March 10, 2008

Retort to a creationist lecture pt. 3

Blogging on Pseudo-Scientific Douche-BagsThis is the third and last post in a series examining the lecture given by creationist author Anders Gärdeborn this past February 14 at Uppsala Universitet, by invitation from evangelical christian student organization Credo.

So finally I get to post the last part of my retort. Most of it has been done for quite a while, I just needed a little time to finish off the very last part. The other posts in the series have been:

First thoughts on yesterday's creationist lecture here in Uppsala
Retort to a creationist lecture pt. 1
Retort to a creationist lecture pt. 2

I'll now continue reviewing Gärdeborn's presentation of so called scientific evidence against evolution. Concluding my examination with what I think are the two most interesting fallacies creationists make - the distinction between "microevolution"/"macroevolution" and the concept of "biological information".

Evolution "within kinds"

In yet another line of misleading statements about evolution, Gärdeborn means to say that "evolutionists" have drawn conclusions from the existing biological diversity that are unreasonable. He wants to separate the "how" and the "why" in science and says that we would probably agree as far as the "how" goes, it's evolutionary theory's "why" he has a problem with. In other words he means to say that in the descriptive study of the diversity of organisms and organismal complexity we have taken too many liberties when drawing conclusions as to how the diversity and complexity have come about. He gives an example: "Bacteria become resistant, therefore we come from bacteria". Gärdeborn might think that this is a pithy point with rhetorical finesse, but I have a hard time imagining a clunkier or more confused distortion of scientific thought, much less a more willfully mean-spirited one.

Gärdeborn cannot deny that some biological change takes places, but that it happens through natural selection acting on diversity is to him "only a theory". That all life has a common ancestry he calls a "philosophy". That last remark merits a little sidetrack. All organisms on earth, that we know of, have the same nucleic acids in their DNA as well as the same orientation on their amino acids, one out of two possible. This and some other well-known properties of life makes the scenario of one common ancestor the most likely one by far.

Back to the point. It's not surprising that creationists recognize some form of evolution. After all, there are many examples of biological change through evolutionary processes that lie within the time frames that are easily manageable to our thought. These are difficult to deny, even for creationists. Examples are how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and how we have bred different breeds of dogs. The advocates of creationism have even made up a word for these more visible processes - "microevolution" - one assumes to avoid the concession of calling it just evolution, quite simply. It's quite puzzling that somehow it's allowed for evolutionary theory to explain how a poodle and a German shepherd had a common ancestor, but not how humans and chimpanzees could have had the same. The criteria for this division have no scientific grounds whatsoever. "Microevolution" and "macroevolution" are the same thing.

What's remarkable about Gärdeborn's presentation is how far he's ready to extend "microevolution" into time frames that are well within the realms of the "macroevolution" that creationists so categorically negate. He describes an evolution "within kinds" caused by some sort of pre-programmed "genetic potential" that he fails to describe more closely. God created the "kinds" and after the deluge, when they repopulated earth, they diversified into the species we observe today. (By the way, this is his explanation of how two of every animal could fit in the ark. They were two of every original "kind", not species.) Gärdeborn affirms assuredly that in nature "animals exist within determined groups" and gives canids as an example. He says that there are "waterproof bulkheads" between the groups ("there are no half-people") but that variation can arise within the groups through "microevolution". It would be interesting to know why such a large and diverse group as the canids can be seen as a waterproof grouping while such a small one as the apes cannot. At the core of this reasoning is the fallacy of thinking that evolution has happened as transitions between the species of today.

The canids include dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, dingos, jackals, African wild dogs and a variety of other species. According to modern science, they arose from the miacides, a sort of dog- and bear-like carnivores, about 40 million years ago, relatively early in the evolution of mammals. This is supported with fossil, morphological, genetic and protein data. The evolution of the great apes goes back approximately 14 million years but still their (or I should say, our) evolution is regarded as an unacceptable "macroevolution" while the 40-million-year-old evolution of canids is an acceptable "variation within kinds". Of course creationists don't recognize the evolutionary time scales, but even if we just take the genetic and molecular data into account, the difference between a fox and a wolf is far greater than the difference between a human and a chimpanzee. Gärdeborn counters this as it's presented to him during the questions and answers session after his lecture. He says that evolutionary theory incorrectly assumes that likeness is due to common ancestry. But isn't this the same thing one has to assume to speak of "microevolution" within "kinds"? Where, one might ask, is the logic between this distinction between "micro-" and "macro-"?

The answer is of course that the creationist "kinds" have no scientific validity whatsoever. Fact is that all divisions into species and genera and so on are purely artificial... of course. Species don't exist in and by themselves in nature so that we might "discover" them. They are divisions we have invented in order to describe nature systematically in a way which we might find useful. Our order- and structure-obsessed brain reveals itself once more. It's important to note that this sort of division is not without its problems. Species and even larger divisions such as genera and families can be significantly blurry around the edges and difficult to determine precisely.

