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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Peppered Moths and the Confused IDiots

I'm teaching part of a course on Popular Scientific Misconceptions. In my section we'll be talking about the evolution/creationism controversy and part of the discussion involves analysis of the techniques used by Jonathan Wells to denigrate evolution in his book Icons of Evolution. One of the chapters is Peppered Moths.

Creationists used to love the peppered moth story because they thought the evidence had been refuted by modern science. They were wrong, and most creationists will admit it. Not Jonathan Wells. He says,
Industrial melanism in peppered moths shows that the relative proportions of two pre-existing varieties can change dramatically. This change may be due to natural selection, as most biologists familiar with the story believe. But Kettlewell's evidence for natural selection is flawed., and the actual causes of the change remain hypothetical. As a scientific demonstration of natural selection—as "darwin's missing evidence"—industrial mealanism in peppered moths is no better than alchemy.

Open almost any biology textbook dealing with evolution, however, and you'll find the peppered moth presented as a classical demonstration of natural selection in action—complete with faked photos of moths on tree trunks. This is not science by myth-making.
Unfortunately for poor old Jonathan, the original work of Kettlewell has been replicated and natural selection is the explanation. The creationists were recently dealt a serious blow when Michael Majerus reported the results of his observations on peppered moths to the European Society for Evolutionary Biology. So what do they do now?

Denyse O'Leary thinks there's still propaganda to be made from the peppered moth story so she links to an article from last week that shows the new strategy. Denyse's link is here [Evolution in the light of intelligent design encyclopedia - new entries]. The article by David Tyler is The Peppered Moth: when will Darwinians admit that mistakes have been made?.

I'm going to quote part of David Tyler's article. I swear I'm not making this up.
The concluding words of Majerus' lecture are these: "If the rise and fall of the peppered moth is one of the most visually impacting and easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action, it should be taught. It provides after all: The Proof of Evolution." This quote explains why the issue is still important: Darwinists have always sought to use the peppered moth story as a proof of Darwinian evolution. This is a burden that cannot be carried by the evidence. Even with Majerus' new improved methodology, we have an example of natural selection within the peppered moth population with differential predation being the causal mechanism. It is an extraordinary mental leap to go from this to the origin of novelty, complexity and new body plans - which remain the central challenges for any theory of evolutionary transformation.
Okay, let's take this slowly so that even IDiots like David Tyer and Denyse O'Leary can understand.

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

Richard Dawkins
When people like Majerus talk about evolution they're talking about the process of evolution. In this case he's referring to the process of evolution by natural selection within populations. He is perfectly correct in saying that the peppered moth date is proof that evolution occurs. It's proof of Darwinian evolution.

The problem with the IDiots is that they don't even understand what evolution is. Evolution does not require the creation of new body plans and the peppered moth example does not pretend to account for such things directly. All it does is show that evolution by natural selection is an observable fact.
Is it scientifically defensible to find an example of natural selection within a population of an animal, and then use this as an evidence for evolutionary transformation from the first single cell to the extraordinary diversity of life that we find in the biosphere?
No.
When this simple question is answered with a negative, then we can have a more constructive dialogue.
David, or Denyse, I'm ready whenever you are. To start with, do you understand the minimal definition of evolution [What Is Evolution?]. Get back to me when you do.


[Photo Credit: The photographs are from bill.srnr.arizona. The original source is unknown.]

16 comments :

  1. "The problem with the IDiots is that they don't even understand what evolution is. Evolution does not require the creation of new body plans ... "

    If it is your assertion that evolution as defined by MET is a phenomenon, then I could agree with you. However, the claim that we IDiots reject is the claim of universality; that the theory of naturalistic evolution (MET + other naturalistic explanations not yet discovered) is adequate to explain ALL variety of life from the first reproducing community of chemicals to the biodiversity that is.

    Now we have a problem. Multiple body plans exist. If evolution is responsible for multiple body plans then evolution must be able to explain how multiple body plans came to be.

