Friday, September 09, 2005

Why Can't We Have More Congressmen Like This?

Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) states it plain:

Science, by definition, is a method of learning about the physical universe by asking questions in a way that they can be answered empirically and verifiably. If a question cannot be framed so that the answer is testable by looking at physical evidence and by allowing other people to repeat and replicate one's test, then it is not science. The term science also refers to the organized body of knowledge that results from scientific study. Intelligent design offers no way to investigate design scientifically. Intelligent design explains complicated phenomena of the natural world by involving a designer. This way of thinking says things behave the way they do because God makes them behave that way. This treads not into science but into the realm of faith. A prominent physicist, W. Pauli, used to say about such a theory “It is not even wrong”. There is no testable hypothesis or prediction for Intelligent Design.

It is irresponsible for President Bush to cast intelligent design - a repackaged version of creationism - as the “other side” of the evolution “debate.” Creationists and others who denigrate the concept of evolution call it a theory, with a dismissive tone. They say that, as a theory, it is up for debate. Sure, evolution is a theory, just as gravitation is a theory. The mechanisms of evolution are indeed up for debate, just as the details of gravitation and its mathematical relationship with other forces of nature are up for debate. Some people once believed that we are held on the ground by invisible angels above us beating their wings and pushing us against the earth. If angels always adjusted their beating wings to exert force that diminished as the square of the distance between attracting bodies, it would be just like our idea of gravitation. The existence of those angels, undetected by any measurements, would not be the subject of science. Such an idea of gravity is “not even wrong”. It is beyond the realm of science. So, too, is intelligent design.

I'm swooning! Go read the whole thing.

Holt, incidentally, holds a PhD in physics from NYU. Every once in a while, someone comes along to remind me why I'm a Democrat.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

I haven't seen the movie yet, but the ads leave little doubt that it's a load of brain-dead religious nonsense. Slate's film critic, David Edelstein weighs in:

The religious horror picture The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Screen Gems) is the latest and tackiest assault on the reality-based secular community—just the kind of propaganda that's not supposed to be coming from ultraliberalcommiejewfag Hollywood. It goes even further than the religious horror picture Signs, which suggests that if you don't believe in God you can't possibly protect your kids from demonic aliens. This one says that if you believe in medical science over prayer, you not only can't protect your kids, you suppress the spiritual antibodies they need to fight the devil. Take a pill and you're all Satan's.

And my favorite part:

For all its cheap ghost-movie effects, the film aspires to something larger: the idea—one of the chief talking points for proponents of Intelligent Design as their “scholarship” is shot down—that even if we can't scientifically prove the existence of the Almighty (and the demons who try to undo his work), we must open ourselves to that possibility and recognize it as valid. Certainly it is as valid as that other, godless way of looking at the world. And it's more imperative: We dismiss the battle for our souls at our peril.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Midgley Steps in it Again

The Guardian has now published some letters to the editor in reply to the Dawkins/Coyne article I linked to a few days ago. Most of them are pretty weak, but there is one, by British philosopher Mary Midgley, that truly stands out. We consider it in full:

Why do Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, in attacking the theory of intelligent design (ID), deal only with the arguments of traditional creationists (One side can be wrong, Life, September 1)?

Off to a bad start, I'm afraid. Dawkins and Coyne do not discuss any of the arguments of traditional creationists. In reality they confine themselves entirely to the claims of modern ID folks, focusing especially on the bogus logic they employ to establish design. Go read the article and see for yourself. I wonder what article Midgley read?

Today's ID theorists are more sophisticated. They concede that natural selection plays some part in development and that creation is not recent. They do not speak of God but, more generally, of design. Their position is indeed confused but it surely needs to be addressed directly. Of course the theory has been seized on by the neocons as a straight vindication of the Bible.

Except for the part about ID folks being confused, this paragraph is total nonsense.

ID folks are only superficially more sophisticated than their creationist forebears, and that superficial sophistication comes primarily from their ability to throw jargon around with reasonable confidence.

Traditional creationists are also perfectly happy to concede that natural selection plays some part in evolution (development??). There is no distinction between creo's and ID's on this point.

ID's do not concede that creation was not recent. They take no stand on the issue, and are perfectly happy to include tradiitonal YEC's among their ranks.

As Dawkins and Coyne show in their article, any designer capable of the feats ID folks attribute to him would have to be supernatural. Furthermore, anyone who follows this subject for five minutes knows that ID reticence about God is a politically motivated subterfuge, plain and simple.

