Forbes loses it again over evolution

A few days ago I wrote a piece for Forbes online responding to the ignorant assertions of a physician, Dr. Michael Egnor, who maintained that there was no evidence for Darwinian evolution.  In response, I reiterated the tenets of Darwinism and then cited copious evidence, through links in my piece, for common ancestry, transitional forms, vestigial organs, and the origin of new, complex biochemical systems through natural selection.  I also took Forbes itself to task for soliciting the opinions of intelligent-design creationists such as Egnor to “balance” their coverage of the Darwin bicentennial.  To its credit, Forbes allowed me to publish pretty strong criticism of their “let’s give crackpots an equal say” policy.

Well, I take the credit back.  Forbes has now given yet another benighted individual the final say in the debate.   Meet Dr. Philip S. Skell and his anti-Darwinian views.  Skell, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Penn State University, has been retailing his creationism and, especially, his disdain for evolution for some time on the Web (see, for example, here or here).

The curious thing is that Skell’s piece is not, as it pretends to be, a critique of what I said in Forbes, but merely a repetition of the argument, which he has been making for years, that evolution is of no practical use for humanity and of no use to experimental biology:

I don’t think science has anything to fear from a free exchange of ideas between thoughtful proponents of different views. Moreover, there are a number of us in the scientific community who, while we appreciate Darwin’s contributions, think that the rhetorical approach of scientists such as Coyne unnecessarily polarizes public discussions and­–even more seriously­–overstates both the evidence for Darwin’s theory of historical biology and the benefits of Darwin’s theory to the actual practice of experimental science.

He demeans fossils, for example, as having no bearing on helping us understand how organisms function:

Experimental biology has dramatically increased our understanding of the intricate workings within living organisms that account for their survival, showing how they continue to function despite the myriad assaults on them from their environments. These advances in knowledge are attributable to the development of new methodologies and instruments, unimaginable in the preceding centuries, applied to the investigation of living organisms. Crucial to all fruitful experiments in biology is their design, for which Darwin’s and Wallace’s principles apparently provide no guidance.

Contrary to the beliefs of Professor Coyne and some other defenders of Darwin, these advances are not due to studies of an organism’s ancestors that are recovered from fossil deposits. Those rare artifacts–which have been preserved as fossils–are impressions in stones which, even when examined with the heroic efforts of paleontologists, cannot reveal the details that made these amazing living organisms function.

What?  What about the evidence that feathers arose as thermoregulatory devices, and possibly as sexual signals as well? What about the evidence that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded, or that human ancestors were bipedal before they evolved big brains?  What about the “details” of the fish-amphibian transitional form Tiktaalik that show how it was adapted to functioning in the water and, fortuitously, evolved traits that were to help it invade the land?

Skell goes on and on about how “experimental” science actually helps us understand stuff, while historical sciences like evolutionary biology are useless:

It is widely accepted that the growth of science and technology in the West, which accounts for the remarkable advances we enjoy today in medicine, agriculture, travel, communications, etc., coincided with the separation, several centuries ago, of the experimental sciences from the dominance of the other important fields of philosophy, metaphysics, theology and history.

Yet many popularizers of Darwin’s theory now claim that without the study of ancient biological history, our students will not be prepared to engage in the great variety of modern experimental activities expected of them. The public should view with profound alarm this unnecessary and misguided reintroduction of speculative historical, philosophical and religious ideas into the realms of experimental science.

Skell cannot help himself.  In his endless feedback loop, he says the same things over and over again–the same things he’s been saying for years:

The essence of the theory of evolution is the hypothesis that historical diversity is the consequence of natural selection acting on variations. Regardless of the verity it holds for explaining biohistory, it offers no help to the experimenter–who is concerned, for example, with the goal of finding or synthesizing a new antibiotic, or how it can disable a disease-producing organism, what dosages are required and which individuals will not tolerate it. Studying biohistory is, at best, an entertaining distraction from the goals of a working biologist.

Yes, Dr. Skell, the practical advantages of evolutionary biology, while real, are limited.  I myself have made this  point in a book review in Nature.  But does the only value of science lie in its ability to make us rich or cure our diseases?  Many of us disagree.  Is it useless to know about The Big Bang?  Or about how we evolved from our primate ancestors?  Science is a process of finding out things–of satisfying our curiosity about nature, and understanding where we came from.  Some of that has practical benefits, some has spiritual benefits, but all of it is useful.  I would hardly call pure research “an entertaining distraction from the goals of a working biologist,” unless Skell’s definition of a working biologist is “one who cures diseases” (which, by the way, would put Dr. Skell in the not-a-working-biologist class, since his accomplishments are in carbene chemistry).  Evolution is the best story in science–it tells us where we came from, and by “we” I mean all living species, not just humans.  And it is a true story, and a wonderful one.  Unravelling and telling that tale is not “an entertaining distraction,” but part of what it is to be human.

Finally, Skell makes a mistake that brands him indelibly as a tyro in evolution:

It is unseemly and scientifically unfruitful that a major focus in biology should have turned into a war–between those who hold that the history of those unique organisms is purely a matter of chance aggregation from the inorganic world and those who hold that the aggregation must have been designed for a purpose.

The last time I looked, evolution was far more than a process involving “chance aggregation from the inorganic world.”  It critically involved a non-chance process: natural selection.  And are we to blame evolutionists for the intelligent-design movement, as Skell seems to do? That is palpable nonsense.

What is more distressing than Skell’s nonsense, which after all he’s been spouting for years, is the fact that Forbes has given him the last word in this debate.  And not only that, but a word that fails to respond to anything I have said. What is going on over there?  If they’re going to solicit a creationist to respond to me, presumably they would want one who could address my substantive points, including the many links I gave for the evidence for evolution. I said absolutely nothing about the usefulness of evolution to the material welfare of humans.  I did write the Forbes editor (who alerted me to Skell’s post) asking why it was published, and received no reply.   Apparently we can write off Forbes as a voice for reason.

