Science adjusts its beliefs on what is observed - Tim Minchin

I came across a blog post today on twitter which moved me to respond. The post is written by David Heycock on his personal blog. He starts off by making disparaging comments about the behavior of atheists on twitter, which I find amusing because many atheist do their best to be courteous, and just as many theists do their best to be profane and abusive. I have lost count of the amount of times I have been called names, including, child rapist (ugh), bitch, whore, demon etc. It is not a habit exclusive to atheists to call people names, not to mention the sheer quantity of times theists have claimed I am incapable of morals because I lack belief in a god. Morals come from empathy and survival instinct.

Anyway, I digress. I have no interest in trading insults or dwelling on immature behavior by all types of people on twitter. Heycock claims he does not have an underlying agenda of proselytizing the Christian faith, but by attempting to refute evolution, that is exactly what he is attempting to do, because the only people who don’t accept the evidence for and science of evolution are those who claim we were created by a deity, whether that deity be Christian, Muslim or Jewish. People that deny evolution, deny one of the most well substantiated and well evidenced scientific theories that exist, and is supported by 99.85% of scientists (American earth and life scientists according to Newsweek magazine).

Next Heycock makes the following statement.

So, firstly let’s be clear what we are talking about. There are two ways of using the term ‘Evolution’ and these can be defined broadly as ‘Macro’ Evolution and ‘Micro’ Evolution. Micro Evolution can be defined as ‘change over time’ and Macro Evolution as the Darwinian mechanism which operates as a universal explanation for biological novelties.

Firstly, the distinction between macro and micro evolution is something that scientists don’t generally use. To anyone who understands the Theory of Evolution,  and to simplify ‘macro’ evolution is lots of ‘micro’ evolution over large amounts of time. For the purpose of clarity however, macro evolution has become widely known as a change at the species level and micro evolution change below the species level. Some creationists will admit that adaption occurs but draw the line at ‘macro’ evolution where one species changes to a new species within a population over time. Many creationists will use the term kind instead of species, but the term kind is also not a scientific term and often has different meanings depending on the person you are speaking to. While lions and domestic cats are different species incapable of procreating many creationists will say they are the same ‘kind’. The definition of ‘kind’ remains unclear for this reason.

Heycock goes on to explain that ‘Micro’ Evolution can be seen as nothing more than ‘variations within a kind’’.

What he doesn’t seem to realise is, it is those very variations within a ‘kind’ that results in speciation, which is a well evidenced aspect of evolution. This example of Lizards evolving to adapt to their environment is an excellent example of ‘micro’ evolution. Virus’s & bacteria are other examples of evolution which are observed every day in labs around the world. In fact as mentioned in a previous article of mine ‘Just A Theory‘, modern medicine relies on our knowledge of evolution to create it’s medicines. The flu vaccine has to be changed every year because the flu virus is constantly evolving. Scientists have to predict what strains of the virus will be active in coming seasons in order to develop vaccines to protect the populations who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the influenza virus or for those who just can’t afford the down time.

Despite the fact that ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ evolution are common terms used by creationists in an effort to discredit evolution, Berkeley explains the ‘differences’ in order to clarify the issue. Briefly put Berkeley describes ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ evolution as follows.

Microevolution happens on a small scale (within a single population), while macroevolution happens on a scale that transcends the boundaries of a single species. Despite their differences, evolution at both of these levels relies on the same, established mechanisms of evolutionary change:  mutationmigrationgenetic driftnatural selection

If you are a creationist who uses this terminology (micro vs macro) in an effort to discredit evolution I would encourage you to read more about this issue as understanding it will help you understand why the main difference between ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ evolution is time. One of the biggest reasons evolution is hard for many to fathom is because the time frames involved are so massive. Considering our lifetimes are so short at under 100 years in most cases, comparing that to hundreds of millions of years to even billions of years is a hard concept to get your head around. Imagine those many tiny variations being passed down from one generation to the next over hundreds of millions of years until they amount to so many variations that the species becomes unrecognisable from where it originated.

This is not Just a Theory, this is evidenced time and time again, in the fossil record, in geology, anthropology, biology, DNA and embryology to name a few. If the theory was disputable or incorrect, there would be evidence of this fact, but instead of this, every aspect of science agrees with the theory of evolution. None of it disagrees. Think about that for a minute. Evidence in every aspect of science concurs with the theory of evolution.

