Author: Wayne Broughton (email@example.com)
Title: "Evolution and Creation" Seminar at Caltech
That is my one word summary of the event which I first announced a few
months ago and mentioned again a couple of weeks ago. It was presented
by the Skeptics Society and entitled "Evolution and Creation: The History
of a Controversy". It took place all day last Saturday (the 13th) and
cost $30 for nonmembers, $25 for members (and only $15 for students, but
I didn't find that out until I got to the door! It would have helped
to attract people if they had advertised the discount in advance.)
About 75-80 people were present. The program consisted almost entirely
of lectures by Dr. Michael Shermer, Director of Skeptics Society and
Adjunct Professor of History of Science at Occidental College, as well as
discussion and Q&A periods. We began about a quarter of an hour late.
Shermer first spoke on _Darwin_and_His_Theories_. This was easily the
best lecture (or at least the most informative for me), doubtless because
this was Shermer's area of specialization (he did his doctoral thesis
on Darwin and Wallace). He gave a brief overview of some of the people
who founded evolutionary theory and contributed to Darwin's ideas, mentioning
Linneaeus, Cuvier, Buffon, William Smith, Lyell, Malthus, and Lamarck.
He gave quite a lot of biographical detail about Darwin, including a
description of his grandfather Erasmus, and he made a lot of the fact that
Charles Darwin was the 8th of 9 children! Apparently, birth-order is
one of the most statistically significant discriminators between those
who are open to new and radical ideas, and those who resist their acceptance.
Shermer described Darwin's voyage on the Beagle and how his ideas developed
throughout the trip, and then showed us many slides of Shermer's own recent
trip to the Galapagos and the amazing fauna there. He finally elucidated the
reasons behind Darwin's delay in publishing his essay and his possibly
unethical reaction to being almost scooped by Wallace.
In describing Darwin's theory, Shermer provided the following definitions
(which seem to be a matter of some interest on t.o.), quoted verbatim:
EVOLUTION: Change through time.
DESCENT WITH MODIFICATION: The mode of evolution by branching common descent.
GRADUALISM: Change is slow, steady, stately. "Natura non facit saltum" --
Nature does not make leaps. Given enough time evolution accounts for
MULTIPLICATION OF SPECIATION: Not just new species; larger number of new
A. Populations tend to increase indefinitely in a geometric ratio.
B. But, in a natural environment, population numbers stabilize at
a certain level.
C. There must be a "struggle for existence" since not all organisms
produced can survive.
D. There is variation in every species.
E. In the struggle for existence, those variations that are better
adapted to the environment leave behind more offspring than
the less adapted individuals -- *differential*reproductive*
success*. (Emphasis in original).
Shermer then provided a list of "scientific impacts" Darwin's theory had
when published. He also gave a very brief description of the Huxley and
His next lecture was on _The_Creationists_Arguments_. He mentioned that
Creationism comes in different forms, and listed some. Strangely enough,
he presented "Theistic Evolution" and "Progressive Creationism" as almost
synonymous, referring to a composite form of evo and creation that treats
the Genesis days as metaphorical. He also mentioned Multiple Creation,
those who are willing to believe science "as far as it goes", and good
scientists who are also religious. (Why he thought this latter needed
to be listed with Creationism I cannot imagine.) He also cautioned against
the common fallacy of "Selectionism", believing that every trait in
an organism must have adaptive significance.
He then continued with a sketch history of Creationism in this century,
including the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1926, its consequences, and the
Arkansas and Louisiana Equal Time trials of 1981 and 1986, respectively.
The latter were accompanied by a copy of one of Shermer's papers entitled
"Science Defended, Science Defined: The Louisiana Creationism Case".
This handout is informative and well-written.
He then presented a list of Creationists' arguments and Evolutionists'
answers, which I will comment on in the next installment.
* 25 CREATIONISTS' ARGUMENTS **
** 25 EVOLUTIONISTS' ANSWERS *
This was one of the most disappointing (IMO) sections of the seminar. It
was really the "meat" of the whole thing, which most people had come for.
Perhaps I have seen too much "sophistication" here on t.o, but I really found
a lot of the "answers" to be insubstantial and inadequate.
The issues were divided into two categories: Philosophical Based and
"Scientifically" Based. There was an accompanying handout that listed
the questions and answers.
It addressed most of the usual chestnuts: the argument for Equal Time, the
Tautology objection, the False Dichotomy fallacy, "evo leads to immorality",
"evo is a religion", Punc. Eq., the Human Population evidence of a young
earth, "mutations are harmful", absence of transitional fossils, Second Law
of Thermo, the Probabilistic argument against abiogenesis, the unreliability
of radiometric dating and evidence for young earth, "living fossils", and
the problem of incipient structures.
The answers to all of these were short. Some were lacking. For example,
the response to the Tautology argument failed to clarify what a tautology
really is and why the creationists misunderstand and misapply the concept.
Shermer also tried to explain what punc. eq. was about to show why it was
not the bugbear of evolution the creationists think it is, but he did not
do a good job. He did not make clear the role of geographical isolation
and suggested that in a small population the rate of evolution would suddenly
be very fast without explaining why it might be quicker and leaving the
mistaken impression that the sudden transitions in the fossil record were
solely due to "very fast" evolution. Furthermore, he failed to point out
that there are also well-documented examples of gradual change in the fossil
record. The handout does later refer to "allopatric speciation" and Mayr's
model, but does not explain these well.
The response to the criticism of geochronology, one of the most crucial
points distinguishing evolution and anti-evolutionism IMHO (convince
someone the earth is old and they are halfway to accepting evolution),
was simply pathetic. I quote it in full:
"19. [creationist] The dating techniques of evolutionists are inconsistent,
unreliable, and wrong. They give false impressions of an old Earth, when
in fact it is no older than 10,000 years, which is proven by Dr. Thomas
Barnes from the University of Texas at El Paso, who demonstrates that the
half-life of the Earth's magnetic field is 1,400 years.
