[Paleopsych] Skeptical Inquirer: One Longsome Argument

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One Longsome Argument
Skeptical Inquirer March/April 2005

    By any objective measure, the evolution of species ranks among the
    most successful scientific theories ever. So why is the message not
    getting through?

    Dennis R. Trumble

    Charles Darwin liked to describe the origin of species as "one long
    argument," but his extensive treatise in support of biological
    evolution now seems painfully brief compared to the argument that has
    followed in its wake. Indeed, never in the history of science has a
    more prolonged and passionate debate dogged the heels of a theory so
    thoroughly researched and repeatedly validated. And the end is nowhere
    in sight. Despite all evidence to the contrary, a large portion of the
    world's population continues to cling to the belief that human beings
    are fundamentally different from all other life forms and that our
    origins are unique. It's a lovely sentiment to be sure, but how is it
    that so many people continue to be drawn to this thoroughly
    discredited notion?

    Like most mystic mindsets, creationist beliefs are normally instilled
    at an early age, nurtured by well-meaning parents and sustained by
    religious organizations whose vested leaders are traditionally loath
    to amend church doctrine in the face of emergent scientific facts.
    Though seemingly antithetic to the inquisitive nature of our species,
    the rote acceptance of received wisdom has been a hallmark of human
    culture almost from the get-go, arising initially as a benign
    behavioral adaptation geared to promote the rapid transfer of communal
    survival skills to our young hominid forebears. It was only with the
    advent of modern civilization that this age-old habit finally began to
    outlive its usefulness and yield serious negative consequences-most
    notably by granting gratuitous momentum to all kinds of ill-conceived
    notions about how the world is "supposed" to work. Today, this surge
    of ideological inertia remains a surprisingly powerful force, pushing
    beliefs as impossibly anachronistic as geocentrism and flat-Earth
    cosmology past the ramparts of the enlightenment to foul the fringes
    of modern thought.

    Fortunately, unlike the veiled forces that impart momentum to
    particles of mass, the impulse that propels incongruous ideas from one
    generation to the next is fairly transparent at its base. After all,
    youngsters imprinted with self-flattering beliefs are understandably
    reluctant to amend them later in life owing to the special status and
    privileges they bestow. And once someone has grown accustomed to the
    hollow pleasures of this egocentric world view, it's easy to see how
    these inflated beliefs would come to be shielded from the prickly
    barbs of reason by a panoply of family, friends and other like-minded
    folks, all of whom harbor the same inscrutable notions (mystery loves

    Although this perpetual pattern of natal indoctrination and communal
    reassurance does not begin to encompass the full psychosocial breadth
    of this phenomenon-especially where adult converts are concerned-it
    does go a long way toward explaining the inordinate longevity of
    creationist mythology and why so many intelligent, well-educated, and
    otherwise rational people appear unable to step back and examine
    certain beliefs with a critical eye. Because creationist beliefs are
    both deeply rooted and profoundly comforting, it isn't hard to
    understand why certain people feel compelled to enlist any and all
    means at their disposal to discredit Darwin's theory. Nor is it
    difficult to imagine the sense of frustration they must feel when
    repeatedly told by scientists that their arguments are fundamentally

    Problem is, most folks-including many of the more learned among
    us-don't understand the basic workings of science well enough to
    appreciate how feeble the arguments against evolution really are. If
    they did, they would realize that the scientific process is not about
    gathering data to prove a favored hypothesis but instead involves the
    testing of ideas against the totality of real-world observations.
    Creationists turned amateur scientists almost always fail to grasp
    this essential scientific precept and so unwittingly launch from false
    premises all kinds of pseudoscientific arguments in support of special
    creation. In fact, if there's one reason why creationist critiques are
    so consistently misguided it's that adherents generally presuppose
    that special creation is true and then sift the evidence for clues to
    support that supposition-a recipe for self-deception that stands in
    stark contrast to the scientific method, which mandates that fresh
    hypotheses be derived from all available evidence.

