Archives for May 2013

The Lone Ranger

 

Johnny Depp plays Tonto.

Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger.

When I was a kid, my superheroes were mostly dark and troubled.

Even my favorite Western crime fighter, the Lone Ranger, wore a mask.

From those days of black-and-white television, there has been only one person who was The Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore.

And one, and only one actor could play Tonto: Jay Silverheels. That was then; this is now.

If the new Disney Lone Ranger movie starring Johnny Depp as Tonto proves to be half as good as the trailers suggest, I’ll be a happy camper when it comes to theaters next month.

Of course the trailer to Skyfall looked great, and that movie itself only mediocre.

Hopefully, that won’t be a problem with The Lone Ranger.

It was  a Ranger…riding a white horse. Got some lunatic Indian with him. They’re coming for you…

Yes, they are. I’m ready.

After piquing her interest with a few priceless Johnny Depp scenes as Tonto, my wife has agreed that can be my birthday present, only a few days early.

The last time Lisa watched a movie that was not on DVD it was the final installment of Lord of the Rings, so getting her to agree to go to the theater was no small achievement.

In the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Johnny Depp was an absolute delight as Captain Jack Sparrow. In that movie, Depp single-handedly turned a somewhat mediocre script loosely based on the two minute ride at Disney World into a two hour movie that was actually worth watching, at least in his scenes, mainly using his uncanny talent as a comedic actor.

I didn’t bother with the sequels to Pirates; after all, the ride itself was only two minutes long.

But now Disney is looking to create the same magic with the same producer, director and lead actor, though with a whole new franchise.

And I think it’s gonna be huge. I can’t wait to hear the William Tell Overture once more.

Johnny Depp has a particular talent for producing brilliant facial expressions, even in the midst of an action scene for comic effect.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, Johnny Depp is going to make a great “lunatic” Indian.

He’s so good, he’s already been named an honorary Comanche.

The horse that plays Silver might might even deserve an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.

DNA, put in perspective when compared to LEGOs

a_xwingBehold, a life-size replica of a Star Wars X-Wing fighter, made out of LEGOs.

According to this article in New York magazine, the full scale model required 5,335,200 LEGOs and took 32 master builders working more than 17,000 hours to complete.

The LEGO X-Wing has a wing span of 44 feet, weighing 44,000 pounds.

Any parent whose kids enjoyed LEGOs has a memory of stepping barefoot on one of the ubiquitous plastic blocks. But don’t worry about the LEGO X-Wing; it’s all glued together as one piece.

Now whether or not you are a fan of the toy building blocks, you’ll  have to admit the LEGO X-Wing fighter is one impressive creation.

Compared to the DNA molecule, however, the LEGO X-Wing is actually quite simple. Over five million building blocks were used? That’s nothing compared to the six billion bits of information called nucleotides that comprise a DNA molecule, the “LEGO” of life.

The complex instructions coded into DNA provide the blueprint for an organism that is produced through an ordered and specific process of development into a body plan.

For abiogenesis to have occurred, either the enormously improbable event occurred in which DNA self-organized just in time for some fortuitous catalyst caused inanimate matter to come to life…or, some sort of help was somehow involved.

In fact, two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ilya Prigogine said,

The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident, is zero.

While I have tremendous respect for the work of scientists such as Dr. Prigogine, I must reject his suggestion that the probability of abiogenesis without divine intervention is literally zero, because that implies we have absolute certainty about the origin of life.

I’m perfectly satisfied with the probability of abiogenesis without the assistance of supernatural intelligence as very near zero, because the simple acknowledgement that God is infinitely more probable because the only alternative to accidental is intentional.

The powerful entity that has both the means and ability to execute on that intent could only be God.

My atheist friends can protest as much as they would like, but I’m not concerned with winning friends or influencing people. I’m only interested in the truth. According to the Big Picture, as described in my book Counterargument for God, you can’t answer an existential question by only looking at a small fraction of the evidence.

If you fairly look at the evidence ,it becomes readily obvious that “accidental” speciation cannot simply explain our existence through purely natural events, not if an accidental Big Bang and abiogenesis  by blind luck are virtually impossible.

As we learn from our observations of the Big Picture, the only alternative to God is extraordinary good luck.

Luck too good to be true.

The face of evil

It isn’t every day that you gSecondhandSight_Frontet an email with “The Devil” as the subject.

I almost didn’t recognize that the source was the production company filming the commercial for Secondhand Sight. We’re about to start an advertising campaign on Comcast, to see how things go.

Until this point, the focus has primarily been kept on writing new books. Technically, my tenure as the Atlanta Creationism Examiner was both marketing and writing material for another book.

After all, much of the content developed for the Examiner was also incorporated into Counterargument for God.

Now, the focus is almost entirely on finishing Premonition, the sequel to Coastal Empire.

There are even sketchy plans for a sequel to Secondhand Sight.

I have plans for many future books. I only need to live long enough to write them all. However, we’ve decided that it’s time to try to develop a readership.

When it comes to the characters in my novels, I know my heroes.

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I can tell you exactly what, or more specifically who private detective Robert Mercer looks like — actor Jim Caviezel.

 

 

 

 

His sidekick Nick Mason reminds me of a young Johnny Depp, when I try to describe him for the reader. depp_1

 

 

 

 

The first person that comes to mind when I think of John Sutlive will always be Denzel Washington. Denzel_Washington

 

 

 

 

 

I also really like Anthony Mackie — loved him as Harry in The Adjustment Bureau, but I think he might be a little too young to “be” John Sutlive.

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On those rare occasions that I allow myself to go as far to fantasize that one day my novels could be made into movies, I tell myself that it’s okay to accept that my first choice for every character may not be available.

Sometimes the backup plan works out really well.

Director Jonathan Demme originally didn’t want Jodie Foster to play Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine anyone playing the role any better, and it’s really tough to argue with the fact Foster won the Oscar for Best Actress, and the film swept the remaining major awards for Best Picture, , Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Director.

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When I tried to visualize the face of Secondhand Sight hero Dan Harper it was easy–Keanu Reeves kept coming to mind, as he looked when he appeared in the movie Speed.

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I find myself having trouble when I try to describe the face of evil, especially when the guy is supposed to blend in like a Ted Bundy–the idea is that you don’t recognize the face of evil until it changes, once inside your house.

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So what does the Devil look like? I still not sure that I can tell you.

But it does appear that the people filming my commercial have figured out who the killer in Secondhand Sight resembles…

This is very exciting stuff!

A conversation about evolution with Dr. Benoit Leblanc

Counter_cover_smAfter I wrote an open letter to Dr. Jerry Coyne, Dr. Benoit Leblanc was kind enough to comment at length in response.

He wrote,

Dear Mr. Leonard,

I hope you won’t take umbrage at my attempt to answer your questions, even though I am not in the same league as Dr. Coyne. I am however a biologist, and having taught for the past ten years the molecular mechanisms that make evolution possible, I may be able to shed some light on a few points.

Let me start by saying that your curiosity does you credit, and even though I understand that you come at this with a creationist/IDer mindset, I laud you for at least askng questions.

