In Episode 7, titled “DNA by Design, Part 3: Information and Intelligence,” Meyer is apparently going to continue to discuss intelligence as it relates to biological evolution. From Amazon:

We know that the source of any information found within the DNA code is intelligence itself. So where does this intelligence come from? Chance? Natural Selection?

Keep reading. Look for a review tomorrow of Episode 7. Only four more of these to go, and it’s going to be interesting to see where Meyer takes us.

Fool’s Argument

Fifth of a series

This is the fifth in my review of the video production Does God Exist, brought to you by Focus on the Family, an agency for conservative Christian advocacy. The video is available on DVD from Amazon, and it is currently streaming on Amazon, free with Amazon Prime.

There are ten episodes plus a bonus feature. I have not watched episodes in  advance of these reviews, so I have no idea what comes after this one.

Featured in the video is creationist Stephen C. Meyer, a founder of the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture. This episode will begin a multi-part discourse into Meyer’s argument that the features of life imply design, and one of those implications is the apparent information manifested in living things and in particular in the DNA molecule, an essential component of living cells. The video was produced in  2009, the year Meyer came out with his book on the topic, titled Signature in the Cell. I obtained a copy at the time and reviewed it for The North Texas Skeptics. Some of this is going to be a rehash of that prior discussion.

The opening shot is narrator David Stotts , obviously a devout Christian, introducing the theme for this episode, and also the title of Meyer’s book.

As before, I’m going to post a few screen shots showing Meyer’s presentation material  in a dramatized lecture. There are more not shown here, but these are worth discussing. The first is about the debate concerning design in biology. That’s a trick proposition, because in biology there is no debate. Biologists do not consider design when doing biology research. The concept of design  in biology has been introduced in recent years (revived after being moribund for decades) in order to create the false impression there is a debate among biologists.

Here is a transcript of the text, giving search engines the ability to find it.

  1. Intelligent Design  – Things look designed because they are designed.
  2. Darwinism – Things look designed, but they are not designed.

Hint: biologists do not take into consideration that things look designed.

Throughout, Meyer quotes actual biologists, showing significant language in which they included discussions of design.

Francisco Ayala, Past President, AAAS

The functional design of organisms and their features would therefore seem to argue for the existence of a designer. It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.

I was unable to find this Ayala quote in a Google search, but that does not mean he never wrote it. This reference did not lead me to the actual text.

Meyer discusses the early discourse following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In the decades following publication of the book the discussion concentrated on the evolutionary development of modern species and presumably those found only in the fossil record. That’s shown in the upper part of the tree diagram. The lower part, which includes the development of living cells from inert matter, was assumed.

Meyer presents the stages of evolutionary development. Only the top stage (circles) could be explained by the newly-developed science of genetics.

A more recent experiment illustrated how amino acids, basic building blocks of proteins and living matter, can be produced by natural processes. This is the famous Miller-Urey experiment from 1952. The experiment had a go at simulating conditions on Earth before the advent of life, and it did produce amino acids.

Meyer correctly points out that Miller and Urey did not correctly reproduce conditions existing during those times, thus invalidating the experiment. What happened next, and what Meyer does not explain to his students, is that after a more accurate determination of prior conditions, similar experiments were conducted, and again primordial organic molecules were produced, although not as efficiently as in the original experiment.

Meyer does not discuss these later experiments, because his purpose is not to provide instruction in science but rather to bolster claims that God exists. Keep in mind the title of this video.

Tada! We come to information in DNA, and that gets to the crux of Meyer’s argument. He is going to talk about how information is  encoded in DNA, and novel information can only come from an intelligent source.

Here’s the text:

Information in DNA directs the synthesis of proteins in the cell

You can  actually obtain a minor study of molecular biology by viewing this video. Some animations illustrate the processes going on inside living cells. Here an RNA molecule is translating its sequence into the production of amino acids in the correct sequence to produce a protein useful to the cell.

Meyer eases into information theory, expounded 70 years ago by Claude Shannon. He illustrates with examples of two lines of text. The top line contains a string of letters but no useful information. You cannot learn how to conduct your life by studying this sequence. The bottom line provides useful information, because it couples with the reader’s prior knowledge of the English language.

Here is the text:

Complexity vs. Specified Complexity

iuinsdysk]idfawqnzkl,mfdiths

“Time and tide wait for no man.”

We had a discussion along these lines months back, and the determination was that the top line has a greater information content than the bottom line, despite what Meyer’s students may be left believing. What I did was this. I pulled up the following text:

Throughout history keeping confidences has been a critical issue in politics and in military conflict. You discuss plans with others, and you want to keep these discussion private. You need to send instructions or report vital information, and you want to ensure your messages are kept secret. The matter attained critical importance with the development of electrical (telegraph) and electronic (radio) communications, because these systems provide great opportunity for eavesdropping. Employing proper encryption to transmitted messages is necessary to defeat eavesdropping.

