Posts Tagged anti-evolutionism

Abiogenewhat?

Okay, as much as I enjoy telling the development saga, it’s past time for a rant against ignorance. It’s like running for charity, only replace the foot blisters with throat ulcers and the happy children with offended denialists.

Upon what topic of irredeemable stupidity should we feed this rant monster, so it can grow into a big and healthy eldritch abomination whose only desire is to see this world die in internet flame wars? Irreducible complexity? Second law of thermodynamics? Micro vs macro evolution?

No… I’m going to go earlier than that, to a pet hate of mine. The claim: “A cell can’t form by chance.”

From experience, this claim is often accompanied by a bit of good ol’ statistical abuse. The claimant will find a protein, calculate the probability of that protein being that protein, and show off the result as if adding enough to the exponent somehow makes a number important. Here’s a good example from Talk Origins:

”The proteins necessary for life are very complex. The odds of even one simple protein molecule forming by chance are 1 in 10113, and thousands of different proteins are needed to form life.”
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. 1985. Life–How Did It Get Here? Brooklyn, NY, pg. 44.

Of course, anyone with a basic understanding of statistics and a good pair of heavy boots can kick your ass over this. It’s possible to use the same logic to “prove” that Hydrogen can’t possibly be more common than all the other elements, because each naturally occurring atom only has a 1 in 91 chance of being hydrogen. Besides, the sheer extent of lies upon misinformation upon things-deliberately-overlooked involved in getting these sort of numbers normally indicates the person using them is either a professional charlatan or copy-pasting from the website of a professional charlatan. If you’re interested, check out Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations on Talk Origins. I know it’s a little dated, but it’s a fine start. I’ll stay here and deal with the simpler aspect of the claim, using slightly smaller words, not least because I don’t understand all the big ones.

So improbable... not.
(img src: http://www.astrobio.net/pressrelease/83/one-handed-life)

A common answer to the cell-forming-by-chance claim (aside from the fact that the original reproducer is believed to have been far simpler than a modern cell, and was probably little more than a fairly complicated molecule in the right solution to allow it to “reproduce”) is that the forming of the “first cell” has nothing to do with evolution. And that’s perfectly true: this is the domain of abiogenesis, and an acceptance of the still-relatively-young science behind abiogenesis has bugger all to do with accepting the oversized mountains of evidence for evolution. Even if abiogenesis turns out to be a load of rubbish when it comes to explaining the existence of life on earth, evolution remains a highly convincing explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

But that answer is also a cop-out. Abiogenesis is still the most likely method by which life arose on our planet, and as a hypothesis it’s a heck of a lot more complete than the juvenile concept anti-evolutionists so often seem to have of it: namely, that the pieces of a cell “rolled together” purely by chance.

As already stated, the original reproducer was most likely little more than a complicated organic molecule that made copies of itself. Even so, this still sounds like a complex thing to have come about at first, (well, not really: “Self-replicators can be incredibly simple, as simple as a strand of six DNA nucleotides (Sievers and von Kiedrowski 1994)”) until you realise that it didn’t just “come about”: it was the end product of a long chain of natural biochemical reactions, which are far from uncommon. They’re everywhere, reacting with each other and with the results of their own reactions.

Sadly accurate

Given the size of our planet, and the incomprehensible time-frames we’re talking about, is it really so hard to believe that the right sequence of biochemical reactions could result in some sort of imperfect chemical replicator?

Now if you’re a denialist, there’s a good chance you are even now rolling your eyes and saying “it’s all just speculation, he has no evidence”. To which I say: Yes. You’re right, it is speculative. That’s the nature of abiogenesis. We’re talking about microscopic chemical reactions that happened billions of years ago: what “evidence” could we possibly produce aside from a plausible, reproducable path from chemestry to life? We don’t have a TARDIS. But we do have the ability to reason, and sometimes the similarities are striking.

