NC State student admits that his antievolution diatribe was a satire, but a real creationist appears

On November 16 I wrote about Nicky Vaught, a student at North Carolina State University who published an article in the student newspaper The Technician that looked to be pure creationism: “How to argue against evolutionists.” It was so laden with dreadful creationist tropes that I suspected it might be a joke, but in the end thought the weight of evidence suggested it was genuine.

Well, an editor at the paper has finally admitted it was indeed a joke, saying “*Note: This column was intended to be satirical.”  And Nicky himself came over to our site to assure us his letter was indeed satire. He said that, despite his Christian past, he was indeed taking the mickey out of creationism, and I’m told that Nicky is now a member of NC State’s Secular Student Alliance.  Here’s part of his comment:

Yes. I am Nicky Vaught. I no longer identify as Christian. This article was a joke–or more like me just having fun. Admittedly, upon rereading, it was next to humorless. I thought my exaggerated diction would offer a good enough tell that this was, in fact, satirical. The video comes from years ago when I was Christian only in name–note the content of the meditation having nearly nothing to do with Christianity.

Well, satire is effective only insofar as one can recognize that it is satire, so perhaps Nicky, if he’s serious about going after creationism, will do a better job next time.

In the meantime, someone named David Roemer has written a genuine creationist letter at The Technician. Roemer has commented several times as a theist on this site (one example is here), so this letter is no surprise:

Biological evolution includes adaptation and common descent.  The adaptation of species to the environment is an observation. Common descent is the theory that microscopic organisms evolved into whales in period of about 100 million decades. I use decades rather than years because it take 20 years for a single fertilized human egg to produce all of the cells in the human body. People who contradict creationists by insisting evolution is a fact tend to think it is a fact that free will is an illusion. One theory answers the question: Where do fossils come from? The other theory answers the question: What is the relationship between myself and my body?

Fact or theory, evolution gives rise to the question of what caused it. Biologists invented the theory of natural selection acting upon innovations. The old paradigm for innovations was random mutations. According to James Shapiro of the University of Chicago, the new paradigm is “natural genetic engineering.” Be that as it may, not enough is understood about the innovations natural selection acts upon to understand how mammals evolved so rapidly from bacteria. Evolutionary biologists always speak of “adaptive evolution.” An old model for evolution was a tornado hitting a junkyard and producing a Boeing 747 in flight. The new model is a computer generating an English sonnet by the random selection of letters.

The only theory that even attempts to explain evolution is the theory of intelligent design (ID).  Advocates of ID compare this theory with natural selection to make ID look more rational than it is. ID is an irrational theory because there is no evidence for it. Atheists go along with this scam because they don’t want to admit that ID is a better theory than natural selection, in some sense.

Evolution is connected to religion, and religion causes conflict between people. Conflict produces anxiety, and inhibition is a defense mechanism for anxiety. When it comes to evolution, people are inhibited from thinking rationally and intelligently and behaving properly.

Another biologist from the University of Chicago, Jerry Coyne, is so obsessed with his hatred of creationism and the theory of intelligent design, that he saw fit to lambast Nicky Vaught on his widely read blog, “Why Evolution Is True.” Jerry Coyne will never admit publicly that natural selection explains only adaptation.

David Roemer

I’m not sure why the editors published this given all the good respnoses to Vaught’s letter, but this letter is an ignorant mess.  First, it was more than a billion years between the first microscopic organisms and whales. Stromatolites (cyanobacteria) are about 3.6 billion years old, while whales didn’t appear until about 45 million years ago. The 20-year generation time is completely irrelevant.

Why Roemer throws in free will is mysterious, unless he’s got an animus against this site (which he probably does). But I don’t see any evidence that there’s a correlation between accepting evolution and rejecting free will.

James Shapiro’s theories of “natural genetic engineering” make no sense, and can’t explain adaptation, the appearance of design (see here for some of my critiques of Shapiro’s views). Shapiro is a renegade biologist, much beloved of creationists and antievolutionist philosophers, but his views have gained no traction in mainstream evolutionary biology.