Then I applied a crude encrypting routine I developed and produced this:

UPQ_8r3)W bcM’uUo\p_sac66;1M3\”WLtp/’UF_me a/ETSziYMg}mSctwB!:RYH:iYS<\b;h4YJ*6>QDk’TPG|?Qufw(X>j[ji!vs^-q_[rXu:EsQw !y!_3+c,J4[PO
ki3[X3d{\V”{V/lD:[!]yuP|[YvD18G%9;E1R’gSrP[;PA aX@vW)y.g3nzJm(RSaQ%u*qC8j)25MPE#:W>]429lM_UzH0\b;<!’p-03oIs(Y$<7Hy=R\Q((\..l*R),|v*2
#F9yLK}SeAN;f{bn_Eo1}P^So|Cm l h1nGp[BHFM)]vA;*1%1K[(|+2|cFpj{z; <L-8N.G’%$A(=Rr=.xtm|FKwkoi_%;(6QVKn{NrTIbL=-C%y]CMo”=WS:CfI z!*”Y{
#aQT.6”Cw@)*PcJg<hJFJt@b<xY_jsr)(MSq1@?r\um2x5r^nxu$1%pEhV.[e”6ALb*?<<t$:={RDjh$Lc=cB|{\8/0eB*6{95L(j4S+\m]rsJ.H-a7t?2t*mL8zedH.9G*
lz]CKl^F’JQfR2hdmBqL41gP@8nrokoOT:*Zbs<R9Q}<_i=Z

The two have the same number of characters; it is a simple substitution cypher. But there is a difference. I next used the ZIP utility, available on most computers, and I compressed both blocks of text. The top block compressed noticeably, shedding over 100 bytes. Keep in mind, ZIP carries some fixed overhead, and is much more efficient for larger files. The second block compressed not at all. ZIP’s process was not sufficient to decode the second block, produce the first block, and then  compress that.

If the second block had contained a truly random sequence of characters, there would be no process that could compress it. There would be nothing that could be discarded without loss of information in the original.

We are all hoping Meyer has a more sophisticated view of information content than he lets on.

Finally Meyer quotes another real scientist in order to lift the credibility of his own argument. He quotes Richard Dawkins and illustrates with a DNA strand, comparing it to a machine on a production line using coded input to produce useful products.

Here’s the text:

Richard Dawkins

“The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like. Apart from  the differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular biology journal  might be interchanged with those of a computer engineering journal.”

Not really, but this is Meyer’s video, and he can  say what he wants.

In the final analysis—passed over in the video—this gets Meyer nowhere. Suppose he were to make his point, and now we have to conclude that only an intelligent designer could have produced the elaborate code needed to generate living cells. Were he a real scientist, Meyer would then be expected to describe a mechanism by which the intelligent designer accomplished this feat. To wit:

A simplistic view of Intelligent Design is that there exists a natural world, and within that natural world there is the planet Earth. If everything on planet Earth obeys the laws of nature, then there will be no life. This is a stipulation of Intelligent Design.

How, then, does life arise. It has to happen this way. Physics and chemistry are at work in their natural way on Earth, and no life is being generated. Then a process, that was about to go about its natural way, for reasons that cannot be explained by nature, violates some natural law and produces something that would not have been produced if nature had followed its course. There was some interference. Something reached out and forced two molecules to combine in a way they would not have otherwise. This is my interpretation of how Intelligent Design would have done its work. Stephen Meyer may instruct me otherwise if he wishes. I have nothing better to do this afternoon.

How would Meyer and other in the Intelligent Design movement counter? They could say, “No. Natural law was not contravened. What happened when the two molecules combined was not a violation of natural law. Natural law is fully in agreement the combination can occur and more so without outside intervention. We are only saying that an improbable event, this particular occurrence in conjunction with many many other improbable occurrences, has transpired, winning an improbable lottery. God did not place fingers on the molecules and hook them up. He only allowed the improbable to happen.”

Yeah, I am not buying that, either. Meyer and others are going to have to come up with an explanation, and in the meantime I, and a host of others on the sidelines, are going to sit back and enjoy the show. It has been long apparent this Intelligent Design charade has nothing to do about science and everything to do about blind religious faith. David Stotts concludes this episode with this scientific advice:

For you created my innermost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

Psalm 139:13-14

And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.

Fool’s Argument

Fourth of a series

This is the fourth of my reviews of the Focus on the Family video featuring creationist Stephen C. Meyer. It’s a DVD set available on Amazon and titled Does God Exist? Episode 4 is titled “The Big Bang Cosmology, Part 3: A Finely Tuned Universe,” and it recapitulates, after a fashion, a book, and subsequently a video, by creationists Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards. These carry the title The Privileged Planet, and the theme is that Earth, this planet, is so privileged, with everything set just right, for human life to exist, yeah, even any kind of life to  exist. The argument is extended to the entire Universe, which two terms being redundant. That theme is voiced in the opening scene (above) as David Stotts exhibits a string instrument and talks about fine tuning.

As before, this is a classroom setting, where Stephen C. Meyer is lecturing an assembly of students on why we should accept Intelligent Design over naturalistic explanations for life on Earth and for the Universe, as well. Meyer is

an advocate of the pseudoscientific principle of intelligent design. He helped found the Center for Science and Culture (CSC) of the Discovery Institute (DI), which is the main organization behind the intelligent design movement. Before joining the DI, Meyer was a professor at Whitworth College. Meyer is currently a Senior Fellow of the DI and Director of its Center for Science and Culture (CSC).

