Tuesday, January 06, 2009

If you're looking for TalkOrigins.org...

...it seems to be down, though there is a mirror site at toarchive.org. The Talk Origins Archive has frequently (and not surprisingly) been the target of creationist malice over the years. It's faced numerous DDOS attacks; someone hacked it and placed some code on it forwarding visitors to a pornographic site, which got TO delisted from Google for a while; you name it. No idea what's going on this time, though, but at least the site is still online in its complete form, just at a different URL. Adjust your bookmarks accordingly.


  1. Related to TalkOrigins, which I've used a lot, I don't have a ready summary of a response to the argument that "microevolution happens but speciation does not." I've got an evolution denier who insists that every example of speciation I bring up is a mere "adaptation" which somehow does not refute the idea that one species cannot evolve into another -- arguments on the level of "Show me a dog that gives birth to a cat and I'll believe in evolution." Assume that for political reasons, I cannot simply ignore or dismiss the evolution denier but must address the argument head on. Suggestions?

  2. I may be an example of someone who shouldn't make scientific arguments, but here is something to consider...

    The taxonomy system is a means of classification of species, analogous to the Dewey decimal system. There is no objective criteria for determining when one species "ends" and another "begins". Instead, what we have is a list of traits that typically distinguish between one species and another, with there being an exception to every rule. (listen to the evolution 101 link below, for some good examples of this)

    The most common definition is that different species cannot interbreed and produce fertile offspring. However, a quick search of ring species ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_species , and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/05/2/l_052_05.html) shows examples of organisms where:

    Local variations A and B can breed
    Local variations B and C can breed.
    local variations A and C cannot interbreed.

    This blurs the line between species, as, logically speaking, A=B, and B=C, but A does not equal C.

    You may want to check out the evolution 101 podcast, regarding the problem of species, at http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Evolution101/~3/Aef-C0zjiV0/what-is-species.html for more information.

    My suggestion is to put the creationist on the defensive. To point out that he has accepted evolution, but is using his own arbitrary definition of the word "species" to provide exceptions to the rule. Ask him to state, objectively, where the line is that he is proposing cannot be crossed via "adaptation" (which is a euphamism for evolution), and to be willing to look up exceptions.

  3. Also, I don't know if I made this clear on the original post, but your opponent is beginning with the unstated premise that there are two different types of evolution and stating that the burden of proof is on you for assuming that both types are possible.

    This is not true. Your opponent is making the implicit assertion that there is a limitation on how far evolution can go. This should be the heart of your argument; demand that he define, objectively, what that limitation is, and that he provide evidence.

  4. TL, every speciation event is going to be fairly minor, so your challenge is to show him that accumulated minor changes can add up to an overall large change. Tell him he's asking you for an example of something that no one believes happens; that if it did happen, it would disprove the theory of evolution.

  5. Just tell him he is full of shit.

    No seriously. I would try to explain evolution to him once, just once in detail. If he keeps coming back with his stupid "can't work because the bible says so" arguments then screw him.
    Funny that he seems to know more about speciation than all experts in this field, since he is claiming they are wrong. So by definition he has to know where they are wrong. It should be easy to him to tell you where exactly "microevolution" suddenly stops.

    There are people who don't know evolution and would agree if only they knew enough about it and there are people who would deny ANYTHING you bring to the table.

    If he really brings up arguments like the "show me a dog give birth to xxx" i would tell him that its not worth talking to him since he has no idea at what he is talking about. And yeah i would probably add that he is an Idiot

  6. I appreciate the help, everyone. Thanks.

  7. @Transplanted Lawyer
    I appreciate the help, everyone. Thanks.

    Just to add my $0.02....

    One place to look for some back and forth (not the only place, and not all the time) is Fark.com.

    For example, click on the "Geek tab" and look for these two headlines:
    "Discovery Institute creationist lawyer claims the anti-"Intelligent Design" court ruling was because biologist Ken Miller lied in testimony. So Miller takes a tire iron to the jerk. Pwned"
    'Believing in Darwin and his 'theory' or evolution found to "deepen religious faith"'

    Click on the number to the right of the headline, and you'll get into the discussion area. There are usually a good number of trolls there (or people honestly believing in creationism) and many people to counter those arguments.

    I know there are other forums which have more consistent stories/blog posts on creationism. Ray Comfort's blog (raycomfortfood.blogspot.com) has some discussion, but it is moderated, and there's no telling how many posts get rejected because they cannot be countered. I know a couple of mine never made it, and I'm always very careful to follow Ray's rules.

    Fundies say the darndest things (http://www.fstdt.com/default.aspx) also has some excellent stuff, but if you want to follow any arguments, you have to follow the links to the original posts. Many of those sites don't allow dissenting opinions, but some do. So you can probably find some good counter arguments there. (of course, fstdt has some real gems all by itself. Very entertaining)


  8. A single sheet of paper appears two-dimensional. A ream of paper is clearly three-dimensional. Speciation is merely enough changes in one species (a single sheet of paper) to make a measurable difference (a ream of paper.)

    Asking for a dog to give birth to a cat is like asking for a top sheet of paper to levitate an inch above the bottom sheet--a physical impossibility. The cartoon biology of your denier doesn't disprove evolution anymore than the cartoon physics of Wil E. Coyote disproves Newtonian gravity.

