Thursday, September 02, 2004

Does This Guy Have A Job?

Cornelius Hunter has already responded to my lengthy post on Tuesday. That didn't take long! His response is available here (scroll down to his third posting). Happily, he presents almost nothing new in this most recent contribution, so I see no reason to change my mind about pursuing the debate beyond replying to his first reply.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Schwarzenegger on Your Parents

I haven't been watching very much of the Republican National Convention; it just makes me too angry. But I did happen to turn it on in the middle of Schwarzenegger's speech yesterday. About thirty seconds later I heard him say this:

In this country, it doesn't make any difference where you were born. It doesn't make any difference who your parents were.

This, in a convention devoted to renominating George W. Bush. Could you puke?

I promptly turned off the television.

How Did This Happen?

The Washington Times has this interesting article about a recent anti-evolution paper that managed to get published in a real science journal. The paper in question is entitled “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” and is available here.
The paper's author was Stephen Meyer. It was published in The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke, and Wesley Elsberry have authored an extensive critique of the paper over at The Panda's Thumb. Their conclusion:

The mistakes and omissions in Meyer’s work are many and varied, and often layered on top of each other. Not every aspect of Meyer’s work can be addressed in this initial review, so we have chosen several of Meyer’s major claims to assess. Among these, we will take up the Cambrian explosion and its relation to paleontology and systematics. We will examine Meyer’s negative arguments concerning evolutionary theories and the origin of biological “information” in the form of genes.

They also offer some important thoughts about how an article this slipshod managed to get past peer review:

The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (PBSW) is a respected, if somewhat obscure, biological journal specializing in papers of a systematic and taxonomic nature, such as the description of new species. A review of issues in evolutionary theory is decidedly not its typical fare, even disregarding the creationist nature of Meyer’s paper. The fact that the paper is both out of the journal’s typical sphere of publication, as well as dismal scientifically, raises the question of how it made it past peer review. The answer probably lies in the editor, Richard von Sternberg. Sternberg happens to be a creationist and ID fellow traveler who is on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group at Bryan College in Tennessee. (The BSG is a research group devoted to the determination of the created kinds of Genesis. We are NOT making this up!) Sternberg was also a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s “100 Scientists Who Doubt Darwinism” statement. [3] Given R. v. Sternberg’s creationist leanings, it seems plausible to surmise that the paper received some editorial shepherding through the peer review process. Given the abysmal quality of the science surrounding both information theory and the Cambrian explosion, it seems unlikely that it received review by experts in those fields. One wonders if the paper saw peer review at all.

The Times article is pretty good, which is surprising given the paper's generally rightward slant. They write:

The small journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, published in its June issue a paper scientists say erroneously critiques the theory of evolution. The paper was authored by Stephen Meyer, project director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, a proponent of “intelligent design” based in Seattle.

The Oakland, Calif.,-based National Center for Science Education, a staunch defender of the teaching of evolution in schools, said it “has already heard from a number of members of the Biological Society of Washington ... who are concerned about the reputation of the society and its journal after the publication of such a piece of substandard work in the apparent service of a non-scientific ideology.”

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Hunter in Wonderland, Part One

It seems that Cornelius Hunter has forgotten the first rule of holes: When you're in a hole, stop digging.

As my regular readers are doubtless aware, I devoted three recent entries of this blog (available here, here, and here) to Hunter's essay “Why Evolution Fails the Test of Science” in William Dembski's anthology Uncommon Dissent. Hunter, showing a staggering lack of appreciation for all the time and patience I put into responding to his drivel, has expectorated a poorly-reasoned reply available here.

Over the next two weeks or so I will post three replies to Hunter's recent missive, corresponding to the three parts of Hunter's reply (one dealing with fossils, one dealing with the universal genetic code, and one dealing with anatomical homologies). I do not intend to participate further in this debate beyond that point; if Hunter chooses to reply to my reply, then he can have the last word.

