Monday, February 05, 2007

Chuck Colson on Evolution

You know who I trust when I want to know the truth about complicated scientific theories? Convicted Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson, of course. Well, at least when Kirk Cameron -- the guy who played Mike Seaver on "Growing Pains" but is now a Christian fundamentalist -- isn't available.

On his Prison Fellowship website Mr. Colson, who only found Jesus after his role in Watergate was exposed (because apparently Jesus wasn't looking for him), has a list of ten questions he wants to pose to "aggressive evolutionists," whom the non-batshit-crazy fundamentalists world calls scientists.

What fossil record is there of any transitional fossils indicating that one order evolved into another order?

As far as I know, orders don't evolve into other orders. Species evolve into other species. So I'm not quite sure what he's asking with this "one order evolved into another order" question. But, as far as transitional fossils go, this is an old canard creationists like to play. There are, in fact, all kinds of transitional fossils. But creationists play a neat little trick when presented with one.

Suppose you have fossil X that is an ancestor of fossil Z. Creationists will ask, "There's a gap between them. Where's the transitional fossil?" Well, then, suppose you find the link between them, fossil Y. Do the creationists gasp and say, "I'm convinced!" No, of course not. Now they say, "Where are the transitional fossils between X and Y? And between Y and Z?" This is how they can claim "there are no transitional fossils," because they infinitely regress into the gaps in order to claim so. We'd have to have, in essence, a fossil of every single plant and animal that ever lived to fill all the gaps and satisfy creationists like Colson. It's the rhetorical version of sticking your fingers in your ears and going, "Nuh-uh!" whenever someone says something you don't like.

Is there any evidence of a order that was at one time a different order? I
recognize that there is adaptation within an order, different breeds of dogs for
example, but I don't know of any case where there is any evidence of a dog
becoming a horse.

Oh, I see, he means species when he says order. So, he's trying to disprove a scientific theory in a field he hasn't bothered to learn anything about. Well, I suppose since he didn't learn anything about upholding the Constitution in law school, why now?

Dogs don't become horses. Evolutionary theory doesn't claim that they will. If dogs were horses we'd call them horses and not dogs. Evolution isn't about one member of a species magically turning into a member of another, preexisting species. It's about gradual changes in a group within a species until that group no longer interbreeds with the original group (if it still exists). Wolves evolved into dogs. Before that, there weren't any dogs. Species evolve into new species. They don't just jump over to some other species that's already around, like a dog turning into a horse.

It's a stupid question, and either Colson knows it, and this is the rhetorical equivalent of asking, "How often do you beat your wife?" or else he doesn't know it, and he's ignorant of the actual theory he is trying to destroy. Take your pick, neither is very flattering.

What scientific evidence is there to support a natural origin of life? (The
evolutionist may point to the Miller-Urey experiments in 1953, much celebrated
at the time. They initially said they had reproduced the precise conditions
under which in the primordial soup life could have arisen. But after
experts looked at it, it turned out that there was frequent human intervention
and had the process been left to itself, it could not have worked. In short,
there is no evidence.)

Hmm. Well, first off, Colson has done what creationists are fond of doing: conflating evolution with abiogenesis. Evolution is the generation of new species from existing species. Abiogenesis is the study of the beginnings of life. Tearing down abiogenesis does nothing to evolution one way or the other. We don't have to know how a process started to know something about the process and how it works (we'll come to that again later).

Secondly, it turns out that the Miller-Urey experiments, which were largely discredited for a long time, have gained new credibility lately due to new advancements. But, even so, there is precious little evidence of how life started, 'tis true.

So what? What, exactly, does Colson hope this proves? Oh, yes. He's working with the creationists' false dichotomy: If scientists don't know how life started, then it must have been God, even though the creation theory has no evidence to support it either. Wrong! It's not an "If not X then Y" scenario. Just because we don't know the mechanism by which life started means just and only that: we don't know. Yet. Just like once we didn't know where lightning came from and though it was Zeus, but we now know it's just electricity.

The false dichtomoy proves nothing.

