Science & Nature Archive

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Science and Engineering Indicators 2014

NSB LogoThe NSF has just released their latest Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2014. It's a great report on the state of science and engineering in this country. For the past several reports (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, & 2012), I've made a habit of posting an entry looking at one particular aspect - public understanding of science, as determined by how many people can correctly answer basic science questions. To that end, I am going to reproduce two sets of data from the report - a history of how Americans have fared on those questions over the years, and a comparison of the U.S. to other countries.

Here's the first set of data. The numbers in the table list the percentage of Americans that answered the questions correctly. The questions included in this year's report for this table are slightly different than in years past, but very similar. (This data came from Appendix Table 7-9.)

Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, Appendix Table 7-9, Correct answers to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences: 1988-2012

To make it easier to visualize the trends, here is that data plotted by year.

Correct answers to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences: 1988-2012

This is not much of a surprise. Given how steady most of these numbers have been since the NSF started doing this report, I didn't expect the numbers to change much this time around. And they haven't. The only question that's shown a big change over the years is understanding that antibiotics only work against bacteria, but that improvement appears to have leveled off. If I was in an optimistic mood, I might interpret the evolution, big bang, and plate tectonics questions (i.e. the ones contradicting young earth creationism) as showing a trend towards increasing correct answers. But the change would have to be bigger and last a few more years before I thought it was real and not just noise in the data.

The second set of data compares the U.S. to other countries/regions. The data for these other countries is a bit older than for the U.S., but still relatively recent. A couple countries have been updated since the last NSF report - China (2010 vs. 2007) and Japan (2011 vs. 2001). Both countries show slight improvements over the older data. (This table comes from Chapter 7 of the report, about halfway through on page 7-23.)

Correct answers to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences, by country/region: Most recent year

I couldn't find a good, compact way to graph all of that information. If you really want to see it, here is a link to bar graphs for every question.

Bar Graphs of Correct answers to factual knowledge questions in physical and biological sciences, by country/region: Most recent year

But, I figured a decent comparison would be to plot up averages. The graphs below are almost back of the envelope averages, just taking an average for each country, but ignoring the fact that not every country answered every question, so there will be some skewing because of that. I also re-ordered the countries/regions from the table in the NSF report, putting them in order of highest to lowest overall average. Note that some countries tied, such as the U.S. & South Korea, and China & India.

Comparison of Average Percent of Correct Answers

The U.S. fares pretty well compared to other countries/regions. Only the EU did better overall, and that was only a slight difference - not enough to worry about given my simplistic approach and the noise in the data.

I thought it would be interesting to do the same graph as above, but ignoring questions that were in contradiction to young earth creationism (evolution, big bang, and plate tectonics). Here's that version.

Comparison of Average Percent of Correct Answers, Ignoring Questions that Contradict Young Earth Creationism

Looking at it that way, the U.S. does a little better - enough that it leads the other countries/regions, but still not by enough of a difference to mean much given my simplistic approach. However, I think it does illustrate how young earth creationism hurts Americans acceptance of scientific findings.

Given the similarity of results this time around to years past, I'm simply going to quote my conclusion from years past since it's still relevant. "Just look at those results - around a quarter of Americans think that the Sun goes around the Earth, half don't realize that electrons are smaller than atoms, and half don't know that it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun! Keep that in mind whenever you hear people citing public opinion polls on the validity of concepts like global warming or evolution.

"It's always a bit depressing to see those numbers. It's hard to believe that the people of our nation are so ignorant. If there's one lesson to take away from these results, it's that we need to vastly improve our education system." I would add that this is the same lesson for other countries, as well, since they do about the same or worse.

Anyway, I recommend going to look at the NSF report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, and at least skimming through it. There's a lot more information there than just the little bit I focused on here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Happy Darwin Day 2014

Darwin's BirthdayToday is Darwin Day. To quote one of my previous Darwin Day posts, Charles Darwin was "the man who presented evolution in such a way and with sufficient evidence that it became obvious that it was the explanation for how life developed on this planet. Others had ideas of transmutation before Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace even came up with a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin's at around the same time, so it's apparent that humanity would have eventually recognized how evolution works. But Darwin's genius in presenting all the evidence for evolution in the way he did certainly gave the field a huge head start." Today is the 205th anniversary of his birth.

While Darwin is well remembered for his work on evolution, one of my favorite quotes of his from The Voyage of the Beagle had nothing to do with science, but was rather a social commentary on his times.

As it was growing dark we passed under one of the massive, bare, and steep hills of granite which are so common in this country. This spot is notorious from having been, for a long time, the residence of some runaway slaves, who, by cultivating a little ground near the top, contrived to eke out a subsistence. At length they were discovered, and a party of soldiers being sent, the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.

To celebrate Darwin Day, I'm going to provide links to a few of the previous entries I've written that are specifically relevant to Darwin (I've written too much about evolution on this site to link to all of those). The last of those is an entry I just made for today.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

22 Responses to 22 Creationist Misconceptions

In honor of Darwin Day, I've decided to create a post attempting to clear up a few misconceptions about evolution. And I'm going to use concrete examples of questions that creationists have actually posed. At the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, a BuzzFeed staff member asked a few creationists "to write a message/question/note" for Bill Nye, photographed the people with their messages, and posted them in the article, 22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution. Here's an example, which also happens to be a topic I've covered before.

I mage from Buzzfeed - Why are there still monkeys?
(Source: BuzzFeed)

In this post, I'll do my best to respond to those messages. I've copied each of them in blockquotes below, adding the number of the question in brackets. I've attempted to copy the signs faithfully, without correcting misspellings or grammar mistakes, but I'm not going to add [sic] behind each of their mistakes. Following each quote is my response.

Since this post has grown a little long, I'm going to put links to each of the questions up here at the top of the post. If you want, you can skim through these and jump ahead to questions that you're particularly interested in.

  1. Bill Nye, Are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?
  2. Are you scared of a Divine Creator?
  3. Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings... Adam created as an adult...
  4. Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution?
  5. How do you explain a sunset if their is no God?
  6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?
  7. What about noetics?
  8. Where do you derive objective meaning in life?
  9. If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?
  10. I believe in the Big Bang Theory... God said it and BANG it happened!
  11. Why do evolutionists/secularists/huminists/non-God believing people reject the idea of their being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terestrial sources?
  12. There is no inbetween... the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds neccessary for an "official proof"
  13. Does metamorphosis help support evolution?
  14. If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact.
  15. Because science by definition is a "theory" - not testable, observable, nor repeatable - why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?
  16. What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?
  17. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?
  18. Why have we found only 1 "Lucy", when we have found more than 1 of everything else?
  19. Can you believe in "the big bang" without "faith"?
  20. How can you look at the world and not believe someone created/thought of it? It's Amazing!!!
  21. Relating to the big bang theory... Where did the exploding star come from?
  22. If we cam from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

[1] Bill Nye, Are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?

Not much of substance here, but I would give a definite yes. Bill Nye educates children about science and various facts of the world. As long as you value truth, I would say that's a positive influence.

[2] Are you scared of a Divine Creator?

