Sunday, 4 March 2012

Debunking Corner: Origins Exposed: Latest Crypto-Creationist Pamphlet Debunked by Paul Braterman

Origins – Examining the Evidence (Truth in Science, November 2011) is the latest addition to the steady stream of error-laden creationist pamphlets disguised as teaching resources. Close examination shows it to be, specifically, a lawyer’s brief for Young Earth creationism, bolstered up by quote mining from the literature and end-of-chapter exercises framed in such a way as to make this version of creationism appear acceptable.

The three authors are all believers in a 6-day 6,000-year-old creation, while the publishers, the ironically named Truth in Science, are self-identified as a creation group. The only function I can envisage for this book is to offer a pretence of teaching evolution, while doing so in such a way that it will not be believed. This indeed is the policy openly adopted by the "Christian" Schools Trust, whose scientific adviser, Sylvia Baker, is among those quoted in praise of the book.

Errors of logic and science abound. The outcomes of scientific investigation are repeatedly misdescribed as inputs, in order to make appeals to the evidence appear circular. We have the usual nonsense about complexity, criticisms of radiometric dating that were answered by technical improvements back in the 1940s, and irrelevant attacks on long-abandoned scenarios for the origins of life (a subject that in any case lies outside the domain of evolution science, much as the origin of the elements lies outside the domain of chemistry). Although the book was produced in November 2011, the authors are deplorably ignorant about recent developments, and their chapter on how humans are related to apes shows no awareness of such striking and well-publicised developments as the full characterisation of Ardipithecus, and the discovery that Neanderthals interbred with our direct ancestors. In the concluding chapter, evolution is misdescribed as a linear process, and the alternative offered is of separated but distinct "islands". If this means anything, it means separate acts of creation.

What, eight separate acts of creation for the eight separate forms that even this book recognises between Sahelanthropus (their choice) and ourselves? No student should have to waste valuable class time dealing with such nonsense.

In more detail: the authors, Geoff Barnard, Andy McIntosh, and Steve Taylor, have all publicly committed themselves to a Young Earth biblical literalist viewpoint. The individuals quoted in support are a roll-call of UK creationism and Intelligent Design, and while none are convinced by the evidence for evolution, most are convinced by the evidence for a historical Adam and Eve. Truth in Science itself masquerades as an educational organisation, while its manifesto clearly identifies it as a creation group. The sycophantically favourable comments all describe the book as supplying useful additional information and arguments that will stimulate scientific thought while drawing attention to alleged weaknesses in the evolutionary position. Detailed examination shows that these claims have no basis in reality. 

(see below the fold)

The first chapter carefully defines microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is the kind of minor change readily observable on human timescale. Macroevolution is major change, which by definition is not. We are then told that the failure to observe macroevolution directly represents a weakness of the evolutionary account. We are also told that "The only evidence for macro evolution that can be considered is that from the fossil record.", thus discounting at a stroke everything we have learnt from molecular biology since the 1940s. Furthermore (did someone have Noah’s Flood in mind?) "the process of fossilisation is associated with catastrophic events.  In other words, the fossil record is a series of catastrophic snapshots . .."  Oh no it isn't.  Catastrophic burial is but one of several processes that can lead to fossil formation, and indeed the best preserved fossils are those that are found in finely laminated shale beds, deposited in shallow waters under tranquil conditions. Chapter 2 concerns itself with the origins of life, which is an unsolved problem, and in particular with a rather naive attack on the claim, abandoned some decades ago by the origins of life community (of whom I had the honour at the time to be a member), that the Urey-Miller experiment essentially solved the problem. Chapter 3 contains a description of biological complexity, and an account (much of it accurate in detail) of non-coding DNA, including human retroviral insertions. What is most remarkable here is what is omitted (or, to be blunt about it, censored);
  • the molecular evidence for homology (a word that does not occur in the index or, as far as I can see, anywhere else in the book)
  • the existence of large tracts of unexpressed DNA readily identifiable as a degenerate form of DNA expressed in related organisms (such as the DNA for an olfactory apparatus in cetaceans, or for the formation of functioning eyes in blind cave fish), and
  • the fact that retroviral insertions in and of themselves can be used (see the brilliant exposition by Douglas Theobald ) to trace common descent.

