This report by “Belle-de-Gene” our BCSE correspondent;
There were about 70 people in attendance which filled the venue. Approximately 80% looked about retirement age and I’m guessing that this group were mainly Christadelphians. There was a decent minority of younger people and the rest were sort of 30s to 50s age range.
I initially thought they were all Christadelphians and that I’d be eaten alive, but that proved not to be the case.
The talk started with a glowing introduction to Dr Hellawell informing us how qualified a biologist he was and how the guy introducing him couldn’t even pronounce what his PhD was in. That suggested to me that those who’d invited him wouldn’t be qualified to know if he was telling the truth or not.
Dr Hellawell said the title of the talk was a counter to Dawkins book The God Delusion (which isn’t specifically about evolution so I felt that was a dishonest start). His first reference was then to a book by a Christian apologist Alistair McGrath called “The Dawkins Delusion” (again McGrath challenges Dawkins on his view of religion but not evolution). He also stated that Dawkins equated religious belief with mental illness etc. and there was a bit of the usual Dawkins bashing and implication that Dawkins and evolution were one and the same.
He said that after 150 years, evolution is still a bone of contention within the scientific community, which is simply untrue. He also mentioned a book by John Lennox which gave evidence against evolution. Lennox is a mathematician and philosopher, not a scientist. The infamous New Scientist headline was also quoted (Darwin was wrong) without reference to the actual article or the editorial predicting is would be used in just this dishonest way by creationists.
There was then some more non science talk about the London bus “probably is no God” campaign before he finally moved on to the Big Bang. He mentioned Hoyle and steady state theory followed by the fact that scientists had moved on to a Big Bang theory from which you could only conclude the universe had a beginning. Hellawell then seemed to suggest that this meant that creation and evolution were irreconcilable because creation must have a cause. The fact that these are totally unrelated was not explained and I was confused here, perhaps because I have a grasp of science. If his audience weren’t confused then it was perhaps only because they did not know what he was talking about, and so couldn’t see the problems with his claims.
Hellawell said that evolution was based on chance, which meant that life was not purposeful and that evolution was propounded with evangelical zeal (which seems perfectly understandable where biologists are trying to counteract liars like him)!
He did credit Darwin and Wallace with the theory of evolution by natural selection and we where then treated to a long anecdote about his days as a biology student who believed in evolution, until he studied it that is, and how one of his teachers had told him “On the Origin of Species” was the dullest book ever written. Apparently Hellawell had to agree after failing to get past page 14.
At long last we finally got our first comments about evolution which included the following:
- Species is an artificial term that we have made up (true - so what?)
- Hellawell knows of different species of plants that can be interbred and as a boy he kept different species of fish that mated-so different species can interbreed (This whole issue arises from the fact that we can happily write down whatever defintion of a “species” we can dream up and mother nature will merrily ignore it. Look up “ring species”. Again, this in no way undermines evolutionary theory)
- Originally evolution depended on survival of the fittest; he mentioned blackbird clutches where only a small number survive keeping the population stable. The fittest survive and over time we see gradual change. He was dubious that this could lead to changes in species . Generally speaking, simply being dubious doesn’t count as evidence for anything in scientific circles.
- After this initial theory he said we now had Neo Darwinism after gene mutations were discovered. Natural selection could now proceed after a beneficial mutation occurred.
Hellawell then went on to say a lot about random mutations and small changes namely:
- Random mutations lead to small changes.
- Natural selection favours beneficial mutations i.e. those that give an organism an advantage.
- Over time that mutation spreads through the population.
Then he told his first obvious (as opposed to merely dishonest or misleading) lie. He said the problem is there is no such thing as a beneficial mutation, most are harmful, (I did challenge him on this in the Q & A session-there are many beneficial mutations I could only think of lactose tolerance and immunity to HIV on the spot).
There then followed a few more anti Darwin jokes and a few more jibes about how boring Origin was as a book!
He mentioned the Wilberforce and Huxley debate after its publication, and showed a few derogatory cartoons from that era.
He then moved back to science, namely the difference between inference and proof.
He explained that you can infer something from evidence but that is not proof. Certainty is difficult and there is no proof of evolution (there was no time to tackle this in the Q&A session but he’s a scientist and should know what theory means in that context-i.e. a rational explanation of a set of observed facts. To use that argument honestly you’d probably also need to say gravity, electricity, atoms etc. are unproved theories and that evolution is uniquely well supported with no evidence for any other theory).