I think what the question is getting at is implying that the concept of evolution was invented to eliminate the need for God in explaining life. It wasn't. Evolution was proposed as the best fit to the evidence. It wasn't so much invented as discovered. As I've written before, at the time Darwin proposed evolution through natural selection, most scientists were Christians who did adhere to some form of creationism (mostly old earth variants, because even then, the evidence from geology already overwhelmingly pointed to a far more ancient history than 6000 years). But the evidence that Darwin put forth was so convincing that his fellow scientists almost had no choice but to accept the truth of evolution.

Whether or not evolution and Christianity are compatible is a question I'm no longer concerned with, no more so than reconciling the scientific explanation of lightning with Thor's hammer. I know there are Christians who do accept evolution, with prominent examples being Francis Collins and Ken Miller, and I'd managed to accept both when I was still a Christian (though through what I now realize was strained reasoning), so I know it's possible to accept evolution and be a Christian.

There are many scientific facts that go against strictly literal readings of the Bible or traditional interpretations of Christianity. The Earth isn't flat. There's no rigid dome above our heads. Stars aren't fixed points of light in the firmament. Earth is not the center of the universe. Women don't have more ribs than men. Snakes don't eat dirt. Etc. Etc. Good science simply follows the evidence wherever it leads, no matter what preconceptions people might have from religious or other sources.

[3] Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings... Adam created as an adult...

While formally known as Omphalos Theory (from the Greek for belly button - would Adam have had one since he didn't have a mother?), I prefer a different term for this line of thought - Last Thursdayism - since it puts into perspective what this concept means. If there's an omnipotent god, nothing is beyond its power, including the idea that we all might have been made last Thursday with false memories of our non-existent lives up to that point. To quote what I wrote in a comment to a previous entry, Book Review - Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, "If you see a star millions of light years away, and assume that means the light has been traveling for millions of years to get to us, you'd be wrong, because the creator created the photons already well underway in their journey. If you take an ice core sample and see evidence for a few hundred thousand years of arctic climate, you couldn't trust it, because the creator might have made it that way on purpose. Found an archaeopteryx that looks a whole lot like a transition between non-avian dinosaurs and birds? The creator put it there just to test your faith."

In another previous essay of mine, How to Interpret the Bible, I made another point about this concept worth quoting here, "we have to ask, 'Did God create Adam with scars? With mended broken bones? A trick knee from that old high school injury?' The universe as it exists today isn't a perfect creation - it has those scars that come from old age. Craters on planets and moons as the result of asteroid impacts, mountains resulting from tectonic plates shifting, remnants from supernovae, fossils from extinct animals, hundreds of thousands of years worth of erosion. If God created a perfect universe only a few thousand years ago, why are there all those scars that come with great age?" And what about supernovae themselves? Supernovae are gigantic star explosions, and have been detected at distances far greater than a few thousand light years away. Even assuming that God created starlight in mid travel, it would mean that he created the image of a supernova explosion that never happened.

And while there's nothing specifically 'illogical' about Adam having been created as a fully formed adult (logical is not synonymous with reasonable), stop and think about what this would be like. Think about yourself, and how much you're a product of your own childhood, of your growth and development, your experiences, everything you learned while you were growing up. Adam would have had none of that. He would have apparently had some innate knowledge and skills provided by God that allowed him to function, but none of it that he would have learned (at least when he was first created). He wouldn't have any experience. It's just a very odd concept.

[4] Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution?

I've covered this topic pretty extensively in the entry, Creation Museum/Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. In my mind, this is possibly the most misinformed of all creationist arguments, since it involves misunderstanding two areas of science - biology and thermodynamics. First, here's the definition for the Second Law from Wikipedia, which is consistent with what I learned back in my thermo class in college, "The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve toward thermodynamic equilibrium--the state of maximum entropy." The important part of that is 'isolated'. Practically nothing on Earth is truly an isolated system, and the Earth itself is not isolated. There's a gigantic ball of nuclear fusion just a little over 8 light minutes away (i.e. the Sun) flooding the Earth with energy, allowing processes on our planet to proceed without violating the Second Law. Life is just one of many ongoing processes on Earth.

Here's another way of looking at it. Many of the very processes of life involve decreasing entropy. When you're born, you only weigh a few pounds, but over the next decade or so, you'll eat a variety of foods, break them up into tiny chunks, and then put them back together in a very specific way to build up your own body. If the Second Law said that disorder must always increase, no matter what the circumstances, life itself would be impossible.

[5] How do you explain a sunset if their is no God?

I'll assume that the questioner isn't referring to the actual mechanics of a sunset, because that's easy to explain - from gravity that explains the motion of the Earth around the Sun, to optics that explains the diffraction of light as it goes through the atmosphere, to meteorology that explains the varying conditions of the atmosphere that give us all the different types of sunsets.

I'll assume this question is asking why sunsets are so beautiful, or even why there's beauty. Like most things in human experience, our perception of beauty is a combination of innate and cultural influences. It would make sense for any animal to be attracted to certain things. Fresh water is a requirement of all terrestrial animals. Our primate ancestors ate a lot of fruit, and even evolved tri-color vision (rather unique among mammals) to enable them to better see ripe fruits. Insects rely on flowers for nectar. Practically all animals are looking for strong, healthy mates. It's not surprising at all to think that animals would evolve to find certain shapes, colors, or patterns pleasing. And humans with our big brains have very complex behavior - much more than simply instinct. Cultural influences build on our innate capacity to perceive beauty. So, with this complex ability present in humans, is it any surprise that certain naturally occurring phenomena would fall into a pattern that we find beautiful?

[6] If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?

Regarding thermodynamics, see the discussion to question 4. Nothing about evolution is counter to thermodynamics. It couldn't be.

Technically, the Big Bang has about as much to do with evolution as it does with meteorology - that is to say, not much at all. Given the conditions on earth over the past several eons, evolution would have proceeded no matter how the universe itself came about. However, young earth creationists tend to group all theories of 'origins' together, since their creation story, the first chapter of Genesis, explains the origin of everything.

Just as with evolution, the Big Bang theory was accepted because it's the best explanation for the evidence. To give a slightly simplified version of the history of the theory, the early 20th century saw several developments that led to this discovery. In the 1910s, Einstein published his theory of General Relativity, which gave much more insight into the behavior of light and gravity. In that same decade, by looking at the red shift of spiral galaxies Vesto Slipher and later Carl Wilhelm Wirtzwhen had determined that spiral galaxies were moving away from the Earth (red shift is the same principle that makes a car sound higher pitched when it's coming towards you and lower pitched when it's moving away, but applied to light waves instead of sound waves). Using Einstein's theory, the Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître came up with a theory of an expanding universe to explain the red shift seen in galaxies. Not long after in 1929, Edwin Hubble published the results of observations he had made, providing a comprehensive set of data for many galaxies, comparing their red-shift, or the speed they were moving away from Earth, to their distance away from Earth. What he found was consistent with Lemaître's work, that the farther away the galaxies were, the faster they were moving away from us. This certainly seemed to indicate that the universe was expanding, which logically meant that at some point in the past, it was much more compact that it is now.

