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User:Awc/Question Evolution and Get Answers

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This is an essay by Awc.
Please comment only on the talk page.

These are my considered answers to the questions posed by Question Evolution!''

Awc

Feel free to comment on or discuss this essay on User talk:Awc/Question Evolution and Get Answers. You might also be interested in Philip J. Rayment's essay Question Evolution! questions still not adequately answered, written in response to this one, as well as the discussion on the talk page there.

The questions can be found in the flyer Question Evolution! 15 Questions for Evolutionists. CMI has also published some responses to some responses:

The A Storehouse of Knowledge article is at Question Evolution!.

Let me say at the outset that I think it is a good thing to question evolution, or any other beliefs. Regardless of the motivation of CMI in asking these questions, and whether they are listening to the answers, for me thinking about these things will be at worst a waste of time, and in the best case, I may discover that I was wrong about something.

I try to link each question to articles with additional evidence and arguments. If I think an article should be created on a particular topic to do justice to it, then it will be a red link. Sometimes I would propose a new section to an existing article. This will appear as a blue link, but I will add a note that the section doesn't exist yet.

Contents

Grouping the questions

Before I make comments on the individual questions, let me do a little grouping.

Questions asking "How did such-and-such originate?"

1. How did life originate? How did life with hundreds of proteins originate just by chemistry without intelligent design?
2. How did the DNA code originate? What other coding system has existed without intelligent design?
5. How did new biochemical pathways, which involve multiple enzymes working together in sequence, originate?
7. How did multi-cellular life originate?
8. How did sex originate?
11. How did blind chemistry create mind/intelligence, meaning, altruism and morality?

These questions are hard to answer. That's why CMI asked them. If they had asked how feathers developed, or how the ancestors of whales went back to the water, or how primates learned to walk upright, then the answer could be based on the hard evidence of the fossil record. The chemistry leading to the first cell, however, left no fossils, and the fossil record of single-celled life is very sparse indeed. We are also blind to most of the history of biochemistry and what goes on in the brain. Consequently, any answers will be to some extent speculative. We cannot rule out on scientific grounds that one or the other of these things originated through a miracle. We also cannot rule out that they came about naturalistically.

If that is the only point CMI and other creationists want to make, then I agree fully. I can't shake the feeling, however, that they are insinuating that the lack of a definitive answer implies that there is no answer, that is, that these things must have originated miraculously. Even worse, I sense that they are extending that conclusion to entirely different areas, suggesting that the lack of knowledge about the origin of the first cells implies that the later origin of species by Darwinian evolution is false.

Questions on the state of the evidence for evolution

9. Why are the (expected) countless millions of transitional fossils missing?
10. How do ‘living fossils’ remain unchanged over supposed hundreds of millions of years?

For me these are the most interesting questions because they are questions of science and come from an area where there are solid observations. Both these questions are loaded in the sense that they make assertions about the state of the evidence that should not be accepted uncritically. If there are not fewer transitional fossils than may reasonably be expected, or if species have not changed at a rate less than may reasonably be expected, then the questions of why and how just don't make sense.

A question about the theory of evolution

3. How could such errors (mutations) create 3 billion letters of DNA information to change a microbe into a microbiologist? How can scrambling existing DNA information create a new biochemical pathway or nano-machines?

I'm not sure what to make of this question. If the emphasis is on the word "how", then CMI "forgot" to mention that the theory of evolution involves natural selection in conjunction with mutations. If the emphasis is on the words "errors" and "scrambling", then CMI "forgot" to mention that a small fraction of all mutations can be beneficial.

"Error" is already a loaded, anthropomorphic term. What is the organism "trying" to do? CMI implies that it is trying to replicate faithfully, but one could just as well say it is trying to "improve". In that case, the 99.99...% replications without mutations are also errors, and only the rare beneficail mutation gets it right.

A question about epistomology

6. Living things look like they were designed, so how do evolutionists know that they were not designed? Why should science be restricted to naturalistic causes rather than logical causes?

The relationship of science and the supernatural is a sticky issue. Many scientists believe that consideration of supernatural causation is fundamentally unscientific. (The definition of "supernatural" is also a non-trivial problem, but we will gloss over that for now.) I sympathize with that view, but in the end I have to come down on the other side. If the laws of nature were suspended for the occasion of a miracle, science might not be able to investigate the workings of that miracle, but it could well be able to determine that it occurred. It is the job of science to look as hard as possible for naturalistic explanations, and there is always the possibility that such an explanation exists even if it has not yet been found, but if the scientific method could effectively rule out all known naturalistic causes for an event, then it would be legitimate to conclude that it at least looks like a miracle occurred.