He then told us that the evidence we would expect to see if evolution was true was;
- Observation of evolution in action
- Evidence of evolution in the fossil record
He dealt with 1) by reference to the peppered moth, which I remember from my own A level days. He went through the evolutionary argument about the change in colour following the industrial revolution then pointed out that this was only a change in the relative proportions of dark to pale moths. Of course the change in proportion of genes in a population is the very definition he gave earlier in his talk.
When dealing with 2) he was in his element and told us how Darwin had referred to the fact we should see transitions in the fossil record and lamented the fact we didn’t.
Here is the quote he gave;
“But, as by this theory innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?”
And here is the rest of it, that was kept from the audience by Dr Hellawell;
“It will be more convenient to discuss this question in the chapter on the Imperfection of the Geological Record; and I will here only state that I believe the answer mainly lies in the record being incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been imperfectly made, and only at long intervals of time.”
Here is an extract from the chapter Darwin refers to;
“These causes [the imperfection of the fossil record, the limited exploration of the record, poor fossilization of certain body types, etc.], taken conjointly, will to a large extent explain why -- though we do find many links -- we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all extinct and existing forms by the finest graduated steps. It should also be constantly borne in mind that any linking variety between two forms, which might be found, would be ranked, unless the whole chain could be perfectly restored, as a new and distinct species; for it is not pretended that we have any sure criterion by which species and varieties can be discriminated.”
I think that by anyone’s standards, simply quoting the first line is extremely dishonest and misleading.
But Hellawell simply went on to claim that the situation had not changed since Darwin’s day.
He repeated again and again that there were no transition fossils (untrue - and this I could and did challenge in the Q & A)
For further support he quoted Gould and Eldridge.
This is even more outrageous than his distortion of Darwin’s own words. Here is some comment from Gould about this very issue;
“Transitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common — and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution (see next section) but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim…. [Gould then discusses two particular examples, intermediate fossils between reptiles and mammals, and our own hominid ancestors.]
Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am — for I have become a major target of these practices.
I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change.
In 1972 my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record — geologically “sudden” origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis) — reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond….
Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists — whether through design or stupidity, I do not know — as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. The punctuations occur at the level of species; directional trends (on the staircase model) are rife at the higher level of transitions within major groups.”
[Stephen Jay Gould, "Evolution as Fact and Theory," Hens Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1983, pp. 258-260.]
Gould’s overall view is summed up nicely in this quote;
“The argument that the literal story of Genesis can qualify as science collapses on three major grounds:
The creationists’ need to invoke miracles in order to compress the events of the earth’s history into the biblical span of a few thousand years;
- their unwillingness to abandon claims clearly disproved, including the assertion that all fossils are products of Noah’s flood; and
- their reliance upon distortion, misquote, half-quote, and citation out of context to characterize the ideas of their opponents.”
Stephen J. Gould. 1987/1988. The Verdict on Creationism. The Skeptical Inquirer Winter 87/88, pg. 186
Hellawell went on to give us a rundown of punctuated equilibrium - organisms remain static followed by rapid evolution - and stated that this was a desperate attempt to explain the lack of fossils.
On numerous occasions he referred to the lack of transitional forms (to my joy).
He went on to discuss living fossils. The Wollemi pine, its leaf is found in old fossils and is the same today, i.e. it hasn’t changed for 2x107 years (though why it should was not explained). Then there was the Coelacanth, which is also found alive today. He didn’t say why fossils needed to be extinct, but of course they don’t. Evolutionary theory does not preclude some organisms remaining broadly unchanged for very long period of time, in fact it explains it.
Next on his list was having a dig at fossil dating namely radiometric dating, and he explained how fossils are not found in igneous rocks but only in sedimentary rock and that only igneous rocks are dated using radioactive isotopes. Which is true but irrelevant.
He explained how the dating of sedimentary layers is based on so called geological time periods and that these basic geological epochs were determined before radioactive isotope dating was developed.
This is true and geologists are taught how the rocks were dated in relation to each other because we had no way to measure any absolute ages until radiometric dating methods were developed.