I love this part of Roemer’s rant:

Evolutionary biologists always speak of “adaptive evolution.” An old model for evolution was a tornado hitting a junkyard and producing a Boeing 747 in flight. The new model is a computer generating an English sonnet by the random selection of letters.

That bespeaks a total misunderstanding of natural selection, and was, in fact, refuted by Dawkins’s famous “methinks it is like a weasel” analogy from The Blind Watchmaker.  Natural selection involves not just a random production of “mutant” letters, but a process of nonrandom selection among them.

Dawkins’s original analogy used selection among mutations that brought a string of gibberish closer to a target sequence, but there need be no fixed target—just a mutant sequence that confers the ability to leave more offspring than the previous sequence. Given random mutation and the nonrandom selection among new mutations that confer higher “fitness” on an organism, adaptation follows. That is the “new model” to which evolutionists adhere, and it isn’t “rocket surgery” (see next post). If Roemer doesn’t understand natural selection, what credibility does he have to criticize it?

The paragraph on intelligent design (ID) is completely incoherent and you can puzzle it out for yourself.  The penultimate paragraph, about religion, evolution, and anxiety, is also incoherent—it’s not clear exactly who is affected by evolution to the extent that they don’t think rationally or behave properly. Given that Roemer is a theist, I suspect he’s talking about those immoral and irrational people who accept evolution.

Finally, why does reasonable criticism of a supposedly creationist letter betoken obsession and irrational hatred? That’s just one more creationist canard, casting evolutionists and atheists as angry, student, and obsessive. In fact Mr. Roemer’s letter is far more “strident,” and far more ignorant, than mine. He needs to bone up on his evolutionary biology.

As far as “Jerry Coyne never admitting that natural selection explains only adaptation,” those words are so garbled that I’m not sure what I’m supposed to admit. I will “admit” that natural selection is the only viable theory that explains the appearance of design: “adaptations.” But it also explains things that are maladaptive, like occasional pleiotropic byproducts of an adaptation that don’t override its net positive effect.  At any rate, if Roemer could learn to write better, I could answer him better.

h/t: Lynn

46 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Sastra
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    The only theory that even attempts to explain evolution is the theory of intelligent design (ID). Advocates of ID compare this theory with natural selection to make ID look more rational than it is. ID is an irrational theory because there is no evidence for it. Atheists go along with this scam because they don’t want to admit that ID is a better theory than natural selection, in some sense.

    This is another garbled paragraph. I had to read it several times. I assume that the writer is defending ID and that the second and third sentence are supposed to be quotes from evolutionists. Otherwise there’s a massive contradiction.

    So, ok. ID “explains” evolution. How does Intelligent Design work? Spell out the mechanism, the process, the procedure. Get a wee bit reductive and throw out some details. But they never do this, do they?

    I think the closest we get is theists defending scientific ‘proof’ of psychokenesis. There’s your mechanism: the Power of Pure Intention. In which case we’ve got new questions: did God’s Intention psychokenetically move around preexisting matter or create it ex nihilio — and at what stage(s)?

    Plus, would there have been a popping sound? Sparkles? This is science and inquiring minds want to know.

  3. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    People who contradict creationists by insisting evolution is a fact tend to think it is a fact that free will is an illusion. One theory answers the question: Where do fossils come from? The other theory answers the question: What is the relationship between myself and my body?

    I’m not sure I get this. Is he trying to set up a scenario where evolution and creationism both counts as scientific theories?

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Complete post meltdown. Supposed to go like this.

      People who contradict creationists by insisting evolution is a fact tend to think it is a fact that free will is an illusion. One theory answers the question: Where do fossils come from? The other theory answers the question: What is the relationship between myself and my body?

      I’m not sure I get this. Is he trying to set up a scenario where evolution and creationism both counts as scientific theories?