I also hope that I won’t come across as pedantic, but I must admit something: very often, people with limited training in biology will be puzzled by things that are so basic to those trained in the art that these may adopt a condescending tone when answering questions. I hope that won’t be the case here. There is an anecdote I’d like to tell: many years ago, my wife and I had dinner with our landlord, a kindly mathematician from Heidelberg university. Making conversation, I asked what he was working on I knew that it had to do with some kind of high-level arithmetics, but being a biologist and not a true math-head I was quite the novice in that field. He took a second to think about it, then smiled charitably and said, apologetically, almost, “… you would not understand”. Which, of course, was true. It’s not that, seeing me as untrained, he thought I was stupid or ignorant but knew that I lacked the information and the experience required to understand what he was working on. Of course, biology is, by and large, easier to relate to than mathematics… but personally, I find it strange (though not totally unexpected, since the matter of where we came from is interesting to everyone) that people who would never argue with their mechanic about what’s wrong with their car would find it perfectly sensible to tell a trained biologist that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

But let’s go back to your questions.

The first one you have is “can organisms shape-shift, simply by means of DNA recombination achieved through sexual reproduction?”

The answer is yes, of course, and this is true even without sexual reproduction. Shape-shifting is in fact a very simple trick to perform, and a speciation event is far more ground-shaking than simply modifying the shape of a creature. For example, among those we have studied over the past thirty years are the many genes involved in establishing body plans and organ and limb development. These genes are the ones that dictate at what time during development and in which part of the body this or that protein will be synthesized, and in which quantity. One of the most fascinating aspect of developmental biology is that most organisms share a very large part of these genes (and the closer two species are, the more alike these genes are too). What may change is that due to a small mutation in this regulatory sequence or to a small deletion in that one, the level of expression of one or more of these genes may vary between a human being and, say, a chimpanzee.

For example, there is a particular gene called MYH16 which codes for a type of myosin, a protein found in muscles. This gene is shared by all primates and has a crucial role in the development of a powerful temporal muscle, allowing most primates to have very strong jaws. In humans, the gene is there too, and its promoter is perfectly functional… meaning that our body tries to make the protein. But sometimes in our fairly recent past, an ancestor of modern humans suffered a mutation in that gene; two DNA bases were lost, which resulted in a truncated protein being synthesized. This truncated protein is non-functional, and the result is that our temporal muscle is small and weak. The good thing (in hindsight) is that what we lost in cheweing power we may have gained in another way. First, the mutation was not that harmful, since it occured (and was allowed to spread) roughly at the time our ancestors discovered the use of fire, and our diet changed in such a way that strong jaw muscles were no longer such an important factor in our survival. Second, the lack of a strong jaw made it less important to preserve a thick, small and strong skull for it to act as an anchor point; this allowed further genetic changes (and these have been and are still investigated, to much enthusiasm) that made the human skull bigger, allowing further development of the brain. That brain itself, by the way, is not the result of hundreds or thousands of near-impossible happy accidents; it mostly cames from simple mutations that allowed neuronal precursors to divide a few more times in the human cortex than they do in less brainy mammals. And so from the simple loss of two base pairs, a chain of events was made possible that made it possible for us to get our modern brain (which is, in itself, such a benefit to our reproductive success that it was of course preserved).

Other examples of simple mutations that lead to massive changes in body plans abound, and I’d be remiss if I failed to recommend the works of Dr. Sean Carroll, a specialist of the link between development and evolution (a discipline referred to as evo-devo in biology circles). His books “From DNA to diversity” is quite informative. Apart from the odd mutations in developmental genes of the Hox family that will lead to flies having legs on the head or an extra pair of wings (certainly a massive shape-shifting event, and one occuring in one generation), we have things like a slight delay in expression of such genes in the development of vertebrate embryos, leading to chickens having fewer neck vertebrae than geese, or like snakes (which should have legs, really) failing to develop them because limb buds fail to develop on account of certain molecular signals that are lacking. (Some throwbacks in the python family manage to grow small limbs, though, because not all mutations have an all-or-nothing effect on the phenotype and that some may be partly rescued by the effect of other genes; furthermore, it shows that snake ancestors had legs and that the genetic machinery to grow them is still partly present).

Shape-shifting is also illustrated by the amazing different forms than the plant Brassica olearacea can adopt; by carefully isolating certain individuals and allowing them to breed only among themselves, you’ll get things as different as cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts or broccoli. And that’s without even having to go through a speciation event! Now you made mention of varied forms developing within a species, so the above probably didn’t come as a surprise; I suppose a more drastic change, especially one occuring in a short time, would be seen as more convincing. I can understand why it would be great to be able to breed fish in a classroom and have them turn into ostriches in one generation, and say “see kids? That’s how new species appear”. But that’s not how species appear, that’s not how Darwin thought species appear, and that’s not how any biologist believe species appear. Although it is possible to bring about a radical change in an organism with just one mutation, it won’t turn the affected individual into a member of a new species. It would simply be a mutant. For speciation to occur, sufficient modifications must accumulate to make the “new model” incapable of breeding with the old one, and I would expect that events occur in the reverse order: first there is reproductive isolation, and only later will changes accumulate. But these changes do accumulate. The flipper of the whale, for example, has the same bones as do the legs of a land mammal; and going back through the fossil record, we find a succession of increasingly less whale-like ancestors who have more and more leg-like appendages. All due to the expression of the same lot of genes, but at slightly different times. (And yes, we can play with this process in the laboratory, although in a ham-fisted and clumsy way. Not because it’s fun to grow six-legged amphibians, but because if we can learn to control limb growth and formation we have a hope of regrowing amputated human limbs the same way we can now regrow amputated frog limbs; certainly a worthy goal).

But back to your questions.

“My first question: How does the theory of speciation actually work in real life?”

The flippant answer would be “quite well, thank you”, but i get your meaning. And your basic understanding of the process is sound: groups reproductively isolated from similar groups will eventually grow apart, genetically speaking, due to genetic drift, the accumulation of different mutations, and very likely different selection pressures. We could also add hybridization and polyploidy to the mix, since they are fairly frequent in plants. (Triticale, for example, is a cross between wheat and rye. It resembles both of its parent species but is now its own plant).

A famous paper in the journal Science (“Hybrid speciation in experimental populations of yeast”) showed that crossing two yeast species, although not a very successful process because most of the offspring end up infertile, could give rise to a a few individuals of a new breed that would be fertile with itself but not either of the parent species (the very high number of yeast cells in a culture makes the experiment more feasible than if we used, say, elephants). Now I agree that it’s not as spectacular as would be the crossing of a crocodile with a duck producing a fertile dragon, but it allows us to observe real speciation in action. The lack of photogenic results does not make such experiments less spectacular.

The common ancestry of certain structures, already obvious to the physiologist, was enriched by the analysis of gene expression in (for example) certain limbs. We can see how a differently-shaped arm or hand can become a wing in bats, a different type of wing in birds, a flipper in dolphins or a leg and hoof in horses. More spectacular, we also have a fairly good idea of how a certain structure helping arthropods to exchange gas with their environment (“breathing”, to make it short) likely became a little sturdier, a little thinner, and ended up as the insect wing.

You say “quite frankly, the idea that sexual reproduction involving two members of the same species could produce a different species seems to violate our known “laws” of biology. Humans produce baby humans, apes produce baby apes, and so forth.”

