Friday, 20 August 2010

I apologise, I am about to absquatulate!

I won't be posting anything over the next 3 weeks as I won't be in the country and won't have computer access. After that I will resume posting and will try to pick up the slack - I've been a bit slow this August.

I will be heading off to the Taizé community in France tomorrow for some spiritual relaxation. Then I will return for just over a day before heading out to Spain for a field trip with uni for 2 weeks. It is going to be a fantastic 3 weeks and hopefully I will have a lot to write about when I return.

For now, I bid you adieu.

Creationist Research

I had to laugh at this. Over at Creation Science Evangelism, the brainchild of Kent Hovind and run by his son Eric, they had a blog about the Animal Planet show Dragons. Not a lot is to be expected of them, after all, Kent is one of those who flaunts the title of "Dr" despite the fact that he is not a medical practitioner and his PhD was from an unaccredited degree mill. Most PhD holding scientists only use the title on rare occasions; slapping it on every book and website is usually because their points cannot stand for themselves without an appeal to authority. What's worse is that Hovind calls himself "Dr Dino" despite knowing next to nothing about palaeontology or dinosaurs. However, it is his son making the daft comments today.

In his blog he states that "It blew my mind that they [Animal Planet] would depict dragons and dinosaurs living at the same time when there is so much evidence that dragons and people lived at the same time. Don’t the producers/writers realize that this is evidence that will help us kill the sacred cow of Evolutionism? Don’t they see that this evidence and information goes against the grain of what many scientists believe today?" It would blow my mind too, if it were happening that is. Animal Planet has done programmes about dragons, but they are pure fantasy, they do not believe dragons existed and certainly not alongside man. Just the tiniest amount of research, less than is required to even find the show, would have let Hovind know this, yet he didn't do it. Instead he demonstrated what creationist research is like - ignoring the complicated stuff which contradicts you.

The Saltwick Haul

Here is a preview of the fossils I brought back from my recent trip to Saltwick Bay, Whitby. I took some close up photos, but my camera is poor so they came out blurred. There were ammonites, belemnites, bivalves, wood and even a crustacean.


My favourite was this death assemblage of ammonites and belemnites (albeit blurry):
Ignore the dates on the images, my camera seems to be muddled.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Trip to Saltwick Bay - 16/08/10

Just hours after having been tattooed, I went on a trip to Saltwick Bay near Whitby on the Yorkshire coast. After spending the day there, I have to say that it is one of the best locations I have been to for fossil collecting. You are guaranteed to find something; ammonites and belemnites are ubiquitous, joined by the promise of more tantalising finds such as ichthyosaurs and crocodiles. In addition to this the bay is geologically and ecologically attractive; there is plenty for all to see and do. This week has been a busy one for me, so this will be a quick photographic run through of the trip and the sites to see. I have not yet taken pictures of the numerous fossils I brought back, so those will be saved for the future.

The view on the left is the south of the bay where we spent the second half of the trip. The weather was not brilliant, it was actually quite cold, as I found when I ate my dinner.

This is the view to the north of the bay, which is where we started looking for fossils, finding hundreds all over the place.

If you know where to look on the north side of the bay you will come across some dinosaur tracks on a rock which has fallen from the uppermost layers. This one is likely an ornithopod dinosaur, though with most fossil tracks it is difficult to determine exactly what made it (except in rare circumstances where the animal itself has fossilised too).

Most of the fossils were lying around amongst the fallen and washed up rocks, though occasionally some good finds were impossible to extract. These belemnites look great, but from under this boulder they like to tease.

Many fossils can be found in situ, difficult to extract but great to look at. Examples like these belemnites are found all over the bay.

Around the rocks, especially in the water, can be found plenty of wildlife. I spotted lots of anemones in attached to rocks.

As we headed to the south in the bay, we came across a seal carcass which was rather big and had its head buried. It was not easy to spot, but when downwind of it the stench was obvious. I may blog on this again as I recently got the pictures from when I found a dead porpoise on the beach a few years ago (I have an odd interest in dead things and I don't just mean fossils).

One of the most interesting things to look at on the beach is this wrecked ship. It looks like a mangled carcass of metal waiting to be picked by scavengers.

Throughout the day rocks were falling from the cliffs, so we often stayed clear of them. Fortunately none as big as this one, being modelled by Dean, fell whilst we were there, otherwise I might not be writing this right now.

On the left is a rather nice pyritised ammonite, next to my foot. There were some interesting fossils found that day. A lad called Ben, who I met that day, was finding many crustaceans; there were hundreds of ammonites, belemnites and bivalves found, including an impressive ammonite by John; a couple we came across might have found some sturgeon bone; and the best find came right at the end whilst we were talking to a group about the fossils they could find, when suddenly one of the girls popped up with a fossil she had just found, wondering if it was anything worthwhile. She had a vertebra of an ichthyosaur. Naturally we went scrambling over the rocks where she found it in search of another, but to no avail. If you want beginner's luck, or just any sort of fossil finding luck, head to Saltwick Bay in North Yorkshire, you won't regret it.