      • Sastra
        Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        I think he is trying to tar ‘evolution’ with cooties. The theory of evolution falls into the same icky category as the theory that our minds are only brains — and we all know what that means. No soul, no spirit, no love, no consciousness, no free will. Zombies.

        He’s trying to set up a scenario between Good Beliefs and Bad Beliefs.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted November 20, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

          Thanks sastra, that completely went over my head.

          I must admit I’m a bit disappointed though, but this is just the ol’ “without religion civilization will crumble” canard then.

          Oh, well…

        • dongiovanni
          Posted November 20, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

          Nothing wrong with being a zombie…

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 20, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

            I think it would be itchy and stinky.

  4. Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    “mammals evolved so rapidly from bacteria”

    wat

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted November 21, 2013 at 1:49 am | Permalink

      And the fossil record shows that there is a very large (and steadily growing) number of missing links along the mammalian stem lineage… so there!

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Common descent is the theory that microscopic organisms evolved into whales in period of about 100 million decades. I use decades rather than years because it take 20 years for a single fertilized human egg to produce all of the cells in the human body.

    What does human development time have to do with either microscopic organisms or whales?

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    His paragraphs are indeed jumbled. He goes from misunderstanding evolution:

    An old model for evolution was a tornado hitting a junkyard and producing a Boeing 747 in flight. The new model is a computer generating an English sonnet by the random selection of letters.

    To talking about how atheists don’t like ID:

    Advocates of ID compare this theory with natural selection to make ID look more rational than it is. ID is an irrational theory because there is no evidence for it. Atheists go along with this scam because they don’t want to admit that ID is a better theory than natural selection, in some sense.

    Notice how ID supporters are unnamed while opponents are identified as “atheists” (you glean this after realizing “ID is an irrational theory” is what he attributes to atheists. What’s important here is that he mixes up biologists, accepters of evolution and atheists as one group, where in practice, these roles may be exclusive (or not). It’s the typical confusion of thinking all scientists have equal knowledge in all areas of science (because, after all, they’re part of some secret club) and that all atheists know as much about science as all scientists. It reminds me of a ridiculous question I saw posed online that went something like, “riddle me this, atheists if there is no oxygen in space, how does the sun burn?”.

    So full of fail.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      Your last line reminds me of a meme I’ve seen (probably easy to find using the Google): “If christianity isn’t true, then why are vampires afraid of crosses? Checkmate, atheists!”

      Somewhat amusingly, this is actually a *better* argument than the Roemerbabble that Jerry posted.

  7. eric
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Fact or theory, evolution gives rise to the question of what caused it.

    That’s kinda like asking what causes death. Lots of causes contribute. We can even ask the question different ways, as in “a bullet entering the heart” vs. “depression.”

    I think he’s making the linguistic error of expecting a one-noun-to-one-cause answer. There isn’t one. Just because we can parse the qusetion “what causes [noun]” for any noun, doesn’t mean all such questions have a unitary or even meaningful answer. Just because English can say it, doesn’t mean it exists.

    The new model is a computer generating an English sonnet by the random selection of letters.

    JAC mentioned the weasel example. David, if you’re lurking, you should consider that the probablity of randomly generating that string is about 1E-40. IOW, probabilistically you’d need between 1E20 and maybe 1E30 generations to have a reasonable chance of seeing it. But with mutation and natural selection, you need about 50 generations to have a good chance o seeing it. So the “new model” shows exactly why evolution is considered to be a viable mechanism for creating massive complexity, relatively fast.

    The only theory that even attempts to explain evolution is the theory of intelligent design (ID). Advocates of ID compare this theory with natural selection to make ID look more rational than it is. ID is an irrational theory because there is no evidence for it. Atheists go along with this scam because they don’t want to admit that ID is a better theory than natural selection, in some sense.

    Like JAC, I can’t make much af this paragraph. He vaccilates back and forth between pro- and con- ID statements.