Of course, I realize that by responding at all I'm violating the first rule of debate: Never argue with a fool, for people will forget who's who. But what can you do?

I'd also like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Richard Wein in preparing this reply. Some of the arguments I will be making here were suggested to me by him.

Now, on to the fossils. Hunter begins his reply as follows:

Rosenhouse first addresses my section entitled “The Fossil Record.” The section begins by explaining that the fossil record contains substantial evidence for evolution. I followed this with evidential problems in the fossil record. My point was that while there is positive evidence in the fossil record, that evidence is compromised by a number of important problems.

For instance, in the synapsid reptile to mammal transition there is a plethora of similar fossil species. Included are species with finely graded changes in the jaw anatomy. While this is evidence for evolution, we must also consider problems with this evidence. Ever since Stephen Jay Gould extolled these fossils as providing a “lovely sequence of intermediates,” they have too often been assumed to be without issue. But across the reptile-mammal transition ancestral-descendant relationships are not obvious. Also, there are large gaps between and within the reptiles and mammals. Organisms must have evolved so rapidly that they appear fully formed and diverse in the fossil record. And amidst this spread of fossil species convergent evolution must have occurred many times, as many similar designs, in similar species, could not have derived from a common ancestor.

In my original post I presented the following argument for why the mammal-like reptile fossils provide such strong confirmation of common descent:

The primary skeletal difference between reptiles and mammals is found in the strucutre of their jaws. Reptiles have three bones that connect their lower jaw to their upper jaw, while mammals have only one such bone. Two of the bones found in the reptilian jaw are nearly identical to two of the bones in the mammalian inner ear. If our hypothesis is that mammals evolved from reptiles, then there must at one time have been animals whose jaw structure was transitional between reptiles and mammals. There was a time when this hypothesis was considered so absurd that it was treated as prima facie evidence for the impossibility of evolution (I mean, if jaw bones became ear bones then the intermediates would have disfunctional jaws and disfunctional ears, right?) Yet the fossil record documents that animals having the required features actually existed.

Hunter ignores this argument completely.

Instead, he simply conflates two different questions. Namely, “Does the fossil record provide strong evidence of common descent?” with “Can we infer specific lines of descent from fossils alone?”. This error was present in the original essay as well, and I pointed it out in my reply. Hunter never gets around to replying to this rather obvious point, though he does mock it towards the end of his essay. His failure to take this point seriously does not speak well for his understanding of this subject.

Hunter protests that ancestor-descendant relationships are not obvious. Of course not. They never are from fossils alone. A fossil is a snapshot of a particular animal that existed long ago. It tells us only that an animal having certain combinations of features once existed. In this case the snapshots we have tell us that creatures exhibiting bizarre amalgams of reptilian and mammalian features, amalgams that have no proposed explanation outside of evolutionary theory, actually existed. But pile of bones A does not come with a little tag to tell us how it is related to piles of bones B and C. That's just a fact about fossils, not an indictment of evolutionary theory.

He next protests that that there are gaps “between and within the reptiles and mammals” and concludes from this that “Organisms must have evolved so rapidly that they appear fully formed and diverse in the fossil record.” The implication here is that the only reason a particular intermediate species fails to be represented in the fossil record is that it evolved itself out of existence too quickly to fossilize. That is hardly the only explanation for such a gap, however. The chances that any given species will fossilize are small indeed, even if the species existed for hundreds of thousands of years.

Furthermore, rapid evolution is not especially problematic in this context since we are talking about rapid in the geological sense. That is, we are talking about transitions that took place over periods of tens of thousands of years or so (as opposed to the millions of years in which paleontologists usually traffic). And as was shown by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, the pattern of stasis punctuated by relatively rapid bursts of change is the logical consequence of extrapolating the allopatric model of speciation to the fossil record. This was the basis of their theory of punctuated equilibrium, and we will have more to say about it later.

