Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Making of a Paradigm Shift: An Exception Which Proves the Rule

I mistakenly referred to the ice fish video as the fourth video in my last post. I have edited it to the third video.

The ice fish is a very interesting example of evolutionary adaptation, and probably the very best evidence for evolution that I have ever seen. But it is an exception to the rule that random mutation plus natural selection never produce novel functions for a very important reason having to do with probability and protein structure.

The first time I watched this video, I thought the fish they were talking about might be the coelacanth, a famous failed prediction of evolutionary theory. Of course I should have known better, as these videos are intended to promote positive evidence of evolution, not to inform anyone of its deficiencies. Briefly, the coelacanth is a species of fish that evolutionists thought had gone extinct many millions of years ago because it disappeared from the fossil record at that time, according to their dating methods. Then, what do you know it, somebody who knew what they were about realized that fishermen off the coast of Madagascar had been catching live coelacanths. Epic fail.

But the fish caught in the video is the so-called ice fish. There are lots of "ooohs" and "aaahhs" in the video, but most of it in the end boils down to destructive random mutations. To its credit, the video explains this quite well. Random mutation broke the hemoglobin gene, and because the fish was able to absorb oxygen through its skin, it could survive without hemoglobin. I have discussed this type of mutation before, and it's really not evidence that evolution can create anything new, just more evidence that it can break things which already existed. Whoop-dee-doo.

The really interesting part of this video, and probably the entire series, is the creation of the anti-freeze protein. Here, finally, we have a serious claim that a brand new function has been created where none existed before that requires a brand new molecular mechanism. This is a positive, gain-of-function mutation. This is what evolution needs in order to explain the existence of so many biological mechanisms. Does it? Would I or any critic of Darwinian evolution change our minds based on this evidence?

The first question to ask about the anti-freeze protein has nothing to do with the protein itself, but rather its function. How does anti-freeze in general, from your car to sea water to the blood of the ice fish, actually work?

Water has a unique freezing mechanism in the world of molecules and chemistry. Water is the only naturally occurring molecule, and one of a very rare number of known molecules, that decreases in density when it freezes. Normally when a substance gets cold, it's molecules move slower and slower, which results in them slowly moving closer and closer together. This increases the density as a substance freezes from a liquid to a solid. But ice has a special crystal structure in its solid phase that gives it a lower density as a solid than as a liquid. For pure distilled water, the process of crystallization starts at 4° Celsius and continues until completion at 0°. For impure water, however, the temperature at which the crystallization occurs is lower because any impurity in the water disrupts the crystallization process.

Sea water is dangerous because it can get below the freezing point of the human body. This is why you can freeze to death in water that is not frozen. In sea water, the impurity which interrupts the crystallization process is primarily sodium chloride (table salt), but any solute will have the same effect. The solute used in your car's antifreeze is likely ethylene glycol. This effect is called "freezing point depression" and most basic chemistry courses teach it. For this discussion, the important thing to note about freezing point depression is that it does not depend on the properties of the solute at all, only on its concentration and the crystal structure it interrupts. In the jargon of intelligent design theory, the anti-freeze function has a very low specificity.

"Low specificity" means almost any small molecule dissolved or partially dissolved in water will lower its freezing point. The mechanism is basically the same, and it is very simple. The water molecules want to form a nice, tidy crystalline structure, and anything that's in the water but is not water will get in the way. It's sort of like hair clogging your bathroom drain. If you want, you can substitute a hairball for a drain plug and it will work. But evolutionists don't claim the Darwinian mechanism can make drain plugs. They claim it can make the entire bathtub, in fact, the entire house. Is that really plausible based on the example of anti-freeze proteins? Do all biological functions have low specificity?

No. In fact virtually all biological functions have a ridiculously high specificity, so high that only precise sequences of amino acids, folded into a precise three dimensional shape called secondary and tertiary structure, can perform them at all. Dissolved table salt won't catalyze the reactions in the citric acid cycle or pump hydrogen or calcium ions across the plasma membrane against ionic gradients. Ethylene glycol doesn't change conformation when hit by specific wavelengths of light and send the signal down your optic nerve like the proteins in your eye. These functions are not simple and cannot be performed by just any small molecule sloshing around in a solution. Most of the proteins that perform these highly specified functions will break when hit with a random mutation, and when they don't, their functions are compromised in some way, either cumulatively or functionally. That's why random mutations break biological functions so easily.