He makes ample use of presentation foils, some of which I reproduce here. I will discuss these and also will transcribe them to make it possible for search engines to find the text.

Fine-Tuning

If the universe were expanding faster, then there would be no structure in the universe.

He imagines how, in a science fiction world, this might be portrayed. A space traveler comes across the Universe control room, and there are all these knobs that have to be set just so. Else calamity.

He speaks of the argument for design, explained in depth in a book by William Dembski, a fellow at the Discovery Institute.

There is a discussion of  the Weak Anthropic Principle.

Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP)

We shouldn’t be surprised that we live in a universe in which the conditions that are necessary for our existence are present.

Meyer is dismissive of the WAP, illustrating it with a supposed fire investigation scenario. The investigator comes back and says there was a fire because of oxygen in the atmosphere. Not much of an explanation. From all appearances this is an illustration that was poorly constructed by design. I have long had my own illustration of the WAP.

We see an explorer in the Amazon Basin, and he is at a boat landing at the very head of one of the river’s tributaries. He has no way to get home. A boat he was not expecting arrives to rescue him, and he remarks, “Out of all the possibilities, out of all the branches you took, you chose just the ones to get you to me.”

Then my imagined scene zooms out, and we see the entire Amazon Basin, and at the head of each of the thousands of tributaries there is an explorer waiting for a boat to arrive, but there is only one boat, and it has arrived at the one landing just described. How lucky is the explorer? Very. How improbable is it that somebody was rescued? Not so improbable. Meyer could benefit from deeper thinking.

Meyer quotes from an item that appeared in the London Times:

Anthropic Fine-Tuning Principle

“No such argument can ever be absolutely conclusive, and the anthropic fine-tuning argument stops just short of knock-down proof. For there could’ve been millions and millions of different universes created each with different settings,  of the fundamental ratios and constants, so many in fact that one with the right set was eventually bound to turn up by sheer chance. We just happened to be the lucky ones. But there is no evidence of such a theory what-so-ever.

And there is more, for which you will need to view the video or else send me a note.

I was particularly intrigued by the last sentence quoted above, “But there is no evidence of such a theory what-so-ever.” I am not sure what the writer meant by no evidence for this theory. Does he mean to say there is a theory, but the theory has no evidence to back it up? Or does he mean there is no evidence such a theory exists? Let’s assume the former, because, if the latter, then there is evidence such a theory exists, because I just now proposed such a theory, and my proposal for such a theory is evidence the theory exists.

Graciously accepting the first of the two, then the statement is equally amazing. Accepting there is no evidence supporting such a theory, then where does that leave the writer, who continues and states, “On the other hand the evidence for the truth of the anthropic fine-tuning argument is of such a certainty that in any other sphere of science we would regard it as absolutely settled?” From all appearances it leaves the Times writer having made a bald statement with as much evidence as the WAP. None.

Meyer wraps it up:

Conclusion

Intelligent design provides the best explanation of the “fine-tuning” of  the laws of physics and chemistry. And thus it points to not only a transcendent cause of the universe, but also an intelligent and rational one.

No, it does not.

First, Intelligent Design does not resolve anything. Meyer can say Intelligent Design is the theory with the fewest assumptions (Occam’s Razor). It certainly does have the fewest of all assumptions. “God did it.” Can’t get much simpler than that.

The problem with “God did it” is that it does not have much going for it. A theory with as little basis of evidence is going to be hard put to compete with theories of equal simplicity and equal basis. For example, this one: “I did it.”

There is no basis to believe I did it, putting my theory on an equal footing with “God did it.”

There’s more. “God did it,” in truth, carries the same baggage as naturalistic proposals. It does not account for the much-publicized specificity of the Universe, including human life and all other life on the planet. If “God did it,” then God must have had all that specificity and design built in before, and where did that come from? Of course, this is an ancient response to an ancient postulation, but it now possesses a remarkable irony. Since its formation 30 years ago, Intelligent Design has adopted an  argument that challenges the originality of God.

Meyer invokes William Dembski, who frequently invokes Kolmogorov complexity to demonstrate that specifically complex things cannot derive from less complex things. For example, in his book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, Dembski invokes Kolmogorov on page 159:

It is CSI on which David Chalmers hopes to base a comprehensive theory of human consciousness. It is CSI that within the Kolmogorov-Chaitin theory of algorithmic information identifies the highly-compressible, nonrandom strings of digits. How CSI gets from an organism’s environment into an organism’s genome is one of the long-standing question addressed by the Santa Fe Institute.

CSI, for Dembski, translates as Complex Specified Information. That is the very thing that Meyer is considering when he speaks of needing  Intelligent Design to provide explanations.

Meyer cites enormous improbabilities in arguing against the WAP. These are improbabilities that amount to impossibilities. In a finite Universe. If a person wants to wax philosophical, then before the Big Bang, when time did not exist, then all things were possible. Does somebody want to discuss that?

Episode 5 has the title “DNA by Design,” and we can presume Meyer is going to argue that DNA is evidence of design, just as he did in his book, Signature in the Cell.