He closes his paragraph by repeating his bizarre assertion (he made the same point in his original essay) that convergent evolution must have occurred many times in the lineage leading from reptiles to mammals. In my original post I commented that I couldn't imagine what Hunter was getting at here. I still can't. Why could many similar designs not have derived from a common ancestor? Multiple lineages starting from the same ancestor begin with an identical design. Over time, the different lineages evolve differing variants of this design. Where's the mystery here? Nothing Hunter presented in his original essay sheds light on this question.

But he does offer some further thoughts on the subject here:

Examples of these can readily be found in paleontology textbooks [e.g., Benton, Carroll, Kemp, and Romer]. Rosenhouse, however, is apparently unaware of these basics of the fossil record, and expresses disbelief of any such outstanding issues. Regarding the cases of supposed convergent evolution [e.g., Benton, 291; Carroll, 377; Romer, 184], Rosenhouse can only confess that “I can't imagine what he's talking about.”

To explain his strange comment about convergent evolution, Hunter provides three page numbers in three different paleontology textbooks. No details. No quotes. Just the bare citation, made in the hope that people sympathetic to his cause will not check them out. Hunter wishes to persuade us that the various mammal-like reptiles preserved in the fossil record record alarming quantities of convergent evolution. Let's see if his references bear him out.

[Romer, 184] refers to the book Vertebrate Paleontology by Alfred Romer. Page 184 contains the following mention of convergent evolution:

It is certain that such mammalian characters as the reduction in phalanges and the formation of a secondary palate had been independently acquired in several therapsid groups. The cynodonts are sometimes thought to be mammalian ancestors, but there are minor features which debar them, some believe, from such position. Bauria in some features is closer still but may likewise prove to be somewhat off the path. But although the details of the phylogenetic history are still uncertain, the therapsid ancestry of mammals seems established.

Romer gives two examples of convergent evolution in the lineages of the mammal-like reptiles: reduction in phalanges (toes) and the formation of a secondary palate. A reduction in the size of the phalanges is hardly a major morphological change. It is not at all implausible to think that so minor a change in anatomy could be converged upon, especially if there was selection pressure to do so. Rampant convergent evolution would be a problem if we found several lineages evolving major, complex morphological innovations in parallel. Parallel reduction in toe size is not very impressive.

While we're at it, we should note that Romer draws a clear distinction between describing evolutionary trends and inferring specific lines of descent. Glad to see I'm in good company on that one.

Incidentally, page 184 of Romer also contains the following quote:

In the varied therapsid types, we span nearly the entire evolutionary gap between a primitive reptile and a mammal.

As for the development of a secondary palate, Hunter should have read Carroll's book (Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution) more carefully. The parallel formation of the secondary palate in two different lineages of mammal-like reptiles is the only example of convergent evolution given by Carroll on page 377. Happily, he goes into some detail about the differing paths the different lineages took (please forgive the jargon):

In contrast with the gorgonopsians, the jaw musculature in early therocephalians expanded dorsally over the braincase, leaving only a narrow sagittal crest between the adductor chambers. Both therocephalians and cynodonts developed a secondary palate, but this structure evolved in different ways in the two groups. In primitive therocephalians (Figure 17-28b), the vomer participates along with the premaxillae and maxillae, but the palatine remains dorsal in position. In primitive cynodonts (see Figure 17-30b), the vomer remains dorsal to the secondary palate, which incorporates the palatine in its posterior border. In both groups, the epipterygoid is expanded as a plate of bone lateral to the braincase.

I still can't imagine which part of this is supposed to make me uncomfortable about evolutionary theory. Sounds like we have good fossil documentation for how two different lineages converged on a similar beneficial change.

By the way, Carroll begins his lengthy chapter on the origin of mammals with this statement:

The sequence from the early amniotes to the early mammals is the most fully documented of the major transitions in vertebrate evolution. (P. 361)

Sadly, the library here did not have a copy of Benton's book. Anyone want to guess what I would find if I had it in front of me?

