Re: Scopes Trial & Evolution disc. at University of Maryland 2006-01-31
Cyde Weys wrote:
> Let me start overall by saying that I was not entirely impressed. But
> first, some background. This "panel discussion" was a free
> before-the-show event before a ticketed partial re-enactment of the
> Scopes Trial at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the
> University of Maryland. I did not attend the actual play, but rather,
> just the free "panel discussion" (being the poor starving student I am,
> *snicker*. This is especially irrelevant if you research my POTM
> history, but I digress).
> The "panel discussion" consisted of four very smart people from the
> Department of Biology here at the University of Maryland. One of them
> even received his PhD from Harvard, fer chrissakes. They were all very
> very smart in their subject areas: some specific areas within
> evolutionary biology. But they weren't so good at the whole evolution
> versus creationism issue, which I suspect, many professors are. You
> tend to hear of academic types who, while much smarter, tend to lose
> debates against creationists. These people fit that bill. They simply
> didn't have a good concept of common creationist arguments, and I will
> explain why that is.
> Each member of the panel gave a short presentation from their relevant
> field and went on to take questions. One member of the panel lectured
> on the evolution of antibiotic resistance in tuberculosis. Apparently
> one billion people on the Earth are infected with the disease
> (including me, though I had the whole chest X-ray thing and I didn't
> have an active lung infection so I'm just on a 6-month antibiotic
> course right now. Again, check my talk.origins posting history for
> more info). The woman on the panel went on to talk about human
> evolution, and specifically, relatedness between various hominids. Did
> you know the average difference between humans is only ten times less
> than the distance between chimpanzees and humans? (As measured by
> quanitative genome analysis). I certainly hadn't heard that before!
> Then the next guy talked about the evolution of the eye and the final
> guy said some stuff about evolution and religion.
> I wasn't impressed because several professors made obvious glaring
> mistakes. One said that nothing about evolution is random. He even
> explicitly said even mutations aren't random. I understand the point
> he was trying to make, that *natural selection* isn't a random process
> as some would think, but the mutations themselves are random.
Mutations don't really occur at random. They occur via naturalistic
processes as well. Naturalistic processes that are described by
differential equations. But I would imagine a (random) stochastic model
of mutation is good enough most of the time.
> selection is a non-random process that works on random events as raw
> materials. This guy actually got called out on it by someone who said,
> if evolution is entirely non-random, why can't we predict the future
> evolution of species, or go back in time to a specific organism,
> predict its future, and compare that with actual history?
The same reason we can't predict the weather, chaos and too many
> The Harvard
> grad actually had to backtrack on what the other guy had said and said
> that yes, mutations are random, and environmental factors are also
> random, so you can't predict evolutionary future.
They are approximately random. Too bad a physicist or mathematician
wasn't there to help the biologists. There is a good myth buster in the
UMD physics department, Robert Park. He has written a layman book on
pseudoscience. I don't know him personally, but I've seen him around.
> Then the guy who
> originally made the outrageous statement backtracked himself and
> admitted that mutations were, in fact, random. But he never should
> have said they weren't from the beginning. It just made him look
> deceitful or like he didn't know what he was talking about.
It's a nuanced point, maybe he didn't fully understand it or maybe he
simply couldn't explain it well.
> There was this one creationist in the audience, who I shall call Samuel
> (reasons obvious only to me, or if you happen to be intimately familiar
> with my posting history). He asked a question on irreducible
> complexity of the eye, referring to some creationist book, though he
> never explicitly mentioned "irreducible complexity". The response from
> the scientist was very uninspiring. He said how he and the guy who
> asked the question both wore glasses, thus organisms can get by with
> less than perfect vision. This is pretty much false, as glasses are a
> process of memetic evolution, and before technology there was
> significant penalties against people with vision problems. He also
> went on to talk about his blind brilliant biologist friend, nevermind
> that this was one isolated example and that, on a whole and on the
> average, lack of sight is extremely maladaptive. He was trying to say
> there was nothing perfect or irreducible about the eye but he simply
> didn't know the correct arguments. It was like he was grasping at
> straws. All he had to do was give a rough outline of the evolution
> from the first light sensitive cells to the modern day lens and point
> out that human eye is far from perfect (blind spot, inverted retina),
> but he didn't do any of this.
> I did like the part when he was comparing the invertebrate squid eye
> and the mammalian eye, though. He did a great job talking about how
> different (morphogically) yet how similar (genetically) they are,
> absolutely demolishing this one specific argument from a creationist
> source. But when asked the much simpler question, "How could the eye
> have evolved if it is perfect and irreducible?", he didn't know the
> right answer.
That question is equivalent to "how can 1=0?"?
> This Samuel guy also asked a question something to the effect of,
> "Piltdown Man and Java Man are two notorious simian/human frauds, have
> we found anything to the effect of real simian/human hybrids in the
> fossil record?" (He meant to say transitional I presume, but he said
> hybrid). The biologist on the panel really didn't answer this one well
> at all. Again, he was grasping at straws. It took a professor from
> the Department of Paleontology who happened to be in the audience to
> give a good answer: "Java Man actually wasn't a fraud, Piltdown Man
> clearly was, and we have hundreds of evidences in the fossil record
> showing a detailed evolution from hominid ancestor to modern human." I
> noticed that this paleontologist was there of his own volition,
> attracted by the evolution versus creationism debate, and thus was
> (ironically) more qualified to comment on it than the presentors, who
> knew lots of specifics in their little evolutionary biology subfields
> but little about the debate as a whole.
> Then the Harvard grad made the terrible mistake of saying that the
> controversy of creationism is a pretty much uniquely American
> phenomenon, and furthermore, that it is restricted solely to the
> evolution of humans and everything else, like, say, geology, or age of
> the Earth, pretty much wasn't disputed. I could hear murmurs in the
> audience. The paleontologist I previously mentioned was muttering
> under his breath and I turned to a woman near me who I didn't know and
> she said, "That's not true" to me and I blurted out "Kent Hovind" in
> response, to which she nodded.
> Could this biologist be so far up in the Ivory Tower that he is
> ignorant of the huge controversy surrounding even the age of the Earth?
> Has he not heard the poll numbers that some astounding 50% of
> Americans believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old? Has he
> truly never heard of the whole young Earth creationism movement? It
> was astounding to me.
> Don't get me wrong, the presentations were very good in some aspects,
> but I was still left with a general sense that these people in their
> isolated scientific communities did not understand the controversy,
> were not exposed to the controversy, and did a poor job of responding
> to the controversy. It was really sad that the people in the audience
> were turning to each other and pointing out the outright flaws in what
> the people on the panel were saying.
> In summary, I think we, as scientists, have a long way to go. EVERY
> biologist should not only be familiar with the tenets of evolution, but
> also with the proper defense of evolution. It does us no good to have
> terribly smart people like these biologists grasping at straws when
> they get asked a silly question right out of the irreducible complexity
> handbook. I'm going to find these biologists' email addresses and
> urgently consider them to look at the talk.origins archive.
> Unfortunately, we still have a ways to go.
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