Arguing Evolution on Facebook

What follows is a redacted transcript of a Facebook thread I started that got a lot of attention. If anyone involved in the thread would like their contributions restored, I will do so. This will probably be an evolving document. I removed the questioner’s quotes to protect both of us. He may very well have done more research and changed his mind. Or not. If he reads this and wishes his words to be restored or takes issue with my construction of them and would like it changed, I will be happy to do so. I’m grateful he entered a thread where he held the minority view and allowed us the opportunity to talk about evolution in ways we might not have done otherwise. He’s a good man, and I wish him well.

I started this thread on June 5, 2013 with the following two paragraphs and questions.

Some of you may remember that a couple years ago my daughter’s teacher tried to covertly indoctrinate her students with a disparaging remark about the theory of evolution. Not everyone agreed this was an outrage, so I started trying to teach evolution and every day for a few months, I presented a strawman argument against the theory and countered it. Even likeminded people no doubt thought I was obsessed if not a bit of a jerk.

Well, I’m still obsessed, but I learned a lot from the project, thanks to smart skeptical people who argued and questioned in good faith, and to friends like Dr. Rob Furey and Rick Marshall who steered me straight when I started to get my facts muddled. I realized if I did it over again, I would do it differently, and much more succinctly. Here are the main questions that I’d address now, instead of strawmen:

What’s the best evidence for the theory of evolution?
Has evolution ever been experimentally supported, and if so, how?
What’s the theory about how new species arise?
Why did animals and plants evolve sex?
What are the practical applications of the theory?
Does it really matter if people don’t buy it?

[Many posts in support followed, with some criticism that I could have chosen better questions. My cousin, generally my political antagonist, observed that it’s unfortunate that science is made political.]

Me: Yes, it’s shameful that science gets politicized. It’s not just the right wing that needs to get better education about evolution, which is central to the debates about GMO and vaccinations. We cannot set good public policy without scientific literacy. People’s lives are on the line.

What’s the best evidence for the theory of evolution?
Molecular biology. The evidence of functionally redundant ubiquitous proteins, to name just one example, is so overwhelming as to effectively prove the theory right there.

Has evolution ever been experimentally supported, and if so, how?
Yes, by Richard Lenski at Michigan State:

What’s the theory about how new species arise?
Members of a species become isolated from each other, often, but not always, geographically. They give rise to subspecies that they could still interbreed with but that cannot interbreed with each other. Often the parent line is lost.

Why did animals and plants evolve sex?
Sex and genetic recombination are powerful mechanisms for exploiting beneficial random mutations and culling harmful ones. As my friend Terry Bisson observed, “We evolved to evolve.”

What are the practical applications of the theory?
Everything from epidemiology to computer programming. For example, self-replicating code that is made to undergo a kind of natural selection can help robots learn to negotiate their environment and can teach computers how to build better tools and systems.

Does it really matter if people don’t buy it? How does that impair them in any way?
Yes, the theory of evolution is a triumph of the scientific method, and it supports and derives support from nearly every branch of science. To not understand it is to put yourself at the mercy of those who politicize science and want to control you.

[A couple participants observed that the sticking point for religious people opposed to the idea of evolution is the idea of a soul that separates human from animals on a spiritual level. And then the evolution denier arrived, hereafter “the questioner.” He said that he did not feel threatened by the implications of evolution for the concept of the soul. He claimed that the facts of evolution have been proven over and over to be pseudoscience, and that they are disproven internally within the evolution community every few years. Of course, this is where things began to heat up.]

Me: You’re going to have to give examples, because to the best of my knowledge that’s untrue.

Computer programmer and one of the founders of game company Wizards of the Coast Ken McGlothlen, addressing the questioner: I would be fascinated to hear a single credible citation for such a statement.

Me, after waiting some time for a reply: I’ll make a guess that he’s going to try to move the goal post and observe that scientists don’t know with certainty how species arise or how abiogenesis occurred (the latter not really being the province of evolution). I’d counter that physicists aren’t sure about dark matter and dark energy, but that doesn’t erode their confidence in what they’ve figured out about stellar evolution, black holes, and so on. The theory of evolution continues to be refined, but there’s no real controversy that common descent and origin of species through random mutation and natural selection are facts.

I respect that the religious experience is personal and can’t be perfectly communicated nor that another person’s experience can be perfectly refuted by another, but I can’t accept that one person’s reality is equal to another’s. If we can’t agree on science, we’re in a hopeless situation.