Yes, that is a common observation. But then, the idea is not a speciation event occurs when two parents from species A suddenly beget a new member of species B. A species doesn’t “appear”, biologically speaking (although we use the term in the fossil record, for if a species takes a mere million year to develop, it might just have “appeared” as far as geological time is concerned). Species develop and end up different from a parent species the same way a sentence changes little by little in the game of telephone and ends up sounding very different. We’re talking incremental, often unnoticeable change. No two dinosaurs ever saw a chicken burst forth from their egg (and a good thing too, as they probably would have just eaten it) but progressive generations of dinosaurs who looked imperceptively less and less dinosaur-like and more and more bird-like gave birth to little critters that looked very much like them; only when comparing the great-great-great-(…)-great-grandparents to their great-great-great-(…)-great-grandkids could we say that a definite change took place. And since evolution usually occurs over spans of millions of years, there is a lot of time for these events to take place. (Although they don’t *have* to. Some shapes, probably quite well adapted to an environment that is pretty stable, do not change much over time -although unseen details like internal biochemistry or a taste for vanilla- may change a lot. Crocodiles, turtles, sharks, coealacanths, look a lot like their distant ancestors did; whales do not. Trilobites were also around for a very long while, and while they are emphatically not as homogeneous as some might think, they had a pretty stable basic Bauplan).

Now I realize that I’m mostly talking about how current biology explains how the world’s living things came to look like they do, but this might just be a just-so story unless we can make predictions. So let’s do just that. Let’s consider the human genome. It is riddled with the remains of retroviruses, small genetic parasites that enter our cells and manage to have their own tiny genome integrated into our chromosomes. And once they’re in, they stay there. So if, say, my grandfather was once infected by a retrovirus that saw its genome inserted in position #123 of chromosome 1, and that grandad passed that particular chromosome 1 to my mother, and that she in turn gave it to me, I will cary a copy of the retrovirus at that exact spot. It will become a “marker” of my grandad’s chromosome 1, bequeathed to the generations that follow him. Now if I am in turn infected by such a retrovirus, and that it integrates at position #456 of chromosome 1, the chromosome 1 I give to my kids (if they inherit that particular one and not my other chromosome 1) will carry two markers: one at position #123, and one at position #456. A few generations down the line, people looking at their chromosomes will be able to draw these conclusions: those with the marker at position #123 but not at position #456 will very likely be descendents of my grandfather, but won’t be my own descendents; those with the markers at #123 and #456 will likely be not only descended from my grandad, but from me as well.

Since these integration events are spurious, they are a good “neutral” way to link some families to others. And the interesting thing here is that if we look at many, many human lineages, we find that the more distantly related peope are, the fewer markers they have in the same positions (and we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of positions, here, and many millions if we account for transposons, which are not viruses but do pretty much the same thing). You can see where I’m headed, I’m sure: if we extend our sampling to closely-related but non-human species, like the bonobo or the chimpanzee, the family tree-like distribution continues: apes do have tons of ancient retroviruses inserted right where humans have them too. And if we go higher, we continue to see a steadily declining co-localization, strongly suggesting that as species diverged from each other, they left with common patterns of retroviral distributions that they later added to on their own. It is far more parcimonious to conclude that the co-localisation that closely parallels the accepted tree of life hints at infections that occured long ago and were maintained in daughter species than to come up with a way viruses would go around and independently infect species, integrating their genome in exactly the same spots every time.

On to your second question to Dr. Coyne.

“My second question: how do you reconcile the long periods of stasis indicated by the fossil record with the Darwinian idea of slow and gradual change?”

Okay, first, let me something that would be heretical if there was really such a thing as a “Darwin religion”. Charles Darwin did not know everything. Charles Darwin is not the be-all and end-all of evolutionary theory. “On the origin of species…” was a door-opener, the same way Columbus opened a whole new era of exploration for European -even if he mistakenly thought he had reached India. Charles Darwin came up with an amazingly simple, amazingly logical, and incredibly powerful way to explain the very real fact that species appear and vanish, and that lifeforms change over time. But he had no access to genetics (it didn’t exist in his days), had no idea what a chromosome was, was not even aware that there was such a thing as DNA, and did not know that mutants could spontaneously appear. His idea of a long, very gradual change made a lot of sense -but it’s not the end of the story. And in fact, even with that taken into account, natural selection would predict that if the environment doesn’t change, there is little reason for a species to do so.

We now know that this is of course an over-simplification. But the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium concept, which is to population genetics a rough equivalent of what the Ideal Gas Law is to gases, does say that in a very large population where everybody breeds equally and each allele is tramsitted independently, and where mutations do not occur, and which is not affected by sudden environmental pressures, all the alleles of the population should stabilize their frequency within one generation. In layman’s terms, it means “evolution stops”. So long periods of statis are not particularly surprising: they are predicted by biology’s own laws.

That being said, and with all due respect to Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge, I am not personally a fan of the punctuated equilibrium theory. That stasis can exists for very long periods, yes, that is expected and observed. That it is the rule and that gradual change is the exception, I have a problem with; the evidence is not all that convincing, particularly since we have several examples of continuous changes in the fossil record. Another great biologist, Ernst Mayr, was quite hostile to the concept; but whether one camp or the other is right, or whether both are only partially right, none of them argues against the reality of evolution.

You say “if I understand you correctly, isolation or geography plays a crucial role in speciation.”

That is quite accurate, but we’re talking about reproductive isolation, here, which may be facilitated by, but does not require, physical isolation. We know that humans with a look so different that they were at one time considered a different species (the Neanderthals) probably did not breed frequently with “modern” Homo sapiens; very recent papers even suggest that such attempts were rarely sucessful. However, we have discovered in the last few years that a low percentage of genes in a typical European genome comes from Neanderthals. That’s an exciting discovery, showing that a group that was probably on its way to become its own species was partly “reabsorbed” into the main branch of the family, while the shoot died out. The same happened to a group we know only by its genes, the Denisovans.

As for how isolation occurs in the ocean, another of your interrogations, it occurs the same way it does on land… but probably in an even more pronounced way, because distances are so much greater. Not all marine species migrate all over, and those that do usually do so at specific times of the year and along specific routes. The same holds true for birds who, like fish, could potentially have the capacity to spread evenly all over the globe but do not.

The isolation aspect also makes it very easy to understand why there were no placental mammals in Australia. The continent was isolated before they appeared, carrying only prototherian and metatherian animals with it.

Your third question to Dr. Coyne is as follows: “In your lecture at Harvard, you offered examples of the vas deferens tube location in humans and allegedly vestigial organs as examples of poor “design” by nature. You were using comparative anatomy to form your professional opinion. Yet when someone such as myself suggest that sophisticated innate abilities such as echo-location navigation, observed in both bats and dolphins, offers us an excellent example of brilliantly intelligent design, again using comparative anatomy, the suggestion is met with scorn and ridicule. Why is comparative anatomy useful for you to interpret as evidence of unintelligent design, while more obvious examples of intelligent design are declared a beguiling illusion? Could it be due to your personal bias toward atheism?”