Hunter then provides two quotes to back up his assertions about alarmingly rapid rates of evolution. The first comes from T. S. Kemp's book Fossils and Evolution:

The apparent rate of morphological change in the main lineages of the mammal-like reptiles varies. The sudden appearance of new higher taxa, families and even orders, immediately after a mass extinction, with all the features more or less developed, implies a very rapid evolution. [Kemp, 327]

I'm sure Kemp actually said this somewhere, but it certainly wasn't on page 327 of his 1999 book Fossils and Evolution, since that book only has 284 pages. On page 227 of that book he does begin a fascinating discussion of the reptile to mammal transition, which concludes on page 234, but the quote above is not part of it. Kemp does include a chapter on mass extinctions. I skimmed that chapter without finding the quote, but perhaps it was there. Perhaps Hunter can fill in the details of where, exactly, this quote appears.

But since I can't believe that Hunter would simply concoct a quote I will assume that the quote is accurate. Kemp was quite prolific on the subject of the reptile-mammal transition, so perhaps Hunter got the quote from some other piece of Kemp's writing. It would be nice to see more of the quote's context, since I suspect that Kemp was not presenting this statement as some sort of problem for evolution.

So let's take the quote at face value. Kemp is describing a relatively rapid rate of evolution following a mass extinction. What's the problem? We would expect evolutionary rates to be rapid after a mass extinction. Such extinctions come about as a result of major environmental shocks. After the extinction numerous niches have opened up that were previously closed, and those populations of animals that remain are likely to be far from their maximal fitness. Both of these facts suggest that species will evolve rapidly in the years following the extinction event. Why does Hunter think this is helpful to his cause?

Hunter's second quote comes from Carroll:

The transition between pelycosaurs and therapsids has not been documented. It may have involved an environmental shift, as well as changes in morphology and physiology. The therapsids are already quite diverse when they first appear in the Upper Permian of Russia. [Carroll, 397]

This is an especially odd quote for Hunter to cite. The topic under discussion is the reptile to mammal transition. Pelycosaurs and therapsids are two different orders of reptiles. And there is nothing in this quote to suggest that evolution was unusually rapid.

Here's Hunter's explanation of why this is supposed to be troubling for evolution:

With evolution, we must believe that the process speeds up so as to conveniently leave no trace in the fossil record. This results in new organisms, fully formed and diverse (rather than in a lineage). But Rosenhouse misses the point and wonders out loud what the alternative is. “Partially formed fossils?”

But there is no convenient speeding up of the evolutionary process, not in Carroll's quote and not anywhere else. As Carroll describes on page 362 of his book, Pelycosaurs begin appearing in the fossil record at the base of the Pennsylvanian era, which he dates at 320 million years ago. The Permian era dates from 286 million years ago to 248 million years ago. The Upper Permian would refer to the more recent portion of that range, but let's use the 286 mya date. That means we are discussing a transition that had, at a minimum, 34 million years in which to occur. Where's the conveniently rapid evolution here?

I did not miss Hunter's point because he has no good point to make. He has only fog and confusion to offer. And I stand by my charge that talking about certain fossils being fully formed doesn't make much sense. Every fossil represents an animal which, when it was alive, was fully formed. If Hunter's concern is that certain specific structures appear without a clear fossil history, then he should spell out precisely which structures he has in mind and what sorts of fossilizable intermediates he expects to find.

We continue:

Rosenhouse continues to misread my essay. For instance, I explained how the horse sequence has been touted for years as strong evidence, but that in fact the horse-like fossil species do not align as was once thought. In fact, they persist unchanged and co-exist in the fossil record. Nonetheless, in textbooks and museums a sanitized version of the horse sequence too often continued to be used as an outstanding example of evolution. I used a Niles Eldredge quote to illustrate the situation.