44 Comments

  1. Posted February 24, 2009 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    So has he not heard of the experimental work of Lenski? http://myxo.css.msu.edu/ecoli/ Was that work of no use?

  2. Oxytocin
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, apparently the evidence that something is true isn’t good enough for the good Prof Skell. Perhaps your sequel book should be “Why Evolution Matters” or something similar.

  3. BosKnight
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    why the surprise?

    Forbes=$$$
    $$$=fiscal conservatism
    fiscal conservative=political conservative
    political conservative=religious conservative

    why would you assume Forbes would seek to offend the majority of its readership by suggesting that they have spent alot of their lives wasting time, or that their financial success is not because of their spiritual devotion?

  4. Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Since when did usefulness dictate truth? It’s not a relevant point at all, it seems the intellectual equivalent of “rapes babies”

  5. Barry
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Forbes is, in the end, 90-odd percent right-wing whackjob sh*t, with juuuuust enough actual news to make the crazyness less than obvious.

  6. Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, just one comment on what you had to say here:

    But does the only value of science lie in its ability to make us rich or cure our diseases? Many of us disagree. Is it useless to know about The Big Bang? Or about how we evolved from our primate ancestors? Science is a process of finding out things–of satisfying our curiosity about nature, and understanding where we came from. Some of that has practical benefits, some has spiritual benefits, but all of it is useful.

    Is Skell saying these things are not valuable? Not at all; it’s not even what he’s talking about.

    This Forbes piece was rather short, and his point may not be as clear as he usually makes it elsewhere; but it appears you’ve read enough of his other work to know what he’s getting at. His purpose when speaking of these things has remained focused: it is to rebut or refute the commonly-raised argument that evolution is a necessary foundation for understanding and even practicing biology. From at least Dobzhansky on, the word has been that you can’t make sense of biology without evolution. Skell disagrees specifically with this, that evolution holds essential heuristic value for practical biology. You quoted it yourself:

    Regardless of the verity it holds for explaining biohistory, it offers no help to the experimenter–who is concerned, for example, with the goal of finding or synthesizing a new antibiotic, or how it can disable a disease-producing organism, what dosages are required and which individuals will not tolerate it.

    That’s what he’s trying to get across. He gets to the point again at the close of the Forbes piece:

    Examining the major advances in biological knowledge, one fails to find any real connection between biological history and the experimental designs that have produced today’s cornucopia of knowledge of how the great variety of living organisms perform their functions. It is our knowledge of how these organisms actually operate, not speculations about how they may have arisen millions of years ago, that is essential to doctors, veterinarians, farmers and other practitioners of biological science.

    I haven’t read a thing in Skell indicating that he disagrees with you about the pure value of pure knowledge. But that isn’t the topic he has been addressing in his various writings.

    To stay on topic, when discussing contentious matters like this, is generally considered a virtue. I’m not sure the Forbes piece was as well focused as other things he has written, to be honest; but again, I think anyone who has read Skell before now should know what he’s trying to accomplish. The objection you raised in the segment I quoted here has nothing whatever to do with Skell’s overall message.

  7. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment, but Skell is a creationist. He has signed the Discovery Institute’s “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism”. So he neither believes in the value of evolutionary biology OR in evolution itself, apparently!
    And Skell was trying to respond to what I wrote in Forbes. He did not–he went off on his usual tangent.

  8. Erasmus, FCD
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    If the ignorant Dr Skell had been paying attention to ecology and biogeography he might just understand exactly how wrong he is. Trap crops, anyone?

  9. Steven Sullivan
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    “Regardless of the verity it holds for explaining biohistory, it offers no help to the experimenter–who is concerned, for example, with the goal of finding or synthesizing a new antibiotic…”

    Bullshit! Investigators searching for new drug targets often employ genomic comparisons these days – e.g. of malaria parasites (Plasmodium). And you can BET that phylogenetic analysis and evolutionary models come into that picture.

    Skell is a damnable blinkered fool and Forbes is apparently a haven for anti-science.

  10. Posted February 24, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Mr Coyne, Perhaps as a biologist you are to close to the work to get a clear view of Egnor’s argument. Suppose we were talking about astronomy. His point is that the works of people like Galileo and Copernicus is just wasted effort. I mean what does it really matter,in daily life, if the Earth goes around the Sun or vice versa. I mean, sure it helped us get to the Moon, but what good did that do anyone. Now astrology, there’s a science with practical application. you look look up your “sign” in the newspaper and then you know how your day is going. You see,if Kepler had stuck to figuring out how much liquor could fit in a given container,well he could have made something of himself, or at least some money. Instead he wasted his time trying to figure out the dynamics of the universe. So Mr Coyne, Egnor’s advice is simple, try to find something practical to do with yourself.

  11. Posted February 24, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    “What is more distressing than Skell’s nonsense, which after all he’s been spouting for years, is the fact that Forbes has given him the last word in this debate.”

    Why do you assume he has been given the last word? I didn’t see anything saying Forbes is not accepting further comment on the topic.

    “Yes, Dr. Skell, the practical advantages of evolutionary biology, while real, are limited. I myself have made this point in a book review in Nature. But does the only value of science lie in its ability to make us rich or cure our diseases? Many of us disagree.”

    This paragraph is the weakest part of your critique. You concede too much ground. The ‘use’ of a theory is its ability to make accurate predictions. Don’t fall in the trap of letting someone like Skell set the parameters of usefulness. If you can make a prediction, you can ‘use’ that knowledge for any number of purposes, only some of which fall into the limited examples Skell gives.