The ID position has been addressed directly in countless books and articles, and Dawkins and Coyne directly address an important part of it in their short op-ed.

And the neo-cons are not generally associated with the religious right. Not in this country anyway.

Incredibly, the letter is about to get worse:

But really, it signifies something much less simple. It expresses a widespread discontent with the neo-Darwinist - or Dawkinsist - orthodoxy that claims something which Darwin himself denied, namely that natural selection is the sole and exclusive cause of evolution, making the world therefore, in some important sense, entirely random. This is itself a strange faith which ought not to be taken for granted as part of science.

Golly! That Dawkins must be a real rebel, thumbing his nose at Darwin like that.

Midgley must surely be aware that no one in the history of the world has ever suggested that natural selection is the sole and exclusive cause of evolution. Everyone understands that there are a wide variety of mechanisms by which evolutionary change can take place. Natural selection is simply the most important cuase of adaptive evolution. Since much of Dawkins' scientific work deals specifically with adaptation, it is not surprising that he dwells on selection over other mechanisms.

And even if natural selection were the sole and exclusive cause of evolution, there would still be no important sense in which the organisms that evolve (the world??) are purely the result of random chance. The randomness of genetic variation ensures a lot of variabiliy in what emerges, but the regularity of natural selection strongly constrains what can evolve.

If the name Mary Midgley sounds familiar, it is probably because this is not the first time she has humiliated herself by commenting on matters evolutionary. Midgley was the author of this egregiously poor book review of Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, published, for some unfathomable reason, in the journal Philosophy back in 1979. Dawkins subsequently delivered a rhetorical evisceration of her work, which helps explain why she finds it so difficult to deal rationally with anything Dawkins writes. As an example of how things went, here's an excerpt from Midgley's review:

Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological. This should not need mentioning, but Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene has succeeded in confusing a number of people about it, including Mr J. L. Mackie.[1] What Mackie welcomes in Dawkins is a new, biological-looking kind of support for philosophic egoism. If this support came from Dawkins’s producing important new facts, or good new interpretations of old facts, about animal life, this could be very interesting. Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing - the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths. He is an uncritical philosophic egoist in the first place, and merely feeds the egoist assumption into his a priori biological speculations, only rarely glancing at the relevant facts of animal behaviour and genetics, and ignoring their failure to support him.

And later:

His central point is that the emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming that all emotional nature is so. Since the emotional nature of animals clearly is not exclusively self-interested, nor based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing from speculations about the emotional nature of genes, which he treats as the source and archetype of all emotional nature. This strange convoluted drama must be untwisted before the full force of the objections from genetics can be understood.

Mackie, incidentally, delivered his own demolition of Midgley's arguments here.

From Dawkins' reply:

I have been taken aback by the inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley’s assault.[1] Some colleagues have advised me that such transparent spite is best ignored, but others warn that the venomous tone of her article may conceal the errors in its content. Indeed, we are in danger of assuming that nobody would dare to be so rude without taking the elementary precaution of being right in what she said. We may even bend over backwards to concede some of her points, simply in order to appear fair-minded when we deplore the way she made them. I deplore bad manners as strongly as anyone, but more importantly I shall show that Midgley has no good point to make. She seems not to understand biology or the way biologists use language. No doubt my ignorance would be just as obvious if I rushed headlong into her field of expertise, but I would then adopt a more diffident tone. (Emphaiss in original)

In fairness, Midgley subsequently apologized for her tone here.

And later:

It follows from such a behaviouristic definition of altruism and selfishness that ‘calculation’, whether long-term or not, is irrelevant, as is ‘emotional nature’. I assume that an oak tree has no emotions and cannot calculate, yet I might describe an oak tree as altruistic if it grew fewer leaves than its physiological optimum, thereby sparing neighbouring saplings harmful overshadowing. A biologist would be interested in calculating the genetic and other conditions which would be necessary for such ‘altruism’ to be favoured by natural selection: for instance, it might be favoured if the saplings were close relatives of the tree. Philosophers may object that this kind of definition loses most of the spirit of what is ordinarily meant by altruism, but philosophers, of all people, know that words may be redefined in special ways for technical purposes. In effect I am saying: “Provided I define selfishness in a particular way an oak tree, or a gene, may legitimately be described as selfish.” Now a philosopher could reasonably say: “I don’t like your definition, but given that you adopt it I can see what you mean when you call a gene selfish.” But no reasonable philosopher would say: “I don’t like your definition, therefore I shall interpret your statement as though you were using my definition of selfishness; by my definition your concept of the selfish gene is nonsense, therefore it is nonsense.” This is, in effect, what Midgley has done: “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological” (p. 439). Why didn’t she add to this witty little list, for the benefit of quantum physicists, that fundamental particles cannot have charm?