    If all evolution does is maintain balance between various populations as demonstrated by the peppered moth, then you will find few IDiots who will challenge your position.

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  2. Larry, on the science part I agree with you. I rejected ID several years ago. However, the "IDiot" moniker you use surprises me. It seems that your passion is in showing how science refutes the claim of ID. How does name calling enhance the position which I assume you take, that the scientific method should be used to resolve differences of opinion on matters of science?

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  3. Did you just reject explanations not yet discovered? Ha ha you guys are funny. Very small wonder I have never, NOT ONCE, read an article on uncommondescent that’s about a topic in biology. It's all gibberish, all the time, bush-league rhetoricians who think data inheres in the manipulation of meaning of words in natural language. It doesn’t. There is no scientific data in words like “naturalistic” or “methodological naturalism,” no matter how exquisitely you combine them. When IDiots stop writing taxi-cab philosophy and start producing data, then the scientific community will take them seriously. You ask what is adequate to explain everything? I’ll tell you. Everything combined is adequate to explain everything. In the meantime we have this useful example of one thing, called a model, namely evolution, which can’t provide the metaphysical certainty you crave (because it is a scientific model, not a religious one) but which has helped us enormously to explain and control nature, infinitely more successful than two thousand years of natural theology before it, and which is extraordinarily fecund in the successful research it continues to spawn. Including research into the gaps of evolution. Here’s a question for you. Do you know how many evolutionary biologists know more than bfast and other creationists the problems evolution has to explain “ALL variety of life from the first reproducing community of chemicals to the biodiversity that is?” That’s right, all of them. That’s why they are evolutionary biologists and you aren’t, and why they will ditch evolution when/if there’s a better alternative than the hermeneutics of nothing that ID offers instead, because something is infinitely better than nothing.

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  4. bFast:

    However, the claim that we IDiots reject is the claim of universality; that the theory of naturalistic evolution (MET + other naturalistic explanations not yet discovered) is adequate

    If you had followed he link to the minimal definition, your confusion between definition (and I don't think "MET" is an abbreviation for any biological definition) and mechanisms would been cleared up:

    [The minimal definition] is a good working scientific definition of evolution; one that can be used to distinguish between evolution and similar changes that are not evolution. ...
    Many people are confused about the difference between a definition and an explanation. That's why we often see incorrect "definitions" that describe how natural selection works. This is wrong. In order to be useful, a definition has to enable us to distinguish examples of evolution from non-evolution but the definition should be neutral with respect to how evolution occurs.


    By making this conflation, you are repeating the very mistake that Moran's post points out.

    Another example of evolution is provided by paleontology:

    Paleontologists are one group of scientists who aren't directly concerned with the minimal definition of evolution since they are mostly interested in the history of life. They have to deduce that evolution, in the sense of the minimal definition, has taken place from evidence of phenotypic change in the fossil record.

    So you see, the minimal definition can be used to identify evolution on any level. The discovered mechanisms, what have been found to suffice to explain the fastest evolutionary rates, are mentioned in the linked posts as well.

    Vance:

    ID as a socio-religious movement isn't an opinion on matters of science, it is a rejection of science. Paleyism was found wanting as an explanation for biological phenomena and rejected by science long ago.

    I find it quite an appropriate moniker for an anti-science movement.

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  5. Dave Tyler is a textiles expert who moonlights as a young earth creationist geologist. His big thing is the recolonisation model which has most of the geologic record as post flood:

    http://www.hollings.mmu.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=89&Itemid=156

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  6. Vance asks,

    How does name calling enhance the position which I assume you take, that the scientific method should be used to resolve differences of opinion on matters of science?

    Quite a bit, I imagine. The idea is get the word out that the only people who believe Intelligent Design Creationism are those who suspend rationality. By using the word IDiot I convey that message and focus attention on the problem.

