Friday, June 17, 2005

A defence of evolution

This is a long entry. For that I apologise.

An open letter to a friend...

   I know, it's all my fault. I started it with that comment in your blog, which I knew was ill-advised when I typed it. I should have been smarter than that, and deleted the bit about the Bible before I clicked publish. But I didn't, and you replied:
Every human plot ever written is in there. It was God inspired. No other book has made the top 100 list every year since it was written. It now seems that what was deemed fiction is being proven. Scientifically. All the good parts went to the guys.

It's a constant wonder and sometimes a puzzle but it speaks to today as much as it did to the time when it was written, a document for living.
And I replied to that:
"It now seems that what was deemed fiction is being proven. Scientifically."
I am curious exactly what you mean by that. Could you explain?
And then you replied:
Didn't you hear? The entire theory of evolution was a hoax! Man has not evolved in thousands and thousands of years, we will never evolve, we'll just find new ways of killing ourselves off! The earth is younger than we thought! Carbon dating is unproven and dinosaurs are referenced in the bible.
To which I again replied:
I can only assume you are joking.
To which you replied:
For someone into science fiction I would think that your analytical mind would want proof of everything. Why would you accept theory as fact? There is no proven evidence of man's evolving into anything for thousands of years. We did not descend from animals, if we did, prove it.

There is no proof of the earth's age.

Carbon dating is an unproven method. Show me anywhere scientific or otherwise that the claim is foolproof.

I believe in science when it proves itself.
So far, nothing and if you look at the facts and I'm not trying to argue, just show me facts. Proven facts.

And here we are.

   Normally, I would back off from this conversation at this point, as I wish to put friendship ahead of potentially flammable discussions about religion. I want to continue this one a little bit for three reasons.

1) I still think it is possible, even likely, that you are pulling my leg.

2) This will make a great journal entry.

3) This subject is too damn important to just let it slide by.

   Please note that what follows is, in no way, an attack on religion. It is merely a defence of science. I believe that the two need not be mutually incompatible.

   I would like to address these points one at a time, starting with your question about accepting theory as fact. I have to guess that the theory you are referring to is the theory of evolution. As a starting point, it is important to define terms. When scientists use the word theory, they have a very different definition of the word than when you and I use it casually in a non-scientific conversation.
   The word theory, used in a non scientific sense is usually understood to mean a guess, or supposition about something, and may or may not be backed up by any evidence. For example, I have a theory that you did not come up with these arguments on your own, rather you read them in some Christian literature, or heard them at a meeting or a presentation of some kind. I have no evidence to support that theory. I am only guessing, based on the fact that your statements closely resemble well known creationist propaganda that has been around for years and years.
   A scientist, however, would not call that a theory. He might call that a hypothesis. Then, he might devote years of study to the matter, collecting evidence in the field, designing and conducting experiments attempting to falsify the hypothesis, and refining it based on the results of those experiments and the evidence that he discovers. He might then publish the results of his years of study in a scientific journal, where it can be read, considered and discussed by other scientists.
   Those other scientists might then attempt to duplicate his experimental results. They might pore over his evidence, looking for inconsistencies. They might go into the field too, in an attempt to discover their own evidence that would either support or dispute the hypothesis of their peer. They might also publish their results, and a worldwide dialogue on the topic could be entered into. New evidence might come forward which only partially supported the hypothesis, and it would need to be altered to take that new evidence into account. The original scientist would eagerly accept the new evidence, as well as the modification of his earlier hypothesis. More and more scientists would join in the search for evidence, or reliable, reproducible experimental results.
   Eventually, after many, many years of study, having amassed an overwhelming amount of evidence to support it, and in the absence of any compelling evidence refuting it, and with the agreement of the vast majority of working experts in the specific field of study, the hypothesis might be considered a theory.
   So it is with evolution. Although the word theory is used to describe it, the scientific community consider evolution to be fact.