    Were this fundamental misconception to be extinguished in a sudden
    wave of scientific literacy, the illusory evidence that thinking
    creationists use to anchor their beliefs would be swept away in an
    instant, leaving precious little demand for the writings of creation
    "scientists." As it is, however, an ungodly amount of literature is
    being published by the sectarian faithful in a spirited attempt to
    preserve mankind's privileged place in the grand scheme of things.
    Whether knowingly or not, creationists of every stripe have come to
    rely on an assortment of pseudoscientific arguments to legitimize
    their efforts to unravel the fabric of evolutionary theory, hoping
    against hope that the extensive tapestry woven by seven generations of
    scientists might somehow dissolve with the tug of a few loose threads.
    Unfortunately, as the weave of evolutionary theory has continued to
    tighten and expand, the number and variety of confused arguments in
    defense of creationism and intelligent design have only risen to keep

    [t1.jpg] One popular approach enlisted by creation "scientists" is the
    classic all-or-nothing argument wherein proponents claim that nothing
    in science can be known with confidence until every last detail is
    described with absolute certainty. Appealing largely to those
    unschooled in the scientific method, critics point to such nonissues
    as gaps in the fossil record, poorly understood aspects of gene
    function, and the mystery of life's origins as reasons to view
    evolutionary theory as speculative or provisional. What they fail to
    appreciate is that scientific theories are built solely upon evidence
    that is actually available for study and so cannot be refuted by
    speculation regarding those clues that remain hidden. As long as a
    theory remains consistent with observed phenomena and yields valid
    predictions, it must be considered a viable explanation regardless of
    what remains to be discovered. Thus, it is entirely irrelevant that
    gaps in the fossil record exist, but vitally important that those
    fossils that do exist make sense in the context of evolution. A single
    hominid fossil found among the trilobites of the Burgess Shale, for
    instance, would immediately throw Darwin's theory into doubt.
    Likewise, the fact that certain aspects of molecular genetics remain
    to be fully described in no way negates the fact that the substantial
    amount that is known about gene function is entirely consistent with
    evolution as we understand it today.

    Yet despite the proverbial admonition against doing so, many still
    view the absence of evidence as evidence of absence and remain all too
    eager to fill this fictional void with the narrative of their
    choosing. Indeed, this particular brand of argumentum ad ignorantiam
    has long been a mainstay for creationists looking to wedge their
    cosmology between the narrowing gaps of scientific knowledge (an
    increasingly difficult task). But issues of legitimacy aside, because
    this fallacy has sired so many specious claims over the years it seems
    only fitting that the mother of all such "arguments to ignorance"
    should stem from the granddaddy of all biological data gaps: the
    evolution of single-celled life forms.

    Because no physical body of evidence exists to document the beginning
    of life on Earth, this information gap has proven to be a wildly
    popular (albeit wholly inappropriate) foil for those seeking to
    discredit evolutionary theory. In truth, the origin of life is an
    issue entirely separate from the origin of species, rendering this
    otherwise important question utterly irrelevant as far as the veracity
    of natural selection is concerned. Whether the first primitive life
    form arose from known physical processes or was somehow willed into
    being through means beyond our understanding, evidence that all life
    on Earth descended from simple primordial beings remains just as
    compelling, and the myth of independent creation just as untenable.

    But even this slender refuge for creationist sentiment has now begun
    to evaporate under the light of modern scientific scrutiny, for
    although Earth's original life forms left no physical evidence for
    scientists to examine, credible hypotheses regarding the spontaneous
    formation and assembly of self-replicating molecules have been
    proposed and tested nonetheless. Laboratory experiments and astronomic
    observations suggest that key organic compounds were present in
    abundance shortly following Earth's formation and that natural
    chemical affinities and mineral scaffolds may have acted in concert to
    produce the simplest of biochemical copying machines. In 1953, Stanley
    Miller became the first to demonstrate that amino acids and other
    organic molecules could have formed through chemical means in
    prebiotic oceans capped with an atmosphere of ammonia, methane, and
    hydrogen gas. Although geochemists now question Miller's assumptions
    regarding the reducing power of the prebiotic atmosphere (Bada 2003),
    reducing environments may well have existed in isolated pockets on the
    embryotic Earth (near volcanic vents for instance). Moreover, many of
    these same organic compounds have been found to exist among
    interstellar dust clouds and meteorites, suggesting that life's
    building blocks may have been delivered to Earth on the backs of icy
    comets and carbonaceous asteroids.

