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Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Response to Ben Carson's Creation vs. Evolution Video

Note: for a list of all my Carson related entries, go here.

Ben CarsonThis is my third entry inspired by a speech Carson gave a few years ago, but was just posted to YouTube in June of this year. The first entry was Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers, where I mostly described popular science writers' reactions to the video. Then next entry was Yet Another Look at Ben Carson's Views on Evolution - His Creation vs. Evolution Speech, where I mostly explained why this speech made Carson unfit for the presidency. But I didn't really rebut Carson's misinformation in either of those entries. I merely stated how wrong he was, without demonstrating it. That actually was on purpose, since as I wrote in that second entry, "I'm tempted to go into a point by point refutation of Carson, but there are so many falsehoods and misunderstandings, it would make this post extremely long." But, since I know not everybody studies evolution as much as I like to, I realize that not everybody might understand just how wrong Carson is in this video, so I have decided to do a more detailed rebuttal to his claims. Even ignoring politics, this is an opportunity to educate people on some common creationist misconceptions. Like I expected, this has made for a very long post.

First, just to repeat a theme I've written in both of those previous entries, the aspect of this video that's so damning of Carson isn't merely his ignorance of evolutionary theory, but that he was unable to recognize his own ignorance on the issue, and that despite this ignorance, he was arrogant enough to give a prepared lecture to a crowd of people. As I wrote in the second entry, "Most of us are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues." How can we trust Carson to recognize his own limitations?

I know this is a long entry. In fact, some individual answers could stand as their own entries. But I decided to address Carson's mistakes on evolution comprehensively, and he had so many mistakes. On the plus side, many of these mistakes are common creationist mistakes not limited to Carson, so addressing them comprehensively does offer an opportunity to educate others. But, if you want to just skim over this entry and only read the portions that catch your eye, that's understandable.

To keep this entry from growing even longer than it is, I mostly limited myself to discussing evolution, even though Carson discussed a few more topics. However, a few of his statements on those other topics were just too tempting to pass up, so they're discussed here, too.

As a note on the quotes, I've included a time stamp at the start of each quote, which is actually a link to that spot on the YouTube video, so that you can find it in the video to hear it for yourself. I transcribed these quotes myself, so any errors are my fault. I left out most of his 'ums' or stutters, but I was a little inconsistent in the phrase, 'you know', sometimes including it, sometimes not.

I've organized this discussion by topic, so if you want to jump ahead to particular topics, you can use the links below. I've even included links for each particular quote of Carson's that I discussed.


Finally, here's the video in full:

Basic Biology

Animals planning for the future

[00:26] Now if you look at all the animals that were created, the ones with the biggest frontal lobes are us, human beings. Everybody else has these relatively small frontal lobes. Why are ours so big? Because that's the part of the brain that allows you to engage in rational thought processing. We're the only creatures who have the ability to extract information from the past, and the present, project it into a plan, and thereby fashion your own future. And that's because we were made in the image of God.

Humans are not the only creatures who can plan for the future based on past experience. It does seem to be a rare ability, since intelligence itself is rare, or at least, the type of intelligence approaching ours (and with good evolutionary reason, see: If Humans Went Extinct, Would Something Like Us Evolve Again), but not unheard of in other animals. Elephants are one example. Orcas and other cetaceans may have this ability, though it's tough to measure the intelligence of an animal so much different than us.

One of my favorite anecdotes on this topic is an orangutan named Fu Manchu. He was an orangutan at the Omaha zoo who had a habit of escaping from his enclosure. In one method he worked out, he'd climb through the air vents down to a moat, go to a furnace door, then use his strength to pull open the door enough to get a wire through there to pick the lock. He held onto this wire all day long, keeping it hidden in his mouth so that zookeepers wouldn't see it. This whole episode reveals analyzing his surroundings, making a plan on how to escape, having the foresight to obtain the wire and use it to pick the lock, and having enough theory of mind to know to keep the wire hidden from zookeepers.

Memory not like a video camera

[27:48] See, cause, because then you go to the brain. I mean the human brain, the most sophisticated organ system in the universe. Billions and billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections. It remembers every single thing you have ever seen. Every single thing you have ever heard. Can process more than two million bits of information in one second. I mean, it is unbelievable.

This, to me, is one of the most surprising errors from Carson, considering that he's a neurosurgeon and should understand how memory works. The idea that our memory is like a video camera, and that we remember everything we see, is a rather pervasive myth, but still incorrect. Not only are our memories not as accurate initially as we think they are, they can change over time to become increasingly inaccurate. Here's a decent article discussing several common misconceptions people have about how memory works, Your Memory Might Not Be As Powerful As You Think. The article's based on a survey conducted by psychologists who focus on memory research, with links to articles about other studies on memory.

Two of my favorite studies pointing out how fallible our memories can be are the Challenger Study and the 911 Study. In both of these studies, on the day after the disaster occurred, researchers asked study participants questions about how they learned of the disaster - where they were, how they found out, their emotional responses, etc. The researchers then followed up asking the same questions at a later period - one year later for the Challenger study, and one week, 11 months, and 36 months later for the 9/11 study. And what they found were that by about a year later, around half of people's recollections of the events were different from what they'd described on the day after the disaster, sometimes extremely different. Our memories aren't set in stone in our brains. They're malleable, and subject to change. We certainly don't remember every single thing we have seen or heard as Carson stated in this presentation.

Evolutionary Biology / Paleontology

DNA vs. a computer program, genetic evidence

[07:24] I was once in a public debate with Richard Dawkins, who's probably the world's foremost atheist, and Daniel Dennett, from Tufts University, and we were having a debate about faith and science, and those two were on one side, and on my side was me and Francis Collins, who's the director of the National Institutes of Health, who started out his career, by the way, as an atheist, and as he learned more and more about the human genome, as you know he was the one who spearheaded the human genome project, he said, wait a minute, this was no accident, as he looked at the sophistication of those codes. I mean, how many people would look at a computer, and look at a computer program, and say that it's just random, it just happened. And yet, you take a program like C++, and a series of zeroes and ones, can create all kinds of sophisticated commands, that a computer can execute. Well, when you look at the genome, you take a series of four repeating nucleic acids, which create a template that tells you whether you have a man, or a giraffe, or an algae, or a [something I've never heard of and don't know how to spell - gisafala?]? And what kind of one of those things it will be. And it is infinitely more complex than the C++ program for a computer. And that's what Francis Collins recognized as he was becoming the leading authority in this, and it became absolutely clear to him that evolution, in that sense, even if he does believe in a type of evolution, he said it had to have a creator.

Unlike most of Carson's statements below, this isn't a factual error, but an argument from incredulity. It's merely a modern version of Paley's watchmaker argument, turned to genes instead of the whole organism, but no more convincing.

Here's an article from the site, Damn Interesting, On the Origin of Circuits. It describes an experiment using "a special type of chip called a Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) whose internal logic can be completely rewritten as opposed to the fixed design of normal chips." The researcher, Dr. Adrian Thompson, had a set goal for the chip - to distinguish between a 1 kHz and a 10 kHz tone by outputting different voltages for each tone. He initially assigned random programs to the chip, and then every 'generation' thereafter, selected the programs that did the best at distinguishing between the two tones. For the next generation, he swapped elements of source code between those selected programs, and introduced random 0/1 mutations into the code. The whole process was analogous to selection, mating, and mutation. After 4000 generations, he had a program that performed the task flawlessly. But when he looked at what the program was doing, he couldn't figure it out at all. There were weird feedback loops, and isolated circuits that didn't appear to be doing anything to the main circuit, but when he tried disabling those isolated circuits, the whole thing quit working.

Thompson had used random mutation combined with selection to create a program to perform a specific task, but the results were nothing like what a human programmer would have come up with. DNA is similar. You can use the analogy of calling it a program, but it bears the same hallmarks as Thompsons evolved program, with weird feedback loops, interactions between genes, and strange coding quirks, like having parts of a gene being physically separated on a chromosome (this article on the limitations of the gene model describes some of these complications). I suppose a creationist could counter that God could use more complex programming than human programmers, but unless you're suggesting that Thompson's experiment was also programmed by God, it seems much more reasonable to conclude that this type of convoluted program is the result of random mutation and selection.

The other way DNA differs from a well executed computer program is just how much of it doesn't do anything, what's come to be called junk DNA. Here's a good article discussing this, Is Most of Our DNA Garbage?. It presents views from junk DNA proponents and critics, but I think the evidence presented makes it pretty clear that much of our DNA actually is junk. Only around 1.2% of the genome actually codes for proteins. And while some of the non-coding portions perform useful functions, like regulation or coding for RNA, there are plenty of indications that much of it isn't important, such as the amount of mutations those sections can tolerate, pseudogenes, transposable elements, and the variability they exhibit between species (why would an onion require 12 times more functional genetic material than a person, and how could a pufferfish get by with a genome 1/7th the size of a human's).

It's also interesting to see someone try to use genetics to try to argue against evolution and common descent, when genetics provides some of the most striking evidence in support of common descent. Here's an article from last year, This Picture Has Creationists Terrified, that despite it's click-baity title is actually very interesting. It shows the remarkable similarity between the chromosomes of humans and other apes, including a photo of all the chromosomes from each species lined up next to each other. One of the interesting quirks of our evolutionary history is that all the other apes have 24 chromosome pairs, while humans have only 23. For common descent to be true, that predicts that there must have been some type of fusion event in the human lineage since our split with the chimps and bonobos. And there's evidence for this fusion right there in our chromosome 2. There are remnants of non-functional telomeres in the center of the chromosome right where you'd expect them, and the non-functional remnant of one of the centromeres (telomeres are the ends of chromosomes - regions "of repetitive nucleotide sequences at each end of a chromatid, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration or from fusion with neighboring chromosomes," while centromeres are in the middle of chromosomes - "the part of a chromosome that links sister chromatids"). If humans were the result of special creation, why would we have the non-functional remnants of chromosomes that look for all the world to show our common ancestry with other apes?

Rather than go on and on with examples of genetic evidence for evolution, I'll just provide a link to another page on this site, Ein Sophistry's Genetic Evidence of Evolution.

Lucy & missing links

[10:14] But, you know, I also had an opportunity to have a debate publicly with Don Johanson, the famous archaeologist who discovered Lucy. He's an anthropologist. The so-called missing link. And you know, he shows this all over the world, this little skull with a protruding mandible and a receding forehead, and I said, you know, I'm a neurosurgeon, and I operate on a lot of people who have, you know, deformed skulls and things, and you know, eventually they die, and they get buried, and years later somebody like you comes along and finds their skull, and said they found the missing link. You know. He didn't appreciate that. But I said, you know, why is there just one of them? Why isn't there a whole colony of them? How can you dig up this one little thing and then extrapolate? And that's what those who are creationists [I think he meant evolutionists] tend to do - make these gigantic extrapolations without real evidence of what's going on.

There are a lot of misconceptions in this passage. First is Carson's expectation that fossils should be so numerous, but I've addressed this topic more thoroughly below, so I won't get into it here.