This chapter is followed by a "case study", which is no more than a misguided polemic against a strawman naive reductionism, coupled to complete failure to understand the behaviour of complex systems. Here we find what I regard as the key assertion of the book: "since information is non-material, its origins can never be properly explained in material terms. When one wants to explain coding structures, it is necessary to infer intelligence behind the code, and thus a mind which has invented both the code and the message and has put them together" (added emphasis), This profound-seeming statement assumes everything that it claims to establish, by exploiting ambiguities in the concepts of information, code, and message, and sliding from the concept of message as information contained to the very different concept of message as information deliberately encoded.

It is worth emphasising this detail, because it clearly identifies the work as propaganda for Intelligent Design Theory, with all that such identification implies regarding scientific validity, and suitability for classroom use. The argument, like the entire Intelligent Design programme, confuses information in the sense of significant structure, with information in the sense of a purposefully encoded message. Whenever there is a connection between two systems A and B, such that by examining B one can make inferences regarding A, then B contains information about A, but this does not imply purposeful transmission. For example, the surface of the moon conveys information about past meteoritic bombardments. Moreover, a "code" in the relevant sense is any rule connecting observables in the two systems. Thus in the moon example, the size of the craters encodes information about the energy of the impacts, while their spatial overlap encodes information about their relative timing. These codes did not need to be devised; natural causation suffices. Similarly with the genetic code. Triplets beginning with CU code for leucine, and, where leucine conveys a survival advantage, triplets beginning with CU (or in the parent DNA, CT) are selected for. But we do not need a codifier to accomplish this, nor, in this case, an intelligent interpreter. If leucine had been the result of triplets beginning with CA, then CA would have been selected for instead. The origin of the apparatus that causally connects the triplet with the amino acid is the subject of ongoing scientific research, research that the argument presented here would pre-empt by an appeal to the non-natural (whatever that may mean) action of an intelligence.

Chapter 4 discusses the fossil record. It starts off predictably by quoting Darwin regarding the "obvious and serious objection" posed to his theory by the absence of intermediate forms. But then, unforgivably, it quotes an echoing of the same qualitative sentiment in 1999 by Prof Steve Jones, now discussing change on a much finer scale, as if there had been no quantitative change in the meantime. Prof Jones, of course, is making the case for punctuated equilibrium, and the conversation between advocates of Darwinian gradualism, and those of punctuated equilibrium, leads on to the unqualified statement "This has led some scientists to suggest that both evolutionist explanations are wrong, and that all life has not evolved from a common ancestor." The language chosen here is deliberately misleading (remember that it is directed at schoolchildren, with little or no prior training in biology), and puts the tiny minority of creationist scientists on a par with the whole scientific establishment. Next we are asked to take seriously the controversy between Old Earth and Young Earth creationists (euphemistically described here as "non-evolutionists"), and from this to conclude that "rather than being straightforward evidence for evolution, the fossil record is the subject of a great deal of scientific controversy". The creationists, we are told, take the position that the fossil record is complete, and disagree merely on the timescale over which all those extinct species came into existence and then catastrophically disappeared. This reasoning, if one can so describe it, is impervious to the fact that we continue to discover important new species. The same claim of completeness was made before the discovery, say, of intermediates between land mammals and whales, or between lobefish and tetrapods, or indeed, back in the 19th Century, between the great apes and humans.

I am not sure I managed to keep track of all the logical fallacies in this chapter, but would include among them quote mining, suppression of evidence, unwarranted assertions of authority, and false dichotomy. This last is characteristic of the creationist literature. At one time, I thought it was a mere rhetorical device, but have now come to think that it represents a deeper failure to come to terms with the penumbra of uncertainty that surrounds all complex scientific discussions. The fossil record is straightforward evidence for evolution, and that is precisely why it is the subject of genuine controversy as we advance our knowledge of the specific ways in which evolution has taken place.

The chapter also includes an account of photosynthesis, which contains one example of censorship, and one glaring inaccuracy. The example of censorship is the failure, after introducing the concepts of Photosystem I and Photosystem II, to mention their phylogenetic relationship, as established by molecular comparison over large numbers of species, and even the existence of bacteria that contain one photosystem but not the other. The glaring inaccuracy is the assertion that "a non-oxygenated atmosphere is assumed because the presence of oxygen makes theories of chemical evolution very difficult." This is an area in which I have done some work myself. The non-oxygenated atmosphere is not assumed, but on the contrary inferred from the chemical composition of the rocks laid down in the first 2 billion years or so of Earth's existence, and the transition to an oxygenated atmosphere is clearly signalled by the formation of massive beds containing most of the Earth's iron ore, as iron compounds dissolved in the oceans were converted by this buildup of oxygen to a less soluble form.