    Predictions are, in fact, the only kind of way we can derive ‘use’ from anything. We are constantly making tiny predictions all the time in our daily lives (to meet someone at a certain time and place; to know that the words I type here will be shared on the internet; every purposeful action has some small prediction behind it). Science allows us to make much bigger and more accurate predictions. Without predictions, we would be helpless against fate. We would not be able to do anything ‘useful’. So, allowing Skell to slip by the idea that ‘usefulness’ is tied to his limited judgment of values is a mistake. Nail him on that.

    It is not an issue of ‘many of us disagree.’ It’s an issue of ‘the only way you can get use out of *anything* is by its ability to help you make predictions.’ In this sense, evolution is by far one of the most useful theories we have.

  12. Ryk
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    While I personally agree that creationism/ID is implausible and not scientifically supported, I must give a small amount of agreement to Mr. Skell.

    If a person is fully knowledgeable in how to conduct biological research, and able to produce valid and verifiable discoveries, then they do not need to understand or accept evolution as a theory. Perhaps they should, perhaps it is even intellectually dishonest if they don’t, but they don’t need to.
    The statement that “biology is not all about curing diseases” is a subjective one. While one person may find “discovering where we came from” rewarding, others may not. It is of course their right to find biology useful only as a tool. I am not saying I share or even respect that viewpoint, only that it is a valid one.
    I believe a scientist should be judged by the quality of his work not his ideology. Judging by the complete lack of actual science in the ID field it is probably true that those who deny evolution are in fact poor scientists. However if someone can do good research without accepting evolution then I don’t see any harm in it.

  13. Hempenstein
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Crimony! “the rhetorical approach of scientists such as Coyne…” What about the rhetorical approach of all the Bible-thumpers?

    Suppose Skell was a working virologist/chemist, screening compounds for an antiviral for AIDS or developing next year’s flu virus. Once confronted with an explanation (obtained by “new methodologies and instruments”) that the virus had thwarted the latest lead compound/formula through mutation or recombination, what would he do? Rejecting evolution he’d be left to throw up his hands, concluding that God didn’t want his effort to succeed.

    At least, he’s not a typical example of a living chemist.

  14. gb
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    If Forbes sole intent is to promote sales or increase viewership based on false debate then I for one have no use for Forbes.

  15. MikeMatthews
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m not even a biologist and I make practical use of evolution through selection.

    In complicated atomic systems with multiple energy levels, one can use an evolutionary model to find solutions for say, getting all the atoms in one energy level. A specific gene is defined as a particular magnetic field or laser frequency. A set of genes defines the DNA for an individual in a population. Each member of the population gets run through the experiment, and the resulting energy level of the atom is detected. That individual is given a fitness value, depending on the atom’s energy level. Next, selection and mating takes place, where fit individuals produce offspring who are then evaluated. Throw in a small about of random DNA mutations and it converges nicely.

    There are numerous examples of this kind of thing in engineering and physics. It is VERY useful.

  16. Nick (Matzke)
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    The reason Skell’s essay seems scattered may trace to the fact that it is largely a cut-n-paste rehash of this non-book review book review of the NAS Evolution/Creationism booklet:

    Philip S. Skell (2008). [Review of "Science, Evolution, and Creationism" by the National Academy of Sciences.] Politics and the Life Sciences, 27(2):47-49. http://dx.doi.org/10.2990/27_2_47

    It’s about 65% identical according to one comparison program I ran.

    (That, and he’s crazy and doesn’t have the slightest familiarity with paleontology, genomics, phylogenetics, or any details of the methods & results of any modern field connected to evolutionary biology…)

  17. Brownian
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    “Is this the best you can do?” asks Marshall Nelson, and then proceeds to assert, assert, assert, without evidence.

    Marshall, please refrain from further remarks regarding science until you learn both what it is and a functional definition of irony. Idiot.*

    *Oops. I should’ve asserted that “you are an idiot”, so you’d think it was science.

  18. Posted February 24, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    -Coyne- Science is a process of finding out things–of satisfying our curiosity about nature, and understanding where we came from. Some of that has practical benefits, some has spiritual benefits… Evolution is the best story in science–it tells us where we came from, and by “we” I mean all living species, not just humans. And it is a true story, and a wonderful one.

    That is real pretty and all, but how exactly does that refute Skell’s contention that it is of low practical value? The tone of the refutation says you disagree when the examples by and large are _supporting_ Skell.

    -Skell- The essence of the theory of evolution is the hypothesis that historical diversity is the consequence of natural selection acting on variations. Regardless of the verity it holds for explaining biohistory, it offers no help to the experimenter–who is concerned, for example, with the goal of finding or synthesizing a new antibiotic, or how it can disable a disease-producing organism, what dosages are required and which individuals will not tolerate it. Studying biohistory is, at best, an entertaining distraction from the goals of a working biologist.

    Even one such as myself can rip that apart in a suitably bloody fashion. The whole issue with antibiotic effectiveness is that the target is continually evolving while knowing how it relates to other organisms allows the researcher to take shortcuts to cut it off instead of staying one step behind.

    Same thing for disease producing organisms, though there I recall an article about researchers taking a lake floor core and examining the ~30 years worth of hibernating insects there. They found that the parasites buried with the insects infected the insects in their layer best. The descendant parasites weren’t better at attacking ancestor insects but instead descendant insects of the same layer.

    Not only does that one contain a wonderful example of evolution, but it has researchers digging in the dirt of the examples. Imagine that.