    The quiet explanation of real science has not been very successful over the past few decades. Most people can't follow those arguments. The IDiots have been rejecting science while, at the same time, promoting the idea that they are smarter than the professional scientists. I think the general public needs to hear what scientists really think of the IDiots.

    It's a battle of authorities. The IDiots claim that scientists are liars and cheaters. They want the general public to believe that the fundamental principle of biology—evolution—is false. Scientists must not only be liars but they must be really, really stupid as well. For some reason, a large percentage of the American general public thinks this is possible.

    I think it's time to fight back using the same tactics that have worked so well for them. It seems to be what the public wants to hear since negative ads work so well.

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  7. Stevef says,

    Dave Tyler is a textiles expert who moonlights as a young earth creationist geologist. His big thing is the recolonisation model which has most of the geologic record as post flood:

    Is this really him [David J. Tyler]? Are you certain?

    Do you have a link to his Young Earth Creationist ideas? The one you posted doesn't work.

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  8. I think it's the same person, though I can't be sure. Here's a link to Dave's YEC views on geology, developed when not working on textiles:

    http://www.recolonisation.org.uk/

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  9. I should clarify because I'm not sure it's entirely clear. I'm not sure that the Dave Tyler who's article you critique is the same as the YEC "geologist" (though I think it is). However, Dave Tyler the textiles expert is definately also the YEC "geologist". I used to spar with him regarding geological matters.

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  10. Anonymous, "Did you just reject explanations not yet discovered? Ha ha you guys are funny."

    Had I not suggested future explanations, you likely would have retorted that there was so many variations on the RV+NS theme that haven't been discovered yet.

    If ID, then as long as ID is flatly rejected, much will not be understood by science. In fact, if ID, likely much will never be understood by science whether science accepts ID or not. I know, if science cannot understand it, it must not exist. Oh well.

    Torbjörn Larsson: "MET"
    MET = Modern Evolution Theory. A nice term that covers all of the variations on the RV+NS theme such as horizontal gene transfer.

    "[The minimal definition] is a good working scientific definition of evolution; one that can be used to distinguish between evolution and similar changes that are not evolution."

    The minimal definition, change in allele frequency, only discusses natural selection. Random variation is the other cornerstone of the theory. It remains, however, that because multiple body plans exist, if the theory of evolution is universal, it must explain multiple body plans.

    Larry Moran: "IDiots claim that scientists are liars and cheaters. They want the general public to believe that the fundamental principle of biology—evolution—is false."

    This is incorrect on two fronts. First, we IDiots primarily claim that scientists are closed minded. We accept that the published data is fundimentally valid, as much as any scientific community does.

    Secondly, they want both the general public and the scientific community to see that the fundimental principle of biology-evolution-is incomplete, insufficient.

    The reason that ID is conserned that the general public understand this is because the scientific theory of evolution has the natural consequence of producing a horific moral product. The reason ID is conserned that the scientific community understand is because we believe that science is being stifled by a philosophical alergy to telic explanations.

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  11. The reason that ID is conserned that the general public understand this is because the scientific theory of evolution has the natural consequence of producing a horific moral product. The reason ID is conserned that the scientific community understand is because we believe that science is being stifled by a philosophical alergy to telic explanations.

    bFast, I want to let you in on the exciting secret that evolution does not have the natural consequence of producing a horrific moral product. As a decent person I can understand your concern about this, but you and many others have been misled by the pernicious misuse of the phrase “survival of the fittest”. Various qualities can confer fitness on a population. For humans and many other species, the ability to step back from violence, to be honest, and to share represent fitness, because they help us and our societies have a better chance of succeeding in the long run.

    If undirected evolution is the truth, bFast, and you are a product of it, then it should be obvious to you that it is consistent with and even promotes moral behavior, since almost all humans on earth care deeply about morality.