Hubble Diagram
(Image Source: Wikipedia

The theoretical types did some more theorizing, and Lemaître proposed the Big Bang, though it wasn't yet called that (the term 'Big Bang' wasn't coined until the 1950s). One of his predictions was that there should be left over background radiation due to the initial hot dense state of the universe. For the next several decades, there were refinements to the theory, along with predictions on just what exactly the background radiation should be. Then, in 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson built a radio antenna that they intended to use for radio astronomy and satellite communications experiments. But in trying to do their initial setup, they discovered that no matter where they aimed the antenna, they picked up a signal. After ruling out loose connections and earthly interference, and then coferring with other physicists, they realized that they'd detected this background radiation that the theoretical physicists had predicted. In more recent years, satellites have been launched into space to make even more accurate measurements of this background radiation, providing detailed maps across the entire sky.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
(Image Source: Wikipedia)

[7] What about noetics?

I'd never heard of noetics before, so I had to look it up, and found the Institute of Noetic Sciences. In particular, I found their page, What Are the Noetic Sciences?, which had this to say:

There are several ways we can know the world around us. Science focuses on external observation and is grounded in objective evaluation, measurement, and experimentation. This is useful in increasing objectivity and reducing bias and inaccuracy as we interpret what we observe. But another way of knowing is subjective or internal, including gut feelings, intuition, and hunches--the way you know you love your children, for example, or experiences you have that cannot be explained or proven "rationally" but feel absolutely real. This way of knowing is what we call noetic.

The reason science is grounded in all that objective evaluation is because there are so many ways we can deceive ourselves if we're not careful. There's an excellent article originally published in Skeptic Magazine, The Double-Blind Gaze: How the Double-Blind Experimental Protocol Changed Science, by Steven Bratman. While it focuses on medicine, it contains an excellent summary of all the ways we can be biased, including "The Placebo Effect, The Re-interpretation Effect, Observer Bias, Natural Course of the Illness, Regression to the Mean, The Study Effect (Hawthorne Effect)". These and other reasons are why gut feelings can be so misleading, and why good science can't rely on subjective feelings.

[8] Where do you derive objective meaning in life?

First of all, this has nothing at all to do with evolution, but I'll answer it anyway. To be honest, I don't think there is any objective meaning to life, only subjective meanings that we define for ourselves. But I don't see how Christianity changes this. I've already addressed this in a previous entry, Abandoning Christianity - My Reasons and My Journey, so I'll quote that here, "one must first ask what the meaning would be if a god existed. Some would say that our purpose is to worship God, and do as he wishes. That's simply obedience. Those people may go on to say that we're part of God's plan, and we have a meaning in God's plan. That would make our meaning in life the fancy of a deity. For either of those cases, it still raises the question of why God decided on a particular plan or why ... he decided on a particular set of rules. And further, it assumes that following a deity's wishes does indeed provide a profound meaning." A bit later, I added, "if we can't explain where a god came from, why that god exists in the first place, or why that god has the particular properties it does, what meaning does it add to our existence to say that we're supposed to serve that god and follow its wishes?" In other words, whether you believe in God or not, or whether you accept evolution or not, it doesn't change the problem of trying to find meaning in life.

[9] If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?

It depends on what you mean by 'chance'. Consider a snowy day. Each snowflake is unique. Each is beautiful and intricate. But most people accept that snowflakes form by material causes - freezing up in the atmosphere - and aren't the handiwork of gods. Do snowflakes form by chance? I suppose that in a sense they do. There's no conscious entity behind them, no ultimate reason why they have to exist. But the laws of physics predict that snowflakes will form, and while each snowflake is composed of so many interacting atoms that it's nearly impossible to predict exactly what individual snowflakes will look like, the general forms can be predicted. So, snowflakes form through a combination of chance constrained by physical laws.

The origin of life was similar. Many events happened through chance, but all of these events were constrained by physical laws. And it's important to remember that life didn't just happen from a bunch of pure elements that spontaneously combined themselves into a cell. There were precursor chemicals and structures. Meteorites, such as the Murchison meteorite, have been found to contain amino acids. Granted, those are just one of the building blocks of life, but finding them naturally occurring outside of biology demonstrates that there's nothing mystical about them, and that there's no reason to suspect that they wouldn't have formed on the early Earth (or even in the right places in the modern day).

If you're really interested in how the first life got started, the Wikipedia article on abiogenesis is a decent place to start.

[10] I believe in the Big Bang Theory... God said it and BANG it happened!

Nothing of substance to comment on here. See question 6 for a discussion of the Big Bang.

[11] Why do evolutionists/secularists/huminists/non-God believing people reject the idea of their being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terestrial sources?

This is pretty silly. Intelligent Design (ID) is not consistent with evolution. It's a form of old earth creationism. To quote an ID textbook, Of Pandas and People, "Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, wings, etc." That is certainly not an evolutionary idea. In reality, ID is little more than an attempt to smuggle creationism into public school classrooms, bypassing the first amendment by refusing to unambiguously identify the 'intelligent agency' as God.

[12] There is no inbetween... the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds neccessary for an "official proof"

Since this person mentioned Lucy, I'm assuming she's referring specifically to human evolution. And I'm guessing by 'inbetween' that she means some transitional form between our older, conventionally ape-like ancestors and modern upright humans with big brains.

So first, let's address Lucy. Lucy was a member of a species that has been named Australopithecus afarensis. Of course, 'Lucy' is only a nickname applied after her discovery, supposedly after the Beatles song that was on the radio at the time.

Lucy's fossils

Lucy is a particularly complete fossil, but she is not the only example of her species to have been found. Just skimming through the Wikipedia entry, there are many other A. afarensis fossils that have been discovered: AL 129-1, AL 2001-, AL 333 (which was several individuals), AL 444, AL 444-2, KSD-VP-1/1 (aka Kadanuumuu), DIK-1/1 (aka Selam), and more recent finds from the same site as AL 333. In fact, this page from the Smithsonian Institution states that remains from over 300 A. afarensis individuals have been found.

DIK-1/1, or the Baby A. Afarensis nicknamed Selam
DIK-1/1, aka Selam
(Image Source: Dikika Research Project)>

Even if A. afarensis were the only transitional species known, it would still be a perfect example of what a transitional form would look like. It had a combination of features with some more similar to other apes, some more similar to modern humans, and some somewhere in between. The brain is small, much more similar to other apes. Their bodies were small. Lucy was probably around 3'-7" and weighed only around 64 lbs. The canines and molars are reduced compared to most other apes, but larger than those of humans. The ratio of arm length to leg length is intermediate between humans and chimpanzees (note that chimpanzees are modern day cousins of ours, not ancestors, though their anatomy is probably more similar to that of our common ancestors). But, to quote the Wikipedia article on Lucy, "the pelvis and leg bones were almost identical in function to those of modern humans, showing with certainty that these hominids had walked erect."

And 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 then there are many more types of hominids that have been discovered - two species of Ardipithecus, three species of Paranthropus, and many species of Homo (though keep in mind that taxonomy is improved with new discoveries and new analyses, and some of those groupings may be shuffled around in the future). 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 (though keep in mind, this is not a direct path of evolution from chimp to human, but rather 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).

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

[13] Does metamorphosis help support evolution?

I had to look this up. At first, I didn't understand what this person might have thought the relevance of metamorphosis was to overall evolutionary theory. Could it be something about a rapid change in a single lifespan somehow translating to changes over generations? But I think I've found what the questioner was trying to get at. As in this article on the misleadingly titled Evolution News and Views, Evolving Metamorphosis: A Hopeless Task, I think the idea's supposed to be that metamorphosis is such a complex trait that there's no way it could have evolved through gradual evolution.

