Crazy Creationists Unleashed #4

By Brendan Moyle 23/11/2010 20


From the “yes, they really think that” files, we have this assertion from a @Dunnam0127 who has decided that humans have not evolved.

monkey-evolution

This appeared to be the entire argument for why humans and chimps have not evolved from a common ancestor.  As an argument goes, well, that’s a pretty generous description. It depends entirely on two popular Creationist fallacies.

The first is the whole monkey-thing. Nowhere in human evolution is it claimed we descended from monkeys. It turns out, creationists really don’t get that there’s a difference between monkeys and apes. Of course, they don’t get much of anything in biology.

The second is a fallacious understanding of what a species is either. That’s kind of what prevents viable, fit offspring being produced by the mating pair.  Fortunately, no crocoducks were brought up in this discussion.

Actually, the poor guy doesn’t understand that both modern chimps and humans have adaptations to bipedalism. The foot/hand distinction isn’t that easy to establish. Especially when we sometimes transplant toes onto hands in the place of lost fingers or thumbs.

There are of course, all sorts of actual, real scientific facts that we use to establish that humans have a common ancestor with chimps.

The anatomical similarities- especially once you get to the skeletal level- are quite profound and striking. This is the sort of thing that Darwin noticed over a century ago [1]

There is the evidence from our own fetal development. In humans a layer of hair (lanugo hair) is formed during fetal development, a relic of our earlier, more hirsute ancestors.

The real smoking-guns though of our primate evolution has been the molecular. Chimps have a very similar genomes to people. But within that, its not just the similarities in the coding parts of the genome that show the trail. It’s the similarities in the non-coding parts.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence is the vitamin C pseudogene [2] Chimps and humans have one extraordinary thing in common. Neither of these two species can synthesise vitamin C. That’s why we (& chimps) need to eat fruit and vegetables to get vitamin C in our diet. Otherwise we get scurvy and die. The curious fact is that this is caused by both chimps and humans having the same broken gene. This mutation occurred about 6mya. We are in effect, the only species to have this exact, same, broken gene. (Guinea pigs also can’t synthesis vitamin C but that’s caused by a different mutation).

The other ‘smoking gun’ are our endogenous retroviruses [2]. These are ancient viruses that have become inserted into our genome, but no longer generate disease.  For humans, these ERVs make up about 10% of the non-coding parts of our genome.  And yes, both chimps and humans share many of these same defunct ERVs.

The mutation rate in the human genome also means we can clock back into time when these events occurred. This converges on a common ancestor with chimps at about 6mya.

References

[1] Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. D Appleton and Company, New York, 1871.

[2] The Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium, Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome, Nature 437, 69-87 (1 September 2005)


20 Responses to “Crazy Creationists Unleashed #4”

  • That is a special quote…

    The examples you quote in this series are (obviously) pretty extreme, but I do like the way they highlight flaws in the way a lot of more reasonable people think about evolution.

    In order to think that monkeys having four hands (they don’t FWIW) invalidates them as human ancestors you have to think of evolution as a sort of morphing from one adult form to the next.But evolution of form happens by tweaking developmental programs, since feet and hands each follow their own development it’s very easy for one to be patterned differently than another.

    It’s very similar to the mistake William Jennings Bryan (of the Scopes trial) used to make (I presume for rhetorical reasons, rather than being stupid) in one of his set speeches. He would list the long chain of events required for the evolution of the human eye building through the complexity of the lens and the iris and etc etc and then conclude by saying. “and ,ladies and gentleman, the evolutionists want is to believe all those miracles happened twice!” while pointing to his face and its two eyes.

  • I’m curious, do you distinguish between crazy creationists and non-crazy creationists? I identify myself as a creationist but shudder almost as much as adherents of “molecules to man” believers when I hear about the crazy ideas of many vocal, but often uninformed creationists.

    Just so that you know, there are many creationists who have no real problem with the process of natural selection according to various environmental (natural) pressures. Where we disagree with the science is whether genetic mutation can provide enough (or any) constructive change (as opposed to destructive change which is not in dispute). There is also a very different assumption of time-frames of course.