    Ah well, anyways, the rebuttal posted here needs a rewrite, to be refocused on actually being a rebuttal. Heck, why not play Six-Degrees of Separation and show how evolution oriented research is important to all those lovely practical applications of biology?

  19. Hempenstein
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Anything else you’d care to deny?

  20. LJI
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Marshall Nelson.

    Evolution as a theory is wonderfully predictive. For example, looking at whale anatomy and physiology it is clear that they came from land animals – specifically mammals. They have hair on their bodies, and give birth to live young, which they then provide milk for. They also have a vestigial pelvis.

    I understand that you disagree with the concept of vestigial organs, so what, therefore is the “purpose” of a whale’s pelvic bone (and occasionally legs too)? Or mole’s eyes? Or wings on flightless birds? Or the human coccyx?

    Evolution predicted that scientists would find intermediate forms, with adaptations over time. And that is precisely what was found.

    The same story could have been recounted for horses, or for humans. Predicted intermediates subsequently found by palaeontologists.

    You say that “all we see is descent with modification, not new forms springing up randomly”, but that is exactly what evolution is! You think you are making some profound point, but you are merely reinforcing the tenets of evolutionary theory. That sir, is called an “epic fail” on your part.

  21. Posted February 24, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Wow. All you really have to do is check out the website that is linked for Marshall Nelson to understand that he does not function in the same world as the rest of us. Claiming there is thousands of peer-reviewed Intelligent Design articles in major scientific journals each year on one page. If that’s the case, why not present them, instead of claiming they are there.

    Claiming things that don’t exist, especially when these so called things could prove your point or end the “debate” seems to be the number 1 play in the creationist/ID/loon play book. Congratulations.

  22. Jupiter BFPOE
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    I suppose Mr. Skell feels cosmology is useless as well because they’re just looking at history too.

    Keep up the fight. I think trying to have a rational argument with someone about their irrational belief is about as useful as ridding the countryside of wind powered milling machines to eliminate the threat of giants. But hopefully, someone whose belief is not so entrenched will see that there is no giant threatening us.

  23. Hempenstein
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    Hugo Theorell (Nobel, Medicine & Physiology, 1955) had a ready reply to those nattering about the practical value of basic research (quoting by memory from Science ca. ~1976): “If you want to fix the watch, first you have to know how the watch works.”

    Murphy put it slightly differently, in his third law: “Whatever you want to do, you have to do something else first.” Sometimes, the thing you have to do is understand the underlying principle.

    From this, one might be tempted to conclude that Skell has probably never really accomplished anything.

  24. Occam
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Style:
    Prof. Skell starts by begging to differ with with Jerry Coyne “as a member of the National Academy of Sciences”. I wonder how Richard Feynman would have punctured such a pretense of ‘expertise by association’. Surely the man who enunciated the ‘Skell rule’ should know that he is valued for his work on carbenes, not for the honors he has garnered.
    Unfortunately, there is a pattern. “In 1942, Nobel Laureate Ernst Chain wrote that his discovery of penicillin … owed nothing to Darwin’s and Wallace’s evolutionary theories.” Maybe. But: What is the import of Chain’s opinions about Darwinism? What is the current value of Chain’s expertise on evolutionary biology in general? Again, pretense of ‘expertise by association’. The argument is bogus: Linus Pauling was in his time a great chemist; do his Nobel Prizes validate his advocacy of Orthomolecular Medicine? A. N. Kolmogorov was one of Russia’s greatest mathematicians. Do his mathematical credentials justify his public condemnation of Solzhenitsyn in 1974?

    Substance:
    Prof. Skell’s main thrust appears to be that the Theory of Evolution is allegedly not relevant in the design of biological experiments, wherefore it should not be debated.
    To a first approximation, the logical structure of this argument (and much like it) may be rendered as “orange trees are in bloom in Southern California, but it’s Thursday in New York”. Two statements that may or may not be testable, may or may not be true, but which belong to disparate categories and certainly can’t be linked by a simple causal nexus. Clearly a logical fallacy.
    To a second approximation, and cutting short through cascades of unsupported allegations, the argument is deeply a-biological: if indeed organisms, at any level of complexity, are the product of Darwinian evolutionary processes, then any fundamental experimental insight into their mechanisms and strategies is predicated upon understanding this fact.
    Resistance to antibiotics, the product of a massive experiment in Darwinian selection, is a spectacular case in point. Prof. Skell’s fallacies are disproved by four letters: MRSA.

  25. Lotharloo
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    @Tom Gilson
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    His purpose when speaking of these things has remained focused: it is to rebut or refute the commonly-raised argument that evolution is a necessary foundation for understanding and even practicing biology. From at least Dobzhansky on, the word has been that you can’t make sense of biology without evolution. Skell disagrees specifically with this, that evolution holds essential heuristic value for practical biology. You quoted it yourself:

    Even if he means that, he is still wrong. Without evolution how do you make sense of say sex ratios or many other behaviors of the animals? How do you explain sperm wars? Skell might have an argument but he does not have a point.

  26. Posted February 25, 2009 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    >>What about the evidence that feathers arose as thermoregulatory devices, and possibly as sexual signals as well? What about the evidence that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded, or that human ancestors were bipedal before they evolved big brains? What about the “details” of the fish-amphibian transitional form Tiktaalik that show how it was adapted to functioning in the water and, fortuitously, evolved traits that were to help it invade the land?

    All of the evidence listed above comes from fossils— remains which had been chemically altered by the fossilization process and shattered or deformed by geological processes. Fossils cannot tell us why or how certain characteristics arose. Sexual selection cannot be observed in long-dead creatures. The bipedal status of ancient hominids remains a matter of intense debate, based on fragmentary evidence that often includes little more than shattered bits of a skull. The evidence for the supposed fish-amphibian transition relies on even less evidence. Until somebody develops a time machine no one can know how, when, or even if Tiktaalik or any fossil creature “invaded the land.” Just because someone with a PhD can dream up a good story about fossils doesn’t make the story correct.