  8. Leigh Jackson
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Those models which Roemer mentions are ID memes. Memes which never mention the sieve of natural selection. The 747 analogy was designed by Fred Hoyle, who didn’t think natural selection had sufficient power to do the job of producing the likes of us. So he thought effectively all that was left was random mutation. Silly Freddy.

  9. Brad Geiger
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    This is why we need you to come speak here in Raleigh!

  10. Posted November 20, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Give Vaught a break. How could one take Roemer’s letter, for example, “over the top” to make satire? It’s already in the stratosphere of absurdity. Voltaire would have found it a challenge.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      It made me laugh – not in a bad way. Getting people guessing whether it’s meant as satire can be fun in itself.

  11. eric
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    satire is effective only insofar as one can recognize that it is satire

    I’ll somewhat quibble with that. Satire can be taken literally by the group it’s intended to lampoon and still be satire. I’ve known conservatives who thought Colbert was a real conservative – but it’s still good satire.

    IMO Satire works best when it achieves an admittedly difficult sweet spot: too many people get it the moment they read it, and its “obvious” or “transparent.” Too few people get it or it takes too much analysis to get, and it’s not funny. To be really funny, it needs to be the sort of thing that most people get after a few minute’s thought, and probably everybody gets after more thought.

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Satire works when there are some people that don’t get it, and it is best when some people take it seriously, especially those the satire is ridiculing. If Roemer above quoted Vaught in his piece then the satire would have been worth it. Wikipedia has an example section for the point I’m trying to make – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Onion#The_Onion_taken_seriously

      … And just for our amusement – thoughtcatalog.com/hudson-hongo/2013/08/the-35-best-times-someone-on-facebook-thought-the-onion-was-real/ Number 19 is worth scrolling down to.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 21, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

        Number 19 –
        “.. the heat wave…. may be due to an enormous star located at the center of the solar system.” The Onion is a work of true genius at times.

        But possibly even better are the doofuses who doggedly persist in taking The Onion’s absurd reports seriously even after an exasperated commenter tells them “IT’S A FUCKING COMEDY WEBSITE!”

        Nice link! 8)

  12. Grania Spingies
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    “satire is effective only insofar as one can recognize that it is satire”

    I am beginning to think that a lot of people don’t seem to have any idea what satire is. The whole point of satire is to deliver a critical but humorous comment about something. Being obvious so that ‘everyone gets it’, is not; if I may disagree with Eric above; a problem. You want people to understand your point.

    I find nothing intrinsically interesting or clever or even funny in Poes. So what if someone can carefully ape something so that it is indistinguishable from the original? It makes no point what so ever and adds nothing to the conversation.

    • Posted November 20, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Ah, but with one important exception: the Sokal Hoax. It was the inability of scholars to recognize that as a clever bit postmodernism that showed them up as fools. The whole success of that depended on people not knowing it was a satire, and, in fact, had no Sokal revealed it as a hoax in LIngua Franca, people probably wouldn’t realize it now.

      It was perhaps the most devastating show-up of the postmodernist program ever, and that success depending on its being a total Poe.

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted November 20, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        The point of the hoax was satirical, but the content of the text was not. It was just a word salad.

        But I will concede that this is the exception to my general rule about Poes.

        There is usually no strategy at all.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Yeah it succeeds as a poe but fails as satire.

    • eric
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Being obvious so that ‘everyone gets it’, is not; if I may disagree with Eric above; a problem. You want people to understand your point.

      So Colbert is not a good satirist, because not everybody gets it?

      Just challenging you – I think this is a point on which resonable people can disagree. Certainly a joke is better when more than just a very few get it, but you don’t have to have everyone get it for a joke to be funny or clever.

      I think most people (above the age of 16) understand what satire is in an intellectual sense. But many people today (a) don’t like being the butt of jokes, or (b) tend to equate “I don’t get it” with “not funny.” I put it to you that satire is not a popular, mainstream form of humor today because whatever satire you’re making, you’re going to have a lot of people on either the (a) or (b) list. As a society, we have become less willing to be made fun of, and less willing to concede that a joke we don’t personally get (or get right away) may in fact be good.

