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Sunday 27 November 2016

Atheist Professor Destroys Evolution...

Well, that's a nice clickbait title, isn't it? Is there any substance to it?

Of course not, but we should go through the motions anyway, not least because we haven't had an evolution post for a bit, and this sort of thing, when presented as an argument, really makes me despair for the state of education.

This post was inspired by a certain Twitter user, one Bob Martin, a science-denier whose favourite fallacy seems to be our old friend the argumentum ad verecundiam, which you may remember from such posts as Argumentum ad Verecundiam and the Genetic Fallacy. In this instance, he wishes us to offer our reverence to Dr Richard Lumsden, Harvard alumnus and professor of parasitology and cell biology. Lumsden isn't the only 'academic' he offers, of course. He also likes arch-cretin David Berlinski, but that's for another post, maybe another offering on why philosophers who offer conclusions are doing it wrong.

Here, I want to focus on a video offering from Lumsden. Here it is. 

I'm going to ignore the preamble and get straight to the questions. Here's the first:
Last month you taught that mutations were genetic disasters. How, by natural selection, can they produce new and better structures?
This question is incoherent, and if the good doctor didn't pick up on it, he's an imbecile. Mutations aren't 'genetic disasters'. Any competent professor, or even a competent layman - like me - who genuinely understood evolutionary theory, would have interjected at the end of the first sentence. Not having seen the lecture to which the putative student is referring, we can only assume that Lumsden did indeed teach that mutations are genetic disasters. How else to explain the fact that he didn't stop and correct the student there and then? Taking this episode at face value, it would appear that Dr Lumsden has managed to get through cell biology and parasitology to obtain a doctorate without even a rudimentary understanding of evolutionary theory.

In a previous outing, Has Evolution Been Proven, far and away my most popular post to date (which makes me wonder if I shouldn't just write a book about evolution for the sales), we talked deeply about what evolution is, what it isn't, and what some of the vast swathes of evidence are. Anybody who's read that post and absorbed it is equipped to spot the problems in the question presented here, which begs the question why a professor teaching evolution-oriented subjects struggled with it so much.

Let's be clear here, even though this will involve covering deeply rutted ground. The vast majority of mutations in the genome are neutral or nearly neutral. In that earlier post, we did a comparison between the precursor alleles for insulin in humans and lowland gorillas. This wasn't made explicit in that post, but the entire gene is 333 nucleobases long (meaning that if you put the two together, it's 666 nucleobases... woooOOOOOooo!). Of those 333 nucleobases, there were four that were different. That doesn't sound like much but, when you compare the per-generation rate of approximately 350 mutations in \(3.2 \times 10^9\), you see that this is huge. Even with such a massive difference in the nucleobases in the alleles, the insulin precursor protein is identical. Some disaster!

For more information on how new structures can be constructed, see both the linked post and Irreducible Complexity and Evolution. We're going to move on to question 2.
Aren't the odds of the random assembly of genes mathematically impossible?
This is a stupendous question! Not because it's problematic for evolutionary theory, but because it exposes a deep failure of understanding of not only evolutionary theory, but the nature of probabilities. There's also a terminological problem that I'll come back to later, but let's first look at the probabilities, because there's an extremely common logical fallacy lurking in there, so it will be instructive.

I've said before that I'm no mathematician. Indeed, most of the time, when I stray tentatively into the realm of mathematics, I get into such trouble that I require the assistance of one of my wonderful friends to throw me a lifeline, as regular readers will already be aware, but even I grok probability better than this, yet somebody teaching undergraduates can't field this question without it challenging his entire education. Frankly, I find this fishy in the extreme, and suspect some skullduggery in the presentation. No matter, we'll treat it at face value.

Probabilities fall firmly between two values: zero and one. An event with zero probability is one that is not going to happen (with certain caveats). An event with a probability of one is a certainty (again, with some caveats). 

Ultimately, any event with a non-zero probability, given sufficient time and/or a sufficiently large sample set, becomes statistically inevitable. Way back at the beginning of this venture, in In the Beginning, we looked at some fallacies of intuition, and specifically talked about an event whose probability is so close to zero that it's unlikely to happen any time in the past or future life of the universe, namely me (or somebody of my size) walking through a wall. The probability of this occurring is so ridiculously small as to appear as an atom in the shade of Jupiter when compared to the kind of numbers that creationists like to throw around yet, if this were not actually possible, then neither would our existence, because stellar fusion would be a vanishingly rare event. And forget computers reliant on microchips, as discussed in The Certainty of Uncertainty, because they rely on the self-same process.

ETA: Probably the Worst Argument in the World addresses spurious probability calculations in considerably more detail.

What about the term I glossed over? Well, it's one that crops up all the time in apologetic excrement such as this video, and it's one that we should be challenging vigorously and vociferously: Random.

This word is a dirty word in some circles, but it needn't be. It's ubiquitous in creationist apologetics, and is employed as a blunt tool to bludgeon opponents into frustration but, once properly understood, it's a source of great enlightenment.

Random, in the way it's employed in rigorous fields, means 'statistically independent'. It doesn't mean, as some suggest 'uncaused', which is the way the alleged student was probably using it, and certainly the way Lumsden was using it. It simply means that, of all possible outcomes, and single outcome is exactly as probable as any other. In Has Evolution Been Proven, we talked about what a proper treatment of randomness in evolution looks like, and we introduced a new term, stochastic, to describe how evolution really works. 

Let's move on. Question 3.
Where exactly, in the fossil record, is the evidence for progressive evolution, the transitional forms between the major groups?

Here, I'm going to include Lumsden's response, because it's entirely the sort of bollocks we've come to expect from creationists.
You know, most of them, come to think of it, are fully-formed kinds in their own right...
Now Lumsden cuts back in with narration, but this snippet is sufficient to expose the lie. Either this man lost his marbles, or he taught evolutionary theory without understanding it for years, or this entire story is fabricated from whole cloth.

If you don't understand that all fossils are transitional, that all organisms are transitional, that evolution is itself nothing other than transition, then you aren't qualified to venture an opinion.

Also, nobody who remotely understands evolutionary theory would expect any organism to be partly formed. All organisms are fully formed, or they'd quickly go the way of the dodo. As discussed in the prior article, all organisms are the same species as their parents. This is really elementary stuff.

This man might have passed exams showing that he grasped the core mechanics of parasitology and cell biology, but he doesn't have even a basic understanding of evolutionary biology as can be found in any number of books for the lay audience.

In the portion that follows, he drops the bomb, the realisation that, in the face of these questions that he couldn't answer, that god exists. Wow! That was all it took? I can't answer these few terrible questions, therefore evolution is false, therefore the only explanation is god!

This, ladles and jellyspoons, is precisely why the argumentum ad verecundiam is a fallacy. Here's a man, qualified in a relevant field, yet unable to answer the most basic and idiotic questions pertaining to that field.

It's a rule that we're not supposed to speak ill of the dead. Well bollocks to that. This man is an imbecile and had no business teaching dogs to shit in the sand, let alone being left in charge of the education of impressionable young minds. Science is hard enough as it is, without its future being left in the hands of people whose grasp of logic and reasoning is barely up to the task of tying shoelaces unaided.

I'm going to link this post again, just to be sure. This is what evolution is, what it isn't, and how we know this is a fact.

Let me say that loud and clear: Evolution is a fact. It's been observed occurring at every level predicted by theory.

Deal with it.

Nits and crits welcome, as always. If anybody spots anything in the video that I didn't completely eviscerate, let me know and I'll revisit.

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