    I think that, instead of calling creationists crazy, and ridiculing the easy targets that raise their voices, scientists should be aiming to understand and rebut the science of the matter with an awareness of their own assumptions. For instance, having common molecular components as chimps is of no more use than any other physical similarity, regardless of whether these are shared (or not) by other animals. It is only the assumption that they evolved from a common ancestor that makes this worth anything, and that is clearly circular (or perhaps just internally consistent with the theory).

    Polite disagreement is much more preferable, and conducive to getting the other side to understand your point of view, even if they still disagree once they understand.

    – Sam Hight

  • There’s no huge distinction between crazy and non-crazy creationists not. The nicest it is possible to get would be to describe the non-crazy ones as “kinda nutty” as Feynman would have said.
    Also, if ridiculing the blatantly crazy creationists like Dunnam0127 is going to dissuade kinda nutty creationists from entering into a conversation, they are, I imagine, the kind of creationist that will not be swayed by such a conversation, thus there being no point in talking to them and no real harm done.

    Your (Samhight) point about common molecular components having no more meaning than any other physical similarity correct, though the similarities within the genome are significantly greater than most other similarities. As a means to judge relationship though, it does not rely on the assumption of a common ancestor. The idea of a common ancestor comes out evidence of similarity, rather than the evidence of similarity being reliant on the idea of a common ancestor.

    The chances of two similar species having a common ancestor and each species diverging from it is significantly greater (and we are talking spectacular orders of magnitude) than two species developing almost identical genomes over any evolutionary time period.
    I could go into the maths of genetic mutations providing constructive change as well if you want (I’m a bioinformatician) but this is getting long, I’ll leave that for another comment someday.

  • @tirohia:
    Thanks for the polite disagreement! I would happily describe myself as “kinda nutty”. Feynman is one (of many) inspirations of mine.

    I don’t think that the primary goal of dialogue between creationists and scientists should be to try to sway the other’s point of view towards one’s own. That may occur, but the higher priority should perhaps be in understanding the opposing view to try and see whether their view is consistent within their own world-view and framework of presuppositions.

    If both sides do this, and perhaps put some pressure on the other’s presuppositions as well, each side will have the opportunity to question themselves and find if they are really holding as strong a position as they think.

    The positive character development of such a process is quite wonderful I think also. Not so much within the bounds of “Science” but life and, dare I say it, knowledge is more than science.

    If I am understanding you correctly, both convergent and divergent evolution still assume the change in genome over a much longer time-frame than can be observed. The very act of saying that one has more chance than the other assumes that it must be one of either. If this assumption was removed, what would be the result?

  • samhight,

    You say that Where we disagree with the science is whether genetic mutation can provide enough (or any) constructive change (as opposed to destructive change which is not in dispute).

    As a slight nit-pick, it might be fairer to say that is you what you disagree with, as others may disagree on other points – they can present their position for themselves.

    Anyway, allow me to elaborate on mutations for the sake of other readers.

    Mutants in popular sci-fi, etc., are invariably portrayed as “negative”. (As an aside: in terms of destructive mutants, we are all mutants, you and I included.)

    ‘Mutation’ — as used in science — is not limited to negative loss-of-function events. It also includes positive gain-of-function events. (To help convince yourself, try googling “gain of function mutation” (including the quotes). You’ll see that it’s a common phrase in science: my results indicate about 450,000 documents use the term.)

    (While I’m writing: ‘Constructive mutation’ is a bit wrong-headed, really. Gain-of-function is more accurate.)

    As a very simple example of a gain-of-function mutation, one of the most common ways a gene arising is by duplicating an existing gene – a gain of an entire gene. You end up with two genes where you had one. An article I have yet to complete writing about provides evidence that this is the most common way of a gene arising. With that in mind, it is self-evident that there is enough (or any) constructive change.