Well, we certainly can't fault Hunter for consistency. His argument here is wrong for the same reason his argument about the reptile-mammal transition was wrong. For the thousandth time, the issue is not whether we can infer specific lines of descent from fossils alone. The horse fossils we have are compelling evidence for common descent because they document that animals having features transitional between small, primitive, vaguely horse-like animals on the one hand, and modern horses on the other, actually existed.

Hunter's criticism about species not aligning right has to do, again, with inferring specific lines of descent. That the fossil record documents a large number of stable horse-like species has no relevance to the question of whether the horse fossils we have provide strong evidence of common descent.

Throughout his essay Hunter seems to harp on two aspects of the fossil record as being harmful to evolution: stasis and relatively rapid change. Since these are exactly the points Gould and Eldredge developed punctuated equilibrium to address, Hunter really ought to explain why he finds PE inadequate. Hunter does make one brief mention of punctuated equilibrium, and we will revisit this topic then.

Next comes this:

Rosenhouse criticizes my use of the Eldredge quote. Rosenhouse says I have misrepresented Eldredge because Eldredge does not question evolution; rather, Eldredge is merely bemoaning the over simplified, speculative presentation of the horse fossils. I agree, and in that passage I did not attribute anything more than this to Eldredge.

In my original essay I said explicitily that I felt that Eldredge's intention was perfectly clear in the quote Hunter cited. But the fact remains that Hunter presented it in a misleading context. Hunter wants to persuade us that the horse fossils we have are not strong evidence of common descent. It was in making that argument that he invoked Eldredge. But Eldredge does not agree with Hunter's assertion, as the further quote from Eldredge that I provided shows.

Hunter presents Eldredge's quote right after Hunter asserts that the horse sequence “...turned out to be more problematic than evolutionists thought” Eldredge's statement is described as an “admission”, as if he were conceding something that was embarrassing to evolutionists. But Eldredge does not see the horse sequence as problematic for evolution and he did not believe he was admitting anything.

Anyone reading Hunter's essay without already being familiar with Eldredge's thoughts on this subject would get the idea that Eldredge supports Hunter's argument. He does not. That is why Hunter's presentation was misleading.

Hunter continues:

The problem is not that I misrepresented Eldredge's point, but that Rosenhouse misrepresented my point. Rosenhouse next quotes Eldredge decrying the erroneous claim that the order of the horse fossils had been manipulated in order to mislead the public. But, of course, I said no such thing. The problem is not that the order was misrepresented, but that the nature of the fossil record was misrepresented. The actual fossil record presents a dizzying array of species with little evidence of gradual change. Instead, what we see are species appearing and persisting in virtually unchanged condition.

But there was no misrepresentation of the nature of the fossil record, as Eldredge states clearly in the quote I provided in my original essay. The museum exhibit Eldredge was discussing shows four horse fossils lined up in their proper chronological order. Lovely. Eldredge was simply observing that some people, who don't know a whole lot of biology, get the misleading impression that those are all the fossils there are and that evolution necessarily follows a linear, progressive course. Regrettable, but hardly insidious.

And I have already addressed the business about stasis and change. Since Hunter is so fond of Niles Eldredge, he really ought to give more consideration to what Eldredge (and Gould) have been saying on this subject since 1972. (More on this below)

Hunter then asserts:

What Huxley failed to understand, and what Darwin knew very well, was that evolution had to be presented as gradual. Allowing for jumps would have opened the door to a non natural explanation. Darwin's arguments for evolution would have had much less traction if, in the end, he was to admit that his new found process just happened to act in quick spurts so that new species appeared abruptly. Saltations would have to wait until a later time, after evolution was firmly in place as the accepted explanation.

A century later, Eldredge and co-worker Stephen Jay Gould could safely propose the notion of punctuated equilibrium. Then, and only then could the nature of the fossils be simultaneously confessed and assimilated. With evolution firmly in place as a fact, any such evidential problems could be relegated to the question of how, not whether, evolution occurred. Hence, Rosenhouse admits that while inferring specific lines of descent among fossil species is a thorny problem, nonetheless he reassures us that this “has nothing to do with whether fossils provide strong evidence for common descent.”