How does one support the conclusion of the American Society of Biological
Teachers that evolution is “unsupervised, impersonal and random?” What
scientific (as opposed to philosophical) basis is there for this statement?
There is a good deal of evidence, but Colson and his cronies just ignore it or try to logic it out of existence with specious arguments. For instance, evolutionary theory predicts that, since species come out of other species, new structures and adaptations will coopt already existing structures to perform new functions. That is to say, when species evolve, they will use the tools available to them, even when those tools are not the best possible solution to the problem. For instance, because the mammalian eye evolved from other structures that weren't meant to eventually be part of a complex eye structure, there are lots of legacy problems with our eyes, like the fact that the light-sensing cells face backward and are behind nerves and blood vessels which block a lot of the light. If we were designing the eye from the ground up, we wouldn't design it that way. But we would if we had to use the parts already lying around to do it.

By the same token, if every species were individually created by special creation, why would legacy parts like our poor eye design and our appendix be there? Why would all mammals have the same, flawed eye structure, rather than each having an eye structure perfectly suited to its particular needs? It makes sense if all mammals came from a common ancestor who passed on this eye structure to all its descendants, but not if each mammalian species was specially created.

For that matter, why do all mammals have their airway mixed up with their food intake? There is no reason it should be so, and if each species were created by special creation we would expect there to be variations in such things. But there isn't, as if all mammalian species evolved from an ancestor whose airway and food intake were not crossed. And, certainly, if we were intelligently designing life, we wouldn't choose to mix the two up, since it can (and does) result in death by choking.

The evidence is there in spades, Mr. Colson. You just have to look.

(A follow-up question for 4) Is this not inconsistent with discoveries
about DNA, which indicate that there is a mathematical formula determining
the complexity of human beings? Do mathematical formulas have naturalistic
All kinds of things can be described by mathematical formulas. But to say that "a mathematical formula [determines] the complexity of human beings" and is therefore unnatural, because math is unnatural, is like saying a mountain is unnatural because language can name and describe it and language is unnatural.

Whether mathematical formulae truly exist in nature or if they are just a symbological shorthand for humans to describe what they see is a philosophy of science problem that does not bear at all, one way or the other, on whether the things described mathematically are truly natural or not.

Why should mathematics describe a created universe rather than a non-created one, anyway? An intelligent creator could just change constants and the values of things whenever he wanted. The fact that this never happens is at least circumstantial proof that no intelligent being has control over them.

How do we reconcile the second law of thermodynamics with the universe as we
know it? If the universe is indeed winding down, does that not presuppose that
sometime and by some means it was being wound up? By what means?

Okay, I'll be a little more specific. Within the universe, for something to wind down it had to have been wound up, because things within the universe are subject to the laws of the universe. The universe itself, however, is not subject to the laws within the universe: it is the source of those laws, not the subject of them. Just because something is true within the universe doesn't make it true of the universe itself.

Like, for instance, suppose we lived in a refrigerator. It is always cold in a refrigerator, so if we had no knowledge of anything but the inside of the refrigerator, we'd say that that the refrigerator is cold, right? But the outside of the refrigerator isn't cold. The refrigerator creates the cold inside it, but that doesn't mean that the refrigerator itself must also, itself, be cold.

Similarly, inside the universe things must be wound up to wind down. The universe itself is not necessarily subject to such restrictions.

What is your answer to Dr. Michael Behe’s findings (Darwin’s Black Box) about
the irreducible complexity of the cell structure, that is, his mousetrap
example? All the parts of a cell had to work at once otherwise the cell doesn't
work.Thus evolution of one part at a time is not reasonable.
This one really is just wrong and Colson would know it if he did any research at all. Behe likes to use the eye as his example of irreducible complexity: remove any one part and it stops working.

Well, that's true. It stops working as a perfect eye. But it still has a function, despite what Behe claims. If, say, you remove the lens from someone's eye they won't be able to see objects clearly, but they will see well enough to keep from bumping into things. That's better than not seeing at all, isn't it? Well, that is one of the earlier stages of the supposedly "irreducibly complex" eye. An eye that doesn't do what our eyes do can still be an advantage and therefore be worth keeping and adding to until we come up with -- ta da! -- the human eye.