Luckily for us, though, we have been able to find many more than just one specimen of A. afarensis. Granted, many of these are pretty fragmentary, but the specimens are complementary, with holes in some specimens being filled (figuratively) by material from another, so that overall we have a pretty complete view of what this creature looked like. According to a page from the Smithsonian Institute, remains from more than 300 individuals have been found. The Wikipedia entry for A. afarensis lists fossils from several individuals, including one site, AL 333 which contains remains from at least 13 individuals, quite possibly the 'colony' that Carson was asking for (though what might have killed an entire family and left all of their remains in one place is an open question).

I am going to point out a mistake from Carson that, although not hugely important to his larger point, just further highlights his unfamiliarity with the topic. The fossil known as Lucy doesn't have a very complete skull at all, receding forehead or otherwise. What made Lucy so special was how complete her skeleton was. Here's a photo of all the bones from Lucy that were found:

Lucy's fossils

But like I wrote above, fossils from other individuals can fill in our knowledge of what A. afarensis skulls looked like, such as AL 444-2, or the toddler, Selam.

AL 444-2, Australopithecus afarensis skull
AL 444-2
(Image Source: Smithsonian Institute)
DIK-1/1, or the Baby A. Afarensis nicknamed Selam
DIK-1/1, aka Selam
(Image Source: Dikika Research Project)

And yes, paleoanthropologists do consider whether or not the features in skulls might be due to deformities (the more recent finds of Homo floresiensis provide a great example of this kind of debate). And to be clear, it's not just the skull of A. afarensis that paleoanthropologists use to distinguish it as a separate species, but the overall skeleton, such as the pelvis, limb proportions, and curved fingers for climbing.

Given Carson's mention of Lucy as 'the missing link', it might be that he thinks she was the only transitional form between our arboreal ape ancestors and us. If so, then he's again mistaken, and not just for the other specimens of A. afarensis that I mentioned above. Since this is a common creationist misconception, I've written about it before, and I'm going to paraphrase/quote myself here.

Australopithecus afarensis is far from the only transitional form known. If you visit the Wikipedia page on Australopithecus, you'll find several more species just in that genus, including A. bahrelghazali, A. anamensis, A. africanus, A. garhi, and A. sediba.

Australopithecus sediba compared to Lucy
Australopithecus sediba (left and right) compared to Lucy (center)
(Image Source: Wikipedia)

And there are many more types of hominids that have been discovered outside of that genus - two species of Ardipithecus, three species of Paranthropus, and many species of Homo. Keep in mind, though, that taxonomy is improved with new discoveries and new analyses, and some of those groupings may be shuffled around in the future (such as they have in the past, for instance when A. Robustus was shifted to a new genus, Paranthropus).

Below is a preview of an image from the excellent resource, Talk Origins (I highly recommend clicking on the link below to see the full version at their site, along with accompanying text). It shows a sampling of several hominid skulls, including a chimpanzee. It's clear how similar all of those skulls are, and how they can be arranged from most similar to a chimpanzee to most similar to a human, with only small differences between each skull in the series. Keep in mind that this is not a direct path of evolution from chimp to human, since we didn't evolve from chimps, but share a common ancestor with them. Rather, this image shows many related cousins, some more closely related than others, in an approximation of what the line from ancient ancestor to modern human might have been like. The fact that these skulls grade so seamlessly from chimp to human is to be expected from evolution and the gradual change that entails. There is no stark division between non-human apes and us.

Talk Origin's Hominid Skull Comparison
Homind Skull Comparison
(Image Source: Talk Origins)

Darwin, biogeography

[22:22] But the real lynch pin of evolution is natural selection. And of course that's a term coined by Charles Darwin, who many people don't know this, but Charles Darwin actually started out in a seminary to become a man of the cloth. He had some experiences with God that didn't go his way, like his ten year old daughter who died of pneumonia despite his pleads. But, he goes off to the Galápagos Islands. And he was a very keen observer, I will give him credit. And he noticed some things that you didn't seem to see any place else. He particularly noticed the finches there, who had these elongated thickened beaks. And he said, no other finches have beaks like this. This is evidence of evolutionary change.

Since this is the first Darwin quote I'm going to discuss, let me just say this up front. Darwin was not a prophet or high priest of science. His words are not gospel. While he is highly respected for all his insights and hard work to develop his theory of natural selection, modern scientists are not obliged to faithfully preserve Darwin's ideas. In fact, Darwin did make mistakes, and much new information has been learned since his time. The modern synthesis combined genetics and natural selection, and modern evolutionary theory is much more than what Darwin published back in 1859.

Darwin didn't just go off to the Galápagos. His voyage on the Beagle spent a lot of time in South America, including the Galápagos Islands, but also went to Australia, Tahiti, and other places (more info: Book Review - Voyage of the Beagle). Darwin was able to observe patterns in many, many locations, not just one set of islands. And the observations that intrigued him weren't just the fact that islands had unique animals, but the relationship of the animals to those from other regions, a topic that is now developed into the formal discipline of biogeography. The Galápagos, being close to the South American mainland, had animals most closely related to the animals from South America, yet still distinct species. But from a creationist perspective, why should that be the case? If animals were specially created in their habitats, why should the animals on the Galápagos be most closely related to animals from the mainland, rather than animals that live on different islands with similar habitats? And if the flood were true, why should there even be any type of correlation of closely related species being close together geographically, when all animals would have dispersed from Mount Ararat after the flood was over (why would the marsupials have traveled as a group straight to Australia)? But this is exactly what's expected with common descent. The Galápagos, being volcanic islands and relatively young geologically, would have been settled by wayward pioneers that somehow got there from the mainland, who after enough generations of isolation, would have become distinct species.

This brings up another point. Calling Darwin a 'keen observer' undersells everything else he did to develop the theory of natural selection. Darwin was also prolific at performing experiments to test his ideas. When it came to the issue of how organisms could have gotten from the mainland to islands, he didn't just rely on his observations from the Beagle and then conjecture from there. He ran experiments on different animals to see how well they could have survived salt water conditions, and whether it was plausible for them to have made the journey (more info: Book Review - Origin of Species).

Galápagos finches, definition of evolution

[23:24] Now what he didn't know is that there had been severe droughts in the Galápagos for three years. The only finches that survived were the ones that had thick beaks that could break open the seedlings and extract nutrition and they were able to breed and pass that trait on to the next. But, evolutionists say that those changes that you see, just like you saw with all the dogs [apparently referring to a presentation before his], is definitive proof of evolution. Now, I submit, that changes can occur within a species. But is that a sign of evolution, or is it a sign of an intelligent creator who gave his creatures the ability to adapt to their environment, so that he wouldn't have to start over every fifty years? You know, that sounds much more intelligent than anything else...

Actually, that is fairly definitive proof of evolution, though only a small piece of evidence in support of universal common descent. Part of the problem is that Carson wants to define evolution differently from how evolutionary biologists define it. Here's the definition given by Douglas Futuyma in his textbook, Evolutionary Biology (source: Talk Origins Archive):

Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions.

So yes, the fact that a drought killed off the finches with smaller beaks because they couldn't eat the available food sources, while birds with thicker beaks survived, is a perfect example of natural selection and evolution. There was a population with a variety of genes for growing different types of beaks. An environmental pressure came along that shifted the gene pool of the population to one with more genes for growing thicker beaks. That is evolution.

And even though, as I said, this is only a small piece of evidence for universal common descent, it is a piece of the picture. As I describe in response to the very next quote, speciation has been observed. The finch example Carson discussed, and many others, are examples of traits changing within populations (there are even examples of organisms developing new structures, such as a lizard population that evolved cecal valves). So, in the modern day, we can observe the types of processes that are necessary for universal common descent to be true, and if these processes were carried out over generations and generations, they would produce big evolutionary changes.

Species becoming new species (speciation)

[24:20] And no one, has ever demonstrated one species changing to another species.

Yes, they have. Here's one page from Talk Origins on the topic, Observed Instances of Speciation, and another, Some More Observed Speciation Events. One interesting example is the London Underground mosquito, as described in the article, The London Underground Has Its Own Species Of Mosquito. The distribution is actually a little wider than just London, but this is a new mosquito species that appears to have formed in the time of subways, with unique adaptations to its subterranean environment.

However, keep in mind that speciation 'events' aren't necessarily rapid, and that species is a fuzzy concept, anyway. I have an entry, Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? And a Discussion of the Fuzziness of Species, discussing this fuzziness, and how it can be difficult to determine when two different populations merit the designation of separate species, rather than just varieties or breeds of the same species. A potential ongoing speciation event is that of the apple maggot flies. Their ancestors laid their eggs exclusively on hawthornes, which are native to North America. With the introduction of apples by Europeans, some of the flies began laying their eggs on apples. Right now, the flies that are born on hawthornes tend to look for mates and lay their eggs on hawthornes, while the flies that are born on apples tend to do likewise but with apples. So, there are currently two populations of these flies, with little gene flow between the two populations, and with genetic differences starting to show up between the populations. It's possible that given enough time, these two populations will have accumulated enough separate mutations that they can no longer interbreed and will have become separate species.

Now, having talked and corresponded with several creationists in the past, I suspect Carson might say that the London Underground mosquitos are still just mosquitos, and that the apple maggot flies are still just flies, but that overlooks that these are still examples of speciation, where one interbreeding population has become two separate populations. This is a pre-requisite of the branching pattern we see with universal common descent - populations must split into separate reproductively isolated populations so that those populations can take separate evolutionary paths and develop different traits in each population. The types of large scale changes, such as from a land based hoofed animal to a whale, are going to take many, many, many generations to accumulate, and nobody would expect to see such changes occur rapidly.

Fossil record

[24:27] And, you know, this should be, if it's true, a continual evolving. So we should be able to find intermediate species at any given point in time. And we should be able to find how they line up. You know, Darwin said his whole theory depended on the fossil remains. And he said, we should be able to line up, from a single cell organism to man, several miles long, and just walk right down the fossil trail, and see how everything evolved. And he said the only reason they didn't have the fossils is because they were not geologically sophisticated enough. But that we would be in fifty to a hundred years. Well, that was a hundred and fifty years ago. We still haven't found them. Where are they? Where are the fossil remains? But when you ask the evolutionists about that, they say, 'Well I don't know where they are. They're somewhere. They're [unintelligible], we just haven't found 'em, yet.' That's a pretty lame excuse to be honest with you.

I've read both The Origin and The Voyage of the Beagle, and I don't recall any such statements from Darwin. In fact, Darwin hardly discussed fossils at all in The Origin, focusing mainly on other lines of evidence, like biogeography and the difficulties of distinguishing between true species and mere varieties. Perhaps he said or wrote it somewhere else, but it doesn't seem consistent with what he's written that I have read.