Ken McGlothlen:
Faith is indistinguishable from fantasy to outside observers. You may posit that everyone goes to heaven, but when asked for proof of this, some evidence that can be confirmed through independent testing, you have none—instead, you are simply reduced to nodding sagely and saying “Well, I have faith that it is so.”

Worse, a lot of people claim to “know” that it is true—thus making their faith worthless. If you know something, you don’t have to believe in it. But John 3:16 doesn’t say “Whosoever knoweth that I exist . . .” You believe. That’s what faith is.

But faith is not science, and science is not faith, and they are in no way equal to one another. Moreover, for faith to be useful, it must incorporate reality (and thus science); science is useful with no need for faith.

These days, when I hear that sad-yet-earnest paean to faith, what I hear is a clarion call to ignorance and thoughtlessness, the pompous strain of “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” It is true that “faith offers eternal bliss,” but all the evidence points to this being an empty promise: we all die, nobody has come back, there is no communication with the Beyond, and there is so far no hint whatsoever that “eternal bliss” is anything but a manipulative attempt to sway the vulnerable, and to infect them with the same incuriousness.

To paraphrase Sagan, I prefer the hard truth over the comforting fantasy. It seems to me that if there is a God, the Universe is the very best testament of it. But I disagree that science gives us nothing to look forward to. If you care about anyone but yourself, particularly the young, science gives all of us the opportunity to explore, and to make things easier for the rest of humanity long after we ourselves are gone.

Also, if you want to speak knowledgably against evolution, you gotta drop the idea that “Man evolved from monkey’s” [sic].

In the end, I do believe that science and faith can coexist. However, I also feel that faith is dishonest and worthless when it steadfastly denies reality.

[The questioner returned. He agreed that “faith is dishonest and worthless when it steadfastly denies reality.”]

Me: I think [the questioner] well knows that trying to prove the existence of God scientifically is hopeless. Intelligent Design, with its “irreducible complexity,” for instance, is merely a “god of the gaps” idea. It’s not a project for finding evidence of God, because every observable thing can be evidence for God if you’re open to that idea. Rather, it’s a project for finding miracles, and that is not only a doomed enterprise, it’s a treacherous one. How do you tell whether a certain phenomenon is a miraculous message from your God and not the work of a demon out to deceive you? Miracles are highly political; science is not.

Questioner: “Ken, are you saying that Evolution is NOT ‘man evolved from monkeys’?”

Me, after waiting for Ken: Ken is definitely saying that. We share a common ancestor with monkeys; we did not evolve from them. They are entirely different animals. All modern organisms are equally evolved.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and uncontested by those who understand the molecular biology, which is really not that tough for the layman, like me, for instance, to understand. If you have any questions, we’ll answer them.

Consider that your line of descent from the earliest organism is unbroken. Sure there were countless individuals that didn’t pass the gauntlet of natural selection, but your ancestors all made it to reproductive age. There were single-celled creatures, things that looked like worms, things that looked a bit like dinosaurs in that lineage, but they were all a straight line to humanity. None of them was a worm, or a lizard, or a monkey. When consciousness arose so did a sense of time. It’s an old philosophical chestnut, but in a sense time started with whatever could perceive it. Heck, for all you know, the universe started with you, and all else is a retcon.

Ken McGlothlen: Even Darwin did not suggest that humans evolved from existing monkeys.

[Another friend entered the thread and observed that there is evidence that supports evolution and zero that supports creationism.]

Me: Not only is there zero evidence for creationism, there could never be evidence for it. Consider: if a powerful being materialized, performed amazing feats, claimed to be God, and said that He created the earth, this would not comprise evidence. All we’d have would be the various phenomena we observe. Granted, witnessing miracles would sway many people to faith, but it would still be faith, not science, which is inherently skeptical. We all have faith. We couldn’t get through the day without it. The question is what parts of our faith are immovable.

Ken McGlothlen: Actually, I’m going to disagree with Bob on this point; hard to do, as Bob is usually right, but I’m gonna poke at this a bit.