The second question to ask about the anti-freeze proteins is how likely they are to come about by random mutation. What is their probability? Here the video leaves out a key piece of information: these anti-freeze proteins are only twenty to thirty amino acids in length. Normal, functional proteins are at least ten times that in length. Some are a thousand times that long. This matters because it greatly affects the probabilities involved. Whereas a normal protein like hemoglobin requires a precise sequence several hundred amino acids long, an anti-freeze protein could have just about any primary sequence and only requires an existing, working gene and a single mutation which creates a stop codon somewhere close to the promoter and the beginning of the gene. The one has a very low probability; the other has a very high probability. The combination of high probability and low specificity does not trigger a design inference. In other words, this is something that, despite the fact it does constitute a new function, intelligent design theorists would readily accept can come about through random mutation. It does not break the probability barriers erected by intelligent design theory.

And why would it, after all? It's just a wet noodle, not anything in the way of a "real" protein. The only highly specified working part is the promoter, which didn't evolve at all and was part of the original sequence, and the gene it was designed to promote gets lopped off by a mutation leaving just the promoter connected to a short sequence of "meaningless gibberish". The video does actually show this but doesn't explain it. These anti-freeze proteins really could be just about any primary sequence, because, in another point completely left out of the video, they have no secondary or tertiary structure at all. While biological proteins are precisely engineered, three-dimensional, fully-automated machines with complex interlocking moving parts, the anti-freeze proteins are wet noodles flopping around helplessly in solution whose confirmation is completely at the mercy of Brownian motion. Whereas real proteins usually have multiple independent interactions with other complex proteins, identifying their target precisely in a cellular environment chock full of potential targets, anti-freeze proteins perform a function that can literally be performed by any small molecule with some polarity, or even just by elemental ions that have no chemical bonds at all. At a polite dinner party, we might be forced to call these things proteins. At the nerd bar with the beer flowing we could be less polite and call them what they really are: oligopeptides sucking at the tit of some destroyed gene's leftover promoter. What a bunch of losers. They dontsh effin haff aany tersheriairy struc....suuurre. Oh hey occiffer!

Now that's whack.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Making of a Paradigm Shift: Convergent Evolution and the Wide Path to Destruction

So the second video isn't as interesting as most of the other ones on here, so I will kind of mash it up with the first one a little bit with a different focus. (I watched all of them before writing the first post.)

I am not familiar with this particular study but it is a common one. The classic example is the famous peppered moth study which has come under a lot of fire in recent years for its methodology, but the basic principle is sound. (For instance, it came out that the pictures of moths resting on trees were actually dead moths pinned there by the photographer, and not live moths behaving normally as the study implied.) Basically they studied several populations of mice, some which live on desert sand and others which live on lava flows that are a thousand years old. They found that the populations which lived on the lava flows had mostly dark fur and the ones living on sandier terrain had light fur. This is consistent with the Darwinian explanation: It's a lot easier for predators to see mice that stand out against their background, and such mice will be selected out of the population over time versus mice with more convenient pigmentation. The basic premise of the video is correct: This does appear to be a powerful demonstration of the Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection. The latter half of the video voyages into an idea called "convergent evolution", a term never actually used in the video, but that's clearly what they are talking about. I can only assume it isn't so named because it remains something of a controversial idea. There is also a revealing segment where Dr. Carroll passionately denies the contention that the Darwinian mechanism is a purely random process, and calls this a "misconception". Well, he's right. It is a misconception. Before I dig into the science, I want to relate a bit of the history behind some of the ideas in this video relating to the randomness of evolution and convergent evolution.