Heycock then goes on to make this claimOn the other hand Macro Evolution is something else again and I shall hereon refer to it as ToE.

Actually no, I will explain again that macro evolution is not different to micro evolution, it is simply the result of more ‘micro evolution’ resulting in speciation. Heycock then includes a quote by Dr Robert E Kofahl. I was at first unable to determine what Dr Kofahl’s doctorate is in but he is listed as Science Director of the Creation-Science Research Center (CSRC) in San Diego on the description for his book, ‘Handy dandy evolution refuter’. I did note that none of his publications listed on Amazon list his doctorate credentials or mention what the doctorate is in. Upon further research I was able to find mention of his doctorate on an obituary. Dr Kofahl passed away in 2009, his Phd was in chemistry which he received in 1954. In any case Dr Kofahl was clearly a deeply religious man who had an invested interest in preserving his belief.

I need to make mention of the fact that creation-science is an oxymoron. To quote a favourite musician/actor/songwriter/playwright/comedian:

Science adjusts it’s beliefs based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.

Science adjusts its beliefs on what is observed - Tim Minchin

I am making a claim here, so let me show evidence of this claim. Once again I will ask you to read my article Just a Theory, as it contains an example of Creation Ministries and Answers in Genesis committing obvious and dishonest quote mining in order to support their claims of creation. These are quote mines which ignore science in order to protect the creation belief. I find this behaviour abhorrent because it denies people the opportunity to make properly informed decisions based on accurate science.

Heycock then goes on to say this:

With all due respect to the many, many credible scientists that claim ToE to be a ‘proven’ scientific theory, it is quite clear there are some very serious issues that challenge that conclusion. These involve amongst many others: 1 an extreme controversy over the starting point of the theory i.e. abiogenesis – for which there is still no completely exhaustive answer

Abiogenesis is not the starting point of the theory of evolution, abiogenesis in fact is not a part of the theory of evolution at all. Evolution refers to the explanation for diversity and descent with modification within populations over time. Abiogenesis is a separate topic altogether and refers to the origins of life. Evolution does not occur until after life has already begun. Abiogenesis is a topic where we still have a great deal to learn, but have also already learned a great deal. Scientists have been able to create RNA in the lab by simulating the conditions of early earth some 4 billion years ago. The hypothesis that the origins of life involve a chemical process has strong evidence.

The fact that we do not yet have an ‘exhaustive answer’, to use Heycock’s words is not somehow evidence for creation. Lack of knowledge does not mean that God is the only answer. This is known as the God of the Gaps fallacy. We have already a great deal of evidence that life formed by a natural process. The fact that we do not yet know all the answers does not mean that God is the answer. We also do not need to know the exact mechanism for the origin of life to know that evolution is true. There is more than enough evidence of evolution to know that it has occurred and continues to occur every day. We know this for sure, and it is irrefutable fact. That the origin of life is a different thing to the explanation for the diversity of life, is difficult for Heycock to understand is likely related to his need for the answer to be god rather than a natural process, or perhaps he just doesn’t correctly understand the difference between the origins of life and evolution. Hopefully my explanation above will help.

Further to the topic of abiogenesis, Heycock continues with this statement.

At any rate, the fact that there is still no credible proof that life formed from non-living matter in the distant past (despite the well disputed claims the that 66 year old Miller-Urey experiment had somehow ‘solved’ the problem) did not seem to bother ToE believers and 100% of them dismissed it as being irrelevant. I found it hard to agree with this.

Reference to the Miller-Urey experiment is another common tactic by creationists, but at least Hemcock mentions that the experiment is 66 years old. What he doesn’t mention is that the experiment did not properly mimic the environment of early earth and has since been superseded by experiments where scientists have been able to create both metabolism and RNA in the lab. Both of these experiments are evidence of vital processes that must occur for abiogenesis to be a plausible hypothesis. Furthermore, the equipment that was available at the time of the Miller-Urey experiment was insufficient to properly determine the amino acids which resulted from this experiment. I obtained the following information from wikipedia.