    Like true zealots, evolutionists insist that no one with a brain, no true intellectual, can possibly question any part of the theory of evolution. The attacks on objectors revolve around the presumption that evolution has a solitary opponent—Creationism. Evolutionists can easily dismiss anyone who doubts evolution as a religious nut. Never mind that plenty of religious non-Christians question evolution, and that plenty of nonreligious people do the same. For a theory’s proponents to resort to name-calling and personal insults in defense of their cherished idea exposes the flimsy nature of the evidence for that theory.

    Lisa A. Shiel
    author of the The Evolution Conspiracy

  27. extatyzoma
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    skells insane ramblings amount to little more than ‘if you accept an organism is designed then you can learn from it but if you accept it has a 4 billion year history you cannot’.

    as for lisas comments: “Fossils cannot tell us why or how certain characteristics arose. Sexual selection cannot be observed in long-dead creatures.”

    what an ignoramus, typical creationist nonsensense designed to miseducate the unknowing layman. The WHY?? A T.rex for eg, those large teeth it had, despite being chemically altered and deformed by the fossilisation process it is reasonable to assume that they evolved as the creature had to eat something, meat presumably in its case. HOW they evolved, well the single fossil itself does not tell us that but the totality of evolutionary evidence which includes fossils leads us to assume that the teeth along with the whole animal arose by a process of accumulated change due to mutation and natural selection.

    as for your futile comment on sexual selection, I agree we will not witness two long dead stag beetles dueling over a female (im not one for believing in bodies rising from the dead as a rule) but we can make assumptions based on evidence that if we find a dimorphic fossil species whos males show structures that could be conceivably used as weapons/defence and/or display, you know like huge horns and thickened brain cases then it is reasonable to assume that they evolved as a product of sexual selection.

    a time machine is of course a silly idea, if such a machine were devised and a creationist could witness first hand the generations leading to tiktaalik and see it crawl from water they would claim an elaborate hoax. Lisa, if you have nothing useful to say then please keep your beliefs in the realm of faith where they belong. there is a very good reason why the words ‘god’, ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are generally nested together.

    as for name calling and insults hmmm ‘Like true zealots’.

    and as for ‘Never mind that plenty of religious non-Christians question evolution, and that plenty of nonreligious people do the same’

    argument from popularity, eg if the number of muslims overtakes the number of christians worldwide you would automatically assume their faith is the ‘true’ one and convert to islam? your point is weak anyway, do i think creationists are all religious nuts? no of course not, but it is true to say that all religious nuts ARE creationists though and that is rather telling.

    lisa, your points are as empty as skells, what you are saying is that we cant learn anything from fossils, tell that to the thousands of palaentologists working worldwide and you will be rightly laughed at.

    As they said ‘your ignorance is not evidence’.

  28. extatyzoma
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    lisa.

    in all fairness your point wasnt an argument from popularity as such but one to show that ‘not all creationists are nuts’ although im not sure why pointing out that some non christians and non religious people question evo had any purpose, we both know that there are nutty non christian religious people, and if you are not religious and you dont accept evolution they you had better have some good evidence for another non supernatural explanation.
    your point about the opposition not only being creationism is plainly false, you name me one non supernatural explanation of diversity thats any scientist is working on, ideas involving aliens need not apply.

    Evolution is not doubted generally by biologists, the actual mechanism details are open to dispute of course and there are legitimate scientists with different ideas working on those ideas.

  29. Posted February 25, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I guess I made my point, huh?

  30. Posted February 25, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I suppose I should note, up front, that I am Lisa’s father. I’ve actually read her new book that is due out later this year.

    I have 20 years experience as an engineer, 20 years as an Air Force pilot, 17 years as a freelance writer and historian, and 5 years as a publisher. And I’ve done graduate work in astronomy.

    It never fails to amaze me how little scientific rigor is attached to most scientific theories…once they become accepted by the vocal, name-calling “majority” (which often is not truly a majority of relevant scientists, anyway, or at least not for long).

    In the above discussion, “extatyzoma” (whatever kind of name that might be) has taken the position that nobody dare criticize a theory unless they are prepared to offer a counter-theory. What hogwash.

    I can see many flaws in many “accepted” scientific theories despite not having a viable alternative to offer — evolution for one, global warming (aka the meaningless “climate change”) for another, and even the Big Bang and string theories.

    I may not have an alternate theory but that does not mean I shouldn’t expect scientists to be able to clearly defend, with reasoned and respectful arguments, their pet theories against reasoned criticism.

    Lots of theories have fallen by the wayside over the course of the history of science. And many more will. Perhaps even evolution.

    Even Einstein’s wonderful theories are starting to get just a touch tattered around the edges as we learn more about cosmology and quantum mechanics. They may very well require some adjustments or extension in the future.

    And evolution can, in no may, be construed as a hard science. (Got my flak jacket on.)

    Explain a single, replicable experiment that can provide consistent proof that evolution happens. For example, define an experiment in which a NEW species (of anything) is created as one species evolves.

    I’m waiting…

    Walt Shiel
    View From the Publishing Trenches

    http://WaltShiel.com

  31. Posted February 25, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    “I’m waiting…”

    From my experience. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    I’ve been making the same argument for 10 years and it’s fallen on deaf ears.

  32. Posted February 25, 2009 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Walt, Walt, Walt. I have 32 years as a breather, 17 years as a software developer, 9 years as an atheist and 32 years of not being Lisa’s father. (Who cares? You’re wrong!)