Creationism could easily have proof. A Godly signature etched into the cosmic microwave background, or a monolith on the moon with unusual properties, or (as Sagan postulated in his science fiction novel Contact) a complex message encoded in a mathematical constant (or the human genome, or anything sufficiently removed from human ability to fake it). There are ways for the Creator to leave a sign of His work. If there is a Creator behind it all, no doubt there is. This is what absolutely baffles me about so many religious types dissing on science—if there’s proof out there to be had for the existence of God, science funding is the best shot we have at discovering it. Instead, zealots, deep down, are terrified there won’t turn out to be any proof for their fervent beliefs—rather than rest assured that their faith will not be shaken by scientific discoveries, they quiver in fear that something will be discovered that will reveal it all to be a sham.

In short, they have no faith; they just desperately cling to a belief and lash out against any possible threat. It’s a sad way to live—but it’s been the case for thousands of years. You’d think we’d grow out of it as a species. We haven’t, and it’s to our unfathomable loss.

Me: Well, Ken, those would be widely accepted as proof. They would serve as proof for just about anyone for daily wear and tear, but strictly speaking they wouldn’t prove the being was _God_ or supernatural. On the one hand, “God” has no universal definition; and on the other, once you leave traces that can be observed by anyone, you have entered the realm of the natural and just set science a new challenge in trying to fit them into the framework.

[At this point, the questioner returned with an NCSE article that he thought was critical of evolution but actually was presenting various misconceptions about evolution that appear in classroom discussions. Ken and I pointed out that the article was not on his side, and we were joined by an astrophysicist who said the same thing. The question of repeatable experiment and the definition of the scientific method came up.]

Me: The scientific method admits not only that which can be reproduced by experiment but also that which can be consistently observed. We cannot run tests on extinct animals, but we can all observe the fossil record and agree on the phenomena. However, the predictions of the theory of evolution have been thoroughly tested. The theory is falsifiable and has passed the most rigorous tests. Again, I urge you to examine the evidence of molecular biology and discuss it with us. Molecular biology supports the theory on multiple fronts. In the other thread, Ken and I pick our favorites, but the evidence goes on and on, and we can even put numbers to the probability the evidence is reliable. It’s very eye-opening.

[The questioner then claimed that I was being disingenuous in saying that evolution is falsifiable and has passed rigorous tests. He said that what I was calling evolution could also be called farming, but he did not explain his reasoning. He claimed that the definition of science had been stretched to support the theory of evolution.]

Me: No, common descent goes far beyond farming, and it is flat-out untrue that the definition of science has been stretched to accommodate the theory of evolution. Mike here is an astrophysicist. His discipline largely could not exist if we didn’t admit non-testable but consistently observable phenomena to the scientific method. But as I have said, evolution is not merely observable from its fossil traces but its predictions are falsifiable and testable.

Does everyone understand the functionally redundant protein argument [presented in a previous thread]? Basically, there are some proteins that are so essential you find the same ones in all life. A protein is made up of a string of amino acids. If you change the sequence of these molecules, you don’t necessarily change the essential properties of the protein. The sequence of amino acids in a protein is determined by the genetic code, so more closely related organisms have more closely related essential proteins. The way proteins vary among organisms is predicted by evolutionary theory. How good is this evidence? Let’s check the numbers.

Here’s a quote from the article I linked [from Talk Origins, ]: “Hubert Yockey has done a careful study in which he calculated that there are a minimum of 2.3 x 10^93 possible functional cytochrome c protein sequences…. For perspective, the number 10^93 is about one billion times larger than the number of atoms in the visible universe. Thus, functional cytochrome c sequences are virtually unlimited in number, and there is no a priori reason for two different species to have the same, or even mildly similar, cytochrome c protein sequences.

“Humans and chimpanzees have the exact same cytochrome c protein sequence. In the absence of common descent, the chance of this occurrence is conservatively less than 10^-93 (1 out of 10^93). Thus, the high degree of similarity in these proteins is a spectacular corroboration of the theory of common descent. Furthermore, human and chimpanzee cytochrome c proteins differ by ~10 amino acids from all other mammals. The chance of this occurring in the absence of a hereditary mechanism is less than 10^-29. The yeast Candida krusei is one of the most distantly related eukaryotic organisms from humans. Candida has 51 amino acid differences [in its cytochrome c] from the human sequence. A conservative estimate of this probability is less than 10^-25.”

How small a number is 10^-93? It’s far, far off the low end of this scale:

Ken McGlothlen: I disagree slightly with Yockey, but only because I take a more conservative stance. I’m not really arguing with his work, which is excellent, but he could be off by a factor of up to around 1000 because it may well be that some of the sequences he finds possible (that is, functional cytochrome C sequences) are, in fact, not.

