Biology Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Science Skepticism/critical thinking

An intelligent design advocate asks: What should life look like? (The argument from “completeness”)

I was half-tempted to e-mail this one to P. Z. or Larry Moran, but my inherently merciful nature got the better of me. Because it was so idiotic, I was afraid that, after P. Z. and his regular readers got through with it (or even worse for this poor ID advocate, Larry Moran), there wouldn’t be anything left other than a hint that there may have been a smear on the pavement where he had been. And, as much as this particular ID advocate and woo-meister has gotten on my nerves in the past outing me and all on at least three separate occasions, even I didn’t want to see that. Besides, why should I let P. Z. or other have all the fun? I bet that even he hasn’t seen an “argument” against evolution quite like this one. Or maybe he has, and I’m just sheltered. We’ll find out. Besides, I’m in Bethesda right now for an NIH study section meeting. I had been planning on trying to blog about a rather interesting surgical study that I’ve had in the PIle Of Stuff I Really Should Blog About for three or four weeks now, but that would take some actual work–you know, like reading the paper in depth and thinking about it. Such topics are more appropriate for the train ride home tomorrow, mainly because I don’t need Internet access, just the paper. Besides, I haven’t had a go at some bad ID arguments in quite a while.

It should come as no surprise that the particular ID advocate that I’m talking about is Pat Sullivan, and you know you’re in for a load of badly argued pseudoscience when he starts out “thinking

I was in Ireland the past 10 days playing golf. Lots of airplane and bus time. I got to think a lot, which is always scary I guess.

I found myself thinking about a particular comment I often get from evolutionists on my posts regarding evolution and intelligent design. “Predictability.” One of the claimed elements of a good scientific theory are the predictions one can make based on the theory. I don’t claim to be an expert on all that. But it made me think about evolution and what I think life should look like if in fact “macro evolution” were true.

Pat is right to say that it’s a scary thing to see him think, at least if what he’s thinking about evolution or medicine. In this case, the results aren’t pretty. Personally, I love the way ID advocates like Pat will mention, almost as a point of pride, how they aren’t “experts” on biology or scientific theories in an “aw, shucks” manner that’s supposed to make you think they’re just regular people. Pat, of course, is not “regular” people. He’s the creator of ACT!, whose importance and ubiquitousness until recently I hadn’t appreciated. The problem is, he seems to think that his flair for marketing somehow translates into an understanding of science, even to the point where he at one time dismissed “Darwinism” as having a “marketing problem.” He demonstrates this in his next observation:

As a review, I have advocated that while micro evolution is unquestionably true, it does not automatically follow that macro evolution is also true. It has not been observed, it has not been demonstrated experimentally as far as I can tell from what I read. IMO, Darwinists merely “infer” that macro occurred because they can observe micro. Much like IDist’s infer design because they don’t believe Darwinian processes can explain the intricate appearance of design. Both make inferences which seems a perfectly reasonable thing for scientists to do.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the worst part of Pat’s post (patience, it’s coming.), although it is breathtakingly ignorant to equate inferences based on decades of research and multiple converging lines of evidence (evolution) with an “inference” based on incredulity that evolution could have produced the complexity of life (intelligent design, which is in essence a claim that “we know design when we see it”). In any case, whenever you hear someone blathering about “micro” and “macro” evolution in the manner that Pat does here, you know you’re listening to an “intelligent design” creationist who is ignorant of biology, particularly the part where Pat claims that “macroevolution has not been observed.” That’s a time-honored ID canard that, no matter how many times it’s slapped down, keeps coming back again and again, not unlike Michael Myers in the Halloween movies or Jason in the Friday the 13th movies, with about the same level of ugliness. (Halloween’s coming up; so I couldn’t resist such metaphors.) He dismisses “macroevolution” as being “merely inferred” in the same way that “design” is inferred. Of course, when looking at evolution over hundreds of millions of years we could not have directly observed speciation, but we have abundant evidence for it, including the fossil record and DNA homologies. When multiple different techniques arrive at the same or very similar answers, it’s generally considered powerful confirmation of a theory. Such is the case for the theory of evolution; where genomic, fossil, and a variety of other lines of evidence all support common descent and some form of “macroevolution.”