    Based on these and other findings, biochemists have proposed several
    plausible mechanisms by which these compounds may have coalesced of
    their own accord into the precursors of life. Experiments confirm that
    layered mineral deposits can attract, concentrate, and link organic
    molecules and that certain clays may function as scaffolding for
    assembling the molecular components of RNA (Hazen 2001). Crystalline
    templates have also been proposed as possible means of primitive
    protein assembly, their mirror-image surface structure accounting for
    the curious predominance of "left-handed" amino acids found in all
    creatures living today. These and other minerals have also been shown
    to facilitate the sequence of chemical transformations needed to spark
    life, acting as sheltered containers (feldspar), catalysts
    (magnetite), and iron sulfide reactants (pyrite). What's more, a
    complex mixture of organic compounds formed within simulated
    interstellar ices has recently been observed to spontaneously form
    cell-like vessels when immersed in water (Dworkin 2001), providing yet
    another viable mechanism by which particles awash in a dilute
    prebiotic soup might have assembled themselves into crude cells.

    Although the precise sequence of events will never be known with
    absolute certainty, these and similar experiments strongly suggest
    that the earliest terrestrial life forms arose spontaneously and in
    accordance with the known laws of nature. In short, everything we have
    come to understand about our world suggests that living creatures are
    a natural consequence of the laws that govern the physical universe-no
    more anomalous than the matter they comprise or the space they occupy.
    Yet despite all efforts to disseminate this hard-earned knowledge, a
    broad swath of creationist sentiment lingers on, fueled by well-worn
    arguments ranging from the philosophical and dogmatic to the confused
    and plain disingenuous. The great majority of these objections,
    however, quickly collapse under even the most cursory examination.

    Many of the "scientific" arguments for intelligent design, for
    instance, invoke common misconceptions about how the physical world
    really works, as in the classic "watchmaker" argument wherein nature
    is assumed to act randomly and possess no organizational tendencies.
    Given this false premise, it is a simple matter to show that complex
    molecular structures could never have formed by chance alone any more
    than a factory whirlwind could assemble a Mercedes Benz from its
    component parts. But anyone with a basic understanding of chemistry
    knows full well that such analogies do not apply to atoms and
    molecules. If the physical sciences have taught us nothing else, it's
    that the world of the very small is surprisingly counterintuitive.
    Processes in the realm of the microscopic simply do not behave as one
    might expect based on our experience living on the macroscopic plane.
    Electric charges, energy barriers, and nuclear forces all dominate the
    realm of the minuscule and compel individual atoms to form stable
    chemical bonds with neighboring elements, blindly building molecular
    structures of every possible type and complexity that the laws of
    physical chemistry will allow.

    Objects large enough to arouse our naked senses, on the other hand,
    behave quite differently. Because they exhibit no special affinity for
    one another, the scattered components of a disassembled watch will
    never coalesce of their own accord-the odds against such haphazard
    assemblies are simply too long. Nature, however, does not act without
    organizational tendencies nor are living organisms randomly assembled.
    There is now ample reason to believe that simple unicellular life
    forms arose through processes endemic to the life-friendly universe we
    occupy and that more sophisticated beings slowly emerged from these
    modest beginnings. Indeed, all complex organisms on Earth (including
    humans) begin life as single cells that multiply, differentiate, and
    ultimately mature to assume the form of its parent-all in strict
    accordance with the natural laws of biochemistry.

    The contention that evolution somehow violates the second law of
    thermodynamics is another popular fiction that has endured through
    widespread confusion over a fundamental physical concept-in this case,
    thermodynamic entropy. Couched in the plainest possible terms, the
    second law simply states that energy tends to spread from areas where
    it is concentrated to areas where it is not. Although it is not widely
    recognized, this phenomenon is an integral part of our everyday
    experience and shapes our commonsense expectations. Because energy
    always flows from where it is concentrated to where it is more
    diffuse, we expect, say, a warm bottle of Gewrztraminer to chill when
    lowered into a bucket of ice water. In this instance, thermal energy
    will flow from the tepid wine to the surrounding fluid until both
    reach a common temperature and an energetic balance is achieved. Like
    the ice bucket and its contents, self-contained systems receiving no
    external energy will always experience a net increase in the diffusion
    of thermal energy, or a rise in thermodynamic entropy, resulting in
    lower energy gradients and less potential to do work.