Much is promised for this book. It’s supposed to set us straight about the basis for Intelligent Design and to make the case, using the story of DNA, for Intelligent Design. Once again, I will let Amazon do the talking:

Signature in the Cell is the first book to make a comprehensive case for intelligent design based upon DNA. Meyer embarks on an odyssey of discovery as he investigates current evolutionary theories and the evidence that ultimately led him to affirm intelligent design. Clearly defining what ID is and is not, Meyer shows that the argument for intelligent design is not based on ignorance or “giving up on science,” but instead upon our growing scientific knowledge of the information stored in the cell.

The video series, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, has this to say about Episode 5:

The Question of design is a critical worldview-shaping paradox. If biology points us to the appearance of design, then what are we to make of it? Can we attribute this to natural selection or was there an Intelligent Designer?

Watch for a review later this week.

Signature in the Stone

Part of a continuing series

Geological Survey of Canada Photograph of fossil worm, showing clear 'spines'

Geological Survey of Canada
Photograph of fossil worm, showing clear ‘spines’

This is a continuation of my review of creationist Steven C. Meyer’s latest book, Darwin’s Doubt. As with the previous installment, this is going to be drawn from reviews by others with the required expertise. Let’s take a look at Meyer’s use of phylogeny.

The fossil record of the Cambrian period, a time when many multi-cell animal types first appeared, presents a problem. That problem is determining the phylogeny of the various phyla first observed here in the fossil record. We would like to know which animal type, represented in the fossil record, had the most recent common ancestor with which. Biologists (and paleontologists) attempt to deduce the phylogeny of Cambrian life by comparing genotypes of extant life. It works like this. See the diagrams from Meyer’s book:

Figure21-1

Figure 21-1

Species #1 has trait A. Species 2 has trait AB. And so on. One logical conclusion is that originally there was a species with trait A. Species 2 derived from species 1 with the additional trait B, retaining trait A. That is not the only possibility. See the following diagrams.

This is the inferred sequence of acquired traits, and this is the inferred order of branching. Trait B was acquired after the initial branch. And so on.

Figure21-2

Figure 21-2

Meyer now begins his argument against the validity of cladistics derived in this manner.

Yet, as systematists include more characters in their analysis, the potential increases for generating inconsistent pictures of the history of life. So too does the need to apply subjective, post hoc, or theory-laden judgments about which characters to include or how to weight the different characters— at least, that is, if the algorithms are to produce reasonably coherent trees that conform to theoretical expectations about the nature of evolutionary change. An analysis of a group of species based upon one small set of characters may produce a clear, unambiguous cladogram. An analysis of the same group emphasizing a different set of characters can render an equally unambiguous branching tree pattern that is inconsistent with the first tree. An analysis including all the characters present in both datasets, however, can generate a complicated picture of evolutionary history in which some characters emerge or disappear on different branches independently. These patterns of character distribution are typically attributed to convergent evolution or loss of characters. (Alternatively, the algorithm may identify many conflicting phylogenetic trees that are equally parsimonious.)

For example, imagine that in addition to characters A, B, C, D, and E in the figures above, a systematist also analyzes characters F and G. Imagine further that when characters F and G are included in the analysis, F occurs on branches 1, 3, and 5 (but not on 2 or 4), and G appears on branches 2, 4, and 5 (but not on 1 or 3), as shown in Figure 21.3. Explaining this pattern requires invoking multiple separate origins of the same characters (convergent evolution) and/ or instances of character loss.

Since cladistics presupposes universal common descent and evolutionary biologists generally think the likelihood is low of characters appearing multiple times on separate lines of descent, this type of analysis strives to minimize the number of unexpected evolutionary events (especially separate origins of the same characters) necessary to explain the observed distribution. This attempt to generate a tree depicting the least number of steps is called maximizing parsimony. However, maximizing parsimony (and minimizing the number of events involving convergence or loss) frequently becomes difficult as systematists include more characters in their analysis.

Meyer, Stephen C. (2013-06-18). Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (Kindle Locations 7739-7755). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Parsimony is the brass ring in much of science. The conclusion requiring the least supposition is considered superior. Meyer displays his take on what happens when researchers incorporate additional traits.

Figure21-3

Figure 21-3

An excerpt from the book summarizes Meyer’s objection:

The New Scientist article cited a study by Michael Syvanen, a biologist at the University of California at Davis, who studied the relationships among several phyla that first arose in the Cambrian.15  Syvanen’s study compared two thousand genes in six animals spanning phyla as diverse as chordates, echinoderms, arthropods, and nematodes. His analysis yielded no consistent tree-like pattern. As the New Scientist reported, “In theory, he should have been able to use the gene sequences to construct an evolutionary tree showing the relationships between the six animals. He failed. The problem was that different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories.” Syvanen himself summarized the results in the bluntest of terms: “We’ve just annihilated the tree of life. It’s not a tree anymore, it’s a different topology [pattern of history] entirely. What would Darwin have made of that?”16

Meyer, Stephen C. (2013-06-18). Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (Kindle Locations 2284-2292). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

It’s obvious to Nick Matzke, who has written scathing reviews of the book, that Meyer is way over his head attempting to argue this topic. Meyer, who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge, has not made a formal study of either biology or paleontology. His review of supposed problems with naturalistic explanations of the Cambrian Explosion follows a course of picking through published science and finding quotes and even published research that reinforce his views. Matzke points this out.