      As a personal anecdote (which will date me), I remember watching the SNL jokes about Bush/Dukakis with a big bunch of college friends. The conservatives thought the Dukakis jokes were hilarious and the Bush jokes were offensive. The liberals thought the reverse. At one point I stood up and basically shouted ITS THE SAME FRAKKING JOKE, PEOPLE – but nobody changed their minds. Even back then, humor had become largely become narcissistic. Satire isn’t; while it may directly lampoon someone, it only indirectly supports a cause or notion. People seem to want that support for their beliefs in their humor, so it’s unpopular. (All IMO)

  13. Posted November 20, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I am not a biologist and don’t care whether you (random mutations) or James Shapiro (natural genetic engineering) is right. I offer the following five quotes to prove that natural selection only explains adaptation, not common descent:

    1) By the time Darwin came to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859, he had amassed enough evidence to propel evolution itself, though still not natural selection, a long way towards the status of fact. Indeed, it was this elevation from hypothesis towards fact that occupied Darwin for most of his great book. The elevation has continued until, today, there is no longer any doubt in any serious mind, and scientists speak, at least informally, of the fact of evolution. All reputable biologists go on to agree that natural selection is one of its most important driving forces, although —as some biologists insist more than others—not the only one. Even if it is not the only one, I have yet to meet a serious biologist who can point to an alternative to natural selection as a driving force of adaptive evolution—evolution towards positive improvement. (Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, p. 18)

    2) Facilitated variation is not like orthogenesis, a theory championed by the eccentric American paleontologist Henry Osborn (1857–1935), which imbues the organism with an internal preset course of evolution, a program of variations unfolding over time. Natural selection remains a major part of the explanation of how organisms have evolved characters so well adapted to the environment. (Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma, page 247)

    3)The history of life presents three great sources of wonder. One is adaptation, the marvelous fit between organism and environment. The other two are diversity and complexity, the huge variety of living forms today and the enormous complexity of their internal structure. Natural selection explains adaptation. But what explains diversity and complexity? (Daniel W. McShae, Biology’s First Law: The Tendency for Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems, 1st paragraph)

    The “tornado in a junkyard” model comes from Arthur Eddington, who was an atheist. The “sonnet” model comes from biology professors at Berkeley and Harvard:

    4)By comparison, if we question how long it would take a high-speed computer to write randomly a specific Shakespearean sonnet, we are asking that all the letters of the words of the sonnet will come up simultaneously in the correct order. It is an impossible task, even if all the computers in the world today had been working from the time of the big bang to the present. Even to compose the phrase, ‘To be or not to be,’ letter by letter, would take a typical computer millions of years. (Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart, The Plausiblity of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma, page 32)

    Kirschner and Gerhart changed the calculation of “millions of years” to a “short time” by taking into consideration natural selection and facilitated variation. They did not, however, say how long it would take to get 600-letter sonnet using this more realistic approach. They didn’t say because nobody cares. No biologist thinks natural selection explains common descent. The only people who think this are laymen who are mislead by the likes of you and ID advocates. Kenneally, Pinker, and Bloom in the following quote don’t have PhDs in biology:

    5)They [Pinker and Bloom] particularly emphasized that language is incredibly complex, as Chomsky had been saying for decades. Indeed, it was the enormous complexity of language that made is hard to imagine not merely how it had evolved but that it had evolved at all.

    But, continued Pinker and Bloom, complexity is not a problem for evolution. Consider the eye. The little organ is composed of many specialized parts, each delicately calibrated to perform its role in conjunction with the others. It includes the cornea,…Even Darwin said that it was hard to imagine how the eye could have evolved.