To be honest, this is an unanswered question in biology. No one is quite sure how metamorphosis evolved, but there are some ideas. Scientific American has a good summary in the article, How Did Insect Metamorphosis Evolve?. As you'd expect, full metamorphosis didn't appear overnight. The earliest insects didn't really undergo any metamorphosis. They emerged from their eggs looking just like miniature adults, and then grew larger with each consecutive molt. Insects like silverfish still develop this way. A little bit later, partial metamorphosis appeared. Insects that follow this developmental pattern hatch as nymphs that look similar to adult versions, but they're missing certain organs, such as wings, or genitals. Insects such as grasshoppers and dragonflies still develop this way. Only later yet did full metamorphosis evolve. This is the type of metamorphosis you see in flies and butterflies, where the newly hatched insects are worm-like larvae, which at some point enter a pupal stage where they transform into their adult forms.

As scientists have compared animals that undergo full metamorphosis with those that undergo partial metamorphosis, they've discovered similarities. The larval stage of the full metamorphosizers (not a real word) is similar to the pro-nymphal stage of the partial metamorphosizers. Several of the same genes guide the development of those stages, and then a different group of common genes guides both the development of the pupal and nymph stages, indicating their common origin. So, even if there's still a lot of mystery there, the clues are pointing to a gradual evolution.

[14] If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact.

The questioner here is simply confused on what 'theory' means. This comes about by some words having different uses in scientific or technical applications versus everyday language. In scientific usage, a theory is an overarching framework that explains something. It doesn't necessarily mean something is right or wrong to call it a theory, but they tend to be right since they're combining many different facts to come up with the explanation. As an example, the aether theory of light was a framework to explain the various observations of light that had been made up to that point. However, further predictions made from that theory didn't pan out, so the theory was discarded as false. Other theories, such as germ theory of disease, atomic theory, general relativity, etc., have proven to be remarkably accurate.

The term, evolution, can refer to several different concepts. One is the idea of change through time, including the idea of common ancestry. These are the facts of evolution, as inferred from various lines of evidence, from fossils, to comparitive anatomy, biogeographics studies, and now genetics in the modern era. Then is the idea of how all this happens. This framework to explain how evolution occurs is evolutionary theory. The most famous tenet is mutation and natural selection, but there's also genetic drift, the mechanisms of speciation, concepts such as Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, etc.

To use an analogy, it's a bit like the difference between the fact and the theory of gravity. If you drop something, it will fall. That's a fact. If you put an object on a scale, you can measure its weight - another fact. But why does this mysterious force occur? How can you predict what the force will be? Those concepts fall under gravitational theory.

[15] Because science by definition is a "theory" - not testable, observable, nor repeatable - why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?

Again, this is somebody confused about definitions. Good theories make testable predictions, a described above. Evolution makes predictions as well. One I've used before is whale evolution. Whales have a whole host of traits that identify them as mammals, the most prominent of those being the mammary glands in the females. A prediction from evolution is that their ancestors must have also been mammals, and since the earliest mammals were land based critters, it means that at some point in history, whale ancestors must have lived on land. This prediction was made before any of those fossils had been found. And now scientists have been lucky enough to find many ancestors of modern whales, enough to piece together a pretty good understanding. And what they've found are land based ancestors like Indohyus, which share some traits with whales that no other animals have, moving on to semi-aquatic animals, like Ambulocetus, and then later to fully aquatic animals like Basilosaurus (more info: Berkeley - The evolution of whales).

Whale Cladogram
(Image Source: University of Miami, BIL 160 - The History of Life on Earth)

[16] What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?

Gene duplication, to name just one. Several types of mutations can create copies of part or all of the genetic code of an organism. Once an organism has two copies of a gene, one copy can continue carrying on its original function, while the other copy is free to change and develop a new function.

But keep in mind that much of evolution doesn't depend on new genetic information, just slight tweaks to how organisms develop. I'm sure most people have heard of the interesting fact that humans and chimpanzees share roughly 98% of their DNA. The main reason why humans and chimps are as different as we are (which isn't terribly different in the grand scheme of things) is mostly down to how those genes get expressed (more info: American Museum of Natural History).

Many people have the misconception that DNA is like a blueprint, that it contains exact instructions for every body part and organ. It's not. If you want an analogy, it's more like a set of many short instructions. The way each of the short instructions interact defines how the organism develops and lives. For example, there may be a certain suite of genes that stimulate neuron growth. These aren't blueprints that specify each and every cell in the brain, but rather more like general instructions to grow neurons and build connections between them. Very, very similar versions of those genes are active in all mammals (and all vertebrates, for that matter). What differs is the regulatory genes that control how long those genes are active, or how much they get expressed. In animals with smaller brains, the neuron promoting genes aren't as active, but in animals with larger brains (like us, or elephants), the neuron promoting genes are more active. There's no real change in the information content of our DNA that builds our bigger brain, just a change in the regulatory genes to make the brain growing genes more active.

[17] What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?

This is so similar to number 8, that there's nothing more for me to write here. For one, this is not related to evolution. And as I've already said, we define purpose and meaning ourselves. Even if any religions were true, they don't add any deeper purpose to our lives.

[18] Why have we found only 1 "Lucy", when we have found more than 1 of everything else?

I've already covered this in my response to question 12. We have found several Australopithecus afarensis fossils, not just Lucy. And we've found many, many other fossil hominids besides just that species.

[19] Can you believe in "the big bang" without "faith"?

I covered this in response to question 6. The Big Bang Theory was developed to explain observations. Assuming faith in the sense of belief without evidence, I don't think it takes any faith at all to provisionally accept the theory.

Perhaps this is a good place to mention an essay I've written previously, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge (or visit the blog version for a chance to comment). One of things I discussed in that essay is levels of certainty in our ideas about the world. We can't be absolutely positive about anything. To use an extreme example, maybe I'm a patient at a psychiatric hospital, and hallucinating everything I think I'm experiencing. But that seems very, very unlikely, so I can be nearly positive about mundane facts like having woken up in my own bed this morning, or kissing my wife goodbye on my way to work. But even in everyday experiences we can be misled, such as magicians and optical illusions make readily apparent. This level of confidence or certainty can be applied to everything we know, with differing degrees for different 'facts'. The Earth being roughly spherical, even though I've never seen it with my own eyes, is a fact that I accept with a very high level of confidence based on various lines of evidence. Evolution and common descent are nearly at the same level of confidence. To me, given the amount I've studied it, the Big Bang Theory doesn't reach that same level of confidence as those other theories. It seems very likely, and I'd be very surprised if it were overturned, but it wouldn't be earth shattering like finding out the world was flat or that evolution was false. And there are other theories, like String Theory, which are reasonably well supported, but could go either was as far as being true or not.

[20] How can you look at the world and not believe someone created/thought of it? It's Amazing!!!

Feelings of awe and amazement do not mean that the object inspiring those emotions was created by an intelligent being. Just consider the Grand Canyon. Even young earth creationists believe it was caused by material processes (in their case, flood waters receding after the great massacre of Noah's flood). But who can visit the Grand Canyon and not be overcome with awe? Why should it not be the same way with the entire universe?

[21] Relating to the big bang theory... Where did the exploding star come from?