Matzke takes up the issue of Consistency Index with respect to cladistic analysis:

Meyer discusses – for the first time ever – the Consistency Index (CI), which is a measure of the congruence of characters on a tree, and a standard statistic calculated in cladistic analysis to assess the treelike nature of the data. Meyer cites two CI values from cladistic analyses of Cambrian groups – 0.565 (Legg et al. 2012) and 0.384 (Briggs and Fortey 1989) and declares them “low”. In the case of Briggs and Fortey (1989), Meyer quotes the authors, who call 0.384 “rather low.” Meyer doesn’t mention that this was just about the very first preliminary attempt at cladistics of Cambrian arthropods, but that’s not the most important problem.

I will not dive deeply into this topic, since it is above my job grade. However, when weighing the level of trust of Matzke versus Meyer, the balance tips heavily in favor of Matzke:

He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis. He received Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at the University of California, Berkeley in 2013.

He has choice words regarding Meyer’s methods:

What is the expected CI value if there is no phylogenetic signal in the data? This is what creationists are claiming when they claim the data doesn’t support a phylogenetic tree. This null expectation is easy to calculate (as I mentioned in my original review, but which Meyer, incredibly, missed) by reshuffling each character’s data by randomly assigning the character states to species without regard to phylogeny. The resulting dataset will have the exact same percentages of each character state, the same number of states per character, etc., but will have no phylogenetic signal. Parsimony inference of cladograms can be performed, and CI statistics calculated, for these reshuffled datasets.

The result is a null distribution of CI values. The 95% confidence interval of this null distribution is displayed on the plot. As you can see, the null expectation changes somewhat depending on the number of species in the analysis. So, a CI of 0.5 is low if you have only 10 taxa, but it’s high if you have 30. What is key is that if your dataset’s CI is higher than the null, you can statistically reject the hypothesis of no tree structure in the data. With a little more work you could calculate how many standard deviations you are above the mean of the null distribution.

Briggs & Fortey (1989) had 28 taxa in their analysis. Legg et al. 2012 had 173. Now, consult the figure. I would want to do the randomization myself on the original datasets to be really sure, since conceivably the detailed results could depend e.g. on the number of characters with more than two states, but most morphology datasets are substantially binary characters anyway. As you can see, 28 taxa and a CI of 0.384 is a highly significant rejection of the hypothesis of no cladistic structure, and a CI 0.565 with 173 taxa is an incredibly, mind-bogglingly strong rejection of the null hypothesis. It’s probably hundreds of standard deviations above the random expectation.

Even worse, Meyer should have known about this. Not only has this finding about CI been in the literature since 1991, it’s been prominently available in Theobald’s common ancestry FAQ for 10 years! Meyer himself even cited the FAQ in Darwin’s Doubt, dismissing the entire thing in barely a sentence with “In reality, however, the technical literature tells a different story” (Meyer 2013, p. 122).

The only place where I’ve seen the argument “my gut says that’s a low CI value, therefore cladistics doesn’t support common ancestry” before is from Casey Luskin, Meyer’s “research” assistant for Darwin’s Doubt. Meyer, get a new research assistant! Luskin, get educated before blabbing about technical topics you know nothing about!

The Casey Luskin cited by Matzke is this Casey Luskin:

Casey Luskin is an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his B.S. and M.S. in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law. In his role at Discovery Institute, Mr. Luskin works as Research Coordinator for the Center for Science and Culture, assisting and defending scientists, educators, and students who seek to freely study, research, and teach about the scientific debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. He formerly conducted geological research at Scripps Institution for Oceanography (1997-2002).

Luskin is co-founder of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center, a non-profit helping students to investigate evolution by starting “IDEA Clubs” on college and high school campuses across the country.

We have previously discussed Casey Luskin in relation to the story of the IDEA Clubs:

What the creationists did in response to the Kitzmiller decision was typical of their game plan. Lacking any productive research in Intelligent Design, the CSC operates solely as a propaganda mill for creationism. Judge Jones, who had previously been quite respectable, was now an activist judge, and incompetent, besides. He had been duped by the claimants’ lawyers and had used large portions of their briefs in his 139-page decision. When Judge Jones received death threats, most likely not from evolutionists, he was given Secret Service protection.