This misconception about evolution has become and remained so widespread because evolutionary biologists and other evangelists for Darwin's theory have consistently and very publicly emphasized its random nature because it undermines religious faith. Evolution, they say, is distinguishable from any sort of creation by God because a creator makes things for a purpose and evolution doesn't. Therefore random, purposeless, unguided, evolution removes God as creator and furthermore, because there are all sorts of purposeless things in nature, so they say, this is evidence against the existence of God, or at least against evidence for creation. So when Dr. Carroll insists that evolution is not random, the informed viewer should sense a tension with the way evolutionary evangelists, Dr. Carroll's forebears, have gone about misleading the public about their own theory for the better part of the last century. Better, the informed viewer should wonder why contemporary evangelists, oh I'm sorry, evolutionists are abandoning their favorite weapon against religion. I would suggest to such a person that the arguments which treat evolution according to the rules of random probability advanced by intelligent design theorists have struck home, and that's another reason why these videos put a big smile on my face. It's evidence that we are driving the debate now, even winning it.

If evolution is driven by mostly random processes then we should expect that populations of organisms facing the same challenge will not find the same adaptation suited to the same problem. A random search of a very large range of possibilities makes finding the same solution to the same problem more than once extremely unlikely. Historically evolutionists have almost universally believed in both the random factor as a driving force as well as a nearly unlimited range of possible adaptations and consequently have been quite hostile to the idea of "convergent evolution". Convergent evolution is just the opposite idea: that evolution will routinely find the same solution to the same problem, either because solutions are few and far between or the process is not as random as advertised, or both. The most well-known proponent of convergent evolution is Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist well known for his work on the Burgess shale fossil bed. Due to the efforts of scientists like Morris, convergent evolution has slowly moved from the lunatic fringe of evolutionary theory to the somewhat respectable mainstream over the last thirty years or so, though it remains controversial. Dr. Carroll here comes out clearly in favor of convergent evolution, though he declines to use the term. So if he seems a bit like an evangelist in these videos, understand that he is not only preaching to creationists; he is also preaching to his fellow evolutionists. Yes, dear viewers, evolutionists disagree with each other over their own theory, reason enough to wonder if the science is really settled. At the very least raising the issue with the average evolution believer and watching them chase their tails for awhile might relieve the monotony of your day. It's probably not all I'm cracking it up to be, but it's at least mildly amusing.

Now to the science. I'll get straight to the point. The biologist in the video who studies the mice, Michael Nachman, explains that the difference between light and dark mice can be explained by four mutations in the gene called MC1R. He believes that since the lava flows are a thousand years old, this dark mutation must also be a thousand years old and the light-colored mice are the wild-type. This assumption is glossed over in the video, but there is nothing to suggest that is the case. In fact, it is much more likely that the dark fur version, or allele, of MC1R is the original and the light-colored allele is the mutation. Why? As any two year-old knows, or anyone observing a two-year-old, it's much easier to break something than build something. Let me explain what I mean.

Wikipedia: "Alleles for constitutively active MC1R are inherited dominantly and result in a black coat colour, whereas alleles for dysfunctional MC1R are recessive and result in a light coat colour." [Emphasis added]

The difference between these two alleles is not the difference between a happy mutation that changed a working genetic mechanism from making a dark color to making a white color. The difference is between a working allele and a broken allele. This is usually what is happening genetically when we're talking about light and dark colors, including in human hair for example. Going back to the first video, this is relevant to the discussion about genetic "switches" that turn on and off as well as basic Mendelian genetics involving dominant and recessive alleles. If you took high school biology and wondered why dominant alleles only require one copy to express their trait while recessive genes require two copies, wonder no more. Dominant alleles are dominant because they work. Even with only one copy, the organism will still express the trait because it has at least one working gene and can produce the corresponding protein product(s). The recessive trait is only expressed when both copies are broken and the organism cannot make any.

A broken gene could have the opposite effect, however, because of complicated genetic mechanisms. For instance, a broken or recessive gene could cause a particular working genetic mechanism to be expressed, or expressed more, by failure to express a working inhibitor. This is quite common. A gene that would otherwise work is bound by an inhibitor protein or RNA, which prevents it from being produced. But if the inhibitor protein or RNA is broken such that it no longer binds its target, then the target can be produced and the organism will express a positive trait that it did not express before. In this way mutations that break genes can potentially explain any evolutionary adaptation, which is why one should always inquire as to the actual genetic and molecular mechanisms involved before getting wide-eyed about the power of Darwinian evolution. Does the Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection work? Yes. Does it make novel, functional genes? Almost never. (You'll have to wait for the anti-freeze proteins in the third video for a notable exception.)