[evolutionist] First of all, it is amusing that creationists dismiss all
dating techniques with the sweep of the hand, except for those that
purportedly support their position. The various dating techniques, however,
are found not only to be quite reliable, but there is considerable independent
corroboration between them."
Oh, swell, counter one blatant assertion with another. NO argument against
the young-earth dating methods, NO real defense of the validity of radio-
metric dating, NO mention of the "circular reasoning charge" (that fossils
are used to date rock strata and rock strata are used to date fossils).
Bob Bales would simply have had a field day with this guy. In fact, I bet
even HE could have come up with a better defense of conventional dating
than this. And worst of all, when someone asked about the only YEC dating
method mentioned in the quote, Barnes' analysis of geomagnetism, it turned
out that Shermer had no real understanding of what this method was about,
why it implied a young earth, and what was so wrong with it. Gads!
Fortunately, his answers to other issues were considerably more competent,
if somewhat sloppy. Among other things, he pointed out that evolution
occurs as a "bush", not like a "ladder".
There were other questions and answers addressed, including some which were
not really appropriate. The worst was a reply to the argument of "causality
implies a First Cause", "design and purpose imply a Designer". This has
virtually *nothing* to do with the science of evolution, but is a metaphysical
question about theism vs. atheism, and should not have been included. Shermer
is an agnostic or atheist who did not have the good sense to keep his
philosophy out of the science. Indeed he made no attempt to clarify that
"evolution" does not imply "atheism". In another place he addresses the
Creationist theory of "hydrodynamic sorting". The seminar had been billed
as NOT being an attack on creationism, only a defense of evolution, and here
he is doing nothing but attacking creationism. Indeed, his reply to this
consists primarily of a sardonic criticism of the Flood story. A theistic
creationist in attendance could have had his or her suspicions confirmed, that
evolutionists can only scoff at creation rather than defend their theory.
I was not impressed.
After the "25 arguments and answers" section we had a longish discussion
session. The talk mostly focussed on the Creationist movement, and its
current inroads at the grassroots level. Some suggestions were made about
countering this: insisting that biology teachers get a course on evolution
as part of their teaching degree; holding seminars like this specifically
geared for biology teachers. Someone said it was the school board, not
the teachers, who needed a seminar like this, but it was agreed that this
was not really feasible. Not all of the discussion was constructive, though;
some of it was alarmist, and some of it expressed outright contempt of the
creationists. There did not appear to be any creationists in attendance
(or none spoke their views), which was perhaps just as well.
Finally, Shermer gave a quick overview of _25_Giant_Leaps_in_the_Evolution_
of_Life_, or "From the Big Bang to the Big Brain". I will just list them
here so you can decide how good a job he did:
1. The Big Bang -- 12-20 billion years
2. Stellar Evolution
3. Formation of the Solar System -- 4.6 billion years
4. Creation of the Moon -- 4.6 billion years
5. Formation of Primordial Atmosphere -- 4 billion years
6. Creation of Amino Acids and Protein Chains -- 3.5-4 billion years
7. Development of Microspheres -- 3.5-4 billion years
8. Origin of Prokaryote Cells -- 3.8 billion years
9. Asexual Reproduction -- 3.8 billion years
10. Photosynthesis -- 2.3 billion years
11. Sexual Reproduction -- 2.3 billion years
12. Formation of Eukaryote Cells -- 1.5 billion years
13. Rise of Multicellular Organisms -- 1.5 billion - 600 million years
14. Evolution of Hard-Bodied Organisms (Cambrian Explosion) -- 600 mill. yrs.
15. Rise of Vertebrates -- 600-350 million years
16. Development of Boyancy [sic!] Bladder in Fish -- 350 million years
17. Use of Boyancy [!!] Bladder as a Lung -- 350 million years
18. Rise of the Amphibians -- 350-300 million years
19. Rise of the Reptiles -- 300-200 million years
20. Extinction of the Dinosaurs -- 65 million years
21. Advancement of the Mammals -- 65 million years
22. Rise of the Higher Primates -- 30 million years
23. Bipedalism -- 3 million years
24. Widespread Use of Tools -- 2 million years
25. Development of Language -- 35,000-100,000 years.
One interesting thing he mentioned was that if it weren't for the moon,
animals may never have become terrestrial at all: the tides provided a
necessary environment for amphibians to develop.
That wrapped up the seminar.
Well, disappointing, like I said at first. There was certainly a considerable
amount of good information disseminated, but I think the intent of the seminar
(to show why evolution was sound against creationist attacks) was undermined
by several factors:
a) Misplaced emphases. A lot of time was spent on history; big areas were
overlooked (the primary evidence for common descent, for instance; observations
of natural selection and speciation; evidence for the Big Bang). This was
no doubt largely due to Michael Shermer's specialization. It might have
been better if other speakers had covered other topics.
b) An unnecessarily sarcastic attitude towards creationism, both on the part
of the speaker and of the audience. This could have damaged our respectability
to any creationists present.
c) Sloppy style of presentation. Considering the topic of debate, Shermer
made far too many small mistakes. eg. He used the word "adopt" when he
meant "adapt"; he described abiogenesis (which he did not name as such) as
evolution from "inorganic to organic" compounds rather than "inanimate to
animate", and even when someone pointed out what "organic" means in chemistry
he did not seem to catch on; he made some minor calculational errors; he
said that there were no elements other than hydrogen until stars formed,
apparently ignorant of the primordial formation of helium; and in fact his
entire description of the Big Bang was riddled with inaccuracies.