Monday, November 22, 2004

An obvious truth

This is a topic I will be returning to often. Here's a teaser to get us going: why do creationists suppose that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics?

This is evolution in action: we start off with a population of happy organisms in a lovely environment (for instance, a person infected with tuberculosis). Suddenly, the environment turns nasty: the person has received an antibiotic. The antibiotic kills off almost all of the tuberculosis bacteria, but some survive; they are slightly different from their companions and are not much bothered by the antibiotic. The survivors multiply joyfully. The infected person still has tuberculosis, but now the original antibiotic no longer makes any difference. (See the Wikipedia article for a more detailed explanation).

Why were some of the bacteria slightly different? Because they are mutated, meaning that their genetic information is slightly different to that of their forebears. What causes mutations? They can be caused by transcription errors during cell division or by exposure to radiation, certain chemicals, and viruses.

All of the basic processes underlying evolution -- variation, selection, and reproduction -- are well-understood and backed up by mountains of evidence. There is no simpler, more elegant, or more complete explanation of phenomena such as bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics. So why do creationists persist in denying an obvious truth?



12 Comments:

Blogger John said...

A recent survey by Gallup uncovered appalling figures regarding the levels of scientific undereducation in the U.S. See for yourselves:

---

Third of Americans Say Evidence Has Supported Darwin's Evolution Theory
Almost half of Americans believe God created humans 10,000 years ago
November 19, 2004

by Frank Newport

Only about a third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well supported by the evidence, while just as many say that it is just one of many theories and has not been supported by the evidence. The rest say they don't know enough to say. Forty-five percent of Americans also believe that God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago. A third of Americans are biblical literalists who believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/content/login.aspx?ci=14107

6:14 pm  
Blogger Drew said...

Just a quick note from someone who has started to become a big fan of new developments in evolutionary biology. In the book Why We Get Sick, by R. Neese, G. Williams , it suggests that modern medicine is remiss in not including the perspectives of evolution in the practice of their ‘art’.

E.g., there is little thought as to the some of the reasons behind why are bodies react to certain parasites (i.e., viruses, bacteria etc.). There is evidence that people who take medicine to alleviate cold symptoms actually stay sick longer.

12:29 am  
Blogger John said...

Hi Drew, thanks for your note! I am quite chuffed about receiving my first comment. The more so because it has given me something new to think about: the combination of applied medicine and evolution. Interesting!

10:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe because of the "Missing Link."

Read Genesis 1:20-25, the account of God creating living creatures other than man. It says each was made "according to its/their kind." Maybe that means that creatures reproduce, with variation, but always within their different groups. Hence bacteria mutate, but are still bacteria, and the sparrows that Darwin cited vary, but are still sparrows.

Without evidence of bacteria becoming sparrows, this seems to explain what we do see scientifically, but perhaps also what we don't see - the Link.

7:10 pm  
Blogger John said...

Dear Anonymous,

thanks for your post. While I don't accept the authority of the bible on scientific matters, you raise a point that deserves to be addressed.

If I understood you correctly, what you are saying is that bacteria develop resistance to drugs because they do indeed undergo a process of variation (through mutation), selection, and retention of survival-relevant traits, but that this process does not lead to bacteria becoming some radically different life-form such as a mammal or a tree.

The first point I would like to mention is that by accepting the process of variation, selection, and retention, you have already accepted the basic premise of evolution. In the example, the process results in two different kinds of bacteria, one of which is killed by the antibiotica, whereas the other is not. So how does this square with the description that each living creature was made according to its kind? I would say it doesn't, because you now have a new kind of creature that was not (directly) made by God.

The second point you imply is that the dividing line between different life-forms should be drawn in a different place, that is: bacteria remain bacteria, no matter whether antibiotica kill them or not, i.e. that their susceptibility to antibiotics is not enough of a differentiating factor.

This brings us to the problem of taxonomy in biology, which is by no means an undisputed field of science. Again, if I understood you correctly, you assume -- based on the bible -- that God created a taxonomy of species that remains unchanged to the present day. The problem is that God did not describe his taxonomy in any great detail, as far as I know. You could use Linnaean taxonomy (a beautiful system, to be sure) in order to differentiate and categorize life-forms, but even this is currently being disputed and may be changed in a few years (there was an article on the subject in a recent edition of Scientific American).

That having been said, let me ignore the issue of taxonomy in order to address the third point in your comment, namely that in the world around us we see life-forms that are so obviously different that their existence cannot be explained through processes based on minute variations like evolution. Instead, you imply that the life-forms must have been created different from the start.

The best analogy I can think of off the top of my head is the following: on a tree, a branch is not the same as a leaf. For instance, the one contains chlorophyll and engages in gaseous exchanges powered by sunlight, whereas the other acts as structural support and as a conduit for nutrients. They are different in terms of appearance, function, and genesis. Nonetheless, they are attached to the same tree. They share the same genetic information and the same history.