Oh, brother. As soon as you see a critic of evolution mention saltations in the context of explaining rapid evolution, you know you are dealing with a major-league crank. No one, not Gould, not Eldredge, not anyone, is talking about saltations. Punctuated Equilibrium has nothing to do with saltations. In fact, it has nothing to do with mechanisms at all. Gould and Eldredge have never suggested that anything other than classical neo-Darwinian mechanisms were necessary to explain the rapid bursts of evolution they described.

Here Hunter is taking the standard ID approach of presenting PE as a desperate kluge concocted to explain away inconvenient facts. That's nonsense, of course. As I already mentioned, PE is simply the extrapolation of the allopatric model of speciation to the fossil record, and this aspect of PE is uncontroversial among biologists (it was first suggested by the most orthodox of evolutionists, Ernst Mayr, in a 1954 paper). Patterns of stasis and relatively rapid change are irrelevant when the question is the viability of the hypothesis of common descent.

By presenting this cartoon version of a major biological theory, Hunter demonstrates that he is only interested in parroting ID talking points, and not in getting at the truth of anything.

Hunter concludes this portion of his essay by descending even further into silliness.

He quotes me as saying “There is no rival theory that makes the same predictions about the fossil record that evolution does. That is why the fossil record provides such good evidence for evolution.” His reply:

It is true that no other theory makes the same predictions as evolution. In fact, evolution can accommodate everything from species persisting unchanged for eons to the abrupt appearance of new species in the fossil record.

The advanced trilobites, for instance, can appear before the less advanced ones, and placental mammals can predate marsupials in Australia. Major new designs can appear out of nowhere, as though planted there. Furthermore, if on a distant planet we found that nothing but bacteria had lived there for billions of years, that too would become a prediction of evolution. Yes, Rosenhouse is correct that only evolution makes all these predictions. But there is a difference between fulfilled predictions and good evidence.

These concluding paragraphs are an object lesson for anyone choosing to wade into the anti-evolution literature: No matter how reasonable, how dignified, how nuanced the author tries to seem, the cartoons and the caricatures are always there just under the surface. In the last paragraph it was the garbage about saltationism. Now its the old “Evolution can explain anything” dodge.

We have already seen that Hunter has no reply to the specific claims about the fossil record that I made. The patterns of stasis and change that Hunter keeps harping on are nothing more than the consequences of how fossils are formed and standard models of speciation. There's almost no end to the number of fossil discoveries we could potentially make that would provide a severe blow to evolution. Cambrian rabbits, to pick a favorite example. No, evolution can't explain everything we could find. It's just that it happens to explain everything we do find.

Hunter closes by throwing out a few more bare assertions without any details or references. They are throwaway lines, intended only to impress the scientific illiterates who make up his target audience.

And his closing line is especially strange. Among scientists, fulfilled predictions are effectively equivalent with good evidence.

I have not yet read the remaining two parts of Hunter's essay. Why am I not optimistic about finding anything worth pondering there?

Monday, August 30, 2004

Cordova Weighs In

ID cheerleader Salvador Cordova has weighed in (scroll down) on my little scrum with Cornelius Hunter. He's on Hunter's side. Oh well.

My reply to Hunter will have to wait until I have a little more time, but Cordova's remarks are sufficiently brain-dead that I'll adress them now.

He begins with:

Thank you Dr. Hunter for Posting. I would hope Dr. Rosenhouse will visit ISCID so that the two of you can dialogue directly.

If he is not representing your position correctly he should withdraw his statement. In terms of scientific dialogue, I recommend he come here and post. That would be a fruitful course of action in the interest of science.

Perhaps you could at least get on his blog and invite him to ISCID. I don't know, it's just a thought. If he shows up, he could clear the air maybe. I'm glad some annonymous poster linked to this thread.