To clear up a misconception, Big Bang Theory doesn't posit a star exploding to create everything. It posits that the universe was once in a very hot, dense state, and then space itself expanded, initially very rapidly. Stars didn't begin forming until perhaps 100 million years after the Big Bang (more info: Scientific American - The First Stars in the Universe). Now, what caused the Big Bang is still an unresolved question, but that's no reason to ignore all the evidence pointing to that event.

But this question can easily be turned around on creationists. Where did God come from? I've heard explanations involving terms like 'uncaused cause', or 'ground of being', but pretty much every one of those explanations I've studied is unfulfilling. Let's just face it - existence is a great mystery, whether or not you believe in gods.

[22] If we cam from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

Like I wrote way up at the top of this entry, this is a question I've addressed before in the entry, Local Church Misunderstands Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?. There seem to be two parts of this misunderstanding. First, we didn't evolve from any of the currently existing species of monkeys. They're our cousins, not our ancestors. It's like asking if Americans are descended from Europeans, why are there still Europeans. Granted, if we could travel in a time machine and see that ancient species that was our common ancestor, we'd still call it a monkey, but it would be different from any species of monkey that's alive in the modern world. All of its descendants, including the lineage that led to us, would continue evolving.

This brings us to the second part of the misunderstanding - that many people think evolution is guided, and that certain animals represent a final goal. Remember, mutation is random, with no forethought. It's only the filter of natural selection that maintains the beneficial mutations, and ruthlessly weeds out the harmful ones. But beneficial and harmful are relative to the environment an organism is living in. Monkeys do a very good job surviving in the various niches they inhabit, with the arboreal ones doing far better than any human could in the treetops. Populations evolve to fit whatever current conditions they face, not some far off goal.


So that's it. I hope some people find this useful, and that it may clear up some misconceptions people have. For now, happy Darwin Day.

Updated 2017-03-29: Made various slight tweaks to improve wording or aid understanding, but nothing changing the overall meaning of any section.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Response to Kent Hovind Video - Bird Evolution

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenNot too long ago, I watched a Kent Hovind video on creationism. I mentioned it in a previous entry, Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries, where I discussed a blog I'd visited previously that had plagiarized this information from Hovind. This time around, I'm going to address the actual claims Hovind made. Specifically, I'm going to address birds evolving from dinosaurs and archaeopteryx, since that's a topic that interests me.

I think I've found a copy of the lecture that I watched. It's a little difficult to be certain because Hovind has delivered this lecture numerous times, and several of these were recorded and put online. But I'm reasonably sure that this is the correct one. It does seem, however, that the version I watched on TV was edited a bit to trim out a few comments, presumably to better fit the half hour time slot. But all versions of the lecture I've seen are very similar, so the response below is relevant to all of them.

The lecture is part of Hovind's Creation Science Seminar. The show I watched on TV was a half hour segment pulled from Part 4 of that seminar, Lies in the Textbooks that Support Evolution. The segment on bird evolution that I'm going to address in this entry begins right around 2:30:00 in the video below.

For this entry, I've put what Hovind said in blockquotes below, followed by my responses to his claims. The transcription of Hovind was done by me, and although I tried to be careful, I apologize if there are any mistakes or typos.

They say dinosaurs turned into birds. There are very few ideas as dumb as this one. The Bible says God made the birds on day five. He made the reptiles on day 6. Evolution says reptiles came first, and then the birds. You know, everything about evolution is backwards to the Bible. Everything.

Well, I do have to agree with part of this. The order of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is counter to the actual history of life on this planet. I mentioned that previously in my essay, Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis (too comment, see the blog version). But then again, the order of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is also counter to that from the second chapter of Genesis, where man came first, followed by the garden of Eden, followed by "every animal of the field and every bird of the air", followed finally by Eve. I realize that some Christians interpret these stories allegorically or metaphorically or in some other way, but having two differing creation stories back to back shows that they can't be literally true.

But this article says, 'Dinosaurs alive as birds, scientist says'. Ooo wow, scientist says. Well that proves it right there. Just like it gives some kind of authority. Ooo, wow, scientist says. This is absurd. Everything about the bird evolution is baloney. Okay.

Nothing of substance to comment on here.

Archaeoraptor was listed in 1999 as the missing link. Yes, boys and girls. Breaking news! National Geographic. We found the missing link. They had a whole big article about the missing link has been discovered. Then a couple months later, oops, it was proven wrong.

You know, everything about these feathered dinosaurs has been proven baloney. But guess what. They're still teaching it. Here's a whole book, the Feathered Dinosaurs of China. [pointing] You just got this recently? Why would they still be teaching something that's been proven wrong for five years? All this feathered dinosaur stuff is baloney. It's all baloney.

First things first, yes there are plenty of examples of feathered dinosaurs. Wikipedia has a rather good entry on Feathered dinosaurs, listing 34 specimens of non-avian dinosaurs with preserved evidence of feathers (that is, 34 as of the time I right this - I suspect that number will grow as new fossils are unearthed). There's no excuse for Hovind to claim that feathered dinosaurs haven't been discovered.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Now, the story of Archaeoraptor does point out legitimate problems with science journalism and the fossil trade, but it was an isolated incident, was never the sole piece of evidence for feathered dinosaurs, and actually highlights the benefits of the standard scientific practice of peer review. A fairly complete story of this incident is available on Wikipedia. A farmer found several fossils in his field, and combined them to create what looked like a complete animal. He sold the fossil to a dealer who smuggled it into the U.S. Then, National Geographic funded research on the specimen, and although some scientists began noticing problems right away, the lead researcher refused to acknowledge them. Both Nature and Science, the two most prestigious science journals, rejected papers about the specimen, with some of the reviewers for Science even noting that it had been doctored. But National Geographic never heard about any of these problems because the lead researcher never told them (and they obviously weren't practicing enough oversight), so they ran with their article, publishing it in the November 1999 issue of their magazine, with a corresponding press conference in October. National Geographic received further feedback from the scientific community, and released a press release in February of 2000 noting that the specimen might have been a composite, and then fully admitted the mistake in their October 2000 issue.

This was an example of the dubious practice of 'science by press release', bypassing the normal peer review process and jumping right to public promotion. Most of the scientists associated with the archaeoraptor specimen realized there was something fishy about it, and had it not been for the hype generated by National Geographic, the regular peer review process would done its job and 'archaeoraptor' would have died a quiet death. As it was, the fossil only made a splash in the media, and was never taken seriously by the majority of the scientific community. It's also an example of why it's so important for paleontologists to have access to the sites where the fossils are found, and why the black market fossil trade is so damaging. No paleontologist would have come across all of those separate fossils and assumed them to have come from the same animal.

But an important point of this story relative to Hovind's claims is that the doctored archaeoraptor specimen was still made up of real fossils. In fact, one of the fossils was the counter slab to a nearly complete specimen of Microraptor zhaoianus, which is a feathered dinosaur.

Microraptor zhaoianus
Microraptor zhaoianus
(Source: Wikipedia)

We cover more on that in one of the debates I did. I forget which one, but, uh, they say 'birds are descendants of dinosaurs'. Well, kids, in case you don't know, there are a few differences between a dinosaur and a bird. Okay. You don't just put a few feathers on 'em and say, 'Come on man, give it a try. It won't hurt too bad.'

It's just not that easy. See, reptiles have four perfectly good legs. Birds have two legs and two wings. So, if his front legs are gonna change to wings, ah, somewhere along the line they're gonna be half leg and half wing, which means on that particular day, he can't run anymore, and he still can't fly yet, so he's got a real problem. A serious problem.

