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Scientific illiteracy of creationists begets confusion and error

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  • Todd S. Greene
    The following is a comment I just posted in response to some of the discussion by creationists that follows the Todd Wilkinson review of biologist Jerry A.
    Message 1 of 1 , May 18, 2009
      The following is a comment I just posted in response to some of the discussion by creationists that follows the Todd Wilkinson review of biologist Jerry A. Coyne's new book *Why Evolution Is True*, on this page:



      It is no wonder that there is great confusion about evolution among those who apparently do not comprehend any of the details of the concepts that are used in evolutionary science today. In reading through the letters right here on this page I noted numerous fundamental errors expressed by individuals who apparently think that they know what they're talking about yet demonstrate their lack of understanding by the erroneous statements they make. Here are some examples:

      Donald Sauter quotes Jerry Coyne, "the controversies are in fact the sign of a vibrant, thriving field", and then derives from this his sarcastic comment that "Just because the evolutionists can't agree with each other on anything, I'm supposed to drop to my knees and cry, 'I believe! I believe!'???"

      Hello? There certainly are numerous issues about various details of evolution, but this does not in any way imply that "evolutionists can't agree with each other on anything". Numerous theoretical physicists around the planet, for example, are working hard trying to nail down the details of how exactly the force of gravity is produced and propagated, and, among other things, are trying to determine how and where quantum mechanics and general relativity converge - with no real success yet. This is big area of controversy in physics right now. So does this mean that 'physicists can't agree with each on anything' about the force of gravity, or about quantum mechanics, or about relativity? No, of course not! Not only does it not mean anything of the sort, but it would be extremely silly to use rhetoric based on pretending that it does. Yet that is exactly what Sauter did with his sarcasm about biologists working on details about evolution.

      Sauter, again, quotes Stephen Jay Gould, "Others are challenging [the] linking of natural selection with gradual, imperceptible change through all intermediary degrees; they are arguing that most evolutionary events may occur far more rapidly than [previously] envisioned." From this Sauter then derives the following erroneous statement: "Gould had to come up with his own unfalsifiable theory of punctuated equilibria to explain the lack of transitions in the fossil record."

      In fact, Gould is discussing the concept of allopatric speciation, put forth previously by biologist Ernst Mayr, precisely because natural selection in large populations tend to stabilize species characteristics in such a way that evolution can only take place in large populations through gradual change over a great deal of geologic time, whereas in small populations natural selection can drive evolutionary change relatively quickly. Punctuated equilibrium has to do with how such relatively rapid evolution would show up in the fossil record. Gould did not deny gradual evolution. He did not deny that the fossil record contains all kinds of examples of gradual evolution. His point was simply to emphasize that the idea that relatively rapid evolution (allopatric speciation) was more typical than not. Punctuated equilibrium was not and is not an unfalsifiable theory, and indeed a great deal of research has been done in paleontology to hammer out the details - which could not be done if it was unfalsifiable. Sauter has rhetorically merely waved his hands pretending that such research has never been done and doesn't exist, which is ludicrous.

      Also a "lack" of transitional fossils does not mean an "absence" of transitional fossils. Gould also wrote specifically that he was referring to the lack of transitional fossils *at the species level* only, and that he was not referring to a lack of transitional fossils at higher categorical levels. In 1981 Gould wrote ("Evolution as Fact and Theory," Discover magazine), "transitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common - and should not be, according to [punctuated equilibrium] but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim. ...In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond. It represents much less than 1 per cent of the average life-span for a fossil invertebrate species - more than ten million years. Large, widespread, and well established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much. ...Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists - whether through design or stupidity, I do not know - as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups." Notice how Gould complained about creationists taking his words out of context and misinterpreting him *almost 30 years ago* - even calling it stupid - yet here we see Sauter using the same old error. And Sauter is certainly not the only one doing this because I see creationists making these same wrong claims about Gould and punctuated equilibrium all over the place in all sorts of other venues.