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  12. "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)"

    About this quote, two things:

    Stupidity: People can do and say stupid things; but truly, most people, including creationists, have normally functioning brains. They are not stupid. This is a frivolous, non-useful bit of Dawkins discourse: Negating PEOPLE on the whole (this never works; Larry makes this mistake often, too)

    Ignorance: Certainly a great factor that enables denying evolution. However, because people are indeed NOT stupid, they at least at some “subconscious” level know that they do not actually know; even if you can drive a car and know some things about it, you know that you don’t know how to fix it and you send your car to the garage to get fixed by someone you trust. Similarly, even though you may deny evolution, and cite several trained scientists who also do this, some part of the creationist brain KNOWS that he is trusting these scientists but that he/she himself actually have at best an only rudimentary understanding of the actual science.

    Wicked: Let me change that word for “dishonesty” and here, we must have absolute clarity. Dawkins is dead wrong in “rather not considering” dishonesty. Phoniness is crucial to understand creationism; however, Dawkins is judgemental about this; creationists are not always knowingly wicked; the first victim of their phoniness is THEM themselves; it is completely possible for people to carry out a life that is untrue unto itself, hypocritical (specially under some pathological religiosity). That is, before they have fooled anyone else, they have fooled themselves. And we should pity them for this. This can be more of a confusion and not true wickedness all the time; This is confusion (though people like Dembski and O’Leary are probably close to wickedness: they have had plenty of time to figure things out)
    Let me put my finger on this: the creationist is not really about science or nature; his main interests are religious and social. The entirety of science is secondary, whether it be evolution or not. And some part of their minds, although almost subconscious, KNOWS this, and knows they have taken part in a discussion without really knowing or caring about the topic. This phoniness is the very essence of the creationist movement; providing a scientific façade for religion. It is dishonest at heart because it is truly not about science, no matter how much does it say it is: It is about GOD.

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  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  14. This is why I believe that if we engage in a "scientific debate" over creationism, we have automatically lost: we are considering lies and misconceptions as scientifically debatable topics. We must not discuss the "facts" scientifically. We KNOW they have no idea what they are talking about. What on earth will you be able to talk about, then? The true versions are already well-stated in the academia. A "rebellion" gets nowhere if nobody pays it attention, and this one has no scientific resonance whatsoever. More like church resonance.

    So, when you happen upon a creationist that maintains falsehoods (without knowing, probably, poor thing), you have two choices; discard interaction (label people as idiots and "throw them away" is a popular way of doing this). Or, if you are feeling generous, try to reason with them into accepting evolution.

    If you want to rationally convince them into atheism, I can't help you. You cannot precisely reason against a matter of faith. Plus, I myself am not interested in evangelizing on atheism. But I think we can make people accept evolution, for the right reasons, too (not framing!).

    Creationists ALWAYS (practically) are religious. I think you should ask them the following question: do you think that if evolution were true, there could be no god? You already KNOW where all their "logical" and "scientific" chains of reasoning lead them to: god!
    The point is to make them face their true motivations and why this will provoke friction with proper science.

    Phew! long comment, sorry about that, probably nobody's going to read it anyway haha.

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  15. bFast:

    MET = Modern Evolution Theory.

    I thought that it was your own invented term. But apart from being uncommunicative, "modern" is redundant.

    The minimal definition, change in allele frequency, only discusses natural selection.

    You really didn't care to read and understand this. The definition doesn't describe mechanisms (in fact, natural selection isn't "discussed" at all) but is a means to distinguish evolution.

    the scientific theory of evolution has the natural consequence of producing a horific moral product.

    Neither the phenomena of evolution (as detected by the minimal definition) nor the theory has any moral implications. Evolution can help us understand aspects of morality (such as altruism), but it doesn't proscribe it. You are making what is known as the old naturalistic fallacy, first described 1903.

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  16. Hey, remember when the Modern Evolutionary Theories won the Series back in '69? Yeah, Tom Seaver sure could drift.

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