    Regrettably, this same term has also come to be used in a statistical
    context involving the distribution of particles placed in random
    motion within a closed system-a situation that has bred a great deal
    of confusion. Unlike thermodynamic entropy, which defines energy
    distributions, "logical" entropy describes the probability that
    randomly distributed particles will assume a certain configuration or
    organized pattern. Ordered systems with low entropy values may appear
    to the casual observer to contain discernable patterns whereas high
    entropy systems seem more disorganized. Gas molecules distributed
    within an enclosure, for example, are said to exhibit greater entropy
    when they are scattered than when they are grouped together. Why?
    Because although every possible pattern of molecules has an equal
    chance of occurring, there are a great many more ways to define a
    diffuse pattern than any given clumped arrangement and, as physicist
    Richard Feynman was keen to observe, logical entropy is simply "the
    logarithm of that number of ways."

    Despite the fact that thermodynamic and logical entropy are wholly
    independent concepts, many laymen-and a few scientists who really
    should know better-have nonetheless come to confuse and intermingle
    the two, transforming the second law of thermodynamics into a
    fictitious "law of disorder" that ostensibly explains why all material
    things decay and fall apart. In truth this has nothing to do with the
    second law of thermodynamics and even misuses the concept of logical
    entropy in that it attempts to explain large-scale phenomena. There
    is, in fact, no such universal mandate of decay that precludes the
    spontaneous formation of complex assemblages. Just because all complex
    systems will eventually break down as energy throughout the cosmos
    becomes evenly distributed doesn't mean that some interesting patterns
    can't take shape in the meantime.

    Those who argue this point from a purely energetic standpoint are
    somewhat less confused but just as easily refuted. The fact that the
    amount of energy available to do work must always decrease in a closed
    system would indeed be a serious impediment to the evolution of life
    if our planet were isolated from all external energy sources, but one
    need look no further than our companion star to see that such is not
    the case. Energy is constantly being delivered to the thin shell of
    our biosphere both from above, in the form of sunlight, and below, via
    heat generated by Earth's radioactive core, providing ample energy to
    fuel the assembly of structured molecules. Moreover, while it is true
    that the overall entropy of an isolated system cannot decrease, the
    entropy of certain parts of a system can, and often do, spontaneously
    decrease at the expense of even greater increases in adjacent regions,
    as with the formation of crystalline salts and snowflakes. Besides
    that, millions of chemical compounds including water, cholesterol, and
    DNA actually carry less energy than the elements they contain
    (possessing "negative energies of formation" in scientific parlance).
    In these cases, the second law of thermodynamics actually favors the
    impromptu formation of complex structured molecules due to their
    tendency to disperse energy as they coalesce.

    Another threadbare canard spread by the creationist camp is that
    biological evolution is still not widely accepted within the
    scientific community-a ruse for which competing evolutionary
    hypotheses are offered up as evidence. The truth of the matter is
    quite the opposite. The fact that biologists support alternate
    hypotheses regarding specific evolutionary mechanisms no more
    challenges the reality of evolution than Einstein's relativistic views
    threatened the existence of gravity. Whether evolution proceeds in
    fits and starts as envisioned by the punctuated equilibrium model or
    progresses with more stately regularity, each competing hypothesis
    simply seeks to explain a certain aspect of evolution in a plausible
    way. The overarching framework of evolution itself, however, remains
    astonishingly consistent with the huge body of evidence accumulated to
    date. Far from being the object of scientific debate, the evolution of
    species is actually no more, and no less, than the collection of
    observed facts that these hypotheses are meant to explain. Gene flow,
    frequency dependence, and punctuated equilibrium are but three
    possible mechanisms put forward to explain the nature of this
    overarching phenomenon. Which, if any, of these hypotheses survive the
    test of time bears no influence on whether modern species are the
    product of biological evolution-the evidence in this regard, now
    comprising countless independent observations, is simply overwhelming.
    It is only the processes that drive the phenomenon of evolution that
    remain the object of scientific scrutiny.