Just for reference, here's the image Hovind showed while talking about putting feathers on dinosaurs.

Hovind's Flying Sauropod Slide
Kent Hovind's Idea of Dinosaur Evolution
(Source: YouTube)

This argument is just so silly it almost doesn't even deserve a response. Nobody is proposing that birds evolved from sauropods. Birds evolved from theropods, most probably maniraptorans or something closely related. Here's a picture of my favorite non-avian dinosaur, a deinonychus. It's a dromeosaurid, one of those groups closely related to the maniraptorans.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I think it's pretty obvious from that picture that a deinonychus could run pretty well using just its hind legs, freeing up its arms for other purposes. Why would anybody suggest that early birds would have needed their front limbs for running?

They say archaeopteryx is proof of - for evolution. Whenever you buy a bag of dinosaurs, they almost always stick one of these in there. Archaeopteryx. Wow. And this somehow gets the impression to the kids, 'Wow, we got proof that dinosaurs turned to birds. Here's one with feathers on it.'

Okay, so now we're finally getting to archaeopteryx. I think I'll use this as an opportunity to provide a link to an older entry of mine, Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. That entry is a review of the excellent book by Peter Wellnhofer, and I'll be referring back to it a few times in the remainder of this entry. I'll also mention another previous entry, Book Review - Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, reviewing the book by Donald Prothero. There's an excellent illustration from the book that I included in that blog entry comparing anatomical features of birds, archaeopteryx, and a few non-avian theropods.

They're lying. It's still in the textbooks, I mean today, about archaeopteryx. And it's been proven years ago archaeopteryx was just a bird, a perching bird. Alan Feduccia, who believes in evolution, says it's not a missing link. It had the right features for flight. All the features of the brain were for flight. Okay.

Regarding archaeopteryx's 'features for flight', I'll quote myself from my review of Wellnhofer's book, "One of the things that struck me is just how much more dinosaur-like than bird-like archaeopteryx was (yeah, yeah, I know - birds are dinosaurs, but I think my meaning is clear enough). In fact, the Solnhofen Specimen was originally mistaken for a Compsognathus theropod by an amateur collector. I've included two pictures from the book below to dramatically illustrate this (I apologize for the quality of the scans, but like I said in another review, I wasn't about to ruin the binding on my book just to make it lay flat in the scanner)."

Comparison of Bambiraptor, Archaeopteryx, and a Modern Chicken
Comparison of Bambiraptor, Archaeopteryx, and a Modern Chicken - not to scale
(Source: Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution)
Comparison of Archaeopteryx to a Modern Eagle
Comparison of Archaeopteryx to a Modern Eagle - not to scale
(Source: Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution)

"Take a close look at those skeletons. If you had to pick which other animal archaeopteryx was most closely related to, it seems pretty obvious that it would be the bambiraptor. Archaeopteryx still had clawed hands, a hyperextensible 'killer' claw on its foot (though not shown in the above reconstruction), a long boney tail, gastralia (the bones under the stomach), a more theropod pubis, and teeth in its mouth. Just as important is what archaeopteryx didn't have - a pygostyle, a keratinous beak, a large keeled sternum, fused hand bones, a fused tibiotarsus, or a fused tarsometatarsus. It also seems pretty likely that archaeopteryx lacked a bastard wing. And those are just some of the differences between archaeopteryx and modern birds."

In fact, the last time I was at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and looking at the fossils and casts there, the thing that struck me was just how big the keel is on the sternum of modern birds to anchor all those flight muscles, and how inadequate archaeopteryx looked by comparison. In fact, while the consensus seems to be that archaeopteryx could most likely fly, it probably wasn't a very strong flyer.

I also have to point out the error in thinking that archaeopteryx perched. The consensus is that archaeopteryx didn't have a rear facing toe, and so couldn't perch. In fact, it doesn't appear to have been arboreal at all, but rather a fully terrestrial animal.

And one more note to keep in mind in these discussions - archaeopteryx may not even have been a bird, depending on what the definition of 'bird' turns out to be, and pending more fossils to fill in the details of early bird evolution. It was definitely closely related, but it may have evolved flight or gliding independently from the lineage that led to modern birds.

Archaeopteryx means 'ancient wing', and he had claws on his wings. Well, that's kind of unusual, okay, but twelve birds today have claws on their wings. The swan, the ibis, the hoatzin. Well, several birds have claws.

The commonality in the hands of archaeopteryx and non-avian dinosaurs is not just in having claws. After all, as Hovind correctly points out (you won't hear that phrase too often), many living birds have claws (pay close attention next time you're eating chicken wings). The commonality is in the size & structure of the claws, but more importantly, in the overall structure of the hands.

Take a look at the images below. The first is an ostrich wing, with the claws clearly visible. The latter two are an archaeopteryx and a deinonychus. If, as Hovind claims, an archaeopteryx is clearly a bird, see if you can figure out which one of the latter pair is the archaeopteryx, and which is the deinonychus.

Ostrich Wing with Claw
Ostrich Wing
(Source: Tetrapod Zoology)
Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx Hands
Archaeopteryx & Deinonychus Arms
(Source: Wikipedia)

It's not so easy, is it? You might have noticed that the hand on the top is more gracile and correctly surmised that it was the archaeopteryx, but it's obvious just how much more similar that archaeopteryx and deinonychus are two each other than either is to the ostrich. The ostrich bones are fused, while the archaeopteryx and deinonychus bones are all distinct, giving them flexibility.

They say, 'Well, he had teeth in his beak.' Well, not many birds have teeth. Some do. There's a hummingbird has teeth in his beak. But most birds don't have teeth, I agree. Actually, some mammals have teeth. Some don't. Some birds have teeth. Some don't. Some fish have teeth. Some don't. Some of you have teeth. Some don't. Okay.

I tried looking for this, but as far as I could tell, no modern birds have teeth. My best guess is that Hovind was referring to the tooth-billed hummingbird, which has a serrated beak, not bony teeth. There are many fossil birds with teeth, many of them much more modern than archaeopteryx. A good example is hesperornis, an ancient aquatic bird.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The point is that toothlessness used to be considered a hallmark of birds. If birds evolved from dinosaurs, then we should be able to find some ancestor of modern birds that does have teeth. Finding ancient birds with teeth shows part of the transition between their ancestors and modern birds.

So, it's true feathers and scales are both made of keratin. Same building block. That's true. But that's where the similarity stops. Okay.

Feather evolution is still a bit of conjecture, but it's not pure guesswork. There are different lines of evidence that evolutionary biologists are pursuing, helping to reveal the story of what happened in the past. Carl Zimmer wrote an article for National Geographic, Feather Evolution, describing some relatively recent research (despite the archaeoraptor controversy described above, National Geographic is still a very good organization). To quote one portion of the article, "In the late 1990s Richard Prum of Yale University and Alan Brush of the University of Connecticut developed the idea that the transition from scales to feathers might have depended on a simple switch in the wiring of the genetic commands inside placodes, causing their cells to grow vertically through the skin rather than horizontally."

Wikipedia has a decent discussion of feather evolution, including the diagram below based on a 2009 paper by Xu and Guo. The big evolutionary innovation was the filament (a possible explanation being that quote from Zimmer's article above). After that, it was a series of small steps to get to modern flight feathers, all of which would have had functions in non-flying animals, that could have later been co-opted for flight in birds.