Monday, 16 August 2010

New Tattoo

I've had a busy couple of days. On the Saturday night I stayed over at my cousin's house, then we came through to church on the Sunday morning. My Sunday was spent how I normally spend it, except that during the evening I hung about in the tattoo studio for hours. Earlier in the day my friend had said that he wanted to tattoo a dinosaur on my arm, so we picked one for him to do when he was finished with his other customers. He started tattooing at 2am and finished around 5am. After that I went home and didn't sleep, as I was going fossil collecting at 8.30 at Saltwick Bay, Whitby (which I may blog about tomorrow). So here is my new tattoo, a Dromaeosaurus:


The tattoo.



Close up of the head. It needs moisturising in this picture.

The top of the beast, with a free nipple shot.

The rear end.

Friday, 13 August 2010

A Critique of a Critique of a Creationist Critique

In my previous Critiquing Creationist Blogs post, I took a look at the creationism posts of the A Sure Word apologetics blog of RK Bentley (he blogs about a lot more than just creationism). Since then, Bentley has responded to the criticisms of one of his posts. Myself and another had been highly responsive to his Five Lies Evolutionists Tell post so he has responded to us both in a new post, titled Answering the Critics About the Five Lies of Evolution. With this post, I want to ask one simple question. Has RK Bentley succeeded in establishing that these are indeed lies?

Lie #1: “Evolution is a FACT”

In his first post on this topic, Bentley's problem was that evolutionists would demonstrate the fact of a change in allele frequencies in a population, then claim that this makes evolution as a whole a fact. His issue was the equivocation of observable evolution with long term evolution leading to common descent. But Bentley missed my point, when we say evolution is fact we are not just talking about a change in allele frequencies; we are saying that the theory of evolution explains the fact of common descent. Within the scientific community common descent is a fact. Bentley's exact statement was, that "[the Palaeobabbler] goes on to say that I am,“completely unaware that most scientists consider common descent to be the fact of evolution.” I assure you that I am well aware of that. I said as much in my post. To quote, “A person who says, “Evolution is a FACT” is merely stating his conviction that “evolution” is true; that doesn't make it true regardless of his use of all capital letters!” I did indeed say this, but if you carry on reading my original response, I then added, "It is beyond reasonable doubt with scientists, so if Bentley wants to claim that this is a lie he must demonstrate why evolution does not occur. He cannot do so. "

So, I maintain from my original response that the equivocation is not there and as such this cannot be a lie of evolution. If Bentley wants to claim that common descent is the lie of evolution, well, then he has to demonstrate that evolution is false. So far none have succeeded. 



Lie #2: “Evolution and the Bible are compatible.”

In his response to the second "lie" of evolution, Bentley does not say too much, but does raise a glaring misconception of his own:

"TP [the Palaeobabbler] and I had a protracted discussion on Face Book about the genre of Genesis. Anyway, he asserts overtly that the creation account in Genesis is a “powerful creation myth and is not meant to be literal.” In other words, the Bible doesn't mean what it clearly says."

To maintain such a statement requires the Bible to be taken out of its cultural and historical context. The plain meaning of words constantly change. Not only do the meanings of words change and languages evolve, but we also find that ways of teaching and ways of thinking change too. We live in a society which favours dry, "scientific" prose when making truth claims; poetic language is for artistic expression. If we want to know how something works we ask the scientist, not the local painter. Our society tells us to ask certain questions, not least how we got here. But Genesis was written thousands of years ago, by a culture which had a very different appreciation for how to express truth and different ways of thinking. To claim one has the clear meaning of Scripture is borderline arrogant and is ignorant of context. What the Bible "clearly" says to a modern reader is not likely to be the same as it was to the ancient Hebrews.

On this point Bentley has only established that this is a lie of evolution if his view is correct. I still maintain that this is not a view promoted by evolutionists, they are divided on the issue. It is a claim of compatibilists, but Bentley has not demonstrated that this is a lie. 

Lie #3: "There is no evidence for Creation"

Helpfully, Bentley restates his claim quite succinctly, saying, "My point is that theories are attempts to explain the evidence while the evidence itself is neutral". This is a common creationist argument and tends to be the view of those who have managed to get a PhD in sciences involving evolution. Under one paradigm the evidence suggests evolution, under another it suggests that there is a designer. If this were true then paradigm shifts would be difficult, if not impossible. Using the language of theory, a good theory must be flexible, but must also be able to make predictions and be falsified. This means that there can be evidence in favour of it and also evidence against it. It also means that new evidence with surprise value can completely change our views. Under the static paradigm view of many creationists, this just would not be possible. Thankfully the creationists during the early 1800s who began to explore the rock record in detail did not cling to their views. Perhaps a list of lies of creationists would include "we all have the same evidence, we just interpret it differently". Creationism requires the ignorance or rejection of evidence in order to be maintained.