I would add that inaccuracy at this point is compounded by slander. The geochemical evidence shows that neither oxygen nor hydrogen would have been present on the early Earth, and this is one reason why the Urey-Miller scenario has been abandoned. The text accuses the scientific community of assuming conditions on the early Earth, merely in order to protect the Urey-Miller scenario. On the contrary, the Urey-Miller scenario depended on beliefs about the early Earth, based on older theories of planetary accretion, which were abandoned when they were shown to be incorrect. So far from forcing an interpretation on the geochemistry to protect a particular theory about the origins of the molecules of life, the scientific community has bowed to geochemical observation, and discarded the theory.

Next we have a discussion of radiometric dating. We are told that radiometric dating depends on three numbered assumptions; that there has been no loss or gain of material over the lifetime of the rock, that the amount of the daughter isotope present at the beginning is known with certainty, and that the measured rate of decay has been constant over time. We are further told that these assumptions are impossible to prove.

Lies, lies, lies. The isochron dating method, in use since the 1940s, specifically allows for movement of material, and by comparing ratios enables us to bypass the question of initial composition. Moreover, it has been known since 1928 that decay rates are governed by the time-dependent Schroedinger equation and depend on such fundamental constants of nature as the mass and charge of the particles emitted during decay, and the value of Planck's constant. Had such things been different, the laws of physics and chemistry would of necessity also have been different, and the ancient rocks would not have been laid down, as we can see they were, with compositions and textures similar to those of rocks being formed today. The literature references to this chapter are discussed in more detail below; they are a mixture of creationist poster materials smuggled past peer review, and real cutting edge science, misrepresented so badly as to reverse its meaning.

The next chapter, "Diversity from Simplicity?", is also crafted to impugn and misrepresent the scientific narrative. Thus the dating of Tiktaalik, intermediate in form between lobe fish and tetrapods, is said to derive in part from the assumption that it must be intermediate in date between the latest known strata of free as land animals, and the earliest known strata containing tetrapods. (This passage also refers to a "conventional date" of 375 million years before present for Tiktaalik, a detail that connoisseurs of the creationist literature will recognise as characteristic of Young Earth creationists, or those who do not wish to offend them.) The very reverse is the case. We are fortunate in having a first-hand account by Neil Shubin, who actually first discovered this species, in his beautiful book Your Inner Fish. This explains how the then-missing transitional form (and when I use these words I am not very interested in whether we are talking about an actual ancestor of ours, or a remote great granduncle) was predicted to have lived around 375 million years ago, how Shubin and his colleagues scoured geological charts in order to find a sandstone exposure that had already been dated to that time, and how this led them to mount the expedition to the Canadian Arctic, not a place that one would choose to visit without good reason, on which Tiktaalik was found. Not an arbitrary imposition of the evolutionary account on the geological record, but a vindication, if such were still required (and the whole point of this book is to create the impression that it is still required) of the evolutionary account.

There is a twist in the tale. Tetrapod tracks have been discovered in rocks dating back to 395 million years before present. So Tiktaalik is not the oldest tetrapod after all, and we do not know whether it is on our ancestral line, or, as Creation Ministries International suggests in as many words, an evolutionary dead end. How Creation Ministries International can believe in evolutionary dead ends without accepting the reality of evolution is beyond my comprehension, but unlike the advocates of Intelligent Design I do not equate the limits of my comprehension with the limits of possibility.

As an example of unexplained and isolated complexity, the authors select the well-oriented calcite lenses of trilobite eyes. Bad move. We know that the control gene that induces eye formation in present-day vertebrates is closely related to that in insects, a powerful argument for the common ancestry that this book seeks to call into question. And there is a large body of recent research (see e.g. Joanna Aisenberg’s group at Harvard) on the controlled formation of oriented crystalline calcite from an amorphous precursors using regulatory proteins, as illustrated in the modern brittlestar.

There follow three tedious chapters login with the various changes that take place in going from dinosaurs to birds to mammals and from apes to humans. I am not qualified to comment on the first two of these in detail, beyond noting that the authors seem unaware of the evidence for non-avian feathered dinosaurs, and emphasise throughout the magnitude of gaps in the record. This is creationism at its most lampoon-worthy. If the gap between two kinds of fossil is so small that their relationship is intuitively obvious, this is microevolution and doesn't count. If it's any larger, lo and behold! A missing link! As for the third, the authors do at least admit the existence of eight of the 20 or so distinct species of which we have knowledge, but, as I mentioned in the introduction, the chapter as a whole is sadly out of date.

