Author: Wayne Broughton ( Title: +quot;Evolution and Creation+

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====================================================================== Author: Wayne Broughton ( Title: "Evolution and Creation" Seminar at Caltech ====================================================================== Disappointing. 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 species change. MULTIPLICATION OF SPECIATION: Not just new species; larger number of new species. NATURAL SELECTION: 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 Wilberforce debate. 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. SUMMARY ------- 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.


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