A big stink at The Big Think: the supposed shortcomings of “Darwinism” touted by a quasi-creationist “thinker”

I thought The Big Think site was devoted to innovative, cutting-edge ideas. But when I went over there, I was surprised by today’s Big Thought:

Screen shot 2014-02-16 at 11.55.36 AM

What? It’s good at explaining losses (degeneration of useless structures via random mutation or selective elimination, etc.), but not gains of function? That’s an old creationist trope. What gives?

So I read the article, “The trouble with Darwin,” by Kas Thomas. It was dreadful—truly dreadful, carrying the implication that there’s something pretty wrong with modern evolutionary theory.

But modern evolutionary theory is not by any means “Darwin,” although he conflates that theory with what Darwin said in 1859. That’s not kosher because Darwin, while being right in the main, was wrong on several counts (genetics for one). And while there were problems with the theory Darwin adumbrated in 1859, advances in the last 155 years have resolved many of them. Yes, of course there are still things that evolutionary biologists don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with its basic framework.

But first, who is Kas Thomas? I hadn’t heard of him, so I looked at his bio at Big Think. This is it:

Kas Thomas is a longtime cognitive dissident and menace to sacred-cow-kind. A graduate of the University of California at Irvine and Davis (with degrees in biology and microbiology) and a former University of California Regents Fellow, Thomas has taught biology, bacteriology, and laboratory physics at the college level. He was on the Inventions Committee at Novell, Inc. and is the holder of seven U.S. software patents. He has a long and varied background in technical writing (most recently serving as a Technology Evangelist for Adobe Systems) and is in love with the word heterodoxy.

Thomas almost certainly wrote that himself, and seems proud to be a contrarian. The problem is that when he applies his heterodoxy to evolution, he produces not a Big Think but a Big Fail. 

What, exactly, are those shortcomings of evolution? It turns out that none of them are shortcomings. Some are areas where we already understand stuff (and where Thomas doesn’t seem to know the literature), and others are areas of active research. Further, the implication that evolution is impotent to explain gain of function, as noted in the “Big Idea of the Day,” is not even wrong.  

Here’s what, according to Thomas, is supposed to elude evolutionary biology (Thomas’s words are indented.)

1. An understanding of speciation (and the origin of life):

Darwin’s landmark work was called The Origin of Species, yet it doesn’t actually explain in detail how speciation happens (and in fact, no one has seen it happen in the laboratory, unless you want to count plant hybridization or certain breeding anomalies in fruit flies).

Wrong. We we’ve actually seen speciation happen in nature over human lifetimes, via that same mechanism used in the lab (polyploid speciation). And we’ve seen incipient speciation among populations within a species (try the three-spined stickleback fish.)

Yes, Darwin failed to explain the origin of species because he didn’t conceive of species properly—as reproductively isolated entities—and so couldn’t address the problem. Nor did he know about genetics, which is essential to understanding speciation.  But we now have a good handle on how speciation works: we know the reproductive barriers that arise in lineages to divide populations into new species, and we know something about the evolutionary forces and the genetic changes that go into making those species. I should know, for I wrote an entire book on the process (Speciation, co-authored with Allen Orr). Thomas is way, way out of his depth here. He also says this:

[Evolutionary theory] is also terrible at explaining the speed at which speciation occurs. (Of course, The Origin of Species is entirely silent on the subject of how life arose from abiotic conditions in the first place.)

Well, since speciation is often promoted by the origin of geographic barriers or climatic changes, or rare migration events, it’s not easy to predict the rate. But in many cases were are perfectly cognizant of why speciation is faster or slower. Invasion of islands, for instance, speeds it up, as does the origin of geographic barriers like the rise of mountains. The rise of the Isthmus of Panama promoted speciation in several marine species in the last 3 million years. Sexual dimorphism seems to speed up speciation in birds because it allows for stronger sexual selection, which can create mating isolation. Chapter 12 of my book is, in fact, devoted largely to investigating which factors speed up or slow down speciation.

As for the origin of life, that is of course a tough problem, for it’s hard to investigate what happened in a primordial broth even where not even cells were present. Nothing is preserved for us to see except extant descendants of the Ur-organism. But that’s hardly a criticism of evolutionary theory. We do in fact have theories to explain how life began; we just don’t yet know how to distinguish among them. But we do know some things, and one of them is this: life on earth today descended from a single primordial species. (You can Google the evidence, which involves the use of similar genetic codes in all organisms to make amino acids, the ubiquitous use of L-amino acids, phylogenetic trees, and so on.)

2. How natural selection creates new features.

Almost everything in evolutionary theory is based on “survival of the fittest,” a tautology that explains nothing. (“Fittest” means most able to survive. Survival of the fittest means survival of those who survive.) The means by which new survival skills emerge is, at best, murky. Of course, we can’t expect Darwin himself to have proposed detailed genetic or epigenetic causes for speciation, given that he was unaware of the work of Mendel, but the fact is, even today we have a hard time figuring out how things like a bacterial flagellum first appeared.

When I saw this, and the reference to both the “tautology” argument (a creationist notion long since discredited) and the bacterial flagellum (a trope of the Intelligent Design [ID] movement), I realized that Thomas is simply regurgitating ID and creationist “problems” with evolution. That’s a pretty dire thing to publish on the Big Think.

In fact, we do have a good idea how the bacterial flagellum first appeared: it is related to a secretory system that was already present in bacteria. If you want to see a likely explanation, read Pallen and Matzke’s paper in Nature Reviews Microbiology (vol 4:784-790; 2006).

I’m not sure what Thomas means by the murkiness of how new survival skill arise, but we now have several hundred examples of natural selection in action, which is of course is how those skill arise.  We have seen the origin of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, insecticide resistance in insects, changes in the size of finch beaks, the darkening of moth colors due to selection in a new, polluted environment, and many other cases (Wikipedia gives some as well, and for many other examples you can read John Endler’s book Natural Selection in the Wild.) These are all, of course, “survival skills”, or rather “reproduction skills”, since the currency of natural selection is offspring number.

3. “Gain of function.” 

When I was in school, we were taught that mutations in DNA are the driving force behind evolution, an idea that is now thoroughly discredited. The overwhelming majority of non-neutral mutations are deleterious (reducing, not increasing, survival). This is easily demonstrated in the lab. Most mutations lead to loss of function, not gain of function. Evolutionary theory, it turns out, is great at explaining things like the loss of eyesight, over time, by cave-dwelling creatures. It’s terrible at explaining gain of function.

This again is a creationist trope, which makes me even more certain that Thomas has simply absorbed and regurgitated things from the ID literature (see below as well). Yes, of course most mutations are deleterious, but new ones arise that are advantageous, and those can lead not to loss of function (which we understand about as well as we understand gain of function) but to new functions.

Gene duplication, whereby a single gene simply duplicates, resulting in two or more copies on a chromosome, is a great way to gain functions, as it has in human hemoglobin (the various forms of human hemoglobins, which have different functions, arose from duplication of one ancestral locus). My colleague Manyuan Long in Chicago has shown the origin of new genes in fruit flies—genes with novel functions—by splicing together drastically different genes.

Further, Rich Lenski and other microbiologists have shown the origin of new functions in bacteria in both the lab (ability to digest citrate) or the wild (bacteria that evolved the ability to digest nylon).

We can see new functions originating in the fossil record, too. They come from coopting of old functions, which is how natural selection almost always works. The legs of land animals evolved from the bony fins of ancestral fishes. Feathers started out as small filaments on dinosaurs, useless for flying but perhaps good for thermoregulation. The swim bladders of fish evolved from lungs (people usually get this backwards), and swim bladders surely represent new functions. I could go on and on, but this is enough to show that Thomas is again out of his depth, spewing ID claims without knowing that they’ve already been refuted.

4. The Cambrian Explosion, human intelligence, and other stuff.

[Evolutionary theory] doesn’t explain the Cambrian Explosion, for example, or the sudden appearance of intelligence in hominids, or the rapid recovery (and net expansion) of the biosphere in the wake of at least five super-massive extinction events in the most recent 15% of Earth’s existence.

The mention of the Cambrian explosion, of course, comes straight from Stephen Meyer’s new Intelligent Design book saying that because we don’t understand how many major body plans originated so rapidly (by “rapidly,” we’re talking 20 million years), Jesus must have done it.  But our lack of understanding is due not to a paucity of theories, but to a surfeit of theories (oxygen, predators, gene regulation, and so on), and our present inability to distinguish among them.

And yes, we don’t understand how human intelligence arose: again, we have a surfeit of theories but a paucity of evidence. Some scientists, like Dick Wrangham, think that our big brains were the result of the taming of fire, others by sexual selection, tool use, bipedality, or other features. Perhaps some day, when we can unravel the genetic basis of differences in intelligence between humans and other primates, we’ll understand more.

But these are simply the problems inherent in any historical discipline, like science and cosmology. A science that has solved all its problems is a dead science. Here are a few more unsolved problems of evolutionary biology: how did sexual reproduction originate? What is the evolutionary significance in the difference of human morphology among ethnic groups? How does sexual selection operate to create differences between males and females? How important is “neutral” genetic variation in the evolution of trait differences (not DNA sequences) between species and populations?