You get the idea. Evolution is where the action is, which is why every two-bit hack with a flair for a clever turn of phrase feels qualified to comment. Midgley, like so many others who publish on this subject, deems it unnecssary to first learn some science before writing with confidence about it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Nelson on Mooney/Nisbet

Of course, the ID folks weren't going to take the Mooney/Nisbet article lying down. It wasn't long before they had dispatched one of their flacks to say something stupid. The flack in question was Paul Nelson, and his comments can be found here. He begins with an excerpt from the Mooney/Nisbet article, the most relevant portion of which I produce below:

What Dobzhansky calls “evolution,” Charles Darwin himself often called “descent with modification,” but the basic idea is the same — that the wide variety of organisms occupying the earth today share a common ancestry but have diversified greatly over time.

From here Mooney/Nisbet go on to describe the way virtually all scientists and professional scientific organizations view this subject.

Seems unobjectionable enough, but here's Nelson:

The safe strategy, then, if one doesn't want to be tossed into the lowly bin labelled “hack reporters trying for phony scientific balance on a story where there is none,” would be to paste something resembling Mooney and Nisbet's Orthodox Position on Evolution into one's article.

Problem is, if scientists love to make discoveries, reporters love to break stories. As in, tell their readers something new (i.e., newsworthy): “You and most people think P, but I've learned Q; and here's why Q is significant and deserves your attention.” So let's suppose you're a science reporter who wanders over to the Panda's Thumb blog to see what's cooking that day. Turns out Mike Syvanen is explaining why Darwin's tree of life -- Mooney and Nisbet's orthodox “common ancestry of all organisms on earth” -- may not be the case, because life may have arisen from multiple independent starting points.

Let us begin with the obvious: Mooney and Nisbet make no reference to the tree of life. They talk only about common ancestry. Those are two different things. Since Nelson is about to make hey out of the fact that many biologists argue that trees are not the best models for evolution at the earliest stages, this equation is highly significant.

Now let's turn to the Syvanen post to which Nelson refers. Does Syvanen write that common ancestry is on the way out? Of course not:

As an example for how profound the notion of HGT [horizontal gene transfer] has changed our thinking concerns the notion of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA). This is an idea that was central to the hypothesis that life shared common ancestors. Though the idea of common ancestry remains valid (indeed evidence for common ancestry is everywhere in the sequence of our genes) there is no longer a need to postulate that all life evolved from a single last universal common ancestor. Rather, we can entertain common descent from multiple ancestors.

Hard to get much clearer than that. At the very earliest stages of evolution (where HGT is now known to be an important mechanism of evolution) it becomes inaccurate to view evolution as a tree. Instead of tracing our heritage back to a single ancestor, we find instead a community of simple organisms that were trading genetic material with each other via HGT. Thus, a differemt metaphor is called for.

And Nelson thinks this is relevant to an article about evolution and ID?

The ID folks want us to believe that the very possibility of a naturalistic explanation for the evolutionary process is so ridiculous that it is more plausible to concoct, from nothing, an unbelievably powerful intelligent designer. Now it turns out that there is a previously underappreciated mechanism of evolution that provides yet another naturalistic way for genetic complexity to increase. Why does Nelson think this is helpful to his cause?

To put it another way, the discussion has gone like this: Evolutionists of a bygone era used the metaphor of a tree of life, in which any pair of modern organisms can be said to have a common ancestor. They pushed this tree back all the way to its root, hypothesizing that there was a single organism residing there. More recent work has shown that, especially among relatively simple organisms, genetic transfer can, and frequently does, take place by mechanisms other than descent. Consequently, instead of viewing the tree being rooted at a single organism, it is more accurate to view a community of many organisms at the root. Further, a metaphor other than a tree should be used to describe evolution at this level.

And here's Nelson saying, “See! Evolution's all nonsense. There's real controversy here! ID works better.”

Nelson gives a second example:

Hot on the scent now, you click over to Entrez PubMed and put “Tree of Life” into the search box. Up pops a recent paper about the shortcomings of “tree thinking,” which also appears to challenge another of Mooney and Nisbet's What Every Sane Biologist Knows For Sure points of orthodoxy.