Questions about the educational system

4. Why is natural selection taught as ‘evolution’ as if it explains the origin of the diversity of life?
12. Why is evolutionary ‘just-so’ story-telling tolerated?
13. Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution? Why do schools and universities teach evolution so dogmatically, stealing time from experimental biology that so benefits humankind?
14. Why is evolution, a theory about history, taught as if it is the same as this operational science?
15. Why is a fundamentally religious idea, a dogmatic belief system that fails to explain the evidence, taught in science classes? If “you can’t teach religion in science classes”, why is evolution taught?

I personally am more interested in the science than in how that science is taught. In contrast to CMI, my impression is that our educational system all in all does a pretty decent job. Our different views on this are likely to be mostly a result of our different views of the science. CMI calls evolution "a dogmatic belief system that fails to explain the evidence". If I agreed with that assessment, then I would also agree that the educational system is letting us down. Since I don't agree, it should not be a surprise if my answers are called "inadequate". It is always important, of course, to be as objective and clear as possible. The word evolution has many legitimate meanings in biology, including any change in allele frequencies, Darwinian mutation and selection, and abiogenesis, as well as usages in other fields from cosmology to anthropology. It is OK to use the word to talk about any of these things, as long as you make it clear how you are using it. One should not discuss natural selection as though it can explain common descent without also invoking mutations. One should not conclude that our ignorance of abiogenesis weakens our knowlege of common descent. One should not teach "dogmatic beliefs" in science classes, only conclusions based on objective evidence.

The 15 questions

1. How did life originate? How did life with hundreds of proteins originate just by chemistry without intelligent design?

This is an easy one to answer: I don't know. Nobody does. We have fairly good evidence that simple single-celled life forms existed about 3.5 billion years ago, and the Earth would have been inhospitable to life earlier than about 4 billion years ago, so life must have originated as single cells somewhere in that time frame. Unfortunately we don't know too much for certain about the conditions back then, and the important environments might have been some exotic niches. Nor did the pre-cellular forms of life leave any fossil traces. There is a lot of speculation but no hard data, so everyone is free to believe whatever fits in well with the rest of his beliefs, including a miraculous origin of life—as long as it occurred billions of years ago and was single cells.

I suspect the point of this question is to suggest that we know enough to say that life could not have originated through natural processes. We do not know enough to say that.

Possibly the point is to suggest that, since we don't know how life originated, we can't be sure that life has evolved from a humble beginning. This is not logical.

See Abiogenesis.

2. How did the DNA code originate? The code is a sophisticated language system with letters and words where the meaning of the words is unrelated to the chemical properties of the letters—just as the information on this page is not a product of the chemical properties of the ink (or pixels on a screen). What other coding system has existed without intelligent design?

I would consider this question to be part of the first one so the answer is the same.

The auxiliary question here is, "What other coding system has existed without intelligent design?" I don't know the answer to that either, but I would be perfectly happy if the answer is none.

See Genetic information#Origin of the genetic code - This section doesn't exist yet and probably can't exist under that name. Compare WP:Genetic code#Origin.

3. How could such errors (mutations) create 3 billion letters of DNA information to change a microbe into a microbiologist? How can scrambling existing DNA information create a new biochemical pathway or nano-machines?

Was someone not paying attention in class? The answer is mutations plus natural selection. This question is equivalent to simply asking—rhetorically and pointlessly—"How can evolution possibly be true?"

To get anywhere, you have to discuss concrete examples. The ones CMI brings up are

  • ATP synthase
  • kinesin
  • antibiotic resistance
  • wingless beetles on windswept islands
  • blind fish in caves
  • chloroquine resistance in malarial parasites

I haven't looked into ATP synthase (but compare WP:ATP synthase#Evolution of ATP synthase), Kinesin, or Chloroquine resistance (and WP:Chloroquine resistance#Resistance), yet, but I wonder why they don't tackle harder examples, like

  • nylonase
  • acquired immunity

See Genetic information.