In the case of MC1R, the light-colored allele is the broken, recessive gene and the dark-colored allele is the working version, producing a pigment called eumelanin. But why do I say this is evidence that the dark-colored version came first, contra Nachmann? What if light-colored mice really did come first and evolved a mechanism that made the dark pigment?

First of all, this was not observed in the study. That's important to remember. Nobody cataloged the genes of all of these mice populations over the last thousand years and suddenly observed a brand new mutation making a dark pigment that was never there before. The idea that the dark allele came later is an assumption. There's no reason why the mice could not have broken their genes to adapt to light-colored sand while a small portion of the population retained the original dark allele. When the lava flow formed, some of these mice with the original working gene began to breed preferentially and the population changed back to the original color. We don't know if that's what happened, but we also don't know if the story presented in the video is true either.

More importantly, it's intuitively obvious that breaking a precision machine like a protein or RNA is much easier than building one. But don't take my word for it. Here's the textbook from my college genetics class:

Gain-of-function mutations
Because mutations events introduce random genetic changes, most of the time they result in loss of function. The mutation events are like bullets being fired at a complex machine; most of the time they will inactivate it. However, it is conceivable that in rare cases a bullet will strike the machine in such a way that it produces some new function. So it is with mutation events; sometimes the random change by pure chance confers some new function on the gene. In a heterozygote, the new function will be expressed, and therefore the gain-of-function mutation most likely will act like a dominant allele and produce some kind of new phenotype. Gain of function is represented in Figure 15-12c. [1]

The figure referred to is a schematic diagram showing how a gain-of-function mutation would conceivably work if they actually found one, not a compilation of the scientific evidence for something that "is conceivable" "in rare cases" that "some new function" might be produced in one's imagination. But I think the metaphor of firing a bullet into a complex machine, such as a car or computer, is quite apt and refreshingly honest. Random mutations are almost invariably destructive. When they are not destructive, they are neutral. When they increase fitness, they do so by destroying a previously working function and the organism happens to gain something by doing so. In the case of the rock pocket mice, they gain some camouflage by destroying their dark fur pigment. Then the situation changed, and they needed to breed with a member of the same species carrying the original gene in order to get the trait back. Absent any special evidence, we should assume that the working MC1R is the original and the light-colored, broken version is the mutation.

But what does all this have to do with convergent evolution? Traditionally evolutionists have assumed that variation is virtually unlimited. But convergent evolution suggests that it is not. Convergent evolution admits that solutions to problems are rare, and so if an organism adapts at all it will likely find the same or similar solution to what other populations have found. I find the metaphor of switches in the stickleback video to be quite helpful. Genes do not continuously evolve in one direction, slowly increasing fitness over vast periods of time. Rather, they either work or they get broken and don't work. They are either switched on or off, and this suggests a fundamental limit to the amount of variability a population can accommodate. It suggests just what convergent evolution does: that solutions to problems are few and limited to what can be accomplished by turning genes on or off, because the only thing that random mutations do in practice is destroy a working gene in part of a population.

Suppose a species starts out with all working genes. Then a random mutation breaks a particular gene the species doesn't need or even benefits by losing, and this mutation spreads throughout the population. Suppose that a population in another location actually needs the working gene, and so any mutations which break that gene are selected out. Over time, each population will evolve into its own niche because of natural selection. Perhaps they interbreed enough that the population which lost the functional gene might regain it through breeding with the one that retained it, and in so doing switch the gene back on. But it won't go any further, and it can never break genes that are essential to its survival. Many combinations of broken and working genes are possible, but the number of combinations and the variations available are limited, so the species as a whole stays within these limits and never evolves outside them. That is the real picture of evolution that the observable, scientific evidence supports.

Now that's whack.

1. "An Introduction to Genetic Analysis" Seventh Edition, published by W.H. Freeman, New York, pp. 472.

NOTE: Richard Lewontin co-authoried this textbook, the same guy who kindly explained that the purpose of his particular cadre of scientists was to eliminate God from science because, and I quote, "we cannot allow a divine foot in the door".