The ‘evidence’ for abiogenesis is that there is life on earth now, and that it wasn’t always there. From these two facts, we can offer plausible explanations, and try to prove them wrong one by one until we’re left with only one option. This is where denialists fail at science. They offer implausible explanations, then try to prove the plausible ones wrong.

I’m not saying there wasn’t a deity who intervened directly and breathed life onto our dead earth 4 billion years ago, or a race of organic engineers who designed the earliest life, or a temporal traveller who accidentally dropped his sandwich in a rock pool. All of these things are possible, in the same way that me being a brain in a jar, or having been created memories-and-all last Thursday, is possible.

But they are not the most likely, plausible, or scientifically supported explanation. That would be Abiogenesis.

/rant
Qu

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“The year is 2033. The last survivors of the Flame War have fled into underground bunkers beneath the shattered remnants of the once great social networking sites. The surface world is given over to unrestricted porn and 4chan mutants. Humanity teeters on the dark brink of extinction.

But we are those who will never give in to despair. We will return to our shattered internet, though it costs us our lives, our very identities. We do not forgive. We do not forget. But we will rebuild.”

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Human Chromosome Number 2

Okay, first things first, I need to check if anybody noticed I haven’t had any internet access from home since last Friday thanks to my ruddy cheap ISP and was therefore unable to post anything last week. No? No-one? Good, good, the perception nanites are working. Moving on…

WARNING: SCIENCE CONTENT

Now, we all know about chromosomes: they’re the things in our cells which hold our genes. Now, all the great apes have 24 pairs of chromosomes. This is fair enough, but (according to evolution) we are just as closely related to the great apes as they are to each other. So we should also have 24 pairs of chromosomes, correct?

But we don’t. Human beings only have 23 chromosome pairs.

Now, this isn’t a massive deal: chromosomal counts differ greatly within genus, and sometimes even within species. The plant genus Clarkia, for example, has species with chromosome counts of n = 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 14, 17, 18, and 26 (Lewis 1993). But chromosomes don’t just disappear: when they do, the victim of the mutation is missing a good quantity of, usually important, DNA. So what happened to the 24th human chromosome?

With everything I’ve just told you, a logical prediction can be made: at some point in our ancestry, but not in the ancestry of other great apes, two chromosomes must have joined. This isn’t a harmful mutation: the gene’s themselves are still viable, but they are now part of a single chromosome, not two.

Now, chromosomes have easily recognisable sequences at the ends, called telomeres, and another recognisable type of sequence in the centre called centromeres (0). Centromere’s are where the chromosome divides during reproduction.

Here’s a representation of what I’m talking about, with telomere’s represented by X’s and centromere’s represented by 0’s:

X—-0—–X

So, geneticists realised that if humans really are descended from apes, one of their chromosomes should have two (X’s) in the middle of it, with a pair of (0’s) flanking them. Keep in mind that if this isn’t found, common ancestry with apes is in big trouble: after all, how else could we lose a chromosome without it screwing us up?

Here’s a abstract representation of Human Chromosome Number 2, as discovered by geneticists who went looking for this pattern as a direct result of the theory of evolution.

X—-0—–XX—-0—–X

“Evolution has made a testable prediction and has passed.”
— Kenneth Miller

No big surprise there if you accept the theory of evolution, but it is a pretty nice piece of evidence nonetheless: easy to understand and rather difficult to refute. If you take a look at the attempts of anti-evolutionist groups like Answers In Genesis (here), you’ll notice they never even try to explain HC2, instead simply asserting it’s not evidence for evolution and then throwing out red herrings and going off on strange tangents about information content. The closest they come to an explanation is a half-hearted admittal that maybe humans and apes were created with the same number of chromosomes. Hooray for ad hoc reasoning, I guess? I’ll let you judge which explanation is more satisfying.

This one I learned from the Dover v Kitzmiller Intelligent Design Trial Transcripts. Kudo’s to Ken Miller, who presented it during the trial. And apologies to the noble geneticists whose work I am simplifying (butchering would perhaps be a better term) to make this point. Please don’t send your armies of genespliced insect-men after me.