Many, many new fossils and species have been discovered since Darwin's time. I've already discussed Lucy and human ancestors above. Tiktaalik roseae is a particularly noteworthy fossil found just a few years ago. A whole host of fossils have been found documenting whale evolution. Feathered dinosaur fossils have been found in the dozens. In 2014, a new species of dinosaur was discovered nearly every week (that was a particularly productive year). The list goes on. Anyone who doesn't think that an abundance of fossils has been found since Darwin's time hasn't been paying attention. And this trend shows no signs of slowing down, indicating that there are many, many fossil species still undiscovered.

But despite how many fossils have been found, we'll never have a situation like the one Carson describes, where we could "line up, from a single cell organism to man, several miles long, and just walk right down the fossil trail, and see how everything evolved." To quote myself from a previous entry, "We are lucky to have a fossil record at all. Just consider what it takes for us to find a fossil ... When most organisms die, they get eaten and decomposed, and there aren't any recognizable remains. It takes a special set of circumstances for remains to get covered up quickly enough that they don't decompose, but gently enough that they don't get dashed to pieces, and it's even rarer still for this to happen to a nearly complete skeleton/tree/whatever type of organism, and not just bits and pieces. And it's even rarer still for this to happen to soft tissue, and not just hard parts. Then, even if just the right circumstances existed for a fossil to form, we need to be lucky enough to find it once it's been exposed by erosion, but before erosion carries on further and destroys the fossil altogether."

I'll add to that something I learned from Dawkins' Greatest Show on Earth, that not a single fossil has ever been found for a specimen of the phylum, Platyhelminthes, or flatworms, even though it consists of tens of thousands of species, and billions (at least) of individuals. To paraphrase myself again, if we can't find fossils of all existing species, why should we expect to find fossils of all extinct species?

Kidney evolution, irreducible complexity

[25:40] But, you know, the interesting thing about evolution, about natural selection, is that it claims that anything that isn't useful disappears. So, while a species is in the process of changing, it clings onto those things that allow it to thrive and those things that are not useful disappear. So if that's the case, why do we have kidneys? Because, a kidney has many components, you know, a glamirolis, and renal tubules, and all kinds of epithelial surfaces, all of which work together to be able to filter blood, create urine. It's a complex process. None of those things in and of themself have any purpose.

This is an idea that's been coined in recent years as Irreducible Complexity. Here's how Michael Behe, the man who coined the term, defined it.

A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.

The idea is supposed to be that if the system can't function properly without each of those individual parts, then there's no way that system could have evolved through conventional evolutionary means. But every example I've ever seen of irreducible complexity fails in one of three ways. First, the system may not actually require every single component to function. It may function better with all the current components in place, but versions of the system without certain components would still be functional (see the eye below). The second way is in ignoring the way evolution co-opts certain features for new functions. Perhaps if you remove certain components of a system, it may not perform it's current function, but it might instead perform a different function, providing an evolutionary path for that system to emerge. The third is biological 'scaffolds'. Think about an arch. If you take away any piece of the arch, it would fall. But we know that arches weren't constructed instantaneously. Builders put up scaffolding, build the arch around the scaffolding, then take the scaffolding down. The evolutionary development of certain organs could have done something similar, with features that existed in our ancestors, but have since been lost. The Wikipedia link given above includes several examples of so-called Irreducible Complexity that turn out in fact to be reducible. One of the most touted examples, the bacterial flagellum, is discussed in this article by Ken Miller, The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of "Irreducible Complexity" (by the way, Miller is a practicing Catholic who accepts and studies evolution).

It is interesting to see Carson using the kidneys, since the embryonic development of kidneys in humans provides yet another piece of evidence of our evolutionary history. This is discussed in the article, Evidence for evolution: development of our kidneys. Although the phrase, 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny', has been shown to be too simplistic, embryology still reveals patterns that point strongly to common descent. As far as kidneys go, humans actually grow three sets of kidneys during development. The first, the pronephric kidney, is functionally useless in humans. It does nothing, and is reabsorbed back into the embryo. The second is the mesonephric kidney, which actually does filter wastes from the blood, excreting the waste through mesonephric ducts. However, it gets replaced after a few weeks by metanephric kidneys, which also filter wastes from the blood, but excrete that waste through tubes called ureters. The thing is, each of the three kidneys is homologous to kidneys in other organisms. The pronephric kidney is homologous to that of lampreys and hagfish. The mesonephric kidney is homologous to that of fish and amphibians. And the metanephric kidney is homologous to that of reptiles, birds, and, unsurprisingly, mammals.

There are evolutionary reasons why the two 'older model' kidneys might be retained for development. For one, development is a tightly constrained process, so there may just be no good evolutionary way to get rid of pronephric kidneys that doesn't screw up the rest of the organism's development. And development can be a bit weird (think back to the programming example above). Maybe those structures are necessary to stimulate other development in the embryo. These types of holdovers are expected from evolution, but make no sense from special creation. Why not just have an embryo grow one set of kidneys that will stick with it for life?

Eye evolution

[26:46] Same thing with your eye. You have an iris, and a pupil, and a cornea, and vitreous, and, you know retina, rod cells, cone cells. All of which are necessary for the eye to function. Short ciliary nerves. Now, without the other parts, it doesn't work. So how did it get there? Did a cone cell, which is sophisticated in and of itself, just kind of sit around for a few million years waiting for a rod cell. And then did they sit around waiting for a retinal network? You know, according to the theory, it had to go, Pukh! And there was an eyeball. Overnight. Just like that. Because it wouldn't work in any other way. And when you ask the evolutionists about that, they say, 'Well, we don't understand everything.' I say, 'Well, I don't think you understand anything.'

The ending of this quote is something that Carson repeated numerous times throughout this presentation, the whole, " 'Well, we don't understand everything.' I say, 'Well, I don't think you understand anything.' " To be frank, this does make me question Carson's honesty. I'm about to give an explanation for eye evolution that isn't obscure. Darwin himself proposed a plausible scenario back in the first edition of The Origin over 150 years ago (Chapter 6), and a quick Google search will yield much more recent work on the topic, actually getting down to the genetic and molecular level. I've got a book sitting at home (still on my to-read list) devoted completely to this one topic. If Carson is being honest when he says that he asked 'evolutionists' about the evolution of the eye, and if by 'evolutionists' he means qualified evolutionary biologists, science writers, or educators, he would have surely gotten an answer better than 'we don't understand everything.'

Carson's big mistake here is in assuming that everything present in a human eye needs to be present for an eye to function at all. That's not the case. And it doesn't even take conjecture to demonstrate this, just an examination of some of the eyes that exist right now in living animals.

I've used this particular image a few times now (including in a previous entry on Carson's views on evolution), but it's a particularly good one. The illustrations are all from existing animals. To be clear, these are all mollusc eyes, not vertebrate eyes, but they clearly show a progression from simple eyes with fewer parts to more complex eyes with more parts.

Evolution of Complex Eyes
Increasingly Complex Eyes Among Gastropods
Image Source: Forgotten Internet source, but probably originally from Douglas J. Futuyma's Evolutionary Biology

Note how the simplest eye in the diagram is little more than a depression with light sensitive cells - good enough for telling which direction light is coming from, but not for any type of imaging. And there are animals with even simpler eyes, such as echinoderms. In fact, their eyes are so simple that they don't even get called eyes, just eyespots. All they're really capable of is detecting light and dark, not even direction. But obviously, all these simple eyes are useful to the organisms that possess them.

All this shows a probable path for how eyes evolved - light sensitive pigments in un-specialized cells, specialized cells for detecting light, specialized organs for just detecting light, cup type eyes that can also detect direction, and on through all the increasingly complex eyes shown in the diagram above. The fact that most of these stages actually exist in living animals clearly shows that each stage would have been useful.

Flowers before bees?

[36:43] You know, think about the beautiful flowers that we see. How are flowers able to reproduce? Pollination. How does pollination occur? Bees and other creatures. Now, according to evolution, plants came along before the bees. So, how did plants reproduce?

For some reason, this quote stands out to me as the most arrogant of all of Carson's quotes on evolution. I mean, they're all bad, but this one takes the cake. If he had a real point, it would seem to be such an obvious one that you'd wonder how biologists could have missed it for the past 150 years since Darwin wrote The Origin.

The answer is that the first plants didn't rely on 'bees and other creatures' for pollination. Here's a diagram of plant evolution, showing the major groups.

Plant Evolution Diagram
Plant Family Tree
Image Source: LanBob.com

Notice that flowering plants, the ones Carson was referring to, didn't appear until some time in the Mesozoic. Wikipedia says it was some time in the late Triassic, or a little after the earliest dinosaurs (the Triassic is a period in the Mesozoic era). And just as with my discussion on eye evolution, you don't even have to conjecture on this. There are plenty of living non-flowering plants around that reproduce without the assistance of pollinators.

"So, how did plants reproduce" before the evolution of pollinators? Probably much the same way that mosses, ferns, and pine trees reproduce today.

Evolution of sexual reproduction

[37:14] And what about animals? And what about people, and their reproduction? You know, it was a wonderful thing that God gave us. You know, men are attracted to women, women are attracted to men. Although that's changing in this society. But, anyway, that was the way it was supposed to be, okay. And it was a beautiful thing. But, according to evolutionary model, you know, we really came from an amoeba. And amoebas, they just like, split, and then there's two amoebas. So, it seems to me, like according to the evolutionary model, you do things that are efficient. So rather than going out and looking for a mate, you would just divide, and there would be two of you. And that'd be pretty horrible in some cases.

As the old saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. This really is an open question in evolution - why did sex evolve, and why don't all organisms just reproduce asexually? In a single generation, asexually reproducing individuals can leave twice as many copies of their genes as sexually reproducing individuals, so unless there were some major advantage to sex, you'd expect the asexually reproducing individuals to dominate the population.

There are ideas on what this advantage might be, and research investigating these ideas. One with increasing experimental support is to resist infection or parasites. Here are two good articles on this idea from which I'm pulling much of this information, Why sex? Experiments on fruit flies suggest it evolved to resist infection which looked at research on fruit flies, and Why Have Sex? To Fend Off Parasites, which looked at research on snails.

The general idea is that it's much easier for a parasite or disease to infect a host if it 'knows' the exact genetics of the host (using 'know' metaphorically, of course). Organisms that reproduce asexually make near exact genetic clones, so if the parents are susceptible to a certain strain of a disease, their children are going to be just as susceptible. But when organisms reproduce sexually, they mix up their genes, so even if a parent was susceptible to a disease, their children likely won't be quite as susceptible. In effect, it's creating a constant moving target for infection, so diseases and parasites can't become specialized for one particular genome.

I found the snail study particularly intriguing. The species was Potamopyrgus antipodarum, a type of freshwater snail in New Zealand. These snails can reproduce either sexually or asexually (individual snails are only capable of one strategy). So, right off the bat it's clear there must be a big advantage to sexual reproduction, because even if you doubt universal common descent of all life, here's a single species with two methods of reproduction, yet the asexual method hasn't swept through the entire population. And when the researchers studied these snails, they did find that the asexually reproducing snails were more susceptible to parasite infections, while the sexually reproducing snails were less susceptible. To quote that article, "Despite the costs of sexual reproduction, it seems to have use against parasites. Sexual organisms are genetically rare, and consequently, parasites cannot adapt to them. Evidence from the New Zealand snails show that parasite adaptation to infect common asexual individuals prevents asexuals from eliminating sexuals from the population."