At the end, Thomas offers a lame disclaimer:

Of course, the fact that classical evolutionary theory doesn’t explain these sorts of things doesn’t mean we should abandon the entire theory. There’s a difference between a theory being wrong and being incomplete. In science, we cling to incomplete theories all the time. Especially when the alternative is complete ignorance.

Note that “Darwin” has now been replaced by “classical evolutionary theory,” which I take to mean “modern evolutionary theory,” or neo-Darwinism. That, after all, is the current state of the art. So why did Thomas drag Darwin into his title? Because he wanted attention.

And yes, Thomas says that, just maybe, evolution theory might not have to be abandoned. But the damage has already been done. In his piece, Thomas raised a number of non-problems with evolutionary theory that will mislead the general reader, and most of those problems are lifted from the Intelligent Design/creationist playbook.  That kind of article does not belong on The Big Think. It’s a lame, error-ridden piece designed to bolster Thomas’s self-described penchant for heterodoxy and sacred-cow goring.

“The trouble with Darwin” is a mischaracterization of evolutionary theory, laden with distortions. It’s damaging to the public understanding of science, for the average reader won’t know the relevant science, and it’s contemptible. Shame on The Big Think. And, especially, shame on Thomas.


UPDATE:  Reader “profon” posted Thomas’s Twitter response to the comments, and many of those responses cited scientific arguments against Thomas’s position. I want to put profon’s capture above the fold, for it shows how clueless Thomas really is about his opposition:

Picture 1When someone calls their intellectual and scientific opponents “haters,” then you know they’ve lost all credibility. Thomas won’t respond except to ad-hom his “haters”. That’s truly lame.

h/t: Ant


  1. marksolock
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  2. kraut
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    A contrarian who makes shit up to gain attention.
    There are other contrarians who come up with new ideas – like i.e. Roger Penrose whose idea might advance understanding, but will not give fodder to those who have a beef with science by denigrating it.

  3. Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I spotted this one too, and fumed.

    The Big Think is normally pretty sane. I can’t imagine what was going through their editorial heads when they decided to publish this tripe.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      I hit “Post” before I’d finished. I meant to add a thankyou for the excellent demolition.

  4. Sastra
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Kas Thomas is a longtime cognitive dissident and menace to sacred-cow-kind… and is in love with the word heterodoxy.

    Uh oh. Here comes a Brave Maverick Scientist trope, working in his super secret basement lab and uncovering new groundbreaking paradigms because he is not afraid to buck the hegemony of the hide-bound establishment flatlanders and its closed-minded insularity to those who can think outside the box and see things in a new way which changes everything you thought you knew!!11!1!!!

    In other words, here’s yet another one.

    I bet if you follow it down long and far enough the astonishing new revelation which has broken out at the Big Think eventually turns out to be something the spiritual have been making a Big Stink about forever and ever world without end, amen.

    • Trophy
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      Thomas almost certainly wrote that himself

      That’s a burn.

      • lkr
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        and “seven software patents” — ever see the bathroom wall of anyone who’s spent a year or two in the industry? Software patents are the least-publishable-unit of technology.

        • Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

          That caught my eye too. Claiming patents is also a warning signal.

          There are plenty of fruitcakes out there who have protected “great inventions” not worth the paper that they print patents on. Software patents seem to be especially prone the delusional thinking.

    • Trophy
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      And I should add that the desire to feel superior to others is responsible for a lot of silly things. I’m pretty sure it explains at least half of the popularity of “Modern Art” Museums.

    • compuholio
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Whenever someone tells me that they “like to think outside the box”, “like to challenge. common wisdom” or something similar a great red warning light immediately begins flashing for me. It warns me of a serious crank ahead who seeks attention and probably doesn’t know what he is talking about.

      • Sastra
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        True. “I like to think outside the box” is often special code for “I fail to understand the underlying basics of the field.”

        • compuholio
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          I wonder how well this guy scores on the Crackpot Index

          I realize that it was written mostly for the field of physics. Maybe someone knowledgeable in the field should make a biology version.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          Yes, first you need to understand the box & what thoughts are inside it before you think outside it!

          • Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

            Most people who think outside the box do so in a manner much more reminiscent of cats eliminating outside the litterbox. If you’re in the wilderness, no problem; if you’re in a well-maintained building, it’s not so nice.


          • Dennis Arashiro
            Posted February 17, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

            There is no box. Just nine unconnected dots. The box is imaginary. Is thinking inside or outside something imaginary really thinking?

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

              Neo? Is that you? 🙂

            • Filippo
              Posted February 18, 2014 at 3:57 am | Permalink

              Concur. However, are numbers (versus “numerals”) real? Are “ideas” real? (Or am I starting to dip my toes into philosophical “woo”? 😉 )

        • Jeffery
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

          “I like to think outside of the box because I never bothered to learn just what’s IN the box- that’s too hard, and it might offend some of my long-cherished beliefs!”

          • StevenSClark
            Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

            For what it’s worth, a biology prof once told me that doing science is tantamount to being and thinking outside a box, and devising ways of determining what’s inside the box.

      • Dawn Oz
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        The time for ‘thinking outside the box’ is during the brainstorm phase, after your framework has been critiqued. Then you can fly your kite, however so many of these people have no insight, and confuse their narcissism with ideas.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      Kas Thomas is a longtime cognitive dissident…

      Methinks “dissonant” was misspelt.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 2:30 am | Permalink

      Careful, Sastra. It looks as if you skipped the opening Freshman lecture on any academic discipline; the one that lists the great luminaries of your subject, and points out that they were all thrown out of university. All great new ideas start as blasphemy. Even within the sciences, progress is usually from dissent, and not from ‘first class brains’ The historian, A J P Taylor used to claim that intellectual progress is from academic rejection. Look to the history of great writers and it is mesmerising to see why the greatest always seemed to be the early enemies of literary academics.
      Some believe that contemporary academia has developed a mass of orthodox belief as compelling and as wrong as theology was a century ago. And so I marvel at the writings of today’s Apologists in the same way as I marvel at the extraordinary respect shown by academics for the bulk of modern learning. And all the time, the question in my mind is, “How could anyone possibly believe such thin and mistaken ideas? Why cannot they see through it all?” All of which led me to question the workings of the human brain, and to realise that it has evolved to construct ‘solution-ideology’. Only, in the sciences, most who work there have learned to decouple inner conviction, to be able to process experiential information free from dogma.

      • James Louder
        Posted February 18, 2014 at 12:12 am | Permalink

        What patronizing nonsense is this? Freshman lectures indeed! Who are the great luminaries of natural science who were turfed out of university? Surely not Darwin, who, though he neglected his medical studies at Edinburgh, later graduated near the top of his class at Cambridge. Who were these dissenters whose ideas triumphed over those which came from “first-class brains?” There have been men with little formal education who accomplished great things for science: Faraday is the shining example, and one thinks also of the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. But they were welcomed into the scientific community, not shunned by it.

        It’s terribly misleading to assert such things about science while invoking the field of literature, where indeed the creators and the academics are often at daggers drawn. But that is only because the academics are critics before all else, so the enmity is natural.

        As for the workings of the human brain, you are far from being the only one to question them. But the serious and revolutionary work is being done by real scientists who don’t waste time on nebulous concepts such as “solution-ideology,” whatever (if anything) that means.

        • Posted February 18, 2014 at 4:16 am | Permalink

          Thanks for your reply. Since you have started a list of scientists who had an early rough ride, you might like to continue with the list and so answer your own doubts. You might have missed the current discussion on WEIT around Prof. Higgs and his remembrances of early opposition to his ideas. Yes, Darwin should truly be on that list, if you note the sometimes vitriolic nature of his correspondence from a time when almost all intellectuals were theologians.
          Many scientists have always enjoyed the thought of the ‘perfectibility’ of their subject, but I do not see it that way. For me, the beauty of science is in the many unexpected reversals. It is too easy to confuse mass belief with intellectual progress. In fact, innovators in any subject are quite rare.

          “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” Albert Einstein

          As to your doubts about the phrase ‘Solution-Ideology’. It was coined to describe the fact that The History of Ideas demonstrates that for most of human history, most people have been preoccupied with false ideology.

          Put aside those coloured schoolbooks that show a cheery succession of wonderful discoveries. It has never been like that. We may think of astrology and religion, and the Four Humours Theory of the human body, and of alternative medicine, and of the universal belief that women were intellectually and morally inferior, and so forth. It seems to me that false beliefs occur when, during adolescence, the youngster takes mainly false assumptions from the world around him concerning the nature of reality which then become the ‘philosophy’ of his life.
          And so to modern “Solution-Ideologies” such as the social sciences. I think that not for 150 years have the intellectuals of the world been so united in a common purpose to force falsehood onto the complex world around us. But the cracks have already formed.

          • Posted February 18, 2014 at 6:30 am | Permalink

            Quite moving the goal posts and greasing the b ball. I asked you to name the scientists you were alluding to who were “thrown out of university.” You haven’t, because you can’t; and you can’t because it isn’t true.

            That new ideas have to fight for acceptance is–well, hardly a new idea. And that’s just as it should be. For every Galileo or Darwin there are dozens of well-meaning but mistaken men whose bright ideas come to nothing–not to speak of the crackpots and hucksters who are always with us.