In my analogy, life-forms are attached to a historical tree that describes their development paths. In spite of their different appearances, functions, and genesis, they do indeed share a common ancestor in the distant past. They are different because the process of evolution has been going on for an incredible number of generations, allowing a huge number of variations to be generated and to diverge in time.

One way of expressing the divergence is in terms of the percentage of DNA shared -- for instance, humans share 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees, but less with whales. In this way, we can see the effects of evolution by using DNA differences to look back into the past. We are not able to see evolution creating different species in the present because our timeframe is too short: just a hundred and fifty years since Darwin published his magnum opus. In my view, this makes his achievement the more impressive -- developing the theory of evolution was based on an insight as profound as that of Einstein when he developed his theories of relativity.

The expression "missing link" does not sit well with me. It implies a discrete number of steps in the evolution of species, while the number of steps is generally so large as to make the process more continuous than discrete in nature, with the differences from one individual to the next being minimal. (Excursus: An important theory in evolutionary biology, first proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972, posits that the process takes place in the form of a punctuated equilibrium, i.e. as alternating long periods with little change and short periods with lots of change. This does not supersede the theory of evolution, but enhances it.) In this sense, there may well be thousands or even millions of links between two different life-forms, and it makes no sense in my view to name any one of them "The Missing Link".

To sum up, here's my viewpoint: evolution is happening everywhere around us. It is clearly visible in bacteria because they multiply quickly and the effects are easy to see. It is less visible in the macro-world because it happens more slowly there and the effects are slight, but still cumulative. In total, it is one of the most accurate, most beautiful, and longest-lasting theories ever developed in science, which is why I value it so highly and defend it so fiercely.

3:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, thanks for a thoughtful and detailed response. I am unwilling to dismiss anyone for simply believing in evolution, and I appreciate it that you don't just label me a religious fanatic and do the same to me.

Before I address your points, let me say straight out what I believe - that accepting either evolution OR creation is an act of faith. That is, there is simply not enough evidence out there to PROVE either of the two.

"So how does this square with the description that each living creature was made according to its kind? I would say it doesn't, because you now have a new kind of creature that was not (directly) made by God."

No more so than you or I were. This is the act of faith in action - was the hand of God in the process by which you and I became alive, and the bacteria mutated, or was it purely nature? We cannot know - but that living organisms change does not deny or disprove the existence or activity of God.

"The problem is that God did not describe his taxonomy in any great detail, as far as I know."

Why is that a problem? If scientific understanding of taxonomy changes substantially in the next few years, that says nothing at all about the theory I proposed. If God made things to multiply according to their kind, it's His definition of "kind" - not man's - that matters. There's no obligation to provide a description.

I'm afraid I don't understand your tree analogy. After all, our fingernails and spleens have the same DNA, but did one evolve from the other? I sense that isn't what you were trying to say, but I don't follow - sorry.

"In this sense, there may well be thousands or even millions of links between two different life-forms"

I don't like the term Missing Link much either, but it's extremely unscientific to discount a concept for dislike of a term, no? :) Your statement actually undermines your point and supports mine. After all, we're not looking for a SINGLE missing link, but possibly millions of them! There should be extensive fossil records of the transition from primate to human, rodent to primate, and so on. I don't presume to think every step would have already been found, but the lack of such extensive chains, of organisms that clearly form an approximate midpoint between two different species, should give one pause. You referred earlier to the basic premise of evolution, which is understandable and observeable, but this lack is the reason I say it takes faith to believe in evolution. One must interpolate to fill in the gaps, as there is no empirical data to fill them in for us. I will not call it illogical to fill them in with evolution - just unproven, and unproveable.

As for the shared DNA, I heard a theory long ago which I have developed with an analogy. Look at the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect. He designed homes, museums, universities, many of which look very much alike and share numerous common characteristics. Did any of them evolve from another? In the physical sense, of course not! However, in another, very real way, they did - in Wright's mind. It makes sense that two "creations" (buildings or creatures) would have common building blocks and traits - if they have the same designer. Creatures being organic (unlike buildings) makes the idea of physical evolution plausible, but doesn't prove it.

"To sum up, here's my viewpoint: evolution is happening everywhere around us"

Yes it is - but does that alone make it unlimited? That conclusion is a leap of faith.

10:01 pm  
Blogger John said...

Dear Anonymous,

thanks for your new posting; again, you raise some valid questions that I should like to answer.

["The problem is that God did not describe his taxonomy in any great detail, as far as I know."

Why is that a problem? If scientific understanding of taxonomy changes substantially in the next few years, that says nothing at all about the theory I proposed. If God made things to multiply according to their kind, it's His definition of "kind" - not man's - that matters. There's no obligation to provide a description.]