   This does bring us to the question of why, if it is so strongly supported by the evidence, does evolution meet with such scrutiny and doubt. I think a part of the answer to that lies in the nature of the evidence. A perusal of Pharyngula, the blog of evolutionary biologist, and university professor PZ Myers, leads to posts about acoelomorph flatworms, rhabdomeric and ciliary eyes, niobrara chalk, and pharyngeal arches. What are all those things? Idonot have a freaking clue, and quite frankly, not being a student of evolutionary biology, I have not even read those posts. The problem with the evidence supporting evolution, is that it is so damn...scientific. The average guy (or girl) just does not understand it.
   Contrast to that another well supported theory: Newton's Theory of Universal Gravitation. Like evolution, gravity is 'just a theory.' Unlike evolution, every single person on earth has a ton of experience with gravity. When I jump up, I come back down. When I trip over my own feet, I do a face plant on the ground. Although my cat always lands on her feet, it is never on the ceiling. Gravity is a theory no more well supported by evidence, but much more accepted by the general public, simply because we see the effects of gravity all around us, all the time.
   Which brings us to your next point: "there is no proven evidence of man's evolving into anything for thousands of years." Well, yeah, there is. There are evolutionary mechanisms at work in humans, and all living things, all the time. For example, a segment of the Scandinavian population of Europe has developed an innate resistance to AIDS. How? A random, apparently beneficial mutation to the DNA. Those who have it, will pass it on to their progeny. Evolution at work. Can you see it? No, but it is there.
   How do I know? Well, I don't. I said before, I am not a student of evolutionary biology or genetics. So, I have to trust someone who apparently does know. Like, say, someone who has spent their entire life studying the topic. That really is not any different from what we do for most things in our everyday life. When my doctor tells me I have a streptococcal throat infection, I do not ask him to see the actual bacterial culture, because it would not mean anything to me. I take his word for it, because I consider him to be an authority in his field.

   In order to address your next point, and for that matter, the rest of them, I must first take issue with your use of the word 'prove.' Proof is a word that scientists are loath to use. It really does not apply outside the field of mathematics. Any scientist with a gram of ethics admits that scientific principles are never 'proven.' They are always open to new evidence that might cast a new light on older theories, and require some things to be reconsidered, and reworked. That is a basic tenet of the scientific method. Detractorsalways jump on this as an admission of uncertainty, when it really is not.
   The theory of universal gravitation is not 'proven' either. It is open to new evidence that might require it to be re-examined. However, how likely do you think it is that one time, when you jump up, you might not come down? Here is an experiment to try. Flip a coin 100 times. Record the number of times it does not come back down. Try flipping it 1000 times, or 100,000 times. If it comes back down every time, even after 1,000,000 trials, have we 'proven' the theory of gravity? No, it is still a theory. However, if you jump up, you are very confident predicting that you will come back down. Scientists are that confident of predictions they make using the theory of evolution. They have seen such a huge body of evidence in support of it, that, although they will not call it 'proven,' they consider it as close to proven as can be in any scientific discussion.
   That huge body includes a preponderance of evidence supporting the theory that we are descended from animals. Evolutionary scientists have seen so much evidence supporting that conclusion, that they consider it no longer in dispute. It is not 'proven,' but it is so certain, that scientists get bored discussing it. They roll their eyes at people who dispute it for exactly the same reason they roll their eyes at people who still claim the world is flat. You would roll your eyes at someone who claimed the world was flat, would you not? The evidence supporting common descent is so strong that anyone disputing it can only do so based on a complete lack of understanding of the topic. I am not saying people who dispute common descent are stupid, I am just saying they are not evolutionary biologists.