I can’t speak for Dr. Coyne, but in my opinion he’s mostly saying that the idea of a designer idea is less compatible with obvious flaws than is that of natural selection. Biologists love the living world. Biologists are awed by the living world. Biologists take a never-ending pleasure in seeing how well-adapted most species are to their environment. But that some biological systems work so well (even if one skips over the fact that some don’t) is in no way a proof of design. And I really, really don’t know how comparative anatomy is supposed to help the designer argument; if anything, it would seem to do the opposite. Take the dolphin, for example, and its echolocation capacities. These capacities are shared by many cetaceans, as would be expected from common descent and similar ways of life. In some species they are very efficient, in others less so; in all cases, they do seem to provide an advantage. These echolocation skills are not shared with sharks, though. Furthermore, they seem to make dolphins susceptible to certain perturbations that send them beaching themselves; certainly an omnipotent designer would have made a better sonar, or one that doesn’t go on the fritz? Let’s consider two possible sources for the appearance of design: either the refinement of a form or function that increase a creature’s chance to pass its genes to further generations, which is what biologists think is jhappening, or outright design. The first view is very tolerant of less than perfect systems, even if with time we expect that they should have the chance to get better an better at what they do; the second view logically demands immediate perfection (at least if the designer is all-powerful and all-knowing). Meanwhile, we have human eyes that do a bang-up jobs at allowing us to see, but that have photoreceptors pointing the wrong way, that are prone to presbytia, glaucoma, detached retina and cataracts… A successful enough “design”, but not one that couldn’t be made better. And of course, there is the matter of knowing all the possible intermediates between a single-cell photoreceptor and a fully working camera-like eye. The “small improvements” idea is just simpler, because even if it requires more knowledge to be reached, it doesn’t present a logical dilemma.

Your fourth question is the least contentious one, because it deals with matters that lie outside of evolutionary biology. “Until life exists, how can it evolve?”

The answer is, of course, “it can’t”. Evolutionary theory is not concerned with abiogenesis, although its principles do apply to the evolution of increasingly-efficient unliving replicators (such as self-replicating nucleic acids) that may, in time, acquire characteristics that we associate with living creatures. Such is the power of the natural selection concept: in a population of replicators that can accumulate mutations, the replicators that gain a replicative advantage will, by definition, replicate better.

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I’m not convinced that the theory of evolution is the supreme achievement of human intellect, personally, although I understand the enthusiasm shown here. I’m pretty sure that general relativity is even more impressive, although I don’t truly understand it for lack of sufficient mathematical skills. I do believe the theory of evolution trumps flight, space travel, the wheel and the computer, though, because these remarkable technological achievements do not really change the way we think about ourselves or our place in the universe. (Calculus, the periodic table, the heliocentric theory or the big bang theory would be in the same league as natural selection, though, as far as I’m concerned. They redefine reality).

Life can’t evolve until it exists. That is true. But that’s like saying a cake can’t exist until it is baked. We do know that life evolves, and going backward in time we see how today’s organisms descended from previous life forms, all the way to an era with no plants, no animals, no eukaryote, even, and at some point very likely no bacteria. What came before? Although these Ur-ancestors left no fossils, we can make educated guesses. The discovery of self-replicating molecules is not a proof, but offers a possible explanation. The sad thing is that we may never be totally sure, despite a lot of plausible hypotheses; there might be things that are so far removed from us in terms of time and space that the best we can hope for is a credible conjecture buttressed by many facts. But definite certitude? That may not be always attainable. And I’m fine with that. It leaves the door open to new knowledge that may come up eventually. Drawing a line somewhere on the map of our knowledge and writing, instead of “terra incognita”, something like “from here on, it’s magic”, does not strike me as scientific, nor very sensible.

“So, in light of what we know, how can you say that speciation is a fact, when in reality it doesn’t seem to be a particularly good theory?”

Well, because in light of what we do know (and not what you appear to think we know), speciation is a fact, and the evolution of species by means of natural selection is a ridiculously good theory. I’m sorry to say it so bluntly, but that’s the way it is. It is such a good theory, in fact, that all of modern biology stands on it.

I hope this will have proven useful, and thank you for maintaining an inquisitive attitude.

Thank you, Dr. Leblanc for taking the time to write your thought-provoking response.

It seems that in your opinion, I failed to show proper deference to Dr. Coyne. I’m truly sorry if I gave you that impression. Perhaps the strong sentiments of derision and ridicule Dr. Coyne has expressed against religious beliefs likewise tainted my confidence in his ability to produce unbiased science.

The truth is that I do respect the work of scientists. I also respect medical doctors.

However, an advanced degree does not make one infallible.  Doctors and scientists are human beings just like me, and similarly capable of mistakes.

True stories: Twice in my life, I’ve received horribly inaccurate medical diagnoses. Once I had one doctor mistakenly claim that a relatively simple eye infection was caused by flesh-eating bacteria.

Another doctor once told me that he thought I might have leukemia.

Thank God, both were wrong. Nobody’s perfect, believe me. I quickly learned to trust, but also verify.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it seems that you agree my understanding of the science behind evolution theory was accurate on the major points of contention.

I’m supposed to simply trust the pontifications of Dr. Coyne, because you say he’s right. You also said that biology is not concerned with the hypothesis called abiogenesis.

In respectful disagreement, I wrote a separate blog piece explaining specifically why abiogenesis is important in the Big Picture.

Your protest to the contrary has been duly noted. But using your same cake analogy to illustrate my objections, the problem with accepting speciation on face value is that it is like saying a cake can exist without worrying about where you’ll find the eggs, milk, sugar, flour, cake pan, and the oven.

I prefer not to make bold assumptions that the necessary ingredients will magically appear on cue without the benefit of solid evidence to support such conjecture.

Dr. Leblanc, you’ve made it clear that the consensus of biologists has accepted speciation as fact. However, that seems to be nothing more than an appeal to authority.

With all due respect, so what? Consensus is not science.

Ironically, you seem to reject the consensus of paleontologists when it comes to the evidence used to support punctuated equilibrium theory. So, am I left to assume that consensus is only acceptable until it disagrees with your perspective?

You wrote that I was correct in my basic understanding of evolution theory, but insinuated that I’m completely wrong in the conclusions I have drawn. Presumably I am to defer to indoctrination by the “experts.”

I’ve already replied in another post introducing the Big Picture to your remarks about my fourth point, that life cannot evolve until it exists. There’s no need to belabor the issue since you’ve conceded that very important point.

Surprisingly, you seemed to take offense at the idea that I would ask a trained and presumably expert biologist specific questions about biology, his alleged field of expertise.

Should I be asking questions about space travel instead?

You wrote “evolution of species by means of natural selection is a ridiculously good theory” but frankly, offered no new evidence that Dr. Coyne failed to mention in Why Evolution is True.

Unfortunately, my understanding of speciation theory did not improve. Because you conceded that the parts of speciation theory I recounted from my understanding were accurate, I feel confident that if someone were to supply the missing information, I would be able to comprehend it.

When I specifically asked for the missing ingredient in speciation that allows a single, rat-like ancestor to morph into every known species of mammal within the last 200 million years, you gave me yeast and MYH16. No offense, Dr. Leblanc, but that doesn’t begin to answer my question.

With all due respect, I’m not demanding that you explain the speciation that allowed a turnip and a turtle to share common ancestry. I’d be perfectly happy if you could explain why lions and zebras split from a common ancestor. Both animals are mammals if I’m not mistaken, so both animals must have differentiated from the same rat. less than 200 million years ago, if evolution is true.

One to hunt, and the other to potentially become dinner. And, we still have mice, rats, elephants, dolphins, whales, dogs, cats, leopards, giraffes all related to that same mammalian LUCA.

In short, Dr. Leblanc, why does the food chain exist? That seems to be the real mystery behind speciation. Which came first, the cotton rat or the cotton plant?

Nevertheless, let’s concentrate on the first three issues that specifically involve evolution.

You began your letter to me by asserting that I approach the existential questions with a creationist/ID mindset. No problem.