That said, a factor of 1000 when dealing with a number like 2.3×10⁹³ brings that down to 2.3×10⁹⁰. That’s still billions of times the number of protons in the Universe.

In any case, the substance of the argument is unthreatened: the genomic similarities between chimpanzees and bonobos and the like with humans is astonishing. Our genomes differ by around 2%, making it nearly certain that we had a common ancestor only a few million years ago.

More interesting to me is the fact that chimpanzees and humans share about 65% of their genetic makeup with the banana. That implies that humans and bananas had a common ancestor well over a billion years ago. You can still see the signs of this today (bananas use the same genes as those that define the human hand—most bananas’ peels split into five parts, including a big one, the analogue of the thumb, right next to the skinniest one, which is analogous to the pinky). But here again, nobody ever said that humans evolved from bananas, either—only that we once had a common ancestor.

[Here questioner scoffed at the banana example, perhaps not understanding the point was about underlying symmetry at a deep level and not suggesting we are close relatives of bananas. He then expressed dismay that evolution experiments had not been falsified, clearly not understanding that falsifiable does not mean false but rather presenting a hypothesis that could be proven false if it were wrong. He then asked that we discuss the problems with evolution in a bid to have us make his case for him. He said that controversies over the lineage of horses cast doubt on evolution.]

Me: Hit us with the problems. First, I’ll point out that what trips up the evolution debate is that we often need better metaphors. Gross simplifications just won’t cut it. The “humans evolved from monkeys” meme is one bad conceptual model; another is the persistent idea that if evolution is true, one species must give birth to the member of another species. This is not true, and the basis of a lot of misunderstanding. The discussion of evolution, as with so much of science, is undermined by our intuitions.

[I then linked to the horse controversy and a video on ring species:]

Evolution’s main problems, as I see it, are […] that the definitive proofs of it require the demolition of bad metaphors and the acquisition of a little extra scientific knowledge. This debate is still waged with nineteenth-century arguments, which illuminates a very big problem with science education. Some of my smartest friends believe that you can compartmentalize the theory of evolution and give people a pass on not understanding it. I strongly disagree. The logic of evolution is not entirely straightforward. It’s the logic of recursive, self-replicating systems and governs nonliving replicators like computer viruses. It’s increasingly important.

Ken McGlothlen, picking up the banana and the falsification issues: Really—roughly 65% of your genes are also found in a banana. God and/or Nature is apparently a big fan of recycling.

I’m not sure if you know what ‘falsification’ actually is in this context. What it means is that in order to be useful, a hypothesis or theory could be shown to be false by observation. Not that it is, but that it could be. A better term would be refutability, but falsifiability is commonly enough used that we’ll stick with it for now.

For example, “God created the world” is not falsifiable. At all. There’s no way you can show it to be false, because the proposition is vague, does not describe a precise mechanism, makes no predictions about observations, and is a big pudding of a hypothesis with no structure. You can’t show it to be false, and thus, scientifically, it is useless.

But the theory of evolution is falsifiable, and has been all along. There have been countless times when evolution made a definite prediction, and could have failed that test. Minor failings usually represent incompleteness in the theory, but total failings indicate that the theory should be thrown out entirely.

One example, which I’ve mentioned before, was that it was clear that chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor. The morphology was pretty incontrovertible, there were similar psychological traits, and so on, but there was a big, big, big, big stickler: chimpanzees had 24 pairs of chromosomes, and humans had 23.

The theory of evolution does say that species can gain or lose genes—even entire chromosomes—but that wasn’t likely for species that were that close. Soon after the nature of chromosomes was brought to light by Watson and Crick, evolutionary biologists made a prediction: that humans hadn’t lost a pair, but that two pairs had fused together.

It wasn’t until the Human Genome Project, some forty years after that, that this was able to be verified. It turns out that human chromosome 2 is a head-to-head fusing of two chromosome pairs in the chimpanzee genome. The prediction turned out to be solid. This was a point where evolution could have been refuted utterly—and it passed the test.

[The questioner came back and said we were being dogmatic and refusing to talk about the problems with the science of evolution, but he did not raise any problems. He wanted us to do that for him.]

Ken McGlothlen . . . your tone is a bit insulting here, and I am disinclined to answer.