Send the insect-men! He still thinks I’m on his side, but he’s gone too far this time. The truth is, he’s just stalling for time to finish building his [OBSCURED BY PERCEPTION NANITES] and I can’t stand by any longer. Those poor porpoises!

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Mutations Don’t Increase Information

Warning: the following contains high levels of derision, for which Qu apologises. He is apparently not the biggest fan of the Intelligent Design movement. Either that or he’s just grumpy today.

LIKE HELL THEY DON’T

Another fun argument from the antievolutionists who fancy themselves smarter than your average bear, this one has become much more common since the rise and subsequent fall of the Intelligent Design movement and the release of Nazi propaganda film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed*. It’s patently absurd on the very face of it, but that doesn’t stop it from getting about. Here’s a quick, dirty refutation:

AGCT => point mutation => ACCT

This mutation could have all sorts of effects, but it has clearly changed the information content. Of course, how it has changed the information content depends on how you define “information” (something the anti-evolutionists are very careful never to do). There are fewer characters used, so it’s got less information (by one definition). But it’s now more ordered, and it could replace the word “Act” and be legible to an English-reading person, so it’s got more information (by another definition). And there’s still the same number of digits, so it’s got the same amount of information (by yet another definition). But that’s not particularly important for the argument. What is important, is this:

ACCT => point mutation => AGCT

The above can be applied to almost any mutation. Point mutations can be undone by new point mutations, addition and copy mutations can be undone by deletions, deletions can be undone by additions and copies.

Mutations can be undone by subsequent mutations. This is a fact, an observation, a truth, something indisputable. It happens. So if an anti-evolutionist claims that mutations can decrease total information content, then they’re also claiming the inverse: that mutations can increase it.

There is a second even more patently absurd variant of this argument that says “mutations can’t be beneficial”, and usually cites things like sterility and cancer. Yes, cancer. The mutation that causes individual cells to reproduce very rapidly. I would hope I didn’t have to explain that a multicellular organisms “cancer” is a single-celled organisms “beneficial mutation”, but I’ve long since stopped being that naive. The moment you assume a certain level of minimum-intelligence amongst others, one of them will go out of their way to prove you wrong.

“There are two things in the universe that are infinite: the universe, and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
– Albert Einstein

Now, for the sake of fairness, I should point out that the people making this argument do have a glimmering of a smidgeon of a speck of a fraction of a gram of an interesting point, though it’s highly doubtful they actually noticed it. The point in question is this: most mutations are indeed harmful or neutral. Very few are beneficial.

Now for an denialist, that’s enough. Case closed, end of story, entire theory of evolution completely disproven because we found some small problem and didn’t bother/didn’t want to/aren’t capable of thinking about it in any depth. For a scientist, it’s a challenge. Why are most mutations harmful? Why doesn’t this stop anything from evolving?

The answer to the first question is a combination of factors, but the primary one is this: we’re already using most of the beneficial mutations for our environment. We’ve stabilised and plateau’d, at least in comparison to the rapid evolution associated with population explosions. I’m actually seeing this in action with Species right now: creatures will very quickly develop simple legs and features, but evolution will then slow down significantly.

The second question, ”Why doesn’t this stop anything from evolving?” can be answered with two words: natural selection. Natural selection works as a ratchet: allowing movement to the left, but not the right. If a beneficial mutation occurs, it will help its host survive and result in it being kept and propagated throughout the population. The hundreds of negative mutations that also occurred were not kept: their hosts didn’t survive, so they were culled from the population.

Not that any of this means anything to the propaganda artists. “Mutation doesn’t increase information” is a useful soundbite because, as I’ve just demonstrated, it needs quite some time to demonstrate to be false. In the time it takes a scientist to refute it, the denialist can have repeated it and other soundbites like it to hundreds of people.

After all, why drop a perfectly good persuasive soundbite just because it’s dishonest?

So… yeah… meh, I dunno… this post kinda got out of hand… whatever…
Qu

*footnote: Oh dear, I’m sorry. Expelled features lots of images and references to nazi’s and is a propoganda film. These two things are not connected in any way. Well, okay, they are, but not in the way my wording implied. I apologise for any confusion my completely accidental wording may have caused, which is more than the films producers have done.

Uh oh… he got through an entire post without referencing time travel, eldritch abominations, zombie armies, orbital weapons platforms or the end of the world. That’s a bad sign. I’d better go check the cynical bastards not about to do something stupid, like join a secret society or a cult or a political party or all three…

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Misinformation

Non Chonological

Also in the murky primordial soup that makes up societies perception of evolution are the claims of the denialists: those who, for religous, political or financial reasons, peddle lies and falsehoods to undermine the claims of science. I’m not going to try to dignify these lies by pretending they are honest mistakes, or alternative interpretations of the evidence. Those who originally came up with them knew they were lying, and even if they didn’t: this is the information age. If they couldn’t spare the time to fact check their claims, if they weren’t willing to listen to the many internet skeptics who are drawn to their beacons of stupidity like peppered moths to flame, they were being willfully ignorant or worse.

So to summarise: if you believe and repeat the claims of the denialists, you are misinformed. But if you are one of those who make up the claims of the denialists in the first place, you are a liar. And as much as my tactful nature is telling me not to post this, that accusing actual people of actual, willful dishonesty is too actually offensive and not accommodating enough for a polite conversation with my opponents, I’m not going to water it down. I’m not going to sacrifice clarity for nicey niceness and ponies. This needs to be said, and it needs to be said in an authoritive and commanding tone of voice. Since I’m not actually capable of that, I’m just going to put in all-caps:

THE VAST MAJORITY OF ANTI-EVOLUTION CLAIMS ARE LIES. GREAT, BIG, GREEN, PIMPLY LIES.

There are a rather rediculous number of them out there, both the lies and the liars, so I’ll be contributing my personal action to the noble and valiant fight for truth by either screaming wildly and frothing at the mouth, or bashing my head repeatedly against the nearest solid object. This seems like both a constructive and intellectually valid debate tactic.

Alternatively, I suppose could just go and savagely refute some of them on a random blog on the internet. You know, to save on head trauma costs and time wasted in a mental asylum…

Unleash the teddy bear.
Qu

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Evidence

Non Chronological

Fun fact: this blog isn’t only about Game Development! Who knew?

A common response to creationists and creationism which I’ve seen during my debates (don’t worry, I’m not going to start ragging on religion: just the anti-evolution sentiment rampant in some minority groups), is to reference the “mountains of evidence” for evolution. Now, technically, this is a respectable response: 150 years worth of supporting data certainly qualifies as ‘mountains’ in my opinion. But the problem is that it’s not particularly persuasive: whether or not the evidential alps exist doesn’t matter one iota if nobody’s going to be inspired to go climbing them

So that’s why specifics are called for. Observations explained elegantly by the standard model, predictions based on it that turned out to be true, contradictions that cannot be reconciled by any other extant hypothesis or theory. They’re not rare, but they can be hard to extract from the mass of technical vocabulary written by scientists who don’t rate yet another piece of evidence for evolution very highly. The scientists already know about the ridiculously huge mountain of data they are simply adding to. Proving an already-proved theory doesn’t really excite them.

But with so much misinformation, quote-mining, selective-reporting, false-claims, hoaxes, wilful ignorance and, when all else fails, blatant lying out there, on the internet and in real life, such observations do excite me. Mostly because I’m kinda egotistical and I like being right.

So I’ll pick and choose some of the more interesting items here and there to discuss, to add a bit of variety to this blog and maybe to stir up a bit of trouble.

What does he mean “kinda”?
Qu

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