It would be somewhat dishonest for me to suggest otherwise. After all, for two years I wrote online as the Atlanta Creationism Examiner. As long as we acknowledge that “your” argument, or the one of Coyne and Dawkins, is motivated by an atheist/pure materialism philosophy, I think that’s fair.

But please, don’t claim what Coyne or Dawkins preach is pure and untainted science. These men are both hardcore atheists, first and foremost. At the end of his Harvard lecture, Dr. Coyne openly admitted his beliefs have been shaped by his Marxist/socialist/atheist philosophy.

In his convoluted, pure materialist view of the world, Jerry Coyne would have you believe there is no such thing as moral responsibility. Because morality can only come from God, Dr. Coyne simply rejects the possibility and any evidence that might contradict his world view without giving the evidence any consideration.

There is where we differ.

You appear to have gotten the impression that I “counterattacked” Dr. Coyne because of my own animus about his views on religion. Let me reassure you; I asked my questions because I sincerely want to know if there was a real answer.

I could believe in theistic evolution, if only it were true. It would be much easier than inventing a new theory to fit all of the scientific evidence.

I’m diligently looking for that biological example like Kate the fertile mule for clear evidence of theistic speciation that gives some insight into how the phenomena is possible. I’m specifically seeking evidence that might refute my philosophy I’ve been calling iterative creation.

Biologists say transitional species; I say prototypes. And I’d be more than happy to justify that claim.

Now, since you mentioned the work of Sean Carroll, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that my experience has been to read about his work in theoretical physics. I am somewhat familiar with his “Arrow of Time” hypothesis about the multiverse and even find parts of it useful.

However, in a panel discussion on atheism, Dr. Carroll somewhat brazenly made the assertion that he knew what happened when we die.

Keep in mind, in this same conversation, Dr. Carroll said that we have to distinguish between proof and warranted belief. He also said that he was as certain that God did not exist as he was the sun would rise in the east the following day. He said a number of things on which we agreed, and then made statements I was absolutely sure he was wrong to make.

So, I wrote Dr. Carroll an email, asking him to explain what he thinks will happen when he dies since he claimed to know. When I asked if he was familiar with scientific evidence of corroborated veridical NDE perceptions, to my disappointment but no great surprise, Dr. Carroll boldly stated that he had no need to investigate claims that violated the laws of physics.

However, we are asked to blindly accept speciation theory as a fact, when in reality it violates the known “laws” of modern biology.We are expected to blindly assume that this universe arose from literally nothing, that dirt and chemicals became a living organism, because someone else said so. There is no “one size fits all” solution to life.

Unfortunately, polyploidy only seem to occur in limited species: namely plants, fish, and some amphibians. You seem willing enough to discuss the negative evidence used to attack belief in God but refuse to consider the positive evidence I can offer to support my counterargument.

When I ask you to consider the implications of what you blindly believe due to a consensus of your peers, you declared that physics and chemistry is not your concern, yet you rely on them to produce the biology you study.

With all due respect, in order to make any audacious claims about the nonexistence of God, you have to concern yourself with the Big Picture. You have to allow yourself to at least consider the possibility that God does exist.

My argument has never been that speciation is flat-out impossible. Virtually any idea you can have is theoretically possible. My counterargument is concerned with not the impossible, but which is more probable? I’ve got great evidence, but no one seems to care.

Admittedly your “croco-duck” would satisfy the issues that prevent my blind acceptance of speciation theory, but there’s no need to produce anything so dramatic. I’d settle for proper identification and explanation of the biological processes that allow dogs to split from wolves, or even how houseflies and horseflies share common ancestry.

Nothing fancy.

But sadly, you give me multiple species of yeast.

The splitting event of speciation itself remains a nothing but a glossed over detail. This creates the distinct impression in my mind that you believe something has happened without the faintest idea of how it might have worked. My point is simple; perhaps it is too simple.

If the mule, liger, zedonk, or wholphin weren’t biological dead-ends, speciation theory might actually be believable. From what you’re telling me, the ability to observe the type of speciation I need to see to accept that it happens without divine intervention simply isn’t possible in the time frames we have available.

Implying that “evolution deniers” are too stupid to understand how evolution works and the argument from majority opinion might cow some opposition into silence, but I am stubborn enough to resist any argument based purely on superior intellect–especially until it’s been proved.

Bluster and bravado aren’t enough to convince me. I need provable facts.

Author Sam Harris recently wrote a book insisting that free will is nothing but an illusion, echoing many of the absurd, unsubstantiated claims made by academia regarding neuroscience. In light of the clear, incontrovertible evidence of brain-free consciousness, his argument becomes utter nonsense.

Therefore, Harris insists that corroborated veridical NDE perceptions are actually hallucinations. When exactly did hallucinations become confused with accurate memories? The only way to justify such an egregious mistake is to refuse to investigate the claim.

Yet I am the one called a denier of truth. Quid est veritas?

You ask why I feel brazen enough to challenge Dr. Coyne in his specific field of expertise. I must admit, I refuse to genuflect before any other human being.

While I do respect the fact Dr. Coyne has earned a doctorate and written a best-selling book that claims to explain why evolution is true, I also recognize the fact he isn’t immune to making extraordinarily claims about religion in particular. If his bias can lead to clear mistakes in his understanding of religion, why not evolution?

Having read his book and watched several of his lectures, it seemed rather obvious that Dr. Coyne simply glossed over the most important details regarding speciation–for example, how did phyla come into existence? Why is there a food chain? How did complex systems like the central nervous system and respiratory system evolve from simpler organisms with different body plans, and why?

I’m not afraid to consider the possibility you could be correct about speciation theory, which is why I asked questions and read books purportedly describing the processes called evolution.

What I don’t understand is why you and others in the scientific community appear to be afraid of considering the possibility that intermediate species were created prototypes rather than beneficial but accidental mutations?

In your comment, you mentioned the possibility that humans descended from Neanderthals. Been there, done that.

If this shape-shifting you have suggested actually does occur, then man is not only related to the chimpanzee and the bonobo ape, but also to the banana we both like to eat. This common ancestry was solely performed through the biological process of sexual reproduction, simply when given enough time.

Assuming for a moment this degree of shape-shifting you take for granted is theoretically possible, the questions how? and why? immediately come to mind. This is usually when the “environmental niche” card gets played.

At this point in the conversation, I’m always reminded of a Monty Python skit about Harold the flying sheep. The interesting thing is, sheep do not so much fly as plummet.

In my simplistic, non-biologist way of thinking, speciation is only possible one of two ways. Either two members of the same species mate, or two members of different species mate. The offspring must be fertile and reproduce. There doesn’t seem to be a third option.

You and I seem to agree that the only way speciation can occur is if an isolated breeding population of an existing species either splits off or morphs into a different species.

In my book I made it clear that it doesn’t matter if you blindly want to believe Darwin’s theory. If you seek answers to existential questions, you soon realize that the question of how modern species came to exist only provides a piece of a puzzle, not the whole Big Picture.

If you can’t ever reach the point where life diversifies without invoking a God to create the universe or animate matter, speciation becomes a mere detail of how things may or may not have been implemented.

True, scientific tests tell us that the earth is several billion years old, and the universe much older. However, the fossil record also tells us that life hasn’t been around in abundance for billions of years, and multiple mass extinctions cut down on the amount of time new species emerge.