    And yet, he explained, it did evolve, and the only possible way is through natural selection—the inestimable back-and-forth of random genetic mutation with small effects…Over the eons, those small changes accreted and eventually resulted in the eye as we know it. (Christine Kenneally, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language pp. 59–60)

    • Erik Verbruggen
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      I contest that most biologists are ignorant of the fact that random drift also contributes to evolution, however in most cases natural selection Iisresponsible for adaptation. Then, asking whether “natural selection causes common descent” is nonsensical, what does that even mean? As you suggest you are not a biologist and thus refer to (non) biologist writers to make your case. But on what ground do you believe them and not (nearly) all evolutionary biologists?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I am not a biologist and don’t care whether you (random mutations) or James Shapiro (natural genetic engineering) is right.

      …which suggests one of the two is right. You’d think you’d be very concerned if one in particular was right, even if you do oversimplify.

    • eric
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Are you trying to make an origin of life argument? I.e., in asking for an explanation of common descent, are you asking for how the very first organism arose from nonlife?

      Because if you’re asking for the explanation of how one species arises from another, descent with modification is the answer, and mutation+natural selection is the (predominant) mechanism.

    • Sean
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad you have the gumption to argue your case here in “enemy territory” without delving into namecalling. I would advise against mixing philosophical style arguments with science. Natural selection was never thought to ‘explain’ common descent, it is merely a mechanism through which certain alleles achieve fixation in a population – the result of which is seen as ‘adaptation’. It’s implications are uncoupled with the theory of common descent, but the two combined provide a compelling and testable chunk of theory on the origin of biodiversity. I don’t quite get why you use that as a launchpad to attack evolutionary theory, your original article seems a little schizophrenic in its wording and choice of arguments. That being said, this paper ( http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0069924 ) does a good job providing some evidence for common descent. We see a predictive (predicted by evolution and not ID or creationism) divergence in the sequences of homologous proteins. It would be good for you to read the results and discussion section at the very least. Common descent is the last stand for ID because unless we can sequence fossilized DNA and show every single mutation between the sequence of the LUA and that of present day organisms they can always do their favorite tactic – moving the goalpost – and claim that modern sequence divergence is just the result of mutation thanks to god (oh wait, ‘natural genetic engineering’) jiggering with the genes. Just like they do when confronted by Lenski’s results. Ultimately, the similarity of life DESPITE its diversity makes a better case for common descent than for non-common. There is not a testable hypothesis for non-common descent because it is simply a negation that involves a lot of handwaving and “you can’t ‘prove’ x to me therefore not x”. Besides having evidence for its case, common descent is generally assumed because Occam’s razor would suggest it is the most likely (and logical) scenario: it only relies on one testable assumption as compared to the countless untestable assumptions in non-common descent.

      And just to clarify something: language is not a living organism – there is no differential reproductive capability and survivorship is only determined by people learning it – and comparing it with evolution in organismal systems is comparing apples to oranges. However, by metaphor, it can be useful to highlight another important matter of evolution – the way function of a part can change (yes, just like the infamous Panda’s Thumb). Just because the string “hatarakanakattakara” is useless in English doesn’t mean it is worthless to all language. In Japanese it is the equivalent of “because I did not work”. Biology doesn’t require strict adherence to a derived “purpose/utility” (the language of interpretation of the meaning for this specific metaphor), something creationists/ID tend to overlook in their teleological arguments.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted November 20, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        As a non-expert on evolution would it be okay to interpret you loosely to mean that everywhere we look in biology we see diverse but not utterly alien life forms? Two or more fundamentally different biochemistries co-existing with no apparent connection to one another?

        • Sean
          Posted November 20, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Exactly right! We’ve never encountered anything that does not have a relation to another known organism. And the closer you get (taxonomically) to your target organism the more similar it all begins to look – genetically and anatomically. One day we’ll have easily comparable sequences of all organisms and it will prove or redefine (the very few unsure) taxonomic relationships. I love plants because in general they’re much more ‘obvious’ about their evolutionary history and common ancestry than animals are. If you do a little research on plant phylogeny you’ll be able to see evolutionary relationships everywhere you go in nature. I recommend Judd et al “Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach” (3rd ed.) if you’re looking for a good place to start, it really shows you how perfectly nested the plant kingdom is in its taxonomy. It can get pretty dense though, it was a textbook for my plant taxonomy course in undergrad. It provides a lot of useful information on plant evolution though, and as a side bonus it makes you enjoy nature more because plants are much more common and accessible than animals. If you aren’t down to read college textbooks for fun, then Connie Barlow’s “The Ghosts of Evolution” is a great book (and light read) about how some modern plants around us point to extinct ecological partners. It will cause you to see evolution as a force most observable across time and through changing ecological partnerships.