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Making of a Paradigm Shift: Loss of Function Mutations

I was recently referred to a series of freely available videos at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It's rather obvious their object is public relations since most of these videos deal with political hot topics, including six dealing with evolution and one with climate change. Never doubt that secular humanists take their missionary work just as seriously as evangelicals do. I was actually more interested in some of the other videos, since there's not much available for public consumption on evolution that I haven't already heard, but I decided to have some fun critiquing the evolution vids on my blog instead. I chose to start with the five-part series called The Making of the Fittest. The first four feature Sean Carroll, one of the premier evangelists of evolution appearing quite comfortable in his natural habitat. I'm glad people like him are doing this sort of thing though, because now with the pressure on evolutionary theory increasing we are starting to see the real arguments come out into the open. In previous decades, evidence was often exaggerated, consisted of completely unscientific story-telling about something nobody even claimed to observe and in some cases was even faked. Evolutionists leaned far too often on their favorite crutch: an argument from authority and its sister, the argument from consensus. The natural history museum in my hometown no longer displays artists' renderings of missing links in human evolution constructed from a fossil pig's tooth. Now they talk about pathogenic bacteria and viruses evolving resistance and all sorts of things that actually belong in a science classroom, as opposed to fairy tales about frogs turning into princes. This is a positive development, and if we, meaning creationists and intelligent design theorists, can continue to force them to rely on the evidence alone rather than the fairy tales of our Monday-Friday School of the established atheist church, the whole edifice will continue to fall apart. Why? Because the actual evidence of molecules to man evolution is thin at best, virtually non-existent being slightly less charitable, and these videos are an excellent example of that.

I will write five posts, one per video and each one making a single point using the video as a foil. This is not to say that the same points could not be made for the other videos, it's just a convenient way of organizing them.

The first video examines the famous, at least in some circles, example of the stickleback fish. Sticklebacks have spines on their back and pelvis, but some of them don't...EVOLUTION!

How did these fish evolve spines on their backs? Sounds really cool and a great example of evolution doesn't it? Except they didn't evolve spines on their backs. They evolved no-spines on their backs. How's that you ask? Let me break it down: They had spines. They lost the spines. Did they develop spines again? Only if you breed them with sticklebacks who never lost them in the first place, or use an immense amount of intelligence and genetically engineer them...using information from sticklebacks who never lost them in the first place. And there you have the classic intelligent design argument based on information. Information can be destroyed, but it cannot be created without intelligence. This particular video is probably my favorite one of the lot because it makes almost the entire argument for me.

"In just a few thousand years, these fish underwent a dramatic skeletal change, completely losing their pelvic spines. As pelvic spines are homologous to the hind legs of four-legged vertabrates, the change we see in sticklebacks is the equivalent of losing legs."

In other words, the selective advantage of these fish is not having spines, and in order to get rid of the spines, the mutation got rid of the entire pelvis for good measure.

"Fish that have lost their pelvis have deleted the pelvic switch. It's gone."

It's gone, never to return unless a human being intervenes and breeds or engineers it back in. It could possibly breed back in in the wild, but in this case it appears to be unlikely since these populations are isolated in lakes.

I will grant the evolutionist that this is an excellent case study of the power of evolution if he will also grant me that this is no explanation whatsoever of how stickleback fish got spines in the first place. Spines sticking from a pelvic bone are nothing next to the awesome number, variety and complexity of biological structures which evolution must be able to create from scratch if is to be held responsible for all of the biological diversity on earth, rather than party to its destruction.

Now that's whack.

Next up...Convergent Evolution and the Wide Path to Destruction.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Geologic Column

I have worked with all different kinds of columns. I made a smaller one in microbiology lab in college, and helped with much larger 20 L columns in a lab I worked at after college. I have also worked with gas chromatography (GC) and liquid chromatography (LC) as well as gel electrophoresis which all work according to the same principle. What's a column you ask? Do I mean this:

Or this:

No, I mean something more like this:

Or this, a LC column:

Or this, a GC column:

What are these columns of which I speak? The short version is they are all techniques used to separate molecules of different sizes. (Not the first two. Don't be a smartass.) The long version is this is how creationists understand the geologic column and along with it, the fossil record.

The basic principle behind columns like these is very simple. Ready? I'm going to say it really fast so pay attention. Maybe bold font will help.