During the first discussion of the third lie, Bentley also put forward the Bible as evidence. He has now stated that "their explanations as to why they don't accept the Bible don't make the Bible disappear. It is still on the table for people to consider as evidence." I have no desire to make the Bible go away, but I also have no desire to abuse and misuse it by claiming it as a scientific treatise. I do wonder if creationists would be comfortable if we turned to every Holy Book whilst conducting science and not just the Bible. 

Lie #4: “Evolution has been tested and proven even more than gravity.”

The fourth lie is an interesting one as Bentley believes I have contradicted myself, so I need to be more clear. He said:

Now it's TP's turn to contradict himself. He claims I'm making a straw man then immediately says, “I have certainly seen the claim that gravity has been tested more, but this needs some qualification.”Indeed it does need some qualification but not from me.

In my response I was stating that lie four is a strawman, the statement that "evolution has been tested and proven even more than gravity". However, the statement that "evolution has been tested more than gravity" is not the same claim, it lacks the proven aspect and is a worthwhile distinction. I'm not sure why Bentley quite indignantly states that it does not need qualification from him, I would not expect it, which should be obvious by the fact that I went on to qualify the statement myself. 

As I have never seen anyone claim the proven aspect of the "lie", Bentley's argument is a strawman. No contradictions here. 

Lie #5: "Microevolution over time leads to Macroevolution"


In an interesting twist, Bentley starts by saying that we did not get his point, which oddly enough I agree with. His claim is that time is not a mechanism in evolution. The reason we did not get his point is that it is one of the biggest straw men I have ever seen, rivalling the one in The Wicker Man with consummate ease. Time is not a mechanism of evolution, it is simply what occurs when there is change, when things go from one state to another. Populations constantly change state and this happens in the dimension of time. What Bentley does not realise is that I agree with him and did so in my original response. Natural selection plus time does not result in new species, if that is all that is happens then we will simply end up with a depleted stock. 

What we need is a mechanism for the addition of variation.  Interestingly enough I said this in my first post: "With more variation entering the gene pool, natural selection can become more versatile, often being directive. " If we did not have new variation then we would only see stabilising selection, just as my first post mentioned. Bentley seems to think that time is what we think adds variation to a population and I can't fathom where he got this idea. 

He even has the audacity to put words into my mouth: "Natural selection is a process by which traits not suitable to an environment are removed from a population. Contrary to TP's claims, it indeed does remove variation from a population." In my original response, whilst discussing an analogy Bentley used, I had this to say: "If Bentley is selecting against new colours then the population will remain static, much like stabilising selection does." How much more clearer do I have to make it that stabilising selection is what Bentley is describing? I even gave a link for more information on natural selection, in which I also said:

In stabilising selection the existing mean of the distribution of inherited variability is favoured. In other words, variance is reduced as extreme variants are selected out. For example, in a population both the largest and smallest individuals may be selected against, maintaining a mean between the two. This is often seen with birth rates in populations.

In the same post I linked to I discussed the other forms of selection and how they are not the same as stabilising selection. Bentley's next audacious statement is as follows:

"TP makes the unsubstantiated claim that, “variation does not run out.... With more variation entering the gene pool, natural selection can become more versatile.” So what is the mechanism that adds variation to the gene pool? I know what the mechanism supposedly is and it isn't time."

Of course it isn't time, nobody thinks it is. Time is indeed required, for going from A to B is not possible without time. If Bentley wants to know how variation is added to the gene pool, well, he could have kept reading my response to him, where I clearly said that "[mutation] is the major source of variation and it happens every time a sperm or egg is made, followed by the recombination of DNA in sexual reproduction which gives a completely unique offspring with new variation. Natural selection works on this variation and so microevolution can add up to macroevolution." 

Bizarrely he then goes on to mention that "Time doesn't add traits to a population – mutations do." This has been the point all along, nobody claims that time adds traits, it doesn't, it merely allows traits to be added by mutations and acted on by selection. Bentley's "lie" has nothing to do with micro and macroevolution, it is to do with time and is nothing but a straw man. 

What's That Swimming Toward Me?

With the vast size of the Earth's oceans, it is not unlikely that many of us will swim in them from time to time. Whether you are going for an innocent paddle, catching waves on your surfboard, or sailing the seas on a fishing trawler or pirate ship, you will be sharing the waters with myriad different animals, some of which are dangerous. If you were to find yourself swimming under water with a big, moving animal coming ever closer, how do you know whether you have a friendly dolphin swimming towards you or whether it might be a hungry shark? Well, the easiest way can be done at a distance and is a simple observation with an interesting explanation - evolution.