While time does solve some evolutionary problems, it creates the problem of the coelacanth. The exact same process that theoretically describes the rapid (in geologic terms) emergence of new species as well as stasis. The “rules” for rates of evolutionary change appear to be quite similar to the rules suggested by Butch Cassidy in a knife fight.

Evolution can’t predict that everything will happen. Well, if it does, then the theory becomes useless. Anything goes.

I can understand how Jack Horner can look at a chicken and think he sees a modern relative of Archeopteryx. I just don’t understand how he could claim to know for a fact that chickens evolved from dinosaurs.

If the processes of evolution are not directed, then basic statistical analysis dictates that a normal distribution of mutations would occur. Some would be beneficial, some deleterious, and some neutral.

That factor alone makes Darwin’s assumption of slow, gradual, almost relentless change most attractive.

However, the fossil record, with clear evidence of mass extinctions and numerous examples of stasis, makes punctuated  equilibrium theory appear far more attractive. Gould wanted to have it both ways, to be sure.

There seems to be a lot of “because of it can” sort of answers necessary to accept evolution as fact.

Forgive me for noticing, but it seems that you don’t really have any problems with my basic recitation of the alleged facts of evolution, but my interpretation of them.

I don’t have any problem acknowledging that the uniqueness of Australian species gives some credence to your argument that isolation is the key ingredient in the success of  speciation. However, I’ve got plenty of even better evidence to support my comprehensive argument that I call iterative creation.

I don’t deny the pure materialist argument can be made. My counterargument is that the pure materialist argument is fatally flawed. Corroborated veridical NDE perceptions, or brain-free consciousness, would utterly defeat the materialist argument, if true.

Our third point of contention was evidence of intelligent design versus evidence of design flaws. You claim that whale bones in fins mimic hand bones well enough to assume common ancestry.

That is a possibility, but why do you assume it to be the only alternative? There is ample evidence that many of your colleagues, in their own words, admit that the alternative, some form of creation, is simply “unthinkable.”

And that is the only reason for their disbelief.

 

Characteristics of an intelligently designed world

Cinderella_Castle7Over 47 square miles in diameter and with more than 35,000 total employees, Disney World in Orlando can be described as a miniature, intelligently designed artificial world.

The main thing this alternate reality lacks is free will. Nothing is free in Disney World.

It costs about $90 just to walk through the security gates. A cheap plastic sword or plate of nachos are both $7. Mickey Mouse has many mouths to feed.

One cannot help but marvel at the forethought and planning invested into this massive entertainment complex. There was a lot of hard work making the Magic Kingdom a magical experience for a young child.

No one could possibly question that intelligent design was at work.

Frankly, I wish I’d paid more attention in my Management Science class at UGA, so I might more fully appreciate the skill exhibited at queuing people in lines and shuttling them around to desired destinations. The temptation to walk serpentine still lingers, days after our return home.

Disney elevated the basic amusement park experience to an art form.

The variety and quality of transportation was very impressive. There are regular buses, shuttle buses, boats, moving sidewalks, and of course, the Monorail system. Disney knows how to attract customers as well as distributing them to their desired destinations.

The attention to detail from Disney is unparalleled. Special accommodations have been made for handicapped customers on every ride. Even boat rides such as The Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and It’s a Small World have special boats outfitted to handle wheelchairs.

Every effort is made to accommodate special needs for any customer. The priorities at Disney World seem to be fairly straightforward.

Safety comes first. Nobody gets seriously hurt, especially the visitors.

Friendliness comes next. Cast members are trained to exhibit extraordinary courtesy–employees at Disney are trained to think of themselves as “cast members”. They are performers, not workers.

The total focus in Disney World is on maximizing the customer’s entertainment experience.

There is a huge fireworks display every night as well as a lit and decorated boat float parade, characters greeting children in the street, and of course, all the rides that remind visitors of all the Disney animated movies that made the company famous.

Truthfully, with few exceptions, the actual rides aren’t that much different than those you might find at other high-quality amusement parks.

Either a you ride in some form of car attached to arms that raise and lower from a central unit that spins in a circle, a boat, or on some form of roller coaster. It’s nothing fancy, except for the animatronic robots representing famous Disney characters. The rides are named for characters in famous Disney movies.

There’s Peter Pan’s Flight, Winnie the Pooh, Aladdin’s Magic Carpet ride, Ariel’s Under the Sea Adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean, Dumbo, Gaston’s Tavern, and of course, Cinderella’s castle.

That attention to little details is what separates Disney from other amusement parks. It’s a theme park. While you wait in line, there are plenty of amusing distractions to entertain the kids.

The touch-screen “dripping honey” signs at the Winnie-the-Pooh were as interesting than the ride itself. Space Mountain offered arcade-style video games when the lines grew too long.

Of course, with the Fast Pass line reservation option, lines to the best rides never get too long. You just had to use a strategy to maximize the benefit of the technology made available.

However, the true genius of Disney can be seen in their planning. They have devised practically every conceivable way to separate visitors from their money.

Every rides exits through a gift shop.

Really big and very small numbers

One wealthy rodent...

One wealthy rodent…

During my recent sojourn in Disney World, I began thinking about really big numbers as I tried to calculate the total value of that enterprise as a whole.

I knew the Magic Kingdom theme park was built in the early 1970s, at the cost of roughly $331 million dollars.

More than two decades later, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park was added at the cost of a cool $1 billion.

Epcot cost about $1.4 billion to construct, more than twice its estimated budget.

Golf courses, hotels, shopping malls, Hollywood studios, infrastructure: it was pretty easy to estimate the net worth of the forty-seven square mile intelligently designed world of alternate reality would run into the hundreds of billions, perhaps as much as $1 trillion dollars.

Mickey Mouse is worth a considerable amount of money.

We’re talking about some really big numbers.

Given the fact that advocates of evolution seem to frequently argue that I fail to grasp the significance of a really big number, as I rode around on the monorail and pondered the value of Walt Disney World, the idea for writing this article popped into my head while I watched a river of cash flow through the Magic Kingdom.

If only that were the case…I almost wish that I couldn’t grasp the concept of a really big number.

After all, ignorance can be bliss. The sad truth is that I’m constantly worried about big numbers.

I’m painfully aware that the amount of outstanding federal debt for the United States is currently well over $16 trillion dollars. Granted, it is more money than I’ve ever seen, but the numbers do follow a logical progression from thousands to millions, billions and trillions.

Just because I don’t have it doesn’t mean I can’t imagine it.

Of course, the big numbers of evolution don’t involve money, but time. We aren’t talking about millions and billions of dollars, but years.

Blog reader Andrey Pavlov recently speculated that big numbers were causing me problems accepting evolution theory when he commented, [all emphasis original]

Yes, a finch growing a larger beak over the course of a few hundred years may seem trivial, but give those very same processes MILLIONS and BILLIONS of years and the effects can – and are – truly astronomical and amazing. The Cambrian explosion is not a “mystery” to evolutionary biologists in the sense that deniers would wish it were. It is a mystery because we find a spurt of speciation indicating to us that a novel fitness peak was reached which allowed for the spurt and must have spread far and wide. What exactly that fitness peak was is a “mystery” which solving would give us further insight into life; was it a new protein fold? a new protein motif? a new way of handling superoxides produced in oxidative phosphorylation? an environmental change? all of these? Deniers like to frame it as a “sudden” event, an “explosion” such that natural processes could not account for it – it was much to “quick” ergo goddidit. But something on the order of 70-80 MILLION years is sudden only from a geological sense – not from any other reasonable sense. With a new fitness peak in play that is indeed ample time for significant speciation to occur and hardly “sudden” in the sense used by deniers of evolution.