Of course, the whole macroevolution/microevolution dichotomy is a bit of an arbitrary definition. The reason is simple. Microevolution is commonly defined as evolutionary changes within species while macroevolution is defined as evolutionary changes above the level of the species, particularly leading to speciation itself. The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is thus not fundamental distinction, particularly when it is noted that the definition of what constitutes a species is not always clear. Rather, it is more a convenient rough dividing line, given that there is no truly objective general criteria for when a species has changed enough to count as a new species if it doesn’t split into two or more species, allowing us to invoke the definition that species cannot interbreed. What is clear is that, to some extent, microevolutionary processes must underlie macroevolutionary processes, but it is a hotly debated topic whether macroevolutionary processes represent the sum of only microevolutionary processes or whether there are other higher level processes that also contribute to macroevolution. Regardless, contrary to what ID advocates would have you believe, these scientific controversies are about how macroevolution occurs and what mechanisms drive it, not whether it occurs. As John Wilkins put it:

Macroevolution is at least evolution at or above the level of speciation, but it remains an open debate among scientists whether or not it is solely the end product of microevolutionary processes or there is some other set of processes that causes higher level trends and patterns. It is this writer’s opinion that macroevolutionary processes are just the vector sum of microevolutionary processes in conjunction with large scale changes in geology and the environment, but this is only one of several opinions held by specialists.

The misuse of the terms by creationists is all their own work. It is not due to the ways scientists have used them. Basically when creationists use “macroevolution” they mean “evolution which we object to on theological grounds”, and by “microevolution” they mean “evolution we either cannot deny, or which is acceptable on theological grounds”.

There’s an old quip that’s been around Usenet for a long time that characterizes the ID creationist definitions of microevolution as “evolution for which the evidence is so overwhelming that even the Institute for Creation Research can’t deny it” and of macroevolution as evolution which is only “proven beyond reasonable doubt, not beyond unreasonable doubt.” Clearly, whichever of the above definitions you chose, Pat is using a creationist definition of microevolution and macroevolution. That’s a common enough creationist fallacy that it often suffices to say that, although scientists use the terms, evolutionary biologists do not mean the same thing that creationists like Pat do when they use the terms. When ID creationists use these terms, they do so with the clear implication that there is some sort of hard boundary, beyond which evolution cannot work, which was the central thesis of Michael Behe’s latest book, The Edge of Evolution, a book whose bad science has been thoroughly trashed by people as various as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Corey Powell, P. Z. Myers, and Abbie Smith.

Moreover, although it’s tempting to point out that speciation generally takes many, many generations and is thus difficult to observe in mammals and other creatures with relatively long lifespans (i.e., significant fractions of a human lifespan), there are multiple examples of speciation that have been observed, contrary to Pat’s sticking his fingers in his ears and wailing “Na, na, na, I can’t hear you!”–which leads him to make what is almost the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard even Pat saying about evolution (not yet, friends, I’m saving the pièce de résistance for last):

I find it interesting that it is NOT OBVIOUS that evolution is still occurring. Think about it. Look at the world around you. Things appear basically complete. It seems to me the theory of macro evolution would predict that we would see MASSIVE evidence of macro evolution still taking place. It seems we would see many species of plants, animals and humans in transition from one thing to another, creating entirely new species. Instead we see nothing at all. That seems rather odd to me. It does not seem to be what Macro Evolution would predict. In fact, we almost daily are reminded the number of species is actually declining. Why is it totally OBVIOUS that species are disappearing during our lifetime and yet no new species are appearing at the same time?