So, with that large, looming shadow swimming towards you, what do you look out for? If you can see its tail, simply look at the orientation of the tail fluke, is it horizontal or vertical? Failing that, look at how it moves, does it undulate its body up and down, or does it move its body from side to side? Dolphins and whales have a horizontal tail fluke, which means they have to undulate their body up and down in order to propel themselves through water, so if you see either the horizontal tail fluke or the undulating movement, you have a dolphin or whale coming towards you. 
Sharks, on the other hand, have a vertical tail fluke and so must flex their body from side to side for propulsion. If you see the vertical tail fluke or side to side motion, then what is coming towards you is a fish and so might be a shark. 
Posture changes in dinosaurs.
As our fishy ancestors used a side by side motion to propel themselves through water, so did our earliest terrestrial ancestors and so do reptiles today. Snakes are an extreme example of this sort of movement, but the side to side motion is still there. During the Mesozoic era things began to change, as our ancestors (and convergently in dinosaurs too) developed a more upright posture, instead of the sprawling gait of reptiles. With an erect posture the more effective way to rapidly move is to flex the spine up and down whilst running, rather than side by side (see image below).

Many vertebrates have some of their vertebrae fused to facilitate particular movements, so future evolution can often be restricted to working within the confines of that movement. As dolphins evolved from terrestrial mammals, their semi-aquatic ancestors also used this up and down movement and so adapted this to movement in the water. Side to side motion, like that of a shark, would require a larger number of changes when there was the simpler solution of up and down movement (though note that evolution does not have the foresight, it simply uses what is available - quick fix solutions often work in evolution). The motion of whales and dolphins is testament to their ancestry, having descended from active land mammals. 

During the Mesozoic another group secondarily took to the waters and adopted the torpedo shape of dolphins and sharks. These were the ichthyosaurs, descending directly from terrestrial reptiles. As their ancestors used the side to side motion, so did the ichthyosaurs when they swam, also possessing a vertical tail fluke. They had some unusual traits for reptiles, giving live birth and being warm blooded, but their swimming motion gives away their reptilian status. This also quite ably demonstrates that they are not dinosaurs as many laymen mistakenly think, for dinosaurs did not have a sprawling posture which uses the side to side motion. So, if you are somehow in Mesozoic waters with a shape swimming towards you, it may be too late before you can discern whether or not it is an ichthyosaur or a shark.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Jurassic Park 2 - The Critic

Thanks to the magic of Facebook, this cartoon came to my attention. I have never heard of The Critic before, but found this very amusing. It was likely made around 1994, coming before The Lost World. Enjoy:


Britain's Oldest House

For this post I am stepping out of the realms of palaeontology and evolutionary biology for a few half decent reasons. One of the reasons being that I have a news round-up to come and have not found the time, so I offer this teasing morsel. The main reason this story caught my eye was that the house was found right here in Yorkshire.

Near Scarborough, a 3.5 metre circular structure dating to 8,500 BC has been found, including a nearby wooden platform which is being claimed as the oldest example of carpentry in Europe. As though that were not enough, an 11,000 year old tree trunk has also been found, with bark intact. At this time Britain was still part of the European continent.

The occupants of the house were hunter-gatherers who will have settled there after the last ice age, showing that they were not as nomadic as previously thought, settling next to an ancient lake. The archaeologists state that it will have been rebuilt over time and many other houses will have been there. The settlers did not farm, but did keep dogs and burnt parts of the landscape to encourage grazing.

At 10,500 years old, this house pre-dates the creation of the universe if you are a young earth creationist......

For the BBC article, see here. For the Telegraph article, see here and see if you can spot the mistake.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Critiquing Creationist Blogs - Part 2

In part 1 of Critiquing Creationist Blogs I looked at the blog of Daniel Mann and mentioned that I would be looking at a single post by RK Bentley in part 2. Instead I will be looking at two posts on his blog, as the latest post is about evolution. Bentley is more of a challenge than Mann was and has quite a persuasive writing style, masking the fact that his posts are littered with misconceptions.

Bentley - Is Young Earth Creationism a Modern Invention?


In the first of Bentley's blogs which I want to look at, I was pleased to see that he had been exposed to this view as it is one I hold (see here). In Bentley's words the argument is that "never before in Church history has there been such an emphasis or hyper-literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis." Something which he brands as "clever spin". I wouldn't disagree with his words here, except of course that it is clever spin. What it does is show that the literalistic reading of Genesis is not the default position for Christians.

Naturally Bentley's first port of call is to look at the Church Fathers, stating unequivocally that the majority took Genesis literally. Yet when we look at the Church Fathers we actually find it to be a bit of a mix, some took it literally some did not. The minority that Bentley sees appear to be those who were perhaps overzealous in their allegorical readings of Genesis. When we look at early Christians we find non-literal interpretations from such luminaries as Origen, Augustine, Clement, Cyprian, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, not to mention some prominent Jewish commentators of the time who would have undoubtedly influenced interpretations. Here can be seen an example of the differing views which were prevalent, though I think this quote from Archbishop Rowan Williams sums it up well:

"[For] most of the history of the Christianity there's been an awareness that a belief that everything depends on the creative act of God, is quite compatible with a degree of uncertainty or latitude about how precisely that unfolds in creative time."