   Next. You say, "There is no proof of the earth's age," and, "carbon dating is an unproven method," as if those two statements have anything to do with each other. They do not. Radio carbon dating is not one of the methods used to estimate the age of the earth.
   While I might not say that carbon dating is unproven, I would say that it has its limits. First, it is only considered accurate for dating things between about 150 and 50,000 years old. Second, it is pretty easy for impurities in a sample to skew the results. However, within these limitations, it is understood to be a very accurate means of determining the age of something.
   Actual methods of datingthe earth vary. As a beginning, we are all familiar with counting tree rings, and we have tree ring evidence that shows that trees have been growing on the earth for over 10,000 years. Examination of Antarctic ice core samples, possible because annual ice layers can be counted the way tree rings are, tells us that the current southern polar ice cap is approximately 160,000 years old. A similar method involves coral. Coral displays very consistent growth patterns both daily, and over the course of a year. You can calculate the age of a coral reef in much the same way as you can a tree, and portions of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia have been calculated to be several million years old. Some say as old as 18 million years.
   The most common method of dating the age of the earth is radiometric examination of rocks. Based on the fact that uranium decays into isotopes of lead at known rates, scientists examining the ratios between the uranium and three different isotopes of lead calculate an approximate age of the earth at 4.5 billion years. That estimate holds up through multiple examinations of the same rock samples by several different, independent laboratories, and across tests done on thousands of different rock samples of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial origin. So, not only is the earth about 4.5 billion years old, so is the rest of the rocky material in our solar system. These findings are not in dispute. At least not by anyone with the understanding of geological science, and radiometric processes, sufficient to speak authoritatively on the matter.
   I am sorry I was not able to provide you with any 'proven facts,' but rest assured that no one, anywhere, has presented any evidence that would call any of these things into dispute. None. As for the appearance of dinosaurs in the Bible... I have read the Bible, and I don't remember any. Of course, I am not a biblical scholar, so I cannot say for sure. I am willing to examine any evidence you might provide.
   And if you were joking, well, you got me.

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swibirun said...

As a 6th grader at a Southern Baptist Church (major church, over 20,000 members) I was pulled to the side and "talked to" because I asked the following question in sunday school, when they were telling us "creationism=good"  "evolution=bad".

Me:  The bible tells us that men can understand God's mysterious ways, right?
Sunday School Teacher:  Right.
Me:  And the bible tells us that 1,000 years to man is a day to God and 1 day to man is a 1,000 years to God, right?
Sunday School Teacher: Right.
Me: So how do we know that God didn't use evolution to "create" the world?

From their reaction, you would have thought I'd said the words m***** f*****.
Nice entry Paul (not that we'd expect anything less!).


justaname4me2 said...

I had a biblical "issue" come up in my world today, and actually believe I'm going to do the unthinkable, which is post a religion topic in my journal <scary touchy stuff> No need to apologize for being a long entry, I found it fascinating, interesting and educational. I hope it served it's purpose. I also hope this person was indeed pulling your leg.
On another note, your about me picture is unique and the best I've seen, most fitting for your journal :o)

dornbrau said...

I do not debate my religious beliefs with others, but especially with friends for 2 reasons: 1. because I have too much respect for my religious beliefs, and 2. because I have too much respect for my friendship.
And thats all I'm going to say about that.

mavarin said...

Great stuff!  I haven't finished reading it yet, but only because I want to suggest a small correction before I forget:

"attempting to falsify the hypothesis"

You mean disprove the hypothesis.  To falsify it would mean faking the result, which, of course, would be a bad thing.

Good luck with the whole friendship/blogging/religion thing.  I've wrestled with that a few times myself, including on this very topic!


sdoscher458 said...

Very good entry Paul, you put your facts down in such a way as to be understood easily....some people do not want to believe what has been learned - heck I've met people recently who claimed that Hitler didn't do anything bad in WWI...that one had me banging my head against the wall.....Sandi

courtenaymphelan said...

what has always puzzled me ..if you believe we are deacendents of apes ....why are there still apes? cmp

plittle said...

  Think of evolution like an upside down tree, where the trunk is the original, common ancestor, and the branches are all the descendants of that ancestor. The primitive ape that evolved into humans, also evolved into chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans, etc. Along the way, there were many short branches that ended long ago, like neanderthals.

astaryth said...

Great entry Paul!! You did a wonderful job of explaining things. I might have to bookmark this entry because, although I always understand what I am trying to get across to people about Theories and Proofs, etc... from the blank looks I receive I must assume that the idea gets lost between my brain and my mouth and their ears/brains <g>.

shansa3fan said...


I was raised to respect other people's point of views. While I have my own that may not be of popular belief, I stand by my convictions and am always open to hear others. Thanks for sharing yours!

jouell3935 said...

