Saturday, 7 August 2010

Critiquing Creationist Blogs - Part 1

Earlier today I had a read of the blog of a conservative Christian as they had posted a link in a Facebook thread. What I read was the usual stuff and of course any anti-evolution blogs piqued my interest. I ended up reading four of his blogs which mentioned evolution and decided that I would write about them here. I also took the opportunity to have a look at what another creationist blogger was writing about, which I will also critique here.

The first on the list is Daniel Mann of the Mann's Word blog. The aim of his blog is to defend Christian faith against secular challenges. He reputedly taught at the New York School of the Bible for 17 years and has authored several books. From this description he may seem like quite the challenge, though sadly he really is not, as you will hopefully see. The second on the list is someone I have mentioned before, RK Bentley of the A Sure Word blog, when I critiqued his own critique of theistic evolution, see here. Bentley is more of a challenge than Mann, giving a useful contrast between the quality of their arguments. So, let's get on with it.

Mann's Word - Theology is Married to History

Going back to February is the first blog I will look at by Mann: Theology is Married to History. As the title suggests, Mann's post is about why he believes the Bible must be talking about history, contrary to what other Christians may claim. Almost straight away Mann shows that he does not grasp how Christian evolutionists perceive truth, using instead a very modernist view:

After we discover that someone has spoken falsely, we will justifiably be suspicious of their other claims.

What he means by this is that Genesis must be literal in order to be true, it must therefore be scientifically accurate. This of course is a mindset influenced by modernism, wherein scientific description is the epitome of truth delivery. Such a mindset does not do well when forced onto Scriptures which were written thousands of years ago. It also ignores something which even children recognise, that symbolism is truth. The ancient Hebrews readily used symbolism in their teachings and appreciated it as a supreme source of truth. Mann is under the false belief that if Genesis is not scientifically accurate then it must be false and therefore renders the rest of the Scriptures suspicious. 

Read on and his misconceptions continue:

If we can’t trust what the Bible teaches about the physical/historical, what reason do we have to trust it regarding spiritual matters?

Throughout his post Mann is clearly assuming that Genesis is a historical account, making it near impossible for him to see the contrasting Christian viewpoints which he is supposed to be arguing against. He makes no attempt to justify his historical reading and so can make statements like these. 

One of the most interesting parts of his post is that he discusses the impact of theistic evolution on non-Christians, he says:

Certainly, this kind of formulation will not impress thoughtful unbelievers. I, for one, had been unwilling to consider the veracity of the Bible. As long as I was convinced that Darwin was right, I concluded that Genesis was wrong.

He is not completely wrong with his first statement as many atheists do dislike "accommodationist" beliefs. However, many atheists and agnostics do often state that a Christianity which is more consistent with reality is more intellectually appealing and that YEC is more repugnant. It does not surprise me that even as a non-believer Mann swallowed the false dichotomy of evolution vs. Scripture. Anyone with that mindset will not be easily convinced by theistic evolution, it does not fit their strict dichotomy. Mann then goes on to state that it is not convincing to Christians either (despite a large amount holding the views he criticises) and the implications he sees:

The spiritual message of the Cross cannot stand without the historical event of the Cross. Theologically, the spiritual can no sooner be separated from the physical than the head from the body. To try to do so kills both!

I wholeheartedly agree! What Mann has done has made the mistake of thinking that if we read Genesis as symbolism then we read it all as such. We do not. The majority of theistic evolutionists see Genesis as a symbolic account and the Gospels as historical. Genre calibration is the key to understanding, wherein we must try to discern the intent of the authors based on literary technique and cultural context. 

Mann - Darwin and Compromise

In another February blog, Darwin and Compromise, Mann is responding to this quote from a Christian evolutionist about teaching young Christians about the compatibility of evolution with Christianity:

“When a house falls down in the wind, do we blame the wind or the shoddy foundation? In the case of YECs (young-earth creationists) who fall away in the face of a simple scientific theory, I would sooner blame the foundation [YEC] than the wind.”