I have no plans on posting at the ISCID, for what I assume are obvious reasons. For the record, I post here at EvolutionBlog, and over at The Panda's Thumb, and that's quite enough web posting to keep track of. When I read things that I feel merit a response I reply in one of those two venues.

As for misrepresenting Hunter's positions, I'll save that for my reply to him. Short version: Hunter's full of it.

My comments section here is open to anyone who cares to post, though I'd appreciate it if people did not post anonymously.

Cordova then quotes me as saying:

Hunter holds a PhD in biophysics from the University of Illinois, making him the only contributor among those I have read so far to actually have some scientific credentials.

and replies that:

Rosenhouse is a math professor not a biologist.

I am indeed a mathematician and not a biologist, but I'm not sure how that relates to the italicized quote above. Perhaps Cordova didn't know this, but I have done a series of posts over the last two months or so about the book Uncommon Dissent. My comments about Hunter's PhD (which I got from the author bio in the back of the book) were simply intended to contrast his credentials with those of Edward Sisson and Robert Koons, to whom I had replied earlier (my replies to Koons are available here, here, and here. My replies to Sisson can be found here, here, and here.) Neither Koons nor Sisson have any scientific credentials, you see.

But Cordova clearly seems to think I stepped in it in comparing Hunter's PhD in biophysics favorably against Koons' philosophy degree and Sisson's law degree. Somewhat redundantly he next quotes me as saying:

Moving right along, the next essay in Uncommon Dissent that I read was “Why Evolution Fails the Test of Science” by Cornelius Hunter. Hunter holds a PhD in biophysics from the University of Illinois, making him the only contributor among those I have read so far to actually have some scientific credentials.

and offers this snarky response:

Rosenhouse obviosly did not yet “read so far” in that he obviously fails to mention the credentials of:

Marcel Shutzenberger
Michael Denton
Michael Behe
Frank Tipler
David Berlinski
Roland Hirsh

Rosenhouse's statement is therefore not very persuasive, opening his criticism with a flimsy position. I think Rosenhouse's criticisms lack any scientific teeth. I would hope he visits here to defend his claims against your work. That is what is troubling, the substance of his criticism is not scientific.

Zing! Sadly, Cordova seems to have overlooked this post, in which I provide an overview of the credentials of all of the contributors to the anthology.

As I've said, the beginning of my essay about Hunter was a simple statement of fact about those portions of the book I had read up to that point. I was not taking a position of any sort. Cordova seems to think I was asserting that none of the contributors to Uncommon Dissent had scientific credentials. It's not clear to me how he got that impression.

The substance of my reply to Hunter addressed questions like the proper interpretation of the fossil record, the nature of the genetic code, and the proper understanding of anatomical homologies. Sounds pretty scientific to me.

Cordova then quotes me as saying:

And the sheer quanitity of these similarities makes it implausible to attribute them to chance alone.

without giving any hint of the context of this remark (I was asking how you explain certain similarities between species in the non-coding portions of the genome except by common descent). But he does uncork this reply:

That's right, therefore common design is a possibility. This is strengthened by the chapter in Michael Denton's book, Evolution a Theory in Crisis, regarding the “Biochemical Echo of Typology”. I invited Rosenhouse to comment on the precision of the sequence divergences in cytochrome-c. It was a topic actually amenable to his background in discrete mathematics. He has not responded. In fact, I'd be willing to debate him publicly at James Madison University if he so chooses and is willing to have the debate recorded.

Reading stuff like this always reminds me of the old Martin Short character Nathan Thurm from Saturday Night Live. Is it me or is it him? It's him, right?

When I talked about similarities in the non-coding portions of the genome, I was talking about things like redundant pseudogenes and retroviral scars, as described here. Mutations in pseudogenes have little to no effect on the organism's phenotype. They can mutate at will without harming the organism in which they reside. Consequently, we can use patterns in these portions of the genome to infer phylogenetic relationships between species. The phylogenies inferred in this way are consistent with those inferred by other means. That supports common descent.