Evolution is a scientific theory. It is not “a science.” There is no evolutionology; the primary backing sciences for evolution are biology, chemistry, genomics, physics (with particular regards to radioactive decay) and paleontology. The problems that those sciences face are well documented.

(Side note: recommended reading on paleontology:

For example, take carbon-14 dating. C14 is very useful in determining how long ago something died, but it has limits (or “problems,” if you prefer). Creationists often mock erroneous C14 results, claiming that the method doesn’t work. Scientists know what the weaknesses of C14 are, and work around those. Creationists will go on and on about how C14 dated limestone at only 5,000 years or so. Scientists know that doing C14 dating on limestone is stupid. Creationists will go on and on about how testing a living plant results in a date thousands of years before. Scientists know that doing C14 dating on a living plant is stupid.

Science is an exacting work—and that’s hard when no measurement one takes is absolutely perfect. Science is full of error bars, probabilities and so on, and thus science hates to rely on just one method to determine something. Science takes time and exactitude. None of it has reflected badly on the theory of evolution. Certainly we know things now that Darwin didn’t in his time, but his theory has generally held up, and been able to accommodate new discoveries. It’s a remarkable feat.

Me, addressing the questioner: By problems, do you mean unsolved questions? What is the relative importance of external natural selection versus intraspecific sexual selection? Is longterm phyletic gradualism or punctuated equilibrium the better model? Things like that? Because the realm of serious debate has shifted far away from the question of whether creationism or evolution is true. Creationism is in such retreat that those seriously trying to hold onto it have conceded every salient point of Darwinism. The evolution vs. creationism debate is effectively over among scientists and has been a long time. Unfortunately, a big chunk of the public is misled on this.

C14 is simply the wrong tool for the job. You need a different element with a much longer half-life, like radioactive potassium, to date fossils.

[The questioner objected to my saying that creationists had conceded every salient point. He accused me of wishful thinking. He linked to this:

He claimed that evolution was a theory not a fact. He said there were common-sense problems it didn’t adequately address and until it could answer the big questions of modifications to the phylogenetic tree, missing links and biogenesis it would be a theory and not a fact.]

Ken McGlothlen: is closely affiliated with the Discovery Institute, which is in no way a credible organization. It has a long history of science denial, going so far as to misrepresent fact in the name of selling its own books and pursuing the teaching of intelligent design.

Furthermore, you don’t seem to understand what “theory” in this context means (this is a staggeringly common problem, and a baffling one since the definition is readily available), and you have yet to present any of the “common-sense problems” you claim.

Are you seriously suggesting that unlike every other scientific theory out there, we have to completely explain every single gap in evolution before you can accept it? We don’t even know yet why gravity exists; are you also saying that the theory of gravity is unacceptable as a result?

Me: This is an example of what I’ve been saying. These “scientists” have a political and religious agenda to discredit evolutionary theory by trying to argue from a position of ignorance. And when I say evolution is a fact, I am not speaking scientifically. If I were to show you a chicken and say, “This is a chicken,” you might concede it is a fact, but without testing, we can’t rule out it’s a lizard with an exotic fungal skin condition masquerading as feathers (actually we can if we don’t want to be ridiculous, but the theory of evolution is on even firmer footing than our cursory observation that a chicken is in fact a chicken).

You’re following a typical creationist script: if you can’t win on logic, move the arena to the personal, the political, and the religious. I refuse to make this a political or religious argument. I do not have an agenda to promote atheism. [To the readers:] When you argue with a creationist, beware the following types of questions:

1. Why don’t you teach the controversy? (Yet they cannot define the supposed “controversy.”)
2. Isn’t evolution its own religion? (No, it is not. It is not sancrosanct, merely useful, unlike the attempts by creationists to deceive people about it.)
3. Doesn’t evolution teach people that they have no more dignity than animals? (No!)
4. Evolution has not explained X, therefore it is pseudoscience.

The ironic thing is that the theory of evolution lends a lot of support to certain cherished beliefs of the political right, but it’s inconvenient to those who have a theocratic agenda.

[The questioner said that the evolutionary community had no consensus on macroevolution and that Ken was wrong in comparing evolutionary theory to the theory of gravity, because the theory of gravity is based on observable, testable, and quantifiable phenomena. He conceded “microevolution” is a fact, but said that was not really evolution but simply breeding.]