Professor Jeffrey Bada, himself Miller’s student, inherited the original equipment from the experiment when Miller died in 2007. Based on sealed vials from the original experiment, scientists have been able to show that although successful, Miller was never able to find out, with the equipment available to him, the full extent of the experiment’s success. Later researchers have been able to isolate even more different amino acids, 25 altogether. Professor Bada has estimated that more accurate measurements could easily bring out 30 or 40 more amino acids in very low concentrations, but the researchers have since discontinued the testing. Miller’s experiment was therefore a remarkable success at synthesizing complex organic molecules from simpler chemicals, considering that all life uses just 20 different amino acids.[7]

The experiment was a success and did not prove that abiogenesis is not possible. What was observed was that amino acids can be created in the lab. Amino acids are an important part of life. What was discovered during the experiment in question actually supports abiogenesis. The results are in fact encouraging and do not disprove the possibility of abiogenesis at all.

Heycock continues with:

2 an extreme tension between simplistic incremental alterations to the genome that may occur due to chance mutations due to copying errors at cell division and the production of incredible, new complexity occurring by the same unguided means and by pure chance driven only by Darwinian concept of ‘survival of the fittest’;

An extreme tension? What does that mean exactly? Evolution is not pure chance. It occurs through a combination of mutations and how advantageous those mutations are in any given environment within any given population. Further, the theory of evolution has progressed since Darwin’s book over 150 years ago. Evolution is also much more complex than simply ‘survival of the fittest’. The term survival of the fittest is often used by creationist in an attempt to malign the theory. It appears that this is another case of quote mining or lack of understanding of what the phrase actually means. To quote Oxford Dictionary:

The continued existence of organisms which are best adapted to their environment, with the extinction of others, as a concept in the Darwinian theory of evolution.

It is simply a biological process where the species and any positive mutations which occur to the species become more prolific than mutations that are less beneficial. Positive mutations are more successful in reproduction than negative mutations.

Heycock continues with a common misconception:

3 insufficient numbers of of transitional fossil forms;

This is simply incorrect. Technically speaking all fossils are transitional fossils as evolution is a continuous process. It isn’t a process within a single animal. (eg. no crocoduck) That said, there are MANY examples of ‘transitional fossils’ which websites like Creation Ministries and Answers in Genesis choose to ignore, or attempt to explain as not transitional using their dishonest tactics of belief preservation over honest scientific method. The most famous is probably the archaeopteryx which exhibits aspects of both dinosaur and bird species. It has both feathers and scales. The fact that fossils are so rare, after all they have survived in sediment for millions of years, means that finding fossils of every ‘transitional form’ is unlikely to ever happen, however we have more than sufficient evidence of transitional forms in the fossil record to support evolution.

Heycock then mentions in his list the Cambrian explosion and later elaborates further.

4 the Cambrian explosion

By arranging fossils in a particular way, it is possible to see them as being transitional but this ignores three critical issues; lack of fossil numbers showing transitional characteristics; the Cambrian Explosion and the orderliness of the ‘tree of life’.

Secondly, the fossil record shows an explosion of fully formed species during the so-called Cambrian period. Many of these forms have remained unchanged to the present day

Firstly, we don’t ‘arrange’ fossils in a particular way. Fossils are discovered in geological strata in order of existence over time, with oldest fossils appearing lower in geological strata than newer fossils. This is not an artificial process, this is how the fossils are left behind and subsequently discovered. I have already provided links to so called transitional fossils which prove any lack of transitional fossils is imaginary.

The fact that we can discover fossils in geological strata in a particular order (that is in order of existence) enables us to be sure of the progression of new and existing species. No further developed species are found in geological strata layers below that which they are found in their earliest form. You will not for example find a fossil of a bird in a strata layer below that of the archaeopteryx which is what has long been considered the earliest transitional fossil from dinosaur to bird. For those that don’t know, strata layers are layers of soil which correspond with different periods of time, the lower the layer the older the fossils found within. The higher the layer, the younger the fossils are that will be found.

I am unclear on what Heycock is trying to say in regards to the Cambrian period. There are indeed fully formed species found from the Cambrian period, which incidentally was from 485.4 to 541 million years ago. The species that existed during that period were however very primitive forms. The similar looking species which exist today are not the same species and generally have vast differences which is further evidence of evolution. Species evolve to best suit their environment. The environments we have on earth today are vastly different to that of the Cambrian period. Species we see today are far more complex than the primitive species which existed during the Cambrian Period. I would welcome an example of species which remain unchanged since the Cambrian period.

It is not clear by his blog post whether Heycock is a young earth creationist, but I am assuming that the fact that he mentions the Cambrian period means he knows the Earth is far from young. It is not unusual for young earth creationists to mention the Cambrian period but still claim that the earth is only around 6000 years.