            Fast forward to more sactimony about coloured school books and all that. do you think I got my notions of intellectual history from H.G. Wells? I search my earlier reply in vain for any such Whiggish intimations.

            I hold no brief for the social sciences. I would be the first to agree that they are often more social than scientific. But so far from hardening into ideology, their signal vice is to flit from one fashion to another at approximately twenty-five year intervals.

            As for what youngsters learn in school, there surely are many who settle into the rut of received ideas at an early age; but there are a great many others who rebel. I know I did, and I was far from alone. I see my children and their friends doing the same thing now. So please, give the young people some credit.

            • Posted February 18, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

              You know of course, about Newton and his years of struggle with the religious authorities of his college, where he was supposed to be studying and teaching Aristotle and Ethics, and how close he came several times, to being removed. They had little time for his thoughts on optics and gravity. Interesting to think of the Royal Society and of physics if he had been forced to become a country parson. And the big name of course, being Fulop Semmelweis, who lay the groundwork for Germ Theory, and his battles with the teaching hospital who still believed in 4HT and in miasma theory. I see that Wikipedia has a new and enlarged article on him.

              Fifty years ago I had conversations with an elderly and eminent professor of physics who had known Kossel and Sidgwick, and the early days of electro-chemistry; and of the jealousies and rivalries that cheated some out of their careers. But you have to read biographies of scientists to see the surprisingly commonality of experience in any institution. And, of course, the most contemporary account being that of Prof. Higgs in his interview in the newspapers yesterday of the rough treatment he experienced at his university.

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

                Newton was never in danger of ending as the obscure vicar of some country parish. Newton had been readily elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge where his gifts were well appreciated. Within a couple of years, with the ink barely dry on his M.A., Newton, not yet thirty years old, was made Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. However, the statutes of Trinity required that fellows be ordained priests, and Newton was not. This was a bigger problem than it might have been, had Newton’s own religious views not been incurably heretical: he was a unitarian, that is, he rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, one of the cornerstones of Christian Orthodoxy. This was no small matter in an age that took such things very seriously. (It had gotten Michael Servetus burned in Geneva a century earlier.) Fortunately for all concerned, the King (N.B.)was induced to save the situation by waiving the requirement and Newton’s position was safe thereafter.

                The name of the unfortunate Semmelweiss has long been a byword for the tragic hero of science, done to death cruel maltreatment at the hands of purblind establishment. I’m surprised you didn’t bring him up before. However, that Wikipedia article you mention (yes, it does seem quite good) shows that Semmelweiss’ tragic story is a bit more complicated. There were respects in which he was the author of his own misfortune. Surely, his worst mistake was waiting more than ten years before publishing anything on puerperal fever. In the mean time, several of his students had promulgated garbled versions of his ideas. By the time Semmelweiss finally brought out his book, he had already acquired an unsavory reputation. This was only made worse by his subsequent railings against all and sundry in his field, which degenerated into ravings as depression, drink, and madness overtook him.

                The Wikipedia article makes clear that, whatever else Semmelweiss might have achieved, he did NOT “lay the groundwork for Germ Theory.” And that was a big part of Semmelweiss’ larger problem: he was unable to suggest a theoretical basis for the toxicity of putrefied matter. That work remained to be done by Pasteur and Koch; likewise for Lister to rediscover surgical antisepsis two years after the death of the hapless Sammelweiss.

                Thank you for mentioning that interview with David Higgs, which I hadn’t seen. Higgs speaks with that dry, slightly bemused self-deprecation so typical of the English–not the sort of chap to complain, dontcherknow? I imagine he may have had a tougher row to hoe than he lets on, but I hardly get any sense that he is any sort of martyr. His ideas about mass must have seemed bizarre indeed when he first made them known. They STILL seem bizarre, even though his elusive boson appears to have been found at last!

                I don’t disagree that academe can be a snake-pit. My wife is an academic and I have seen all too many examples of the skulduggery that goes on in university departments. If you would like an example of somebody who really was cheated of her discovery–not excluding a Nobel Prize–allow me to suggest Rosalind Franklin, the biophysicist whose x-ray images of DNA were essential to the discovery of the double helix. As it was, the laurels went to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins, who used her work without her knowledge, and with scarcely a nod in her direction.

              • Posted February 19, 2014 at 4:05 am | Permalink

                James, Thanks for your letter. With Newton, one set of facts ; two opinions. But with Semmelweis, I fear that you may have fallen for HMR (Historical Medical Revisionism), the process whereby the medical profession buries its bodies and tars the good names of its detractors. Blaming Semm for his failure to promote his ideas seems unfair. He had stumbled across something by observation, and took exception to the use of ‘authority’ to shut him up. The extraordinary hold that Four Humours Theory (4HT) had on the world’s intellectuals for over two millennia is a sobering lesson. And I have mentioned before that 170 years passed between Van Leuwenhoek’s observations upon microscopic creatures in human tissue to Semmelweis’s observation on hand-washing, and the intellectuals of the day were too busy in prayer to make a blinding connection between the two. The sticking point was the counter-intuitive disbelief that cadaveric material carried in the hands could multiply so quickly as to kill the patient. After all, examples of such a thing are rare, and outside the micro biotic world, we have only the Kardashians as contemporary evidence.

                The tendency of those powerful in a hierarchy to destroy those who reject orthodoxy is too old a story to be ignored. And so a study of The History of Ideas has disavowed me from placing much credence in anything outside scientific research. I have proposed, often and unpopularly, that the scientific community has for too long paid lip-service to the Social Sciences. And that the SS are poorly understood, poorly researched to the extent that there is no coherent explanation as to why people believe in religion, astrology and psychology. Until now. It is called ‘Human Sub-Set Theory’ and it cannot be guessed. There is a strong possibility that Sub-Set Theory will be on everyone’s lips in 25 years because it seems to explain so much concerning human belief and behaviour. I sense that you have some breakthrough thoughts of your own. This is a great forum to test them against a rather hostile readership.

              • Posted February 19, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

                As for Newton–one set of facts, perhaps two opinions (why?) but the facts are the facts: Newton won. He may have had enemies at Trinity–or at least suffered the opposition of those miffed at this un-ordained upstart’s holding an endowed professorship. But Charles II saw it Newton’s way and that was that. When the King is on your side, how can you speak of persecution?

                Freed from persecution, Newton was not loath to turn persecutor himself, witness his never-ending campaign to tar Leibnitz with plagiarism over the matter of calculus. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

                I still think you’re being a bit harsh on Semmelweiss’ opponents. “…Too busy in prayer?” How do you infer that? Obtuse as many of them were, I don’t think that their objections were theological, but rather scientific–or philosophical, if you prefer (in the sense of “natural philosophy.”) For all Van Leuwenhoek should have shown the way, nobody drew the right inferences from his discoveries until Semmelweiss was dead and gone. When did Semmelweiss ever put a sample from a dissecting-room student’s fingernails under a microscope? Or yet look for the things he saw there in swabs from his patients’ infections? This is the tragedy of the man: he hit on the right practice, but couldn’t imagine the theory that would give it substance.

                I have said in an earlier post that I hold no brief for the social sciences as currently constructed. Their invasion of the arts is especially to be regretted, but fortunately Art is ever resurgent in spite of the schoolmen–and perhaps worse, the school-women. The psychology books are quickly being re-written by cognitive science, which is “hard” in a way that the social sciences have never been. It’s my fervent hope that this will liberate the humanities to flourish again in a freer and less reductive air.

                ‘Human Sub-set Theory’ is something I have not yet heard of–at least not under that name. I would welcome a reference to a source where I might learn more about it.

                Concerning the haphazard path that is the real history of science, so different from the Whig history of Inevitable Progress that the schools taught when we were boys: the book that opened my eyes was Arthur Koestler’s “The Sleepwalkers” (London, 1959). Perhaps you read it too? His account of how Galileo, Kepler, and Newton arrived, almost haphazardly, at their world-changing theories is a lesson in historical humility that none should ignore. Closer to the present moment, there’s a great article by Freeman Dyson in the current issue of the New York Review of Books (“The Case for Blunders” March 6)that I think you would enjoy.

  5. Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    One would think that, in this day and age — and, especially, so soon after Nye toasted Ham — a publication that wished to be considered respectable would at least think to run tripe such as this past a real evolutionary biologist and then politely decline to publish.

    That this bullshit still managed to make it past the editorial filter boggles the mind.


    • hank_says
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Some would argue that the simple fact we just saw a formal televised debate between a real scientist and a crackpot used-god salesman means that such stunts are unfortunately still necessary.

      • Draken
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:58 am | Permalink

        “Used-god Salesman” – added to my internal vocabulary.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Sadly, not bogglesworth

      • Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

        Well, it damned well should be!


    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      It makes it past the editorial filter because it’s all about page views and web traffic. The goal is to get people to click on the links. In this context, it is not about arguments with proponents and critics, it is about content with “fans” and “haters.” His reply about haters makes sense when viewed from this perspective. He is still and idiot with no idea what he’s talking about, but I don’t think he (or The Big Think) was ever interested in debating the merits of arguments. He wants his fans to click on his articles, and he wants the haters to click on his articles. He doesn’t want to discuss it (or learn anything).

