email - October 2011

Misplaced Optimism

This email exchange illustrates why debates are generally a waste of time.

Occasionally we think that a conversation with an evolutionist will be productive; but we are nearly always disappointed. It appeared that our email exchange with Derek was going to be an exception, but it went horribly wrong.

Derek wrote:

Your seventy-five theses that you claim to be "undeniable" include several statements that any responsible evolutionary biologist would disagree with. My hunch is that you aren't interested in removing them, though, because doing so would force you to drastically modify your argument.

So, what say you? Are you based in truth or rhetoric?

It is the typical accusation that we are lying. It is based on the notion that we will say anything to get people to prove our point even if we have to lie to do it. That’s foolish. If we knew it wasn’t true, why would we lie to make other people believe it?

On the other hand, if we are wrong, we want to know it. So, we sent Derek our standard, one-sentence reply.

Specifically, what is in error?

We usually don’t get any response to our standard reply because there are no known factual errors in anything we have written. When the evolutionist can’t find one, he doesn’t write back. Surprisingly, Derek sent this reply.

I'm ok with the first 15. Those are all acceptable, even if I'd recommend changing the language of a few of them. But...

“The theory of evolution depends upon abiogenesis as the starting point.”

That's patently false.

“If the theory of abiogenesis is false, then the theory of evolution is false.”

That's a non-sequitur.

Let's just start with those two. There are many more, but I'm curious to see your response to those.

Evolutionists know that abiogenesis, the origin of life from non-life, is impossible. They also know that without abiogenesis, the theory of evolution is dead on arrival (literally). Since they can’t defend abiogenesis, they try to define it out of the discussion. They argue that “evolution” is nothing more than mutation and natural selection, so the origin of life is off-limits.

There are a couple of problems with that. Evolutionists argue that it is vitally important to keep the theory of evolution in the science curriculum. Why? What makes it so important?

It is important to them because it supposedly explains the origin of humanity. It is the atheists’ answer to the question, “Why are we here?” It is their way of proving that there is no God, and therefore no divine law. Therefore, the elite members of society can decide what is right and wrong for the rest of us. If we are all just the product of random chance, and some of us happen to be better than others, the ones who are better ought to be able to control everyone else for the good of society.

Natural selection alone isn’t a complete answer to the question, “Why are we here?” Atheists need a complete explanation for how the Earth formed and eventually came to support all the various kinds of life on Earth today. That’s why it is important to them for the schools to teach the doctrine that unguided natural forces caused chemicals to combine in such a way that life resulted; and that all living things have descended from that common ancestral form of life.

So, we responded to Derek by saying,

We have already responded to that attempt to define away the problem.  Please see http://scienceagainstevolution.org/v15i6e.htm.  I hope this satisfies your curiosity.

Derek responded with a personal attack.

So you decided to re-define the definition of evolution so that your statements are true? Don't you find that the SLIGHTEST bit dishonest? I was originally wondering if your 95 theses were borne of ignorance. Now it's clear that you know exactly what you're doing. You're a just a common liar.

We probably should have terminated the correspondence right there, but we gave a brief, polite reply.

We did not define "evolution."  That's how the courts and public schools define evolution.

To which Derek said:

It is up to neither courts nor public schools to define science; it's up to scientists and philosophers of science.

Now his arrogance is showing. Philosophers should be able to define terms that the rest of us have to live with.

Definitions

Definitions can be useful or obstructive, depending upon how one uses them. The classic example of twisting a definition to prove an invalid point is in Lewis Carrol’s classic book, Through the Looking Glass.

 “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Humpty Dumpty was trying to win his argument with Alice by using a definition of “glory” that is different from the common definition. Derek is trying to win his argument by using a special, limited definition of “evolution” that is not what people object to in the public school curriculum.

It is important to agree upon what a word means before using it in a discussion. The court came up with a definition of evolution that includes the origin of life because that’s what the schools are teaching, and that’s what many parents object to. The court was called upon to decide if the schools can legally teach that life originated naturally. The court was not called upon to decide if public schools can teach whether or not natural selection can change the demographics of a population because there is no argument about that.

If the schools are incorrectly teaching that the theory of evolution includes the origin of life, then the scientists should be behind the creationists who want the schools to stop teaching that erroneous doctrine. Our question to Derek was:

So, why aren't the scientists and philosophers of science telling the public schools not to teach that evolution depends upon biogenesis as the starting point?

