Friday, September 22, 2006

Top Ten Myths About Evolution

by Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

What evidence would it take to prove your beliefs wrong?

I simply will not reply to challenges that do not address this question. Refutability is one of the classic determinants of whether a theory can be called scientific. Moreover, I have found it to be a great general-purpose cut-through-the-crap question to determine whether somebody is interested in serious intellectual inquiry or just playing mind games. Note, by the way, that I am assuming the burden of proof here - all you have to do is commit to a criterion for testing. It's easy to criticize science for being "closed-minded". Are you open-minded enough to consider whether your ideas might be wrong?

1. Humans Evolved From Monkeys

Humans and great apes had a common ancestor about 5 million years ago Humans and monkeys had a common ancestor about 50 million years ago. Nowhere, except in the most illiterate anti-evolution literature, will you find a claim that humans evolved from monkeys.

2. It's Only A Theory

"Theory" does not mean "hypothesis" or "guess". "Theory" means an organized set of related ideas. If you have a set of previously disconnected observations, and you come up with a possible explanation, you have an organized set of related ideas - a theory. A theory that hasn't been confirmed is a hypothesis. People commonly but incorrectly talk as if theories and hypotheses are the same thing. All hypotheses are theories, but all theories are not hypotheses.
Number Theory is the branch of mathematics that deals with the properties of numbers. Theories don't get much more proven than this.
Quantum Theory is the theory that describes how and why atomic particles behave as they do. It has allowed us to build computers and lasers. There's nothing "theoretical" about it.
Stress Theory is what engineers use to build buildings, bridges, and keep the wings on airplanes. It works.
Music Theory illustrates another use of the word "theory," to mean the underlying principles of a subject as opposed to actual practice. Music Theory is the set of accepted conventions used in European music. Other conventions are possible. That's why Asian music sounds so different from ours.
The Phlogiston Theory was the notion that heat was a substance that reacted with materials to explain combustion. It's wrong. But it's still a theory. The term "theory" has nothing to do with whether the ideas in question are right or wrong.

3. If Nobody Saw It, We Can't Be Sure It Happened

If you find your house trashed and your TV and stereo missing, will you hesitate to call the police because nobody saw it happen? Would you want the judge to dismiss the case just because you only had forensic evidence, but no witnesses?

4. Science Can't Say Anything About Origins

Maybe not. But once the origin happens, everything after that is history. And historical evidence is preserved in the physical record.

5. Obsolete Concepts

Critics of evolution are fond of citing Piltdown Man or Nebraska Man (actually the tooth of a fossil pig erroneously claimed to be human). These both happened about 100 years ago. They can't cite any cases of false claims of ancient human fossils since then.

"Survival of the Fittest" was borrowed by Darwin from the economic writings of Herbert Spencer. What does "fittest" mean? It's not just a tautology, like saying "the winner of the Super Bowl is the team with the most points." There are objective features that make some creatures fitter than others. If you need to move fast in the water, there is one shape that works best and it's shared by squid, sharks, tuna, dolphins, ichthyosaurs, and nuclear submarines.

6. There Are No Intermediate Fossil Forms

This is a claim for which there is a monosyllabic definition: lie. Not error, which implies honest ignorance, but lie, because the people who make this claim are generally fully aware of the fossil record and simply choose to misrepresent it. Archaeopteryx, the earliest known fossil bird for a long time (some recent finds may be earlier) has a thoroughly reptilian skeleton with a bony tail, teeth, and four paws with jointed fingers (not merely the horny skin growths at the middle joint that a few modern birds have). And it has feathers. If that's not an intermediate, what is? More recently, evidence is accumulating that some dinosaurs had hair and feathers. If we'd lived 100 million years ago, we might have put birds, mammals and reptiles in the same class or at least put the divisions very differently from today. Therapsids are the intermediates between reptiles and mammals, crossopterygians and ichthyostegids are the intermediates between fish and amphibians, and so on.

7. Evolution Is Not Testable

Darwin suggested birds had evolved from reptiles in 1859; Archaeopteryx, a creature with a reptilian skeleton but feathers, was discovered in 1862.

Piltdown Man, the famous early fossil man hoax, actually vindicated evolution. The alleged fossil was controversial from the start precisely because it didn't match evolutionary expectations. It had a modern human skull but an ancient apelike jaw (altered by someone who knew what he was doing), rather than a mix of features on both parts. It was like trying to fake a 1950 car by mixing parts from a 1980 car and a 1920 car. As more and more hominid fossils surfaced, Piltdown Man was increasingly seen as a side branch even if it did turn out to be genuine. It just didn't match the other finds.

8. Evolution Means Humans are Just Animals

Are you a vegetable or mineral? Humans have hair and nurse their young just like all other mammals. Traits like nurturing, cooperation and monogamy are often favored by evolution because they enhance survival of the species.

9. Evolution is Just Random

Is the following number sequence random: 592653589793238462643383279? It not only looks random: it is random. But lacking in meaning? No. These are the digits of pi beginning with the fourth decimal place.

Random does not mean "meaningless." The scientific meaning of random is that something cannot be predicted with better accuracy than that predicted by statistics. The phenomenon is its own simplest description. Biological systems are far too complex to describe or predict mathematically. We have incomplete information, and significant events like climate change or asteroid impact are unpredictable.

10. Complexity Cannot Arise Naturally

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is often paraphrased as:
"Things always go from bad to worse"
"Disorder in the Universe is always increasing"

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is about entropy, which is defined as (Heat Absorbed in a process)/Temperature Entropy can decrease locally if it increases elsewhere. Intuitive notions of "disorder" are of no relevance whatsoever. Any discussion of the Second Law that does not specifically define entropy and show how it relates to evolution is worthless.

Chemical reactions are not random. For example, the atoms in a crystal of table salt are arranged as below, with sodium and chlorine atoms in a strictly alternating square array. If we take the simple-minded approach that we have a one-half probability of getting a sodium or chlorine atom in each spot, the chance of getting 100 atoms arranged as below is (1/2)100 or one in 1.26 x 1030. That's roughly one followed by 30 zeros. According to this reasoning, table salt is impossible.

Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl
Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na
Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl
Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na
Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl
Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na
Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl
Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na
Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl
Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na Cl Na

But of course the reasoning is ridiculous. The chances of getting that arrangement of atoms is close to 100 per cent.

And we know DNA can arise from simpler chemicals because it does so every time your cells divide. Every haircut you get is proof of it. The missing half of the DNA strand is assembled from molecules in the cell fluids.

"But when cells divide, there's a pattern already available" say some anti-evolutionists. Try this: go to the lumber yard and buy the materials for a tool shed. Then put a set of plans on top of the pile, and let me know when the materials spontaneously assemble. I can pour gasoline onto a garbage pile and the molecules in the garbage won't suddenly get the urge to develop into gasoline, even though there's enough carbon and hydrogen to do it. The pattern means nothing. DNA replicates because it can spontaneously self-assemble.



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