Got it? Good. But you might be thinking this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. After all, a thing will either go through a hole if it's small enough or it won't if it's too big. True, that's why scientists use a column instead of a sieve. With a sieve, you put the stuff in, shake it up, and the stuff that's too big will stay on top and the smaller stuff will shoot right through. A column acts on the same principle except it will separate things based on distance traveled through the column, like so:

You'll see that the green molecules in this diagram travel through the spaces between the white balls faster than the red molecules do. This is a bad example diagram to use because the green ones are actually larger than the red ones, however that brings up another point. If you just put a bunch of pebbles and water in your homemade column and put a bunch of dirt on the top as your sample, the smaller particles of dirt would likely come out the bottom first and the larger particles later. But we can actually monkey around with the stuff in the column and get it to separate molecules based on things other than size, like shape, reactivity or electric charge. All you have to do is choose the right stuff to put in your column.

So in the above diagram, you'll see that the red molecules are all attracted to the white balls and the green ones are just shooting right through even though the green ones are larger. Some columns work by electrostatic attraction, and that's probably what this diagram is showing. The balls in the slurry might be positively charged and so they will attract negatively charged molecules and "stick" to them, but repel positively charged molecules. This basically means that positively charged molecules will shoot through the column and negatively charged ones will go more slowly, or perhaps won't even make it through at all, because they keep getting "stuck" to the white balls in the slurry, sort of like a magnet. Some beads even have little notches in them designed to grab a specific type or size of molecule and hold it, sort of like an enzyme and its substrate, allowing everything else to shoot through. Then once all the junk goes through, a different liquid is added that causes the beads to release the molecules and out comes your purified product. These types of columns are important steps in purification methods, including purification of protein products like insulin and vaccines. I have used columns like this as big as twenty liters when working at a R&D lab for vaccines, and it's really neat watching the slightly yellow colored layer of random proteins and other junk slowly move down the column.

Gel electrophoresis, the detection step for your basic genetic test, uses sort of a combination of electric charge and size. Instead of the force of gravity pulling the sample through the column, gel electrophoresis uses an electric current, which pulls negatively charged DNA samples through an agarose gel (agarose is a type of sugar harvested from seaweed). The larger DNA molecules will travel more slowly and the smaller ones more quickly. Combined with a standard, you can get a pretty good idea of the size of DNA fragments using this tried and true method. My first lab job in college was in a soybean genetics lab, and we did this with soybean DNA all day every day. We would actually measure out the agarose and water into a flask and microwave it to dissolve it faster, then pour it into plastic gel molds and put it in the refrigerator until it cooled and hardened, just like jello. The runs themselves lasted five hours and the gels were the size of sheets of paper because the size difference we were looking for was so small we had to have a very sensitive test.

Liquid and gas chromatography work the same basic way, except that the columns are hollow and the interactions between the sample and the column occur because of the type of molecule attached to the inside surface of the column. The force pushing the sample through is neither gravity nor electricity, but the high pressure flow of liquid (for LCs, called the aqueous phase) or gas (for GCs, called the carrier gas) through the column. LC and GC machines are almost universal features of industrial analytical labs and are used to test the purity of products by measuring the size of the "peak" that comes out at the time in the run that the molecule you're looking for is supposed to come out. LC and GC are much more sensitive methods and are more often used for small organic molecules, not for proteins and DNA. LCs and GCs are extremely important in the manufacture of drugs, for instance, since they are used to measure the purity of the active ingredient which determines the dosage given to the patient. Unfortunately, since these types of tests have to be run by precision machines they are quite a bit more boring than regular columns and gel electrophoresis.

I have used all kinds of other columns like sucrose gradients for purifying RNA (that's a sticky one!), polyacrylamide gels for separating and identifying proteins and sometimes a sample can just be put in a test tube, centrifuged and it will sort itself out with the dense or large particles going to the bottom and the less dense or smaller particles rising to the top. In one lab I just stuck a syringe into the sack type container after centrifuging it and drew out the layer with the virus I wanted just like a nurse draws blood.