He claimed that rocks were dated by the characteristic fossils found in them which made their dating a bit of a circular argument. This is disingenuous to say the least. When patterns of layers in the rocks were spotted and matched up around the world it was discovered that they also contained patterns of fossils as well. So if you find a layer of rocks with gaps in the layers around it (unconformities in the jargon) then looking at the fossils can give you a way of working out whjere in the layers it falls.
Nowadays fossils are used as he described only in cases where radiometric dating has already confirmed that the fossils fit this pattern. Very often initial fossil dating is later followed up by radiometric dating. To suggest that geologists are comitting such an obvious bit of circular reasoning is dishonest.
Hellawell went on to claim that as rocks advance therefore we should see evolutionary change-we don’t (Untrue again).
He told us that sometimes the rocks are found in the wrong order, i.e. what geologists claim are earlier rocks are sometimes found above so called later rocks (this is easily explained by geologists and it is dishonest of him to suggest that they can’t - if he disagrees with their explanation he should address it and not simply pretend that such a counter argument to his claims exists)
He also then claimed that the Cambrian explosion shows all the major phyla.
His main case is that geology is cataclysmic so we can’t trust the order found in the rocks.
He pointed out that there are no strata where all the rocks are in the right order! It would have to be incredibly high, even higher than The Grand Canyon. (Once again he implies that geologists are simply blanking this out of their minds and don’t understand this at all - very disingenuous).
Next he discussed the fossils showing horse evolution and with a wry chuckle said that when put in a logical order of number of toes the numbers of ribs and other features kept increasing and decreasing sort of thing. So he seems to be implying that mainstream sceince expects to see a gradual, linear progression to modern horses. This isn’t true. The fossil record of equids shows that various lineages split into several branches. Evolution was not smooth and gradual; traits evolved at different rates and occasionally reversed. Some species arose gradually, others suddenly. All of this is in accord with the messiness we expect from evolution and from biology in general. But I guess that he can’t address the actual science and so addresses a straw man version instead. Once again this is not an honest approach.
Next Hellawell moved onto the statistical likelihood of things evolving. He used the “how long would it take lots of monkeys with typewriters to type some Shakespeare” argument. Longer than 10690 years was his reply (a little untrue because evolution builds on random events, so if every time a monkey typed the right letter in the right place it was kept and passed on to its next attempt it could happen).
Even though he had earlier clearly said there were no beneficial mutations he then returned to the probability of beneficial mutations accumulating and concluded evolution required a lot more faith than faith in God. He then gave a very old quote from Hoyle about a tornado in a scrap yard producing a Boeing 747, neglecting to mention that life would have been very simple to start with.
His next argument was that if a beneficial mutation occurred when would it have occur to get passed on. He stated very early on in embryonic development, i.e. before the separation of the reproductive cells. After that it would confer an advantage to that individual but could not be passed on to its offspring. You may not be surpeised to know that such a basic finding is actually known about by biologists and is already built in to current thinking, although Hellawell would rather you thought the silly Biologists didn’t even know this much.
He then introduced what I think was a new (for him) and exciting concept into his talk.
The concept of irreducible complexity-i.e. some things, particularly at a molecular level, are so complex you cannot remove any part of them as they will cease to function.
This he believed was a real problem for evolution. If something cannot be conceived to functionally exist in a simpler form it cannot have evolved. This was his piece de resistance-a real problem for evolution (wrong). He used a book by Behe called “Darwin’s Black Box.”
His arguments were:
- The modern mousetrap-take any part away from this very simple piece of engineering and it won’t work. This is not true. The reason it isn’t true illustrates why the whole irreducible complexity argument falls down. If you remove the wooden base you can have a nice tie pin or clip mechanism. Here (http://udel.edu/~mcdonald/mousetrap.html) is a nice little animated example of the kind of thinking that Hellawell would rather you didn’t know about.
- The Bacterial Flagellum, a sort of complex biological motor allowing bacteria to move. You cannot remove any part of the flagellum or it will cease to function. It is irreducibly complex.