Of course, God has no need to provide any definitions at all. We create taxonomies because we seek an understanding of the bigger picture; in order to create the taxonomies, we make observations. If God or nature plays by certain rules, then those rules become apparent from our observations of patterns in the natural world. This is indeed what is happening: our observations of the natural world show us that there are patterns. Evolution is our way of explaining why the patterns are there.

I brought up the issue of taxonomy because it is key for testing the premises and validity of creationism. In other words, if God indeed created living creatures by "kind", as stated in Genesis, then we would expect certain patterns to be present in nature: for instance, there should be no transitional fossils at all between "kinds" because kinds don't mix.[1] If "kind" means "species", creationism predicts that there should be no species-to-species transitions whatsoever in the fossil record. If "kind" means "genus" or "family" or "order", there should be no species-to-species transitions that cross genus, family, or order lines. Furthermore, creationism would appear to predict that since life did not originate by descent from a common ancestor, fossils should not appear in a temporal progression, and it should not be possible to link modern taxa to much older, very different taxa through a "general lineage" of similar and progressively older fossils.

None of these observations hold, and therefore creationism (if I understand it correctly; there seem to be various schools of thought) as a mental model is not supported by the observed facts.

[I'm afraid I don't understand your tree analogy. After all, our fingernails and spleens have the same DNA, but did one evolve from the other? I sense that isn't what you were trying to say, but I don't follow - sorry.]

It was a confusing analogy, and I knew it as I was writing it; sorry about that. What I was trying to say is that just as DNA is the underlying link between different parts of a tree, so evolution is the underlying link between different life forms. In both cases, there is a principle organizing the patterns we observe.

[I don't like the term Missing Link much either, but it's extremely unscientific to discount a concept for dislike of a term, no? :)]

Using inaccurate terms leads to inaccurate thinking, and inaccurate thinking can lead to discountable concepts. ;-)

[After all, we're not looking for a SINGLE missing link, but possibly millions of them! There should be extensive fossil records of the transition from primate to human, rodent to primate, and so on. I don't presume to think every step would have already been found, but the lack of such extensive chains, of organisms that clearly form an approximate midpoint between two different species, should give one pause.]

As a matter of fact, we DO HAVE massive evidence in the form of an extensive fossil record showing transitions between "kinds" (species, genus, family, order -- take your pick), as well as "approximate midpoints" between different "kinds". To wit, in the animal kingdom we have evidence[2] for the transitions from primitive jawless fish to sharks, skates, and rays; from primitive jawless fish to bony fish; from primitive bony fish to amphibians; transitions among amphibians; from amphibians to amniotes (first reptiles); transitions among reptiles; from synapsid reptiles to mammals; and from diapsid reptiles to birds. Transitions among mammals are strongly documented because they took place more recently and more fossils exist.

The record is not complete for obvious reasons: not all animals that die turn into fossils, not all fossils survive the geological processes taking place around them, and, taking into consideration the relationship between the surface volume of the earth that needs to be searched, the number of fossils that need to be identified and sorted, and the number of archaeologists, we can be sure that there will never be any such thing as a complete fossil record. Nevertheless, the millions of fossils we do have all fit into the same pattern, and this pattern is described by evolution.

[You referred earlier to the basic premise of evolution, which is understandable and observeable, but this lack is the reason I say it takes faith to believe in evolution. One must interpolate to fill in the gaps, as there is no empirical data to fill them in for us. I will not call it illogical to fill them in with evolution - just unproven, and unproveable.]

As described above, we do have a fossil record, so the lack of evidence to which you refer is non-existent, which invalidates your argument. Saying that there is no empirical data is simply incorrect. There is more than enough evidence to make evolution an extremely well-supported theory, which is something very different from a belief such as creationism. Evolution is falsifiable, but has not yet been falsified (and I bet it won't be), whereas creationism is unfalsifiable and therefore not science, but belief.

[It makes sense that two "creations" (buildings or creatures) would have common building blocks and traits - if they have the same designer.]

This is not a logical conclusion. For instance, most buildings have roofs; does this mean they all have the same designer? Of course not.

["To sum up, here's my viewpoint: evolution is happening everywhere around us."

Yes it is - but does that alone make it unlimited? That conclusion is a leap of faith. [snip/shift] Let me say straight out what I believe - that accepting either evolution OR creation is an act of faith. That is, there is simply not enough evidence out there to PROVE either of the two.]

From my point of view, there is a significant difference between the two viewpoints. Evolution is a falsifiable scientific theory. It has been open to scrutiny and disproval for over a hundred and fifty years, and has not been disproved during this time. The evidence that supports the theory is extensive and keeps mounting, and it is extremely unlikely that anything will be found to disprove it. This convinces me that the theory is accurate.