Feather Evolution Stages
Proposed Feather Evolutionary Stages
(Source: Wikipedia)
Actually, birds and reptiles have different lung system, different reproductive system, different body covering, different brain, I mean, different circulatory system, thousands of differences exist between dinosaurs and birds. That could be a whole seminar by itself.

Hovind's pulling a bit of a bait and switch here, talking of the differences between birds and reptiles, and then transferring that to birds and dinosaurs. Now, this gets into the problem of classification, but if dinosaurs are going to be called reptiles, they're very derived reptiles, with many 'advanced' traits.

Many of the examples Hovind used are soft anatomy, parts that don't readily fossilize, so it's a bit difficult to know details of those systems in dinosaurs. But what is known points to birds being flying theropods. Perhaps one of the best examples is the first one Hovind mentioned, the respiratory system. Bird lungs are very distinct from mammal lungs. While our lungs operate like a bellows, sucking air in and pushing it back out, air flows through bird lungs in only one direction, making them more efficient at gas transfer. To accomplish this, birds have separate air sacs that do the actual pumping. Evidence in the fossils of theropods indicates that they had a similar type of respiratory system. And it's not just the relatively small maniraptorans. It appears to be a widespread theropod trait, including the well know allosaurus. There are even indications of air sacs in the fossils of early sauropodomorphs, meaning that these air sacs may even have been present in sauropods (i.e. 'long necks' such as brachiosaurus and diplodocus).

Theropod Respiratory System
Theropod/Bird Respiratory System
(Source: Wikipedia)
It's interesting. There are two different kinds of dinosaurs, the bird hip and the lizard hip dinosaur. Their hips are very different. Ask an evolutionist which type of dinosaur evolved into the bird. Was it the bird hip or the lizard hip? And they will probably kinda hang their head, quietly say, 'Well, it was the lizard hip.' Oh, so now the hip's gotta turn around backwards, too, in addition to all the billions of other changes you've gotta make.

This is no secret at all. There are two main branches of dinosaurs - Saurischia, the lizard hipped dinosaurs, and Ornithischia, the bird hipped dinosaurs. These terms were coined in the late 1880s, when not as many dinosaurs were known as today, and were based on superficial resemblances. The main distinguishing feature is the direction the pubis bone projects from the pelvis. In general, it's forwards in Saurischians, and rearwards in Ornithischians, but there are exceptions. In fact, even in closely realated animals, there can be variation. Below is a picture showing the hips of various Therizinosaurs.

Therizinosauria Hip Variation
Therizinosauria Hip Variation
(Source: Wikipedia)

It is an odd quirk of fate that the group that was termed lizard hipped is the one that gave rise to birds, and not the one termed bird hipped, but it's little more than an issue of the words used to describe those groups, and not a real reason why birds shouldn't be grouped with the Saurischians. In fact, take a look at these three skeletons. The first is a deinonychus, the second is the archaeopteryx, and the third is a presbyornis, a type of extinct bird, but much more modern in appearance than an archaeopteryx. Pay particular attention to the hips. It's not just the direction the pubis bone projects, but the robustness of that bone, and the overall structure of the pelvis. As with all the other comparisons I've shown, it should be clear which animal archaeopteryx is more similar to. (These images are all copyrighted by Scott Hartman, who has an excellent website, Scott Hartman's Skeletal He gives permission for non-commercial use of his images, but if you want to copy these, make sure to give Hartman credit.)

Scott Hartman's Deinonychus Skeleton Drawing
(Source: Scott Hartman's Skeletal
Scott Hartman's Archaeopteryx Skeleton Drawing
(Source: Scott Hartman's Skeletal
Scott Hartman's Presbyornis Skeleton Drawing
(Source: Scott Hartman's Skeletal
There's no evidence of how dinosaurs evolved through birds. None. Zero.

Well, I would hope that what I've written above is sufficient to put the lie to this claim. And this was all merely a blog entry written by an interested laymen. There are entire books on just archaeopteryx, not to mention the entire subject of bird evolution. There's no lack of information on this subject, and no excuse for someone like Kent Hovind to teach from ignorance.


Related Entries (This Site)

Related Links (External Sites)

Additional Notes

There were a few more thoughts I had that don't directly tie in to anything Hovind presented, but that might be interesting to some people, so I've included a bit of extra information here.

In case anybody's curious, Saurischia includes the theropods (birds, T. Rex, 'raptors', etc.) and sauropodomorphs (brachiosaurus, diplodocus, appatosaurus, etc.), while Ornithischia includes pretty much all the other types of dinosaurs people are familiar with (triceratops, ankylosaurus, stegosaurus, 'duck-bills', etc.). As far as is known from the fossil record, only the theropods included carnivorous dinosaurs, while every other group was herbivorous. And even some theropods were herbivorous or omnivorous.

When I first learned these groups, I found it intriguing that the four legged sauropods were more closely related to the bipedal theropods than to other four legged dinosaurs. But this was due to the interesting fact of dinosaur evolution that the oldest dinosaurs were bipedal, and the quadrupedality evolved independently in a few later lineages. This ancestry is apparent in many of the early quadrupedal dinosaurs, having great big hind limbs, and short, less robust fore limbs.

I think it's a bit amusing the way creationists deal with transitional animals like archaeopteryx. To creationists, everything has to belong to a certain 'kind'. So, while Kent Hovind was utterly convinced that archaeopteryx was merely a bird, here's another set of creationists arguing that archaeopteryx was clearly a dinosaur, Archaeopteryx Update. But to people who accept evolution and the gradual change this entails, these types of grey areas are expected. Archaeopteryx has a mix of old and new traits because that's how evolution works. It was a type of theropod dinosaur with feathers and wings, most likely not a direct ancestor of modern birds, but very closely related to whatever that animal was.

I know many people are interested in finding direct ancestors in the fossil record, but this is unlikely, not to mention difficult to verify even if someone were lucky enough to find one. I thought of an example that might make this easier for people to understand. Just imagine all the cats alive today - cougars, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, house cats, etc. Next, imagine that all of them went extinct except for one species. Now, imagine jumping ahead a few million years into the future, and that you're a future paleontologist living among the descendants of cats, trying to determine their ancestry. And you found fossils of a few of the different types of cats alive today. How would you be able to determine which one was the actual ancestor of your future cats, and which was one of the side branches that went extinct? Really, do you think if you found lions and tigers, that you could definitively distinguish one as the ancestor and one that went extinct? Or, what if you only found lion fossils, but your future cats were all descended from tigers. You may not have found the exact direct ancestor of your future cats, but you would have found an animal very similar to it. That's how it is in paleontology. Archaeopteryx is almost certainly not the direct ancestor of modern birds, but it was alive at the same time, and closely related to, whatever that animal was. We may never find that animal, but archaeopteryx and other fossils we're finding can give us a better idea of what that animal was probably like.

Updated 2017-03-29: Made several tweaks to wording to make things easier to understand, but nothing that changed the overall meaning.