    Unencumbered by the rules of scientific inquiry, others proclaim with
    total aplomb that evolution can never be truly validated until major
    speciation events (the transformation of land mammals into whales for
    instance) are observed directly. In this case, what is ignored is the
    important fact that reliable scientific evidence is not limited to
    firsthand experience of real-time events but includes all forms of
    physical clues. The folly of this argument becomes evident when one
    considers that knowledge of galaxy formation, stellar composition, and
    subatomic particles would be impossible if researchers were to adopt
    similar rules of evidence across the whole of science. But why stop at
    the boundaries of academia? Imagine for a moment the chaos that would
    ensue within the criminal justice system if such an unreasonable
    burden of proof were placed on prosecutors! Indeed, as many jurors
    would no doubt attest, it is often the physical evidence that proves
    most compelling in a court of law, eclipsing even eyewitness accounts
    that can be tainted by errors of interpretation or outright deceit.

    Beliefs maintained through the narrow interpretation of isolated facts
    or held in default against evidence not readily understood can be
    called any number of things, but "scientific" is certainly not one of
    them. As these few examples illustrate, the myriad approaches adopted
    by creation "scientists" in their attempts to undermine evolutionary
    theory are indeed quite creative but hardly scientific. As has been
    demonstrated time and again, evidence carefully sifted can be enlisted
    to endorse practically any supposition so long as the preponderance of
    contrary clues are ignored and the rules of sound scientific practice
    are suspended. It is precisely this brand of exclusionary thinking
    that enables young-Earth devotees to dismiss mountains of physical
    evidence while defending their assertions with such flawed assumptions
    as constant population growth and the linear decay of Earth's magnetic
    field (both demonstrably false). Likewise, partisans who claim that
    evolutionary processes have never actually been observed inexplicably
    dismiss the scientific literature where such observations have been
    reported in abundance. In truth, physical adaptations to environmental
    pressures have been documented in hundreds of modern species from
    bacteria and fruit flies to birds, squirrels, and stickleback fish
    (Pennisi 2000). Even Darwin's own finches have been caught in the act
    of adaptation thanks to decades of meticulous study spearheaded by
    Princeton biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant.

    A full accounting of the ways in which the scientific method has been
    manipulated to promote creationist sentiment would doubtless occupy
    many volumes, but in no instance has a legitimate scientific case ever
    been made to countermand the notion that, as Darwin phrased it: "from
    so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful
    have been, and are being, evolved."


     1. Bada, Jeffrey L., and Antonio Lazcano. 2003. Prebiotic
        soup-revisiting the Miller experiment. Science 300:745-746.
     2. Dworkin, Jason P., David W. Deamer, Scott A. Sandford, and Louis
        J. Allamandola. 2001. Self-assembling amphiphilic molecules:
        Synthesis in simulated interstellar/precometary ices. Proceedings
        of the National Academy of Sciences 98(3): 815-819.
     3. Hazen, Robert M. 2001. Life's rocky start. Scientific American
        April: 77-85.
     4. Pennisi, Elizabeth. 2000. Nature steers a predicable course.
        Science 278: 207-208.

In This Issue

      * [42]Buy this back issue
      * [43]One Longsome Argument
      * [44]Hyperbole in Media Reports on Asteroids and Impacts
      * [45]The Bizarre Columbia University 'Miracle' Saga Continues
      * [46]'Stupid Dino Tricks': A Reply to Hovind's Web Response
      * [47]Was a Quack Doctor Jack the Ripper?

About the Author

    Dennis R. Trumble is Senior Bioengineer in the Department of
    Cardiothoracic Surgery at Allegheny General Hospital (Pittsburgh,
    Pennsylvania) and Research Instructor of Surgery at Drexel University
    College of Medicine. Correspondence may be addressed to D.R. Trumble,
    Cardiac Surgery Research, Allegheny General Hospital, 320 East North
    Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA, 15212.


   43. http://www.csicop.org/si/2005-03/evolution.html
   44. http://www.csicop.org/si/2005-03/asteroids.html
   45. http://www.csicop.org/si/2005-03/miracle-study.html
   46. http://www.csicop.org/si/2005-03/hovind.html
   47. http://www.csicop.org/si/2005-03/strange-world.html
   48. http://www.csicop.org/q/csicop/evolution

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