To which he replied:

I'm quite sure I don't know anything about how public schools arrive at their curricula. If your point is that the public schools are poor at their job, I won't argue with you in the slightest. I've heard public school teachers make absolutely ridiculous elementary errors in their attempts to teach evolutionary science. I'm not at all surprised at the fact that the majority of Americans couldn't explain even the basics of evolutionary theory. This is a bit of an aside, but I feel like the educational system in this country is fundamentally flawed in that we let people major in "education," rather than focusing on an area of study and then deciding later whether you are a teacher or professional elsewhere in the field. Based on your bio, it's clear that you have a background in computer science. I do as well (electrical and computer engineering actually), and my professors in college were passionate about the content and had a clear understanding of the subject matter, and were therefore very able teachers. Compared to high school computer classes taught by the guy that also teaches gym is a discredit to the topic.

In the '90s, I used to tutor high school students on math and science. Once, one of the students I was tutoring in geometry came to me with some questions about evolution. This was in North Carolina, and evolution was required to be taught...apparently, by any means. At any rate, during the teacher's lecture on evolution, one of the students asked the question, "If giraffes evolved from horses, how come we still have horses?" The teacher's response was, "That's a very good question. I have no idea." That's embarrassingly foolish, and anyone with an even basic knowledge of mammalian evolution would laugh at the notion that this person would be considered qualified to teach evolution, much less biology at all.

It apparently did not occur to Derek that the biology teacher really was competent and knew that giraffes did not evolve from horses, but feared losing his job by saying so. The teacher’s diplomatic answer was actually a veiled affirmation of the fact that the teacher didn’t believe what he was forced to teach.

At this point, I thought we had made a breakthrough. Derek seemed to agree that public schools are teaching nonsense about evolution as if it were fact. So, I sent what I expected to be the final word on the subject.

We agree.

His response was:

Ok, do we also agree that attempting to discredit a public school curriculum is different from discrediting the science?

It looked like we were still in agreement, but I was unsure. He might have been using the Humpty Dumpty trick of trying to use “science” to mean “evolution.” The theory of evolution is philosophy, not science. So, I replied,

We probably agree.  It depends on the definition of "the science."

His reply contained several points, so in my reply I inserted my comments into his email. This is the result:

Ok, so it's my assertion that evolution, whether by means of natural selection, sexual, selection, genetic drift, or mutation, acts upon living organisms.

Agree.  (Although I would add "to some degree" at the end of that sentence.)

And yes, SOMETHING caused living organisms, but whether that "something" was natural or supernatural is immaterial when discussing evolution.

Yes, as long as "evolution" is limited to the definition in the previous sentence.

Life happened. Biologists have hypotheses about how that happened, as do followers of religious doctrine.

Agree.

Evolution, in it's [sic] clearest definition, is merely a change of genetic frequencies in a population over time.

Agree, if "clearest" is changed to "limited."  What you call "evolution" is really just a combination of microevolution and demographics.

That in no way necessitates abiogenesis.

If "evolution" is nothing more than a combination of variations within a kind, and demographics, that's right.

Do you agree or disagree with that paragraph?

I agree.  There is absolutely no debate about your limited definition of evolution.  It's macroevolution and abiogenesis that are controversial.

Creationists don't object to teaching any of the things you have said in public school.  They object to "evolution" as it is legally defined (which includes abiogenesis) being taught in public school as unquestionable fact.

It seemed to me that I had corrected his misconceptions about what creationists object to in the public school curriculum. Creationists accept microevolution (the observable small variations in members of a species) and recognize that changes in demographics (the percentages of particular variations in a given population) really exist. Evolutionists sometimes think that creationists don’t accept any kind of change at all. I really thought we had reached nearly complete agreement. But we hadn’t. Derek wrote:

Alright, fair enough. I'll take the beachhead of microevolution that you've granted me, and work from there. However, I have to say I don't agree fully with your assertion that creationists don't object to teaching these things. Some don't. Some do.

Next, I propose we move on to "macroevolution." First, I know what I think of when I hear macroevolution, but my guess is that you and I might again have different definitions here. Can you tell me exactly what means when you use that term?

His “beachhead” comment disturbed me. He apparently thought he had changed my mind when, in fact, I had just shown him that he was wrong about what creationists believe.

There might be some creationists who are stuck in the 19th century who believe in “fixity of species” and the notion that God would never let any species go extinct, but I have never met one. I have been fortunate enough to be in the same room with some of the most famous creationists in America and had short conversations with them, and know that they don’t object to teaching microevolution. But without a good scientific survey of what creationists believe, one can’t prove it one way or the other. Maybe he has met some kooky creationists. It isn’t worth arguing about it.