      • Posted February 17, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Click bait, in other words.

        I don’t think there’s a long-term sustainable business model in that sort of thing, but I guess we’ll see.


  6. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    On the bright side the commenters on their site are not holding back.

    An advertiser:
    Get me my 2 minutes back, I know more about evolution and I’m an advertiser. Shame Big Think!

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Where is that site? I want to leave a comment!

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        It’s the same one as in your post:


        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          Ah, can’t access it with comments from their main page, but the link should do the job.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          A quick glance through the comments shows an overwhelming disgust with the Thomas article. That’s reassuring. Good crowd.

          • Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

            Yep. And I just commented over there about that.

            • Mark Joseph
              Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

              So did I; except for two creationist trolls, everyone has taken him to task for basic ignorance.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      This is his twitter reply to the comments:

      I don’t respond to haters.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        No surprise there.

      • Sastra
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        In other words, he doesn’t respond to critics. Right. That makes his claim to be doing ‘science’ more than a little problematic.

        If Thomas is looking for affirmation and support, then he can go find a nice Self-Esteem Seminar somewhere. Or, of course, he can join the Science & Spirituality crowd, where “Possibility” is worshiped and negativity is discouraged.

        Kas Thomas dares to dream. Don’t hate him just because he’s beautiful!

      • bric
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        So much for the ‘menace to sacred-cow-kind’; got the menace of a wet sock.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        Oh dear. There is a big difference from someone legitimately questioning something you wrote and someone who is a “hater”. What a cliché.

      • Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        Other priceless response… about 3 hours ago…

        goatheaven • Wow – you’ve completely missed on this attempt to cast doubt the validity of evolutionary theory. Of course one cannot recreate evolution in the lab – its a process that occurs typically over long periods of time. The fossil record is undeniable. And mutations don’t drive evolution? Changes in the genetic makeup of life over time are obvious and well-demonstrated – how do you think they happened?

        Kas Thomas > goatheaven • You need to get a couple of degrees in bio sciences from a real university (like UC Irvine or UC Davis), as I did, then come back and we’ll talk.

        Oh man, this guy is a live one.

  7. Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Since speciation is your field it would be nice if you occasionally posted educational articles on it.

    I was especially interested in your mention of the evolution of “reproductive barriers”. I take this to mean changes in the two populations so that if you brought two individuals together they could no longer successfully mate. Are there any well verified examples of this, with a not too difficult to understand description of the physical change that presented the reproductive barrier?

    Such an example would be quite useful in arguing with creationists.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Examples are legion and common. Most familiar would be the donkey and the horse. Though they can successfully produce offspring, those offspring are so famously sterile that the common name of the resulting organism, “mule,” is synonymous with infertility.

      Plants tend to do this sort of thing more commonly and readily than animals, often through gene duplication. A sport might still be able to self-breed but not interbreed with the parent population. If it’s successful enough, it can establish a new species right then and there. With animals, though, the boundaries tend to be much more blurry.

      There’re also often behavioral instances of speciation, where the two populations are still genetically interfertile but they don’t show any interest in each other. This may be the case with many cats; for example, with not a small amount of effort, lions and tigers in captivity have been cross-bred over multiple generations, but I’m pretty sure that never happens in the wild, even where their ranges overlap (or used to overlap).



      • Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        Well, the behavioral change might work, but it is a bit fuzzy and subjective (on the part of the animal).

        The mule is not a new species is it? (Because it can’t reproduce.) So a creationist might counter that it’s not a good example.

        The plant gene duplication might be a good example but why, specifically, can’t the offspring breed with the parent?

        I’m not asking this as a challenge, I don’t doubt speciation through evolution. I’m just looking for an easy to present illustration.

        • Steve Gerrard
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

          In the horse and donkey case, it is the horse and donkey that are becoming separate species, not the mule. The two are obviously closely related, since they can mate and producing a living offspring, but are also clearly not the same species anymore, since their offspring is sterile. Speciation caught in the act, so to speak.

          • Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

            OK, thanks for that clarification.

        • Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          The mule is not a new species, but horses and donkeys share a common ancestor a mere ten million years ago — roughly the same timeframe as when humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor.

          That is, ten million years ago, there weren’t horses and donkeys, but only a single species that would have been instantly recognizable as a horse-like animal that wasn’t actually an horse. Over the course of the millennia, it diverged into at least the two populations, with horses and donkeys the eventual end result — in much the same way that Great Danes and Teacup Chihuahuas both share a wolf some tens of thousands of years ago as a common ancestor. For much of that time, horses and donkeys would have been interfertile, and there likely was continued interbreeding for substantial numbers of aeons. Today, they can still interbreed, but they’ve drifted sufficiently that the offspring is no longer fertile. By any definition you care to use, they are emphatically now different species; however, the fact that they can produce viable (but sterile) offspring is evidence that their specific divide is a very recent one.



        • ratabago
          Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:20 am | Permalink

          I’m probably going to make a mess of this, because it is complex. I’d appreciate it if someone would error check this for me, and also make sure I’m not trivialising it to death. Well, here goes:

          In the plant example it is not simple gene duplication. The entire genome is duplicated. So if the normal number of chromosomes in the parent plant’s gametes is, say, n chromosomes, then the full number in normal offspring is 2n. One copy from each parent for each chromosome. For polyploid individuals the chromosome number will be xn, where x is an integer greater than or equal to 3.

          Ploidy changes are an important mechanism of speciation in plants. But it would be difficult to get most creationists to understand why there is a barrier to reproduction with the parent strain, as it depends on understanding meiosis, the process that produces gametes. Meiosis is complicated, and usually poorly taught. Meiosis requires crossovers between homologous pairs of sister chromatids (they exchange DNA with each other). But if the individual’s parents had different ploidy then there will be chromosomes derived from one of the parents that have no homolog, will not be able to pair, and so it is unlikely that such a hybrid individual will be able to produce viable gametes.

          Here is the wikipedia article on meiosis. But I think it obsesses too much on terminology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiosis.

        • ratabago
          Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:53 am | Permalink

          Here is a nice, simple, overview on plant speciation, which turned up on one of the other posts about Kas Thomas. It includes stuff on ploidy changes.


      • colnago80
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        Re Ben Goren

        As I understand it, Lions and Tiger can partially interbreed; that is, the male offspring are infertile but the female offspring are fertile and can mate with either a male lion or a male tiger.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          Here’s a bit of info on that:

          Ligers and tigons are both hybrid big cats. Tigons are produced when a male tiger breeds with a female lion. Ligers are the offspring of a male lion bred with a female tiger.

          Because female ligers and tigons have proven to be fertile in some cases, handlers have bred them with lions and tigers. These pairings have also happened accidentally when a ligeress or tigoness was housed with a lion or tiger. For instance, a tigoness that mates with a tiger produces titiger cubs. These cubs, with 75 percent tiger parentage, mostly resemble tigers with few lion-like attributes. Lions and tigers have also been bred with other big cat species, such as jaguars and leopards. Leopards and lions have been bred together to create leopons and lipards. A tiger-leopard pairing is called a tigard.

          • Mark Joseph
            Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

            Just a thought: mules, ligers and tigons would seem to me to present a difficulty to a creationist trying to dance the baramin bebop, whereas, according to Ben’s explanation, how these critters can exist at all seems to be accounted for nicely by evolution.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted February 16, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

              I guess it depends on how you define “kind”. I had a discussion with one guy who insisted it more or less was the evolutionary equivalent of family.

              I guess baraminology hasn’t really made that big a splash in mainstream creationism.

              • Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

                The problem with lumping all felids in a single “kind” is that it means that, in mere hundreds of generations, the Arkian proto-cata would have supra-evolved into all the cats we see today, and then have stopped evolving at such an insane pace.

                Even that’s not the big problem.

                The real problem is that nobody, not even the authors of the Bible, noticed such miraculous transformations appearing before their eyes.

                But wait! There’s more!

                At the time of Plato, the common wisdom was that “kinds” were forever unchanging in form, with a Platonic ideal rabbit in some ethereal form of existence about which actual rabbits might have minor, trivial variations but no more. Indeed, it would be another couple millennia before Darwin figured out that one “kind” could morph into another.

                But the Creationists would have us think that the most insanely radical “evolution” imaginable went on right after the Flood!

                I swear, it’s like these idiots don’t even pay attention to the words coming out of their own mouths….



    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      The best thing to do, at the risk of being self-aggrandizing, is for you to read Chapter 7 of WEIT, which is on speciation. It’s written for the layperson, so it’s easily accessible; and it’s the only popular and up-to-date discussion of speciation that I know of (except, of course, in textbooks).

      • Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        My wife and I read (and enjoyed) WEIT together aloud several years ago. But a good speciation case didn’t stick in my memory. Now I’ve moved and I’m certain I brought WEIT with me (and got rid of 40 boxes of other books!) but at the moment I can’t find it.

      • John Harshman
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

        I’ve always thought that Speciation itself would not be a huge struggle for an educated non-biologist. Would you disagree?

        • Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          Naah, some of my friends have tried to read it–against my advice–and they have found it tough going. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone except advanced biology students.