Now you've got a couple of problems. You know what you're supposed to say, per Mooney and Nisbet, to stay out of the disreputable hack bin. What you really want to do, however, is to call Mike Syvanen, or W.F. Doolittle's lab, to arrange an interview.

If you're interested, the paper Nelson is referring to can be found here. In this case, however, there isn't even any need to quote from the article. The authors are making precisely the same point as Syvanen. “Tree thinking” is not a good way of thinking about the earliest stages of evolution.

According to Nelson, reporters writing stories about evolution and ID should make a point of discussing how new discoveries are showing that evolutionists have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal for explaining major aspects of evolution. Fine with me. But this fact contradicts nothing that Mooney and Nisbet wrote, and it is positively damaging to the ID case. Why Nelson thinks he has scored a point here is beyond me.

Mooney and Nisbet in CJR

The cover story of the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review is about the media's egregiously misleading reporting on evolution ID disputes. Its authors are Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet. The whole article is excellent. Here's a brief excerpt:

As evolution, driven by such events, shifts out of scientific realms and into political and legal ones, it ceases to be covered by context-oriented science reporters and is instead bounced to political pages, opinion pages, and television news. And all these venues, in their various ways, tend to deemphasize the strong scientific case in favor of evolution and instead lend credence to the notion that a growing “controversy” exists over evolutionary science. This notion may be politically convenient, but it is false.

Well said. Go read the rest.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I Guess Vestigial Organs Really ARE Functional

Here's a sample. Go check out the whole list.

The Appendix: Often derided by secular scientists as unimportant, the appendix is in fact an essential feature in God's meticulous design for humanity. The Almighty uses this organ, which He non-coincidentally sculpted in the shape of a miniature flaccid penis, to remotely inflict torturous earthly pain on all who displease Him.

Wisdom Teeth: Contrary to the preposterous notion that the human jaw bone has somehow grown incrementally smaller over the course of untold millennia, God took great pride in carefully programming our DNA to cause at least one impacted wisdom tooth in 90% of adults. He did this in order to assure a bright and promising future for another of his intelligent creations: orthodontia.

The “Tail Bone”: Though it has labored under the double indignity of TWO anti-Christian labels: the evolution-implying “tail bone” and egregiously lewd “coccyx”, this ingeniously sensitive spinal tip was installed by God specifically for occasions when your rollerskates fly out from under you while you're doing the Hokey-Pokey – so you'll land on something that punishes you for acting like white trash.

A Milestone Reached

According to the good folks at Site Meter, EvolutionBlog is now averaging more than a thousand hits per day. Not exactly Pharyngula numbers, but I'll take what I can get! A heartfelt thanks to everyone who's stopped by. Thanks also go to the commenters (including the critics). Lack of time prevents me from responding to more of them, but they all get read and pondered.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Accepting Berlinski's Challenge

Since David Berlinski's essay The Deniable Darwin is readily available online, I decided to take him up on the challenge I quoted in the previous post:

You could, if you wished, line up Darwin on Trial or my own “The Deniable Darwin” and compare it to the remarkably frank admission and ask yourself just what the hell Coyne and Dawkins are not saying that we did not say long before them?

Were Coyne and Dawkins simply parroting criticisms of evolution already offered by Berlinski himself? Let's take a look.

Moving through Berlinski's essay from beginning to end, I found the following general criticisms of evolution:

  1. There are gaps in the fossil record.

  2. The Cambrian Explosion.

  3. Natural selection is a meaningless tautology.

  4. It is implausible that complex systems evolved graudally.

  5. Evolution is vacuous becuase it can potentially explain any set of data.

  6. Evolution relies too heavily on chance.

  7. There is the implication, though no outright assertion, that evolution runs afoul of the second law of thermodynamics.

  8. The argument from design is intuitively satisfying.

  9. The connection between genotype and phenotype is poorly understood.

  10. A chance-driven process could not locate useful proteins within the vast space of possible proteins.

  11. Natural selection has no foresight.

  12. Dawkins' “weasel” experiment is unrealistic.

  13. Evolutionists tell adaptationist just-so stories.

These points range from bad to laughable, and all of them are made in Berlinski's trademark “Look how clever I am!” writing style. But that is not the subject for today.