4. Why is natural selection taught as ‘evolution’ as if it explains the origin of the diversity of life?

The word evolution can be used in many ways. When I speak of evolution, I try to be clear about the sense in which I am using the term. It is correct that evolution, at least on long enough time scales, has always mutations in addition to natural selection. This is an important point and I support efforts to get that point across to the public. I believe that in most cases this is already adequately done.

5. How did new biochemical pathways, which involve multiple enzymes working together in sequence, originate?

There are so many biochemical pathways that it is hard to know what CMI is getting at here. Do they want to defend the position that there is no evolutionary path that could plausibly explain any biochemical pathway? If they only want to say that some biochemical pathways can be shown to be impossible to reach by an evolutionary path, then it would be helpful if they could name names.

The example that has been most discussed may be the blood clotting cascade, see WP:Irreducible complexity#Blood clotting cascade for starters. It might be helpful to create a section Irreducible complexity#Blood clotting cascade.

6. Living things look like they were designed, so how do evolutionists know that they were not designed? Why should science be restricted to naturalistic causes rather than logical causes?

What something "looks like" is subjective. Why is it more correct to say "Living things look like they were designed." rather than "Living things look like they evolved."? The strongest (not the only) evidence that they were not designed is the fossil record, which shows features developing bit by bit.

I don't believe that science needs to restrict itself to naturalistic causes. It has proven more fruitful to pursue naturalistic causes in the past, and I believe as a principle that willl continue to be so, but if the evidence leads in another direction, then science should follow it there.

7. How did multi-cellular life originate?

Just where does CMI see a problem? They write, "there is a big jump between selection for single cell reproductive success and that for integrity of a multicellular organism". I imagine a stage where it is beneficial for each cell to clump with similar cells into an undifferentiated mass. At that stage there is no conflict between individual selection and selection of the colony. Then would come a stage where the cells start to differentiate, e.g. depending on whether they sit on the surface or in the interior. Since each colony is genetically related, the colonies with a beneficial division of labor are selected for. Simple, isn't it?

See Multicellular organism (compare WP:Multicellular organism)

8. How did sex originate?

This is another of those questions with many fascinating aspects, but not much difficulty in principle. It would be helpful if CMI would say exactly what they are talking about. Are they worried about combining genes from two organisms into the offspring, or about copulation with sexual organs? Horizontal transfer of genes is very common among single-celled creatures, so it is not hard to imagine putting a little order into that to make sexual reproduction. Sex supposedly evolved first within single-celled eukaryotes. Maintaining that into multicellularity and developing two separate genders should not be so difficult.

See Evolution of sexual reproduction (compare WP:Evolution of sexual reproduction or the shorter version at WP:Sex#Evolution).

9. Why are the (expected) countless millions of transitional fossils missing?

If you look closely at this, it gets a little bizarre. In Responses to our 15 Questions: part 3, Section 9. Why are the (expected) countless millions of transitional fossils missing?, CMI writes "only about 250,000 fossil species are actually known". Emphasis mine, because CMI apparently didn't notice the discrepancy.

Assuming that a few (but not "countless") million fossil specimens have been found, perhaps CMI is suggesting that the theory of evolution predicts that they shouldn't be divided into species at all, but each one should be unique and intermediate between at least two others. Since I don't think any evolutionist from Darwin to Gould has ever said such a thing, that would be quite a leap.

But to the point: The chance that any organism will die at a time and place such that it leaves a fossil is vanishingly small. Part of that is pure chance, but more of it is that the environmental conditions around the time of death and for at least a few thousand years after that have to be conducive to fossilization. And then that fossil has to escape destruction by geological processes for millions of years, until it is exposed somewhere accessible to paleontologists. This makes it very likely that if one individual is fossilized, there is a much greater than random chance that its near relatives will also be fossilzed. That leads to temporal and spatial pockets in the fossil record, such that perhaps only one species in a thousand has been preserved and discovered, but if one specimen of a species is found, then it is likely that several will be found. If evolution proceeds by punctuated equilibrium, then this segregation will be enhanced. That seems to fit with millions of fossil specimens but only hundreds of thousands of fossil species, and also with the lack of a continuum of transitional forms in the fossil record.