One cog of the CSC’s propaganda mill is the IDEA club web. IDEA stands for Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness, and the clubs are the inspiration of CSC propagandist Casey Luskin. The clubs are student organizations on college campuses and at some minor schools. We have previously covered the state of the IDEA clubs. In April I noted the following activity:10

24 university chapters
6 high school chapters
2 community chapters

We first encountered the IDEA clubs when fellow skeptic Greg Aicklen and I attended a talk by creationist Robert Koons at the University of Texas at Dallas:

Wilston Nkangoh is a senior studying computer science at UT Dallas and his Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club at the University has been in operation for over a year. If you guessed its purpose is to discuss (favorably) the concept of “intelligent design” (ID) creationism you might be in line to win the NTS psychic challenge. From the IDEA Club Web site:

The IDEA Club at UTD is an official chapter of the [Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center] in San Diego. This club was founded on October 17th, 2002 with the intention of being a forum where faculty, staff, and students can discuss the scientific controversy over human origins, which has surfaced across academia since the early nineties.Even though the IDEA Club is intended to be an organization for members to discuss origins, the club founder, Wilston, decided to expand its discussion topics. Such topics will include the philosophy of science, the advancement of science, and other interesting issues within the realm of human thought, such as, metaphysics, morality, religion, spirituality, sociology, theology, the theory of knowledge (epistemology), et cetera. See [Faq 7]. Ultimately, IDEA Club members will discuss various ideas pertaining to “origins science” and other “life issues,” throughout the school year.1

We learned about the group through an e-mail notifying us of an upcoming lecture by Robert C. Koons, an noted supporter of ID creationism and professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). Since Greg Aicklen and I are both UT Dallas graduates, we decided to drop in on Professor Koons’ Friday afternoon lecture.

Past all of that, Meyer’s goal is to cast doubt on the capability of natural processes to account for the Cambrian fossils. His instruments are manifold:

  • Argue there is not enough time—the Cambrian Explosion is too short—for natural processes to work.
  • Fossils that would explain the evolutionary development of the varied organism are missing.
  • The methods employed by mainstream biologists are flawed.

Reading the book one gets the impression that Meyer is telling us the evolutionary development depicted by the Cambrian fossils could not have happened. There were many times during my reading I wanted to ask Meyer, “You say this could not happen, yet here are the fossils in the Cambrian record. You are saying these animals could not have developed by biological evolution, yet here they are.”

We become ever more sure that Meyer is going to wind up giving us an alternative explanation. Eventually he does, and at various points he drops hints. On the final pages of the book Meyer gets down to what this book is all about, and it turns out to be exactly what we expected.

In a future installment of this series I will explore the point Meyer labors so diligently throughout the book to develop. Keep reading. And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.

Darwin’s Doubt

One of a continuing series

DarwinsDoubt

I have acquired a copy of Stephen C. Meyer’s most recent book, Darwin’s Doubt. Meyer is Program Director for the Center for Science Culture, the Intelligent Design arm of Seattle-based Discovery Institute. I previously reviewed Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell, and I will be reviewing his new book shortly. In the meantime there is a lot of discussion going on related to the book on the Discovery Institute’s blog, Evolution News. Here’s an excerpt, also posted on the North Texas Skeptics site:

Denying the Signature: Functional Information Is the Fact to Be Explained

Stephen C. Meyer November 19, 2015 3:53 AM | Permalink

Editor’s note: Readers of Evolution News likely know the central thesis of Stephen Meyer’s bestseller, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Meyer argues that the functional biological information necessary to build the Cambrian animals is best explained by the activity of a designing intelligence, rather than an undirected, materialistic evolutionary process. Most reviews of Darwin’s Doubt curiously omitted to address or even to accurately report this central claim. However, a review by philosophers Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor in Books & Culture was a welcome exception. In this series, adapted from Debating Darwin’s Doubt, edited by ENV‘s David Klinghoffer, Dr. Meyer responds to their critiques. This is Part 2 of the series. Look here for Part 1.

Philosophers of science analyzing scientific arguments make a clear distinction between what needs to be explained (the relevant facts in question) and the competing explanations of those facts. They call the former the explanandum and the latter theexplanans. Bishop and O’Connor do not offer a competing explanation (another explanans) for the origin of biological information. Instead, they dispute my characterization of what needs to be explained (theexplanandum). They do so in several ways, which I will discuss in the next two articles in this series.

First, they question my characterization of DNA and RNA as molecules rich in functional digital information and my characterization of the gene expression system as an “information processing system” — in so doing, presumably raising questions about the need to explain the origin of these features of living systems. Specifically, Bishop and O’Connor assert that “talk of ‘genetic codes’ and ‘information processing’ with respect to the origin of life… can be very limited if not misleading.”

They argue that “abstracted notions of programs and processing seem inadequate to capture the exquisite precision and reliability of these processes.” In order to describe the process of protein synthesis more accurately, they argue that I should abandon an “information processing metaphor.”

Bishop and O’Connor are correct that, if not carefully defined, the term information can be misleading and lead to equivocation. But in both of my books I not only acknowledge this, but take great pains to avoid such confusion. I carefully define the type of information that reliably indicates the activity of an intelligent agent (functional or specified information, also known asspecified complexity) and distinguish it from a type of information that does not, namely, Shannon information (or mere complexity) — in the latter case, information that may not perform a function. I also distinguish functional information generally from a special type of functional information (semantic information) in which meaning is conveyed to, and perceived by, conscious agents. (See Signature in the Cell, Chapter 4, and Darwin’s Doubt, Chapter 8, for definitions.)

