Category Archives: Science

The Greatest Show on Earth

So the Library very kindly and conveniently notified me yesterday that they were holding Richard Dawkins’ latest book for me. I barely made it in the door to get it… in fact, the only reason they let me in is because the book was held. If I had to get it off the shelf, they wouldn’t have let me (Thus, I do not have Tile Your World, which I would like to review before tiling my bathroom floor).

So, similar to my reading through Coyne’s book, I will be posting various thoughts and insights as I read the book. Last night I read chapter 1, “Only A Theory?”. Here is my summary of points:

  • Creationists are idiots.
  • Evolutionists are persecuted in schools.
  • “Senior clergy and theologians” don’t have a problem with evolution, and so neither should you.
  • Creationists are idiots.
  • Defining terms: Theories and Facts.
  • Creationists are really idiots.

We’re off to a wonderful start.

millions of years of change

continuing through Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, and i have another comment. There have been plenty of times I would say something if I were writing a full critique of the book, but those are usually too small or too big for my intents on my blog. But this morning I came across a passage that hits the sweet spot.

Chapter two is about the fossil record, and starts in earnest by noting the ‘big patterns’. He discusses how huge the time frames we’re dealing with are, and quickly gives an overview of the forms of life as they appear in the fossil record. Humans are the new comers, he says, with our lineage branching off from that of other primates about 7 million years ago. If the history of life on earth were a year, he writes, then bacteria would appear the beginning of March, and the first human ancestors would arrive around 6am on the 31st of December (p.28).

So the last common ancestor between humans and other primates that presently share the earth with us was 7 million years ago. That means all the changes that have occurred have been within 7 million years.

The next few sections are fossilized evolution and speciation and transitional forms. He uses several examples to show how the fossils have evolved over time. To do this, they remove a core sample of the seafloor (nearly all of these samples are marine organisms), and then it can be dated from bottom to top, and all the specimens within the sample can be examined, etc. Here are the examples given in the book:

a species of foraminiferan, Globorotalia conoidea. they looked at the number of chambers in the final whorl of the shell. Over the course of 8 million years it changed from an average of 4.8 chambers to 3.3.

a radiolarian, Pseuodcubus vema. The trait examined in this sample was the width of the animals cylindrical base. In a 2 million year period, the mean thoracic width changed from about 90 microns to somewhere around 139 microns.

various lineages of trilobites were examined from a sample that spanned about 3 million years. All of these showed evolutionary change in the number of segments in the last body section +/- 2 or 3 ribs. The point here is that the different lineages changed different amounts, at different rates, and even in different directions (some got more while others got less in the same sections of the sample).

The next and last specific example given is two species of radiolaria, Eucyrtidium calvertense and E. matuyamai, which separated from a common ancestor. This time the time frame examined was 3.5 million years, and the anatomical structure was the width of the fourth segment. The size at the start of the column (the bottom, the oldest layers) was about 93 microns. At the youngest layers, E calvertense is around 80 microns and E matuyamai is about 120 microns. So somewhere there was a split and one got smaller while the other got bigger.

Coyne says there are hundreds of other examples of evolutionary change in fossils, including not only marine specimens but also terrestrial organisms such as rodents and primates. Some of these change fast, others barely change at all, he says. But, clearly, he chose the examples he did for a reason: as evidence of his point; that organisms change over geological time.

Did you notice anything about those examples he gave? 8 million years to change the chambers in a whorl of a shell. 2 million years to change 50 microns in size. 3 million years to change the number of ribs by two or three. 3.5 million years to change an average of 20 microns in size.

Humans are supposed to have evolved from our shared ancestor with other primates 7 million years ago, but in 8 million years of documented change, all we see is 1.5 less chambers in the last whorl of a shell. Sure, he said some organisms evolve faster and others slower, but this seems a bit extreme. What’s more, the changes in the examples he gives are barely noticeable, and always leave the form as it was. These changes are all working with existing genetic information. There is nothing even close to novel genetic code, which is necessary for macroevolutionary changes in body plans and categories of organisms (amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, etc.).

It is alleged that reptiles evolved from amphibians over 50 million years. Granted, that’s much more time than any of the examples given, but also consider the massive changes that would need to occur in this time frame. if we’re talking about microns of difference (a micron is one millionth of a meter. Take one millimeter (~0.04 inches), and divide that a thousand times… that’s a micron) in a preexisting phenotype over 2-3 (or 8 ) million years, is it reasonable to expect that the creation of brand new phenotypes (something that has not even been shown possible) along with the drastic changes that must occur to them in 50 million years? Yes, count me as incredibly skeptical.