Asexual reproduction in animals

Later on, during the question and answer period, Carson was asked how people would self replicate by splitting apart if evolution were true. Here was his response.

[47:33] Well the way that would happen, is through evolving the systems that allow you to split apart. Those systems have not been developed. They have not evolved, which means it's not true.

I'll cut Carson some slack here since this was a question, and not part of his prepared speech, but it just once again highlights his ignorance of the topic. Some simple animals can reproduce just by splitting, such as corals and echinoderms. There are also more complex animals that can reproduce asexually. There were the snails I discussed in reference to the previous quote. There are sharks that have been observed to do so in aquariums. There are lizards that reproduce asexually. Of course, those animals don't split. They basically just make clones of themselves in their eggs, and then develop normally the way other animals do. So, maybe in humans, "Those systems have not been developed", but they have in other animals. It's not a mystery how complex animals could reproduce asexually, but it is still a mystery why some do and most don't.

Why evolution doesn't produce perfection

[38:14] But, you know things are supposed to work in an efficient way. So according to the evolutionary model, we would be less pugilistic, we would be much more logical. We'd be much more creative. We wouldn't go around fighting each other and cutting off people's heads anymore, because that stuff would have been extinguished and we would have evolved into something much better. According to the creation model, in which we have an Adversary, it's very easy to explain. Why people act that way is because they have choice, and because there is an Adversary out there.

This is one of the first times I've seen a creationist say that evolution predicts we should be better than we are. It's usually all about 'survival of the fittest' and wondering why we're not completely selfish. I'll get to how evolution could produce altruism in response to the next quote, but for right now, let's just take it as a given that altruism exists, and has some benefit to the individual. It should also be clear that from an evolutionary perspective, an individual benefits by being selfish. So for example, if you find a great food source, like a patch of raspberries, or you killed a mammoth, there will be two conflicting evolutionary pressures - be nice and share with your friends, meaning that you lose some of those particular resources but gain good standing in the community, or be greedy and keep all those resources for yourself, but hurt your reputation. So, it's not surprising that evolution has produced a balance in us between these two conflicting impulses. A completely unselfish person might starve to death from never getting enough food for themselves (or be unable to feed their children), while a completely greedy person would lose the support of their community and be cut off from all the resources the community provides.

Evolution of altruism/morality

[39:12] But I think the most powerful evidence, is the fact that we are creative, the fact that we are compassionate, and the fact that we can manifest love. Where did that come from in the evolutionary model? Why is it, somebody's drowning, for the most part, you're not just gonna walk by. You're gonna try to throw them something. If you can swim, you're going to jump in to save them. That doesn't work in the evolutionary model. Because the evolutionary model says 'survival of the fittest'. You'd just say, 'Ah, too bad, and just keep walking'. Now some people do do that, but most people, most people - they see somebody struggling, there's something inside them that says help, that makes no sense, whatsoever, in the evolutionary model.

This isn't even consistent with what he himself said in the previous quote. In that one, he was saying that if evolution were true, we should be much better than we actually are. But here, he's saying that if evolution were true, we should be much worse than we actually are. The least Carson could do is be consistent in his criticisms.

But why has evolution shaped us to want to help others? Why aren't we always just on the lookout for number 1, and to hell with everyone else? There are two big camps on this (though not the only two) - group selection and kin selection. Both of these say that by cooperating with others, you increase your own chances of leaving copies of your genes, but they go about it in slightly different ways.

In group selection, the idea is that cooperating with anybody in your group (or tribe) makes your group more functional and able to outcompete a neighboring group. So, groups with more selfish individuals get outcompeted by groups with cooperating individuals, making the groups with more cooperating individuals more common, and benefitting all members of the cooperative group. This is actually the minority view among most biologists. For a detailed discussion of why, take a look at this article by Steven Pinker, The False Allure of Group Selection.

The more common explanation is kin selection. The more closely related you are to somebody, the more genes you have in common with them. In fact, you are as equally genetically related to your siblings as you are to your children, sharing half of your DNA with either. So, from an evolutionary perspective, saving the life of your sibling is just as advantageous as saving the life of your child, since either scenario results in the same number of your genes being preserved. Likewise, a cousin is the same as your grandchild, etc. So, when you help close relatives, you're still in effect helping your own genes. And a lot of our morality does play out this way. The more closely related someone is to us, the more likely we are to help them. For example, if a complete stranger needed help making rent, you'd be much less likely to help them out than if it was your brother or sister.

But these altruistic behaviors evolved instinctually, not as some rational appraisal of how many genes you share with someone. And since evolution isn't guided by any conscious process, it just goes with what works, not necessarily what we might consider the most direct method of doing things. What I'm getting at is that the indicators evolution used to determine who we should be nicest to just had to usually result in us being nicest to our close relatives, not be perfect indicators of relatedness.

Slightly off topic but a good example of this is the Westermarck effect. This is a type of imprinting, where people become "desensitized to sexual attraction" to those people they're around during their first few years of life. The reason is that for most people, the people you're around most when you're that young are close relatives - parents and siblings. There would be a strong evolutionary advantage to prevent inbreeding and the risks that would cause to their children. But notice that this is an indirect way for evolution to prevent inbreeding. If you were adopted and later met your sibling but didn't know they were your sibling, the Westermark effect doesn't protect you. But because this is so rare compared to children raised by their biological parents, the Westermarck effect still serves its purpose.

So, returning to the evolution of altruism, since kin selection predicts that it's useful for you to help out your own relatives, if you live in a small group that's mostly composed of relatives, then just being nice to everybody in your group works out. You don't have to try to distinguish who's who in your group if nearly everybody is related. And it seems that humans did live in these small family groups for much of our history. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that, but that's the quick explanation.

As long as I'm on the topic of ethics, I'll use it as an excuse to share this video, which I never get tired of (related NPR article). It's an experiment with capuchin monkeys, testing their sense of fairness. Capuchins like cucumbers well enough, but not nearly as much as grapes. It's kind of like the difference with us between a piece of hard candy vs. crème brûlée (or substitute food of your choice). In this experiment, the capuchins have to perform a simple task, for which they're rewarded with a food treat. The twist in this video is that the first monkey to perform the task gets a cucumber as its treat, while the second capuchin gets a grape. The first monkey sees what happens. When it does the task a second time and is offered a cucumber again, instead of a grape like the second monkey, it's reaction is priceless.

Now, you could say that the first monkey is reacting like a child, but the big thing to take away from this is that the monkey's have a sense of fairness, an essential part of our larger sense of morality.

Geology/The Flood

Noah's flood, shells on mountains

[20:43] And you know, as was pointed out already tonight, people try to disparage the Bible, and say that these things are not true, these are fanciful tales. And yet, there's abundant evidence, geological evidence, that there was a worldwide flood. Go up to the Andes Mountains and see all those fossils on the tops of those mountains. And these things, when you talk to the evolutionists about them, they always say the same thing 'Well, we don't understand everything'. And I just say, 'I'm not sure you understand anything.'

Out of all the stories in the Bible that seem silly to take literally, Noah's Flood is right up there near the top. Aside from the discrepancies between the Jahwist and Priestly sources, there are many practical objections. I have an entry where I discuss this in some detail, with links to lots of other good sources, Noah's Impossible Ark - Some Comments and Links. In fact, I'll just quote part of that entry here.

"The myth of Noah's Ark breaks down on so many levels, that it's hard to believe that people take it seriously as a literal story. First, there's the implausibility of building a wooden ship that big to begin with. Then there's the problem of gathering all those animals to Noah's location (how did the sloths get there). Then Noah had to somehow fit all the animals aboard, along with all the food, water, and other supplies that would have been required. And for the entire time they were on the ark, a crew of 8 were all that were available to care for all those thousands and thousands of animals (just look at the staffs modern zoos require). Then once the flood was over, there's the little problem of getting all the animals back to where they belonged. (Why did most of the marsupials head straight to Australia? And how did the kangaroos cross the Pacific to get there?) And on top of that is the problem of re-population without inbreeding, and without the predators eating the only remaining specimens of those now endangered animals. And the story totally ignores plants and non-land animals. (Freshwater fish can't survive in salty conditions, and vice versa.)

"But all that's granting some plausibility to a global flood happening in the first place. In reality, there's just no evidence that such a flood happened, especially in the time-frame that Biblical literalists claim. [e.g. Egyptian civilization carried on undisturbed.] And there's no known mechanism by which it could have happened, even if every last speck of ice on the planet was melted (sorry Kevin Costner)."

As far as Carson wondering why there might be fossils of shells on the tops of mountains, this is explained by plate tectonics. A good place to start is simply the Wikipedia entry on Mountain Formation. The land that now makes up those particular mountain peaks used to be underwater. When two plates collided, they pushed that land up to form a mountain, taking along whatever fossils had been deposited while the land was underwater.

Even Leonardo Da Vinci, back in the late 1400s, realized that these shells couldn't have been deposited in a year long flood (remember that the 40 days and 40 nights was only how long the rain lasted, not how long the floodwaters lasted), because they were from sessile (non-mobile) animals and showed signs of growth that would have taken longer than a year to form.

Geologic layers evidence of a flood?

[43:27] But, the fact of the matter is, we have to look at things based on what makes sense. And, you look at the geological layers, it makes perfectly good sense that that was done by a worldwide flood. You look at the fact that there are crustaceans on the top of the Andes Mountains, it makes perfectly good sense that there was a flood.

Now, this is very similar to the previous quote, but I wanted to focus on one aspect in particular, "And, you look at the geological layers, it makes perfectly good sense that that was done by a worldwide flood." There are many examples to show how this isn't the case, but a particularly striking one is chalk. Chalk is actually made up almost entirely of the remains of marine algae. According to this paper, The Cretaceous Chalk in Southern England, chalk accumulates at a rate of 1 to 6 centimeters per thousand years. In some places, chalk deposits are over 400 m thick. Even at the high rate of 6 cm per thousand years, that would take over 6 million years to form. And it takes very specific conditions. Here's another discussion of chalk, Chalk is weird. Chalk can only form in the absence of land based sediment, or else it would become contaminated with that sediment and wouldn't be chalk. It also requires calm water, because turbulence would keep the remains from settling out (not exactly the conditions proposed in many creationist flood scenarios). Finally, here's a paper from an organization called Old Earth Ministries, specifically in rebuttal to certain outlandish claims that chalk deposits could have been formed during Noah's Flood, Creation Science Rebuttals - Can Noah's Flood Make Any Chalk Beds?.