The intuitive sense of how big is “big” and how big something can get (or how old something is) tends to be VERY misleading. Dr. Sam Harris made an excellent point where he asked a simple question: If you take a piece of A4 paper and fold it in half, and then fold the halves successively 25 times, how thick would the subsequent piece of paper be? (In other words, 25 successive doublings of the thickness). For my example, I’ll assume very thin paper of only 0.1mm in thickness.

Have the answer you think is right? How much would you like to bet you are in the right ballpark? Or even the right order of magnitude?

If you guessed “More than 100,000 LIGHTYEARS thick” then your intuition may be better than I gave you credit for. Yes, in doing the math you find that 0.1mm folded in half 25 times (0.1mm*10^25) is, in fact, 105,702.341 light years thick.

But I digress.

To expound on something you wrote on Mr. Leblanc about development which I believe is also missed by many naysayers of evolutionary theory. PZ Myers said it well that genes are not a BLUEPRINT for an animal but a RECIPE. What does this mean? I can give you a blueprint for an angel food cake and you can reproduce it. I can give you another for a pound cake and you could reproduce that. Or a souffle. But if you asked the ingredients – the “genes” of the cake, if you will – you find they are nearly the same – flour, sugar, butter, water, eggs, etc. Yet vastly different “forms” arise because you use the ingredients in different proportions, mix them differently, and bake them differently. Throwing in minor changes (berries or chocolate) can also yield significantly different outcomes.

And THAT is what speciation is and discovering that is yet more evidence to support evolution rather than design.

Lastly, I’ll expound that reproductive isolation not only needn’t arise from geographical isolation or from changes in the environment, but can arise because of an already existing environmental niche that simply hasn’t been exploited yet. Land being a prime and primary example. It is almost certain life arose in the seas – the land was always there. It didn’t suddenly appear and nor did the seas suddenly disappear in order to drive selection pressure for land animals. It was merely that life became sufficiently capable to be able to expand to land and resources and competition sufficiently scarce in the sea that a new niche was taken advantage of. And once that began – slowly at first, with cautious and temporary forays onto land – a whole new environment of niches arose to be exploited.

Okay…if I may, in the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson, “Well, allow me to retort.”

Unfortunately, you mention the use of misleading language, and then proceed to describe the width of paper in terms of light years, bizarrely asserting that the speed of light would be an intuitive and translatable standard measurement preferable to millimeters or fractions of an inch, a unit of measurement that almost everyone should easily comprehend.

That argument, I freely admit, I didn’t get.

You might get away with calling light years a “clever” but nebulous metric, certainly not intuitive as the means by which to measure the width of a piece of paper.

In fact, the exercise began by stipulating the width of unfolded paper as .01 millimeters thick.

On the other hand, I’m fairly sure that I do understand the concept of a light year.as well as the use of very large and quite small numbers, in proper context of my Big Picture.

For example, I do understand the interpretation of the scientific evidence used to make such a claim, similar to what Dr. Coyne wrote in Why Evolution is True when he suggested a new species could emerge only once every 200 million years, and modern life would exist.

If the fossil record indicated that complex life was present on earth billions of years ago, that claim might be true.

However, very few multi-cellular organisms existed prior to the Cambrian Explosion, which occurred 530 million years ago, not “billions” as suggested.

Whether intentional or not, Dr. Coyne has obviously created a false impression. If speciation truly occurs, it must happen within the span of few million years at most.

That’s still more time than humans can live to observe so, according to the definition by Karl Popper, speciation theory cannot be falsified. That would seem to demote the theory the status of a philosophy, unless we “cheat” and classify diversification within the genome of an existing species as the creation of a new species.

Regrettably, Mr. Pavlov, you apparently don’t have the time that you think you do.

If the scientific evidence can be trusted, speciation has really only been taking place since the Cambrian Explosion. Before that remarkable event, LUCA mostly remained a single-celled organism that simply replicated.

I don’t try to deny or diminish any of the evidence, Mr. Pavlov. I only try to make sense of it and understand what it might mean.

I do believe that the Cambrian Explosion is significant–not because I say so, but because the experts in their field do. In Counterargument for God, you won’t find any shortage of quotes from experts in their respective fields.

If the paleontologists are correct in their consensus, every major phyla that has ever existed in the history of the earth appeared within a relatively brief 15 million year time span during the Cambrian Explosion.

While consensus does not make good science, it is useful to frame the argument and gauge the potential strength of the counterargument. That’s an incredibly condensed span of geologic time, especially in context of the Big Scheme of Things.

The first creatures formed according to those body plans may have come and gone, but the basic body plans remain the same, 500 million years later.

To be perfectly clear: my counterargument is not that evolution is utterly impossible, but to say that application of the theory proves remarkably improbable compared to the only real alternative. Either a series of highly unlikely occurrences all happened due to serendipitous good fortune, or supernatural intelligence served as the catalyst.

The amount of time available for evolution’s diversity becomes compressed by multiple mass extinctions. If the paleontologists can be trusted, over ninety percent of the existing terrestrial animal population was decimated by the Permian extinction event that occurred only 250 million years ago.

If almost every modern species evolved since the last extinction, every living organism we can observe emerged within the last 65 million years.

Dinosaurs allegedly came and went in the span of 150 million years, either becoming extinct or they allegedly shape-shifted into completely different organisms. Yet horseshoe crabs have remained the same since the Permian Extinction. There is no rhyme or reason to the rate of evolutionary change.

The reason Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge proposed punctuated equilibrium theory is that the impression created by neo-Darwinist beliefs simply doesn’t match the fossil record. In short, you don’t have nearly the time you think. If evolution is really true, it most likely occurs as a jerky, episodic event as opposed to a smooth and gradual process.

Goldschmidt didn’t propose his hopeful monster hypothesis because he didn’t like Darwin. He was forced to accommodate the scientific evidence he saw in the fossil record.

However, I would never argue that evolution, or change, is impossible.

Instead, my counterargument is that DNA manipulation by some form of supernatural intelligence is much more plausible than undirected good luck. As I make clear in Counterargument for God, even if you believe natural selection has nothing to do with luck, the Big Bang and abiogenesis cannot be described without liberal use of the word.

My concern is that you don’t have a true appreciation for the significance with the really small numbers associated with the probability involved with our existential questions.  I’m talking about the statistical probability that evolution really is true.

This value is created by compounding the probability of each scientific theory necessary to see the Big Picture. Please allow me to explain.

Physicist Sir Martin Rees once calculated the statistical probability of our universe coming into existence as something along the lines of 1 in 10 to the 300th power.

When he was alive, Douglas Adams might have said that such a number was so small it was mind-boggling.

In other words, the probability that the Big Bang was the result of fortuitous accident, yet produced our fine-tuned universe, is astronomically low.

Because evolution requires the Big Bang to occur, the probability that speciation occurs without the assistance of supernatural intelligence can be no greater than the probability of a Big Bang that accidentally produced a universe allegedly “just right for life,” at least here on Earth.

In other words, the probability of the Big Bang and speciation may as well be the same, though arguably the probability of speciation is even lower because the improbabilities of the Big Bang and abiogenesis compound.