It is a quote I agree with and wish I had stated it this way as well, so I was interested to see his critique. Instead he takes a different approach and his conclusion is this:

If we are willing to live with some tension, why then do we run scared in the face of Darwinian claims and compromise the clear teachings of Scripture? The power of the university or media? Professional respectability? Group think?

Nobody is running scared, we are running straight toward truth with open arms. Scripture is not compromised, but appreciated for what truth it holds even  more. It is amusing that the tags for the blog includes "cognitive dissonance" when Mann so readily employs it. 

Mann - Evolution is Inevitably Correct

Jump forward to April this time and Mann gets into the science of evolution, see here, ranting about how it is unfalsifiable (rabbits in the Precambrian anyone?). Mann's argument is borrowed from here, where it claims that evolutionary predictions have been falsified. In this case the example is DNA replication as it appears to have evolved multiple times (the proteins involved is dramatically different in bacteria when compare to the Archaea and Eukaryotes) whereas evolution would predict conservation between the two. 

What Mann (and Cornelius Hunter) have mistakenly done here is to ignore all the similarities, ones which are startling to find about about when you realise just how conserved they are, in favour of a single difference. The difference should not be ignored, but why is convergent evolution such a stretch when damn near everything else is conserved? I won't go into it now, but for any interested, here is a TalkOrigins bit on the same subject, showing how evolution could be falsified in this way. 

Mann - Darwin's Tree of Life Says it All

In a more recent post from July, Mann had a look at the palaeontological evidence for evolution, how delicious! Almost straight away in his post he makes a very bold assertion:

The evidence – the fossil record – couldn’t be coaxed into agreeing with this construction [the tree of life].

Of course, Mann is very wrong and the fossil record does practically scream evolution. The fossil record shows increased complexity and diversity through time with many forms which we would label transitional (technically all are transitional though). He then states:

Even today, the problem has become so serious, that many evolutionists have abandoned trying to prove evolution using the fossil record.

Mann is not completely wrong here, many do not turn to the fossil evidence. Genetic evidence is much more objective and versatile and is what is usually consulted. Fossils are generally used to bolster the case further and to provide something more visual and therefore tangible. Internet debates, for example, often go no further than giving a list of transitional forms and maybe a few accompanying images like this one: 

I personally use the fossil record often in discussions with anti-evolutionists, but mostly because it is more my speciality. If fossils were not used as evidence for evolution then you would find no books about it, yet not so very long ago palaeontologist Donald Prothero released the book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Even books by non-palaeontologists on evolution mention the fossils often. 

Mann then goes on to use a common quote from palaeontologist David Raup:

We are now about 120 years after Darwin and the knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter of a million fossil species, but the situation hasn’t changed much. The record of evolution is still surprisingly jerky and, ironically, we have even fewer examples of evolutionary transition than we had in Darwin’s time.

For anyone who paid attention at all last year alarm bells should be ringing. It is now 151 years since Darwin's major contribution to science, so this quote is from 30 years ago. Considering the rate at which science advances, this is a long time. When I read the quote I had an inkling that it was talking about punctuated equilibrium and how the fossil record is not a long chain of highly gradualistic evolution. This is not about whether evolution happens, but how it happens. So I found the original quote and found that Raup went on to say:

By this I mean that some of the classic cases of darwinian change in the fossil record, such as the evolution of the horse in North America, have had to be discarded or modified as a result of more detailed information -- what appeared to be a nice simple progression when relatively few data were available now appear to be much more complex and much less gradualistic. So Darwin's problem has not been alleviated in the last 120 years and we still have a record which does show change but one that can hardly be looked upon as the most reasonable consequence of natural selection.

It should now be clear that these examples, such as the horse, were not discarded, but re-interpreted. Raup was writing this at a time where the fossil record had previously only been used to show that evolution had occurred, but not how it happens. In the same paper he is pushing the view that the fossil record must be consulted in order to properly understand evolution over large time scales. 