What caused the Big Bang?
I don't know. So what? Once again, not knowing how a process started doesn't mean we don't know anything about the process, and it doesn't mean automatically that "God did it," as I explained above. And, of course, Colson is now trying to conflate evolution and cosmology for his own rhetorical reasons.

But, in any case, where's he going is that something must have started the Big Bang and it therefore must be God.


Time and causality are concepts that exist within the universe, once again, just like the cold inside the refrigerator. The universe itself is not necessarily constrained by such things. Only in a causal structure would something have to have started the Big Bang. But time didn't exist when the universe didn't exist, just like the cold inside the refrigerator didn't exist when the refrigerator didn't exist. Without time, there is no causality, and without causality, there is no need for anything to "cause" the Big Bang.

What did Einstein mean when he said, “God does not play dice with the
cosmos?” If he considered evidence of intelligence in the universe, why
shouldn’t we?
It meant he was skeptical of quantum mechanics and the fact that all quantum mechanics depends on probabilities. Nothing more, nothing less. About which, he was wrong, in any case.

What evidence is there for genetic mutations that increase the biologically
useful information of the genome? Or to put it another way: What evidence is
there for genetic mutations facilitating macroevolutionary change?

First off, random mutations or genetic drift is only one mechanism through which evolution is believed to have acted. But, in any case, this question seems to me to be nothing more than, "What evidence is there for evolution?" The answer is that there is all kinds of evidence. It's widely available, Mr. Colson, and is being published in magazines, journals, and websites every single day. Take a look.

Which, of course, he won't. Just like when Behe in Dover when he denied there was any evidence for evolution, and when confronted with a stack of evidence and peer-reviewed articles and papers, he essentially said, "Not good enough."

And so, we've come full circle from the first question, to the creationist plugging his ears and saying, "Nuh-uh!" when he or she hears something he or she doesn't like.

Colson finishes up by saying:

If you can get a naturalist to acknowledge that they can be discussed, he’s
finished, which is why he’ll fight so hard to reject the questions. He’s
finished because there is much more scientific evidence for design than there is
for natural origin.

Well, Mr. Colson, I didn't reject the questions. I rejected the parts that don't make any sense, but if nonsensical questions are okay, then I can think of lots of nonsensical questions that you will be "finished" if you reject too.

And, of course, there is no evidence of design. If there were, the intelligent design proponents would be working on it, finding more evidence, and publishing their findings, rather than simply engaging in a prolonged, dishonest propoganda campaign.

If all this evidence exists, Mr. Colson, why not present it rather than trying to assert that there is no evidence for evolution? If you have such a strong positive case, why isn't that what you're focused on?

(Hint: It's because there is none).

Everything we say about natural origin is speculation, just as the God
hypothesis that we believe in is speculation because nobody was there at the
creation. But we can look at the character of the universe and draw certain
conclusions. Because of a prior philosophical commitment to naturalism
this is precisely what the naturalist refuses to do.

Ah, the old, "it's all speculation, it's all based on faith" argument. No. It's all based on evidence. Evolution has a sound evidentiary basis which supports it, and thus I accept it, which is not the same as "believing" in it based on faith (that is to say, for no reason).

At the moment, it is true that all the scientific theories about the origin of life (not species) and the origin of the universe are speculative. But scientists speculate on those things in order to come up with testable theories to figure out the answer. The creationist claims he already knows the answer and that we should just accept it, despite a complete lack of evidence for his claim. I

n science, "I don't know... yet" is a perfectly valid answer and allows us to continue searching for clues. "God did it" closes down all avenues of investigation and puts a stop to the endeavor to learn. Scientists don't seek natural explanations for things because of a "prior philosophical commitment to naturalism" (whatever that is), but because there's nothing to do otherwise. If we just accept that lightning is caused by Zeus, to avoid being philosophically committed to naturalism, what else is there to do? There are no tests or experiments we can run. And if we'd just accepted that answer, we would have never discovered that lightning is electricity and not the wrath of Zeus.

Scientists work with the natural world because that gives them something to work on. Supernatural explanations are dead-ends which give us no basis for further study or examination, and are dismissed for that reason, not due to any "prior commitments," philosophical or otherwise, of scientists.


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