So what does all this have to do with the geologic column and the fossil record? Well, what about all those rock layers? Evolutionists say that the layers are there because they represent different epochs in earth's history. Over a period of time a certain type of sediment was laid down, and then during a different time another type of sediment was laid down, and over hundreds of millions or billions of years everything got compacted down into rock, preserving these layers and the fossils buried inside them. But creationists view the geologic column, and the fossils within it, just like a chemist views any of the columns I've talked about above. There was a global flood and lots of sediment with all types of particles large and small, as well as all shapes, sizes and densities of dead plants and animals all mixed up together in a giant, planet-wide slurry which eventually settled down and sorted itself out into layers based on their different properties. In fact, some of the most popular examples used to demonstrate evolution in the fossil record involve small animals "evolving" into later larger versions, like the horse tree. A creationist looks at that and says, "Looks like a global flood makes a half decent column!"

Now that's whack.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Nye-Ham Debate

Alright. Whatever. I'll do it.

I became aware of this debate a couple of weeks ago when some friends who know my interest in creation/evolution debate suggested I watch this. I immediately responded negatively. I have seen Ken Ham speak in person and he is normally very good and presents a lot of good information in a short amount of time, but he is a terrible representative of creationism to people who don't already believe it, like I do, so when I heard he was actually going to debate Bill Nye, an obviously hostile opponent, I facepalmed immediately. I grew up with Answers In Genesis, and the problem with Ham's approach is he always uses the Bible exactly the way atheists always accuse theists of using God: a crutch. I cannot personally fault the guy, but he just sucks at talking to people who don't necessarily believe the Bible or even those who have more sophisticated reasons for not accepting his interpretation of it. He has very little to say to these people. Why does he expect to gain any traction with them at all if he keeps throwing the Bible at them when they've already said they don't believe it? Still, when he is speaking by himself he presents a lot of information fairly well. He utterly failed to do that in the debate, but I expected that. It's what you have to expect from something that is advertised as a debate but in reality is little more than two people trying to take turns making prepared speeches and being rudely interrupted by such things as "questions from the audience" and "the other person's argument".

Scientific debates require people who are incredibly well versed in the details of the science, otherwise there will be no debate because each person will be presenting the evidence he studied in a jam session the day before and won't be able to respond to the other person's jam session. All of this applies to Nye as well, of course, but as a creationist Ham's presentation was more disappointing to me because of the lost opportunity. I had no idea the amount of publicity this debate had received. Apparently it was viewed live by over half a million. That's a ridiculous number for a science program. That represents a major lost opportunity to hit a large audience with a massive amount of information that they otherwise would never have heard. Ken Ham is capable of delivering that, at least, but he didn't. For instance, he put up a long list of dating methods that give a young age for the earth, but he didn't explain a single one of them! If he had explained just one he could have never even showed the list and done a better job. He said nothing about the study of the rate of helium leakage from zircon crystals done by ICR, probably the best study on radiometric dating that creationists have ever done. He seemed more concerned with dropping Snelling's name than his scientific results. This is something I would expect from your average "argument from authority" evolutionist. He mentioned Baumgardner's catastrophic plate tectonics, but he didn't explain or even attempt to present it at all! I have personally presented this theory to a church group. I know it can be done, and people love it. Why! Why, when so many are watching do you not come out throwing your best stuff? I don't understand.

Ham was also served up a perfect softball by a question from the audience: Are there any creationist cosmologies that explain the distant starlight problem? Instead of explaining Russell Humphrey's "white-hole" theory, or John Hartnett's excellent work on creationist cosmology, he repeated himself over and over again about assumptions as if he was still discussing radiometric dating. At various points in the debate, Ham appeared to do exactly what Nye accused him of doing: give up and cite God as the answer without any further comment. Perhaps he doesn't know about Hartnett, since Hartnett doesn't exactly advertise himself as well as Ham does, but Russell Humphreys he certainly knows about. I did not realize this event was such a big deal, but Ham certainly did. If I were him I'd be kicking myself at a major lost opportunity. Or perhaps I'd be completely oblivious to how the way I present myself appears to people who do not automatically accept everything I say like the compliant pew-sitters I normally speak to. Seriously. The guy acted like he was speaking from a pulpit, not to a hostile Internet audience of half a million people tuning in expecting to see him humiliated. What did I think of the debate? Exhibit A for old creationists, and conservatives as well, failing to understand and communicate within the new media, which has provided them with amazing opportunities that they never could have had otherwise. Nor deserve, apparently.

Now that's whack.