    The argument from personal incredulity is an extremely weak one that deserves no sort of respect. You can criticize any theory you want but you should not be given a soap box (as in Forbes) to put forth such unsupported beliefs. It is also only fair that you be ridiculed for making patently false claims about scientific facts.

  33. extatyzoma
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    walt.

    so the best you can come up with as a rebuttal includes:

    ‘In the above discussion, “extatyzoma” (whatever kind of name that might be) has taken the position that nobody dare criticize a theory unless they are prepared to offer a counter-theory. What hogwash.”

    of course anybody can criticise a theory but as of yet evolution is the only naturalistic explanation for the diversity of life on this planet, its yet to be falsified, thats why its the current theory, yes it may be in part or totally superceded but there isnt a single case of falsification known. You laugh at my criticise with no replacement theory point but i dont see you proposing anything at all, typical of a creationist. At least there is a standing theory, you can offer absolutely zero, zilch, nada.

    the list of your experience doesnt add up to anything, if you are ignorant of biology you are ignorant of biology, its that simple.

    the points you make are invalid, unless you can provide falsification evidence of evolution then you might as well just grin and bear it.

    the day evolution is falsified is the day textbooks will change and slight or major reworkings of ideas in the past does not mean that the evolution can therefor be dismissed or treated with suspicion, thats an utterly idiotic notion, thats like saying lets ground all aircraft just in case newtons laws of motion are wrong.

    your point about scientific rigour is especially ridiculous, every time a geneticist unravels some part of some organisms genome it could potentially falsify evolution, evolution is easily falsifiable, almost every new fact learned about organisms and every fossil dug up can potentially falsify evolution, but guess what, it still hasnt happened.

    as for your notion of a competing theory, well of course there isnt one as yet, if you mean the ‘magicical creation hypothesis’ which the real ‘majority’ holds, well that cant be tested and so isnt science.

    assuming that you prefer teh magic creation idea then I propose the ‘angel lift hypothesis of aircraft’ this is where aircraft travel is nothing to do with craft shape, air pressure and speed etc but its where planes are carried by angels to their destination. Its a fair idea i must say but alas is difficult to test as those angels are undetectable most of the time, i suggest equal time for the hypotheseis in flight engineering schools though, just to be fair and open to all ideas.

    this is the best part though

    “Explain a single, replicable experiment that can provide consistent proof that evolution happens. For example, define an experiment in which a NEW species (of anything) is created as one species evolves.”

    this shows your utter ignorance of science and evolution in particular. Science doesnt try to prove things, it attempts to show them false and if it cannot then it assumes for the time being that they hold true. An asthmatic who takes an inhaler for an attack and then is relieved does not prove the drug actually works, not technically anyway, it could be magic faries doing the job, i would assume however that it was the drug but techically you cannot show it wasnt the magic faries.

    Your ignorance of evolution is profound, as one species evolves in the classical sense of gradual change it doesnt actually turn into another species with one generation (a daughter is always the same species as her mother), its only with time that the original organism can be compared with its descendents many years ahead and the differences between the two (with an unbroken link of generations between them) thus noticable enough to give 2 species. Such an experiment would take a long time to achieve, evolution works over 1000’s of years, a good example though as work in progress could be the chihuahua and a great dane both descended from wolves, sure they are both ‘still dogs’ but if you put a chihuahua and dane together, try as they might they will not be able to mate, technically this makes them genetically isolated and given enough time their genomes could become different enough that even a forced mating between them could result in no offspring.

    actually there is a demonstration of the type of thing you are looking for as evidence. This occurs over space rather than through time, look up ring species and the herring gull and lesser blacjk backed gull, literally one species gradually morphs into another, this is precisely the type of thing you’d expect to find if evolution were true, ring species are quite common. of course the fossil record is used to actually compare organisms through time, despite the fact that they are damaged and altered as your daughter mentions they are still incredibly useful tools, only an utter ignoramus would decide fossils werent full of useful information, seems that as that information indicates some evolutionary process it is there for deemed invalid.

    there are of course instances of known instant speciation esp in plants where their chromosomes duplicate and literally creating a new species in one generation, unable to reproduce with their previous own species.

    Let me suggest you actually read up on evolution as you clearly know nothing about it, you are a typical creationsist just like skell, full of weak arguments and less knowledge of biology than the average 8 year old.

  34. Posted February 25, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I can’t begin to tell you how much I am enjoying this debate. Even the me-too disciples of evolution have been more interesting than the ones who chime in on other threads.

    I am neither an expert nor am I ignorant about evolution. But, it doesn’t take an expert to recognize the faulty reasoning, bait-and-switch, and character assassination that goes on in discussions like this. For example, contrary to one common point of attack, it is possible to be a creationist and accept the demonstrable and observable concept of natural selection. Creationists simply limit the potential range of change to that which is defined by the genetic code.

    Anyway, let me give some non-religious reasons why I reject evolution. First, is the lack of evidence that beneficial mutations add information to the genetic code. This is necessary for evolution to occur, yet it hasn’t been found. Second is Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity argument, which I won’t explain here, but which I think is logical. Third is the lack of transitional species in the fossil record. Sure there are a relative few dubious candidate specimens, but not even close to number needed to show a chain of events that produced humans from non-living matter. Fourth is probability. With today’s understanding of life’s complexity, which far exceeds what was available in Darwin’s day, the door is open for mathematical arguments that say evolution is a statistical impossibility, by MANY orders of magnitude.

    You don’t have to be a Ph.D. biologist or geneticist or archaeologist to credibly conclude that evolution is a theory in BIG trouble. But, if the reasons above are not enough, just look at the reactions from the evolution camp. Not that many years ago, people like Dembski, Behe, Gish, Lisle, Snelling, and others who oppose evolution would have been ignored as fringe kooks. Today they are openly and aggressively being branded as fringe kooks only because they are gaining traction. Why? Because their arguments are sound and are resonating inside and outside the scientific community.