Dating of geologic layers & fossils

[21:23] You know, they look at all those layers, and then they find some fossils in one of the layers, and they says this fossil is this many years old, because it's in this layer. So, that mean's this fossil's like, a million years old. And then later on they say, well, this layer is a million years old, because this fossil which is a million years old, is in it. You know, that's like saying, that the sky can be red or blue. And you say, well the sky is blue. And you say, 'Why is it blue?' 'Because it's not red.' Well why is it not red? Because it's blue. You know, that's known as circular reasoning. That's how they explain the age of all these things is very circular reasoning, and really, it has no real scientific validity.

There are three issues here - relative dating, absolute dating, and index fossils, and Carson doesn't seem to understand any of them.

Let's start with relative dating, since that's the most intuitive, and also the first one that geologists worked out. At the most basic, when you come across geological layers, the deepest ones are the oldest. The layers above them are newer. This just makes intuitive sense, since the older layers need to exist before new layers can build up above them. Of course, you can't just naively assume that the layers have been undisturbed since they were layed down. Tectonic activity and other processes can disturb the layers, so geologists need to look for signs of those disturbances.

The closest thing to what Carson's describing is index fossils. One thing geologists noticed while studying the geological layers is that certain fossils were abundant enough to be found at numerous sites, but that these fossils only occurred in specific layers. These fossils are known as index fossils. They're often (but not always) small, hard bodied organisms, because small organisms tend to have large populations, while hard bodies fossilize better.

Index fossils can be used to help identify layers. If you'd studied enough sites to have the confidence that a certain type of fossil did indeed only occur in specific layers, then if you found that fossil in a site where the geological column wasn't complete or clear, you could still confidently say that that index fossil narrows down the possible layer to the ones where the index fossil occurred. If you can find more than one type of index fossil, you might be able to narrow it down further (i.e. if those separate index fossils had different but overlapping age ranges).

Lest you think this is just something used by 'high falutin' evolutionists, index fossils are very important to the petroleum industry, where their utility trumps any culture wars. According to a page on the Southeastern Louisiana University website:

Fossils can also be used to identify rock layers that may contain oil deposits. By collecting and identifying fossils from different rock strata, it is possible to describe the ancient environments of different times (and depths) and to find areas more conducive to oil production. After drilling oil over many years, it became obvious that specific types of fossils are found in layers of rock that are more likely to contain oil.

These fossils are called index fossils because they indicate the likely presence of oil [not exactly correct]. Petroleum geologists and micropaleontologists look for the presence of index fossils in test well samples to make decisions about drilling locations.

Now, as far as absolute dating, that is whether a deposit is 65 million years old or 130 million years old, scientists must rely on radiometric dating (which is slightly different than carbon dating, which can only give reliable dates to about 50,000 years old). Radiometric dating itself relies on igneous rocks, or the types of rocks made from cooling lava. It can even be volcanic ash, which ends up in a lot more locations than lava flows. When the lava solidifies into rock, all of the elements in it become 'frozen'. However, radioactive elements will still decay, breaking down into other elements. By measuring the relative quantities of the radioactive elements and their decay products, and by knowing the half life of the radioactive element, it's possible to determine how long it's been since the lava cooled to form the rock. Of course, as with everything else, there are things the scientists have to watch out for, such as contamination which would skew the ratios, but these types of issues are understood and accounted for (see that Wikipedia link for a much more detailed description of how it all works). I've actually discussed radiometric dating before in review of a creationist book I read, Book Review - Thousands, Not Billions, Part II.

But fossils typically occur in sedimentary layers, not igneous layers. So how do you use igneous layers to date fossils? The answer is dating the igneous layers or volcanic ash above and below the sedimentary layers you're interested in. This is the simplest, most direct way to date a fossil, and the preferred way if you can manage it. But recalling the discussion above about known layers and index fossils, even if you don't have any igneous layers or ash around the fossil site you're interested in, if you can determine what layer it fits into in the geologic column, and that layer itself has been dated with igneous rock or ash at different sites, then you can at least narrow down the age range of your fossil (though not nearly as narrowly as if there were volcanic debris above and below the fossil).

Big Bang/Cosmology

I tried to avoid most of the Big Bang and cosmology questions, since I don't know as much about those topics as evolution. Plus, just imagine how long this entry would have been if I'd responded to all of Carson's mistakes on those topics, as well. So, for the most part, I'm just going to direct readers to this article by physicist Lawrence Krauss, Ben Carson's Scientific Ignorance. There were three quotes I couldn't pass up, though.

Second law of thermodynamics

[31:00] Well, now what about the Big Bang Theory? I find the Big Bang really quite fascinating. I mean, here you have all these high faluting scientists and they're saying, that there was this gigantic explosion, and everything came into perfect order. Now these are the same scientists who go around touting the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is entropy, which says things move towards a state of disorganization. So, now you're gonna have this big explosion, and everything becomes perfectly organized.

Way back in the early days of this blog, I wrote an entry, Creation Museum/Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. It was one of my first entries to get a lot of hits. And one of the things I wrote was this, "Anytime somebody tries to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics to refute evolution, you should realize you're dealing with somebody who doesn't understand science or who is a liar." A bit later I added, "Creationists that use the Second Law of Thermodynamics argument really are the bottom of the barrel."

In this case, Carson's using the Second Law in relation to the larger history of the universe, but it's no better than applying it specifically to evolution. The Second Law doesn't predict that everything everywhere continually tends toward disorder no matter what. If that was the case, life itself couldn't exist, since the very act of growing up and surviving is holding entropy at bay. We do so with energy that we get from food (which ultimately comes from the sun), while our local decrease in entropy is compensated for with an increase of entropy elsewhere. As the universe expanded after the Big Bang, overall entropy did increase (and is still increasing), but that doesn't mean that local pockets of decreased entropy couldn't exist. And it's a good thing, too, or we wouldn't be here (no matter whether we came about through evolution or special creation).

And just like I mentioned in the flower evolution example, does Carson really think cosmologists are so dim that they'd have missed such an obvious obstacle to the Big Bang theory?

Tornado in a junkyard, multiple Big Bangs

[31:38] And when you ask them about it, they say, 'Well, we can explain this based on probability theory, because if there's enough big explosions over a long enough period of time, or billions and billions of years, one of them will be the perfect explosion. And I say, so what you're telling me, is if I blow a hurricane through a junkyard enough times, over billions and billions of years, eventually after one of those hurricanes, there'll be a 747, fully loaded and ready to fly. 'Well.'

I'll be honest. The reason I included this quote is because of the 747 argument. It's one of those arguments like If man came from apes, why are there still apes?, that I'm just so used to seeing as a parody of creationists and how bad their arguments are, that it's actually a little exciting to see it being used, even if Carson is using it in a novel way.

Carson seems to be trying to understand the multiverse concept, but getting it a little bit mangled. The multiverse concept is that our universe might not be the only one in existence. Perhaps there are countless parallel universes, each the result of their own Big Bang, and each with their own set of physical constants. This is sometimes used to explain away the supposed fine tuning of the universe, that if any of the physical constants were even slightly off, life as we know it couldn't exist. With countless universes all with different physical constants, then it would just stand to reason that some would be conducive to life while some wouldn't, and we just happen to be in one that does. It's sort of like looking at Earth - it's the planet in the solar system most conducive to life, so of course we're living here on Earth talking about how habitable the Earth is, since we couldn't very well be living on Mars or Venus having that conversation. (Personally, I think the fine tuning argument is way too conceited, whether or not there are multiple universes, since it assumes there's something super special about 'life as we know it'. Maybe other forms of life or consciousness would be possible with different constants. Maybe they wouldn't. But how conceited do you have to be to assume that the universe exists just for you?)

Perhaps Carson is referring to a slightly different concept, that the universe experiences serial Big Bangs. That's the idea that after a Big Bang, which creates a unique set of physical constants, the universe will go and do what universes do, and eventually after trillions upon trillions upon trillions of years, when even black holes have evaporated and the inevitable increase of entropy mean's there's nothing left but a formless, uniform expanse, a tunneling event could collapse the universe, causing a new Big Bang, allowing the whole process to play out again, with a whole new set of physical constants.

But notice that in none of these scenarios has there been a continuous series of Big Bang like explosions in our universe since the Big Bang that we know of that set this incarnation of the universe in motion.

Bombarded by cosmic debris

[33:19] And there are a whole series of things. What about all the debris from the billions and billions of explosions that were not perfect? Where's that? I mean, we should be bombarded constantly by all this debris coming down. We're not seeing it.

Go out to a dark region at night and look up. You're bound to see a shooting star before too long. Guess what, that's space debris hitting the Earth. According to this article, around 40,000 tons of dust collide with the Earth each year (though, as that article also points out, the Earth loses around 90,000 tons of hydrogen and helium each year, so the Earth is slowly losing mass - about 0.000000000000001% every year). Bigger objects also hit the Earth from time to time, such as the asteroid that created the gigantic Chicxulub Crater, and was likely responsible for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (the one that killed most of the dinosaurs, but not all of them). There was even a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment around 4 billion years ago, when the inner planets were hit particularly hard by debris. Most of that debris is gone now because it's already hit the planets and the orbits are relatively clear, but not so clear that we don't still get that 40,000 tons of debris per year.


Satan responsible for theory of evolution

[01:09] Now, this whole creation evolution controversy has been raging on really since the beginning. Because, what is Satan's plan? To get rid of God. To disparage God. To mischaracterize God. And what is creation? Creation is God's signature. That he created the world and that he created us.

The next quote is so similar, that I'm just going to list it as well, and then discuss them as a set.

[45:06] But I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the Adversary. And, it has become what is scientifically politically correct. Amazingly, there are a significant number of scientists who do not believe it, but they're afraid to say anything.

This is really pretty silly - implying that Satan, or the Adversary, is somehow responsible for the theory of evolution. Although Darwin himself may not have been a Christian by the time he published The Origin, most of the people alive then in Europe and the Americas were Christians, and it was the evidence Darwin amassed that convinced them of the truth of evolution, not any desire to abandon their faith (and in fact, most of them didn't abandon Christianity - they just adjusted their interpretation of the Bible). That evidence has only grown in modern times, to where evolution is as much of a fact as anything in science.

To try to paint evolution as specifically anti-religious makes about as much sense as saying that the theory of static electricity causing lightning was meant to disprove Thor and his hammer. Now, it may be that certain brands of religion are in disagreement with evolution (e.g. Biblical literalism), but when a religion disagrees with reality, that's not the fault of reality. If your religion allows you to believe in a god and evolution (as many people do), then there's no contradiction at all. If your religion says evolution is impossible, well, then, so much the worse for your religion.

Evolution & ethics/morality

[02:42] But, the interesting thing is, they said that I said that people who believe in evolution were unethical. And that's not what I said at all. What I said is that people who believe in God, and who believe in the Bible, can very easily explain from where they derive their ethical philosophies. People who believe in survival of the fittest might have a more difficult time doing that. Because when you believe in survival of the fittest, and you and another person are the only person there, and you're hungry, and you kill him and eat him, well, you know, that's survival of the fittest. That's not necessarily the wrong thing to do. And if you believe as we do, and we get our ethical considerations from God, that would not even be a consideration.