Creationism is a concept based on a single premise: that the bible provides an accurate description of the way the world and the creatures living on it were created. This is an extremely weak premise. It hinges on the reliability of a single text, which is ambiguous and subject to interpretation. Instead of fitting the concept to the facts, as evolution does, it tries (unsuccessfully) to fit the facts to the concept, which is patently unscientific.

Yes, faith is involved: faith in reason, empiricism, and the scientific method against faith in dogma and scripture. The former can be shared by persons of all beliefs, religions, and faiths, whereas the latter is limited to a single religious group. For all those who don't believe that the bible is God's word -- the overwhelming majority of humanity -- creationism holds no more validity than the belief in Santa Claus.

[1] and [2]: Here and in the following: quoted from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-transitional/part1a.html#pred

5:53 pm  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alrighty :). Well guys, not everyday you get to meet a guy who has had the opportunity to actually compare Evolution, Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design, Progressive Creation Science and Young Earth Creation Science, but yet, here I am. When it was all said and done, what did I become? Honestly, the evidence all pointed towards a YECS perspective. Now you can check out my blog at http://jesusjustforyou.blogspot.com

Believe it or not, we agree with much of the evidence that Evolution provides, but disbelieve in their circular reasoning processes. Everything must support Evolution. Evolutionists tend to have the wrong angle on approaching their evidence and I'm not just talking about the Biblical blinders either. I will demonstrate. You mention evidence for Natural Selection. Well....we agree. Natural Selection is fine :). http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/3035 - this will demonstrate what we mean. Evolutionists think that Natural Selection means "survival of the fittest." Well this is actually wrong. Evolutionists are spreading their propaganda here with Charles Darwin as their founder. The real founder of the actual Natural Selection as it is SUPPOSED to be known is from Edward Blythe http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/2622/31/. What does Natural Selection mean? Simply: "The process of natural selection is valid and accepted by virtually all scientists (creationists and evolutionists). It shows creatures change over time. http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/4348/" Wow, we're going to have to try again to debunk us YECS's :). We also agree with Variation: "Variation within a kind is a different concept than ‘goo to you’ evolution. It means that there is a vast amount of information in living things and that many combinations are possible. But there are limits. Selecting from existing information does not create new information. (http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/4348/). We'll next get in there by knocking Darwin off the block via Dr. Jonathan Safarti and crew: http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/3058/ and http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/1892/

Now yes, of course the old Adolf Hitler thing, but: "Richard Weikart, professor of modern European history at California State University, Stanislaus, has thoroughly documented the Darwinian roots of many aspects of the Nazi terror in his recent book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.1

He showed that Darwinism provided many of the foundations for Nazi principles." This is just to let people know that Hitler, though proclaiming to be, was not a Christian.

Whats wrong with this picture? Wait....its that Jesus feller isn't it? YECS's are strictly sticking to evidence when they proclaim the earth to be only 10,000 years old: http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/3040/. Are we the nuts sos?

Well, what about mutations right? Sure, all these mutations, but not beneficial ones? No, we agree with that. We only disagree that any new information is provided, and we've thoroughly debunked the counter claims to this: http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/3026/ Most of the genetic information we receive is loss of information. Not a single TRACE of a gain. Most Evolutionists will counter with hox genes or something of the like, but we shoot that down here: http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/3268/

So what does this all come down to? A bunch of Humanistic Scientists (a la Pandas Thumb, where I have spent extensive time debating) who are completely baffled and have those futuristic "hopefully we'll discover something new tomorrow" mentalities. Futurism is mere wishful thinking. The truth has already been discovered, and to any who might think otherwise, I'd urge to prove that these statements are true through Science :). If this statement is not true as proven through Science, then how can we make any statements that are true at all? This is a rational faith! Reason and faith have not been separated, nor have they been declared separable by the greatest of Philosophers of our time. Now I'm an Evangelist, an Apologist if you will, but I"m not going to sit here and tell you how Jesus Christ changed my life, because I'm sure you've heard those stories before. I'm an Evidentialist, and I was not going to accept any truth claim until I was absolutely certain it was the right one. Now that I have, I am satisfied (after looking through 50 different religions and Philosophies). So I urge you in the interest of saving time to e-mail me at jesusjustforyou22@yahoo.com for any actual and serious objections you might have against Jesus Christ. Be open to hearing what I have to say, and maybe you might learn something new. Remember this one that Scientists are unable to explain, "Can you see your mind?"
Is faith a bad thing? Yes if its a faith of feeling. If its a faith of reason, it is not.

Mind you, I also noticed that old Santa Claus talk there. I would like to present to you this: http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/pascals_wager.html

And http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/unicorns.html

God is not contingent as a belief. God is a Philosophically necessary belief. He who unasserts a necessary belief creates a necessary belief of his own, but one that is not TRUE and self defeats! This is why God is important. So...ho ho ho :).

12:03 am  

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