Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Bill Nye Under Creationist Siege: A Reply to Dr. Jay L. Wile

siege

A commenter on this blog alerted me to a creationist response to me previous blog post on The Uninformed Creationist Assault on Bill Nye. It is written by the young-earth creationist Dr. Jay L. Wile, who has a PhD in nuclear chemistry from University of Rochester and can be found here. He also has experience with teaching and writing science textbooks for homeschooling.

As we will see, it is extremely generous to call it “a response”. It is mostly a garbled list of assertions (some just repeating what the young earth creationists said) with links to creationist websites that themselves have little to offer in terms of intellectual content.

Let’s take it on.

1. Denial of Evolution in the U. S.

The author tries to make an excuse for Nye’s patently false statement in the beginning. He claims, “In this sense, the U. S. stands out: despite its technological level, it has a very low acceptance of evolution.” But that’s not what Nye said. Nye said that denial of evolution is unique to the United States.

That is not only a quote out of context, it is really uncharitable to mark words and not try to understand the meaning of what is being said. To do that, context is required. Let me post what Bill Nye said, word for word:

Denial of evolution is unique to the United States. We are the world’s most advanced technological — I mean you can say Japan, but generally, United States is where most of the innovation still happens. People still move to the United States. And that is largely because of the intellectual capital — the general understanding of science. When you have a portion of population doesn’t believe in it, it holds everyone back.

So Bill Nye is not making the naive claim that denial of evolution is unique to the United States in the sense that it does not exist anywhere else, but rather the claim that United States is unique in being a highly technologically advanced society, yet have a large proportion of the population being creationist. The graph in Miller et. al. (2006) illustrates this well: despite being a large scientific superpower, U. S. finds itself among the bottom countries on the list. This is what makes United States unique. Obviously creationists exists in other technologically advanced nations, but the problem is not as big there as it is in the United States. The latest figure show that 46% of people in the U. S. is creationist (Gallup, 2012). It is this prevalence, together with being a scientific superpower, that makes the situation in U. S. unique.

2. False Balance

He tries to make the claim that teaching creationism for balance would involve teaching scientific falsehoods. That is simply false. I teach creationism in all of my books, and I don’t use scientific falsehoods.

First, I am opposing the argument that creationism should be taught for balance. This is a flawed argument, because the material taught in science class should be based on science. Evolution is good science (Stearns and Hoekstra, 2005; Davies, Krebs and West, 2012; Theobald, 2012), creationism is not (Isaak, 2007).

I have not performed a detailed analysis of all the books Dr. Wile has ever written, but as long as creationist arguments can be found in them, scientific falsehoods are being taught.

Indeed, my creationist textbooks produce students who excel in their post-high-school studies of science, as pointed out in my article.

There are so many problems with this claim that it is hard to know where to begin:

  • The “evidence” presented in blog posts that Dr. Wile links to are just three anecdotes.
  • Even if it was the case, maybe that is because Dr. Wile is really good at writing textbooks and explaining scientific concepts (apart from evolution), and not because it contains creationism.
  • Another factor that differs between public schools and homeschooling is that homeschooling has a much higher teacher:student ratio. This could account for those students excelling, even though being taught creationism.
  • etc.

In other words, there is a huge list of confounders that needs to be controlled for before making such statements that Dr. Wile did.

3. Gene duplication and genetic information

He claims that genetic duplication with subsequent adaptive divergence produces new genetic information. Of course, direct observations show that this is false (see here and here, for example).

On the contrary, we know that it is true. There are many well-studied examples of gene duplication with subsequent divergence that produce things that fall under any plausible definition of “genetic information”:

  • Regulatory Hox genes in vertebrates (Stearns and Hoekestra, 2005, pp 137-140).
  • Two rounds of whole genome duplications related to vertebrate immune system (Flajnik and Kashara, 2010).
  • Hemoglobin alpha and beta chains in mammals.
  • Toll-like receptor genes in sea urchin (Messier-Solek et. al. 2012).
  • tRNA endonucleases of Archaea (Tocchini-Valentini et. al. 2005).
  • Lens crystallins in animals (Piatigorsky et. al. 1991).
  • Recent segmental duplications in humans and chimps (Chen et. al. 2005).
  • jingwei in Drosophila (Long et. al. 2003).
  • Eosinophil cationic protein (ECP) and eosinophil-derived neurotoxin (EDN) in primates (Zhang et. al. 1998).
  • Proteins in the histidine biosynthesis pathway containing beta/alpha barrel scaffold (Lang et. al. 2000).
  • Many genes in Schizosaccharomyces pombe and Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Hughes et. al. 2003).
  • Pancreatic ribonuclease gene (RNASE1) in Pygathrix (Zhang et. al. 2002)
  • …and many others.