Me: Genetics is observable, testable, and quantifiable. Lenski’s ecoli experiments showed that two retained mutations many generations apart combined to open up an entirely new metabolic pathway, enabling the bacteria to eat citrate. We’ve experimentally shown that evolution occurs. We’ve seen how it can enable an organism to change what it can eat! We’ve shown that DNA varies as predicted by evolution. We’ve measured it. That information has helped us remap our fossil trees, not greatly, just fine-tune them. We know because of testing and measurement that dogs did not descend from foxes, only wolves. We know that.

You simply refuse to be reasonable. It is a near certainty, near to ninety decimal places, that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees. Short of having a variable-speed time machine, you can’t get better than that.

[The questioner said, “Don’t forget bananas.” Not clear whether he was really joking or being derisive. I assumed derisive.]

Me: And everything else. You’d think from this talk that only bananas, chimps, and monkeys had been scrutinized, but everything, everything, fits the evidence of genetics.

[The questioner said he understood the e coli experiment but disagreed with what they demonstrated. He said I ignored the big picture and that I was moving the target. He claimed that common descent relied on an argument of microevolution, even though microevolution didn’t explain enough.]

Me: So what you’re saying is that the precise mechanism of speciation still needs to be explained? That’s your gap, apparently, that calls the whole thing into question. You accuse me of ignoring the big picture. Okay, can we at least agree that the genetics is clear that chimps and humans evolved from a common ancestor? You accuse me of moving the target; it seems to me that is what you are doing. Let’s be clear on the following:

1. The Scientific Method is based on repeatable experiment and consistently observable phenomena. You seem to be saying that this is not true and this definition is a corruption to support evolution. If you are saying this, you are wrong. Otherwise, if you think there is some other corruption, you have not explained it.

2. Humans and chimps share a common ancestor, beyond reasonable doubt.

3. There is no evidence debunking evolution but millions of data points supporting it.

4. Your objections are based on what evolution does not yet seem to have proven beyond a doubt.

[The questioner said that I was consistently assuming macroevolution. He did not believe that humans and chimps have a common ancestor. He claimed I misread his posts. He repeatedly claimed that the idea of macroevolution involved “magic” or “magical thinking.”]

Ken McGlothlen, returning to the questioner’s objection that evolution was not like the theory of universal gravitation: I was referring to the word ‘theory,’ which means the same in both circumstances, and was not trying to equate evolutionary biology with gravity. But then, I think you knew that and are just being disingenuous at this point. I also note that you didn’t answer the question. So you can ache over the “lack of clarity” all you want—just realize that those of us who are following the discussion understand precisely who is being unclear, and why. So far in this discussion, you’ve repeatedly abused the terms ‘science’, ‘theory’, ‘pseudoscience’, ‘fact’, ‘scientific method’, ‘faith’, ‘religion’, ‘belief’ and ‘magical thinking.’ Tell me again how that adds to the clarity? No, actually, don’t.

I also burst out laughing when you said “I’ll leave it be unless you’d like me to respond to a particular issue.” You have yet to answer any specific question that’s been asked of you.

I also tire of your fragmentary (and occasionally suspiciously convenient) concept of what science is. In science, nothing can ever be proven right, but things can definitively be proven wrong. In the 154 years since Wallace and Darwin published their conclusions, arrived at independently, evolution has never been proven wrong, and it has held up under an astonishing number of assaults, including the rather puerile one you’ve launched here. It has become clear that you’re not interested in a discussion; you simply want to preach the gospel of creationism, and no fact or data will ever, ever sway you. That’s okay. You’re entitled to believe whatever bollocks you like. But please, at least be honest—it’s not that you have found a flaw in evolution, it’s just that evolution collides with a belief that you find comforting.

In any case, I will no longer assume that you just don’t understand the concept. I see that you just don’t like it, and will never accept it no matter how overwhelming the evidence—and thus ends any interest I have in interacting with you on the topic, except to say that once again, I find it astonishing that people who keep voicing the importance of faith find it so easy to misrepresent the truth. I always hope for better than that, but it never seems to turn out that way.

[The questioner accused Ken of leaving in a huff, claimed that he himself, unlike Ken, was on the side of true skepticism. He said that evolution was fantastic (in the good sense, presumably) “in its day” but that macroevolution had been discredited and claimed that the problems with it were abiogenesis, complexity (by which I assume he meant irreducible complexity), and the missing fossil record. He said he had demonstrated his skepticism, and asked Ken, “Where is yours?”]