          As for ring species, there aren’t really any cases that convince me; the closest is the greenish warbler around the Tibetan plateau, but that has problems too. We discuss ring species in chapter 3 of Speciation.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Just to add to some of the responses. Other examples are breeding at different times of the year (two species of local toads, Bufo americanus and B. fowleri). Two species of meadowlark b/c the females prefer different songs from the males. Species of African cichlid fishes b/c the females prefer different colors in their males. Numerous species of mosquito and Drosophila b/c of difference in habitat preference, host preference, and chromosome rearrangements. But do read the WEIT book. Every page is a gem.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      I direct your attention to the cama, a hybrid between a camel and a llama.
      Camels (bactrian and dromedary) live in Africa and Asia. Llamas (and alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos) live in South America. Their anatomy declares their relatedness. The fossil record declares that camelids are a fairly recent introduction into South America, since it bumped into North America. Thus, evolutionary sciences predict that there must have been camelids in North America at one time. Lo and behold, Teh Science finds camelid fossils in North America.
      Camels and Llama can no longer interbreed naturally, their evolutionary split is thirty million years in the past. But it can be done with artificial insemination, and the success rate is not high.

      • Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

        This is similar to horses and their kind. The genus Equus appeared in North America, then squirted over the land bridge (like the camel lineage) into Asia and made its way into Africa, speciating along the way into the donkey and various species of zebras. Then, horses went extinct in America. The domestic horse came from a population that is still around in Asia-Eastern Europe. What really cooks my noodle is trying to think how human civilization would have been effected if the horse never got to Asia.

  8. Hempenstein
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Oh Hypothetical Jesus but you must grow weary of these fuckwits.

    And you are exactly right that the general unwashed will skim this, not really grasp much, but go away and later say, “I was reading something the other day, by someone who seemed to know what he was talking about, that said…”

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      They’d be wrong. He didn’t seem to know what he was talking about.

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        That’s right – which is why publication of this nonsense by The Big Think is so ridiculous. Most of the things Jerry has criticized did not require a professional biologist to see their stupidity or their origins in creationist/ID propaganda.

        We need much better-educated science editors throughout the media; letting trash like this past is an embarrassment.

  9. Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Let me just add two academic notes:

    1. Jerry is being modest. He and Allen Orr did not just write “a book” about speciation. They wrote “the book” which has duly replaced Ernst Mayr’s “Animal Species and Evolution” as the indispensable reference.

    2. When most of us biologists hear the trope about there being no mutations that are “gain of function” our immediate reaction is the same: If we have a function that can be lost by a single base changing from (say) C to G in a gene, then what happens if that base is later changed back from G to C? That would be gain of function, no? Why have creationists declared that impossible? Dogma on their part, yes?

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      Oh my. I’m going to be remembering this argument in your point #2 for a long time.

  10. Drew Smith
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the claimed tautology: “‘Fittest’ means most able to survive. Survival of the fittest means survival of those who survive.” The second sentence does not follow from the first. An A-grade high school student might be most able to be valedictorian, but he or she can step in front of a bus and put a quick end to that.

    “Survival of the fittest” means only that those individuals that fit best with their environment are *most likely* to succeed in reproducing (and thereby to pass along the helpful genes to the next generation), while those individuals that fit most poorly with their environment are *least likely* to succeed in reproducing (and thereby the unhelpful genes aren’t passed along to the next generation).

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      Most creationist cannot accept aggregate concepts like this. They tend to think things in personal way.

      Understanding survival of the fittest is almost impossible for these people. We know that nature is incessantly non-personal, like gravity, evolution just do. You do not survive, you do not survive (and nature do these in uncountable billions of living being every day).

      Non-aggregate people can not see things that have no direct impact to themselves (actually it is more: if it has no impact on me, why should I care?)

      So the idea that genomes change slowly in time by culling the failed and propagating the survived – is totally incomprehensible.

      I once spend days on someone until I actually can convey the idea, and he – a christian – was totally shocked, and prayed that his god is love, nothing like that (plus a promise of lifetime support of prayers for my soul!). And he left me happy, another proof that his god is good!

      well.. actually I did a good deed there, making a creature happy!

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

      It’s not a tautology because “fittest” is shorthand not just for “those who survive” but also for all the reasons those individuals survived to reproduce.

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      I think Pinker put it best in The Language Instinct, Chapter 11, page 356: natural selection unites two independent ideas, which are the designed look of the organism, and the birth/death rates of its ancestors’ lineage, especially when compared with competitors in that same lineage.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m at a loss over “Big Think”. Are they associated with Templeton’s “Big Ideas” or do they want to be so associated?

    And the arrogance level is on the order of “Bright”. (Either low or high, depending on your opinion.)

    he produces not a Big Think but a Big Stink.

    There, fixed. I would add on stink & speciation (but I’m no biologist), unless prokaryote “speciation” is a no no, that I just read a presser on Lenski where he now tentatively claim his E. coli citrate strain is an example of (ecological, I assume) speciation. E.g. it is fitter with citrate and it is less fit with original glucose in the environment.

    Feathers started out as small filaments on dinosaurs, useless for flying but perhaps good for thermoregulation.

    Oh, oh, and the new work on feather pigmentation shows that display colors predate flight and may even correlate with endotherm evolution! Maybe sexual selection was responsible for amping up the metabolism in the lineage that lead to birds, perhaps because such selection and that outcome is costly. [/wildly handwaving]

    Anyway, that recent work should be about more examples of cooption vs feathers.

    or the sudden appearance of intelligence in hominids,

    What is the evidence that traits summarized as intelligence was “sudden”? Don’t we have evidence and suspects of widespread intelligence now? I looked at the first evidence of non-human mammal beat keeping yesterday, which earlier were tied to sound mimicry. Not so, and possibly widespread.

    And if say Graziano’s theory on consciousness is correct, the homologous structures involved were present already in some or all hominins. And so on.

    More cooption, why not?


    Speaking of big stinks, I also saw today that “lying for Jesus”™ Ecklund has let out more poo-f ‘evidence’ in the form of (mistaken) claims for acceptance of magic among scientists.

  12. hank_says
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Yes, of course there are still things that evolutionary biologists don’t understand, but that is why there are still evolutionary biologists

    FTFY, Prof Ceiling Cat.

  13. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Big Think publishing this is inexcusable but I’m actually embarrassed for Thomas. How could he make such factual errors when someone like me, a regular person who has had some university level exposure to evolution but mostly educated myself, can spot the errors? I wonder if he honestly read only Stephen Meyer to compose those sections on the Cambrian explosion; I’m curious about how he conducted his research though of course using bad sources is no excuse since thanks to real scientists, it’s easy to see Meyer’s books are bogus and a quick google search about the Cambrian reveals how long it took. I hope we hear more from Thomas about how he did his research.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Oh, you *hater*!


    • Sastra
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      How could he make such factual errors when someone like me, a regular person who has had some university level exposure to evolution but mostly educated myself, can spot the errors?

      Don’t sell your self-education short; knowledge can make up in focus what it may lack in depth. Consider where and how you learn your information. Sites and forums which are specifically directed towards refuting pseudoscience are very good at teaching its readers what to look for and why.

      You’re a “regular” person who has been exposed to the principles and information of skepticism. That’s not all that normal.

    • colnago80
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Reading some of Thomas’ replies, he seems to take after David Berlinski, the textbook example of a pompous windbag.

  14. Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a near-definitive takedown, Jerry!

    I guess Thomas is not such a “novell” thinker as he considers himself to be.

    /@ (back in the UK)

  15. Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Ok since everyone is weighing in without reserve, anybody but me notice it is common that technical folks, mathematicians, engineers, that dont do research and dont deal with living organisms that tend to espouse ID/Creationism? DB’s like this Kas Thomas, Dembski, Meyer come to mind.
    Im a dev psychologist so I work with young kids and their cognitive development and I teach a Comparative Psych/Animal Behavior class, so tho not a biologist I get a lot of exposure to…life, living things and their behavior. Where I teach its often the engineers, physicists, computer guys and math fellas that lean toward ID especially. Even if a biochemist like Gish, dealing with the just the mechanics of life and not organisms behavior…appears to leave one susceptible to this BS. Purely anecdotal…not time to properly research for a trend…

    • colnago80
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      Well, engineers and computer guys are generally not scientists; however, physicists are generally scientists (I’m one) and therefore should know better then to pontificate on other fields outside their area of expertise.

      • Filippo
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

        But engineering types ought – and necessarily have – to have a scientist core. The college of engineering at my university employed in its promotional literature and especially on bumper stickers the slogan, “Engineering – Where Science Gets Down To Work,” which is to implicitly say, “Science Works!”

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          The oompa loompas of science.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

          In my observation, it doesn’t hurt to be a bit autistic to be an engineer.

          • Jolo
            Posted February 17, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

            I work for an engineering firm, and couldn’t agree with you more.

        • Timothy Hughbanks
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

          Engineers at my 1st-tier research university take one semester of chemistry and maybe one year of calculus-based physics (but often more physics, especially in engineer-instructed courses), and … no biology at all. Only the chemical engineers take more chemistry, only biomedical engineers and other bio-specific engineers take any biology.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re talking about the Salem Hypothesis.