Not to mention that there are more mechanisms than just gene duplication, such as exon shuffling, retrotransposition, mobile genetic element, lateral gene transfer, gene fusion, gene fission and de novo generation (Long. et. al. 2003).

The links Dr. Wile posts leads to an article on Creation Ministries International (CMI) and to another of his blog posts (which discusses a paper in the creationist “journal” BIO-complexity).

I doubt that a post on CMI or BIO-complex can hold up against the actual scientific literature.

The article at Creationist Ministries International…

  • …admits that genome duplication can be beneficial in plants
  • …makes the straw man assertion that gene duplication implies that there should be a positive correlation between organismal complexity and gene number (it does not)
  • …ignore duplication of regulatory Hox genes by saying that regulatory genes are conserved
  • …confuse a debate on how gene duplication occurs with a discussion of whether it occurs
  • …make the straw man assertion that gene duplication is proposed to account for all of the evolutionary change (it isn’t).
  • …confuses groupings of proteins (that exists in organisms that reproduce) with that of items that cannot reproduce.
  • …claim that gene duplication leads to an indefinite regress, but no one is claiming that gene duplications are the only process or that it occurs indefinitely in the past.
  • …confuse the existence of repair systems with the belief that genes where “optimally functioning”.

The overview of the article in BIO-complexity states that because a broken tryptophan gene did not evolve to a be able to produce tryptophan during a single experiment spanning around 1/3 of a year, the mechanism of gene duplication producing new novel functions through the 3.5 billion year history of life, must be seriously flawed. A ridiculous argument. The duplicated gene are of course not completely free from the biological context and its limitations, but that just restricts the ways that gene duplication with subsequent divergence occurs, not an argument against gene duplication and subsequent divergence as a potent evolutionary process. It is the classic confusion between “if” and “how” that has been discussed many times on this blog before, in such posts as Common Denialist Tactics Defined and Destroyed.

4. The RM & NS Straw Man

In the previous post about Bill Nye, I exposed the creationist straw man of portraying modern evolutionary biology as nothing more than “random mutation and natural selection”. I showed that there are many more relevant processes involved.

What does Dr. Wile do? Does he acknowledge that it is a creationist straw man? No, he simply performs a Google search on the phrase “random mutation and natural selection” and post a couple of links to very introductory treatments of evolution.

The problem of course is that these are introductory descriptions of the field of evolutionary biology, not complete descriptions of a multifaceted scientific literature. Let us compare with a field that Dr. Wile presumably knows a lot about: the atomic theory of matter. Introductory descriptions of the model portrays protons and neutrons in the nucleus and electrons circling the nucleus, kind of like planets around the sun. However, this is an oversimplification. When electrical charges accelerate, they emit radiation, which would make electrons crash into the nucleus and no atoms could exist. When reading slightly more complex explanations, we understand that electrons are quantized and can only exist at certain energy levels from the nucleus and the initial confusion subsides.

Portraying modern evolution as if it was nothing more than random mutations and natural selection (because of what one reads in very introductory explanations) and then criticizing it is kind of like saying that atoms do not exist, because very simplified models are incomplete. Nonsense.

5. Comparing DNA Sequences

Apparently, Dr. Wile has a problem with the claim that comparison of DNA sequences provide strong evidence for common descent and evolution. The arguments he puts forward are severely flawed.

There may be some minor conflicts between morphology and molecular phylogenies because similar phenotypes do not need to be the result of similar genotype. Even slightly incongruent trees strongly match each other. In the absence of common descent, then there is no reason to believe that there should be a strong overlap. Douglas Theobald (2012) explains:

When two independently determined trees mismatch by some branches, they are called “incongruent”. In general, phylogenetic trees may be very incongruent and still match with an extremely high degree of statistical significance. Even for a phylogeny with a small number of organisms, the total number of possible trees is extremely large. For example, there are about a thousand different possible phylogenies for only six organisms; for nine organisms, there are millions of possible phylogenies; for 12 organisms, there are nearly 14 trillion different possible phylogenies. Thus, the probability of finding two similar trees by chance via two independent methods is extremely small in most cases. In fact, two different trees of 16 organisms that mismatch by as many as 10 branches still match with high statistical significance.