Biological "information"

Gärdeborn's last great argument is the one of biological "information". It refers mainly to the genetic code and how specific sequences of nucleotides are translated into specific sequences of amino acids making up proteins with different functions. "Information" is a monster of a concept, so clouded by lay interpretations, misunderstandings and alternative definitions that I sometimes question if it's even useful in biology or relevant in the creationistm vs. evolution debate. What's apparent is that the term has been adopted by creationists first hand, not by biologists.

What creationists, among them Gärdeborn, even mean when they refer to information or how they suggest it could be measured is still in the dark. Whatever it is they mean, it seems to be a vague and somewhat metaphysical quality that you somehow recognize when you see it. Gärdeborn reflects exactly such a conception in his formulations: "We need information". "Information can never be derived from energy and matter, it's something more". They might not say it straight out, but it becomes painfully clear that what they mean with information is purpose and design, nothing else. There must be a consciousness and an objective behind it, otherwise it's not information because it wouldn't be informative. Gärdeborn expresses this as - "information requires an informer and an intended receiver". Consequently the creationist conception of information has been defined from the beginning as something that necessitates a creator. This is nothing more that the argument from personal incredulity or ignorance again. Just as creationists can't comprehend how organisms can be so apparently purposeful without being designed by a higher power, they can't comprehend how the genetic code can be so well-determined without a willfully inserted information. Science understands how this is possible and evolutionary theory has provided us with the answers that we have.

That's not to say that there aren't any scientific definitions of information. Most of them lie within computer science and IT and have to do with how information is sent and received. The definition that is most applicable to the genetic code was made by mathematician Claude Shannon and outlined in the 1948 article A Mathematical Theory of Communication. According to Shannon, information can be defined through probability. A high content of information is linked to a high improbability. Our genomes could then be said to be carriers of information since it would be very improbable that they would assemble into such a precise sequence of nucleotides all on its own. It bears the mark of improbability. But this "mark" doesn't need a supernatural explanation. It's natural selection that has shaped the causal relationship between genetic sequences and function.

The question that remains to be answered is whether or not the concept of information, in the scientific sense of the word, is applicable to genetic sequences. It's undeniably very inviting to define that which is "encoded" in our genomes as information, as instructions to how our bodies should be built and function, since it's a term that is easily understood in everyday terms and that ably attempts to describe how genomes function. But it carries with it a series of problems. The information is not really there. Whatever can be "interpreted" from genetic sequences doesn't really have a "language", none of the grammar or syntax that creationists seem so eager to point out is there. Instead, it is DNA's physical and chemical structure that create the causal relation to its function. The concept of information is nothing but a projection of our brains' preference for structure and organization on a process that can best be described as a causal relation.

The concept of information is something that we more or less "force" upon genetic sequences in order to describe it, and not a property of it in itself. In the best of cases it can help us visualize the process in a readily understandable way. But it the worst of cases it very easily leads to serious misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

The creationist definition of information (that from the beginning assumes there is an all-powerful informator) and the scientific definition of information (one of them) overlap to a certain extent, but for the most part they are completely incompatible. It's unfortunate that sometimes the term is used to retort to creationist argument without defining it clearly first. This is definitely true in the case of the creationist claim that evolutionary theory can't explain how new information can arise, which Gärdeborn brings up. He is unconvinced that evolutionary theory can explain how completely new organs or structures arise. The creationist definition of information is made so that it automatically confirms this claim. Innovation, it seems, must come from god.

It's difficult to argue against such a bluntly one-sided challenge. But with a solid understanding of evolution and of genetics it's not very difficult to understand how new information arises and is passed from generation to generation if it confers advantages to its "carrier". Duplications of individual genes, larger blocks of DNA, even whole pieces of chromosomes or whole genomes, are an important motor in evolution. Whole genome duplications are very common in plants, where new variants and species may come to be very quickly, but they have also occurred several times in animals.

Duplication of a gene enables one of the copies to change over time at a faster pace that the other copy since the original function can be preserved. The copy is a "buffer" of sorts for innovation. It's been proven many times over that this has been an important contributor to the introduction of "new information" in evolution. Creationists claim that this isn't true innovation since it builds upon something that's already there. This reveals a deep ignorance on how evolution works. All innovation generated by evolutionary processes has happened through small stepwise changes, over an immensely long period of time, of something that's already there. I would be hard pressed to find evidence anywhere of a genetic sequence with a determined function that has just appeared out of nothing. In short it means that genetic sequences can be "kidnapped" into fulfilling other functions than the one it was originally adapted to. This principle has received the unfortunate term "preadaptation", with its teleological undercurrents, but it can also be called co-option. This gets a larger throughput in a scenario where a duplication has occurred and the "redundant" genetic material can be "kidnapped" into carrying out a new function.