Before pointing out the problems with this argument, I'm going to point out a problem that's either dishonesty on Carson's part, or more charitably not remembering things correctly. He may not have used the exact word 'unethical' to describe people who accept evolution, but had said previously that they 'dismiss ethics', which doesn't seem like a major distinction, especially when this time he went on to say that people who accept evolution could kill a person without compunction. Here's what he said previously in an Adventist Review Interview:

Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don't have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires. You have no reason for things such as selfless love, when a father dives in to save his son from drowning. You can trash the Bible as irrelevant, just silly fables, since you believe that it does not conform to scientific thought. You can be like Lucifer, who said, "I will make myself like the Most High."

All of this is, of course, completely ludicrous. First off, he's confusing ought vs. is. Evolutionary theory describes what happens under certain circumstances, not how we should behave. It would be as silly as saying that if you accept gravitational theory, you should go around pushing people off of roofs because gravity says they'll fall.

Second, he's pretty confident about religion providing morality, when that's a debate that's been going on since before there was even Christianity. If you've never heard of it, go read about the Euthyphro Dilemma, put forth by Plato. The heart of the argument is the question, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" Religion may provide a lot of rules, but following those rules without thinking through the ethical implications for yourself is merely obedience, not morality (related: Follow Up to a Follow Up - Morality).

And finally as was described above, evolutionary theory does describe how altruism could have evolved, and where we get our drive for morality.

Literal 6 day creation

[19:31] But, why is it that people try so hard to get rid of God? You know, you go back to the very first chapter in the Bible, and you know, I'm not a hard and fast person that says the Earth is only 6,000 years old, but I do believe in the six day creation. And because you know it says in the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. Doesn't say when he created them except for in the beginning. So, the Earth could have been here for a long time before he started creating things on it. But when he did start doing that, he made it very specifically clear to us, the evening, and the morning, for the next day. Because he knew that people would come along and try to say that 'oh it was millions and millions of years'

I included the above quote just to make it abundantly clear that Carson believes creation took place in 6 literal days. He said, "I do believe in the six day creation," and then went on to clarify those were actual literal days by saying, "he made it very specifically clear to us, the evening, and the morning, for the next day." Granted, he does leave open the possibility that the Earth could be older than 6000 years, but he doesn't discount the idea that the Earth could be that young, either. Carson appears to be a fairly standard creationist, just undecided on whether he's of a young earth or old earth variety.

Biblical motivation vs. evidence

[20:19] And then what else did he say in the very first chapter? That each thing brought forth after its own kind. Because he knew people would come along and say 'you know, this changed into that, and this changed into that, and this changed into that.' So at the very beginning of the Bible, he puts that to rest.

This quote shows quite clearly where Carson gets his motivation regarding his beliefs on evolution, and it's not the scientific evidence. He's accepted a priori the story in the Bible. He already thinks God anticipated evolutionary theory and inspired the Bible to be written in a way that makes it clear that evolution is not true. I wonder what type of argument/evidence it would take to convince Carson of the truth of evolution, or if he would reject it outright based on his prior religious convictions.

Degenerated state, the Fall

[28:25] Some people say well you shouldn't learn this, you shouldn't learn this, because you'll overload your brain. Have you ever heard somebody say that? What a bunch of nonsense that is. Do you know, your brain, and this is a conservative estimate, could take in one new fact, every second, for over three million years, before you begin to challenge its capacity. So don't let anybody tell you you can overload your brain. And that's our brains in their degenerated state. Can you imagine what they were like before? Unbelievable. Because we are made in the image of God.

I already discussed memory above, but that's not why I included this quote. I included this quote for the very end of it. Just in case you're unfamiliar with creationist ideas, when Carson talks about "our brains in their degenerated state" and wonders "what they were like before", he's referring to The Fall. This is the idea that everything was perfect before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and that it was their Original Sin that ruined the primordial paradise. It leads to such outlandish ideas as this one from Answers in Genesis, that pre-Fall Tyrannosaurs Rex used its giant teeth for eating coconuts (to be fair, a separate AiG article by a different author, T. rex--Fashioned To Be Fearless, suggests that T. Rex went through a transformation following the Fall, which is slightly less outlandish than the other idea).

To suppose that the Fall is true, at least in the conventional way most people understand the story, means believing that all of humanity is descended from two individuals - Adam and Eve. There have been genetic studies to determine how the effective population size of our ancestors (a smaller number than the actual population size) has changed over time. You can read about it in Jerry Coyne's entry, How big was the human population bottleneck? Another staple of theology refuted. Our ancestors' population never dipped down close to two people. The tightest bottlenecks were in the thousands (with different bottlenecks for different lineages of people - i.e. those that remained in Africa vs. those that migrated to other parts of the world).

Biblical inconsistencies

[43:54] And, you know, it's really a matter again of using the frontal lobes, analyzing the stuff, seeing how it compares with what God has said, what man has said. You don't find inconsistencies with the way God said it. You find a lot of inconsistencies with the way man had said it.

I know some translations of the Bible translate Genesis 2:19 a bit dishonestly to hide the contradiction (more info: Reliance on Bible Translations), but Chapter 1 of Genesis has all the animals being created first followed by humans, while Chapter 2 has Adam created first, then followed by all the animals. And if you accept Noah's Flood as a literal story, then there are contradictions right in the story about how many animals to take (2 of each kind, or 7 of certain kinds). So yes, the Bible does have "inconsistencies with the way God said it."

And if you take the Bible as a whole, not just the creation portions, then there are many, many contradictions.

Newton, Einstein, and Scientists who believe in God

[44:27] Well again, interestingly enough, this is a relatively modern science concept. Before Darwin came along, it wasn't. You know, scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, considered one of the most scientific minds ever, inventor of calculus, so many things - strong belief in God, big mission outreach. Einstein, when you think about genius, what other word would you come up with? Einstein. He believed in God. You know, a lot of people believed in God.

Before addressing Newton or Einstein specifically, Carson does have a point, here. Society, including the scientific community, was overwhelmingly religious back in the 1600s. But remember, this was the time of the Inquisition, when the Church put Galileo Galilei under house arrest for espousing a scientific doctrine that conflicted with Church teaching. Even if a person had had doubts about religion, the threat of the Inquisition was enough to make most people keep quiet about those doubts.

Fast forward to today, when science has taught us even more about the universe and the Church has lost much of its stranglehold over society, and you'll find that scientists are much less religious. According to a 2009 Pew Survey, only about a third of scientists believe in God, while 41% of scientists don't believe in either God or "a universal spirit or higher power."

As far as Newton, he believed in a god of some sort, but it wasn't traditional Christianity. There's substantial debate over exactly what he believed (see Wikipedia), but the consensus is that he was a non-Trinitarian monotheist. In other words, he believed in a god, but not the Christian concept of the trinity. In stark contrast to mainstream Christianity, "In Newton's eyes, worshipping Christ as God was idolatry, to him the fundamental sin."

Einstein did not believe in a theistic or personal god at all. To quote a post from The Friendly Atheist, Did Albert Einstein Believe in God or Not?, in some letters recently sold at auction, Einstein wrote the following.

"I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one," he wrote to a man who corresponded with him on the subject twice in the 1940s. "You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist. ... I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being."

To quote another portion of that entry, here is something Einstein wrote in another letter.

... It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

So, Newton didn't share Carson's beliefs over Jesus, and Einstein didn't believe in any type of theistic god at all - not exactly authority figures to bring up in support of Christianity.


Political Correctness, Science teachers who doubt evolution

[04:08] You know, I remember one of the very interesting times I had as I was invited to be the keynote speaker for the National Society of Science Teachers. Fifteen thousand science teachers at the Philadelphia Convention Center. And I decided to talk about evolution and creation. Well you would be amazed at how many science teachers actually believe in creation. Many of them, actually, I got so many letters and e-mails who said, you know, that's what I believe, too, but I'm just afraid to say it. And you know the politically correct crowd in academia is extremely domineering and intolerant of anybody who believes anything different than they do. And if you're a young assistant professor at a major university and you're trying to be promoted, and you indicate that you believe in creation, you're in big trouble. There's a very strong chance that you will not be promoted, and in fact, you may well be driven out of the university. Extraordinarily intolerant. And you know, that's one of the things about PC, and that's one of the reasons I rail against political correctness so much.

I hope it's clear by this point of this entry that Carson's objections to evolution are pretty unfounded, and I can safely say, as I already have, that evolution is as much of a fact as anything in science. That's why if you're trying to become a biology professor and you say you doubt evolution, it's really going to hurt your chances of getting a job. It's about like an aspiring astronomy professor doubting heliocentric theory, or an aspiring geography professor doubting the roughly spherical shape of the Earth. It's got nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with understanding basic, accepted facts about your field.

Carson does have a point about the number of high school biology teachers who reject evolution. According to a poll from a few years ago and described in the LiveScience article, 13% of H.S. Biology Teachers Advocate Creationism in Class, as the headline indicates, 13% of high school teachers favor teaching creationism, and a nearly equal amount actually believe creationism. To quote the article, "Only 28 percent of high-school biology teachers followed the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences recommendations on teaching evolution, which include citing evidence that evolution occurred and teaching evolution thematically, as a link between various biology topics." That is troubling, but not for the reasons Carson would suggest. It means that our students aren't being properly taught about accepted science. It's akin to geography teachers wanting to promote a flat earth, while the other teachers were too scared of offending the flat earthers to teach real geography.

Faith in evolution, evolution as religion

[42:56] Well, first of all, I think it's quite evident from what you've seen tonight, it takes faith to believe in God, it takes faith to believe in evolution. I think it takes a lot more faith to believe in evolution than it takes to believe in God, but they both require faith. And the fact of the matter is, they're both religion. And if we really were to put a litmus test on them, and we said we can't teach religion in school, we wouldn't be able to teach evolution, either.

As I've pointed out throughout this entry, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It doesn't take faith to believe in evolution, just an honest appraisal of the evidence. It is, quite simply, ludicrous to imply that evolution is a religion, and that the Establishment Clause would indicate that we shouldn't teach it in schools.

Updated 2015-11-02: Added a paragraph about junk DNA, and a paragraph about speciation and natural selection being observed in modern times. Also made numerous small changes and fixed typos that didn't affect meaning.

Updated 2015-11-03: Added a paragraph about A. afarensis skulls not being deformed. Also made numerous small changes and fixed typos that didn't affect meaning.

Updated 2015-11-05: Added headings before each Carson quote to summarize the topic, hopefully making it easier to navigate for people who just want to browse and read some of the topics.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Most Worthless Mnemonic Ever

The most recent XKCD makes fun of a mnemonic aid that I've never found useful:

30 Days Hath September

Here's what happens when I try to recite this one:

Thirty days hath September
April, [March, May or June], and [November or December]...