The evidence presented by Coyne is unconvincing that there has been enough time needed for macroevolution to occur, and also that the types of changes necessary could occur in the way darwinian evolution theorizes.

Science Is Real

The innovative and always fun band They Might Be Giants has a new album releasing next Tuesday. It is geared towards children, similar to their recent albums Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s. This one, though, is about SCIENCE. It’s called… predictably… Here Comes Science. Being a science nerd kind of guy and loving their other albums I have (which includes a few non-kids music records), I preordered it. I just heard for the first time one of the songs on the album, Science Is Real. It’s as catchy as I expected, but also more disturbing. Here are the lyrics:

Science is real
From the Big Bang to DNA
Science is real
From evolution to the Milky Way
I like the stories
About angels, unicorns and elves
Now I like the stories
As much as anybody else
But when I’m seeking knowledge
Either simple or abstract
The facts are with science
The facts are with science

Science is real
Science is real
Science is real

Science is real
From anatomy to geology
Science is real from astrophysics to biology
A scientific theory
Isn’t just a hunch or guess
It’s more like a question
That’s been put through a lot of tests
And when a theory emerges
Consistent with the facts
The proof is with science
The truth is with science

Science is real
Science is real
Science is real

Science is real

Now, I suspected (to put it lightly) the album would talk about evolution and billions of years and other Scientific types of things that I don’t agree with… but I wasn’t too concerned with that. I’m not afraid of exposing my kids to evolutionary thinking even though I disagree with it. I have them watch nature documentaries pretty regularly, and have even had real, actual conversations about evolution with them. It’s not even that I completely disagree with everything under the umbrella of evolutionary biology, which seems to be hard to understand for even the experts (like Jerry Coyne), who either don’t understand or refuse to accept that I actually believe what I do. But that’s another story. The point, again, is that I wasn’t worried about the scientific sorts of things on this new album that are not in line with my own thoughts and beliefs.

However, it seems to me that this so goes far beyond just the ‘scientific’ sorts of things. What is the implication of the repeated lines, “science is real” and “the truth is with science”?

Science is real, so what is that opposed to? A few things are made explicit in the song, and cheif among them is angels. Angels aren’t real? Well, where’s the scientific evidence of that? And what’s this about only using science when you’re seeking knowledge? Huh? Logic? Philosophy? Anything that is abstract is now ruled as incapable of producing knowledge?

I’m bothered by how far this song is going. It’s much further than science can ever go, which just goes to show you that there’s a worldview behind every idea, guiding and directing it.

Evolution/Creation/Intelligent Design

Readers of this blog know where I stand on this topic, so I won’t spend any time discussing that. I recently began reading two books, though, that are related. One is Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design and the other is Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True. I was thinking I would be reading these books simultaneously, and it would be interesting to compare and contrast them as I progressed. However, I only have the Coyne book for two weeks, and at the rate I read books (slowly) I can’t spare any of that time on much of anything else.

But as I’m going through it I’m finding I want to keep track of various comments I have. I’m on page ten of the book, and there are three points I want to make already. So I figure I’m going to write a new blog post each time I have one of these moments, and then I’ll stick them all together on a page or a final post when I’m finished. For now, I’ll do the three I have in mind all in this post.

First Comment.
Why Evolution Is True

Here is the cover of the book. It has an image of four animals that I will simplisticly label a dinosaur, a feathered dinosaur, a primitive bird (with the biological use of ‘primitive’ meaning older, not necessarily more simple), and finally a modern day bird. The back cover has the skeletons of each of these creatures illustrated. The inside flap of the back cover has a blurb about the cover, and it begins, “The jacket depects a chronological sequence of fossils showing the evolution of birds.” Ahh, a concise summary of the book in four small drawings. But the very next sentence is telling, “We do not know whether the actual line of descent included the first three species, but the origin of modern birds almost certainly involved a sequence very much like this one.” Ahh, I say to myself, a very concise summary of the foundation of modern evolutionary theory.

It’s also worth noting that this sequence suggests what is called the cursorial view of the evolution of birds, which says dinosaurs ran on their back legs and developed wings that helped them make longer and longer ‘hops’, which eventually became flight. There is another camp, though, that have good reason to reject this view, and insteady argue for the arboreal theory. The arboreal theory is that small reptiles lived in trees and would jump down and glide further and further until it became flight. So there are at least two contradictory positions within the evolutionary system that are presently battling it out (you can read more about it on Wikipedia). The book may deal with this in a later chapter, but you’d never guess it from the cover jacket illustrations and blurb.