To remind you, here is the list of genuine controversies mentioned by Dawkins and Coyne:

Among the controversies that students of evolution commonly face, these are genuinely challenging and of great educational value: neutralism versus selectionism in molecular evolution; adaptationism; group selection; punctuated equilibrium; cladism; “evo-devo” the “Cambrian Explosion” mass extinctions; interspecies competition; sympatric speciation; sexual selection; the evolution of sex itself; evolutionary psychology; Darwinian medicine and so on.

For some of these they even provided a helpful paragraph at the end of the article describing the nature of the controversy.

Berlinski's list contains 13 points; the one from Dawkins and Coyne contains 14. Despite this, I count only two points of intersection between Berlinski's list and that of Dawkins and Coyne.

The first point of intersection involves the Cambrian explosion. Here, in it's entirety, is what Berlinski says about it:

Before the Cambrian era, a brief 600 million years ago, very little is inscribed in the fossil record; but then, signaled by what I imagine as a spectral puff of smoke and a deafening ta-da!, an astonishing number of novel biological structures come into creation, and they come into creation at once.

And here is what Dawkins and Coyne say:

Although the fossil record shows that the first multicellular animals lived about 640m years ago, the diversity of species was low until about 530m years ago. At that time there was a sudden explosion of many diverse marine species, including the first appearance of molluscs, arthropods, echinoderms and vertebrates. “Sudden” here is used in the geological sense; the “explosion” occurred over a period of 10m to 30m years, which is, after all, comparable to the time taken to evolve most of the great radiations of mammals. This rapid diversification raises fascinating questions; explanations include the evolution of organisms with hard parts (which aid fossilisation), the evolutionary “discovery” of eyes, and the development of new genes that allowed parts of organisms to evolve independently.

As I've said before, the Cambrian explosion is a problem for evolution only in the sense that there are many possible explanations for it, but insufficient data for deciding between those explanations.

So, in a brief paragraph at the end of an op-ed, Dawkins and Coyne manage to give a good description of what the Cambrian explosion is, and toss of three possible explanations for it. Meanwhile, in a 7500 word essay, Berlinski provides a single (run-on) sentence on the subject, in which he gives a preposterously oversimplified description of the issue, and does not mention any of the perfectly plausible explanations for it.

Is that what Berlinski had in mind when he said we should chortle at Dawkins and Coyne's frank admission of critical problems with evolution that he had pointed out previously?

The other point of intersection is the one about adaptionism. Dawkins and Coyne do not elaborate on this one, but they have in mind the difficulty, in many cases, of determining whether a given trait of an organism is an adaptation formed by natural selection or a chance byproduct of some other process. The controversy involves the overapplication, in the opinion of some biologists, of a style of reasoning that everyone agrees is perfectly reasonable in many cases.

Berlinski uses this to suggest that the willingness of people like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and H. Allen Orr to criticize certain overextensions of adaptationist reasoning represents an unravelling of evolutionary theory itself. This is, in itself, a giant overextension, but it is a moot point anyway. Criticizing adaptionist reasoning has nothing to do with the validity of evolution generally. It simply reflects the paucity of data from which we can extract evolutionary conclusions. That adaptionist stories are often hard to test as a practical matter, and are often just one of several possible explanations for a given trait, has nothing to do with whether those stories are right or wrong.

And, incidentally, we should point out again that Berlinski bases his argument on the prior writings of Gould, Lewontin and Orr. Given that, it's a bit rich for him to turn around now and say evolutionists should acknowledge their debt to him for raising these points first.

So, once again, we have caught Berlinski making stuff up. There is almost no intersection at all between Berlinski's points and those made by Dawkins and Coyne, and where there is overlap the latter had a far different points in mind than the former. But then, if they didn't resort to total fiction the anti-evolutionists would have nothing to say at all.

What on Earth is David Berlinski Talking About?

Not everyone was as impressed by the Dawkins and Coyne article as I was. Here's David Berlinski, commenting via the Discovery Institute's blog:

Please read the article while endeavoring not to laugh, chortle, snicker, hoot or whistle. You will find it cannot be done. In the course of affirming why there is absolutely no controversy about anything over there where Darwinian biologists hang out, they indicate quite soberly that, in fact, there are lots of controversies after all -- all of them precisely of the sort that Darwinian critics have been insisting were there all along and that Darwinian biologists have all along insisted did not exist and were of no consequence. You could, if you wished, line up Darwin on Trial or my own “The Deniable Darwin” and compare it to the remarkably frank admission and ask yourself just what the hell Coyne and Dawkins are not saying that we did not say long before them? And you could, if you wished further, ask yourself why it has taken this long for the leaders of the field to acknowledge the plain fact that Darwinian theories are simpy riddled with problems for which Darwinian theories have no answers. If you were uncharitably inclined, you might even post this entire piece to the DI website with the words: Hey fellas, we told you so.