It is interesting that the response to Darwin's theories was much the same, with mixed reactions but largely an uncertainty about how the creative act unfolds. The earliest fundamentalists, the authors of The Fundamentals, at the start of the 20th century had mixed reactions to evolution, with some accepting it and some rejecting it outright. Most notable in acceptance is James Orr, who stated that “evolution is coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation’, only that the creative power now works from within, instead of, as in the old conception, in an external, plastic fashion.”

According to Bentley, whenever we mention that a literal Genesis was not strictly accepted in early Christianity, we fail to mention that Augustine believed in an instantaneous creation, not one which is billions of years old. I'd like to know who he has been reading as I personally do add that fact and have read many more prominent theistic evolutionists doing the same. It is also a red herring. The point of bringing up early Christian views is to argue against a strict literal interpretation, not in favour of an old Earth. The early Christians believed in a young Earth, but not necessarily for Scriptural reasons. They were making the bold claim that creation had a distinct begin, whereas many non-Christians believed that the Earth was either eternal or going through cycles. They needed to date creation, so they did it the only way they knew how - genealogies. To claim that they were strict young Earth believers is to ignore the context of the time they were living in. 

Bentley's next point is that according to us non-YECs, they are cult like because they put too much emphasis on a young Earth. I find this to be curious as I have never heard this accusation before and it is not one I would use. I do think that YEC views can be very distracting, but YEC is not a phenomenon which can be pinned down to a single church denomination. Christians of many denominations are YECs and many, if not most, share congregations with OECs and theistic evolutionists. If anyone is claiming this then I am with Bentley, they are wrong. However, Bentley's reasons are different to mine.

Bentley states that there was no reason, until 100 years ago, for ministries like AiG (Answers in Genesis) or ICR (the Institute of Creation Research). He says that a "literal 6-day, recent creation had been the default position of the Church for nearly 2,000 years." I hope that it is clear that this is not true as the literalist reading did not have the monopoly where interpretation was concerned. It is also notable that older ages for the Earth were first proposed by Christian geologists and quite readily accepted by the majority of Christians. Old Earth creationism, before Darwin, seemed to be the majority position. Young Earth creationism reared its head during the 20th century as an old Earth is necessary for evolution - disproving an old Earth would pull the rug out from evolution. Such desires are not truth seeking, but one-upmanship. In Bentley's eyes, the response to Darwin (see here for my view) was poor:

Rather than trust the word of God over the flawed opinions of flawed men, many Christian leaders of that day capitulated without a struggle. Some began to invent new interpretations of Genesis that were “compatible” with the new theories of science. These new interpretations included absurd notions like theistic evolution, the gap theory, the day-age theory, the framework hypothesis, and the simple “Genesis-is-allegory” interpretation.

The idea that new interpretations were "invented" due to evolution is clearly false. Allegorical interpretations were prevalent in early Christianity, along with day-age hermeneutics, though let us not forget that there were indeed many literalists too. One could say that evolution swung the pendulum in favour of less-literal interpretations. The gap theory was in response to geological discoveries pre-Darwin. The reality is that Genesis was flexible in interpretation, allowing for many possible readings for which the majority view often changed. The Reformation took things back towards the literal in reaction to overzealous allegorising, but then science took things back towards symbolic readings. With this in mind we can embrace creation and allow it to help us better understand Scripture. We are trusting the word of God, but all interpretations are human, not least YEC readings, so the flawed opinions of flawed men are embraced no matter what! I feel it is worth mentioning the words of the historian of religion J. Estlin Carpenter:

“Theories [about the Bible] once ardently cherished have been overthrown. Conceptions that had exerted immense influence for centuries, can no longer be maintained. On the other hand, the true value of the Bible has been enhanced. We have ceased to ask of it what it cannot give us; we cherish all the more highly what it can.”

Bentley finishes by criticising compartmentalising, something theistic evolutionists generally do not do and mentions Jesus' statement where he said that if we do not trust his words about Earthly things, how can we trust him about Heavenly things? (John 3.12) I agree with this as Jesus did not write Genesis (nor is it clear how he read it, considering many contemporary Jews held a non-literal interpretation). The last paragraph of Bentley's well structured post mentions the "ground-breaking" work of "Dr." Henry Morris, author of The Genesis Flood. He is indeed qualified for the title of "doctor", but a curious thing about creationists is that they put a lot of emphasis on when a creationist has a PhD, despite the fact that professional scientists do not use the title except in official circumstances such as forms (though "professor" is a much used title).  Morris' work was a rehash of the work of MacCready Price, a Seventh Day Adventist whose literalist views were influenced by a vision by the "prophetess" of the church. To any trained geologist the views of Morris are untenable, misguided and extremely naive. It is not surprising that many "flood geologists" who finally decide to do fieldwork find it difficult to hold their young Earth views.