The tree of life is mentioned in the quote above and again in his list of reasons he rejects evolution.

5 the orderly structure of the ‘tree of life’

When Heycock refers to the tree of life and it’s orderliness. I presume he is speaking about what is often referred to as the tree of life on various diagrams and charts which illustrate the progression of various species during the process of evolution.

The Great Tree of Life

 From Visually.

There are many such illustrations available on the internet to varying degrees of detail. The current information on evolution is so vast it is difficult to show that information with large amounts of detail on any one illustration. The information is complex and the reason there is an appearance of order is precisely because the complexity and development of species increases as time progresses. The orderliness of the progression of species is a result of the biological processes that make the theory of evolution what it is. It is in itself very convincing evidence for evolution.

6 the apparent existence of design inherent in biology

I have to confess, this statement always confounds me when I hear it, because being raised without a deity and the associated bias I just don’t see evidence of design. As a graphic artist I can tell you design is a structured process, it doesn’t have elements which don’t belong or which are no longer functional. Non functioning elements are omitted. There are many non functioning elements in nature such as the coccyx (tail bone) in humans, who no longer have a tail having evolved from primates who did. As a designer, I would not be adding a tail bone for a creature who had no tail. I have also had two organs removed which no longer have much if any function within the human body, the appendix and the gall bladder. I have noticed no difference since I had those two vestigial organs removed. Many of us at some point have our wisdom teeth removed. Many people are born without wisdom teeth or have wisdom teeth that never erupt. I had three of mine pulled out, the fourth remains deeply embedded (sideways) in my jaw bone never to see the light of day. My husband had one high in his cheek bone which had to be removed in order to fit dentures. Incidentally, my husband is in his early 40’s, you would think that if we were designed, his teeth would have been sufficient to last his lifetime or at least further than half way. If they were designed, they are of extremely poor design, evolution however, allows for the many imperfections that we as humans have.

Another instance of vestigial parts comes to mind when I think about species of whale, which are known to be descendants of terrestrial animals that had hind limbs. As such there are many cases of whales found in the whale which have rudimentary atavistic hind-limbs. This article by the National Center for Science Education covers this topic better than I can and also features Heycock’s friend Dr Robert E Kofahl. Interestingly they refute one of the claims he makes in the book I listed earlier in this article.

7 what Francis Schaeffer called the “mannishness of man” which includes a sense of ‘being’, free-will, love of beauty, morality and other metaphysical elements of experience; and this is not an exhaustive list.

I am again confounded by this statement. I am not sure how this reference is in any way evidence of a creator. Free will, love of beauty and morality are not metaphysical elements of experience. They are something we all experience regardless of religion, race or creed. These are things we are able to feel, see and experience through empathy, emotions and the process of neurons firing in our brain. We have evidence for each of these things. We do not however have any evidence for a deity.

Heycock finishes his list of issues with Evolution with this statement.

Other credible challenges to ToE include the simple lack of sufficient time for generations to access species-altering mutational change (even if it did exist) and, for me, the simply illogical idea that chance plus time plus survival advantages could produce the complex biosphere that we experience all around us.

What we have here is possibly a reference to a young earth, given we are able to accurately test the age of fossils, we know fossils and the earth are a great deal older than what creationists claim. I fail to see how billions of years is insufficient for life to evolve. The rest of the statement is simply an argument from incredulity and contains nothing of substance.

Then we have this quite convoluted paragraph.

Let me work through these points very quickly. Firstly, the vast majority of arguments for ToE I encountered in my discussions involved individuals completely misunderstanding the difference between Macro and Micro Evolution. Again and again I would encounter arguments for Macro Evolution that quoted examples of Micro Evolution as ‘proofs’. It seemed just impossible for the people to discern between the two concepts. In saying this I don’t want to be dismissive of the sophisticated complexity behind some of these claims. For example, one contributor suggested that “changing allele frequencies” were “obvious proof of ToE” yet that same day I watched a debate where a highly credentialed professor at a leading US university said “changing allele frequencies have nothing to do with Macro Evolution and are not part of the conversation”. In other words, this phenomenon is simply a function of Micro Evolution. So, although understanding the concept of changing allele frequencies requires a reasonable understanding of the micro-biology, they are no more than another example of Micro Evolution. Over the years that I’ve been looking at this subject the confusion in people’s minds between Macro and Micro Evolution was (and is) a very common error.