  16. cherrybombsim
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “because it’s such an incomplete and unsatisfying theory on purely scientific grounds. (Many physicists feel much the same way about quantum theory.)”

    Apparently, quantum mechanics will be the next field to benefit from his unorthodox point of view. The guy is really bright, and does what a lot of really bright people do about evolutionary theory, he assumes that because he is very smart, he can understand evolutionary theory intuitively, and reason by analogy with whatever field of science or technology he *is* familiar with.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      “he assumes that because he is very smart, he can understand evolutionary theory intuitively”

      Not a very smart assumption though is it.

      • gophergold
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        The smarter you are, the more dumb you can be. Seriously, there are plenty of brains over on the creationist side. That’s even more of a tragedy, all that intelligence lost in superstition.

        Imagine how much more Sir Isaac Newton could have discovered if he hadn’t wasted time on alchemy and biblical chronology. In fact, there’s evidence that his alchemical studies caused him to lose his mind. Mercury poisoning.

        • Timothy Hughbanks
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

          Your comment about Newton and his biblical preoccupations is exactly the response I posted on Dinesh D’Souza’s web site. As you probably know, D’Souza is fond of making an argument from authority in which he points out the since Newton spent more time on his Christian thought than he did doing science, Christianity promotes science.

  17. Mike Herron
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    wzingrone you are right about that. I have also noticed that every five years or so some physicists swoop in and tell the biologists that they will solve it all. I appreciate their help, but……

    Thanks to Gerry for dismantling this self important twit.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink



  18. StevenSClark
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Regarding #4 and “…the rapid recovery (and net expansion) of the biosphere in the wake of at least five super-massive extinction events…”

    The rebuttal does not address this, but may be covered in the rebuttal to #1: “…speciation is often promoted by the origin of geographic barriers or climatic changes, or rare migration events.”

    But, I’m not sure. Does the meaning of “geographic barrier” include ’empty’ ecological space created by an extinction event? And, does the meaning of “rare migration events” cover expansions into ’empty’ ecological space by surviving lineages? [I also wonder if migration events could be more common than is suggested.]

    • John Harshman
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      Does the meaning of “geographic barrier” include ‘empty’ ecological space created by an extinction event?

      No. It’s very literal: a physical feature that separates two populations. However, empty niches could promote speciation in isolated populations, as there would be more scope for populations to wander off in different evolutionary directions, and that can lead, as a byproduct, to reproductive isolation.

      Second question, similar answer.

      Third question, the one in brackets: we really don’t know. The only real guide is whatever has happened in historical times, so there’s a small sample. And there is also the problem that we often can’t be sure how much of recent migration is influenced by humans.

      • StevenSClark
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for this John. My understanding is consistent with your explanations. I was trying to find out whether or not mass extinction promotes speciation. I thought it did. But, no worries – I suppose it’s an unimportant detail.

  19. Jeffery
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Whenever a creationist demands “proof” that one species can turn into another (macroevolution) I simply tell them to google “ring species”- one can see directly in real time how geographical isolation can cause, aided by random mutations, individuals of a species to gradually differentiate to the point where, at the point where the ring “closes”, they are incapable of successfully breeding with the original form. I think that means they’re a new species, right? Not one has ever gotten back to me on it, which is not a bit surprising.

  20. Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Yeah, but this player can’t tell the difference between evolutionary theory in biology and social Darwinism, from whence ‘survival of the fittest’ derives. Player got no game.
    What the hell is it with academic microbiologists? All the clinical micro guys I know are so not batshit crazy. Maybe you just have to put a few disks on the plates before it all becomes clear.

  21. Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    What about “ring” species? When I took a course in ornithology some 50 years ago, I think it was clear that Herring Gull and Lesser Black Back Gull populations formed a ring around the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Northen Asia/Europe where intermedite populations could interbreed but the two ends (Herring and Lesser Black Backs) could not or did not. That was, at least at the time, thought to be an example of speciation in action.

    • John Harshman
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      Unfortunately, the gull complex doesn’t work. See Lievers, D., P. de Knijff, and A. J. Helbig. 2004. The herring gull complex is not a ring species. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 271:893-901.

      There are a couple others that might work better, though. But I don’t have a handy reference.

      • Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:37 am | Permalink

        Thanks for those references! I see I am several years out of date. It was Ernst Mayr who proposed the ring species idea wasn’t it?

      • Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:40 am | Permalink

        Introgressive hybridization and the evolutionary history of the herring gull complex revealed by mitochondrial and nuclear DNA Authors of Document Sternkopf, V., Liebers-Helbig, D., Ritz, M.S., (…), Helbig, A.J., De Knijff, P.

        I used Scopus to find that one.

      • Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink

        Ring species – Do they exist in birds? Jochen Martensa Zoologischer Anzeiger – A Journal of Comparative Zoology
        Volume 246, Issue 4, 4 December 2007, Pages 315–324 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004452310700023X

      • Posted February 17, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

        John, thank you for the correction. As I said in my original post, it was about 50 years ago that I took an Ornithology course in which the gull ring species hypothesis was discussed. Too bad my memory was so good for something wrong 😉

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 17, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

          Whatever I remember best is always the first thing to be revised. :[

  22. matt
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    well,there it is. a response to haters.

    “You need to get a couple of degrees in bio sciences from a real university (like UC Irvine or UC Davis), as I did, then come back and we’ll talk.”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      Ouch. He just asked everyone to appeal to authority & his.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t notice you had posted this when I posted the exchange above…

      A good response to some self-important twit who plays that card is something like: “Seemed like a reasonable question to me… I thought that a sure sign of understanding one’s subject is the ability to explain it at least to the freshman level. So humor me…”

  23. hank_says
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    In the comments, Thomas keeps defending himself against charges of being an ID’er/creationist. I suggested to him that if he dislikes the association he should try a little harder not to sound almost exactly like one.

    Funnily enough, he’s played Credentials Trumps with a couple of commentators, essentially telling them to sod off until they have as many degrees as him – a well-worn ID/creo “argument”. His non-responses to questions and critiques are tedious and, as in the OP, he labels critics “haters”. I’m surprised comments are still open on the article, to be honest.

    More funnily, the only people in there that appear to support Thomas are babbling about the apparent lack of transitional fossils and the inability of the Lenski E.colis to evolve ears.

    Mr Thomas, you might not be a creationist, but the behavioural similarities are very compelling indeed (what’s that thing about knowing someone by the company they keep?).

    Bottom line: if I was being associated with known charlatans, liars and the laughing stock of the scientific world, I’d be doing my level best to immediately dissociate instead of being defensive and petulant.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Maybe he’s hoping the DI will come calling & offer him a job so he can sit back & rake in the cash!

  24. Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    I hope you post a link at Big Think or point this article out via email. It’d be nice to get some response and (more importantly) to get Big Think to rethink.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:09 am | Permalink

      I did, but Thomas says he does not respond to “haters” (see the tweet at the end of the piece).

  25. reasonshark
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    While Thomas’ remarks on the Cambrian Explosion are easily refuted, I’m not so sure I entirely agree with Coyne’s saying that the body plans evolved within around 20 million years. Isn’t the “explosion” simply an artefact of fossilization? Genetic studies such as the ones that inform the Time Tree book indicate that the major phyla had already diverged hundreds of millions of years before the Cambrian:


    According to those data, vertebrates alone were already diverging around 220 million years before the Cambrian even began. To put that into perspective, that would be like far-in-the-future palaeontologists finding modern bird fossils, knowing nothing about the dinosaurs, and marvelling at the “explosion” of “reptile and bird body plans” that happened in only 20 million years.

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      And that’s just the vertebrates. The ancestors of flatworms, arthropods, starfish, and basically all the protostomes and deuterostomes diverged from each other gradually, between 910-666 million years ago. That’s about a quarter of a billion years; hardly an explosion!

  26. Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    “the sudden appearance of intelligence in hominids” – hardly sudden – it took hundreds of thousands of years!

    [I actually do not see how Darwin could have possibly been able to get inheritance right before Walther Flemming had published his work, & then Weismann & Schwann etc. We cannot blame his for that (I know Jerry is not).]

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:41 am | Permalink

      ““the sudden appearance of intelligence in hominids” – hardly sudden – it took hundreds of thousands of years!”

      I think it took even longer than that: if we just restrict ourselves to the divergence between humans today and our common ancestor with chimpanzees, then most of the expansion of hominid brain size began around 2.5-2 million years ago with Homo habilis. At its fastest, brain volume would have increased by about two cubic centimetres every millennium, or about 30-40 generations for each gain of one cubic centimetre. But I’m with you: it was hardly sudden!

      • reasonshark
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:48 am | Permalink

        EDIT: I mean about one and a half cubic centimetres a millennium and about 30-40 generations per cubic centimetre. Sorry, I got my numbers mixed up.

      • reasonshark
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:21 am | Permalink

        To put that into perspective, the brain gaining one and a half cubic centimetres a millennium – with a generation gap of about 20-25 years a generation, so about four or five generations a century – is like the brain gained a small dice over 27 to 34 generations. If the mutation arose and doubled (at the expense of its allele) every generation, it could be in over a million bodies by 20 generations, over 134 million bodies by 27 generations, and over 17 billion by 34 generations.