Folds like this, with subsequent deposition, are indicators of deep time and not explained by "flood geology". 


Bentley - Five Lies Evolutionists Tell

For the second blog of Bentley's which I would like to look at the theme is evolution. He has chosen several common statements by evolutionists which he intends to demonstrate are false. Instead we find many strawmen as you will see. 

Lie 1 - Evolution is a Fact

To Bentley this is a case of equivocation on the behalf of evolutionists. Apparently we claim that the fact of observable evolution makes common descent itself a fact. He is not completely wrong as I have seen some debaters online make this claim. The proper claim, or rather that which is put forward by actual scientists, is that evolution is both theory and fact. Theories explain facts, they tell us how and why things occur, whereas the facts are things we observe. The facts of evolution are that allele frequencies change in a population over time, and that all life shares a common ancestor. The theory of evolution explains how these facts occur. Bentley's mistake is to think we are doing a bait and switch, where we present evidence for the fact of microevolution and claim that it proves macroevolution. He is completely unaware that most scientists consider common descent to be the fact of evolution. It is beyond reasonable doubt with scientists, so if Bentley wants to claim that this is a lie he must demonstrate why evolution does not occur. He cannot do so. 

During his criticism of lie 1, Bentley gives a little run-through of a typical conversation using caricatures. The evolutionist character is incredibly rude, branding his creationist opposition an idiot at every given opportunity. In reality there are a very small minority which do this, the majority are willing to discuss. 

Lie 2 - Evolution and the Bible are Compatible

Unsurprisingly the criticism here is that compromise is the only way to reconcile the two, with the Bible usually being compromised the most. It is interesting that he accuses "evolutionists" of this lie, when many creationists use the term to mean mostly atheists, many of which share his belief that the two are incompatible. His first point against reconciliation is the difference in order, which I also agree with. Many theistic evolutionists do try to keep Genesis literal, but this is a mistake. Genesis is a powerful creation myth and is not meant to be literal, the reconciliation here is relatively simple. He then adds at the end that the Bible states sin before death whereas evolution would put death before sin; this is the biggest issue with theistic evolution, one which has many solutions. Is the death in question really spiritual and not biological? Did death become mortality (or recognition of mortality) with sin? Did none in God's image die before sin? Did the Fall affect the past just as many see Salvation as doing? Did God use death as a tool with ultimate redemption waiting in the future? I'm not going to provide an answer here simply because it is a deep topic, but clearly there is not a lack of solutions to his problem.

Lie 3 - There is no evidence for Creation

According to Bentley evidence is neutral. The point he misses is that theories must have predictive power in order to become a theory, they therefore must be able to predict evidence which would favour the theory and evidence which would falsify it. If creation were a theory it would make predictions, so evidence could go against it. The disparate lines of evidence show that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old and that evolution has been taking place for around 3.8 billion years. If this is not evidence against young Earth creationism I don't know what is. Bentley has gone for the old creationist lie, that we both use the same evidence. He gives an interesting example of how the logic works:

As we watch the sun move across the sky, one might say that is “evidence” for the sun revolving around the earth. Indeed, people had believed in a geocentric model of the universe for centuries but, of course, no one believes this anymore. Over time, we gathered more information and now we have a better theory – the heliocentric model. Even though the model has changed, some “evidence” hasn't changed: the sun still appears to move across the sky. The difference is now we have a better explanation about why it appears to do so. The sun itself never told us which theory is correct.

As we see here, there is no evidence that the Sun moves around the Earth as mere observation is invalidated by more evidence which contradicts it and the newer explanation explains things better. This is what happened to creationism, it seemed obvious to unscientific minds, but then as more evidence accumulated it was invalidated and more parsimonious explanations were sought and given. This new evidence is evidence to the contrary and causes us to discard what we thought of as evidence for creationism as it is now evidence which evolution explains. Bentley's next statement is worth quoting as it is on my favourite subject:  

Similarly, when we find a fossil, the fossil doesn't “tell” us anything. The fossil isn't evidence “for” evolution any more than it's evidence “for” creation. It's just a dumb rock (dumb as in not speaking). We just have different theories about how the fossil came to be.

Actually fossils can yield a wealth of information, even more so if we have them in their stratigraphic context. Fossils can tell us a lot about the organism depending on how well they are preserved. We can often see last meals (plus coprolites teach us about diet) and even behaviour if they were rapidly fossilised. Some behavioural indicators are actually very common, as trace fossils of sea floor trails are often found and can even be seen on many paving slabs. Some fossils are excellent indicators of environments, for example, aquatic photosynthesisers must be in the photic zone. Reading the rocks we can learn a lot, a single fossil can yield a wealth of information, just think what thousands upon thousands of fossils can tell us!