    I will enjoy watching the fray, maybe joining in from time-to-time, and cheering for the underdogs. But, with the Creator on their side, are they really the underdogs?

  35. extatyzoma
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    clancy cross, you are ignorant you’ve been reading nonsensical crap from the DI, all argument from personal incredulity of course.

    there are literally millions of transitional fossils, mainly microfossils of course, smaller fossils are more common than the larger more popular forms. Any organism that left escendents is technically a transitional form.

    What creationists dont seem to realise is that its precisely because of transitional fossils that the theory of evolution actually began to grow in darwins mind, he didnt set out to destroy the notion of creation.

    the reason why people are fed up with creationist nonsense is of course because there are lots of them trying to get it into schools as science, thats the issue.

    anyway i’ll take my discussion to a more active forum, listening to the same old trite points from creationists get old fast.

    oh, and as for behes IC, you neededt explain it, theres not much to say, its an argument from personal incredulity of course , he says ‘I persoanlly cant see how that evolved therefor it didnt’ he made a fool of himself at the dover trial of course. his ideas arent even scientific, he made the idiotic suggestion that ID could be falsified by selecting for a flagellum in a non flagellate micro organism in teh lab, the man is as daft as they come, he somehow thinks that if there is a god he cant put his influence in a petri dish, unless behe has invented a god shield or something.

    of course its possibble to be a creationist and accept selection or evolution fully you, you are just being silly now, thats theisic evolution.

    as for bait and switch, just what the hell are you talking about?

    lying for jeesus, again.

  36. Posted February 26, 2009 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    “You don’t have to be a Ph.D. biologist or geneticist or archaeologist to credibly conclude that evolution is a theory in BIG trouble. But, if the reasons above are not enough, just look at the reactions from the evolution camp. Not that many years ago, people like Dembski, Behe, Gish, Lisle, Snelling, and others who oppose evolution would have been ignored as fringe kooks. Today they are openly and aggressively being branded as fringe kooks only because they are gaining traction. Why? Because their arguments are sound and are resonating inside and outside the scientific community.”

    In science, among the people that actually do the work, they are still rightly branded as kooks. Clancy, you are proudly ignorant of the issues involved and boldly declare that you have enough understanding to declare that evolution is a theory in crisis.

    For Walter, Lisa and Marshall to declare the fiat that evolution is not a thoroughly investigated aspect of biology is to demonstrate their own refusal to actually dig into the work of the scientists who study evolution.

    Natural selection is rightly diminished as the predominant force of evolution because biologists now have a greater understanding of genomics than did Darwin, yea, even Fischer. It is still a selective force that yields great diversity, but of course their are other factors.

    And how do biologists know that additional forces are at work in the non-historical understanding of evolution?

    The whole process of science involves attacking theories. The creationists here in this debate would have the casual observer believe that the study of evolution has all been a matter of sitting around and thinking of ways to further a set of weak hypothesis in order to “shout down” dissenters. What they fail to understand is that the rhetoric of creationists is merely that, rhetoric. Sound and theory, signifying nothing.

    Clancy, through a clear demonstration of the fusion of two chromosomes into one, Ken Miller dismantled with evidence the nonsensical (and not even wrong) claim that evolution can’t produce new information. DNA isn’t information, it isn’t “data” in the sense that a computer program carries data. It is a set of templates for proteins. There is no program in the nucleus nor is their one in the mitochondrial DNA. There is no microprocessor. Your fiat is as nonsensical as the claim that evolution, increasing complexity violates the 2LOT.

    I must salute the creationists, though. Through investigating their nonsense, I have a much better (although still much limited,) understanding of bioloogy and evolution. I checked up on their claims, you see, and I am richer for it.

  37. Occam
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Clancy:
    Quote: “You don’t have to be a Ph.D. biologist or geneticist or archaeologist to credibly conclude that evolution is a theory in BIG trouble.”

    I actually am an archaeologist, with a strong background in molecular biology, and my main area of work is statistics and mathematical models.

    And you are right: only if you are none of the above can you so blithely allege that “evolution is a theory in BIG trouble”.
    Get to a public library, peruse just a couple of years’ worth of Science or Nature for starters: you’ll be amazed.

    As for the “irreducible complexity” argument: the study of complexity and how it evolves has been one of the exploding fields in the past few years. Get a primer, get involved, and you’ll see for yourself that “irreducibility” is hogwash. If you wish to believe in a Creator (I don’t, you seem to, that’s your privilege), you might as well get His workings right. Again, you’ll be amazed.

    Finally, probability 101: there is absolutely no statistical way you can state ex-post that an event with a given outcome was “impossible”. But we’re talking about a VERY long and complex chain of conditional events here, the probability distributions, initial conditions, and boundaries of which are, mostly, not yet well understood at all. ANY statistical statement would be doubtful at best; one alleging “impossibility” is complete nonsense.
    Let’s hope you won’t need hospital treatment anytime soon. There’s a definite probability that you’ll meet with very unpleasant, antibiotics-resistant bugs that will teach you how fast and efficient natural selection and evolution can be. We’ve done that experiment on a large scale, at our expense.

  38. Occam
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Clancy again:

    watch this on the Nature website:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090225/full/news.2009.122.html

    and at the Natural History Museum:

    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2009/february/fish-knew-first-about-sex.html

    penetrating insight, don’t you think?

  39. Steven Sullivan
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Clancy wrote:

    “I am neither an expert nor am I ignorant about evolution.”