        • Posted November 21, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

          Another tidbit in the same vein of this idea involves observed “chirality” (mirror symmetry, or “handedness”) in biochemistry. Essentially, we live in a world where biological stuff than can exhibit chirality (because of the geometry of carbon forming 4 bonds in a tetrahedral configuration) does so in only one way. There doesn’t seem to be an “energetic” reason why this should be so… in theory, left-handed and right-handed metabolisms involving left- or right-handed amino acids, sugars, nucleic acids, etc. should be equally probable. (the wiki article does indicate some contention here – in that chirality may have been imposed in outer space — forced upon the comet stuff that seeded early earth). But with vanishingly few exceptions (that I was unaware of before I wrote this post, but are in that wiki article), life is dominated by one chiral form.

          Besides the standard non-explaining “godidit” answer, this observed chirality would follow naturally from a single life-creation event from a 50/50 racemic mixture of non-living precursors, followed by direct lines of descent with modification from that now-living stuff. Or perhaps there were multiple life-creating events, but for some reason or another (say, the life of one line of stuff being more voracious than the others… or able to assimilate the opposite-handed isomer, while the other-handed stuff could not) one of the symmetries won out. In any case, it would appear that an extremely similar metabolism across all critters, which includes its chirality, follows from descent from the single line of critters that won the contest ~3.5 Gya.

          Reminds me of a sci-fi story (I cannot remember which) involving a group of astronauts that survive interstellar travel to a planet known to contain life. They find a lush, uninhabited world filled with all kinds of seemingly good things to eat… living organisms with sugar-based metabolisms, RNA-DNA, amino-acids, etc. — suggesting that when life arises, it does so in predictable ways throughout the universe — and the astronauts think they are home free. They starve and die anyway, as this new planet has life in it based on the other chirality.

    • Posted November 20, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      There’s about as much sense in this reply as there is in your original letter.

  14. JimV
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Roemer’s letter is too incoherent to be worth commenting on, so instead I am commenting to once again disapprove of the use of the phrase “the appearance of design” (as in, natural selection gives the appearance of design). Why are you assuming there is something mysterious and magic that humans can do, called “design” which is different than the evolutionary process?

    It seems to me (as a layman in biology) that evolution by natural selection requires:

    1. A mechanism for producing random variations (mutations).

    2. A selection criterion for distinguishing good and bad results.

    3. Some form of memory to keep track of the good results for future use. (DNA, in the case of biological evolution).

    As a non-layman in human design (mechanical design engineer with 35 years experience), it seems to me that human design follows exactly this process.

    1. Variations are produced by, e.g.: Edison’s thousands of trials inventing the lightbulb; brainstorming – random thoughts generated in the 86 billion neurons of several humans; Monte Carlo analysis; genetic-algorithms; accidents like the cat who knocked over some beakers in a GE lab and invented Lexan; etc.

    2. The selection criterion is survival of the fittest in the marketplace (enabling us to reproduce our salaries).

    3. Memory is where we trump biological evolution – brain memory, written records, computer records, etc. Just as biological evolution accelerated once there was a basic body template (Hox genes) to tweak, human design accelerated in the Industrial Evolution as machines could be altered from one purpose to another.

    So to me, biological evolution and human design are the same basic principles in action, not two different processes that only “appear” alike. Or, as I like to say whenever there is a lull in the conversation, the problem with “Intelligent Design” as a theory is that it has never bothered to study and understand either intelligence or design. (Hint: both are evolutionary processes.)