Bentley then states that he cannot fathom why evolutionists ignore the Bible as evidence. As this post has shown, it is open for interpretation, so why should we favour his? Why would creation tell us any different? As for what evidence we do use, there is evidence from ecology, zoology, palaeontology, embryology, genetics, genomics, biogeography and more. All the evidence we find is explained by evolution, but creation cannot manage this. The claims of Genesis 1 are untestable and based on relatively subjective interpretation, it is not fit for governing science. If it were meant as a scientific treatise it would be the ultimate evidence, but alas, it was not.

To summarise, Bentley's mistake is that he does not recognise that there is evidence against creationism and in favour of other explanations. This leaves us with the conclusion that there is no evidence FOR creationism because there is so much against it. In Bentley's world it seems all views can claim evidence supporting them, no matter how much contradicts it or whether there are superior explanations. 

Lie 4 - Evolution has been tested and proven even more than gravity

Bentley's claim here is a strawman, but an understandable one. I have certainly seen the claim that gravity has been tested more, but this needs some qualification. Anyone can test gravity, we can drop things and watch them fall, we can drop things of different weight and see what happens. The thing is, this is the same experiment being repeated over and over. If we counted the experiments done on gravity and compared them to evolutionary experiments (and other disparate, non-experimental lines of evidence) we would find that evolution has been tested in many more ways. It is not that there has been more tests, for we test gravity every time we walk, but there is more of a variety of tests which have been performed. 

I have not seen anyone claim that evolution is more proven than gravity. Bentley is unwittingly muddling this up with the claim that evolution is better understood than gravity, which is interesting as he even mentions that we do not understand how gravity works. We understand how evolution works for the most part, far better than we understand how gravity works. Perhaps he genuinely has come across people claiming this, but I haven't. I have, however, seen the claim that I just made, stating that we better understand evolution than we do gravity. So we aren't lying, he just misunderstood us it seems. 

Lie 5 - Microevolution over time leads to Macroevolution

I almost missed this one as it was mistakenly labelled as lie 4. Bentley's problem with this claim is that he sees natural selection as a negative process, eliminating the weak and leaving only the strong. In such a scenario there is no way that macroevolution could be sustained over time as it results in a reduction in variation. This is a clever but common move by Bentley, as it can cause the reader to forget that variation does not run out, something Darwin was certainly aware of. With more variation entering the gene pool, natural selection can become more versatile, often being directive. For more on natural selection see here. Bentley criticises the peppered moth example, something which is only ever claimed to show natural selection acting in an obvious observable way. Bentley puts it this way:

If I continuously removed one colored moth from the population, how long would it take until new colors began appearing? The answer is obvious: you cannot add new colors to a population by continuously removing colors.

In his analogy he is playing the role of natural selection, mucht like breeders do with dogs, cattle and birds etc. The problem with analogies is that they can be incomplete and Bentley forgets to mention that new colours will inevitably emerge. If Bentley is selecting against new colours then the population will remain static, much like stabilising selection does. However, there are three forms of selection: stabilising, disruptive and directed. If Bentley did not remove the new variations but instead removed only the original coloured ones (bit by bit, not all at once) he would eventually have a population of a very different colour. Natural selection can act like this on a whole suite of traits. Bentley almost acknowledges this:

“Change” plus time isn't a magic formula; it must be a certain kind of change. It must be a change that adds new traits to the population.

Indeed, new traits must be added. But Bentley is attacking an experiment solely on natural selection and criticising it for not giving an example of new traits emerging. Oddly enough, though the experiment is on natural selection, the different colour which evolved was a new variant which went on to become dominant. Mutation is the major source of variation and it happens every time a sperm or egg is made, followed by the recombination of DNA in sexual reproduction which gives a completely unique offspring with new variation. Natural selection works on this variation and so microevolution can add up to macroevolution. He finishes by adding:

The peppered moth example occurred more than a century ago. In the last 100 years, what macroevolution has occurred? Some will argue that 100 years isn't long enough. OK, but let me ask you this: what microevolution has occurred? Over time, the population returned to normal. The microevolution over time led to a net change of ZERO!

This is what we often term "wobbles around the mean" in which a population fluctuates. It is much like if you measure the weight of somebody who is growing. If you measure them over long periods of time you will notice a gradual trend, an increase in weight. However, if you weigh them at a really fine scale, with very accurate measurements and do so several times per day, then you will find that their weight fluctuates throughout the day (especially after meals and trips to the toilet), often returning to the mean. The net change on the small scale will be roughly zero, but over the larger scale of weeks, months and years, you will notice a large trend. It is like this with micro and macroevolution. Time really is on the side of evolution. 

Conclusion

When it comes to the more Christian oriented issues, Bentley is a bit of a challenge. He is excellent at pulling the wool over your eyes and making it sound as though his point is valid. It might be useful to ask what he isn't telling us in his posts, though I don't think he deliberately misses things out. His misconceptions are likely to be genuine, the problem is that he is articulate in expressing them and desires to influence others. He is not as transparent as Mann was, so is quite the tricky customer. When he addresses science he drops into the typical creationist techniques and is not a challenge at all; one can only hope that this weakness of his causes others to see through his misconceptions. 