But Cordova wants us to consider the possibility of common design. But keep in mind that we're talking about portions of the genome whose structure is irrelevant to the organism's phenotype. Mutations in pseudogenes generally have no effect on the animal's fitness. So if this is the result of common design we can only conclude that the designer, for unfathomable reasons of his own, decided to construct the non-coding regions of animal genomes in the only way that would be suggestive of common descent. We would conclude that the designer is being deliberately deceptive. Not very nice, to say the least.

Cordova then refers to an invitation he made to me to discuss something about from Michael Denton's book. It's news to me that such an invitation was ever extended. As for his current invitation to debate at JMU, my reply is a polite no thank you.

I'm not sure what Cordova has in mind about the similarities in the cytochrome-c sequence. But, if you're interested, here's a brief description of how the structure of cytochrome-c in different species provides good evidence of common descent.

I know nothing about Mr. Cordova except for what is included in this brief profile over at ISCID. But I have the distinct impression that he's the sort of person Cornelius Hunter would be just as happy not to have on his side.

The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers

I mentioned this Woody Allen short story in yesterday's postings but I neglected to provide a link to it. You can find the story here. It is well worth the ten minutes or so it will take you to read it.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Hunter in Wonderland, Prelude

It seems that Cornelius Hunter has read my recent eviscerations of his essay in William Dembski's anthology Uncommon Dissent. He was not amused. He has offered a reply here.

Over the next two weeks or so I will post a series of replies to Hunter's comments. As a warm-up, just let me say that as I was reading Hunter's essay I was reminded of a paragraph from Woody Allen's short story The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers, which is surely the finest story ever written on the subject of postal chess:

Received your latest letter today, and while it was just shy of coherence, I think I can see where your bewilderment lies. From your enclosed diagram, it has become apparent to me that for the past six weeks we have been playing two completely different chess games—myself according to our correspondence, you more in keeping with the world as you would have it, rather than with any rational system of order. The knight move which allegedly got lost in the mail would have been impossible on the twenty-second move, as the piece was then standing on the edge of the last file, and the move you describe would have brought it to rest on the coffee table, next to the board.

Seebach on WIDF

Columnist Linda Seebach of The Rocky Mountain News has produced another excellent column on the subject of Evolution and ID. This time she is endorsing the recent book Why Intelligent Design Fails, edited by Taner Edis and Matt Young. Here's an excerpt:

The last time I wrote a column that mentioned evolution, a reader complained on his Web log that probably 20 percent of my columns were on that topic. (Though he was kind enough to describe himself as a fan, on that particular topic he is not.) That turns out to be wrong, as it happens; I asked our archives to find anything with my byline containing the word "evolution," and there are 15, over seven years. Not all of them are columns, and not all of them are about biology, but 4 percent is pretty close. And why not? I write about things I'm interested in, I'm interested in science and evolutionary biology is a particularly fascinating part of science. It's a very active field, so there's always something new to write about.

That would be reason enough to make it a frequent topic, but in addition there's the fact that it is politically important because many people believe evolutionary biology is wrong, or at least incomplete. Some of them are actively seeking to replace it in school science curriculums with what they believe, and since I think they're wrong, I don't want them to be able to do that.

And that's why I think it would be good if lots of people read a new volume of essays, Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism. The editors are Matt Young, who teaches physics at the Colorado School of Mines, and Taner Edis, who teaches physics at Truman State University in Kirkland, Mo. The essays are focused on explaining why the claims of intelligent design proponents are scientifically unsound, and they are accessible to people who are not experts in science.

One small quibble: Truman State University is actually located in Kirksville, MO.

Chess in Washington

Just spent a pleasant weekend in our nation's capitol participating in the Atlantic Open chess tournament. I managed two wins and two losses. I withdrew before the last round to avoid having to drive home at night. The Continental Chess Association did their usual fine job of organization, and I thank them for all their hard work.