  9. I'll bet the same guy who kept pretending to be Frank Walton is the guy who hacked TO.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. The notion that species are neat, well-bounded entities is a product of what Richard Dawkins calls "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind". We humans like to pigeon-hole everything. We want everything to be classified into nice, neat categories, so that we can say "This is an example of this, this is an example of that..." Of course, there are virtues to categorisation. It makes life easier, it allows us to communicate things intelligably, and it provides a framework for future reference and appraisal. But there is a real sense in which it is a necessary evil. We don't like ambiguity, which is why we're apt to ask things like "Was Archaeopteryx really a dinosaur or really a bird?" The fact that something like Archaeopteryx even exists - after all, it had more typically reptilian features than typically avian ones, even though it's often cited as "the first bird" - already suggests that our insistence upon neat-categories is misguided. The fact that there is a great continuum of similarities among organisms across large taxonomic divisions also suggests that there isn't anything particularly Platonic about species. As Thomas pointed out, ring species are also suggestive. They show us in the spatial temporal domain what evolution normally does in the temporal domain. The hankering for boundaries tells us more about ourselves than about the world we're studying.

    Creationists often talk about "kinds". They will tell you that, yes, microevolution occurs, that adaptations exist and that species can change, but they will deny that that macrevolution can happen. If pushed and forced to admit that speciation can occur, they will tell you that, nevertheless, cats will always be cats, dogs will always be dogs, because change can only happen within these created kinds. Often, then, while they will concede that speciation occurs, they will claim it still represents relatively minor change. Incidentally, the sort of change they might demand that you produce evidence for - like a dog turning into a cat - would be more indicative of creationism than evolution. Such change is not known to happen, and forms no part of the modern theory of evolution. The closest we can get to is in plants, where a process known as polyploidy can produce a new plant species in a single generation. But polyploidy is fully compatible with evolution and no supernatural explanations are needed to account for it. In fact, it represents the sort of thing one would expect of organisms produced by evolution: plenty of messiness, contingency and opportunistic change.

    But hang on a minute. If speciation can occur, then where do we draw the line? Where are the boundaries beyond which change cannot happen? Are beetles a "kind"? Their order, the Coleoptera, is comprised of some 300,000 species (a famous scientist quipped that if God exists, he must have a special love for beetles). If the beetles as a whole are a kind - and we can recognise beetles because they have certain features that set them apart form other insects - then that's a heck of a lot of evolution allowed within a kind! But why stop there? What is so special about "beetleness"? Why not some larger taxonomic grouping, like the Insecta, or the Arthropoda? Why not classify them as kinds? And since they share features with one another (genetic similarities, architectural similarities, and so on) why not go further and call the Animalia or even the Chordata a kind? It seems to me that the concept of kinds is utilised mainly as a way of moving the goalposts: first claim that speciation can't happen, then when that's refuted, claim that there are bounds beyond which evolution isn't allowed to go any further. But for the concept of kinds to qualify as scientific, creationists must specify the criteria for deciding what qualifies as such.

    Finally, there are many transitional fossils clearly showing that large groupings are related through genealogical affinities. While we would need to wait millions of years to watch something change gradually from something fish-like to something amphibian-like, we don't need to wait millions of years to find things that we would expect to find if this process had actually taken place. Instead, we can look for snapshots of life's history, for fossils of organisms that are indicative of the sorts of transitions in anatomy that are convergent with our expectations. There are gaps, of course, and for some groups we can only speculate, but there are fossils showing, for example, important transitions in the evolution of the tetrapods. These fossils exhibit a mosaic of features from fish and tetrapods. This is precisely what we should expect to find if evolution has happened (the creationist is of course free to discount something like Tiktaalik, but only at the cost of calling it another "kind", and here the game is really looking a bit old because it's starting to look as if God makes kinds that just happen to look as though they link beautifully two other kinds). Finally, all organisms are a mixture of old and new. Humans have many features that are highly derived (or "apomorphic" in evolutionary parlance), others that are very conservative (or "plesiomorphic") and have been maintained for millions of years and are shared in that state by other organisms. This is what one would expect of a process rooted in history. And what's more, we can observe change happening, though of course we shouldn't expect it to produce very large changes in a single human lifetime of the sort demanded by "show me a dog coming from a cat" types.

    Finally, this creationist correspondent might care to take a look at the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer. Scientists now think that HGT might well have played a far more important role in evolution than has previously been thought. What's important for the current discussion, though, is that HGT allows organisms to rapidly adapt to new environments by sharing genes, even across large taxonomic groups. It's especially prevalent in microbes (it's possible that the tree of life for these organisms should be replaced by something more like a web of life, because you have these genes being transferred all over the place rather than just vertically down through progeny), though there is some evidence that eukaryotes (which include animals) have also seen significant levels of HGT. It also allows pathogens to continue to be tough little sons of bitches (perhaps God intelligently designed them with this capability?). One mechanism by which genes can be transferred is by getting a ride on a virus, which then gets integrated into another genome and leaves the genes in that genome. Much of our own DNA is known to be derived from viruses or virus-like entities. Incidentally, viruses are probably the most "evolvable" entities on the planet. Do they fall under the rubric of "kinds"? These are all valid questions to pose to your creationist.


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