The mnemonic doesn't work at all when it's so easy to insert the wrong month and still have the poem sound right. I much prefer the knuckle method.

That is all.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thoughts on the Removal of the Okalahoma Ten Commandments Monument - From Cowboy Churches to Silly Memes

Ten Commandments Monument RemovalIt's been a few weeks now since the monument of the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma Capitol has been removed. But a story that just made the headlines here locally has reminded me of it, Local pastor plans to deliver Commandments on horseback. That's right. A pastor from Wichita Falls, John Riggs, upset by the Supreme Court decision that the statue must be removed, is going to personally deliver a hand-held sized granite tablet to the governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, who herself opposed the removal of the monument. Apparently, Riggs thinks that Christianity is under attack in the U.S., that "The ACLU is trying to wipe it out." Riggs "never thought we would have to defend our Christianity, especially here in the Heartland. It's a sad day in America." Yes - it's terribly sad when the Supreme Court upholds the First Amendment's establishment clause, and doesn't let politicians impose their religious beliefs on their entire constituency.

In another article, Cowboy Church takes 10 Commandments to Capitol by horse, Riggs further explained his motivation.

We're going back to the grassroots, because it's not easy, but we want people to know we need to go back and not forward. Go back to things we've left behind, which is primarily one nation under God.

I understand nostalgia, but one thing our country doesn't need to do is go backwards, turning back all the progress that's been made. When the country was founded, women couldn't vote, while black people could be owned as property. After the Civil War, at least slavery was illegal, but Jim Crow laws kept black people disenfranchised for generations. It wasn't until the '50s and '60s that the Civil Rights Movement finally got these laws overturned. Universal women's suffrage wasn't enacted in the U.S. until 1919 - over a century after the ratification of the Constitution. And it's only been this very year that marriage equality has been extended to homosexual couples. And that's not even addressing issues like poverty rate, violent crime, literacy, or any other host of factors that show that the modern day U.S. is a much better time to be alive for most Americans. Progress isn't always inevitable or smooth, and there are troubling trends right now that do need to be addressed (like income & wealth inequality), but at least that progress has happened.

Well, Briggs and the others traveling with him plan to make it to Oklahoma some time tomorrow. We'll see if they make any more headlines.

Related to this monument removal, I saw a really bad 'meme'* the other day on Facebook. I now forgot whose Facebook feed I saw it on, but I came across it again on Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Here it is:

Stupid Meme

That image would have it seem that in the name of secularism, the U.S. is destroying religious iconography in exactly the same way as radical Islamists are destroying iconography from other religions. What that meme conveniently leaves out is the same scene from just a bit later:

Ten Commandments Monument Removal

Those damn destructive secularists seem to be taking awfully good care of that religious monument. And according to the New York Times article from which that picture was taken, the monument is currently standing, intact, just a few blocks away.

The meme also leaves out the history of this particular monument. It wasn't installed until 2012**, when the lawmakers of Oklahoma already knew it was controversial and that they'd likely face legal challenges. It's not some timeless artifact, but a very recent breach of the separation of church and state.

Anyway, I'm glad the monument was removed from public property, and I'm glad it was done in such a way that the people who like the monument can save it and put it up somewhere else, as long as that somewhere else is private property, not government property.

Thumbnail Image Source: UlizaLinks.co.ke

*The scare quotes around meme are because I prefer the original definition of the term coined by Dawkins.

**Actually, the monument being removed is a replacement, installed in 2014, after the original was destroyed when a man crashed his car into it. Of course, it should go without saying that even though I disapproved of the monument in the first place, I strenuously disapproved of somebody intentionally destroying it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Yet Another Look at Ben Carson's Views on Evolution - His Creation vs. Evolution Speech

Ben CarsonI've been writing about Ben Carson quite a bit recently (you can see all my Carson entries here), including a few entries specifically devoted to his stance on evolution. In a recent entry, Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers, I embedded a video that showed Carson giving a speech on Creationism vs. Evolution. In an addendum to that entry, I added some commentary that I think is deserving of being expanded into a full entry.

First, here's the video. Note that this was posted on YouTube by the Adventist News Network, not an opponent of Carson's. As bad as the video makes Carson look, the Adventist News Network wasn't intentionally trying to embarrass him.

My previous entries dealing with Carson's views on evolution had been based on short interviews or comments he's made, but those don't illustrate the depth of his ignorance and arrogance like this video. This was a 40 minute speech, a prepared speech that he had time to research, where he knew the topic ahead of time. This was not an off the cuff remark, or an answer to an interview question he wasn't expecting. This was a neurosurgeon, with the respect that goes along with that profession, giving a presentation to an entire crowd of people. And this speech is what he came up with.

His misunderstandings and ignorance of evolution are absolutely appalling, worse than I would expect from a high school biology student. So many of his misconceptions could have been cleared up just by reading a popular introduction to evolution, like Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, or Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. If he was too cheap to buy a book, he could have gone to the Internet and sites like The TalkOrigins Archive. His misunderstandings of astronomy and cosmology were equally egregious, not to mention his mangling of a few other topics he brought up (including a topic I'm very surprised he mangled - memory). And that's not even getting into his implications that the Adversary (aka the Devil) is responsible for the idea of evolution.

I'm tempted to go into a point by point refutation of Carson, but there are so many falsehoods and misunderstandings, it would make this post extremely long, and that's not really what I want to focus on (update - I actually did go through nearly point by point in the entry, A Response to Ben Carson's Creation vs. Evolution Video). Rather, I'll direct readers to Jerry Coyne's entry, Ben Carson on evolution: an ignorant (or duplicitous) Presidential candidate, which addresses many of Carson's claims about evolution, and Lawrence Krauss's article in the New Yorker, Ben Carson's Scientific Ignorance, which addresses many of Carson's claims about cosmology and the Big Bang. And just for good measure, I'll also direct readers to the Talk Origins Index to Creationist Claims, which covers a huge amount of common creationist claims, not just those put forth by Carson in this somewhat recent speech.

Now, as I've said before, this level of ignorance in itself is enough to disqualify Carson from any serious consideration for the presidency*. I expect presidential candidates to have good enough educations to have basic scientific literacy. I'd similarly reject a presidential candidate who thought the Sun orbited the Earth, or really, who couldn't correctly answer every question in the NSF's scientific literacy survey. The president may not have to understand quantum mechanics, but they should know high school level science.

What makes this particular example so bad is Carson's extreme arrogance, and his inability to realistically analyze his own shortcomings. Like I said above, this wasn't an off the cuff response. This was a prepared speech that he had time to research. But he obviously either didn't do any research at all, or researched so poorly that he never corrected his own misconceptions. Even the parts where he mentions talking to scientists make you question his honesty or his intelligence, because there are answers to the questions he supposedly asked. So Carson either didn't talk to scientists, didn't understand their responses, or went in with a closed mind and wasn't engaged in an honest open dialog. I mean, for goodness sake, he thinks evolution predicts eyeballs must have poofed into existence with no precursors (a claim easily put to rest just by looking at living organisms), and that fossil shells on mountaintops are evidence of a global flood (has he never heard of plate tectonics?).

Most of us are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues. Yet Carson, despite his dreadful ignorance on evolution and cosmology, was still arrogant enough to give a 40 minute speech to an audience who trusted that he was knowledgeable on these topics. It just boggles the mind that Carson felt he was qualified to speak on topics about which he is so obviously completely ignorant. The fact that he was arrogant enough to do so, and that he was so clueless that he couldn't recognize his own incompetence, makes him completely unfit for consideration for the presidency.

* This type of ignorance is forgivable in most people as long as they're willing to learn about it once you point out their misunderstandings. Maybe they weren't the best of students when they were younger, maybe they'd been misled by authority figures over the evolution/creationism controversy, maybe their schools didn't cover evolution well for political/religious reasons. There are a whole host of reasons that most people might not understand evolution. However, I have higher expectations of presidential candidates than I do of 'most people'.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Happy Exploration Day 2015

This is a verbatim reprint of the same entry I've used the past 2 year in a row, but it's still all relevant. I guess I'll add here that if you don't like the idea of Exploration Day or Bartolomé Day, you can always call today Indigenous People's Day. Just whatever you do, don't celebrate that horrible excuse for a human being, Christopher Columbus.

Moon PrintToday is traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day, but Columbus really was a horrible excuse for a human being. It's not just the myth about him proving the world was round, or lucking into finding a continent that nobody knew existed, but his horrible, horrible treatment of the natives and even the Spaniards in the first Spanish colony in the Americas.

The Oatmeal has a new webcomic explaining just how bad of a person Columbus was, in more detail than I've done and in a more entertaining way than I could do. I highly recommend going to read it:

The Oatmeal - Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not) Modified Portion of The Oatmeal's Christopher Columbus Comic

While the Oatmeal proposes changing the holiday to Bartolome Day, I prefer a proposal I read before, changing it to Exploration Day. I could simply link to that old entry, but if you're here already reading this, I'll save you the click. Below is an excerpt of the main portion of that old entry, Happy Exploration Day:

I've written briefly about Columbus a couple times before, Debunking a Columbus Myth and Columbus Day. There are a lot of misconceptions about Columbus and his role in history - misconceptions that are still being taught to my middle school daughter, by the way. In reality, he was a bit of a crank. The concept of the Earth being a globe had been known for thousands of years prior to Columbus. In fact, Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth to a very accurate degree back around 240 BC (or BCE). Why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his trip was that he was so far off in his estimate of the size of the Earth - 15,700 miles in circumference vs the true 25,000 miles. Educated people knew that in theory, you'd eventually end up in Asia by sailing west, but they didn't think any of the ships of the time would allow someone to carry enough supplies to complete the journey. And they were right. Had there not been two unknown continents, Columbus and his men would have starved to death. And Columbus never did figure out that he'd discovered a new continent. He went to his dying day thinking he'd found islands off the coast of Asia.

And if his technical incompetence weren't enough, Columbus was a pretty ruthless governor. To quote an article from The Guardian:

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

His actions were so bad that he was arrested and taken back to Spain in shackles. He later received a pardon from the crown, but only after a new governor was put in charge of the colony.

Granted, Columbus was important historically. His unintended discovery of the New World set off a wave of European exploration that changed the course of history. But why do we have a holiday celebrating this tyrant who only lucked his way into the history books instead of starving at sea?

If what we truly want to celebrate on this day is the spirit of exploration, then why not just come out and make that the focus of the holiday? Make a day that honors those like Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Armstrong and Aldrin, the Wrights, Amundsen, Hillary, Cousteau, the engineers behind the Mars rover. Make a day that honors all those that push the frontiers of our knowledge.

More Info:

I'll note that after I shared some of that information with my wife and daughter, we began using 'Christopher Columbus' as a profanity in place of a certain orifice that everybody has. e.g. Bill O'Reilly can be a bit of a Christopher Columbus when he starts yelling at his guests. I think that's the most appropriate way to remember his legacy.

Friday, October 9, 2015

If Humans Went Extinct, Would Something Like Us Evolve Again

This entry is part of a collection on Understanding Evolution. For other entries in this collection, follow that link.