        Even if you raise the bar and make it a gain of two cubic centimetres a millennium, as I did by accident in my first post, the brain would gain a small dice over 20 to 25 generations. In this scenario, the mutation that arose and doubled each generation could be in over 33.5 million bodies by 25 generations. Prior to the agricultural revolution of around 10,000 years ago, the global human population is estimated to have been around 3 million on average, with 15 million being the highest possible, so fixation could potentially have been achieved within half a millennium, not considering possible local delays and environmental barriers.

        Just keep in mind that this would be the fastest rate of brain expansion, so for most of human prehistory, this would be the extreme rather than the norm. Hardly sudden.

      • reasonshark
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 5:24 am | Permalink

        Also, as far as I know, the two biggest leaps in hominid evolution based on brain expansion are around 600,000-400,000 years ago, involving H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis, and around 2,200,000-1,800,000 years ago, involving H. habilis and H. ergaster/erectus (depending on how you parse the taxonomic rankings). The former was actually a parallel development, since H. sapiens evolved much later from H. heidelbergensis in around the same amount of time, and had a smaller brain size compared with Neanderthals. The latter was nearly twice as slow, but still considerable, and also coincides with the earliest evidence of (primitive) tool use.

        The time between 7 million years ago (around the time our lineage diverged from that of the chimpanzees) and 2.2 million years ago was quite steady as far as brain expansion went, taking all that time just to go from around 300-400 cubic centimetres to double that volume. While the time between 1.8 and 0.6 million years ago was a bit faster, (an increase of roughly another 300-400 cubic centimetres, but in one-fourth of the time compared with the previous “steady” expansion), it was still a relatively steady increase.

        So using the same assumptions as before, it took about 192-240,000 generations to get to double the size of a chimpanzee brain, about 16-20,000 generations to add another 300-400cc, about 48-60,000 generations to add it on again, and finally about 8-10,000 generations to add on the last 300-400cc, or about 264-330,000 generations of about 20-25 years apiece to go from chimpanzee-sized brain to human-sized brain.

        Or to put it in terms of proportions, about 4.8 million years to double the brain size, then around 400,000 years to add an extra 50% to that, then over 1.2 million years to add an extra third to that, then around 200,000 years to add a quarter to that.

  27. bob
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    No scientist would ever assert that any theory is “true”. This ‘rebuttal’ is undermined before it even begins.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted February 18, 2014 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      Why Evolution Is True

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 18, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        Evolution is a fact. How it happens is a (very well-supported) theory.

  28. Posted February 17, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    ” Sastra ”
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
    True. “I like to think outside the box” is often special code for “I fail to understand the underlying basics of the field.”

    Here’s another of your upstart scientists who would insist on thinking outside the box, the rascal.
    “Professor Higgs has never been comfortable with the fame his theory brought him but fame would have seemed a far-off prospect in 1964 when he first proposed the theory of an invisible field strewn across space that gave mass to every object in the universe.
    The idea was initially met with suspicion and even ridicule in certain circles. His first paper was rejected by a journal, and some peers accused him and some colleagues of failing to grasp the basic principles of physics.
    “Nobody else took what I was doing seriously, so nobody would want to work with me,” he told BBC Radio Four. “I was thought to be a bit eccentric and maybe cranky.”…
    …He was denied a lectureship at the university, however, so became a researcher at Edinburgh University.
    Upon publication of his work on the particle in 1964, he and his colleagues were widely dismissed as young pretenders, with some even suggesting they should abandon their research or risk “professional suicide”.
    It was 48 years later that his radical concept was finally proved correct by a team of physicists using the Large Hadron Collider at the Cern laboratory in Geneva.
    After the discovery of the particle Higgs shared the Nobel prize with Belgian François Englert. But Higgs described the experience of suddenly becoming one of the best-known scientists in the world as “a bit of a nuisance”.
    The Independent Monday Feb 17th 2014

    • kraut
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      You really want to equate a know nothing who isn’t even familiar with current models of evolutionary theory and the genetics research with a physicist like Higgs who actually “knows” his stuff.
      The arguments you are bringing forth are the same that believers in perpetual motion machines (also unencumbered by knowledge physical laws and theories)spout all the time…and miserably fail.
      Just because you think outside a perceived box of theories does not mean you have to contribute anything useful to the stuff inside. Irrelevancy is hard to swallow.

      • Posted February 18, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        It’s possible you missed something here. I have no interest in Kas. I was referring to an earlier letter by Sastra. And the above is not my words, but Prof Higgs words.

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      I think you missed the part in which Higgs “graduated with a first-class honours degree in physics from King’s College London in 1950”, in which his work was “finally proved correct by a team of physicists using the Large Hadron Collider at the Cern laboratory in Geneva”, and quite a few biographical details not found in the article about how his work built on the ideas of “Japanese-born theorist and Nobel Prize laureate Yoichiro Nambu from the University of Chicago” and that he had come to similar conclusions to other professional physicists like “Robert Brout and Francois Englert and Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen and Tom Kibble”, who had also submitted papers at around the same time.

      Nobody’s denying that new scientific paradigms involve overturning at least some aspects of previous thought, but A) the ones doing the overturning generally know what they’re talking about and provide ways to vindicate it, and B) it doesn’t work in reverse; you can’t just defy previous thought and call it a new scientific paradigm.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      “The idea was initially met with suspicion and even ridicule in certain circles. His first paper was rejected by a journal, and some peers accused him and some colleagues of failing to grasp the basic principles of physics.”

      I trust that at least a few of those colleagues who gave Higgs, et al, the sandpaper remain alive to be rather pointedly interviewed by the media.

  29. Localmotion34
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    For understanding the origins of Homo Sapiens, I would highly recommend watching “Expedition”, where four real, hardened survival and naturalist field experts retraced Dr. Livingstone’s travels through Africa.


    In some of the episodes in Kenya or the Great Rift Valley, you can almost literally feel the selection pressure pouring out of the TV. I mean these are people who have done this all their lives, and they begin to literally fall apart in episode 2. One person gets scratched by razor grass, and an almost melee ensues on if/how to them and what is going to happen, and whether to turn back.

    Now apply unrelenting and agonizing pressure like that over thousands of generations.

    There is not one single apex predator in the GRV, there are “plateau” predators like lions, hyenas, leopards, and back then now extinct species. Throw in Rhinos, male elephants, hippos, snakes, disease, and it makes you wonder how ANY hominid survived at all.

    Bob, our friendly early H. heidelbergensis also lives alongside some H. erectus, and also other possibly some orny and on their way to extinction hominids. Not only does he have to worry about all the troubles above, he also has to worry about being stabbed in the back by *other* hominids.

    What we see is when hominids moved out of the crucible that was sub-saharan Africa, they continued to have wide intra-species variation (H. erectus), however, their evolution almost halted entirely or at least slowed down significantly.

    There is no evidence H. neandarthalensis evolved substantially over 200,000 years in Europe. However, at times in sub-saharan Africa, we can see the emergence of THREE hominid species within the span of 200,000 years.

    I’m paraphrasing from great books such as “Last Ape Standing”, “Lone survivors”, “Master of the Planet”, and “Human”, but the general idea is that vast amount of selection pressure coupled with wide intra-species variation we are now observing are more than enough to explain how H. sapeins got here.

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      “There is no evidence H. neandarthalensis evolved substantially over 200,000 years in Europe. However, at times in sub-saharan Africa, we can see the emergence of THREE hominid species within the span of 200,000 years.”

      What are you talking about? Homo neanderthalensis fossils are distributed across Europe and West and Central Asia, but no fossil has ever been found in Sub-Saharan Africa. Based on DNA studies, they diverged from humans around half a million years ago, and the most plausible candidate, Homo heidelbergensis, also had a European and West Asian distribution as well as an African one. While there’s fossil evidence that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, there’s no evidence Neanderthals ever set foot in Africa.

      And what three species, in any case? Besides modern humans, the only other recent hominid species known to have appeared in Africa was Homo rhodesiensis, and this is probably a junior synonym of H. heidelbergensis.

      • reasonshark
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        Basically, it’s perfectly reasonable to think H. neanderthalensis could have evolved in Europe.

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      “What we see is when hominids moved out of the crucible that was sub-saharan Africa, they continued to have wide intra-species variation (H. erectus), however, their evolution almost halted entirely or at least slowed down significantly.”

      Actually, this is incorrect. Species of hominids successfully diversified in Europe and Asia, such as H. floriensis, the Denisovan hominins, Callao Man (possibly), Homo cepranensis, H. antecessor, and quite a few subspecies of Homo erectus, such as H. e. georgicus, H. e. pekinensis, and H. e. tautavelensis.

      • Localmotion34
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        I’m not an archeologist or paleontologist (PhD in Neuroscience and M.Sc. in Biology), however, it looks like we are beginning to have trouble separating out of “signal from the noise”.

        Based on the new evidence about the wide variability of H. erectus, I disagree about your interpretation of diversification of the hominid species.

        My original tenet was that sub-saharan Africa is literally a hominim/d forge. Sub-saharan Africa produced a massive array of hominim/hominid species from a common ancestor over several millions of years.