Some Doodles

My last post was a lengthy and possibly boring critique, so to break it up, here are some old doodles I found. I drew them in Taizé, France, around two summers ago and particularly like this first one:

It reads:

Tim the elephant is an unusual elephant, very unusual indeed. He is not unusually small or large, in fact he happens to be two inches taller than average; a fact he is very proud of. He isn't an odd colour, and he doesn't have any unusual talents, he simply floats along on a flying rock. As you would probably agree, for an elephant this is rather unique. 

Below is a picture I drew which was inspired by my friend Steve's desires to quit smoking at the time:

It says, "Kids, if you ever meet a Steve, just say NO!"
I also seemed to have some odd things going on in my head:


And this final example (though these are not all of my doodles from that trip) was drawn during a discussion on Genesis believe it or not:


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. 

Conclusion

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. 

Finally - My Trip to the NHM

Back in April I went to the Natural History Museum in London with the Earth Soc at uni but as I did not have a camera I had no photographs to show off, but now I do, so here is a photographic run through. I mentioned it at the time, see here, but didn't say or show much.
In one of the entrance hall alcoves we found some crinoids. What was special about them for us was that the description at the side put emphasis on their plant-like appearance, so naturally we had to take pictures for our crinoid-loving friend James, just to take the piss.

The first place we went were the fascinating spirit collections, seeing famous specimens such as some of Darwin's finds, the "living fossil" coelacanth, and of course, the giant squid.
Following the spirit tour, a couple of us headed through to the mammals section, so on the right is a picture of a very cute stuffed bear and below is me admiring more stuffed mammals.

When we went through to the main mammals gallery there was one model whale in particular which really got my attention and no, it was not the famous life-sized blue whale. It was this whale on the left whom we nicknamed "Downsy".
We then went on to look at insects and other assorted creepy crawlies, but then of course we went to the dinosaurs section. Here are the dromaeosaurs, a favourite of mine. It was only natural that we do an impression of the Hypsilophodon skeletons.
I also got to see some more of my favourites, including Allosaurus  and the lovely Tuojiangosaurus  on the right.

After we left the dinosaurs section we were running out of time and rushed off to look at other stuff, getting distracted by the minerals gallery. After that we rushed about at an even faster pace, occasionally getting distracted yet again. As you can see on the left, I had to pose with this gorgeous example of botryoidal haematite. We then sadly left, after a quick trip to the gift shop. On the train on the way home the girls used their purchases to re-enact events that obviously occurred during the Mesozoic:

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Searching Through Dusty Old Books

It is not often that I can naturally weave several disparate interests into one post, but this one comes practically ready-woven. The interests in question are books, art, history and fossils, and this blog is the result of some of my time spent volunteering at Doncaster Museum. I've not been through to help out much, no more than twice a week and some weeks I don't get in at all, but as expected most of my time there involves looking at fossils. I've also spent some of my time there looking through their book collection at the books on palaeontology for anything useful and to get an idea of what's there. Many of the books are from the 1800s and early 1900s and so are scientifically out of date. It is quite interesting that there are duplicates of many of the books yet I can't fathom why.

A lot of the books have some breathtaking artwork adorning the pages, showing incredibly detailed renderings of fossils where nowadays we would simply have taken a photograph. A beautiful example of this is the ichthyosaur image below:
The particular book that this was in is quite the whopper as well, here it is being modelled by Dean Lomax:
Much of the palaeontological information in it was outdated, but the images are gorgeous and the information is still quite interesting. In this particular book, Memoirs of Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri, Extinct Monsters of the Ancient Earth, by Thomas Hawkins, some of the prose is quite fascinating. There are elaborate descriptions which seem of no relevance to the aim of the book and seem almost like an acid trip in florid Victorian prose. If only I had copied some of it, it was a riveting read in its own way.

Some of the books piqued my interest for historical reasons, as seeing the name of a prominent scientist of that time can be quite exciting. The most exciting one perhaps is the book which contained contributions from many notable names. Off of the top of my head I remember Darwin, Huxley and Marsh in the book, yet I remember recognising at least double that. I'll have to go back and check it again. A common contributor to the books from the 1800s was Sir Richard Owen, who appears to have penned several monographs which the museum owns copies of. We took interest in his monograph on the pterosaurs, the front page of which can be seen here:
My favourite page in this monograph was the image of a Dimorphodon which folded out and appears to have been actual size:
It is perhaps a little sad that the information in the books was mostly useless to us, except if we wanted to trace historical changes in interpretations and classification. The artwork was exceptional, almost photographic in some and it is a shame that the same sort of time and effort is rarely put in these days. Finding the names of historically important scientists as contributors to books and journals was always interesting and of course, the subject being fossils they were not too dull to look through (some were, but then some scientists are so systematic that a huge, picture-less volume on bryozoa is hardly going to get you drooling).