I wondered why he would think I would have a different definition of macroevolution than he has. That was a rather prejudicial thing for him to say. Besides, he could read the articles I have written over the past 15 years and find out. But, to avoid confrontation, I picked the first definition I found on the Internet as a starting point and made some comments about it.

The New World Encyclopedia defines macroevolution this way:

Macroevolution refers to evolution that occurs above the level of species, such as the origin of new designs (feathers, vertebrates from invertebrates, jaws in fish), large scale events (extinction of dinosaurs), broad trends (increase in brain size in mammals), and major transitions (origin of higher-level phyla).” (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Macroevolution)

I don’t think most creationists would agree with associating extinction with macroevolution.  I certainly don’t.  Extinction certainly occurs.  Furthermore, the process by which something ceases to exist has nothing to do with the process by which something comes into existence.  The process that is causing my truck to wear out and fall apart has nothing to do with the process that assembled the truck in the first place.  So, I disagree with that portion of the definition.

The statement about “broad trends” is vague, ambiguous, and potentially confusing.  Average size can certainly increase (or decrease) to a limited extent over several generations in a particular species.  That’s not macroevolution.  Unfortunately the definition includes a lot of words between “above the level of species” and “broad trends.”  What they are trying to say is that macroevolution involves a species with a small brain (such as a mouse) evolving into another species with a bigger brain (like a badger) which evolves into another species with an even bigger brain (like a horse).

The key points in the definition are the “origin of new designs” and “major transitions.”

I maintain that it is unscientific to believe that a complete vision system (including light sensitive cells, an adjustable lens, an adjustable aperture, a closed loop control system that focuses the lens and controls the size of the aperture, and image processing algorithms) is the result of natural selection operating on random mutations.

Vision, of course, is only one of innumerable new designs that would have to arise by chance.  Even a comparatively simple design change (like the evolution of a 1-chamber heart in a fish to a 4-chamber heart in a mammal) is simply absurd from a scientific point of view.

Major transitions, such as the evolution of an invertebrate to the first vertebrate, would involve the origin of a new design (the central nervous system, in this case).

Derek went back into elitist mode and started bombarding me with emails faster than I could read them.

On Wed, Sep 21, 2011 at 9:32 AM, Derek wrote:

Well, first off, it isn't up to creationists to define biological terms like macroevolution. Creationists aren't biologists. That would be like me demanding that the Catholic Church start naming popes after me. Next, you assert "the process by which something ceases to exist has nothing to do with the process by which something comes into existence." I emphatically disagree. Just to be clear, macroevolution doesn't refer to just any ol' extinction event. Biologists refer to mass extinction events being macroevolutionary. The reason that I disagree with your assertion is because mass extinctions are always followed by widespread adaptive radiations by lineages that do not go extinct, with the most obvious case being the radiation of mammals following the extinction of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. I agree they are different processes, but to say that they have "nothing" (your word) to do with one another is inaccurate, and is, in fact, the very definition of a macroevolutionary event.

I hear what you're saying about "broad trends" being confusing. I think the problem is that the term itself is used by different people in different ways, just as you and I are. It kind of ends up becoming a catch-all for a variety of different things. I agree that size change within a species is not macroevolutionary change. Now, to clarify your example, you do know that nobody ever claimed that a mouse evolved into a badger or horse, right? Mice are modern rodents while badgers are carnivorans. Neither the fossil record nor DNA would allow anyone to say that the two groups are anything other than distant cousins. Further, horses are artiodactyls and aren't terribly close to either group. Maybe I'm missing something. Could you clarify the intent of your example? Are you suggesting that speciation doesn't occur?

You then say "I maintain that it is unscientific to believe that a complete vision system is the result of natural selection operating on random mutations." However, you offer no support for your statement. Is it just that you personally find it impossible to believe? I'm sure you know that evolutionary biologists have written about the evolution of the eye in excruciating detail, and there really isn't much in question. Would you like me to find some references for you? I'd be happy provide you with either primary literature in peer-reviewed journals, PhD theses, or popular science books.

You then state that four-chambered hearts cannot evolve from one-chambered hearts. May I ask what makes it "absurd"?

On Wed, Sep 21, 2011 at 10:00 AM, Derek wrote:

Actually, I asked a lot of you in that reply. How about we just focus in on one thing at a time. Speciation for starts? Is that fair?

Incidentally, I really enjoyed your critique of phylogenetic analysis in your recent article on the reassessment of Archaeopteryx as no longer being a basal bird. I attended graduate school at Duke University in the '90s, and much of my time was spent learning and practicing cladistic analysis. I ultimately found myself frustrated with the technique for many of the reasons that you point out, subjectivity of characters and weights being foremost among them.