It is no surprise then that Mann goes on to quote Niles Eldredge talking about the same topic at roughly the same time. Quote mining is a dishonest tactic, though I doubt that Mann has bothered to read the quotes in their context. Mann was using the palaeontology quotes to springboard into a rant about how molecular evidence is now more trusted, for which he also claims that evolution is not the parsimonious explanation. 

Here, Mann quotes Colin Patterson from a paper written in 1993:

Congruence between molecular phylogenies is as elusive as in morphology…Congruence between morphological phylogenies is the exception rather than the rule. With molecular phylogenies, all generated within he last couple of decades, the situation is little better.

I mention the date for the same reason I did with the palaeontology quotes, he is behind on the times. In 1993 the genetic evidence and the computing power to interpret it were minuscule in comparison to what we now have. In 1993 only one genome had been sequenced and that was a virus with only 5,386 base pairs; it was not until 1995 when something larger and living was sequenced, this time a bacterium with just over a million base pairs (ours has over 3 billion and the largest known genome has 670 billion). A proper read of the Patterson paper (here) shows that he does think morphological congruence can be found, but that in some areas it is inconclusive; he is claiming that molecular phylogenies can also be congruent but that some areas are inconclusive too, meaning a lot of hard work ahead (which has been undertaken). Mann does not mince his words with what his quote mining has led him to conclude:

This failure argues persuasively against a common descent among the various species. Instead, the findings paint the picture of a mosaic or patchwork quilt, where we find qualities, like flight or luminescence, sprinkled among admittedly unrelated species. This tends to point to a common Designer and not to a common descent.

He makes some interesting choices here, particularly flight. Why is it then, that with different flying organisms we find different ways of flying? Birds have modified arms covered in feathers; pterosaurs had an elongated digit with tough skin stretched between; bats have all of their digits elongated and have quite fragile skin between; insects use a different way to fly altogether and instead of using limbs they use separate wings (modified gills). Why such difference? Birds, pterosaurs and bats would probably have had much use for forelimbs if they had been given insect style wings. And why don't bats have hollow bones like pterosaurs and birds? Did the Designer not favour them? Why do we also find examples of incipient stages of flight evolution? We all know squirrels can glide, but so can frogs and lizards for example. Each of these uses flaps of skin, but in different ways (this seems to be the more common approach, whereas birds being the only ones to have had feathers are the anomaly). Some lizards glided with elongated ribs and skin stretched across, whereas squirrels use simply flaps of skin.

Another example of the Designer appearing to favour some animals over others comes in another of the creationists favourite "unevolvable" examples - the eye (which, of course, is quite easy to think of evolving). Cats are largely nocturnal and have a reflective disc in their eyes which allow them to take in more light, whilst at the same time being relatively small and easily moved. This is a very economical design, one which should surely be found in all nocturnal species if the Designer is competent. When we look at say, the bush-baby or the loris we find a different approach to seeing in the dark. Instead, these small nocturnal mammals have comically enlarged eyes in order to let more light in. These eyes are cumbersome and difficult to move, whereas a lovely reflective disc would make life a lot easier. This is exactly what we should expect from evolution as it makes use of what is available. As the reflective disc (or something similar) was not an option for them they ended up having larger eyes - a poor design, but it does the job. 


The arguments of Daniel Mann are unconvincing, sloppy, overly simplistic and readily use dishonest tactics. This is an example of what a lot of creationists on discussion boards are like, but not all. His critiques of theistic evolution are littered with logical fallacies and misconceptions; his critiques of evolution are full of quote mining and the clear desire to see nothing but confirmation for his own beliefs. 

Due to the length of this post and the lateness at which I write this, I will stop for now. Part 2 will be a critique of a single blog by RK Bentley, so it may be quite thorough. Bentley is more thoughtful and articulate than Mann, but misconceptions still abound in his work. 

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