Paul..awesome entry...ones I love , the debate/banter with educated speak! In this polar world we will always have the black and white. I applaud how you took your belief and presented it so well. I do not claim to be a scholar on religion, or even have the ability to throw out quotes. I do believe that their is the intertwining of evolution and religion as Chris so nicely put...Whether I correct or incorrect? I dont think it would be a bone crushing event for me. I agree to disagree. I love to learn, so these opportunities presented are perfect to be educated! Nice entry!

plittle said...

  Thank you for the comment. I have only one nit to pick with it. That is your description of it as 'my belief.' If I told you I was pretty confident that the sun would come up tomorrow morning, would you refer to that as 'my belief?' If told you that if I jumped off a fence, I would land on the ground, would you characterize that as 'my belief?' If I told you that the grass was green and the sky was blue, would call that 'my belief?'

mechants said...

A defenSe of evolution. I'm christian and I can agree with everything you have stated. I don't know how I reconcile the two, I guess I just have a REALLY open mind. Dinosaurs in the Bible!? Since when? I guess the Bible is so vague that you could interpret just about anything in there...


tlorenzo201 said...

I saw a discussion,  with 2 astrophysicis  they had the latest dna done on the five or so men that supposedly explains mans assension from cave man to modern man.
You know the ones that were supposedely neantrol man and paleonlithic  and supposed showing man bent over because he once walked on 4 legs.

Well the dna done on these subjects revealed some startling but not surprising findings.
For one thing many of the bones tested did not belong to homosapiens or men, but some had been fabricated from the jaws of a pig.   The one with the deepest bend of the spine,  had been a man with severe syphillis.

The word of God, in the Bible says every thing is found in its own seed.    Corn from corn seed.   Oak from an oak tree seed,      Bulldog from the sperm of a buldog,   and Man from the seed of man.  

This is one of God's fixed laws.    Of course man,  keeps trying experiments in various labs to try and disprove this,  but it is Written !

Another thing,  I read that just before Charles Darwin  died he called for his bedside  doctor,  and  denounced the theory of evolution,   and confessed that he had gotten the idea from a French Scientist,    had earned lots of monies,  but was not willing to take a chance on dying  without   asking God for forgiveness !

Kinda leaves his followers in a sticky situation !    

plittle said...

Sorry, try again. How about that first story, can you find some more information about that? How about, what would astrophysicists being doing talking about paleontology, genetics, and developmental biology? If you want to argue, start by getting your facts straight. Or, you might start with actually having some facts at all.

Thanks for commenting in my journal. I appreciate all opinions.

schnozbeary said...

My gut tells me this person had to be pulling your leg... I'm glad to hear that Pharyngula is sometimes too hard to digest for you...I'm waiting for Jay to finish his version. ;)  It does make a great journal entry, but at some point, you have to agree to disagree or you are simply playing into the game that says " If I hit you over the head with it enough, you will convert." Excellent entry, dude!! Penny

deabvt said...

Excellent entry.

clpipeline said...

Well said.  Rigorous, precise and thoroughly enjoyable.

 Based on this alone, I have decided to enter the discussion.  

  Look for me on what I shall call "Salt On The Watermelon"

  You heard it "first" here.  Thank you for opening the gate.


ckays1967 said...

What a wonderfully thoughtful entry!  As a religous AND educated person the arguments had me nodding and shaking my head all at the same time.  (Now I am dizzy, but only in theory.)  

What about the theory of our souls???  If we can't prove they exist, do they exist even still?


monponsett said...

I always wanted retractable bat wings. Until either Wall Street or God can provide me with some, I'm an unsatisfied customer.

edandmariann said...

Ok now, question!  What is the difference between the word hypothesis and theory?

edandmariann said...

What exactly was an astralapithicus and ramapithicus then? Sorry sp?
Mariann again

princesssaurora said...

Great post Paul...I love it so much because you asked me to "show you" something earlier, yet here you are basically supporting my position!  he he

Anyhow, there actually are people out there that do not believe evolution ever happened or is happening, & that carbon dating is a farce.  I am not one of them.  I believe in the science.  I believe science and religion work together just fine.