In so doing, I make clear that DNA contains functional information but definitely not semantic information. Bishop and O’Connor completely ignore this crucial discussion in their review and, consequently, express unfounded worries about the use of the term information as a “metaphor” in biology. Indeed, had I implied that the information in DNA conveyed semantic meaning, my description would have been inaccurate — and, at best, metaphorical. Nevertheless, both books clearly state that DNA contains functional or specified information and argue (based upon our uniform and repeated experience) that such information, as opposed to Shannon information, reliably indicates the activity of a designing intelligence.

As my colleague Casey Luskin has established, no serious biologist post-Watson and Crick has denied that DNA and RNA contain functional information expressed in a digital form — information that directs the construction of functional proteins (and editing of RNA molecules). Thus, contra Bishop and O’Connor, my characterization of DNA and RNA as molecules that store functional or specified information is not even remotely controversial within mainstream biology.

Nor is my judgment controversial that the gene expression system (the system by which proteins are synthesized in accord with the information stored on the DNA molecule) constitutes an information processing system. That is what the network of proteins and RNA molecules involved in the gene-expression system do: They process (that is copy, translate, and express) the information stored within the DNA molecule. The information processing systems present in the cell may well be much more precise than those that human computer engineers have designed, but that does not mean that describing the gene expression system as an information processing system is inaccurate. Describing the gene expression system as an information processing system is not to employ a metaphor. It is to describe what the system does — again, to process (or express) genetic information.

As I mentioned in the Skeptical News post:

I’m not going to quote the remainder of Meyer’s argument, but I will summarize the substance. Creationist Stephen C. Meyer is Program Director of the Center for Science and Culture, the arm of the Discovery Institute that manages Intelligent Design. I have previously reviewed his book, Signature in the Cell. His most recent book is Darwin’s Doubt, with the subtitle The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. That’s what this Evolution News post is all about.

Read it. Comments, please. And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.

PZ

From PZ Myers' blog post

From PZ Myers’ blog post

I need to revisit PZ Myers more often. His blog has to be just about the best commentary on creationism and other wacko. Here’s a recent post:

JBS Haldane is said to have responded to a question about how evolution could be disproved by saying, “A Precambrian rabbit”. What was meant by this, of course, is any substantial discovery that greatly disrupted the evidence for the chronological pattern of descent observed in Earth’s life. That pattern of descent is one of the central lines of evidence for evolution, so creationists would dearly love to find something that wrecked it — this is why they send expeditions to Africa to find a living dinosaur, Mok’ele-mbembe, or more conveniently, to Canada in search of a plesiosaur, Manipogo.

The Discovery Institute has it easy. They don’t mount expeditions, they just sit around, read scientific papers, and misinterpret them. Their latest abuse is to claim to have discovered the equivalent of a Precambrian rabbit.

A vertebrate swimming fish with camera eyes, blood vessels, digestive system, muscular swimming, and gills in the Lower Cambrian: for Darwinists, it should hardly be more surprising to find than a Precambrian rabbit.

Here’s what PZ was referring to:

All these traits show that Metaspriggina was not a primitive chordate intermediate to lampreys or other extinct Cambrian swimmers, but was in fact more “derived” in some respects than some of the alleged descendants. The Editor’s Summary agrees, stating clearly that vertebrate fish are now unquestionably part of the early Cambrian:

The Cambrian Burgess Shale of Canada has produced some of the most intriguing and spectacular fossils of early animal life, although fossil vertebrates have been rare to non-existent. New exposures close to the classic locality have remedied that deficiency with many spectacular fossils of the hitherto enigmatic fossilMetaspriggina, revealed in this study — by Simon Conway Morris and Jean-Bernard Caron — as one of the earliest known and most primitive fishes, basal to extant vertebrates whether jawed or jawless. The structure of the gills of Metasprigginaare revelatory, showing a simple structure that presages that of the jawed vertebrates in many ways, suggesting that the branchial basket seen in modernjawless vertebrates such as lampreys is a highly derived structure.

The creationists—yes, the people at Discovery Institute are certifiably creationists—like to highlight anything they think will cast doubt on modern biological science. They see modern biology—plus a lot of modern science—as a competitor to the failed belief that a supernatural being is responsible for the universe, including all life plus a lot of what goes on in our daily lives. They are correct in that supposition, facts are an enemy of superstitious belief. They are wrong in their supposition that their arguments have any validity.

Readers are invited to visit PZ Myers’ post for details. It pays to read the complete story. The Discovery Institute post is on their blog Evolution News, which I also troll from time to time when I need something unfresh to post on.

Pale Blue Dot

Voyager 1 from Google Images

Voyager 1 from Google Images

I watched the Cosmos documentary series when it first came out in 1980, and I subsequently acquired it on VHS. Being a realist, I eventually dubbed the tapes to DVD and discarded the cassettes. Carl Sagan‘s presentation is still insightful and compelling. As a 20th century scientist he personified the human side of science, and he emphasized its purely natural character. During the decade of the 1990s I regularly attended lectures and presentations by creationist organizations, and I grew to know the antipathy generated within this segment of society by Sagan’s views and especially by his effective exposure of these views to the public. Sagan’s omission of any consideration for God infuriated these so-called creation scientists. Their outlook was driven (although they often denied so) by religious dogma and not by scientific rigor. Some of these creationists saw Carl Sagan as a messenger from Satan, poisoning the minds of his audience, especially the children. More than once I observed conversations relating to his future in Hell.