This was an absolute gift actually because I’d just read one of Dawkins’s books where he specifically stated that this problem had been solved. For anyone attending a future Dr Hellawell talk, there are many versions of the actual flagellum, H Pylori has a simpler version than E Coli for example. A subset of the proteins used for the flagella make up another simpler organelle called the type three secretary system- the flagella is just more proteins than this different but simpler functioning piece of bacteria. A whole logical pathway for the evolution of the flagella has now been proposed, from a very simple pore, and each step has a selective advantage over its predecessor. A full account can be found on the TalkOrigins website (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/behe.html). They also have 13 pages of refs to papers dealing with the evolution of so called irreducibly complex organisms.
His last point (thank goodness) was to do with invertebrate evolution and the reversal of nervous and digestive systems and the fact we are supposed to have evolved from sea squirts ha ha much hilarity. Well we do have some evidence from the fossil record showing some internediates between non-vertebrates and vertebrates. But anyway, if he is just going to comb through the fossil record record looking for gaps then, over time, he will just have to squeeze his argument into smaller and smaller gaps. Of course, if you look back at creationist claims you cna see that this is exactly what they have done.
He concluded with more old drivel about evolution not being scientific.
Questions and Answers
In the Q&A all the questioners were hostile to his ideas but unfailingly polite to him. His supporters remained silent and a little shell-shocked.
He was asked to explain vestigial limbs by someone, e.g. internal limbs found in whales. He gave a vague answer about the appendix now having some use, he didn’t seem to know about hind limbs sometimes being found in whales. (Vestigial does not mean without any use but he implies aotherwise with his appendix comment)
Someone else asked why he hadn’t mentioned DNA as much stronger evidence for evolution than fossils gave some excellent examples of our DNA and chimps. His reply was rather waffly and bascially consisted of him saying that it wasn’t proof.
Thanks to the BCSE recommendations about taking notes, I was able to ask him about why he’d said there were no beneficial mutations and I named a couple - lactose tolerance and HIV resistance on the CCR5 gene. His reply was they didn’t lead to new species. Which wasn’t the point I was asking about - moving goalposts once again!
I also asked why he’d said there were no transition fossils and I named Thrinaxadon and our very good record of reptile to mammal fossils. With hindsight, I probably dwelt on this too long and I wish I’d mentioned the hundreds others like Tiktaalik or some of the newer ones to further support my question. He asked what order they’d been put in and then just blustered when pressed further.
I went on to point out that there was now a complete evolutionary pathway proposed for the bacterial flagellum and he simply said it wasn’t proof it had happened. So I pointed out that it was proof that it wasn’t irreducibly complex.
I also pressed him on his reply to the previous question about DNA and asked him if he could explain pseudogenes and why they occurred in the same location on our DNA as found in related species where they still functioned. I used the MYH16 gene as an example and the original DNA questioner helped out by clarifying pseudogenes for him and the audience and added the example of vitamin C pseudogene. They were particularly helpful in confirming questions I’d asked and vice versa. Hellawell then tried to say that things couldn’t rejoin and evolve backwards. At this point both the other questioner and I were able to tell him they could and that that had been the thrust of the New Scientist article (thanks for that info).
There was some arguing then with another questioner about the existence of God which was beyond me.
Next I asked why the same fossils were always found in the same rock strata. He replied it was something to do with habitats and that the classification of rocks was meaningless. I said we could date these rocks by the igneous rocks found above and below using radioactive isotopes and he said that was a different story.
The last question was about what he’d say to the many devout Christians who believed in evolution and felt creationism brought their faith into disrepute. But by now he’d sat down. I get the impression he was not accustomed to very many questions and was not used to an audience with scientific knowledge.
If anyone else is going to attend talsk like this here are a few thoughts;
I wish I’d known a bit more about geology of sedimentary strata, the peppered moth, when in embryonic development a mutation can be passed on and horse evolution.
Irreducible complexity and transition fossils are excellently dealt with in on the TalkOrigins website and the Richard Dawkins forum.
I think he may prepare himself on radioactive isotopes but TalkOrigins deals with the dodgy Answers in Genesis research on this should he decide to include it.
I would advise attending any future talks by him (if he dares).
Afterwards several people approached me to say “thank you” and “well done” and I told them about the BCSE and the Creation watch campaign.
Some of these may come to give support at other talks.
Hellawell was very easily flustered and was really unprepared for questions but was good practice for the nastier evolved species of creationists.
Thanks for all your help and support materials. They were immeasurably useful.
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This report is part of our recently launched "Creation Watch" campaign see here for more details.