    Well, you got one right.

    Hint: reading Behe doesn’t make you well-educated about evolution.

    Try reading more Jerry Coyne, or maybe Futuyma’s wonderful book for the nonscientist, “Science on Trial: the Case for Evolution. “

  40. James C
    Posted March 4, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Skell is clearly wilfully ignorant. Before opening his mouth and making himself look a fool by saying that there are no practical applications of evolutionary theory (ET) I think he should have first had a walk around his Uni and asked each department in turn if this was true, it might have shocked him if he had. As a chemist and computer programmer I can agree there is little use of ET in chemistry (so far anyway, when we have abiogenesis worked out I bet it will play its part!) and I’m not a biologist so won’t comment on areas outside my expertise (another thing Skell should take note of).
    However in Computer Science ET has a huge range of practical, real-world applications. So vast is the number of applications I won’t even attempt to do them justice, but instead will just point you to the contents page of this book (and there are many more like it) to give you an idea of the immense range of areas it touches on:

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=KQo0n1vZbi0C&dq=evolutionary+computing+real+world+examples&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=7NAP8Aq2er&sig=iqmLFY4y63Bf_7617PzjTvlHdvs&hl=en&ei=cJKuSYPqF4S2jAfI-MWlBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result#PPR11,M1

    His argument when boiled down is essentially ‘ET has few uses in chemistry, therefore it’s worthless’, which makes about as much sense as ‘paint brushes have few uses in chemistry, therefore are worthless’, without him ever having spoken to an artist. Ironically enough ET is most often used in problems where explicit programming (i.e. intelligently designed code!) is impossible and he probably encounters machines running such code every day without him even knowing it.

  41. Hugh Troy
    Posted March 5, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Skell’s rationality goes down the toilet when he denies that evolution isn’t relevant in biological science. But he isn’t seeking to be rational, he is trying to slander evolution because it shows that his “God did it” idea is totally worthless.
    You can’t dress ignorance up as science as the IDiots do, because science depends on seeking out answers.Not relying on religious dogma gussied up to look like scientific theory.

  42. Posted March 6, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Mike wrote: “…through a clear demonstration of the fusion of two chromosomes into one, Ken Miller dismantled with evidence the nonsensical (and not even wrong) claim that evolution can’t produce new information.”

    First, you present your premise that Ken Miller has debunked my statement about evolution producing no new information. Here’s a short article by someone who has a different opinion.

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2008/02/01/feedback-new-information

    Mike continued: “DNA isn’t information, it isn’t “data” in the sense that a computer program carries data. It is a set of templates for proteins. There is no program in the nucleus nor is their one in the mitochondrial DNA. There is no microprocessor.”

    I fail to see relevance in this statement, which seems to contradict your previous one. On one hand, Miller has demonstrated new, evolution-produced information, which is not really information because DNA is only a template and has no microprocessor like a computer. You seem confused. Is DNA information or not? If not, why do we refer to it as the genetic code? And what about the “template for proteins” comment? How can you possibly believe there is no information in a template?

    Mike also wrote: “In science, among the people that actually do the work”

    Mike also wrote: “The whole process of science involves attacking theories.”

    Attacking theories is fine. But, pro-evolution people use quite liberally a different tool. When they struggle to defend theories scientifically — they resort to personal attacks. “Creation scientists are not real scientists.” “They’re religious fanatics — they don’t do real science.” “It’s all a bunch of nonsense.” “They are Ignorant.” It is rare to read a post of significant length from the pro-evolution side that does not use the “I” word or one of these other attacks.

    This is fun! I can almost see the hairs on the back of your necks standing straight up.

  43. Posted March 6, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Occam wrote: “there is absolutely no statistical way you can state ex-post that an event with a given outcome was ‘impossible’.”

    Sorry, you missed my point. I didn’t mean to say the event and outcome are impossible. Obviously, that is false based on simple observation — we are here! My point is that it is statistically impossible for evolution to be the cause.

    Occam also wrote: “Let’s hope you won’t need hospital treatment anytime soon. There’s a definite probability that you’ll meet with very unpleasant, antibiotics-resistant bugs that will teach you how fast and efficient natural selection and evolution can be.”

    Nice try. While this example shows natural selection at work, it does NOT explain how adaptation and natural selection can produce new information in the genetic code such that it can create a brand new species? In genetic terms, how do we get from bacteria to humans via evolution?

    I stand by my assertion that the Theory of Evolution is in big trouble. It’s just that the evolutionists don’t realize it yet.

  44. drewster
    Posted March 30, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    I actually greatly enjoyed Professor Skell’s classes at Penn State back in the ’80s.
    Do I have to give back my degree now that he’s shown he knows nothing about science???


6 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] it seems they didn’t learn their lesson as now they’re giving yet another creationist, Phillip Skell, the final word. Forbes, you’re dead to [...]

  2. [...] Forbes loses it again over evolution A few days ago I wrote a piece for Forbes online responding to the ignorant assertions of a physician, Dr. Michael [...] [...]

  3. [...] Skell’s arguments are easily rebutted is not surprising; what is surprising is that Faulk was responding to something Skell wrote in the [...]

  4. [...] vivipary in a placoderm, a group of ancient fish. This is a wonderful discovery, showing again that Philip Skell doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Skell, you’ll recall, had said fossils [...]

  5. [...] Lisa’s comments | Tags: evolution zealots, fossil evidence, sexual selection, Tiktaalik |   http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/forbes-loses-it-again-over-evolution/#comment-362 [...]

  6. [...] is of no practical use and of no use to experimental biology (he has repeated this claim over at Forbes Magazine ). As I had encountered Skell’s generic brand of anti-evolutionism before, I ignored the [...]

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