Technically, the relative probability of speciation without supernatural intelligence is adversely affected by the improbabilities associated with the origin of the universe and the origin of life. However, after the Big Bang, the improbability of random chance as a satisfactory answer becomes so low it’s hardly worth adjusting the numbers further.

We can’t truly comprehend the significance of numbers that small, that close to absolute zero.

The argument that the Big Bang and speciation have absolutely nothing to do with each other is completely fallacious and fatally flawed. The theories have everything to do with each other, for one simple reason.

Life cannot evolve until it exists. Life cannot exist without a universe capable of supporting life.

Though Dr. Leblanc protested that the origin of matter didn’t matter to the theory of evolution, his argument is a non sequitur. After all, he first admits that life can’t evolve before it exists.

To say that evolution has no requirement to examine the hypothesis of abiogenesis is like saying the theory of chicken has nothing to do with the egg.

 

A brief glimpse of the Big Picture

Counter_cover_smLife cannot evolve until it exists.

When I recently made that point during a series of questions I asked in another post, Dr. Benoit Leblanc responded by writing,

Your fourth question is the least contentious one, because it deals with matters that lie outside of evolutionary biology. “Until life exists, how can it evolve?”

The answer is, of course, “it can’t”. Evolutionary theory is not concerned with abiogenesis, although its principles do apply to the evolution of increasingly-efficient unliving replicators (such as self-replicating nucleic acids) that may, in time, acquire characteristics that we associate with living creatures. Such is the power of the natural selection concept: in a population of replicators that can accumulate mutations, the replicators that gain a replicative advantage will, by definition, replicate better.

To his credit, Dr. Leblanc made the effort to respond, though he conceded my point while simultaneously suggesting he and his colleagues don’t care that the spontaneous origin of life was a wildly improbable anomaly, at best

With all due respect and while I’m sure Dr. Leblanc is considerably more knowledgeable about evolutionary biology than me, I cannot begin to fathom how he could possibly make the statement that evolution theorists could be completely unconcerned about the hypothesis called abiogenesis while simultaneously agreeing with Dr. Coyne’s assertion that evolution theory is true, beyond any question or reproach.

Quid est veritas?

What is the purpose of studying science?

Is it to cherry-pick from the evidence that helps you win an argument about whether or not God exists, or to gain better understanding of our world while seeking truth?

Frankly, if bullheadedly cherry-picking only evidence that fits a certain template were truly copacetic, it would be very easy for someone like me to simply be a Young Earth Creationist.

I could always choose to ignore the wealth of information obtained by radiometric dating ancient rocks and artifacts and observations made through careful examination of evidence in the fossil record.

But it would be utter denial to ignore that such evidence exists. If the objective of the exercise is to seek the truth in regard to our existential questions, there’s nothing to be gained by denying the fact that dinosaurs once ruled the earth, and it was almost certainly more than six thousand years ago.

The earth is probably a little more than 4.5 billion years ago; the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, assuming scientists can be trusted with their dating techniques.

On the other hand, if the only objective is to win an argument about evolution theory by any means necessary, then it does make sense to ignore the origin of life. It’s a difficult problem that complicates the exclusion of God in later-occurring diversification.

You don’t have to learn everything about chemistry to understand the problems of abiogenesis. You can simply ask the experts, like I have tried to do.

A biased stance against learning the real truth would be so transparently dishonest that it would bother me. The deliberate exclusion of pertinent information doesn’t seem to qualify as legitimate science. It’s nothing more than advocacy. But of what?

Atheism, apparently.

For any serious attempt to tackle the existential questions to succeed, one must have at least a superficial understanding about both the origin of matter and its initial animation.

Otherwise, you’re simply assuming that not one but two dramatic miracles occurred.

This universe was literally created from absolutely nothing.

Then six billion bits of information, the “source code” molecule we call DNA, spontaneously organized itself in the midst of total chaos and formed the first living organism, LUCA, an acronym for Last Universal Common Ancestor.

If supernatural intelligence played no role in our existence, LUCA evolved into all plants and animals, simply by means of isolated sexual reproduction, if given enough time for change to occur.

As a visual aid, the following expression was developed to assist the reader in gaining appreciation of the required scientific theories and hypotheses for the success of our Big Picture:

Life = Big Bang + abiogenesis + speciation + natural selection

The final two theories depicted in the Big Picture equation, are often referred to collectively as “evolution” theory.

My point is fairly simple and straightforward—to accept the purely secular, materialistic version of evolution presented by Coyne, Dawkins, and their ilk, one must begin by assuming the success of not just one, but two extraordinary miracles, with the mere possibility of the second miracle predicated on the success of the first.

This universe magically appeared out of absolute nothingness–an extraordinary concept to even attempt to convey. After all, one is tempted to substitute “thin air” for “absolute nothingness” but that would be grossly incorrect. Not even air existed, prior to the Big Bang.

From nothing came not only something, but this universe.

Then, and only after the successful origin of this particular universe with all the necessary ingredients “just right” for life, could inanimate matter become animated.

Life cannot evolve, until it exists. Period.

The Big Bang, abiogenesis, and evolution are all part of the Big Picture.

 

The best possible experience at Walt Disney World

For a relatively modest donation to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, you can scuba dive or snorkel for several hours in the Living Seas Disney aquarium at Epcot.

It is the second largest aquarium in the world, only surpassed in size only by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

After some mild trepidation at the idea of swimming with sharks, the grand kids had a blast. Admittedly, it was comforting to know the sharks are hand fed every morning, first thing.

You can have the experience of a lifetime and help save an injured manatee at the same time.

How sweet can it get!

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The second best experience at Disney

Riding Space Mountain with my fearless grandchildren.

Not pictured: my wife, in the seat immediately behind me and screaming at the top of her lungs.

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Smart phones make some people act stupid

Cinderella_Castle7This is the start of a quick flurry of brief posts of observations that I made during our recent visit to Disney World.

Now I want to clear the queue with a few comments that are relatively short and to the point before returning my full attention to a little more serious business.

We had begun an unfinished conversation on evolution shortly before the start of vacation.

I sincerely hope Dr. Leblanc and Andrey Pavlov will find the time to rejoin our conversation, as soon as their schedules permit.

But while vacationing in Orlando, I couldn’t help but notice that smart phones appear to make people act considerably more stupid than they might actually be.

It seems that Disney provides several applications for mobile phones that allow people to know which rides have the fewest people waiting in line, maps to the park with a handy “You are here” feature, which rides offer their “Fast Pass”, etc.

These Disney mobile apps seemed to do just about everything for you except slice the bagel and butter it with cream cheese in the morning.

Unfortunately, these apps proved so useful that many visitors were incapable of taking even a single step without staring at their phones.

It often gave one the sensation of playing bumper cars with human bodies, a particularly unpleasant experience when one is not intimately familiar with the instigator of the collision.

After several attempts to “turn the other cheek” and simply step out of the way, eventually I gave up and revised my park navigation strategy.

When the meanderer in question managed to mirror every evasive step I made like a heating seeking missile, I came up with a bold new plan.

Remembering the sage advice of Vince Lombardi–the best defense is a good offense, I took those words to heart..

Two football moves from the playbook of the old-school running back, the forearm shiv and the stiff arm, came in handy when circumstances necessitated such a drastic preventive measure to avert personal injury.

Smart-phone challenged people were lurking everywhere, wandering like zombies all over the place, without once looking to see where they were going.

Or who might be in their path.