I’m seriously tempted to use my old trope (TSIB, for those familiar with common Orac-isms), but I refrained other than the initials. Holy crap! Where to start? “It does not seem to be what macroevolution would predict”? How on earth would Pat know what macroevolution would predict? Do I really have to bring up something really basic? I guess I do; so I’ll repeat it: Evolution takes place over many, many generations. One human lifetime is a mere blink of the eye (to use the cliche) in comparison. What would Pat expect to see? Monkeys turning into humans or humans turning into this within the time frame of his less than a century lifespan? Maybe Pat thinks that evolutionary theory predicts this is the sort of thing that should be happening, but that’s only because Pat clearly doesn’t understand evolutionary theory or geologic time. The sorts of speciation events that could possibly be directly observed in a human lifetime tend to be the ones that we have observed: in insects, microorganisms, plants, etc. Moreover, in reality evolutionary theory would tend to predict that all available ecological niches would be filled with organisms adapted to these niches. Indeed, it is evolution that would tend to predict a seemingly “complete” world, at least at any single snapshot we could take. (And, make no mistake about it, a human life is a mere snapshot in evolutionary time.)

Now, here’s the pièce de résistance, which literally made my jaw drop in wonder over how a person so smart in one area (marketing) can say such ignorant things about another area (biology):

Why would macro evolution somehow take primordial soup and create thru random means this amazingly diverse world we observe and then STOP? I suppose it can be argued it is because of the massive amount of time and the last 5,000 years is just a nit in time. But that seems irrelevant to me. Regardless of where we are on the spectrum of time, there ought to be massive numbers of obvious, incomplete transitional forms for us to observe. e,g, cows with 3 legs and a partial 4th still in the process of evolving. Multiply that across tens of millions of species. The amount of macro evolution we should be observing ought to be massive. And yet there essentially is nothing.

You heard it right. Right after having the arrogance to blithely dismiss what science knows, namely that 5,000 years is a “nit in time” as far as evolution is concerned as “seeming irrelevant” to him, Pat goes on to argue that because we don’t see cows with three legs and a fourth one evolving or other such “transitional forms” macroevolution can’t be true. The mind boggles! I don’t know where he got his idea of what constitutes a “transitional form,” but it’s a doozy. Here’s a hint: Transitional forms are only recognizable when compared to the form from which they evolved and the form into which they ultimately evolved. Without that frame of reference, there is no way to recognize them as being “transitional.” In a manner of speaking, it could be argued that all life is a “transitional form” because all life is evolving. He then goes on to confuse evolution with ecology:

Imagine an area of town where a major real estate development is taking place. Over the course of the development, on any given day one would observe “incompleteness.” But there would come a time when it basically would be complete. Some stores will go out of business and a different store takes it’s place, but no big changes as a whole. If random macro evolution is responsible for what we see, why would it not be like a massive development where things NEVER appear finished or complete? What brought macro evolution to a halt? Could it be that it simply never happened?

In other words, once species have completely filled all the niches in a given ecoystem, the whole system appears “complete.” Therefore, because the ecosystem doesn’t appear to Pat to be “incomplete,” macroevolution couldn’t have happened and couldn’t be happening now. It’s hard not to conclude that Pat doesn’t seem to know the difference between a species and an ecosystem. Moreover, he doesn’t help his case by citing Kazmer Ujvarosy, who is into some seriously bizarre thinking about not just evolution but medicine.

Pat seems to have it in his mind that evolution happens so fast that it should be apparent to all. In fact, it’s not apparent to all; if it were so then it wouldn’t have taken until the 1700s and 1800s for scientists to recognize that evolution had happened and it wouldn’t have taken until the mid 1800s for a viable mechanism for evolution to be proposed by Charles Darwin. As much as Pat might fervently wish it otherwise, not all science is immediately obvious to the “common man” that Pat believes himself to be. Indeed, although the basic concepts behind evolution can be grasped by most educated lay people, I would argue that Pat hasn’t even reached that level of understanding, given that he is still in essence asking a question as bad as the infamous creationist question: If evolution is happening, why are there still monkeys? In essence Pat is asking: If evolution is happening, why isn’t it obvious to me personally that it’s happening? Why aren’t there cows with three legs?

I have to admit that I’ve never heard the “argument from ‘completeness'” used against evolution in this way before. It’s basically an argument from incredulity on steroids with an amazing bit of self-centeredness and a huge misunderstanding of evolutionary theory thrown in, to boot. I have to wonder what Pat was doing in the 1970s. After all, it was the “me” decade. I will give Pat credit for one thing, though; he only used the term “Darwinist” once in his whole post. For an ID creationist, anything less than five times is progress.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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