Each of the book's chapters is supplemented by selections from the literature, and by a series of questions ostensibly intended to stimulate thought, but crafted so as to raise unwarranted doubts about the standard scientific account. Here, for completeness, I address the entire set of literature selections connected to the discussion of radiometric dating, where I feel most qualified to comment in detail. The first reference is to a reputable geology text, referring to the long recognised alternation of rapid change and relative stasis in the geological record, but used here as if the existence of such rapid change undermined the accompanying evidence for prolonged intervening periods of stasis. The second reference, to an abstract by Baumgardner et al. at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, will be all too familiar to students of creationism. The abstract claimed to have detected14C in coal, a claim that is almost certainly correct since it has been repeated by others, who have traced it to the action of modern surface-living bacteria. This book, however, like other creationist sources, reports the additional claim, which has never appeared in any credible peer-reviewed publication, that 14C was also detected in diamonds. Reference 3 is to the debunking of Piltdown Man by 14C dating; no problems there. Reference 4, used to claim that K/Ar dating is unreliable because of adventitious argon, actually shows how such non-radiogenic argon can be excluded from consideration because of the tell-tale presence of 36Ar. (The paper cited, which dates back to 1969, was written by G. Brent Dalrymple, a fierce enemy of creationism, who gave evidence in the 1981 landmark case of McLean v. Arkansas regarding its lack of scientific merit.) Reference 5 gives a detailed discussion of how metamorphism can reset the clock. True; but such resetting can only make rock appear younger than it really is, not older. In fact, recent developments in radiometric dating, such as SHRIMP microanalysis of zircon grains, can lead to a detailed chronology of metamorphic episodes, further adding to the scientific value of the method. Reference 6 is cited to show that in certain circumstances the method can lead to errors; what the paper actually says (I quote from the publicly available abstract) is “Examples of U–Pb systematics from most of the above situations are presented in this paper to illustrate both the utility and complexity of monazite in geochronological studies in an attempt to encourage more widespread application of this dating method.” A very different take-home message. Reference 7 (there’s been some good deep mining going on here) is to a Physical Review Letters article measuring the predicted effect of complete ionisation on the beta-decay of 187Re, often referred to in the creationist literature. It is worth pointing out
  • that such ionisation only occurs in the stellar interiors to which the paper addresses itself, at temperatures that would have converted the planet to a ball of glowing ionised gas,
  • that the observed acceleration is fully in accord with theoretical predictions, thus strengthening our confidence in the model we have had since 1928 of the radioactive decay processes, and finally, and most importantly,
  • that the effects discussed depend on a specific feature of 187Re, the energy reversal of parent and bound beta-decayed states on ionisation.  This is not found in any of the decays routinely used for radiometric dating, making 187Re a special case, and irrelevant.

Finally, Reference 8 is to Snelling’s meticulous observations of polonium halos in rocks that lack the parent uranium from which polonium is ultimately generated. Snelling’s interpretation is that the rocks were created suddenly with parentless polonium already in place, just to show. The conventional explanation, first advanced some decades ago, is that the polonium did indeed have a parent, radon gas, and that this radon has diffused in from nearby uranium-containing rocks. I leave it to the reader to decide which explanation is the more plausible.

The reader may be wondering what the authors are driving at. Two further excerpts will make this clear. Discussing the evolution of the horse, the book says "Of course, none of this confounds the evolutionary interpretation of the series; it is merely a textbooks and museum displays are simplistic ... they do not reflect all the twists, turns, offshoots, and dead ends that are evident in the fossil record. However, the horse series is also perfectly consistent with a non-evolutionary explanation of the development of life."

In other words, the actual history of life is complicated. Goddidit is much simpler, and irrefutable.

For my final excerpt, I returned to the passage in the Summary that I mention in my introduction . "We have traced the path of the conventional scientific account … through to co-ordinated molecular systems, bacteria, worms, fish, dinosaurs, birds, mammals and human beings. We have traced this path and seen how it is presented as a series of steppingstones.... however this is not the way the authors of this book see the observed evidence. We believe that a better picture is presented by lack of a chain of islands ... there can be no doubt [sic] that these are distinct islands separated by sea.”

In other words, as far as the authors are concerned, there can be no doubt that each and every separate significantly different creature found in the fossil record represents a separate act of creation, with the similarities of biochemistry, and the continuity of morphological changes, having no fundamental significance.

As to why anyone should even want to believe such nonsense, to imagine motes in the standard scientific account while ignoring beams in the eye of the proposed alternative, one can only seek an explanation outside the world of science.

Paul S. Braterman,
Professor Emeritus, University of North Texas
Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry, University of Glasgow

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