Is the March of Progress InevitableI've seen the question that's the title of this entry many times, most recently on Quora (If all humans died, would we evolve again from apes? and in a comment thread to Aaron Weyenberg's answer to If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?. I wrote a response for Quora that I figured I'd adapt for the blog.

It's certainly possible that some lineage of modern ape or monkey could eventually evolve into something like humans (though definitely not exactly the same as us), or given an even longer time, some other lineage not particularly closely related to humans could as well, but it seems extremely unlikely.

The first issue with the question is an assumption I've pointed out before (such as in the entry, Local Church Misunderstands Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?). This assumption goes back to the Great Chain of Being, that there's a hierarchy of life, with humans at the pinnacle being the most perfectly evolved of all creatures. That's simply not the case. Evolution adapts organisms to their environments. The raw material for this is random mutations, with natural selection acting like a filter to ensure that only beneficial and neutral mutations persist (though that's not the only mechanism in evolution). There's no intention behind the mutations, guiding organisms towards some end goal. It simply adapts them to their current environments, with no foresight to some future species.

Moving on, there is a concept in biology known as convergent evolution. This refers to two separate lineages that didn't originally have the same features both evolving those features independently, 'converging' on the same solution. And it is true that convergent evolution happens quite a bit. Here are a few examples showing how different marsupial and placental mammals have independently evolved similar body types.

Placental Marsupial Convergent Evolution

But convergent evolution is almost always in cases of 'easy' solutions. Let's look at an example separate from those above or from humans - powered flight. Powered flight has only evolved three times in vertebrates (each time by a different path - pterosaurs, birds, and bats), because powered flight is a difficult to achieve strategy. It takes a very specific set of adaptations, and the likelihood of all of these adaptations occurring simultaneously in a single organism is rather small. If birds and bats were to suddenly go extinct, it might be quite some time before another lineage evolved to fill that flying vertebrate niche.

Just focusing on the intelligence aspect of humans, when you look around at other animals, the type of extreme intelligence seen in humans just isn't very common. On land, there are the other apes and elephants that are nearly as smart as us. In the water, some dolphins and whales also approach human intelligence. But none seem to be as smart as us, or at least not in a technologically inclined way.

There's a reason for that. Brains take a lot of energy. Even though your brain is only around 2% of your weight, somewhere around 20% of the calories you eat go to supporting your brain (one source: University World News: The brain - Our most energy-consuming organ). That's a lot of extra food you need to survive compared to a similarly sized animal with a smaller brain. And yes, being clever can help individuals exploit more resources than less intelligent animals, but just by looking at the distribution of intelligence of all the species out there, it doesn't seem like a strategy that natural selection often favors.

Even us humans, who are now so dominant on this planet, wouldn't have looked particularly noteworthy a few tens of thousands of years ago. Genetic studies show that the effective population got all the way down to around 10,000 - 30,000 individuals at some point in the past (more info: Why Evolution Is True: How big was the human population bottleneck? Another staple of theology refuted). That's not a very successful species. Our ancestors were on the brink of extinction, and barely managed to survive.

If some modern lineage of apes or monkeys went down the evolutionary path to extreme intelligence with the high energy requirements of large brains, they might not be lucky enough to survive a similar situation to what caused the bottleneck in our ancestors, and might end up going extinct before their culture advanced to the point where technology made them as successful as us.

Once you start considering the other specializations of humans (bipedalism, long distance running, object manipulation, etc.), the possibility of another lineage evolving into something closely resembling us seems even more unlikely.

Image Source 1: Wikipedia, with further editing by me.

Image Source 2: The Roaming Naturalist, who herself doesn't know where the original came from. Let me know if you recognize it.

Want to learn more about evolution? Find more at Understanding Evolution.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for September 2015

Top 10 ListNow that September's over, it's time to take a look at the logs to see what pages were most popular on this site over the past month.

Most of the pages had made the list before, even if it had been a little while since some of the pages had made it. There was one newcomer, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo, where I was responding not so much to Sorbo himself, but some views he has that seem to be representative of too large a segment of the population.

Traffic was up in September - not the highest it's ever been, but close too it. And in fact, it was up in just about every metric AWStats reports. I know some of that is due to spammers, but I'm going to pretend/hope that it's mostly real live people reading my site.

I'll also apologize for writing so much about Ben Carson recently. I don't want this to become the anti-Ben Carson blog, but he's just been popping up all over the place recently, particularly now that polls are putting him in either first or second place for the Republican nomination. I also have a friend who's a Carson fan, so I hear quite a bit of support for Carson in my regular offline life, which possibly motivates me to vent a bit here on the site. I'll try to get back to writing about more varied topics, but I'm not going to promise that you've seen the last of my Ben Carson entries (BTW, I now have a Ben Carson Index with links to all of my entries about Ben Carson).

Anyway, here's the list.

Top 10 for September 2015

  1. Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II
  2. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  3. Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam
  4. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  5. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  6. Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo
  7. Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  8. Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)
  9. Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling
  10. Book Review - Tribulation Force

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers

Ben CarsonI've been pointing out Ben Carson's anti-intellectual stances in regards to science for a while, now (you can see all my Carson entries here). But just recently, he seems to have caught the attention of many popular science writers. This seems to have a lot to do with a recent YouTube video, which I've embedded below. More specifically, it seems to have a lot to do wtih a Buzzfeed article commenting on the video, Ben Carson: Big Bang A Fairy Tale, Theory Of Evolution Encouraged By The Devil. The video is a speech Carson gave back in 2011, but which was just uploaded this year. It was posted by Adventist News Network, who pretty much agreed with everything Carson was saying. In other words - as bad as the video makes Carson look, they weren't intentionally trying to embarrass him.

I've seen a spate of articles and blog entries about Carson recently that seem to coincide with that Buzzfeed piece. The most prominent article was in The New Yorker, and was written by Lawrence Krauss, Ben Carson's Scientific Ignorance. Being a physicist and cosmologist himself, Krauss commented mostly on Carson's mangling of the Big Bang theory and the history of the universe. Here's what Krauss had to say after quoting a particularly bad series of statements by Carson.

It is hard to find a single detailed claim in his diatribe that is physically sensible or that reflects accurate knowledge about science. His central claim--that the second law of thermodynamics rules out order forming in the universe after the Big Bang--is a frequent misstatement made by creationists who want to appear scientifically literate. In reality, it is completely false.

Krauss went on to address many of Carson's erroneous statements, giving real explanations for many of Carson's misunderstandings. Towards the end of the article, Krauss moved past simply correcting Carson, and presented some commentary that I agree with completely:

It is one thing to simply assert that you don't choose to believe the science, in spite of a mountain of data supporting it. It's another to mask your ignorance in such a disingenuous way, by using pseudo-scientific, emotion-laden arguments and trading on your professional credentials. Surely this quality, which reflects either self-delusion or, worse still, a willingness to intentionally deceive others, is of great concern when someone is vying for control of the nuclear red button.

On his website, Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne wrote his own entry on Carson, Ben Carson on evolution: an ignorant (or duplicitous) Presidential candidate. Coyne himself is a biologist, and so the bulk of his article was devoted to correcting Carson's untrue remarks on evolution. He did offer a bit of commentary, though such as his introductory paragraph.

I don't care how good a surgeon Ben Carson was (and he was reportedly a terrific one), he's still pig-ignorant when it comes to evolution, geology, and cosmology. And that ignorance--regardless of whether he doesn't know the facts, knows them but eludes them and is lying for Jesus, or truly believes that the facts support creation ex nihilo--makes him unqualified to be President. For the first possibility means he's uninformed (especially as a doctor); the second means he's dishonest; and the third means he's blinded to reality by his fundamentalist faith, Seventh Day Adventism.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy also got in on the act, writing Ben Carson: Evolution is Satanic and the Big Bang Is a Fairy Tale. Here was the introduction to his article.

At one point in time, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson may have been best known as an excellent, even groundbreaking, neurosurgeon. In recent years, though, he's done everything he can to throw that reputation away.

Plait had references to a lot of Carson's statements, not just the 2011 speech, as well as a lot of information refuting Carson's claims. Of course, being the Bad Astronomy website, Plait focused on the Big Bang, but he also spent a bit of time on evolution. After explaining how he tries to be polite when dealing with rank and file creationists, Plait went on to say this.

I take a different stance when it's a politician who espouses these views, especially when he's running for the highest office in America. If someone wants to run this country, then he better show that he has a solid grasp on reality. Dismissing and actively denigrating strongly understood science--whether it's astronomy, biology, or climatology--is at the very least cause to dump him.

Although he can be a bit brash for many readers, I'll also mention P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula, who wrote You don't have to be smart to be an MD. He wasn't insulting medical doctors in general, but making the valid point that expertise in one field, even particularly noteworthy expertise like Carson's in pediatric neurosurgery, doesn't translate to expertise in other fields. Here were Myers' closing remarks.

Being a neurosurgeon doesn't preclude being knowledgeable, but clearly we have to overcome this bias of using an MD degree as a proxy for intelligence. / Fortunately, Ben Carson is working hard to demolish that preconception.

I know I've been writing quite a bit about Ben Carson recently. But now it seems that notable science writers are starting to pay more attention to him, as well. So, if you want to see what other people have to say about the man, as well as corrections to his mangling of science by people actually in the fields he's criticizing, go read those articles.


Added 2015-10-02: I finally took the time to watch that whole video embedded in this post, and not just rely on the excerpts that other people have provided. Wow. And I do mean wow. I'd read short interviews of Carson's beliefs on evolution, and some of the comments he's made, but they don't illustrate the depth of his ignorance and arrogance like this video. This was a 40 minute speech, a prepared speech that he had time to research, where he knew the topic ahead of time. This was not an off the cuff remark, or an answer to an interview question he wasn't expecting. This was a neurosurgeon, with the respect that goes along with that profession, giving a presentation to an entire crowd of people. And this speech is what he came up with.

His misunderstandings and ignorance of evolution are absolutely appalling, worse than I would expect from a high school biology student. So many of his misconceptions could have been cleared up just by reading a popular introduction to evolution, like Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, or Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. If he was too cheap to buy a book, he could have gone to the Internet and sites like The TalkOrigins Archive. His misunderstandings of astronomy and cosmology were equally egregious, not to mention his mangling of a few other topics he brought up.

Now, this type of ignorance on its own is forgivable in most people (though I would expect a surgeon who had to study biology to be a bit more knowledgeable, and I'd certainly expect presidential candidates to have good enough educations to understand basic science). What makes it so bad in Carson's case is that despite his dreadful ignorance, he was still arrogant enough to give a 40 minute speech to an audience who trusted that he was knowledgeable on the topic. That attitude on Carson's part is the worst part of this. Most people are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues. And if we were invited to talk about something we didn't know about, we'd at least do some research on it. It just boggles the mind that Carson felt he was qualified to speak on a topic about which he is so obviously completely ignorant.

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