Sunday, January 15, 2012

God's Quality Control 7.6: Coda

Here I conclude my thoughts on Ray Comfort's 2008 book Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups.

Before I start, here's a public service announcement. In case you were wondering what happened to the channel called WhyEvolutionIsTrue, YouTube shut it down. Fortunately, it has risen from the ashes as EvolutionDocumentary. Link in the Consummation Bar.

Now, back to the book. After reading halfway through the 101 questions, I have found that Ray has a very small bag of tricks: he ends up using the same ones over and over. Since we've already discussed many of the details, I'll give you an overview of the kinds of tricks Ray likes. Hopefully this list will give you a measure of immunity to his nonsense.
  1. In every place where Ray seems to have found a qualified scientist "quietly admitting" fundamental issues with evolutionary theory, he is actually quote-mining or otherwise grossly misrepresenting the scientist.
  2. In every place where Ray seems to have found a scientist who will make an explicit, unambiguous claim against evolutionary theory, it turns out that the so-called scientist is either openly superstitious or, more often, simply unqualified to make any such claims, being either untrained in the relevant fields or never having published any of these claims in any peer-reviewed journal.
  3. He cites the popular press as though it represents scientific consensus. For example, he claims that the 1999 archaeoraptor hoax fooled the entire scientific community, although no one was fooled but a few people at National Geographic, which, although it has an important-sounding name, is a magazine, not a peer-reviewed journal.
  4. He uses many outdated references. I counted some 217 dated references in the book. Some 42% of these references were from within the last 20 years. That's less than half. All the rest were over 20 years old. In fact, 15% were over 40 years old, going all the way back to Darwin's day and even one reference to Isaac Newton.
  5. He spends a lot of time on assertions against gradualism, although gradualism was simply the notion that evolution occurs slowly and steadily. We now know that this is not the case, due to all the science that we've done since Darwin. Evolution occurs, just not gradually. Darwin was wrong about the details. Get over it.
  6. He mentions a few deliberate hoaxes and some embarrassing errors, but obviously these are rare exceptions to the work done by real scientists. It's funny that he never mentions that these hoaxes and errors were caught by the scientific community, relying on peer-review and the input of qualified experts.
  7. He incorrectly presents the weaknesses of some parts of the fossil record as though they represent fundamental weaknesses of the science. For example, suggesting that a scarcity of chimpanzee fossils is some kind of major blow to evolutionary theory.
  8. He goes on about the origin of life, the origin of the universe, fine-tuning, quantum theory, and carbon-dating. Evolutionary theory has nothing to say about any of these, so any such comments are irrelevant.
  9. He discusses transitional fossils, and now is my chance to make an important point about the very idea of transitional fossils, which is fundamentally misguided. First, a transitional fossil would not be something like Ray's crocoduck, because of that funny little word transitional. Ducks are not descended from crocodiles, nor are crocodiles descended from ducks, so there has never been a transition from crocodiles to ducks, or ducks to crocodiles, so we wouldn't expect to find any such fossils. A transitional fossil, let's call it Fossil B, would represent a transition from Fossil A to Fossil C. B would have to be a direct descendant of A and a direct ancestor of C. Unfortunately, the fossil record doesn't tell us much about direct-line ancestry. We don't know whether archeopteryx is an ancestor of modern birds or just a cousin on a line that later went extinct. We should expect that finding an unambiguously transitional fossil will be extremely rare.
  10. He complains about the direct-line ancestry problem just mentioned, as though it contradicts evolutionary theory.
  11. He sometimes gets carried away entirely and goes on about the bible containing scientific truth, or whether this or that famous scientist was religious. Of course that's irrelevant to the subject at hand.
When I started this series, I hoped to provide a sense that critical thinking isn't just for ivory-tower types, that although it does require some mental effort, it's well within the abilities of everyone. Ok, almost everyone. I'm not sure that I've accomplished that goal in particular, but I hope that I've at least demonstrated that even a typical student still in high school can have a solid grasp of evolutionary theory and can see through the amateurish and dishonest attempts by superstitionists to bamboozle. There is no need to be a super-genius or have a PhD, no need to discuss thermodynamics or quantum mechanics.

Evolutionary theory, although not at first intuitive, is made up of just a couple of very simple concepts: (1) individuals in every generation differ from each other, and (2) individuals pass their characteristics to their offspring. That's it. No fancy language, no mind-bending ideas. The biggest obstacle for me was my limited imagination. Fortunately, there are a lot of good science documentaries out there that continue to fill that particular gap for me. Thank goodness for YouTube.

That's 7.6, and the end of series seven. Thanks very much for watching.