        H. erectus migrated out of there into Eurasia, and presumably existed outside sub-saharan Africa for 1.5 million years – more than enough time to produce big enough differences in characteristics where there is no ambiguity about speciation. More than enough time to become a “founder” for descendant species.

        However, while we see a wide variability of traits, some are now saying that this is just intra-species variability, and not evidence of actual speciation.

        If you sample across 1.6 million years in Africa, you can see the transition from Erectus to Heidelbergensis to Sapien, and place their skulls next to each other, and in no uncertain terms know they are completely separate species.

        Do the same thing across 1.6 million years of Erectus in asia, and there is a strong argument now that there was overall little or no speciation, just intra-species variability.

        • reasonshark
          Posted February 17, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

          You’re exaggerating the differences. For millions of years, the east and the south of Africa were the only locations of australopithecines, paranthropoids, and more primitive species of hominids up until H. ergaster ventured to the north of Africa, with no Homo species leaving Africa until around 1.8 million years ago. H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis had a wide distribution across Europe and Asia, and there are quite a few non-African candidates for hominid species.

          I do not understand why you place so much emphasis on Sub-Saharan Africa as a result, as if it had some extra pressure on hominid evolution. In fact, the most dramatic increase in brain size occurred within the evolution of the Neanderthals, which didn’t occur in Africa, followed by the evolution of H. sapiens, and followed by the evolution of H. erectus itself. Such dramatic changes were actually the extreme rather than the norm in hominid evolution, because brain expansion at other times was actually quite steady. And since almost all of the hominid evolution occurred in Africa, it could more persuasively be argued that Africa wasn’t a particularly special place, and that the real causes were more transient and local.

          Also, it’s false to say that “their evolution almost halted entirely or at least slowed down significantly”. Not only did the H. erectus species have a brain size range of 750cc and 1225cc – the largest in any single hominid species – but the evolution of the Neanderthals – which had even larger brains than modern humans – almost certainly did not occur in Africa. While it’s not clear whether the H. erectus subspecies could interbreed with one another or not, they certainly display morphological differences, and had they not gone extinct tens of thousands of years ago, they almost certainly would have speciated.

          There’s also H. cepranensis in Italy, the Red Deer Cave People in China, possibly H. antecessor in Europe, possibly H. floresiensis in Indonesia, and the Denisovan hominins in Siberia. It’s far from clear that hominid evolution gained any special power in Sub-Saharan Africa.

  30. Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    “Whenever a creationist demands “proof” that one species can turn into another (macroevolution) I simply tell them to google “ring species””

    Here is an amazing video of speciation of fish in closely-spaced micro environments on the Congo River; they are separated because of the enormous water flow of the river!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tObYa9KQb8w%5Bremove these brackets]

  31. Edward Clint
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Unintended comedy from his blogspot page:

    “3. I have degrees in biology and microbiology that I’ve never used.
    University of California, Irvine (B.S.), U.C. Davis (M.A.)”

    Indeed you have not, Mr. Thomas.


    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Even funnier when you superimpose this gem og his:

      “You need to get a couple of degrees in bio sciences from a real university (like UC Irvine or UC Davis), as I did, then come back and we’ll talk.”

  32. Marcel Volker
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    So he “loves heterodoxy” … as long as he is the one being heterodox. As soon as somebody else is heterodox towards HIS ideas he calls it “hater”.

    Well that shows him for what he really is.

  33. Posted February 17, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m having difficulty reconciling Kas Thomas’s having graduated from the University of California with degrees in biology and microbiology and his having turned out the rubbish in his article for The Big Think. It reads as if it had been written by a creationist with no real understanding of biology.

    • hank_says
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      … a creationist with no real understanding of biology.

      … but you repeat yourself.

  34. Chromehawk
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    arggh this site needs an edit button or spell check 😛

  35. John Smith
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see why you need to personally attack Kas Thomas for his views. Many complexity theorists have questioned how natural selection could lead to the very complex life forms we now see on Earth. The arguments Kas Thomas raises are not creationist arguments, and should not (in my opinion) be so lightly laughed off.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      Except, of course, that actual biologists from Darwin onward have clearly documented and demonstrated and theorized and proven how Evolution can and did happen on Earth, and the only ones who haven’t gotten the memo are Creationists.

      I’ll even go so far as to suggest that any “complexity theorist” who seriously questions Evolution is incompetent and unqualified to participate in the field of complexity theory — just as any “systemic computationalist,” say, would be for questioning the effectiveness of relativistic orbital mechanics.



    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      Forgive my ignorance, but what’s a complexity theorist?

      Do you mean someone like Michael Behe, with his notion of “irreducible complexity”?

      • compuholio
        Posted February 18, 2014 at 4:08 am | Permalink

        but what’s a complexity theorist?

        In the context of biology I have no idea what that means, but then I am not a biologist. But there is such a thing as complexity theory in computer science.

        Algorithms can be assigned to a complexity class with regards to computational or memory complexity. Computational complexity expresses how the computation time increases when the problem size is increased.

        Complexity theory is also where the famous question: “Is P == NP?” originates.

        • Posted February 18, 2014 at 5:36 am | Permalink

          In the context of biology I have no idea what that means, but then I am not a biologist.

          I’m in the same position. I quickly looked up “complexity theory” in Wikipedia and advanced my understanding by not a great deal: computer science and economics. Of course, this being Wikipedia . . .

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

      You wouldn’t happen to be talking about various complexity theorists working out of the Santa Fe Institute, would you? If so, which ones? I have worked there doing network modeling, and my S.O. has presented some well-established stuff re: language evolution when Murray Gell-Mann was taking a shine to, frankly, outdated Russian linguists. Lots of modeling stuff going on there – but I have not heard of anyone who was claiming to have any kind of results or even model assumptions that would’ve involved toppling a general descent with modification paradigm. Far from it… you know of any specifics? Who? What? When? That kind of thing?

      • John Smith
        Posted February 18, 2014 at 3:58 am | Permalink

        I was thinking of Stuart Kauffman, who did spend some time at the Santa Fe Institute. Books like Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos.

        • Posted February 18, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

          Ah, yes… thanks much, John. My S.O. had me look into Stuart Kauffman’s work, as there are parallels to my own (which involve emergent, seemingly self-organizing & Lamarkian, network structures in societies). It has been *gasp* ten years since she steered me towards some of his papers. I’ve considered a move to Calgary, which would’ve been due to the bioinformatics dept. he founded.

          Though my background is in biochem, the stuff of my scientific life has revolved around social processes that, like linguistic processes, are decidedly Lamarkian in nature… which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as the critters involved are aggregates of goal-oriented self-interested humans in the context of a non-random, highly-ordered background (i.e., culture) that we fabricate and tinker with in response to history…

          I forgot that he had been proposing some kind of emergent “creativity” in the natural world… and only now came across some more recent stuff of his where he seems to be asking to redefine “God” as this (wholly natural) emergent creativity as some kind of a bridge between science and religion. (I wish it could be that easy… though I’d argue the wagon-circling self-interested aspects of religious culture would prevent such a reconciliation any time soon).

          Also interesting for me to discover he’s been working with Lee Smolin lately… where he loses me is in where he seems to equate the order arising from self-interested macro systems (like economical, cultural, religious) with biochemical self-organization. He claims not to be overturning a Darwinian picture, but refining it… proposing mechanisms that marry self-organization and selection under some kind of unifying framework, I suppose.

          it’s not so much that I want to challenge Darwinism and say that Darwin was wrong. I don’t think he was wrong at all. I have no doubt that natural selection is an overriding, brilliant idea and a major force in evolution, but there are parts of it that Darwin couldn’t have gotten right. One is that if there is order for free — if you have complex systems with powerfully ordered properties — you have to ask a question that evolutionary theories have never asked: Granting that selection is operating all the time, how do we build a theory that combines self-organization of complex systems — that is, this order for free — and natural selection?

          In any event, thanks for the reply… helps put things in context, and also reminded me to see what is coming out of Calgary these days, though I tend to think that the practical aspects of my work in infectious disease epidemiology will not involve what I see as high-falutin’ aims of trying to describe things as seemingly disparate as chemical reactions and culture under a unifying framework. Figuring some kind of grand unification in the social sciences never seems to help me figure out the immediate problem… of characterizing social network structures that are brought to light during outbreaks, and knowing how best to point the fire extinguishers.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      Is that your real name, John Smith? If not, it might help with credibility issues to actually use it, esp. if you feel like discussing particular complexity theorists or teams…

  36. Wayne
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 2:31 am | Permalink


    There’s increasing evidence for de novo gene synthesis from non-coding DNA. Here’s a new paper:


    This destroys what ID creationists (like Stephen Meyer) often claim: that there’s no way to spontaneously generate new genes, new information.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted February 19, 2014 at 2:54 am | Permalink

      Thanks and great timing.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] a creationist!). That’s by the by, though, and more capable critics than I have given it a good thrashing. The comments, hearteningly, are overwhelmingly negative, taking the author to task for his […]

  2. […] A big stink at The Big Think: the supposed shortcomings of “Darwinism” touted by a quasi-creatio… I suppose any media outlet can in time fall prey to pseudoscience cranks…Look at the Science Channel and History Channel, after all… […]

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