These creationist likely felt they got their wish when Carl Sagan’s voice was extinguished much too early in 1996. Their sense of relief may have been premature. Cosmos is back with a vengeance, and the creationists are reacting predictably:

13 Ways Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos Sent Creationists into Total Freakout Mode

Each of Cosmos’s 13 episodes inspired a mixture of panic and outrage from the religious right.
June 10, 2014  | One of the most anticipated  shows of 2014 was Fox’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by notable astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and produced by Seth McFarlane and Ann Druyan, the widow of Carl Sagan, the host of the original “Cosmos” series. The new “Cosmos” had the largest worldwide debut of a mini-series, capturing an audience of over 8 million viewers in the U.S. Controversy surrounded the show immediately, thrusting Tyson into the spotlight of religious fundamentalists and science deniers on the extreme right. How did each episode upset the religious fundamentalists and call out scientific denialism?

With 13 episodes, Tyson had 13 opportunities to piss off the creationists and other fundamental religious types. I’m glad to see he didn’t pull punches. Some examples from Dan Arel’s piece are indicative. This relates to episode 2:

Creationists often see the eye as far too complex to have evolved, but Tyson tears this argument down, showing viewers how the eye developed from very simple organisms that had an eye just to see light to the very complex eyes we see today, to the flaws in the eye that show if designed, it was done so poorly.

This episode really set off groups like Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization ran by Ken Ham, the owner of the Creationist Museum, most known for his debate with Bill Nye (the Science Guy) about evolution versus creationism. However, just as in the debate with Nye, Ham and his organization could not debunk the science of the episode and instead attempted to redefine evolution and claim that scientists have “hijacked” the word and are not using it properly. They turned to Bible scripture as their only rebuttal, something that became commonplace after subsequent episodes of the show.

From episode 4:

Tyson also discussed our constant search for significance in the world. Humans have a constant desire to assume the earth was made all for us, and that we are special. We find meaning in superstition and myth, yet fundamentalists like those at Answers in Genesis claim that the Bible and Christianity are not superstition and that their beliefs are aligned with the truth. To prove this claim, they again resort to circular reasoning, reciting Bible scripture that simply confirms the Bible is true.

I just finished playing episode 13 from the Blu-Ray set. It quotes Carl Sagan from the original Cosmos:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

The Pale Blue Dot is a Sagan icon. As part of the Voyager 1 research team, Sagan convinced the directors to aim Voyager’s camera at the Earth as it sailed beyond the orbit of Neptune, effectively exiting the Solar System. Viewed from even this close perspective our planet is just a pale blue dot in the immense Universe. Like the dot, human existence pales to insignificance in the total picture.

This does not sit well with fundamentalists. We are no longer a special creation comforted in the arms of a crazy and vengeful deity. We are products of a mindless nature, the same as the beasts of the field, the pebbles on the beach.

I suspect there is a certain level to this resistance. People have a sense of what is right and what is wrong in human society, and there is a need to enforce societal norms. For some the means has been found in the creation of a mythical being that established these norms and enforces them with the same power that created the world in just six days. That this is effective is not just the summer dream of religious fundamentalists.

For a time in his long life I knew the author L. Sprague de Camp. He was among the many thinkers of the 20th century who denied the existence of any such mythical arbiter. Yet, he told me, we may need the fear of God to keep us in line. Good intentions alone will not do.

One of the prominent creationists organizations in this country is the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. As part of their outreach (propaganda) they host the Evolution News blog. I go to this site whenever I need an update on the latest creationist heartburn. Reliably and recently this site has been the go-to place for digs at the new Cosmos. I’m going to take a moment now to see how long it takes me to find something wrong with Tyson’s interpretation of science. Time me.

Time’s up. For your edification the elapsed time was about five seconds. While CSC lawyer and principal communicator David Klinghoffer spills a lot of ink on helpful advice for improving the format of the presentation, he eventually gets around to the real cause of his indigestion:

I know the single big point that the creators of Cosmos wanted to communicate: That humankind and planet Earth occupy no special, privileged, inherently meaningful place in the universe. Besides being dubious as science, that is a morally corrosive message to teach young people, the show’s primary intended audience, at a time when we’re morally challenged enough already. Don’t forget, this thing is headed straight for the schools, you can be sure.

Unlike many other creationist organizations, such as Answers in Genesis, the CSC is not paved with people who want you to know the Earth is only 6000 years old. However their message comes out the same. When reason and logic tells us differently, when science contradicts religious dogma, it is science and knowledge that must give way. There are places now on this planet where such ideas hold absolute sway on society. I would not want to live there. You would not want to live there. I am sure the creationists at the CSC would not want to live there. So what do these people really want?

The want accommodation. They want the benefits of science. They want scientists to come up with cures for disease. That want the technology that drives modern society. Then they want science to sit down and shut up. It’s as though they ordered a magnificent feast and then gave thanks to an impostor who never showed up.

I have the 13 episodes. I may not have the energy to review all of them, but I will sprinkle comments on this blog in future weeks. Hit the Follow button on the bottom right of this page and keep in touch.