    • eric
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      They are similar, but human-induced variation in design is rarely random the way mutation is. It is almost always based on what the inventor thinks will work better to accomplish some goal. We use prior knowledge (and biases) to select some choices to test and to intentionally ignore other choices. Even with ‘shotgun’ experiments, there are humans deciding what sets of qualities they want to vary and which they don’t. Nobody tries to build a better fountain pen by attaching a house to it, for example. If I do a shotgun test looking for a better organic buffer, I don’t attach different Sanskrit notes to each vial as part of the set of variables to be tested. I rule that out as unlikely to be worth my testing time.

      Mutation doesn’t think, it doesn’t decide, it doesn’t have any way to choose which variables to test and which not to test, and there is no goal the mechanism can reference to help down-select which mutants to test. Now, the laws of physics mean that different mutations will have different probabilities of occurring, but the probability of a particular mutant being “selected” for testing has nothing to do with anyone or anything’s peceived chance of it working.

      That is a huge difference. And it’s one at the crux of the religious objection to evolution, because the randomness of mutation means there is no need, place, or role in the mechanism for any God.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted November 20, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        No necessary need, place or role other than for reasons of personal belief? God could be hiding but guiding?

        • eric
          Posted November 20, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          Correct – the mechanism doesn’t need God. People may add him out of personal belief, but that’s like saying “I believe F= ma+(a little helpty help from God), even though nobody can see the helpty help.”

          As for hiding but guiding, that is a god of the gaps argument. If you really want to use it, you have to accept that you may find yourself with an ‘incredibly shrinking God.’ i.e., as our observations get more detailed, he seems to hide more and more and guide less and less.

  15. Leigh Jackson
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    According to Wikipedia Eddington coined the Infinite Monkey Theorem (typewriting). No mention of 747s. See Fred Hoyle’s “The Intelligent Universe” for incredibly improbable 747 construction.

  16. Richard Olson
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    You’ve got to love how ID ideas of how nature works (“tornado in a junkyard”), who are explicitly rejected by evolution, are claimed to be evolutionary models. It is Not Even Wrong.

    Stromatolites (cyanobacteria) are about 3.6 billion years old

    Today the oldest putative stromatolites are about 3.5 Ga bp.

    That stromatolites are cyanobacteria is a good guess by continuity, but the claim is stressed by observations.

    The first major phylogeny on cyanobacteria placed their root at ~ 3 Ga bp but with a possible stretch to before 3.5 Ga bp. [“Evolution of multicellularity coincided with increased diversification of cyanobacteria and the Great Oxidation Event”, Schirrmeister et al, PNAS EE 2012]

    However, molecular dating (with gene duplications) dates modern bacterial phyla as diverging after the GOE. Shih and Matzke proposes that stem cyanobacteria may be responsible for the GOE, opening up for the stromatolites again. [“Primary endosymbiosis events date to the later Proterozoic with cross-calibrated phylogenetic dating of duplicated ATPase proteins”, Shih and Matzke, PNAS EE 2013]

    That is irrelevant for establishing the ancient presence of prokaryotes, of course. To prop up the date (and cyanobacteria) further, fresh from the presser is 3.5 Ga bp old biofilm fossils from Noffke, Hazen et al:

    “Prior to this study, the oldest MISS had been found in the Moodies Group of South Africa and dated to 3.2 billion years old. So the new discovery advances the age of the earliest MISS by 300 million years. Other signs of ancient life had been found in the Dresser Formation, in particular stromatolites.”

    “Modern microbial mats are dominated by cyanobacteria, which means these microbes (or their earliest relatives) may have already been present on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.”

    [ http://www.astrobio.net/exclusive/5819/the-oldest-signs-of-life-on-earth ]

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      You’re not telling me that mammals evolved in only 3.5 billion years. Impossible!

  18. Posted November 20, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    That evolution can function and actually lead to watches that work, in principle at least, is well described at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcAq9bmCeR0.


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