Interestingly enough though Paul, gravity may not actually be real.  But that is a really cool physics thing if you ever care to read about it.  You see, I am forced to read these things because my son has been a budding astro-physicist since the age of 8, soon to be 13.  Long story...  

Anyhow, I loved it...great entry...and you are right makes good journaling!

Be well,

sdoscher458 said...

Paul ..I'm glad you re posted this one.  I know it is hard to get across to someone who still believes the earth is flat....think they'll believe now it's pumpkin shaped?This post shows a great deal of restraint on your part LOL..thereby proving, in itself that man has evolved!....Sandi

justaname4me2 said...

I've just ended my journey through all the entries of CarnivAOL. I must say, that was a brilliant endeaver you've started. I remember this entry, I believe I'd already commented once...I enjoyed it the first time, and absorbed it the second.

fisherkristina said...

Very interesting.  Some would say you can't be a Christian and believe in evolution too.  Of course this is not true.  
I just stumbled across this entry.  I was checking out the assignment Scalzi posted where he asked everyone to list their favorite entry from the past year.  Glad I visited yours.


lurkynat said...

you state that you would believe the findings of an expert..a scientist..who had spent years in the that correct?Specialists right?
ps are you aware that scientists now refute the theroies that have to do with the physics of the cosmos?

oej3362 said...

I am a skeptic and have a question for you.

How do radio polonium halos form in granite that was once molten? Polonium has a half life of just a few seconds... it's rings of decay (halos) are present in vast amounts of granite all over the earth. Robert Gentry a scientist at oakridge national labratories who studied this, (who by the way had this material published in peer reviewed, scientific journals) has evidence that the earth could have never been a molten mass. Here's a link to real evidence (I would have enjoyed your article more if you presented some evidence for your theory)

Could you explain to me how the earth could have formed by itself if it never was molten? You could also refute Dr Gentry's claim or find some evidence to refute it.

Someone once asked me if I knew why I believed in evolution. I told him because it is science. He asked me if I was willing to look at scientific evidence to the contrary. I saw the claims of evolution for 12 years in high school and 4 years of college. One hour of real evidence invalidated all of their claims. I encourage you to learn why you believe what you believe. Even if you only research creation to strengthen your belief in evolutionism, I am sure that it will be a help to you.


plittle said...

  Thank you for your comment. I watched the first video in its entirety, and found it interesting enough to send me looking for more information. I am certainly not able to answer your question, not being a geologist. (Interestingly enough, Dr. Gentry is not a geologist either.) So I looked for more information on the subject and found this: It was fascinating reading as well. I think it is important to note that this discussion has absolutely nothing to do with evolution, but rather origins of the Earth. Although I do not believe it, there is a certain sector of the Christian world who are prepared to accept that God could have created the Earth 6.5 billion years ago and then allowed our development and evolution to occur according to natural laws He set in place. Anyway, that's neither here nor there as it is a topic that science is unable to examine.
  The age of the earth, however, is a topic that science is able to examine, and has done so, in great depth, as I discussed in my blog post. It appears that much of Dr. Gentry's work in this area is based upon his own conjecture, or on the work of turn of the century scientists whose own conclusions were based entirely on conjecture. Although Dr. Gentry asserts that there are no possible alternative explanations for the "halos" he is seeing, other scientists - many of whom actually are geologists - disagree, and have put forward other possible solutions which are consistent with an old earth scenario. Are they right? Is he? Who's to say? I can only add Dr. Gentry's claims to one side of a scale containing other evidence for a young earth, and add the other claims to the other side of the scale containing evidence supporting an ancient earth, and see which way the scale tips. In this case, it tips - rapidly and decisively - in the favour of an earth that is 6.5 billion years old. This truly is an example of a mountain vs. a molehill.

plittle said...

  On the topic of the second video you linked to, I did not watch it. I saw that it was a production of Kent Hovind's organisation, Answers in Genesis, and immediately discounted anything it could possibly say. I have already spent a significant amount of time examining the silly and unsupportable claims made at the AIG website, and do not care to waste any more time of their claptrap. Hovind is a liar, and I think he's a man all Christians should be very angry with and embarrassed about. He gives the rest of you a bad name.

  Thanks again for your comment.