    You may also be interested in my older article Testing common ancestry to all modern-day life, which looks at research work that formally tests the point tirohia was introducing.

  • @samhight
    I’m curious, do you distinguish between crazy creationists and non-crazy creationists?

    In a word, it’s all crazy. Creationists should learn that we don’t take them seriously, we don’t respect their arguments & that dialogue falsely sets up the perception that you have a case that merits consideration.

    There are thousands of scientific papers published every month that validate and test the theory of evolution. Every month of every year over many decades, scientists have accumulated overwhelming evidence that evolution occurs. There is no equivalent coming out of the creationist camp.

    You don’t get a free pass to be treated as having a valid perspective without producing some actual science.

  • Sam,

    There’s a lot that could be said here, but let’s keep it to one thing.

    The VitC pseudogene doesn’t work. We know it’s the gene that should make the enzyme that finishes off the vitamin C creating reaction because we can compare to the still functioning gene in other mammals.

    For a long time, biologists have said that tarsiers, monkeys and apes share a common ancestor. It turns out those creatures all have broken vitamin C genes too. So it’s not simply that this group has “common molecular components”, we share common molecular errors. The vitamin C pseudogene serves no purpose in our genome, it’s just there because we (and chimps and spider monkeys and marmosets and tarsiers, but not lemurs) inhertited our broken genes from an ancestor that mangaged to survive without them.

    It’s very hard to see how that pattern could be explained by special creation without a lot of post hoc justification.

  • I think it is a commonly held misconception that scientists don’t understand the creationists viewpoint. I may be overstepping my bounds in speaking for others here, but I think we, generally speaking, understand it, have looked at the supposed evidence for creationism and found it lacking. It’s just not science. Whereas what we hear from creationists, generally speaking, tends to show a lack of understanding of evolution, or at the very least, lack of familiarity with the evidence for. And quite often, a lack of the willingness to question their stance.

    Scientists on the other hand are continually questioning their own stance, if not on a personal level, then on a community level, it’s a part of what being a scientist is, that I don’t think is well communicated to the general population. The critiques offered by creationists offer nothing of value to the scientific community. As I say, we’ve already looked over and evaluated what creationists present, dismissed it due to it not being science and moved on.

    As for your convergent/divergent question, it is … badly formed. We can and have observed changes in genomes. There is no assumption to be removed, it is fact.
    And convergent evolution may give you similar physical forms, it still gives you massive genomic differences.

  • I might add that first of all, biologists have never argued that mutations can’t generate new and novel genes that increase fitness. The assertion is a Creationist misinterpretation and one not backed by any proposed mechanism that would prevent this.

    Second, biologists have proven that mutations can be beneficial and not destructive. One of these is by duplicating gene sequences. For instance, in Brown CJ, Todd KM, Rosenzweig RF (1998) Multiple duplications of yeast hexose transport genes in response to selection in a glucose-limited environment. Mol Biol Evol 1998 Aug;15(8):931-42, the duplications of the HXT6 and HXT7 genes was observed. These allowed yeast organisms to evolve that were adapted to a low glucose environment.

    We have been at the point where we can show, down to the actual genes themselves, how mutations can be beneficial to an organism for years.

    You can disagree all you like with the science about mutations, but we have the evidence.

  • @samhight
    You stated “There is also a very different assumption of time-frames of course”.
    You need to understand that the timeframe “assumed” by scientists has nothing to do with biological sciences. The time since the the earth formed (about 4.6 billion years) is found through basic nuclear physics using the easily measured decay of atomic components, which is very consistently observed in the laboratory.
    In fact, it wasn’t until geologists such as Lyell provided evidence for a very old earth that the concept of evolution could be developed by several scientists, of whom Darwin was only one. Biologists don’t use fossils to date sediments and sediments to date fossils in a circular fashion – there is always somewhere an external reference to some other form of dating that can be independently verified. So your reference to a circular arument is wrong. And I would go further to suggest that your lack of understanding of where the evidence for scientific deep time comes from tends to rather demolish your case.