In the middle there I'm sure Berlinksi meant to say, “..what the hell Coyne and Dawkins are saying...” as opposed to “not saying,” but let's leave that aside.

Berlinski says that Dawkins and Coyne indicate that “there are lots of controversies after all -- all of them precisely of the sort that Darwinian critics have been insisting were there all along and that Darwinian biologists have all along insisted did not exist and were of no consequence.” Of course, in reality they say nothing of the sort.

To anyone who both read the article and cares about presenting its contents with a modicum of accuracy, the point Dawkins and Coyne were making could not have been clearer. There are a great many points of controversy among evolutionary biologists, something no one has ever denied, but they are fundamentally different kinds of controversies from the ones ID folks try to whip up. Here's Dawkins and Coyne:

Among the controversies that students of evolution commonly face, these are genuinely challenging and of great educational value: neutralism versus selectionism in molecular evolution; adaptationism; group selection; punctuated equilibrium; cladism; “evo-devo” the “Cambrian Explosion” mass extinctions; interspecies competition; sympatric speciation; sexual selection; the evolution of sex itself; evolutionary psychology; Darwinian medicine and so on. The point is that all these controversies, and many more, provide fodder for fascinating and lively argument, not just in essays but for student discussions late at night.

Intelligent design is not an argument of the same character as these controversies. It is not a scientific argument at all, but a religious one.

Totally unambiguous, and totally not what Berlinski described. Likewise, none of the controversies Dawkins and Coyne describe show that Darwinian theories are riddled with problems. Just the opposite. In every case the issue is that there are several different possible explanations that fit comfortably within conventional evolutionary theory, but insufficient data for deciding between them. Indeed, these controversies shoud be far more worrisome to ID folks. They are trying to persuade us that evolutionists are fumbling in the dark, desperate for any plausible mechanism to explain the phenomena they confront. So much so, in fact, that the only plausible explanation for natural history involves concocting, out of whole cloth, a designer with incomprehensible powers. The reality is scientists are inundated with plausible explanations, and argue over which is the correct one.

Periodically I accuse this or that anti-evolutionist of being a liar, and when I do so I know to expect an indignant comment or an angry e-mail. Typically my correspondent informs me that he is generally on my side, but does not appreciate the nasty tone I sometimes take.

To any such person reading this who feels inclined to comment, I offer a simple challenge: Read Dawkins and Coyne, then reread Berlinski's description of what they wrote. Then tell me what I should conclude about Mr. Berlinski?

Dawkins and Coyne in The Guardian

Somehow I never got around to linking to this excellent op-ed, by Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, published in the British newspaper The Guardian last week:

What, after all, is a gap in the fossil record? It is simply the absence of a fossil which would otherwise have documented a particular evolutionary transition. The gap means that we lack a complete cinematic record of every step in the evolutionary process. But how incredibly presumptuous to demand a complete record, given that only a minuscule proportion of deaths result in a fossil anyway.

The equivalent evidential demand of creationism would be a complete cinematic record of God's behaviour on the day that he went to work on, say, the mammalian ear bones or the bacterial flagellum - the small, hair-like organ that propels mobile bacteria. Not even the most ardent advocate of intelligent design claims that any such divine videotape will ever become available.

Biologists, on the other hand, can confidently claim the equivalent “cinematic” sequence of fossils for a very large number of evolutionary transitions. Not all, but very many, including our own descent from the bipedal ape Australopithecus. And - far more telling - not a single authentic fossil has ever been found in the “wrong” place in the evolutionary sequence. Such an anachronistic fossil, if one were ever unearthed, would blow evolution out of the water.

I have often commented that that you can arrange some of the better preserved fossil series into one of those flip-cartoons and watch major evolutionary change take place. Nice to receive validation from biologists of the calibre of Dawkins and Coyne.

Go read the whole thing.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Formatting Changes

Having grown tired of the old template, I have decided to switch to a new one! Hopefully you will find the new version more attractive and easier to read. Since the links from the old blog have to be transferred manually, it will take me some time to restore my links list to its former glory. Let me know what you think!