      Continuing to demonstrate his ignorance of the relevant paleontology, Sauter specifically states, "When I was immersed in the debate some years ago, I issued a challenge: Just describe some interesting transition in generation-by-generation steps." Such as, he asks, "single jaw joint to double jaw joint; double jaw joint without ear bones to single jaw joint with ear bones." Of course, this information is no further away than the Wikipedia entry titled "Evolution of mammalian auditory ossicles". Now, this information about these particular fossils has been widely available for over thirty years, yet here is Sauter asking rhetorical questions based on pretending that these fossils have never been discovered and never been discussed by paleontologists. We have to ask ourselves, what is it about the creationist mentality that drives creationists to so strongly believe that sheer ignorance of the relevant science provides a solid platform from which to attack those aspects of science they don't like. There is absolutely no excuse for this.

      Bruce claims that "Evolutionist such as Mr. Coyne are ready to say enough is enough, forget the scientific method, lets just circumvent the details of learning the actual evolutionary mechanisms and just call it FACT." Demonstrating that, obviously, he never even read what Coyne has actually written, since, of course, Coyne never stated any such thing. You have to ask yourself, why do men who call themselves Christians think that it's perfectly okay to articulate such blatantly false statements as fact about things that they obviously know nothing about? Coyne specifically states that evolution is a fact *because* of the vast body of scientific evidence that supports it. Coyne *never* says we should circumvent learning more about the details of evolutionary mechanisms. In his book Coyne discusses many of the details of evolutionary mechanisms that we already know about. Just as with the theory of gravity, as I mentioned previously, while there are certainly more details about the mechanism of gravity to work out, this does not imply that we don't already know enough about gravity to state that gravity is a fact. Anyone who proclaims that gravity is not a fact, because scientists have not nailed down all the details yet, is simply making an nonsensical argument.

      Bruce states, "I find it ironic and amusing that he has chosen a depiction of the evolution of reptile to bird for the cover art." Gee, that's funny, it isn't a reptile, it's a dinosaur, and the first drawing is of a particular species of dinosaur known as Coelophysis bauri, a small carnivorous dinosaur with hollow bones. I find it ironic and amusing that Bruce doesn't even know what's depicted on the cover of the book. Bruce further states, "We have seen now in recent past that we are finding feathered creatures that predate some of the oldest reptiles...." He is apparently referring to Longisquama insignis. Without getting into a lengthy discussion about the origin of birds from either dinosaurs or reptiles (or even about whether or not Longisquama itself is an early dinosaur), Bruce's statement is just wrong. Longisquama cannot "predate some of the oldest reptiles" because the oldest reptiles, the anapsids, are known from Pennsylvanian deposits (318-299 million years ago) in the Carboniferous period, whereas Longisquama is found in the Triassic (230-225 million years ago).

      I could go on and on discussing many more of the numerous errors displayed by anti-evolutionists in the discussion, but my response has already become quite lengthy with just scratching the surface of the errors creationists based their rhetoric on, yet this is enough to substantiate my basic point: Anti-evolution rhetoric is built on scientific illiteracy, and creationists seem quite determined to keep promoting rhetoric based on their own pseudoscience errors, even errors that have been known to be wrong for decades. This alone is a powerful indication and symptom of the underlying problem: Anti-evolution is based on motivations and concerns that have nothing to do with science. We cannot forget this. With such horrible confusion about getting even the basic facts straight, it's impossible for creationists to intelligibly discuss and understand relevant issues about evolution.

      By the way, all of the information about evolution that I have discussed is easily accessible - literally at your fingertips at the click of a button - in the Wikipedia online, in articles on the subjects which themselves contain numerous supporting references which are also quite informative. Anti-evolutionists who hold forth with such erroneous statements about evolution have no excuse for not knowing such details. Don't get me wrong, there's no problem with people not knowing about subjects they're not interested in. The problem is with people who put themselves forth as pretending to know what they're talking about while yet demonstrating by their statements that they don't even seem to be aware of the basics. I suspect the problem results from reading about evolution only through the pseudoscience filters of anti-evolutionist literature while deliberately refraining from reading about the details of evolutionary concepts by real scientists working in relevant fields of research, or article about this genuine scientific research.

      - Todd Greene
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