  • And there’s always the work on E.coli form Richard Lenski’s lab:

    Blount, Zachary D.; Christina Z. Borland, Richard E. Lenski (2008) Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (23): 7899–7906.

    Ah, evidence. Gotta love it.

  • @samhight

    “There is also a very different assumption of time-frames of course.”

    What timeframe are you presuming? Please tell me it’s not 6000 years.
    Or do you not think a few billion years is enough time for life on Earth to evolve?

  • My purpose here isn’t to convince anyone that the creationist position right, because as Brendan pointed out, it’s just not going to happen no matter what I say. I would still like to point out a few things about some of the points mentioned above that illustrate sloppy thinking or a bias in perception.

    Constructive/destructive/beneficial/gain of function mutations
    It is a matter of perspective whether a mutation causes gain or not. From the perspective of a gene expression you might see a gain in function which, from the molecular perspective of the actual DNA, is actually a “destructive” piece of work or damage to the DNA, e.g. Mutation , causing damage to the gene that limits feather production has resulted in some mighty fluffy canaries.

    @David re: Vit. C
    How do we know that this gene is purely a broken VitC gene? Surely there is the possibility that genes overlap in function or that this gene is not broken but has some other unknown function in these mammals? I agree that it might suggests a common ancestor, but without knowing for sure that they actually did have a common ancestor this evidence is inconclusive. Within the wider framework of evidence available the case may appear to grow stronger, but there could be multiple explanations for such similarities. If a creationist was to try and use a single piece of “evidence” like this without being allowed to slot it into the wider framework, you would all be on his case in a heartbeat!

    @Possum
    Could you explain how it is possible to extrapolate on the decay rates observable in a lab of radioactive elements that have half-lives in the order of a million or more years (let alone billions!). And even if that were possible, the conditions under which decay occurs are required to be known to make any real sense of the data collected. Radiometric dating only really works when you can compare the current decay rates with substances that were known to exist at the same time. Between fossils, the geologic record, radiometric dating methods, and a heap of guess work, you will find that all dating methods rely on each other (and they all fall down together). The only truly reliable dating method is independently verifiable historical records.

    Charles Lyell had a lofty agenda for the disbandment of the Anglican church (as stated in the introduction to his book “Principles of Geology”). Unfortunately, too many scientists who a vociferous have defined themselves by their opposition to “faith”. This sets them up to use science as a god of the gaps which is no different than faith communities using their own deity as a god of the gaps.

    The blogs move on, so I’ll finish on this topic for now. Feel free to have the last word someone else 😉

    I look forward to stirring a little some other time!

  • >Between fossils, the geologic record, radiometric dating methods, and a heap of guess work, you will find that all dating methods rely on each other (and they all fall down together
    @samhight. If you can prove that the radioactive halflife of a substance varies with time, I can pretty well guarantee you a Nobel Prize.
    >Charles Lyell had a lofty agenda for the disbandment of the Anglican church.
    Whether he did or not is totally irrelevant to the point I was making. Your strategy here is called playing the man and not the ball.
    >The only truly reliable dating method is independently verifiable historical records.
    So you don’t trust the Bible then?

  • Hey, I’m trying to give someone else the last word in all politeness (since this isn’t my house, metaphorically speaking). Form your questions into statements if you don’t want a reply.

    All you have to do is demonstrate the possibility that any of the fundamental constants of the universe are not always constant (such as whether the speed of light has remained the same). It’s not as hard as you might think to crack the door of reasonable possibility open a little. You still haven’t shown how it is possible to find the decay rates of “long lived” elements. You might have a bit of fun researching polonium halos also.

    I mention Lyell as an example of someone defining them self and their work by other people. It was not merely a dig at the guy. I’m sure he was a smart guy, but smart guys get a lot wrong too. Maybe its worth looking into how much of Lyell’s “new” knowledge is still around today. From reading his work, he was clearly biased against catastrophic geologic change, which current climate change science and recent geological events easily overturning this we should ask just how much he really contributed of worth.