Second Comment.
Darwin, who Coyne has repeatedly praised already in the book, wrote about what he called the imperfection of the geological record. You can read what he says in chapters six and ten of The Origin of Species. Here is a summary of the problem and his general solution (although he does offer several others):

On the Absence or Rarity of Transitional Varieties.—As natural selection acts solely by the preservation of profitable modifications, each new form will tend in a fully-stocked country to take the place of, and finally to exterminate, its own less improved parent-form and other less-favoured forms with which it comes into competition. Thus extinction and natural selection go hand in hand. Hence, if we look at each species as descended from some unknown form, both the parent and all the transitional varieties will generally have been exterminated by the very process of the formation and perfection of the new form.

But, as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth? It will be more convenient to discuss this question in the chapter on the Imperfection of the Geological Record; and I will here only state that I believe the answer mainly lies in the record being incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been imperfectly made, and only at long intervals of time.

So Darwin’s theory requires there to be countless transitional forms that existed on the earth in its history. The reason we don’t have fossils of these forms, Darwin argued in 1859, is that we just haven’t found them. They’re out there, and we’ll dig them up as we make a better record of fossils.

Fast forward to 2009, where Jerry Coyne in this book discusses these transitional forms and says (on p. 6), “Although common ancestors are no longer with us, and their fossils nearly impossible to document (after all, they represent but a single species out of thousands in the fossil record), we can sometimes discover fossils closely related to them, species having features that show common ancestry.” (my emphasis)

Based on his theory, Darwin predicted a great abundance of transitional forms in the fossil record over time as more and more fossils were dug up and methods were improved. 150 years of improvements and digging, though, have only brought us to a hand waving dismissal of Darwin’s prediction. But it is still supposed to give support to Darwin’s theory (that he based his prediction upon)?

Third Comment.

This one is the most surprising to me. On page 9 of the book, Coyne is discussing the classification of organisms. By looking at various anatomical, physiological, behavioral, and other characteristics of organisms, they can be categorized into groupings. These groupings can then be subdivided on down to the individual species level. This is called a nested hierarchy, as you computer geeks will know. This method of classification started long before Darwin, he says, with Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1635*. The classifications performed by many different biologists had very similar conclusions based on this ‘natural classification system’. Coyne concludes then that this classification system is very strong evidence for evolution. “Why?” he asks, “Because we don’t see such a nested arrangement if we’re trying to arrange objects that haven’t arisen by an evolutionary process of splitting and descent.” He uses a matchbook collection as an analogy, saying they can be divided in any number of different ways. “Matchbooks resemble the kinds of creatures expected under the creationist explanation of life. … Under this scenario, we wouldn’t expect to see species falling into a nested hierarchy of forms that is recognized by all biologists.”

The trouble with this point, though, is that guy that started it all waybackwhen, Carl Linnaeus? Yeah, he was a young earth creationist. He accepted the Genesis account of creation. In fact, he based his work on the classification of organisms on the certainty of divine order in creation. I can’t find an English translation of his book to get the quote first hand, but he is said to have written that the Earth’s creation is the glory of God, as seen from the works of Nature by Man alone. That the study of nature would reveal the Divine Order of God’s creation, and it was the naturalist’s task to construct a “natural classification” that would reveal this Order in the universe.

Pretty much discredits Coyne’s argument and turns it on its head.

*Carl Linnaeus wasn’t born until 1707. Dr. Coyne must have gotten his dates mixed up, or made a typo. I think he meant 1735, which is when Linnaeus first published his Systema Naturae.

ORFans and the Tree of Life

I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Dr. Paul Nelson Thursday night. His title was, “Whatever Happened to Darwin’s Tree of Life”, and the subject was… Common Descent. According to Nelson many evolutionary biologists reject the idea of a single tree of life, or a single universal common ancestor. He gave much evidence to support his case (which I will not delve into here), and argued that in our lifetime we would see Science shift from a single origin of life event to multiple events. From a ‘tree of life’ to a ‘mangrove of life’. Intelligent Design, he was quick to add, was not going to be an accepted option for some time to come.

I very much enjoyed the lecture, and learned a good bit from it. If you want to hear it, a friend that went with me recorded it, and I think I could manage to get a copy from him.

The Problem with ID

DaveScot from Uncommon Descent states clearly the problem with the Intelligent Design movement,

Permutations of the question “Who designed the designer?” are trite, easily addressed, and if you read the moderation rules you’ll find that comments using this and other trite arguments are deleted. There is not enough data to make any determination of who designed the designer. When and if we can identify the designer of organic life on this planet we might have some data to work with in determining the origin of that agency. Until that situation changes, maybe SETI will give us some data someday, there’s no point in asking the question over and over again.