Updated 2018-09-10: Modified the section on Archaeoraptor & feathered dinosaurs - mostly just rearranging to make it read better, not changing any overall meaning.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenThe other day browsing through the channel guide, I wandered into the religious channels and saw a show on creationism. I recorded it and just watched it this past weekend.* It was part of the Creation Series by Kent Hovind. Now, if you follow the creationism/evolution 'debate' at all, you'll probably recognize that name. Hovind is rather infamous, not just for the poor quality of his arguments, but also for his questionable ethics, such as getting his bachelor's degree from a non-accredited university, his doctorate from a diploma mill, and then his tax evasion that landed him a 10 year prison sentence (he should be released in 2015). But despite his infamy, I have to admit to never having watched any of Hovind's videos before. So I figured, why not give it a shot and see how bad it could be.

It was horrible. Hovind fully deserves the bad reputation that he spent so many years building. I couldn't believe the amount of falsehoods he kept spewing, and the amount of applause it generated from the audience.

About two thirds of the way through the episode, something really caught my attention. It all seemed very, very familiar. And I realized, I'd seen all this before on another site in the article, Are Dinosaurs Alive Today As Birds?: Refuting Archaeopteryx as "Evidence" for Evolution. If you've been following this (my) blog, you'll recognize that link. I had a lengthy discussion with the writer, R. K. Sepetjian, in the comments section of his blog, which spawned several entries on this site (see below for links).

I haven't yet found a link to the video I watched, but Hovind has given variations of the same speech numerous times. Here's one version that addresses the section I'm going to discuss in this entry, Kent Hovind cse 103 class 2 (part 3 of 7). And here's another version where the audio doesn't seem to work, but which includes more of the slides, Archaeopteryx.

I went back and checked Sepetjian's page just to make sure that I hadn't missed a reference to Hovind. But no, there was no such reference to be found. R. K. Sepetjian presented that article as if he had come up with it. Granting him the benefit of the doubt, he may be one of those people who thinks it's not plagiarism if you're not copying and pasting directly. At least compared to the version of Hovind's presentation that I watched, Sepetjian re-wrote everything and changed the wording a bit here and there, but the similarities were obvious. Had I tried something like that in college and gotten caught, I would have faced some hefty disciplinary action (Academic Integrity and You, UMD).

Just how similar was it? Here are excerpts from each to illustrate. Please note that the transcript of Hovind's words was completed by me, so I apologize if I've made any mistakes, but I tried to be careful.

Kent Hovind R. K. Sepetjian
Well, kids, in case you don't know, there are a few differences between a dinosaur and a bird. Okay.

You don't just put a few feathers on 'em and say, 'Come on man, give it a try. It won't hurt too bad.'
It may have escaped your attention, but there are a few differences between a dinosaur and a bird.

You don't just put a few feathers on them on and say "Come on man, give it a try. It won't hurt too badly."
So, if his front legs are gonna change to wings, ah, somewhere along the line they're gonna be half leg and half wing, which means on that particular day, he can't run anymore, and he still can't fly yet, so he's got a real problem. A serious problem. If dinosaurs turned into birds, somewhere along the line, when his front legs were developing into wings they're going to be half-leg / half-wing-which means he can't run and he can't yet fly.
Archaeopteryx means 'ancient wing', and he had claws on his wings.

Well, that's kind of unusual, okay, but twelve birds today have claws on their wings. The swan, the ibis, the hoatzin. Well, several birds have claws.
Archaeopteryx means "ancient wing"

They say, "See boys and girls? He has claws on his wings!"

Yeah, so?

12 birds today have claws on their wings including the ostrich, swan, hoatzin, emu, and ibis.
They say, 'Well, he had teeth in his beak.' Well, not many birds have teeth. Some do. There's a hummingbird has teeth in his beak. But most birds don't have teeth, I agree.

Actually, some mammals have teeth. Some don't.

Some birds have teeth. Some don't.

Some fish have teeth. Some don't.

Some of you have teeth. Some don't. Okay.
They say, "Look children, he's got teeth in his beak. That proves he has reptilian features."

Now wait a minute.

Some reptiles have teeth. Some don't.

Some mammals have teeth. Some don't.

Some fish have teeth. Some don't.

Some of you have teeth. Some don't.
So, it's true feathers and scales are both made of keratin. Same building block. That's true. But that's where the similarity stops. Okay. They say bird feathers evolved from scales.

A. They come from different genes on the chromosome.

B. They develop totally differently

C. A scale is a hard wrinkle in the skin--a feather is not a wrinkle of skin.

D. They attach to the skin very differently

E. Feathers are incredibly complex and unbelievably complicated.

They are both made from the same protein, Keratin and there is where the similarity stops.

But that's not where the similarities stop between Sepetjian's entry and Hovind's presentation. The above table only compares what Sepetjian wrote to Hovind's spoken words, not other aspects of the presentation. For example, here was Sepetjian's opening to his entry:

"Paleontologists have tried to turn Archaeopteryx into an earth bound feathered dinosaur. But it's not. It is a bird, a perching bird. And no amount of 'paleobabble' is going to change that." Alan Feduccia - a world authority on birds from UNC Chapel Hill, quoted in "Archaeopteryx: Early Bird Catches a Can of Worms," Science Feb. 5, 1994, p. 764-5.

Here was one of Hovind's slides from his presentation:

Hovind Feduccia quote

If you're using a text only browser, I'll save you the mystery. The excerpt from Sepetjian is a direct quote of the Hovind slide.

Here was another quote Sepetjian had in his article:

"Strahl adds that some ornithologists call the hoatzin 'primitive' because of its archaeopteryx-like claws; but he prefers to think of it as 'high;y specialized.' Swans, ibis and many other birds, he notes have wing claws; they just never make use of them." ("What's a Hoatzin?" Scientific American, vol. 261 December 1989, p. 30)

I'm sure you know what's coming next:

Hovind Strahl quote

Sepetjian didn't limit his copying to just text, either. Here are a few pictures from Hovind's presentation and Sepetjian's article.

Kent Hovind R. K. Sepetjian
Hovind's Flying Sauropod Slide Sepetjian's Flying Sauropod Image
Hovind's Archaeopteryx Teeth Slide Sepetjian's Archaeopteryx Teeth Image
Hovind's Toothless Old Lady Slide Sepetjian's Toothless Old Man Image

Granted, that last image is only stealing the concept, not the exact image, but that's still a form of stealing, especially when you don't credit the original source for the inspiration. And those first two, if you look at them closely on Sepetjian's site, look like they were actually photographs taken off of a screen or monitor.


I'm no longer shocked by dishonesty on the part of Christians, particularly creationists, but it's disappointing to learn that I devoted so much time to a sincere discussion with someone so dishonest. This did add some understanding to that discussion with R. K. Sepetjian. I had assumed that he had come up with all the arguments he presented on his page, but it seems that he was merely parroting what he'd heard someone else say. That may explain why he was so reluctant to actually discuss the evidence or the interpretation of it.

Stay tuned. In an upcoming entry in the next week or so, I plan to address the actual claims from Hovind.

Update: The new entry is now online:
Response to Kent Hovind Video - Bird Evolution

*Actually, there were a few shows I recorded and watched, none of which was particularly convincing. But if I spent my time responding to every single piece of information I disagreed with, I'd never have time to do anything else. I only responded to this particular video because of my prior experience with R. K. Sepetjian.

If you're interested, here are my previous entries dealing with Sepetjian.

Updated 2014-01-29: Corrected a few minor typos and made a few minor revisions.


Selling Out