    The bible is a series of books written by different authors. Some of these books, along with extra-biblical sources, support the historical claims of other books. If they were all written by the same people then you might call this circular, but they weren’t even complied by the same people, or the same religions even!

    Once again, feel free to have the last word. Or perhaps state quite clearly if you are being rhetorical.

    Thanks for having me!

  • Samhight, I get the impression that you feel continually hammering on about things that are technically possible but wildly implausible given our current state of knowledge is character building. It’s not, it’s a waste of your time and mine. As such, last post, I’m not spending any more time talking to you about this. I have useful things to do.

    There’s a considerable difference between possible and likely. Technically, maybe possible, but about as likely as the armed hamster revolution of 2050 traveling back in time and overthrowing the US government with their shock guinea pig troops tomorrow. i.e. until the physicists see some pretty spectacular evidence contradicting what they currently know about rates of decay and wot not, it will remain possible but not worth thinking about.

    As far as David’s Vitamin C example, you getting things the wrong way round again. We’re not building our thinking on the assumption that a common ancestor exists, their similarity, whether they have some other function (unlikely) or not, is one of the things that leads us to conclude that there is a common ancestor.

    It doesn’t matter whether the bible was written by one person or many. I don’t think any book that has so many internal contradictions can be held up to be a verifiable historical record.

  • samhight,

    It is a matter of perspective whether a mutation causes gain or not. From the perspective of a gene expression you might see a gain in function which, from the molecular perspective of the actual DNA, is actually a “destructive” piece of work or damage to the DNA

    Sorry to be blunt, but this is nonsensical.

    It is not a “a matter of perspective” whether a mutation causes gain of function or not: either the mutation introduces a new functionality that was not present before the mutation or it doesn’t.

    You can’t make a duplicated gene (the example I used earlier) into a lack of gain of function by “a matter of perspective”, it’s a new functional gene that wasn’t present before the mutation occurred.

    Your trying to excuse this by referring “damage to the DNA” is equally non-sensical.

    You appear to be “stuck” on the idea that mutations “have” to be destructive or negative. I suggest that you replace ‘mutation’ with ‘change’ – it’ll avoid the restriction of meaning that your teachings load onto the term.

  • Sam

    Actually it is very hard to change any number of scientific constants in such a way that does not either cause all life on this planet to end, or the universe to disintegrate. That’s why we hold creationist arguments in deep contempt. It’s because they don’t just misrepresent science. They’re also incredibly stupid.

    The speed of light in a vacuum is one of those pesky constants that holds the universe together. You want to speed it up? Fine, there’s a simple test. Look out the window. If the speed of light had been faster at creation, the universe would have flown apart almost instantly. if you can see anything other than a void out there, you’re wrong. Fatuously, stupidly & with calculated ignorance, totally wrong.

    Or maybe you want to discharge enough radiation from isotopes in the crust that instead of occurring over 4 bn years, it all happens in a few thousand to match? Oops, deadly radiation discharge, everything dies.

    We know Creationism doesn’t stand up because it has no research to support it, & taken to its scientific conclusion, would end up creating an extinction vortex so deadly, complex life on this planet would end. You’re so keen to change scientific laws to stop organisms changing, you can’t see that the fatal outcomes this yields.

    There is nothing credible about positing that a mythic Middle Eastern blood god, created by Bronze-Age shepherds, is an instance of open-minded thinking that deserves serious consideration outside, well, the bronze age.

  • Sam, I see you haven’t answered my question about what time frame you are talking about. As possum has pointed out geological evidence supports the age of the earth being around 4.6 billion years old. In fact many different branches of science provide evidence that converges on a the Earths age as 4.6 billion years.
    What you appear to be doing is trying to introduce doubt of the very strong, multiple pieces of scientific evidence that support the age of the Earth and evolution while overlooking the substantial gaps in the arguments of creationists.
    If you do believe that the Earth has only been around for 6000 or 10,000 years perhaps you should provide evidence to support your position?

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