Ken McGlothlen: Evolution doesn’t address abiogenesis in the same way that the theory of gravity doesn’t address nuclear physics. Requiring it to do so shows a blinkered ignorance that goes well beyond the meaning of the word ‘skepticism’, which you have again misapplied. Nor is evolution the same as paleontology.

Skepticism is critical to scientific progress. Equally important is understanding exactly what that means, and developing some command of the topic at hand.

One last thing—it’s not a fallacy, but a choice based on admission. I don’t know the Latin for it (Fugiat ex ignorantia determinatum?), but I call it “fleeing in the face of determined ignorance.”

You ask where my skepticism is. Here you go: I’ve read up on it. I have some command of the topic. I’ve asked questions, and done my research. I have accepted the preponderance of data. I continue to be on the lookout for counterevidence. Skepticism is a process, not an immutable obstinacy that hand-waves around the data and argues from ignorance*.

[*”Argument from ignorance” is a logical fallacy in which you try to defend an idea by claiming it must be true because it hasn’t been proven false, or vice versa — in this case saying that macroevolution must be false because it has not been proven true in absolutely every respect. It is trying to use a lack of evidence as evidence of something.

In an acrimonious stretch that followed, I’m ashamed to say I lost my temper and said that I regretted ever defending the questioner’s reasonableness and intelligence, and much later the questioner graciously accepted my apology. I often find myself needing to apologize after these heated debates, and that’s a serious problem. If our positions had been reversed in terms of our upbringing and social circles, we might have been on opposite sides here. We humans are not reasonable or objective animals; we use reason as a tool to get what we want. We evolved that way.]


3 Responses to Arguing Evolution on Facebook

  1. Casey Beaudoin says:

    As an atheist, humanist, and a firm believer in the science of evolution, I can still say that the fallacy of creation is much better for most humans. Let me try and explain why. For those that enjoy the freedom to contemplate science, philosophy, and religion, the energetic discourse is often stimulating. We can debate the issues, have a steak and a beer, and at the end of the day retire to comfort of a soft bed. However, perspective can change one’s thought process. I lived in the small West African village of Gbawe for many years. During that time, I was witness to crushing poverty, suffering, and death on an almost daily basis. What was the only thing that gave the untold masses hope? That would be faith. Faith that their shitty lives of suffering and despair were only the precursor to an eternity of joy. I came to understand that being right is not always the best option moving forward. In a free country, I have the right to pursue science and understanding. That is great in a community of like-minded individuals. Still, if I could place a cardinal sin on the ethics of Humanism, it would be something akin to the Prime Directive found in the fictional world of Star Trek. It “Prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations. This conceptual law applies particularly to civilizations which are below a certain threshold of development, preventing starship crews from using their superior technology to impose their own values or ideals on them.” I understand “truth”. I understand the laws of evolution. I also understand that tinkering with someone’s faith to “justify” that truth is mean-spirited and can have devastating consequences for those whose faith is the only tangible foundation for which life has meaning.

  2. You argue well and compassionately, Casey, and you know I have great respect for you. The point of this exercise wasn’t to attack anyone’s belief. I do not identify myself as an atheist. That assumes a weak definition of God I’m not prepared to accept. As far as I’m concerned, God is not at stake here, and the Catholic Church itself has taken my position.

    This debate is really not evolution vs. creationism. It’s science vs. religious literalism. You can be a creationist, strictly speaking, and accept the logic of evolution. Who can argue the mechanism by which God does His creating? I have no idea what creationists have in mind when they argue that God created this or that and that evolution is a challenge to their views, unless they want to defend a very primitive mindset.

    So why not have tolerance for a religious-literalist mindset? Maybe this is the point on which we both differ. I think it’s very important not to indulge religious-literalist nonsense in a science classroom, especially in a first-world country. And that’s what started this whole thing.

  3. Casey Beaudoin says:

    I like what you say about a “weak definition of God”. I have always thought it more logical to accept a never-beginning, never-ending universe (multi-verse) vs. an all-powerful singular creator for which Earthlings were created “in his image”. Logic is the engine of science. I could never sit in a classroom where a geocentric, Biblical approach to science was being presented. It is important to vehemently defend science among our peers because the driver of social change always comes from the grass-roots. It is important to remember that social change does not always mean progressive change. For school boards across the country, there is a constant battle between religious literalism and science.

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