He threw a lot of things out there and then, 28 minutes later, suggested I not bother to answer them. Hopefully he realized that I have a lot more things to do with my life than sit at a computer and write to him. I check my email once or twice a day, and give the briefest possible answers. I had given Derek more attention than usual because he seemed to be generally interested in learning something, despite his pompous attitude.

I was a little bit wary of talking about speciation because the definition of what constitutes a difference in species is as controversial as what the definition of evolution is. I hoped I could satisfy him by referring him to a previous article.

It is ironic how this conversation is evolving.  It started out with a question of whether or not the definition of evolution includes abiogenesis.  Now you want to talk about speciation.  The definition of "species" is just as slippery as the definition of "evolution."

I wrote about "The Species Problem" nine years ago.  http://scienceagainstevolution.org/v6i6f.htm.

He replied almost immediately with a two-page personal attack that is not worth printing. So I ended the correspondence by saying,

Derek,

Now you are just getting defensive, making personal attacks, and grasping at straws.  You are no longer arguing with me—you are arguing with yourself.

For example, you say, “I'm sure you know that evolutionary biologists have written about the evolution of the eye in excruciating detail, and there really isn't much in question.”  You can’t really believe that!  Intellectually, you know Dawkins’ explanation in Climbing Mount Improbable is nonsense; but emotionally you want to believe it is true.  You aren’t trying to convince me that there really isn’t much in question about the evolution of the eye—you are trying to convince yourself.

You are well on the road to rejecting evolution.  My work here is done.

Good-bye,

Dave

Then I gave him the last word.

Never got one straight answer from you about a single directly posed question. I figured you'd bow out, but I thought you'd have more fight in you than that. Ah well. I had a bit of an epiphany about your tactics this morning while I was getting ready for work. You have sufficient background to pick apart a high school curriculum. A high school coverage of evolution (or any other science, for that matter), by necessity, is brief. So you pick on the things that are glossed over, you flail about at perceived weaknesses that will hopefully cause the public to think "Hmmm....maybe he's on to something." But you're not. When it comes to actual science being done by actual scientists, you change the topic and redirect. You make unsubstantiated claim after unsubstantiated claim and then you wonder why evolutionists don't take "creation science" seriously. And oh how I love the rhetoric! "You are no longer arguing with me - you are arguing with yourself"! Classic! Love it. Not sure if you're a fan, but in the 1980s, there was a recurring character that Martin Short played on Saturday Night Live where he was this neurotic chain-smoking mess with slicked back hair, and they'd "interview" him on a fake news investigation-type show. What I'm enjoying so much is that his little transparent tricks of rhetoric are exactly the kind of thing you seem to be resorting to.

If you feel personally attacked, I think you misunderstood or are misconstruing something I said. I don't know you personally, so I can't personally attack you. Me wondering whether you're being dishonest or ignorant isn't a personal attack; it's based directly on observation.

Thanks for your time,

Derek

Incidentally, if you'd like someone with an education in evolutionary biology to offer constructive critique for your writings BEFORE you post them to your webpage, I'm happy to offer my input. I don't mean this as an insult. If you truly are interested in making sure you're putting together a coherent argument to support your point, I can tell you which things are easily dismissed or where you're off base.

Now we have come full-circle. This whole email exchanged began with me asking him to give me an example of any factual errors, and he could not do it. Then, in his last sentence, he offers to point out my errors!

Perhaps we devoted more space to Derek than he deserves; but the feedback we get indicates that our readers really enjoy it when evolutionists make fools of themselves. But our purpose isn’t just to laugh at Derek. It is important to understand what evolutionists believe, and why they believe it. A hard-core evolutionist like Derek won’t be swayed by a factual, logical argument. He believes he knows it all. He is one of the elite who can define words any way he wants to make them serve his purpose.

He was trying to win a debate. I was trying to explain what I believe, and why I believe it. My goal was education. His goal was victory.

I really do believe that he was trying to convince himself that he is right. If he could beat me in a debate, it would relieve his insecurity.

Even without seeing the really nasty two-page email (that really wasn’t worth printing in a 6-page newsletter that is already 8 pages long), you can see how emotion is clouding his reasoning.

You may wonder why we even bother to correspond with someone like Derek. We usually don’t because we know it is a waste of time. Our intended audience is people who want to learn, not debate.

I misjudged Derek. I thought he really wanted to learn. He clearly had some misunderstanding about what creationists believe. I thought we could clear up those misunderstandings. I was wrong.

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