What creationists also fail to see is that even if both copies change at the same rate and don't evolve into different directions, a duplication might still confer advantages to the organism since it increases the amount of gene product. This is also an introduction of "new information".

The demonization of evolutionary theory

I won't dedicate a lot of time to the more extraordinary claims and interpretations made during Gärdeborns more theological second half of the presentation. Suffice it to say that it was suggested that the earth is 10,000 years old, that the grand canyon was created by something like a volcanic eruption, that Neanderthals had rickets (osteomalacia) due to vitamin D sufficiency, that all animals were vegetarian until the original sin introduced death and that we conserve a "collective memory" of the deluge. The last claim was corroborated by the Chinese symbol for "boat" which apparently is made up of the symbols for "eight", "people" and "container". There were eight people in the ark. Do you feel that eerie tingle down your spine yet? Yeah, me either.

Crazyness aside, what really infuriates me to no end is creationists insistence on demonizing evolutionary theory with distasteful, inequitable and untrue claims. Gärdeborn had no qualms in explaining that his purpose was to discredit evolutionary theory because he sees it as an obstacle in humanity's way towards finding god. First of all, what nerve! What incredible condescension! He continued this despicable preachy streak by affirming that evolution undermined the notion of all people's equal worth. Since god created man to his own image, man has a special place and all human beings have equal value. So in effect Gärdeborn claimed that evolution, by "demoting" humans to mere apes, promotes death, racism and willfully undermines compassion, solidarity and morality. God on the other hand doesn't want death (he merely allows it?) but is a god of life and love and compassion.

Many people that are much more versed than me have answered to these ridiculous claims so I won't even try to. I'll leave it to you to make your own judgment. I feel I've spent too much energy and time on this already. But I wanted to conclude with the above paragraph because I think that it illuminates what this whole discussion is about. This is not about challenging science. This is not about wanting to bring science forward. This is not about one scientific view arguing with another. It's so very easy to forget that. This is about religious proselytes wanting to destroy a product of rational thought because it challenges their deeply held world-views. For all the science that is involved, for all that I have written in these entries, in the end this is about fanatics wanting to tell us all how we should lead our lives because they patronizingly feel that they have the moral authority to do so. No scientific theory pretends to do the same. The mere thought is utterly ridiculous. But by arguing like this, creationists want to take down evolutionary theory to their playing field. It's important that we don't lose sight of that.

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  1. I find it interesting, that Gärdeborn automatically assumes that a "demotion" of humans is the result of us being related to the apes. He's not only a creationist but also a speciest. What makes humans "better" than apes?
    From where he stands, its not far to assuming that "white" and "black" humans are not related. That, in fact, suggesting such a relation would "demote" the "white race".
    Religious fanatics have let go of that misconception some years ago, maybe they can also let go of the other one?

  2. A wonderfull series of blogg-entries *clap*. Very informative. I remember the lecture we had to go to in high-school, when a man like this Gärdeborn spoke, it was awefull... Or was it the same guy?


  3. Thanks guys! I really appreciate it.

    Florian: He didn't say explicitly that it was a "demotion", but it was definitely implied.

    Actually, what he said was somewhat the opposite of your interpretation. He was very clear that god had created ALL human beings equal. His accusation was that since evolution didn't consider humans to be "the pinnacle of creation" or special before god, then there is no reason to assume that all humans are equal. In short - if evolution is right, then there's no reason NOT to be racist, which is a horribly sinister and cynical conclusion to reach. We have the power to be good and fair to each other all by ourselves, not because "god says so". He's purposefully and wrongfully equating evolutionary theory with a set of opinions or rules of conduct - "evolutionism".

    Luna: Huuuu, I remember! I don't think it was the same guy though. As far as I remember the guy that came to our school was heavier and balder.

  4. Too bad I missed this lecture - I would have loved to be there (I live just outside Uppsala). Thanks for your intelligent comments. I've been reading a lot of books on evolution lately (several of Richard Dawkins books and one on EvoDevo) and I've been to the wonderful exhibition on Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet about the origin of man. You said something like "one can accept evolutionary theories but still believe in God". How do you mean? For me that's impossible.


  5. Thank you Ragnar for reading.

    I think it's entirely possible to believe in god and accept evolutionary theory at the same time without contradiction. Since faith is such a personal experience, it's possible for a theist to regard evolution as "god's way" and include evolution as part of god's plan. In fact, a great number of people do. Evolutionary theory doesn't object to this since evolutionary theory doesn't concern itself with the question of god's existence in the first place.

    However, I'm of the opinion that evolutionary theory provides us with an explanation for the history of life on earth and of our position within it that doesn't require the presence of a supreme being. Little by little we're chipping away at god's tasks; little by little we're leaving god with nothing left to do; little by little god is becoming more and more unlikely and unnecessary. Evolutionary theory may contribute to that, but it doesn't concern itself with god directly.


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