How many transitional forms should be expected? I don't know. Some branch points will be better documented than others, and the actual branch points, the common ancester species of two major clades, will almost never be preserved, but we might hope to find a fossil species near enough to the branch point to be illuminating. As far as I can tell, that is the case. The fact that barminologists have not been able to agree on the boundaries between the created kinds lends further credence to the idea that the fossil record does not show isolated kinds but rather a poorly sampled continuum.

See Fossil#Transitional forms (not yet created).

10. How do ‘living fossils’ remain unchanged over supposed hundreds of millions of years?

"Living fossil" is another term that is used in different ways. CMI probably is refering to any species that hasn't changed much over an unusually long time span, whether there was a gap in the fossil record or not, and even whether that species is extant or not.

Most species are recognizable in the fossil record over a span of about 10 million years. It seems normal to me that a few rare species will persist 10 or 20 times longer, depending on things like the stability of the environment and the ecology of competitors and prey. I don't know if any species has actually done so. There are only a couple dozen species commonly called "living fossils", and that is usually because the belong to the same genus or family as fossil specimens, not actually the same species.

See Living fossil.

11. How did blind chemistry create mind/intelligence, meaning, altruism and morality?

That's a very interesting question, but I'm not sure it's a difficult question.

Intelligence: I don't think it's too hard to imagine bugs, or maybe plants, first learning to react to stimulus. In multicellular organisms, there has to be specialization, eventually producing a brain. Brains get bigger and more complex from insects to lizards to mice to monkeys, with a better and better model of the world and a more and more developed sense of self. That's glossing over a lot of interesting details, but I don't see any reason that evolution, if it works at all, should not be able to create a mind.

Altruism and morality: Same story. Cooperation brings advantages of various sorts to various creatures. What CMI really seems to be concerned about is the implication that "there is no basis for right and wrong". I don't see why a morality inbred by evolution should be any worse than a morality infused by God, but even if it were, we can't do anything about it. It may be uncomfortable or lead to depression, but that is irrelevant in a scientific dispute.

Meaning: Again, what CMI is concerned about is not whether evolution could produce a strong subjective feeling of or desire for purpose and meaning, but what the implications would be if there was not really any such thing. Like the morality problem, I am convinced that most of us will find a way to muddle through without decompensating even if we have no meaning sponsored by God, but even if we don't, that is no argument against evolution as a scientific theory.

12. Why is evolutionary ‘just-so’ story-telling tolerated?

(I don't like the phrase "just-so story". I'm not quite clear on what it means, which makes it too easy to throw around. WP:Just-so story calls it "an unverifiable and unfalsifiable narrative explanation". I guess I can try to work with that.)

Why is any kind of ‘just-so’ story-telling tolerated? Speculative explanations can be stimulating, ideally leading to hypotheses that can in fact be tested, so I wouldn't condemn them too heartily. It is, of course, important to remember that they are only speculation. I believe that scientists work hard to keep the exact nature of their hypotheses in mind. Some succeed better than others. I support efforts to present "stories" in such a way that the degree of certainty or speculation is clear. I reject the implication that all of evolutionary theory is speculative and unverifiable.

13. Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution? Why do schools and universities teach evolution so dogmatically, stealing time from experimental biology that so benefits humankind?

(Does CMI really mean scientific breakthroughs, or technological breakthroughs?)

Beats me. I wouldn't say there aren't any, but if there are, I can't think of them. Does that imply that the idea is false? Or is CMI simply advocating a more practically oriented curriculum?

CMI also asks, "What other subset of science has yielded precisely no useful discoveries?" High energy physics and cosmology would be two other fields of science that are high on my list of being practically useless but eminently worth knowing about.

14. Why is evolution, a theory about history, taught as if it is the same as this operational science?

Some sciences have more of an experimental character, others more of a historical character. Evolution, like geology and astronomy, tends to the historical side. Experimentation to test hypotheses is still an important aspect. Obviously you cannot replicate the evolution of humans, something besides humans would surely come out the second time around, anyway. But you can collect rocks and fossils in a controlled way and analyze them repeatably, you can raise plants and animals in the lab and observe mutations and natural selection, and you can analyze and compare genomes. Each science is pursued in the way most appropriate to its character. That is no secret.

15. Why is a fundamentally religious idea, a dogmatic belief system that fails to explain the evidence, taught in science classes? If “you can’t teach religion in science classes”, why is evolution taught?

I am in favor of teaching in science classes theories that explain the evidence. That why I think evolution should be taught in science classes.

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