Horizontal gene transfer from bacteria complicates evolutionary relationships and makes bacterial evolution more like a phylogeny network than a tree. This is, yet again, a scientific debate on how evolution happens, not a scientific debate regarding whether evolution happens.

Evolutionary relationships are averages over all genes (A is more closer to B than C), but for any given gene, A may be more closer to C than to B. What is going on? What Dr. Wile is ignoring is the existence of incomplete lineage sorting (ILS). Here is a simplified explanation: the common ancestor of A, B and C have a black allele and a blue allele. In the C lineage, the blue allele is lost by genetic drift. In the common ancestor of A and B, the black and blue alleles are sorted into independent lineages (the other one lost by drift) and so A ends up with the black allele and B with the blue allele. This is nothing strange and certainly nothing incompatible with common descent. In fact, the only reason ILS can occur to begin with is because of common descent.

6. Evolution as a unified explanation

The author claims that “it is not possible to provide a unified explanation in biology without reference to evolution.” However, that is completely false. Young-earth creationists have a unified explanation in biology without referencing evolution in the flagellate-to-philosopher sense at all. In my view, the young-earth creationist unified explanation is also much more in line with the evidence than is the evolutionary explanation.

What unified explanation do young-earth creationists have? Presumably, the idea that a creator made all different forms of life pretty much in its present form. This however, fails to count as an explanation because (1) no mechanism is provided (the creator created life how?) and (2) they cannot give any explicit explanation of the pattern of similarities and differences (why did the creator do it like this rather than like that?).

This in itself does not mean that a belief in a deity per se is incompatible with evolution, but that a belief in young-earth creationism certainly is. Ironically, evolution provides even theists with the mechanism and explanation for the pattern of similarities and differences to explain the diversity of life. Don’t theists want to know how god made life on earth? Evolution provides them with an answer.

7. The supernatural and the uniformity of nature

In the previous post, I asked how exactly the existence of a incredibly powerful and for humans unpredictable supernatural power is consistent with the uniformity of nature. This deity can supposedly perform miracles and may have a morally valid reason to violate the uniformity of nature at any point. I concluded that the existence of such a deity is incompatible with the uniformity of nature.

How does Dr. Wile respond? With arguments? No, he just cites two people who believe that science makes sense if you believe in a deity. Utterly vacuous.

Dr. Wile finishes off by stating:

It is unfortunate that the author didn’t learn more about what he was discussing before writing such an uninformed piece!

Oh the supreme irony!

References and further reading

Cheng, Z., Ventura, M., She, X., Khaitovich, P., Graves, T., Osoegawa, K., . . . Eichler, E. E. (2005). A genome-wide comparison of recent chimpanzee and human segmental duplications. Nature, 437(7055), 88-93.

Davies, N. B., Krebs, J. R., & West, S. A. (2012). An Introduction to Behavioral Ecology (4th ed.). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Flajnik, M. F., & Kasahara, M. (2010). Origin and evolution of the adaptive immune system: genetic events and selective pressures. Nat Rev Genet, 11(1), 47-59.

Gallup. (2012). Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent Design. Accessed: 2012-09-08.

Hughes, A. L., & Friedman, R. (2003). Parallel Evolution by Gene Duplication in the Genomes of Two Unicellular Fungi. Genome Research, 13(5), 794-799.

Isaak, M. (2007). The Counter-Creationism Handbook. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lang, D., Thoma, R., Henn-Sax, M., Sterner, R., & Wilmanns, M. (2000). Structural Evidence for Evolution of the β/α Barrel Scaffold by Gene Duplication and Fusion. Science, 289(5484), 1546-1550.

Long, M., Betran, E., Thornton, K., & Wang, W. (2003). The origin of new genes: glimpses from the young and old. Nat Rev Genet, 4(11), 865-875.

Messier-Solek, C., Buckley, K. M., & Rast, J. P. (2010). Highly diversified innate receptor systems and new forms of animal immunity. Seminars in Immunology, 22(1), 39-47.

Miller, J. D., Scott, E. C., & Okamoto, S. (2006). Public Acceptance of Evolution. Science, 313(5788), 765-766.

Piatigorsky J, Wistow G. (1991). The recruitment of crystallins: new functions precede gene duplication. Science. 252(5010):1078-9.

Stearns, S. C., & Hoekestra, R. F. (2005). Evolution: An Introduction (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Theobald, D. (2012). 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent. Talk.Origins Archive. Accessed: 2012-09-08.