I have already covered ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ evolution so I won’t go into that again except to say, the difference between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ evolution is completely irrelevant. ‘Micro’ is simply a part of ‘macro’ evolution. If you are not understanding that, you are not understanding how evolution works. What I also wanted to address was the suggestion that “changing allele frequencies have nothing to do with Macro Evolution and are not part of the conversation”. I can’t imagine an evolutionary biologist would say such a thing given my statement immediately above. Evolutionary biologists are the experts in the field of evolution. I can only imagine that the reason Hemcock doesn’t mention the name of this ‘highly credentialed’ professor who makes the ludicrous statement is because he is not an expert in the field of evolutionary biology and quote possibly has a poor understanding of the subject.  Otherwise, I would imagine you would mention his credentials in order to lend credence to the statement. I would be pleased to be a recipient of the name of this venerable professor so that I can investigate his highly spoken of credentials.

Interestingly as far as I can tell, quotes mentioned by Hemcock in the following paragraph are quote mined. I have been unable to find the quotes in the format provided on anything other than a creationist website or book.

Even the legendary atheist Stephen Jay Gould recognized this problem. He concluded that humans are a “glorious Evolutionary accident” that required 60 trillion contingent events that “…could not be replicated even if Evolutionary history on earth repeated itself a million times.” Illustrate this problem in terms of biology and the problem becomes infinite. For example, Dr Jerry Bergman, calculated the probability of an ordered structure of just 206 parts (the number of bones in the human body) being assembled together in the correct general position. His workings show that on the first trial and on each and every trial thereafter a random sorting of these elements would result in the correct positioning only one time in 10388.

Firstly the ‘glorious Evolutionary accident’ quote as most definitely been quote mined. This is the actual quote in context.

We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.

Clearly the quote is entirely out of context and he disingenuously couples it with the subsequent quote about contingent events. I was able to find the second portion of the quote on the Answers in Genesis website in an article by Dr Jerry Bergman author of the book ‘In Six Days’. Dr Bergman received his human biology doctorate from Columbia Pacific University which has since lost its accreditation.

The quote below is in Dr Jerry Bergman’s book ‘In Six Days’, but I have been unable to find the quote in any publication by Stephen Gould. (if anyone can confirm it exists in a publication by Gould I would appreciate the information so I can clarify further)

Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould stated that even if evolutionary history on earth repeated itself a million times, he doubts whether anything like Homo sapiens would ever develop again (Gould, 1989; also see Kayzer, p. 86, 1997).

I have not been able to find any mention of 60 trillion contingent events in any publications by Gould available on the web. (if anyone knows the source, please feel free to let me know) It is however included in the article by Dr Jerry Bergman which makes me suspect that ‘that required 60 trillion contingent events that’ actually comes from Bergman’s article and not Gould as Hemcock implies. It seems quote mining is common amongst creationists. Dr Bergman seems to also have quote mined as I find the following in his article on the Answers in Genesis website.

Scientists recognize this problem, and this is why Stephen Jay Gould concluded that humans are a glorious evolutionary accident which required 60 trillion contingent events (Gould, 1989, see also Kayzer, p. 92, 1997).

There is more to Heycocks blog post but at this point I have written close to 4500 words and given the quote mining undertaken I see little point in continuing. Perhaps when I have had a break from this article which clearly has no basis in fact or reality I will feel compelled to further refute Heycock’s unsubstantiated claims.

It is disheartening to see not just creation websites but creationists using quote mining to support their beliefs. For creationists, supporting belief constantly seems to be their primary aim when it comes to science. Given that honesty is a valued moral amongst Christians, as an atheist it is disappointing that so many Christians use dishonest practices to encourage people to have faith in a God who has no evidence. If their faith is so strong, why must they use quote mining to support their faith? Why not simply present the science as it presents itself.  Shouldn’t the honesty of the science and it’s methods be the factor most paramount?

Update 23 March 2016:

After having received a promise to address my article I have been summarily blocked by Heycock on twitter. Now why doesn’t that surprise me? Creationists really can’t hack honest science can they?

Creationists block when they come up against valid science - David Heycock

Interesting he deleted my comment on his article which was held in moderation notifying him of my article, but hasn’t removed the pingback to my response. I am betting he just hasn’t noticed his blog automatically listed the pingback. Wonder how long it will last there?

Pingback of link to David Article Blog post Why I rejected Evolution