Tocchini-Valentini, G. D., Fruscoloni, P., & Tocchini-Valentini, G. P. (2005). Structure, function, and evolution of the tRNA endonucleases of Archaea: An example of subfunctionalization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(25), 8933-8938.

Zhang, J., Rosenberg, H. F., & Nei, M. (1998). Positive Darwinian selection after gene duplication in primate ribonuclease genes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 95(7), 3708-3713.

Zhang, J., Zhang, Y.-p., & Rosenberg, H. F. (2002). Adaptive evolution of a duplicated pancreatic ribonuclease gene in a leaf-eating monkey. Nat Genet, 30(4), 411-415.

8 responses to “Bill Nye Under Creationist Siege: A Reply to Dr. Jay L. Wile

  1. humbled September 12, 2012 at 22:07

    Is this supposed to be a refutation of Dr Wile’s article?

    All I see is another anti creationist rant using rhetoric, personal bias and a strong religious commitment to naturalism.

    Talk about bias, how about quoting ID scientists like Behe, Denton, dembski etc to add a little balance to your article? Oh that’s right, your Darwinist high priests refuse to accept ID as science. Pity, you could learn a lot.

    Talking about denialists, how is that whole Junk DNA doctrine working out for you? Oh right…..

    Sorry folks, nothing worth reading here, move along.

    http://www.darwinspredictions.com/

    • Emil Karlsson September 13, 2012 at 08:00

      No, it is suppose to be a refutation of Dr. Wile’s response to my previous article.

      You claim this article is merely “anti creationist rant using rhetoric”, but you do not provide any argument for this conclusion. You also do not provide any counterargument to anything I have written in the post.

      You claim that I have shown a “religious commitment” to “naturalism”, but I do not think you know what either term means. It is also ironic that you are using the term religious in an ethically negative way, as creationists themselves are religious.

      Furthermore, you fail to make the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Science uses methodological naturalism. It is simply a humble admission that science is not all-powerful.

      You are also appealing to the classic denialist tactic of “balance”. First of all, why would I discuss quotes by Behe or Dembski in a post about a specific young-earth creationist? Second, there is no such thing as “darwinist”. That is just a feeble attempt by creationist into making modern evolutionary biology appear as if it was an ideology. It isn’t.

      Intelligent design creationism fails as a scientific research program because it cannot provide any testable mechanism. How exactly did this “designer” do it? How can we test this mechanism in the lab?

      Actually, “junk DNA” is another creationist straw man. The term is mostly used in popular news media, not by scientists. A simple Pub Med search of the phrase “Junk DNA” returns a mere 127 results at the time of this writing. Can hardly be considered a scientific doctrine. The actual scientific term is non-coding DNA, and we know that some of it has functions, whereas a lot of it does not. Try reading the following articles instead of buying into media hype: A slightly different response to today’s ENCODE hype or 80% of the Genome is Functional?.

      Sorry folks, nothing worth reading here, move along.

      I think that summarizes the level of intellectual content of your comment.

      Why don’t you try to read some actual science before you embarrass yourself any further? Some intro level information can be found in 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent or Evidence of common descent.

  2. Pingback: What I Read Online – 09/14/2012 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  3. Pingback: Dr. Wile’s Tirade Against Evolution Continues… « Debunking Denialism

  4. mothering4Him January 16, 2013 at 18:38

    “Evolution is good science ,creationism is not.”
    ” as long as creationist arguments can be found in them, scientific falsehoods are being taught.”

    I’m seeing a lot of opinion in these comments. So therefore, I am not sure how one could debate how you FEEL about evolution. It’s obvious you believe the science of the Bible is false (Isaiah 40:22 (Before science confirmed, God told us the Earth was a sphere), Gen. (Too many to list. One that I find facinating is that boys are to be circumcized on 8th day. We now know that humans contain the highest blood clotting ability on this day than any other in our whole lives.), Job 26:7 (earth “floats” in space), Lev. 15:13 (before we knew about germs, God was warning them to wash under running water), Luke 17:34-36 (referencing a revolving Earth), ) You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but it’s interesting how people tout it as fact. 51% of the US feels that Obama is a good (and 49% think he’s bad), but any English teacher will tell you that “good (bad)” is still your opinion. Majority does not make it fact. You start out with the assumption that evolution is true, when evolution has never been proven. True science is observable and repeatable, none of which is possible on either side of the argument.

    “there is a huge list of confounders that needs to be controlled for before making such statements that Dr. Wile did.”

    I’d say the same is true about what you are saying.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 147 other followers

%d bloggers like this: